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Beasts Without

Chapter Text

Audio input detected: “I swear he’s staring at me
Audio input detected: “He’s not seeing anything, his eyes just wander like that
Audio input detected: “No man, he’s looking right at us
Audio input detected: “I think he’s… wait, hang on, let me check something


Query: perform general system error check

 : sub set_q^errorcheck { * &set_q^errorcheck(Msystem) }
local(sys) = val_[0], val_[804]
local(Sgttyb, tary)
require ‘sys/icol.ph’
idle.check vers.[4, 18]

Comp. Vers.
….

Errors det. = (0)

Output: 0 errors detected. Systems functional.

Query: perform var.(Subject.17) system error check

 : sub set_q^errorcheck { * &set_q^errorcheck(Subject.17_system) }
local(sys) = val_[0], val_[352]
local(Onnl, nin)
require ‘sys/icol.ph’
idle.check vers.[9, 12, 43, 73]

Comp. Vers.
….
….
….

Errors det. = (1409902)

 Output: 1,409,902 errors detected. Systems functional.

Audio input detected: “Shit
Audio input detected: “That’s actually lower than last check. Lemme see if [AUDIO LOST]

Query: find error sources

 : compile set_q^errorsource {sys.(Subject.17)}
local(sys) = val_[0], val_[352]
local(On&&&&&&&&&&&&&phone
….
….
….                                                                                          [he had the phone]
….

Err(0) Func.Fail

Unknown.var(WHERE_AM_I)

 
Output: WHERE AM I

Err(0) Func.Fail

Unknown.var(IT_HURTS)


Output: IT HURTS

 
Audio input detected: “Aw fuck, he’s waking
Audio input detected: “Gimme a minute, I think I can put him back under

Input: run func.Sleep(protocol)

 : sub func.Sleep { * &Sleep(protocol), (Msystem) }
local(sys) = val_[0], val_[352]
i left him the phonephonephone
local(NO,,,,,,,,,,,,,&him the phone
….

Err(0) Func.Fail

Unknown.var(STOP)
Unknown.var(STOP)
Unknown.var(STOP)
Unknown.var(STOP)

 
Output: STOP STOP STOP STOP


Audio input detected: “[UNIDENTIFIED NOISE]”
Audio input detected: “Is he crying
Audio input detected: “Fuck, okay, hang on

Query: silence audio output

 : sub func.Silence.Aud.Out. { * &Silence.Aud.Out.(protocol), (Msystem) }
….

Err(14) Func.Fail
Err(14)(14)(14)(i left him the phone to find him the phone)
Sys. Aud.Out not detected

 
Output: No audio output detected.

Audio input detected: “Maybe run a reset
Audio input detected: “Do you know how much shit we’ll be in if we reset. Just keep an eye on [AUDIO LOST] tell me if he triggers a cascade failure
Audio input detected: “What are you doing
Audio input detected: “I’m gonna put him under manually

Output: I DONT UNDERSTAND

Output: WHERE AM I

Output: WHERE IS MY PHONE

Output: STOP

 
System warning: Unapproved injection.
System warning: Unknown biological component detected.
System warning: Unknown narcotic detected.

Audio input detected: “We’ll let the Affinity techs deal with this, I’m not debugging this fucking mess

 
Output: WHATS HAPPENING

Output: WHERE IS MY PHONE

Output: WHERE IS MY PHONE

Output: WHERE IS MY PHONE

 
Query: system mute

 : sub func.Mute { * &Mute(protocol), (Msystem) }
local(sys) = val_[0], val_[804]
local(Sgttyb, tary)
require ‘sys/icol.ph’

Comp. Vers.
Success(1).System.Mute

Audio input detected: “God that was unnerving
Audio input detected: “Be thankful they’re not programming him while we do this. It’s hard to watch. Last time I was here for that he was practically screeching
Audio input detected: “You think they’d do something about th[AUDIO LOST]
Audio input detected: “They’re guessing it’ll take another two weeks for the code to hold, then it’s smooth sailing. He’ll be about as programmable as a drone
Audio input detected: “You think that’ll fuck up his mind
Audio input detected: “[UNIDENTIFIED NOISE]
Audio input detected: “Okay, yeah, that was a dumb question

Sys(Mute)
Audio input unavailable.

Err(9) Unkown.Var Parse
Unknown.var(STOP)
Unknown.var(WHERE_AM_I)
Unknown.var(I_WANT_TO_GO_HOME)
Unknown.var(I_NEED_MY_PHONE)

Sys(Mute)
Output unavailable.

Chapter Text

Breathe.

Steve was swaddled by the hum of the truck.

Breathe.

The streetlights went by in waves of cresting lights followed by the calmer glow of the distant city. A patchwork of old brick tenements and new steel apartments and even newer glass skyscrapers, all glowing with the neon adverts of holograms projected on the last scraps of free surface. Steve couldn’t help a mental scoff, glad he’d never lived in one of the rich inner cities with a perpetual spotlight on everyone.

Breathe.

They drove through the outer suburbs; though ‘suburb’ was a generous term. Exclusively residential, sure, but exclusively poor. They were once actually a suburb, but the world had moved on from picket fences to tightly packed metropolises, and if you didn’t follow along you were left to rot.

Steve doubted there was a single intact home in the neighbourhood, everything was in shambles. There was a distinct grime to the area from the lack of greenery and an abundance of pollution. It gave Steve a sour nostalgia.

Breathe.

He caught snippets of the night life in the passing slums; blurred faces in blurred clothes, going by too fast to make out any detail. They lulled him into a calmness, the anonymity of a passenger let him watch the world in panoramic snapshots.

“You’re awfully quiet”

Steve turned away from the window and gave Natasha a weak smile “I’m just tired. Didn’t sleep much”

Natasha didn’t take her eyes off the road, but she tilted her head toward him, “Nervous about the tournament?”

“Maybe” Steve mumbled, tiredly rubbing his face, “I got real bad asthma the other night; kept me up”

A voice piped up from the back. 

“I thought we fixed that?”

Peggy had previously been busy typing away at her tablet, but at the mention of Steve’s asthma she looked up in worry. She immediately went back to her screen, tapping at the keys to bring up his vitals, “Your readings from last night were normal though. A few heart rate spikes and lower adrenal levels, which we must discuss at some point,” she added, “but your respiratory monitors showed no signs of asthma”

Steve pointedly turned to her with a stern look, “Pegs, you said you’d stop spying on me outside of fights”

Peggy didn’t bother looking up, still reading on her tablet, “I’d hardly call it spying. You’ve over a dozen bioware implants constantly sending me updates. Updates, might I add, which you agreed to grant me access to”

“And you agreed you’d mute ‘em when I wasn’t fighting” Steve bit out in frustration, “You know I don’t like you checking up on my health every hour of the day”

“And I wasn’t before, I swear I only had it set to send me anything life-threatening, but we’re entering a very important tournament, so excuse me if I wish to ensure our main athlete isn’t going to keel over” She defended.

“She’s got a point” Natasha broke in. She continued before Steve could snap at her too, “I know you don’t like it, but we can’t afford any setbacks now”

Steve leveled Natasha with a look that she was very carefully not meeting by keeping her eyes on the road. A moment of silence passed before Peggy got back to the issue, “Tell me about your asthma last night, I’ll see if it correlates with any of the readings. Though it shouldn’t, we adjusted the aerosol pumps to anticipate an attack”

“It wasn’t an attack, just felt like a couldn’t breathe is all” Steve finally muttered, turning to face the side window again.

“You couldn’t breathe?” Peggy asked in concern.

Steve pulled his tattered hoodie tighter on his shoulders, “I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I could breathe just fine, was just uncomfortable” Steve corrected her, somewhat defensive. He didn’t want to bring up how common it actually was.

He was saved from having to explain further when Natasha quickly changed topic. She was good like that.

“How’s the Captain doing? It’s been what, an eight hour drive now? He hasn’t gone sour back there has he?”

Peggy latched onto the question, diving back into her tablet to pull up his vitals.

“Looks all clear, vitals are in normal ranges. Fully oxygenated, life-support holding steady, electro-physio stimulus holding constant. Our glucose stores are a little low, but they’ll hold for another day, plenty of time to replenish”

Peggy continued through the rest of the stats for the remainder of the ride, her summary turning into more of a half-mumble as she lost herself in her check. Steve tuned her out. If there were an actual problem Peggy would let them know.

Steve kept his gaze on the passing scenery outside. The window reflected his Affinity link slowly blinking the soft blue of sleep mode, the thumb-sized tech resting above his right ear. The glow highlighted the jagged scars that ran along the side of his head. The worst of it was mostly hidden in his hair at this point, but the lighter scarring went just below his ear.

He almost wished he could remove the damn thing and not have that constant glow interrupt his view, but it was fused onto his skull, and its wires were practically hemmed into his brain.

Most of the Affinity hardware was fused to the spinal cord in his top four vertebrae anyway, the link just acted as an external transmitter. He could turn it off properly, but it would just give him a migraine, and then another when he turned it back on. Now was not the time to be lax with the tech though, he was entering the big leagues and had to act the part of professional.

Or at least as professional as an semi-illegal sport could get. What they were doing wasn’t quite lawful, but it garnered a huge following in the underground betting rings, not to mention the entertainment value. And it was an open secret that many corporations pulled some of their profits from it, hosting fights at private venues and sponsoring competitors. So many corporations had their hands in law enforcement anyway that it didn’t matter. As long as the fights were held on private property, the police couldn’t do much to shut it down.

Millions tuned in on blacknet streams, and hundreds would show up in person to watch what boiled down to an extreme dog fight. And the payout could be pretty big if you garnered enough attention. 

But to Steve it was more than that. This was his life now. After being in the ring twenty-two times, he could only call it exhilarating in a way his life lacked otherwise.

Twenty-two fights and twenty-two wins. Most top fighters had at least fifty wins under their belt, but Steve had a 1:0 win ratio, unprecedentedly high for a beginner, and it was enough to get him in the final tournament by a margin. This was a chance to get into the big leagues, permanently, and he was going to fight tooth and nail to make a name for himself here.

The depressing view of the suburbs started to shift to rusted industrial, a relic of architecture no longer used for its intended purpose. The streetlights became fewer and worse in quality, until they stopped altogether. Only the most desperate of squatters lived in this part of the tetanus-riddled trap.

Natasha pulled the truck into the open hangar of an empty factory, parking once the truck was fully in the shadows. Steve sat up and looked out into the darkness warily while Peggy put her tablet away and leaned forward. Natasha reached under her seat for a pair of work gloves and flashlight, then got out.

She went around the truck to the large doors of the warehouse and gave a hard yank to start pulling them closed. Steve watched her progress in the mirror.

When Natasha got back into the car and tossed the gloves and light between the seats, she pulled out her phone to text her contact.

“Now what?” Steve asked.

“We wait. Stark’s sending an escort to bring us to the pilots’ housing” Natasha replied.

“He give you a time frame for that?”

“No, but we didn’t know when we’d get here either. They randomize their checkpoints in these parts, I had to wait for last-minute route instructions, and they changed halfway through the trip”

Steve nodded and didn’t say anything more. 

They waited.

Chapter Text

It was less than an hour before a lone figure with a flashlight entered the factory and approached the truck.

They came up to the driver’s side, Natasha already lowering the window and leaning out. She held out a white keycard for the figure to take. They scanned the card with a handheld device until it flashed blue, then handed it back.

“Pull in to the side hangar over there and backup to the ledge” they said, and motioned where to go.

Natasha shifted the truck into gear and followed instruction, backing around a corner and docking against the raised concrete ledge of a loading bay.

She killed the engine and the trio got out. Natasha went around the side and hauled out their bags, slinging two large duffles along her back and a satchel under one arm. Steve made a motion to take one on the bags, but Natasha shook her head and walked past him, leaving Steve with an unsatisfied frown, but he didn’t push it.

There were several security personnel in discreet outfits already walking about the truck and setting up portable lights, some going to disconnect the bucklers for the cargo container with the discreet efficiency of professionals.

A man stood separate from the personnel on the platform, fiddling with a tablet and speaking into a headset. When he saw the three approach he motioned them over and moved his tablet to the crook of his arm.

He gave a big toothy grin and held out his free hand, “Hey, I’m Happy Hogan, Stark sent me over”

Natasha took his hand, “Natasha, and this is Steve and Peggy” she motioned to each.

“Great to meet you” Happy went on, shaking Steve and Peggy’s hand.

Steve politely smiled and gave a small affirmative noise, while Peggy took the opening to get involved with the cargo transfer.

“Likewise. And if you would be so kind as to sync your tablet with my own, I’d be more than willing to oversee the transportation of our cargo” she spoke kindly, but with a surety that left room for no argument.

Happy fumbled a rebuttal for a moment, but in the face of Peggy’s assured obstinacy he relented. In Steve’s experience, it wasn’t worth the fuss for something like this.

Happy touched his tablet to Peggy’s and gave her control. As soon as their tablet synced Peggy was lost to their cargo’s oversight. Happy quickly mumbled into his headset while indicating they should step back.

Steve watched as a large industrial trolley rolled by, automatically rolling under the truck’s container and latching on to the opened bucklers. Peggy flitted around the container, engrossed in ensuring the automated equipment didn’t harm their load.

Satisfied the container was securely coupled to the trolley, Peggy approved it for transport. The trolley lifted the container and started carrying it towards a corridor at the back of the platform.

The fourteen-foot tall metal box just barely fit through the corridor, the crew had to clear out or risk getting run-over.

“Come on, I’ll run you through the details while we go” Happy motioned for them to follow as he led the way.

He led them after the trolley, following behind it along the corridor.

“This is one of the sub-entrances to the pilot’s housing, there’s an old defunct sewer system that’s been extended out here and outfitted with a grav-rail system, we’ll be riding it to the actual facility in the city” Happy explained.

“And our truck?” Natasha asked.

“Oh, that’ll be moved to a secure off-site storage. Don’t worry, it’s the best valet service in the city” Happy added lightheartedly.

At Natasha’s nod he continued, “Your equipment and beast will be stored in your suite; we know how you folks get with separation, eh?” Happy raised his eyebrows knowingly at this, but got no reaction from the trio. Undeterred, he continued on.

“Top tier suite, a bed each, fully stocked with food and toiletries. There’ll be three meals delivered daily, all compliments of Mr. Stark. A secure network link is available throughout the facility, let me get the password out...”

Happy went on to explain the amenities as they progressed down the hall, until they came to what looked like a small subway platform, a grav-rail car already parked and open for boarding. The trolley entered first and secured itself to the back of the car, while the rest of them boarded, along with several security personnel. They each gripped one of the straps hanging from the upper bars, no seats available so as to make space for the trolley.

The doors closed and the car sped off with a whispered hum. All the while Happy kept up his spiel of the wonderful services and equipment access they’d have, with Natasha or Peggy occasionally asking the quality of this, the security of that, etc. Steve stayed silent the whole while, lending only half an ear to it. He didn’t care much about their fancy setup.

His ears popped several times from the shifting depth; he guessed they had descended and risen at least twice on their way. In total it was no more than a ten minute ride.

Steve mused on the roundabout nature of their entrance. They had to drive thirty miles around the city just to take a rail to its centre. But they wouldn’t have been able to smuggle the Captain into such a bustling metropolis otherwise.

The car arrived in what looked like a basement, and they were led to an elevator that Happy mentioned would take them directly to their suite. They entered the spacious service lift, but had to squeeze in close to fit along with their huge metal container. The security personnel stayed behind.

Happy took out a keycard from his pocket and waved it across a scanner set into the elevator wall, and then they were rising.

Steve half expected their room to look like the sterile five-star hotel rooms seen in advertisements with the way Happy was upselling it, but when the doors opened he was surprised to see a modest accommodation bordering on Spartan.

What looked like a refurbished laboratory with the equipment stripped away, the room was all white walls with dim blue lights making them appear grey. Dozens of cupboards lined the upper half of the walls with countertops underneath them, and several huge vents were spread along the ceiling.

Off to the side of the huge space were three beds with thin paper partitions separating them. It was more privacy than they usually got.

The other side of the room had a small medical area outfitted with the usual equipment. Steve expected he’d become very familiar with that medical bed he spotted half-hidden behind a curtain.

What really caught his eye, however, was the equipment at the back. Along the rear half of the room were a series of technical equipment Steve recognized from their home lab, along with an empty cradle for their beast’s tank. Steve appreciated the quality they were getting. Usually they’d get stuck with homemade cradles with half the wires hanging out and a coating of grime.

This equipment was pristine though, and appeared brand new. If what Steve had heard about Stark was true, it would function at top quality too.

Peggy pushed past Steve to inspect the cradle, scrolling through the logistics on her tablet and running the automatic porting software. Behind Steve the trolley deposited their load and reversed back to the elevator, leaving their cargo sitting in the middle of the room until Peggy finished her prep.

There was nobody Steve trusted more with their equipment and software than Peggy. She’d been one of the few assistants Dr. Erskine had allowed to work with him, and she was probably the last living person who knew even an eighth of what he’d built.

Though Natasha had gotten familiar with the main hardware by working as their machinist, and Steve would like to think he picked up some of the inner workings after all this time piloting, their combined knowledge only made them a non-hindrance to the upkeep Peggy performed.

It was Peggy who was constantly working through the Affinity codes, monitoring the physical vitals of both Steve and the Captain in and out of combats, and whose constant maintenance didn’t just keep them functioning; it kept them at peak performance.

With the cradle set to receive their tank, Peggy went to the side of the container and opened an inset touch-screen panel to enter her security code. The box started to emit a high hum of shifting machinery as it unfurled and folded its outer casing to reveal the contents.

Inside were dozens of stacked boxes of their own equipment, piled around the Captain’s tank like a throne. The tank itself appeared as a grey cylinder covered in panels of metal shielding; the inner contents too valuable to leave open in transport.

Peggy shoved a few of the boxes out of the way, then set the tank to enter its cradle. It made slow progress on the small wheels hidden under the bottom lip, but it successfully docked into the cradle with a low click. A final quick check by Peggy and she raised the shielding, revealing a large chain-glass tank, the inside too dark to see anything but a blurred hulking form floating in the suspension liquid.

Happy was not-so-discreetly trying to get a better look into the tank from the elevator when Natasha stepped into his view.

“Anything else you need from us?” she asked, an effective dismissal as any.

“Oh, no, your arrival’s been logged and your keycard passes activated; and I cannot emphasize enough, please keep those passes on you at all times, you’ll get locked out, or locked in, without them, and nobody wants that” Happy jokingly said.

Natasha continued to smile politely. “We’ll be careful. And if that’s all, we’ll be alright settling in ourselves”

Happy gave a parting wave as he entered the elevator, “If you need anything you have my contact”

Just as the doors were about to close, Happy’s eyes went wide and he hurriedly added “Oh, and Mr. Stark will be stopping by tomor-” The doors closed and cut off the rest of his sentence.

Natasha gave an unimpressed look to the closed doors, then joined Steve to help unpack and setup their equipment.

Chapter Text


They made quick work of the boxes, Natasha doing most of the heavy lifting while Steve got the lighter loads and Peggy made sure everything was undamaged and properly calibrated.

Natasha placed the last box and stood up into a stretch, letting out a huffed groan. “I’m gonna knock out, wake me for food”

She went and claimed the bed closest to the door, falling face-first without bothering to take off her shoes.

Peggy stayed up a while longer, triple checking the tank’s settings and the Captain’s vital feeds, while Steve unpacked his belongings. They’d be staying a minimum of four weeks, with the potential of going on ten if they made it to the final round, and he wasn’t planning to live out of his bag during that time.

When he finished, Steve took a seat on the floor with his back against the tank, his head tilted back and his eyes closed. He fiddled with the outline of his phone in his pocket, and let the silent hum of the tank and the sound of Peggy’s work lull him to a trance.

A touch on his shoulder jolted him back to awareness. He looked up at Peggy blearily as she handed him a pillow.

“Don’t stay here all night” she said softly, then went to claim one of the beds. A moment later the already dim lights shut off completely, leaving the low glow of the tech as his only illumination.

Steve tucked the pillow under himself as a seat, and leaned back against the tank. He placed his hand on the chain-glass viewing window, the touch sensors activating the inner light.

A soft blue glow outlined a dark black shadow that was too far from the glass to make out anything more than a vague form curled protectively on itself.

Steve began to lightly shiver in short bouts. He was cold, always cold, but he learned to hide it, mostly.

The problem wasn’t actually temperature. Dr. Erskine had run all sorts of tests for that, and afterwards even Peggy had tried to find a cause, but his core temperature was always within normal range. His circulation wasn’t always great, but better insulated clothes and cranking the heat should’ve compensated for that.

It wasn’t much of a mystery to Steve, he could easily trace the cause. It was the same thing that’d left him with a permanent weight in his chest, always feeling like his ribs were constricted.

It’s why he had more bioware in his body than what his inborn illnesses necessitated; why life had gotten much more muted than his colourblindness accounted for.

Natasha and Dr. Erskine had saved his life that day, but he sometimes wished they hadn’t, not when he was left feeling like this. Cold and suffocating and out of touch. All the time.

Except.

Except when he was the Captain.

It was his only respite. For those brief bouts in the arena, it was like he was burning. The world lit up in vivid technicolour, smells and sounds crisper than he’d ever imagined. Even the pain felt more real, sharp and sudden, unlike the constant dull ache that made up the background of his life.

Fighting was all he lived for now, always chasing that high of life, of experiencing life.

And it really was an experience. He might be called a pilot, but a beasts was no vehicle.

His Affinity bond was a series of twinned cybernetic processors embedded in his and his beast’s vertebrae. The processors in turn were connected to a clump of cloned neuron symbionts grafted uniquely to Steve’s and the Captain’s biometric signatures. It was the most secure connection possible, the two links attuned to each other only, without possibility of interception or interference.

Steve wasn’t just piloting his beast like it was some organic robot, he was the beast. His mind transmitted directly into the Captain’s, and in turn, the Captain’s nervous system and sensory inputs transmitted directly to Steve’s mind. He saw through the Captain’s eyes, and he felt every slash and tear in his flesh.

Of course, the Captain wasn’t alive. None of the beasts were, otherwise they’d be hell to handle and likely die within hours. Basic brain function was needed for a pilot to connect with their Affinity tech and actually manipulate the beast’s limbs, but otherwise most of the cerebral cortex was replaced with redundant duplicates of other key neuro systems. This was to compensate for the severe brain damage almost guaranteed to occur in a fight.

But that was as far as Steve’s knowledge of a beast’s mental abilities went. Dr. Erskine had gone on for hours trying to explain the full basics of the Captain’s biology, but his and Steve’s definition of ‘basic’ had been vastly different, and Steve caught roughly a quarter of what Abraham had said.

Steve had understood enough to know that beasts weren’t conscious, and that was all he really needed.

He sighed deeply. No use staying up longer. He needed to stay rested, even if the tournament didn’t really start for another few days. He gave the tank a friendly thump with his palm and got up, taking the last bed. Peggy had been kind enough to leave him the one closest to the tank.

He pushed one of the partitions aside to let the glow of the tank shine in while he slept. He ran his thumb along his phone’s casing, soothing himself into a sleep. He curled up and tried to ignore the ghostly sensation of suffocation.

Breathe.

Chapter Text

The next day started mostly with the regular chores of keeping the Captain functioning; refilling glucose and nutritional supplementation, cleaning out the catheter feeds, and general health checks; the last one included Steve’s health.

Piloting was straining on its own, but Steve’s multitude of conditions meant Peggy had to keep a sharper eye on his functions. He appreciated the concern, and he understood the need to stay on top of his body’s many ailments, but Steve had come to despise the constant observations and concerns. If he was being honest, it felt patronizing at times, as if he couldn’t keep track of his own health.

Peggy tried her best not to impose too much, his most life-threatening episodes only ever happened during or immediately after fights; the worst he got otherwise were the occasional bad asthmatic attack, but those had been on the decline with recent upgrades to his implants and medications.

As it was, he was currently sitting on the medical bed in their private medbay with his legs hanging off the side and far too many monitor leads attached to his body.

“Is this all necessary? We don’t even find out the schedule for another three days” Steve said as he held his arm out for Peggy to attach yet another lead.

“It’s never too early for a complete physical, but I’ll have you know I’m actually testing the sensitivity of Stark’s equipment” Peggy chided, “We’ll do proper physical later” she added, moving behind him to connect the feeds to the monitor equipment.

Steve gave an exasperated exhale. His biowares were already transmitting real-time updates of their various states to Peggy’s tablet, there were very few things that needed manual checks like this.

The feeds connected and Steve started to hear the usual staccato of the heart monitor.

Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.

“I’m just going to compare the readings with our own and see how they line up, then you’re free to go” Peggy explained, “Now take a deep breath”

He did as instructed, watching as she typed something in her notes. It took maybe two minutes in total.

“There, we’re done. That wasn’t so bad now was it?”

“You got me all strung up in wires for a few minutes of data? Wasn’t really worth it I gotta say. I gotta shower now ‘caus’all this glue you got on me” Steve muttered, picking at a lead on his stomach.

She paused her work and looked at Steve with a coy smile, “Oh, you want me to make it worth the trouble?”

Fuck, me and my goddamn mouth, he thought. This is why he didn’t talk. Here he was getting out of a checkup, and he’d gone ahead and extended it.

Peggy saw his regret and quickly clarified, “Oh no, I promise it won’t be a chore”

She propped her tablet next to the main monitor, then sauntered around the bed to stand close enough that the front of her skit brushed his legs.

Peggy placed her hands above his knees to slowly push his legs apart. He leaned back on his arms, getting an idea of where this was going.

“You see, I can’t help notice that your heart’s holding strong at the moment…” Peggy ran a finger down Steve’s chest, “So if you’re willing, we could run a cardio stress test. You know, make it worth your while” she smiled demurely.

Steve huffed in amusement, suddenly not so regretful of his comment. Peggy’s ‘stress tests’ had stopped being an actual medical test after their initial series with Dr. Erskine. Steve suspected she had a thing for all those wires and monitors showing his body’s reactions as they happened, but he’d yet to get her to admit it.

Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.

And maybe he was starting to have a thing for it too.

“I’m willing if you are” Steve agreed with a small smile.

Peggy took charge then, pushing close to crowd in on Steve. She ran her hand up his chest, then up the back of his neck. She took a fistful of his hair and gave small tug, tilting his head back for a slow kiss. She used her grip to control, tilting his head to whatever angle suited her.

Steve kept his hands on the bed to ground himself. Peggy liked making him stay still, and he’d learned that an anchoring grip worked best.

Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.

Peggy kept the kiss slow, giving Steve small breaks to breath while she kissed along his neck.

Her other hand was busy rubbing along his thigh, occasionally rubbing against the outline of his soft member.

Steve felt a brief bolt of shame, but he pushed it away easily enough. He’d come to terms with his body and it’s limits, and was grateful that Peggy was so accommodating. Sometimes their times together only amounted to a makeout and some heavy petting when he couldn’t get going, and the occasional face-sitting when he could convince her, though she never felt right having an orgasm she couldn’t return.

Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.

But Peggy hadn’t just been flirting when she said his heart was holding strong, and Steve could feel himself slowly hardening.

Evidently Peggy did too, because she suddenly leaned over to adjust the bed so Steve could sit in a reclined position, then went to pull the privacy curtains closed. Steve caught Natasha smirking at them from her seat by the tank before she was hidden from sight. He paid her no mind, this wasn’t the first time they’d had Natasha’s audience.

Peggy hiked up her long skirt to remove her underwear, and got on the bed to straddle Steve’s legs.

She pushed Steve down against the propped up bed “Now lie back and don’t exert yourself, I’d hate for the results to get skewed and start over”

“Oh, we wouldn’t want that” Steve said said as he lay back. He brought his hands up to Peggy’s hips while she undid his pants.

Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.

Peggy moved up to Steve’s lap, her skirt covering where they were joined and flowing over the sides of the bed. She caressed his stomach, running her hands slowly up to his bare chest as she sank down on him.

She eyed his scars; the various deep red patches near his navel, the small white hatching patterns that extended around to his back, and the faded gloss of his various surgical sites, the most prominent one a thick line up the right side of his chest.

Steve had more scars hidden elsewhere, the but the worst were on his torso. Peggy had seen them enough times that she no longer batted an eye, and Steve had stopped being insecure about it for a while now. Really, he’d stopped caring much for his body in its entirety, but that was another issue.

Peggy braced a hand on his shoulder and rose up, then slowly back down. She set a lazy rhythm, taking her time. Steve’s breath hitched, but he stayed still. He closed his eyes and leaned his head back, focusing on his breaths.

Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.

Peggy kept up her steady pace, one hand on his chest and one on his shoulder. Her breathing had become quicker, and Steve felt her squeeze around him every so often.

His hands tightened on Peggy’s sides as she got him wound up, bunching the material of her skirt in his fists, and he arched his back in an effort not to thrust his hips.

Peggy firmly pushed him back down on the mattress. Steve was trying his best to keep his breaths steady, but the monitors gave away his quickening heart rate.

Peggy moved her hand from Steve’s shoulder to his jaw, her thumb brushing along his lips.

“It’s alright darling, look at me” she gently ordered.

Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.

Steve opened his eyes and watched Peggy as she slowed her pace even more. He felt her thumb push against his lips with force; he opened his mouth and slackened his jaw for her. Her thumb went past his teeth to push down on his tongue.

Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.

Peggy used her new grip to pull Steve’s head down so he’d face at her directly.

Beep Beep Beep Beep

She leaned in to speak, but just as she started, the sound of the elevator opening cut through their haze. An unfamiliar voice shouted “Hello!”

Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.

So much for the stress test.

Steve pulled himself up to hug Peggy close, touching his forehead to her chest and letting out a sigh. She ran her hand through his hair and gave a comforting pat on the back.

“We’ll finish later, darling” Peggy said as consolation.

You’ll finish later” Steve grumbled. He gave her a quick squeeze, then let her go. Peggy dismounted and quickly grabbed her underwear off the floor while Steve tucked himself back into his pants.

He could hear Natasha talking with someone past the curtains, hopefully buying them time to look presentable to whoever had shown up.

Peggy gave herself a final once-over, then pulled the curtain open. Steve stayed sitting on the bed, it was too much hassle to remove all the leads. Instead he leaned over and watched from his seat.

Natasha turned from where she’d been blocking the elevator entrance and addressed Peggy.

“Peggy, I was just telling our sponsor that you were in the middle of a sensitive test that couldn’t be interrupted” Natasha said as way of warning.

“And it looks like you’re done” Stark said as he pushed past a distracted Natasha and made a beeline for the tank. Another man stood behind him, and he didn’t make a move to enter until Natasha and Peggy quickly followed after Stark.

Steve didn’t say anything, electing to observe their sponsor’s actions. He did bristled a little when Stark casually placed his hand against the glass of the dark tank and activated the light, bringing his face close to ogle the shape inside.

“What’s the specs on the shield? I’ve been theorizing it’s either cuticle-growth inlaid with a unique bio-polymer. That or you’re cheating. Are you cheating? Legally you have to tell me” Stark fired off as he moved his attention to the info display on the tank.

“What-” Peggy began, but Stark kept going.

“Okay, not legally, but the gladiator’s code of honour or whatever code you people have” Stark continued, seeming unaware of the room’s occupants as he began scrolling through the info on the display.

Natasha pushed past and slammed her hand on the screen’s shut-off. She leaned on the tank with a casual smile Steve knew was forced.

As I was saying, Mr. Stark, we’d be more than happy to answer your questions after we finish our own tests and calibrations. Our bio-engineering is proprietary, and the information is sensitive, as you know”

“Firstly, call me Tony, Mr. Stark’s a stuffy geezer who thinks beast fights are a ‘waste of genius’; secondly,” Tony handed Natasha a folded set of papers, “I’ve signed an NDA for you that swears all your secrets don’t leak from me or my employees”

Natasha unfolded the papers and gave them a look-over while Tony went on, his attention directed back to the figure behind the glass, “Admittedly it won’t hold up in any court, and it really just goes to implicate my involvement in beast fights, but that’s good blackmail material, and I think we can agree our mutually assured imprisonment is good enough as any NDA”

Natasha looked back to Tony while she handed off the papers for Peggy to read properly. Peggy looked doubtful, but she dutifully started reading.

Natasha’s expression turned more neutral as she spoke, “We appreciate the sentiment, but we’ll need time to read it and get back to you”

“I can wait” Tony said casually, finally taking his attention away from the tank’s contents. He pulled up a stool and sat contently, his hands clasped in his lap like an innocent schoolboy. That definitely wasn’t the kind of waiting they’d implied, but Tony didn’t look like he planned to leave so easily.

Peggy read through the papers, then handed them to Steve with a contemplative look. Steve didn’t like this sudden demand of their trust, but Stark was the reason they could afford the entrance fee, so he wasn’t in a position to complain. Instead, Steve silently read the documents.

In all fairness, it did explicitly implicate Stark in beast fighting, complete with his signature, witness signature, and even an official invoice of Stark Tech’s financial contributions to the very illegal event, which Steve imagined was not in the company’s publicly available records.

But Tony also had access to the best lawyers money could buy, and probably a slew of judges who’d look the other way with the right price, which made this document about as flimsy as the paper it was written on.

Steve looked to Peggy and Natasha for what they thought. Natasha held a neutral look that unhelpfully said ‘not my decision’, but Peggy had a pinched look that said ‘no other choices’. Steve was inclined to agree; they didn’t have any other options if they wanted to be part of the tournament.

Twenty-two wins had left them with a small fortune in prize money, but it all went back to maintaining their beast and equipment. They got by on odd jobs between fights, Natasha doing mechanical work, Peggy fine-tuning biowares at whatever local clinic would have her, and Steve acting as assistant for whichever one was busiest. Even still, it wasn’t a profitable living, not when they were in the lower mid-tier fighting scene. Getting into the high-tier fights could afford them the luxury of fighting full-time, and the funds for better equipment that Natasha didn’t have to fix constantly.

But as it was, they wouldn’t have been able to afford entry into the tournament without a sponsor, and not many were willing to back a small team like theirs.

Steve had been reluctant to take Stark’s sponsorship at first; he didn’t want someone else making decisions for him and his team, but Tony’s liaison had assured them that the sponsorship had no-strings attached. All he asked was they “reflect Tony Stark and his brand with dignity and a positive light” and let him get an up-close look at the Captain. He hadn’t mentioned anything about sharing their beast specs, but it made sense that he’d spring that on them when they couldn’t say no.

Steve grit his teeth while handing the papers back to Peggy, giving a nod.

Peggy tucked them away and turned to Tony, “Very well, but we’ll provide the information to you. You will not be scrolling through our raw data unsupervised”

“Smart, and reasonable, but I won’t be the one looking at carebear’s secrets. Bio-engineering isn’t my area of play, which is why I brought my own expert” Tony indicated the other man who’d silently come in with him.

The man smiled apologetically and gave a little half-wave.

Tony introduced him, “Everyone, this is Dr. Banner, or Bruce, or Jolly-Green; but that’s neither here nor there”

Steve raised his eyebrows in surprise, and shared an equally surprised look with Peggy and Natasha. He wondered if it was the same Bruce Banner that had piloted the Hulk. He spied the small scar above his ear where an Affinity link would’ve been.

“He’s one of my employees, so he falls under the agreement of the NDA. Any issues?” Tony smiled when he asked, but his voice made it sound almost like a challenge.

He shrugged at Peggy, and she relayed his response in words, “It won’t be a problem”

Tony clapped his hands together with an excited grin, “Let’s get started then”

Chapter Text

Tony scooted his stool aside to give Bruce space to access the tank, “Alright big guy, have at it. What’re we working with?”

Bruce ignored Tony and tilted the tablet he was holding towards Peggy, “If you don’t mind?...” he asked with an unsure tone.

“Of course” Peggy said as she tapped her own tablet to his, giving him view-only access to their data and monitor feeds.

Bruce quickly became engrossed in the information, his shy demeanor fading as he lost himself in analyzing the Captain’s physiology.

Peggy went around to Steve to do what he assumed was busywork while they waited for Bruce to finish, but he could see her glancing up constantly, barely hiding her watchfulness.

He and Natasha didn’t bother with subtlety; Steve was outright glaring between Bruce and Tony while Natasha kept a cool eye on them.

Tony bounced his leg impatiently, but he stayed surprisingly quiet while watching. Bruce, for his part, was making quick work of reading over their specs, taking the artificially designed anatomy in stride.

The more Bruce read though, the more his face alternated from confused to concerned. He made occasional hmm’s that sounded less intrigued and more baffled.

“Well?” Tony asked after the dozenth hmm.

Bruce looked up from his readings at Tony. He hesitated a moment when he saw Steve glaring at him, but went on to explain his findings. He seemed to struggle to put it to words at first.

“It’s just, this design is… poor. And, and... inefficient”

Peggy stopped what she was doing and gave and affronted look, “Is that so?”

Bruce tried to backpedal, “I just mean, it’s… it doesn’t make sense, given the beast’s purpose. Beasts are made to fight, but also to, to uh, fight despite taking a heavy beating”

Bruce paused, and Tony had to indicate for him to continue his explanation.

“Okay, so vital organs are a weakness because they’re… well, they’re vital. Like, one punctured lung and you’re dead. So instead, most beasts have oxygenated blood reserves to replace the need to self-oxygenate. It’s why they’re stored in life-support tanks outside of fights, they don’t have any organs to stay alive longer than a few hours at best. They shut down completely after anywhere from one to three hours, depending on the build”

“What’s strange about the Captain is that it can survive… indefinitely, out of the tank. Which is the issue. You’ve got too many… too many useless organs. I’m seeing lungs, a digestive system, some kind of kidney/liver hybrid… it’s too much vulnerability, not to mention redundancy

Bruce ran his hand through his hair and let out a breath, “And you’re defenses are a little lacking, to be honest. Usually designs that don’t use an exoskeleton have some other kind of external armoring, but all I’m seeing is the small sternum plating, otherwise all you have is thick skin and a heavy fat layer, and that’s only good against blunt attacks. Your beast is at serious risk of losing from any cuts and stabs. There’s of course your shield, but that can’t work all the time” Bruce kept scrolling through the data.

“Also, um...” he coughed and cleared his throat, “there’s a, uh, reproductive system?”

This got a laugh from Tony, “What, seriously?”

“Yeah, there’s um, I guess what you’d call male genitalia, complete with, um, gonads” Bruce half-mumbled uncomfortably.

“You ever get a, you know” Tony mimed an erection with his hand, “during a fight? Get caught up in the excitement?” Tony was clearly amused with the concept. Steve was offended at the notion, he was a goddamn professional. And if tearing out guts ever got him hard, he’d quit there and then.

“It’s not a problem” Peggy answered flatly.

“Never mounted an opponent, show it who’s boss?”

Anger bubbled in his chest, how dare he suggest-

“But, there’s um, some good design aspects too” Bruce interjected hurriedly. Steve was glad for the topic change, the implication that he’d do something so…. That he’d do that set his teeth on edge. He wanted to punch that fucking smirk off Tony’s face for even thinking it.

Bruce started listing his more positive findings, “You’ve got four hearts that are spaced out well, and increased cartilage supports around all organs to prevent displacement. Plus the enhanced musculature and bone strength. And you were right in your guess Tony, it looks like some kind of bio-polymer enriched bone structure, but it’s not a one I recognize. It’s light-weight and tensile, but sturdier than titanium; it’s impressive really”

“But it still leaves a big gap. It doesn’t matter if your bones don’t break easily, one stomach wound and you’re dead in a minute. Am I missing something here?” Bruce looked questioningly between Peggy and Natasha.

Peggy crossed her arms, “You’re only looking at our foundational structures, which do look poor at initial glance, but you’re missing the real reason our design works best”

“And what’s that, your shield?” Tony cut in, “You’re saying you block all lethal hits with a plate that’s barely twice the size of your beast’s head?”

“You’re underestimating the value a good defense has, and our pilot is clearly skilled enough to use it to full effect. We also have an increased adrenal reaction and heavy-duty coagulation factors. We can withstand more than just a stomach wound” Peggy explained.

Tony didn’t seem convinced, “You know, I wanted to be surprised by you guys, but kinda regretting it now that I’m hearing what’s under the hood. My fault really, I back a few underdogs each tourney and one of them always turns out to be a fluke”

Steve’s fists tightened the more Tony spoke, and he was very close to snapping out something rude when Bruce broke in.

“Hold on” Bruce said, his attention pulled back to the tablet, “It says you’re keeping the tank at five degrees Celsius. Usual beast life-supports keep to around 40 degrees to match body temperature. And your protein and glucose supplementation make no sense for size and weight?” He looked up questioningly.

Peggy replied guardedly, “There’s an… additional physiological factor not in our data. It makes the Captain more, resilient, shall we say. We prefer to keep it off any records”

Off the record, right. They didn’t have a record. But they couldn’t go about saying that.

Tony perked up at this new information, “A super secret thing you don’t even record in your private data? Now this I wanna hear”

None of the three made to speak.

Tony rolled his eyes, “Oh come on, I’m not gonna to share it, I already told you. I promise I won’t write it down either, I’ll take it to my grave or whatever, pinky swear” Tony held out his pinky.

When still nobody said anything, Tony shifted tactics.

“Okay, I’m already funding your entrance and accommodations, and I bet your biggest worry is I’ll pull the plug, so how about this: I agree not to pull your funding, for any reason, if you tell me your mega secret powers. That means if you cause trouble, I still back you. Go ahead and mouth off about me, at me, harass the other competitors, harass the tournament officials, I still roll in the cash. What do you say?”

The offer was meaningless. There was still nothing stopping Tony from backing out at his own whim, and having the freedom to harass whoever they wanted wasn’t exactly an incentive. So they held their silent stance.

“Okay, okay, not the best reason to share. How ‘bout this? Everything I offered, plus I pay you a quarter of the grand prize amount, right now? I’ll transfer it to your account, you can confirm it”

Now that was actually tempting. A quarter of the winnings was enough to enter into the tournament on their own, though not enough to cover any of the expenses to stay, like food and lodging. It was just enough to keep them from pulling out on their end, leaving Tony the one screwed.

But there was an underlying threat to the offer as well, even if Tony didn’t say it. Even if Tony wasn’t aware of it.

Tell me or leave.

Peggy looked to Steve to make the call. Steve eyed Tony, considering the risks. Considering the rewards.

It wasn’t a great deal, but it was that or lose their place.

Best case scenario, Tony kept his word and didn’t reveal their secret, at least not during the tournament. It wouldn’t make sense for him to put one of his investments at a disadvantage like that.

But if word got out afterwards, well, ideally they’d have earned enough to afford the security needed to keep the Captain from being stolen.

It was the best they could hope for.

Steve unhappily gave Peggy his nod of approval.

Chapter Text


The transfer had taken no more than five minutes. Peggy had confirmed the funds were in their account, and the numbers were enough to make Steve’s head spin. Normally they’d have to win thirty fights to earn that much, and their expenses were too high to afford saving it.

Now it was their turn to deliver. Peggy took a breath as she thought through her wording.

“Before I explain, you should know that the Captain is not our design, but that of Dr. Abraham Erskine”

“Wait, the same Dr. Erskine from Red Room Biometrics?” Bruce asked, surprised.

Steve saw Natasha tense at this, but everyone else was too focused on Peggy’s explanation to notice. Steve knew she and Abraham had a history, both having immigrated together from somewhere in Europe, but neither would talk about their life before. This was the first Steve was hearing anything about the doctor’s history.

“I’m unaware of his previous affiliations, but it’s possible. Dr. Erskine did not share much about his time outside America, but he was a brilliant bio-engineer from what I learned studying under him” Peggy explained.

“Yeah, Dr. Erskine was one of the top in his field. I based my thesis on some of his earlier work on the applications of cell-duplication in biotech- it’s not important” Bruce waved away at his own tangent, “I just wasn’t expecting to hear about him, last I heard he quit working at Red Room nearly a decade ago and completely disappeared from the science community”

Steve saw Natasha’s jaw clench, and he figured there was more to the story.

“Again, I do not know his personal history. All I know is he came to America and ran a small clinic for a time in the Union slums. From there he branched out to beast engineering, which is when he took on several individuals as apprentices, myself included” Peggy went on.

“Huh, well it’s good to know he didn’t just drop off the map completely” Bruce mused.

“This is great and all, but can we get back to the mysterious secret I’m paying a small fortune to hear” Tony interrupted. Small fortune, ha. It was probably peanuts to him.

“Yes, I’m getting there. I need to inform you, however, that this information is privately patented by Dr. Erskine, and we will not be sharing the detailed mechanisms nor any research materials”

Tony waved it off impatiently, “Okay, I get it, super cool thing, you can’t tell me the itty bitty details. Just tell me what it is already”

“If you’d watched any footage of our fights, you’d see that the Captain can take hits that would subdue a beast with a standard build, let alone the sub-optimized one the Captain has. The Captain can withstand any puncture or cut, and can keep fighting despite a full evisceration. This due to a prioritized rapid-response regenerative system”

Tony’s brow shot up in surprise, and Bruce had a look of pure shock, the tablet in his hands forgotten as he gaped at Peggy.

“You’re telling me you’ve mastered biological regeneration?” Tony asked in disbelief.

“Dr. Erskine did, yes”

“That’s not, it isn’t… How?” Bruce stuttered out.

“As I’ve said, that information is proprietary, we will not be explaining it in detail” Peggy said.

What she wasn’t saying was that they couldn’t. Abraham hadn’t written anything of worth on his creation, nor had he shared it with any of them. They were just as much in the dark as anyone else. But they’d agreed there was no need to advertise it should it ever get out. Let people think they held the valuable secret of regeneration. Who knew when it could be useful?

“And it’s actual, functional regeneration? There’s no cancerous overgrowth? Extra limbs or organ structures? And does prioritized rapid-response mean what I think it means?” Bruce asked.

“It’s fully functional, no uncontrolled growths, which is why he has a fully functioning system; Dr. Erskine found if we didn’t include all the necessary vital organs for life as part of the base template, the regeneration factor would grow rampant in creating its own organs”

“And yes,” Peggy continued, “it has a prioritization protocol it follows to repair essential functions over lesser ones. This is often why nobody notices. The internal system is the first to be healed, and by the time the external wounds are being worked on, the fight has ended”

Peggy’s explanation was tinged with pride. Steve supposed she didn’t often get a chance to brag about how good the Captain really was.

“Not only this, but the high priority healing occurs at a faster rate, while the low priority is done at a rate typical of normal healing. We have a recorded instance of one of the hearts being removed and fully regrowing in a matter of minutes, while at the same time a cut along the flank took several hours. It didn’t even heal fully, it took so long we just put him in the tank for the nano-growers to finish fixing”

Peggy ended her explanation with a proud smile. She had rendered Bruce completely awed, and Tony looked impressed enough.

“This is unprecedented. This has applications way beyond beast fighting, this could revolutionize the medical field. We could end the need to clone! This would go a long way to ending so many diseases, disabilities, even aging. This is… this is a miracle” Bruce ended quietly, his eyes shining with optimism.

“This information is not to be shared, nor looked into. I admire your visions, but this is not negotiable” Peggy said sternly.

She added a further reasoning when it was apparent Bruce would push the issue.

“In any case, Dr. Erskine found it unsustainable for human application. You asked why our tank is kept at five degrees and our nutrient measurements are so odd; it’s because it takes so much energy. We keep the tank so cool to lower the Captain’s metabolism, otherwise he’d need to consume half his weight in calories a day. You’ll also notice his fat stores are close to that of blubber, and it’s not to make his skin harder to pierce; he needs the storage to regrow entire organs without going into hypoglycemic shock. No human could sustain that kind of dietary lifestyle”

Bruce deflated a little at that, “But it’s still a step towards sustainable regeneration. If I could consult with Dr. Erskine maybe?”

“Dr. Erskine is dead I’m afraid. He wanted his research be kept private, and we are respecting his last wishes to do so. Please do not inquire further” Peggy informed finally.

Steve was glad Peggy had taken lead on this, he wasn’t so sure he could’ve shut Bruce down so well. Well, not as... diplomatically.

“I just want to say, this has been absolutely worth my investment, and I’m very happy right now” Tony injected into the awkward pause that had arisen.

“Thank you, Tony. Was there any other business you wished to discuss with us? We’ve covered the main aspects of the Captains physiology, as you requested” Peggy asked.

“Yeah actually, new question: why the shield if carebear heals? Doesn’t seem like you need it, you’ve got the standard claws and teeth, and you’re practically unkillable. Not much need to defend from attacks, your win rate’s pretty set”

“It’s a gimmick” Natasha answered, “The gamblers care about win rates, the audience cares about a show. And it keeps people from realizing the real reason we can take a hit. Better they think the shield is our real defense”

Tony nodded thoughtfully at that, “Fair enough. That’s all I got for now. I might drop in now and then if I think of something else though”

Steve didn’t like that at all, but even with the relaxed restriction Tony had just granted them, he still held a great deal of power as their sponsor.

“That just leaves your pilot” Tony said. This caught Steve off-guard.

“What about our pilot?” Peggy asked as she crossed her arms defensively.

“Bruce is also a licensed doctor-”

“I’m not”

“-and I wanna get a general feel for your pilot’s whole,” Tony waved his hand to indicate Natasha’s body, “deal” Tony finished.

“I’m not the pilot” Natasha corrected.

“What? But you’ve got the muscle thing going, and don’t tell me it’s English here, she’s way to smart to be in that hot seat” Tony asked.

Natasha simply titled her head to indicate where Steve was sitting.

“You’re kidding. Small and brooding over there?” Tony turned to look directly at Steve for the first time. “Yeah, don’t think I didn’t notice your little murder eyes on me”

He turned back to Natasha, “You sure you’re not the pilot?”

“He has an Affinity link for god’s sake” Peggy griped.

Tony leaned over to get a better look at the side of Steve’s head. “Huh, so he does. Honestly didn’t see that. Whatever, you’re already hooked up the monitors at least. Bruce, do your thing”

Bruce turned to Steve, “With your consent?”

Steve nodded and beckoned him over, Peggy following close behind. Steve could already see she’d be looking over Bruce’s shoulder for the entirety of the assessment.

“I’m just gonna do a general physio, nothing too invasive” Bruce assured as he pulled up a chart on his tablet to fill in. Steve nodded his consent again. It looked like he was getting a full checkup today after all.

“Does he speak?” Tony asked, watching the proceedings from the stool.

“Occasionally” Steve responded. Tony breathed a small laugh at that, like Steve had done a neat trick.

The check itself went by quickly, most of the data was already available through his biowares, and Bruce became busy looking at the results. They all stood about waiting again, but Tony seemed less patient than with the Captain’s analysis.

Tony stayed quiet all of thirty seconds.

“Hey, what’re your names? I feel kinda rude not knowing”

This was becoming a difficult physical already.

Chapter Text

Peggy was busy scrutinizing Bruce’s scrutiny of Steve, and Steve wasn’t going to start talking to Tony now, which left Natasha to deal with him. She handled it well, keeping Tony busy answering trivial questions about themselves and their rig, but his questions were getting more personal, and Natasha could only deflect so far.

“How’d you all get into the fighting business anyway? I’m sure big red has a good story, but English and the murder shrimp gotta be something special” Tony asked.

“I was an in-house mechanic for Dr. Erskine, started working on the equipment and got a knack for it” Natasha answered with a shrug.

She’d been more than the in-house mechanic though. Near as Steve could tell, Dr. Erskine had been like a father to her, and she’d run her own mechanical repairs business alongside his clinic in the early days. Natasha’s shop had eventually turned into a front when Dr. Erskine began his illegal bio-engineering in the shop’s basement.

“Neat” Tony said. He looked to Peggy next. “And you? What brought you all the way across the pond?”

“I had an internship studying bioware, came here on exchange. I met Dr. Erskine by accident really, we bumped into each other at a splicer’s den. He was picking up parts, I was doing my own… private studying of black market bioware. We struck up conversation and he offered me an apprenticeship on the spot, and now here I am”

That’s pretty much how it went, actually. Peggy had told Steve that getting into Dr. Erskine’s apprenticeship had been as easy as that. The real issue had been getting out of her actual internship and disentangling herself from her student visa. She was on the path of facing deportation, but thankfully she’d met Angie, who turned out to be a prolific hacker in her spare time. Not just a hacker, but a Chained Lady, and she’d gotten Peggy a real-as-can-be citizenship.

Steve idly wondered if he’d be seeing Angie here at the tournament. She occasionally made it out to some of their matches, and he couldn’t imagine she’d miss out on Peggy’s big moment.

Steve was taken out of his wondering when Tony asked, “What about you Little Tim? How’d you convince someone to make you the pilot of three tonnes of murder?”

Steve considered how much he wanted to reveal. He had an entire sob story culminating into his selection as the pilot, most of it involving a depressing process of elimination where he was the only surviving candidate. Not even a real candidate at that.

Breathe.

Steve decided on a bleached version of events. None of it was Tony’s business, but if he wanted a story, he’d have to settle for a brittle one.

“Had a friend workin’ as one of Dr. Erskine’s apprentices, I’d tag along every time he went in. Got familiar with things and the doc took an interest in me, turned out I was compatible with the neuro symbionts he was usin’, so he included me as a candidate. Ended up being best suited in the end”

You were best suited? No offense, but you don’t exactly have the build of a pilot” Tony said, indicating Steve’s small frame.

Steve wasn’t offended, he knew how he looked; like a breeze could knock him over. Pilots usually had the build of an athlete, but that was more because the athletically built were chosen. Steve hadn’t exactly been chosen for his body though.

“I got a decent workin’ brain, so I’m told, and Dr. Erskine said I had something special about me, though he didn’t say what”

If he had to guess, Steve thought grimly, he’d say that the special thing hadn’t been anything more than a working pulse.

While they’d been talking, Bruce’s face had slowly scrunched in concern the more he read Steve’s medical charts, and Steve was quietly bracing for the harsh criticism of his health.

“Alright” Bruce turned to Tony, “Tony, I’m done here”

Tony dropped the conversation at Bruce’s call, and pulled the stool closer to the medical area.

“Finally. What’re we looking at? Guy’s not gonna drop in the middle of a fight, is he?” Tony asked.

Bruce looked hesitant to start, “In all honesty, he might” he said regretfully. He turned to address Steve, “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be so negative, but this doesn’t look good”

No fucking kidding, Steve thought.

Bruce started giving Tony the details, “His internal systems look like a chop-shop, nearly every major organ has some form of bioware assistance, and his entire liver’s been replaced with an artificial one”

“His conditions include asthma, heart arrhythmia, and anemia. He’s on several medications, a few delivered automatically by dispensers”

Bruce turned his attention back to Steve, “No offense, but I’m shocked you’re alive even after a single fight. Your heart’s a cardiac arrest waiting to happen, if I was your doctor I’d tell you to quit beast fighting and get rid of this body. You gotta have the funds for a clone transfer at this point?”

Breathe.

“I’m not getting a new body” Steve said coldly.

Bruce pressed on, “Most of your body’s held together with tech and metal. It looks like you’ve had some kind of major accident from all the pins I’m seeing in your skeleton, plus the entirety of your right rib cage’s been replaced with a synth polymers… and, you know” Bruce awkwardly motioned to the scars on Steve’s body.

Breathe.

Steve felt a cold anger simmering up, different from the hot flash of rage he’d felt at Tony. He tried to keep his gaze on a point on the wall, not trusting himself to keep his composure if he saw the pitying expression he knew Bruce likely had.

“At this point it’s more worthwhile to scrap the whole body and get something brand new; as a bonus, it wouldn’t have any of the medical conditions you have now” Bruce advocated.

“If I wanted to get shoved in some fucking lab-grown corpse I’d’ve done it already!” Steve spat, his mouth turned down in a disgusted snarl.

Peggy got in front of Bruce at that point, “Dr. Banner, thank you for the recommendation, but Steve has elected not to have a clone transfer. I would also like to assure you that we have his current conditions under control, if you would allow me to explain”

Bruce looked between Peggy and Steve, some understanding that he’d crossed a line appearing on his face. Tony thankfully didn’t insert another comment, instead he looked entertained. Really, all he was missing was a bowl of popcorn. It made Steve want to punch him more.

“Yeah... yeah, okay” Bruce acquiesced.

“Piloting is most taxing on the heart and brain, as well as the lungs with Steve’s asthma, but his other biowares do not interfere with piloting, you need not concern yourself with those systems. We have aerosol lung pumps dispensing his asthma medication, and they’ve been modified to anticipate his attacks. I also monitor his vitals during fights and can manually trigger the dispensers if need be”

“His heart conditions are taken care of by a pacemaker, which has an emergency defibrillator function”

“Lastly, you’ll have noticed no neuro issues; Steve has always remained fully cognizant during and after fights. With combined bioware programming and my own supervision, we have all his issue covered and accounted for. Steve is perfectly capable of handling the stresses of piloting; we’ve not had any major failings happen in previous fights, and we certainly won’t in future fights either”

Peggy’s confidence in Steve’s performance had calmed him, mostly, and he was almost amused at her bold lie. He knew for a fact his heart had stopped in the middle of nine of their fights. He also suffered absence seizures, though it never interfered with a fight so far. But their sponsor didn’t need to know any of that.

Bruce seemed only partly convinced. “I guess with the right precautions and the bioware supports you could keep on top of his cardiovasculars...”

“So what’s your final word, doc?” Tony asked then.

“I’d say he shouldn’t be piloting if he wants to live to old age, but he’s probably not going to die in the middle of a fight right now” Bruce said with an unsure shrug, “I’m not really a practiced physician, his team has a better idea than I do of what he can handle”

“And you guarantee he can hold up for the tourney? You won’t have a month off between these fights, you’ll get less than two weeks, at best. I’ve seen guys twice as big cave under this kind of strain” Tony said, surprisingly concerned.

“We can handle it, I assure you” Peggy answered seriously.

And Steve would. He’d survived worse. And if this did end up killing him, at least he’d go out with someone else’s blood on his teeth.

Tony nodded thoughtfully. “That’s good enough for me”

Chapter Text

“Are we done here?” Steve asked.

He’d been without a shirt for forty minutes now, and he was getting legitimately cold. That, combined with the exhaustion this entire interaction had brought on, was chipping away at Steve’s composure. He’d start shivering any moment now, and he sorely did not want an audience for it.

“For now. I’ve got one more team to visit today, but I might stop by again later. Or anytime in the tournament, we’ll see” Tony said blithely as he got up.

“I would ask that you give us proper notice of your arrival, ideally a few hours beforehand” Peggy requested.

“No promises” Tony said over his shoulder on his way to the elevator.

Bruce stayed behind a moment, “Sorry about all that. Your beast is truly amazing, and I’m sure the pilot equally so. Tony pays me for an honest opinion though, I’m sorry it had to be so harsh” he said as a condolence. Bruce then followed after Tony, the elevator doors closing behind them.

“That was certainly something” Peggy muttered aloud.

“Think he’ll keep quiet about the Cap’s secret?” Natasha asked.

“Maybe. Maybe not. Right now I just hope he keeps it quiet for the tournament, we can deal with the fallout after” Steve said tiredly as he began pulling the wire leads off his body.

“I can talk to Angie about setting up some monitoring software to check for mentions online and in blacknet forums, we already have a rough built of some of the code-”

Steve tuned out then, walking out of the conversation to go to his semi-private sleeping area. Peggy and Natasha could finish the rest of the maintenance on their own, he’d used up most of his endurance dealing with that ordeal of a checkup.

He put on a shirt and sweater, then crawled under the covers to curl up. He gripped his phone tight to his chest, and let himself be overtaken by small tremors. The blankets soon got warm enough that the shivers were no longer from the cold.

Instead, he lay there and though about the past.

Steve was breathing hard, sweat beading along his forehead. He dodged another punch and tried to get his own hit in, but he was suddenly blinded by a handful of dirt thrown in his face.

He sputtered, and a fist connected with his jaw to send him to the ground.

Steve leaned up on his elbows and spat the dirt out his mouth. “That’s a dirty trick to play”

It’s a dirty fight we’re havin’” Bucky replied with a smirk.

Why’s it always gotta be a dirty fight with you? Would it kill ya to play fair for once?”

Bucky wiped the dirt off his hands, “See, that’s why you’re gettin’ the shit kicked outta you in the alleys, you’re tryin’a be all noble while the other guy’s lookin’ to see if he can sell your corpse when he’s done. Crotch throat n’ eyes man, it’ll buy you time to run someplace safe”

Fuck off, you run someplace safe” Steve bit out as he got up.

Yeah yeah, tough guy’s gotta be the last one standin’. Just get off your high horse an’ get your knuckles to the throat for once”

Steve let out a huff and brought his fists up for another round. Bucky mirrored his stance, but was careful to keep his left arm up defensively only; the last thing they needed was Steve’s head busted open on the chunk of metal Bucky called an arm.

Alright, and this time hit like you mean it. Knuckles to the throat” Bucky said, tapping his own throat for emphasis.

They continued to spar, though it was more of a friendly brawl with Bucky pulling his punches and Steve exclusively aiming for his face.

Steve suddenly felt a flutter in his chest, and a sharp pain shot up his neck and jaw. He held one hand on his chest and the other up to stop the fight. Bucky dropped his fists with a concerned frown.

Shit, you okay?” Bucky asked, reaching for Steve’s shoulder.

Steve’s fist shot out and connected with Bucky’s cheek, the first real hit he’d landed. Bucky stumbled back a step in surprise, and Steve wheezed a laugh.

How’s that, ha, for dirty?” Steve got out, but his breathes were becoming thinner.

You goddamn punk” Bucky tried to laugh weakly, but his eyes were tinged with worry.

The pain faded fast, but Steve was left nearly gasping on each breath. Bucky put an arm around him and guided them both to sit.

Christ, okay, just breathe with me, come on Stevie” Bucky took deep breathes, matching them with Steve’s gasps.

Breathe.

Breathe.

That’s it” Bucky encouraged.

Steve’s breathes started to get clearer, until he was left leaning lightly on Bucky as he felt his chest relax.

They sat in silence a moment, until Bucky smacked Steve upside the head.

You goddamn punk” he said with less worry and more irritation.

It worked, didn’t it?” Steve said with an easier laugh.

Yeah, and the next thug that sees you dyin’ ain’t gonna stop punching out of the goodness of their heart” Bucky snapped.

Was worth a shot anyway. Got you, at least” Steve said.

Yeah” Bucky said, rubbing at his cheek thoughtfully. They sat in companionable silence a while longer, watching the street from the open garage they were in.

Hey, you hear Bonnie got a new body?” Bucky said, a touch of disdain in his tone.

Fuckin’ serious? Bonnie with the bad leg?” Steve asked incredulously.

Yeah. Didn’t bother even gettin’ a leg brace from a splicer, she went for a full corpse”

How’d she afford that? Last I heard she was scrubbin’ floors to for half meal-tickets”

No idea, but Jeffrey up in Bellview says some pharma suits’ve been offering new corpses in exchange for some kinda medical experiment. He says less than a quarter of the folks that go in come back out, but the ones that do got new bodies. Dunno how much I believe him, but I’ve been hearing a few people uptown are walkin’ ‘round in new corpses they couldn’t afford”

Jesus” Steve said in disgust. It was common for companies to come to the slums looking for guinea pigs to test on, usually in exchange for quick cash. The higher the payout, the riskier it was, and for someone to be offering a full clone transfer meant they were testing something especially lethal.

What’s she even need a new corpse for? It was a limp for fuck’s sake” Steve commented.

Right? We got perfectly good tech, a good splicer’ll fix ya up for a decent cost” Bucky said.

Not decent enough I guess” Steve muttered.

Transferring your mind to a healthy clone was considered the height of elitism. The age of cloned organ transplants had been phased out along with the middle class. Only the rich could afford organic replacements, and they often went ahead and replaced the whole body; the poor couldn’t even afford a skin graft.

Tech, on the other hand, was cheaper, and often free if you knew where to scrounge. It was rare to see anyone in Brooklyn without some form of bioware prosthetic, especially considering the high rate of birth defects in the area. Steve thought Bucky was lucky to have only been born without an arm, at least he could work around it with tech he’d found in junk piles and sunken trash. And a good splicer to attach it.

But they couldn’t exactly replace Steve’s heart with scraps from the street.

Listen,” Bucky started, pulling Steve out of his thoughts, “I found some new work, over in Union. Some doctor’s got a splicing thing goin’ or something. I didn’t get much detail, but he’s lookin’ for mechanics. The pay ain’t great, but he says he can do some free splicing, get me a more articulate arm. And I figured we could, you know, get you a pacemaker too” Bucky finished hesitantly.

Steve frowned. “Buck, don’t take some shit job on my account”

It ain’t just for you! I said he’d get me an arm too, didn’t I?” Bucky shot back defensively.

Steve wasn’t so convinced, but he couldn’t argue that. A more articulate arm would go a long way in making Bucky more employable, at the moment he could do only the most basic functions with it.

And hey, you can tag along, maybe give me a hand. I could convince the doc to hire you as my assistant. You might actually do what I say for once” Bucky teased, nudging Steve with his elbow.

Jerk” Steve replied, nudging Bucky back. The thought was nice though.

Bucky got up then, “Come on, let’s head back before it gets dark”

Steve pushed up off the ground as well, and they started on their way back to their shared apartment.

What’s this doc’s name, anyway?” Steve asked.

Dr. Erskine or something. He’s European” Bucky replied.

No kidding?” Steve said.

Yeah, and he’s got a real spitfire daughter workin’ the front”

Sounds like your type” Steve joked, but he felt his heart sink a little.

Nah, she’s a redhead. I’m more of a blond type. But maybe you’ll hit it off with her, get yourself a breadwinner”

Steve felt a flash of relief and smiled.“I doubt she’ll be interested Buck, but thanks. And anyway, I don’t really need a breadwinner when I got you lookin’ after me all the time” Steve said as he bumped their shoulder together.

Punk” Bucky said, but he had a dopey smile.

Chapter Text

The next two days passed in a routine of keeping Steve the Captain in peak working order, but it was mostly eating right and exercise. The Captain was taken care of by automated feedings and constant eletro-physio stimulation to keep the muscles in shape, while Steve ate what was put in front of him, swallowed his pills dutifully, and did short bouts of whatever cardio he could handle.

Tony thankfully didn’t stop by at any point after his first visit, but he’d somehow acquired all their phone numbers, and they’d each gotten a few random texts asking inane questions. He somehow got past their attempts to block him, forcing them to either answer or silence their phones.

He especially would not stop asking if Steve ever did anything with the Captain’s ability to fuck, until Steve had to respond that he did nothing whatsoever. No, not even alone to try it out.

God, he fucking hated that.

There was only so much to be done while waiting, and so Peggy and Natasha took turns exploring some of the other amenities they’d been given access to, including the gym and pool.

Steve stayed in the room. He had no use for the gym and no interest in the pool, instead he occupied himself with drawing. It had been a useless skill in his youth, nobody needed an artist in the warehouses and dockyards of New York, but it had become a tenable hobby between beast fights.

Paper had become a luxury, not from shortage, but because screens had replaced their most basic uses, and it didn’t help that companies that produced it now charged through the roof for the “rare commodity”. And when a tablet was cheaper to acquire than food, it meant most households had multiple of them.

Steve didn’t go for many luxuries, but the few he permitted included his drawing tablet, something more high-end than usual. He’d filled it with drawings of everyone he knew, most drawn from memory at this point. He kept a section for beasts as well, the Captain featuring most prominently, but also a decent collection of other he’d seen, and even fought.

He was in the middle of drawing another action shot of the Captain, which was an interesting exercise. He had a dual-view whenever he was the Captain, seeing out his own eyes and the Captain’s at the same time, and it let him draw both big and small details at once, like a self-portrait from a stranger’s view.

Initially it had given him vertigo during their test runs, and the uncomfortable experience of a split self, but he’d gotten accustomed to it, shunting his regular body’s senses into background noise and embracing the Captain’s as his true self, for however brief that lasted.

He was just finishing the star-shaped plating on the chest when the elevator opened and Natasha walked in. She was in her workout clothes and had a sheen a sweat on her skin.

“Get ready, the roster announcements are in two hours and we’re expected at the reception in one” Natasha said without preamble, walking by Steve to enter the washroom. A moment later he heard the shower running.

Steve closed his tablet with a small sigh. He’d known there was some kind of pilot’s reception, and though it was described as a meet-and-greet between the teams, the sponsors, and some rich attendees, it was really a publicity game with all the broadcasting drones flitting about.

Spectators loved getting to know the people behind the beasts apparently, and the viewer traffic had to line someone’s pockets.

All faces and mentions of names were heavily filtered through auto-mods to hide identities, naturally. As long as no recording equipment picked up your face, you were practically anonymous to the authorities, a loophole that beast fighting thrived on.

And pay no attention to the company logos plastered all over the walls, clearly they aren’t involved, your honour , Steve thought sarcastically.

Steve wasn’t looking forward to it. He hadn’t ever had to do one of these at previous fights, mostly because they were small-time single matches. But the big league matches were only held three times a year, and they were made into a real spectacle each time.

At least he no longer had to pretend to publicly fawn over Tony Stark. In theory. They’d see how much Tony would abide that leniency when the public eye was on him. Semi-public? Whatever the underground scene was.

Steve figured he was supposed to dress nice for it, but clothes weren’t at the top of his list of luxuries, and most of his style was either utilitarian or frayed comfort. He settled for something in-between.

The elevator doors opened again and Peggy came rushing in, similarly damp as Natasha, but with a chlorine smell. She flew straight into the open washroom with a hurried shout of “Move I need the shower Angie’s coming!”, followed by sounds of Natasha’s protests.

Steve had to smile at that. Peggy always got a bit wound up before Angie’s arrivals, like she had to make everything perfect for her. Steve thought it was sweet.

Though Natasha certainly wasn’t endeared with it at the moment. She exited the washroom in a hastily wrapped towel and a puddle trail behind her, half her face covered in long, wet hair. She was grumbling something not-English under her breath while she fetched her own clothes behind the partition at her bed.

Steve held back a snicker until she was out of view, but it didn’t prevent the a well-aimed wet towel that flew out of nowhere and thwacked him in the face.

Peggy finished her shower in short order, and was now flitting around the room multitasking between making herself and the room presentable.

“Pegs, it gonna be fine. She doesn’t care about the room, and she’d love you in anything” Steve assured, but Peggy wasn’t hearing it.

“No! She can’t know I live like this!” Peggy proclaimed with a toothbrush in her mouth and a pile of mixed wires in her arms, the latter of which she was trying to shove into an empty drawer.

The room wasn’t even a mess, they’d only been here three days, but Peggy’s standards seemed to skyrocket whenever Angie was soon to be involved. Steve hoped she got here soon, Peggy always returned to baseline after Angie’s actual arrival.

Normally Steve would’ve helped Peggy clean, but Natasha had commandeered his own preparations after he’d thrown on his ‘best’ clothes and called it done. She taken him to one of the stools and was now applying an amount of makeup she’d assured would be ‘subtle’.

So instead he was stuck watching Peggy stress herself while Natasha attempted to make him not quite so sickly looking.

Peggy’s phone made a buzzing noise, signaling that they should be heading down. Or up? Steve wasn’t sure if they were above or below ground in their windowless room. They’d probably been told at some point.

Peggy had cleaned up surprisingly well given her hectic running-around earlier. She had her hair done up and wore a lovely pink dress. Natasha hadn’t gone so formal, instead had let her hair loose and wore a casual blazer. Steve was easily under-dressed in his loose sweater, but he didn’t look like he’d come off living on the street at least.

They got in the elevator and rode it up. It opened to a small elevator bank, which lead out to a large lounge area. They passed several security personnel, and Steve spotted more walking around the edges of the room.

An attendant met them at the entrance and led them in.

All around the room were sections of couches around small tables. A few already had groups sitting at them, and Steve could see the empty sections had holo-displays reserving the spots for a specific team. Steve could see a few early VIP guests walking around and chatting with the present pilots.

So that’s how it was then; they’d be grouped like attractions for people to stop and see. Steve wanted to go back to the room already.

They were led to a set of couches near the back. Steve guessed this was where the lesser known teams would be, the A-listers closer to the front to be seen first. That suited him just fine, it was less people to interact with.

They sat down, and Steve made himself as small as possible. He hoped they’d think Natasha was the pilot and direct the conversation at her. None of them were particularly excited for the evening, but Natasha and Peggy were better suited for the role of public relations than he was.

Peggy was anxiously looking around and fiddling with her phone. Steve hoped Angie showed up soon, it would do wonders for Peggy’s nerves, not to mention Angie could naturally talk a mile a minute, which meant she could take the brunt of the evening’s talks for them.

“Pegs!”

Speaking of...

Peggy turned to the voice, and got up excitedly when she spotted Angie bounding up to their seats. She was in full student getup, complete with backpack and glasses, and she was running towards Peggy with no signs of slowing.

Peggy caught on a moment too late, and she suddenly had Angie wrapped around her like a koala.

“Angie! Angie! Love, darling, I can’t hold you” Peggy said with a mix of excitement and strain.

“Peggy! I nearly missed you! You wouldn’t believe how unhelpful the information desk was, and then security almost didn’t let me in” Angie said without acknowledging Peggy’s precarious support, and instead hugged her tightly with her arms and legs.

“I’m glad you managed, but love, I can’t-- okay, okay, we’re going down” Peggy wobbled, then slowly lowered them both to the floor, with Angie seated in Peggy’s lap.

Their reunion devolved into delighted giggles and peppered kisses that melted Steve’s heart.

Natasha for her part looked away, her posture uncomfortable. She could handle a full orgy in front of her, but god forbid a cheesy display of affection enter her view. Steve found it amusing, and a little sad when he thought about it.

“Steve! Nat! Oh, how rude of me, come ‘ere” Angie twisted in Peggy’s lap and opened her arms invitingly.

Steve leaned down for an awkwardly-angled hug that Angie returned enthusiastically.

Angie looked to Natasha and blew her a dramatic kiss, “For you darlin’, save it for later” she said cheerily.

Natasha mimed catching it, “Thanks Angie” Natasha said with a small smile. It was as openly affectionate as Natasha would allow.

In the excitement of Angie’s arrival they’d missed the rest of the teams showing up, but the sudden influx of servers carrying trays of drinks and food hinted at the on-coming wave of VIPs and journalists.

Natasha tapped Peggy’s shoulder and motioned for her and Angie to take a seat. They sat as close as they could get, their hands held with fingers intertwined and giddy smiles on their faces.

Steve tucked himself closer to the edge of the couch, with Natasha beside him as a potential shield, and Peggy and Angie across from him to take the brunt of anyone who wanted to talk. Steve was grateful for their support.

The main doors were opened, and Steve tried to brace himself for the evening’s onslaught.

Chapter Text

The evening started out… fine. Most of the attendees were swarmed at the front of the lounge, hungry for a word from the celebrity-level pilots. There was a slow trickle of people nearing the back, but they filtered down to only a handful who would stay long enough to sit with them, most just coming by and asking names, then moving on.

The few that did sit to chat were journalists, and they didn’t stay long. They got most of what they were looking for between Peggy’s technical knowledge and Angie’s charismatic support, and the occasional word from Natasha. Through careful omission, everyone assumed Natasha was the pilot. They didn’t give Steve a second glance, thinking him one of the shy techs, and that was exactly how he preferred.

Without the ability to publish the pictures or names of anyone involved in the fights, only the journalist who’d gotten the quotes would know they’d come from the wrong person. Steve would get a dark satisfaction when they realized the assumption they’d made was wrong, and there wasn’t anything they could do.

Things became trickier when the sponsors started making the rounds. They technically weren’t the opposition, but they had a vested interest in Steve’s team losing, and not in a competitive way. There weren’t many sponsors thankfully; there were only twelve competitors in all, and a few of the teams were so successful they didn’t even need sponsors. Still, even one was too many for Steve.

The talks with the sponsors were brief though. The Captain’s reputation small enough that they weren’t seen as a threat. Yet.

But brief as they were, they’d been just awful. The sponsors were all rich men who saw the competitors as financial assets. Really, as irritating as he was, Tony was the only one who saw them as people. Maybe only people for his entertainment, but people. The bar was set low between Justin Hammer, Alexander Pierce, and Victor Von Doom. Christ, the last one had been outright nefarious.

Steve was relieved when a holo-screen projected onto the entirety of the front wall, reading the tournament roster was to be announced shortly. It meant the socializing part of the evening was done, and they could go back to the room after. He’d just as well leave now and read their fighting order online, but he’d have to shoulder through the throng of people currently crowding the front of the room.

The first bracket started to get announced, and Steve kept an eye out for their name.

 

Round 1: Falcon vs Punisher

Round 2: Quicksilver vs Creaper

Round 3: Cage vs Mjörnir

Round 4: Daredevil vs Crossbones

 

It looked like they wouldn’t be fighting in the first rounds. Steve was a little disappointed, he’d been hoping to get right to it, but admittedly it gave them a leg up.

There was a pause in the announcements to give people time to absorb the ordering, but the second bracket followed shortly.

The names rolled out, one after another in slow order.

 

Round 5: Captain vs Round 1 Winner

Round 6: Hydra vs Round 2 Winner

Round 7: Extremis vs Round 3 Winner

Round 8: Marvel vs Round 4 Winner

 

Steve was struck with the reality that his team was up there. Seeing the Captain on the official roster, it finally sunk home that they’d made it.

The lounge filled with the heavy murmur of the crowd, everyone making their comments on the match pairings. Most of the talk would be about the mid-to-high ranking teams that had been to tournaments in previous years. Newcomers like the Captain would be low on peoples speculations, he wouldn’t garner much talk this early in.

He had some serious competition to face. Steve hadn’t paid much attention to the small details of the match like their accommodations and such, but he’d done a cursory look into all the other teams, just as they’d likely looked into his.

Of the other eleven teams, the established challengers would be Marvel, Hydra, and Mjörnir, all of whom had won at least one tournament in previous years. Hydra and Marvel were especially high ranking, neither having ever lost a match during these tournaments, and this would be the first year both would be in the same one. No doubt the main topic of everyone’s conjectures.

Punisher, Extremis, Quicksilver, and Falcon were in the mid-range; all had made it close to winning, but hadn’t quite made it to first place.

Cage, Creaper, Daredevil, Crossbones, and the Captain made up the newcomers, which put them at the bottom of the list until they showed their mettle. Every tournament had a healthy number of newcomers, usually to act as canon-fodder and bonus entertainment. People wanted to see fresh blood on the walls.

But occasionally one or two made it to the top, which helped keep the industry fresh.

Steve’s thoughts turned to the Punisher and the Falcon. It would certainly make an interesting first round. Steve was definitely going to attend that match in person, he wanted a proper look at the two potential beasts he’d be up against.

The gears were already turning in his head on how he’d work around either opponents’ tactic. He’d be about evenly matched in fighting style with the Punisher, while Falcon would be a challenge if he couldn’t get in close range….

Natasha’s hand on his shoulder pulled him from his planning.

“Come on, the room’s clearing out. Stark’s expecting us pretty much immediately”

“Stark?” Steve asked, confused.

“We’re having dinner with him and his other sponsored teams, remember?” Natasha reminded.

Steve scrunched his face in distaste. He didn’t remember being told this at all.

“Ugh, alright, let’s just get it done” Steve said with a pinched look.

“Actually” Peggy started, her face regretful, “he only requested the pilots attend, and Angie and I haven’t seen each other in a month, I was hoping we might have the evening for ourselves?”

Peggy and Angie gave Steve a hopeful look. She’d join him for the meal if he asked, but Steve wasn’t going to do that to Peggy

He rallied a smile. “It’s fine. Go catch up”

Angie let out a small delighted noise, grabbing her bag with one hand and Peggy’s hand with the other, pulling her towards the elevator bank. Steve and Natasha watched them go from their seats, not making a move to get up just yet.

There was no question Natasha would be accompanying him to the dinner. Steve wouldn’t go alone, the effort of it would be too much to handle, and he’d be left completely drained by the end. He’d be stuck in bed for most of the next day recovering.

No, he’d need Natasha to bear some of the social load for him. She and Peggy had always been the ones handling the relations, whether it was dealing with fight organizers or making connections with their suppliers, and they’d gotten good at becoming Steve’s buffers when someone wanted his attentions.

“Ready?” Natasha asked. Most of the room had cleared already.

Steve nodded and got up, indication for her to lead the way.

He just wanted the evening to be over.

Chapter Text

Natasha took them up on one of the elevators to yet another elevator bank, which held an extra elevator guarded by security. Natasha and Steve held up their badges, and a security escort took them up further.

Steve had yet to see a window, and wondered how high, or deep, this facility went. The elevators so far read from only “13-B” to “49-B”, and it made him think probably underground.

The door opened to another lounge, this one smaller and more intimate. A side door was opened to a dining area, and Steve spotted a few faces he thought he’d seen downstairs. They were seated at a large octagonal table that took up most of the room’s center. It was already set with drinks and bread baskets.

There were plenty of empty seats left, at least one was presumably for the absent Tony. Obviously others had done as Peggy and had interpreted “pilots required” as meaning they didn’t have to come.

The current guests were seated sparsely, and it left some awkward single chair gaps, but thankfully there was a set of two empty seats for Steve and Natasha to take. In all there were eight others seated, and at least two of them had visible Affinity links.

Most of the guests were talking among their own little groups, but when Steve and Natasha sat, the two men on Steve’s right paused their conversation to greet them.

“Hey, I’m Sam” he offered his hand, which Steve and Natasha took. He had an Affinity link that was displaying a steady red light above his ear.

The man beside Sam stood up to offer his hand as well. He’d been in the middle of eating a breadstick though, and rather than put it down, he’d shoved it in his mouth and hastily wiped his hand on his shirt.

“Kin-th” the man introduced, his words muffled by the bread.

“He means Clint” Sam corrected. Clint said a muffled affirmation as he worked through the mouthful with the gusto of a seagull.

“Natasha, and this is Steve” Natasha introduced.

“How’re you liking the tournament so far?” Sam asked with a friendly smile.

“S’alright, could do without all the ogling and questioning” Steve said without thinking, surprising himself that he replied. It might’ve been because Sam had actually addressed the question directly at him. All night people had been ignoring Steve, not that he didn’t mind, and it caught him off guard now.

Sam gave an understanding laugh. “Yeah, it doesn’t get better. It’s my fourth tournament and the reporters are startin’ to ask the real personal questions”

Sam leaned in conspiratorially, “Piece of advice? When they ask you what food you eat before a fight, answer with something you actually like. Fans keep sending me grilled cheeses ‘cause I answered some dumbass question without thinking”

Steve huffed in amusement. So Sam was at least one of the mid-tiers if this was his fourth, but he seemed alright. Steve didn’t often get to speak with other pilots, usually they’d just talk trash at him before fights, or yell abuses at him when he won. Sam seemed genuine though, and Steve figured he should try to put effort in an actual conversation with another pilot.

“Who’s your beast?” Steve asked. He hadn’t paid attention to the groups around him at the lounge downstairs, but the teams hadn’t exactly had any signs identifying them either. Identity issues and all that. It was a precarious mess of fame and anonymity.

“The Falcon” Sam replied with some pride, “What about yours?”

“The Captain”

“No kidding? So it’s your ass I’ll be beatin’ after I’m done with the Punisher” Sam said with a friendly tease.

Steve reached for his glass of water, “We’ll see” he shot back as he took a sip. He gave a humouring smile though.

“How long has Stark been backing you?” Natasha asked.

“He bankrolled our first year in the tournament four years ago. He liked our style and backed us ever since. I know he seems… you know, but he’ll stick by you if you prove yourself” Sam said earnestly.

Sam pointed to a woman at the table scowling at her glass while her two compatriots talked on either side of her, “That’s Jessica, she’s Cage’s pilot. This is her first time here too, but Tony’s been backing her at smaller fights for a few months now. And over there-” Sam pointed to the other man with a visible Affinity link and rounded sunglasses, “is Matt. He pilots Daredevil, and he’s also just getting in with Tony, like you”

Natasha raised her eyebrow, “You know a lot about the people here”

“Oh yeah, Tony dropped by our room too. We’d been last on his list, so we got the pleasure of hearing all about you” Sam said.

Steve frowned in concern, “What else did he say?”

“Oh, don’t worry, he don’t overshare the technical stuff” Sam assured. “We just got an earful of hot gossip about ‘Frosty the Kid’, his ‘Amazon Bodyguard’ and ‘Dr. English’. I’m assuming Dr. English couldn’t make it” he said with a wry smile.

“She had other plans” Steve said, mollified Tony hadn’t shared their secret.

“Hey, pass the bread” Clint spoke up, motioning for the breadbasket by Natasha. She eyed the empty basket Clint had polished off, and looked at him assessingly.

“Um, please. If you’re, uh, not gonna eat it” Clint added in a mumble. Natasha looked at him a moment longer, took a piece for herself, then pushed the rest over.

Clint awkwardly reached past Sam and Steve to drag it the rest of the way, avoiding everyone’s gaze.

“Man, we’re gonna eat in like, ten minutes” Sam said to Clint.

“Yeah, but we can also eat now” Clint said as he tore into another breadstick.

Sam rolled his eyes, but he reached over and took one too. Steve smiled at their easy friendship, it reminded him of the one he’d once had. He took another sip of water before that thought could go any further.

Just then, the noise of a chair being wheeled in distracted everyone form their conversations. Tony had finally arrived, rolling backwards on a wheeled desk chair with Bruce in tow.

Bruce took a seat in one of the empty chairs while watching as Tony scooted up to the table. It was only when he pulled up did it become apparent his chair was two feet lower than everyone else’s. He muttered a quiet ‘hang on’ while he fiddle with something under his chair until it rose up to a less diminutive height.

The table watched in unimpressed silence.

“Glad you could all make it” Tony started, “Now that we know who’s tearing at who, we can talk logistics”

“You’re all obviously each other’s competition, so you don’t gotta be friends, but I expect a little civility, at the very least. Thankfully none of you are set to fight each other so far, but it’s a real possibility. I’m looking at you two especially” Tony pointed between Sam and Steve.

“I want to assure you all that I’d never choose favourites, and I love you all equally. So if any of you get paired for a fight, I won’t be able to talk with you directly. There’s no rule about it, but to avoid conflict of interest I’m enforcing this ‘cause I’m good like that. If you need to get in touch, you’ll have to go through my assistant Happy”

Sam subtly leaned toward Steve. “Now I really can’t wait to whoop your ass, that’s a whole week of Tony’s silence” he whispered.

Steve smiled at that. Sam was turning out to be his nicest rival yet.

“Now, I wanna talk strategy. It’s in all our interests that everyone at this table win as much as possible, so I’ve had Friday analyze the other fighters” Tony took out a small thumb drive from his pocket and placed it on the table.

The table illuminated a small blue keypad above the drive, and Steve realized the table surface was actually a giant interactive holoscreen. The tabletop remained dark for the most part, but a small name tag was projected next to each guest with their name.

Tony entered a quick combination into the projected keypad, and suddenly a blue 3D display of eight beasts started to take shape above the table.

Steve leaned closer, interested in any new information he could use. This dinner was becoming more worthwhile than he’d thought.

Chapter Text

As the beasts came into a shape, several wait staff arrived with food. They paused while everything was set down and the staff left, then Tony resumed his explanation.

“We’ll just review all the set fights, no use planning for every pairing right now. That’ll leave us with the Punisher, Mjörnir, and Crossbones. Sorry Steve, normally I’d look at both your potential opponents, but obviously I can’t give away any strategy on Falcon. Saves us some time though”

Steve nodded in agreement. Anything would help. He would’ve been fine looking into his opponents with his own team, but maybe Tony could provide some extra insight.

“Friday, pull up the Punisher”

All but one of the beasts disappeared, and the remainder increased in size to hover above the table.

They had the build of a hunched humanoid, almost troglodyte in nature. Thick cords of muscle covered most of their body, with blunt spikes poking out the skin. The spikes started at finger-length near the back of their hands, but grew progressively larger until reaching nearly five feet along their hunched back.

The hands were fairly humanoid and lacked any claws, but the knuckles had a bony growth resembling brass knuckles.

The face had the pushed-in snout of a bulldog, complete with jowls, and their eyes were slanted in permanent anger. A crown of tightly packed spikes protectively helmeted the rest of their head, swept backwards like hair.

“Give us the scoop, Friday”

An Irish-accented voice started speaking from the table.

“The Punisher uses typical brawling techniques to wear down opponents until they are unable to function. She shows a preference for using her plated knuckles for blunt-force assaults. When this becomes an untenable tactic, she can extract any of the bone protrusions from her back to act as weaponry, typically used for piercing attacks”

A projected window opened next to the model showing video of the Punisher fighting. It cut between different shots of her punching her opponents, even knocking out the jaw of one of them. It switched to a clip of her reaching back and yanking out one of her own spikes, which transitioned into shots of her attacking with her self-grown blade.

She brandished it crudely, like a knife; too blunt for cutting but sharp enough to stab. In one clip she shoved it clean through an opponent’s head, in another she stabbed down into a beast’s thick tail to pin it to the ground, then proceeded to beat their head in.

“These bone growths also act as defensive measures by discouraging attacks from the back. Any attacks at the spine area risk self-injury”

A clip played showing a small gremlin of a beast jumping at the Punisher’s back, only to impale themselves.

“Obvious weak points are primarily the abdominal area and the throat, which lack any form of defense. This encourages frontal attacks, which further benefits the Punisher by ensuring opponents remain within attack range”

The model highlighted the stomach and throat, along with lines extending to show the range of attack. It made an intimidating picture with the skull-shaped marking framed on her chest.

“The most successful tactic is to withstand the Punisher’s attack to reach her weak points”

A clip played of a fight where the Punisher’s bone spears failed to penetrate an armored enemy, who got close enough to eviscerate her.

“Additionally, though never used successfully, the Punisher’s spikes can be removed and used by opponents as well”

Another clip played of a four-armed beast ripping out several of the Punisher’s spikes, and even stabbing her with her own weapons. This didn’t stop her though, and the Punisher ripped out yet another spike and stabbed it through the enemy’s throat, severing the spine.

Steve and Sam had been paying close attention to the presentation, absorbing the knowledge. Steve had known the Punisher liked to hit hard with her fists and spikes, but he hadn’t known the spikes were capable of penetrating through standard bone structures.

His healing would compensate for most stabs, but he’d need to be careful to avoid any head shots lest they get through the Captain’s reinforced skull. He wasn’t sure how well his healing could handle direct damage to the brain, and he didn’t want to test it. The shield would come in handy for that.

The shield might be a prop, but it was a damn functional one. It had withstood hits of nearly five thousand psi, and they hadn’t tested it on anything stronger so far.

Friday continued her presentation.

“Compiled data indicates that the Falcon’s mid-ranged attacks are well suited as a method of avoiding the Punisher’s attack range. The Punisher lacks an enveloping armor outside of the head area, leaving her vulnerable to attacks from any direction. It is recommended you keep to her back as much as possible. Defense strength of the Falcon’s shield maneuver indicates you should withstand several direct hits, however, it is recommended you avoid all hits if possible”

“I’ll keep that in mind” Sam drawled.

“I must also warn you, Mr. Wilson, that though never done, the Punisher’s spikes can be thrown. It is unknown with how much accuracy or strength, but I have assessed the aerodynamics, and there is potential for ranged use”

“Huh” Clint murmured next to them.

“As for the Captain, should he also fight the Punisher, your usual frontal assault tactic is optimal. More priority should be focused on shield use, especially against the spike weapons. Ideal target points are the abdomen and throat”

Steve made an acknowledging hum.

“I have also forwarded this information, along with a more detailed suggestions, sent securely to your private accounts” Friday finished.

“That great Friday. Let’s looks at Mjörnir next”

Steve paid less attention to the analysis now that it didn’t relate to his match. Tony, or whatever AI he had, would send him this information again if he ended up fighting against Mjörnir or Crossbones later.

Instead, he mulled over what he’d just been shown. It was his usual play to stick to simple attacks with a bit of defense for show. He didn’t often need special tactics. Like the Punisher, he relied on a strong offense. Friday had been careful not to go into detail of either of Steve and Sam’s real abilities, a reflection of Tony not giving anyone here an advantage over each other.

Even still, Friday had hinted at the Falcon relying on a more defensive approach. Steve would have to study the Falcon’s recorded fights closely to suss out any weak points. No doubt Sam would look into Steve’s fights for the same.

Steve was advantaged in having only fought in a few fights, all of which he’d won. Sam wouldn’t get any explicit information on how to kill the Captain, whereas the Falcon had a hundred or so fights under his belt, and a decent collection of losses Steve could watch and pick out vulnerabilities from.

Sam had more experience, however, and he’d faced many more opponents, most who’d already done what Steve was going to do, and still lost. It was all in fair play though, and in the end the real test was going to be in the arena.

“-will be sent securely to your private account” Friday repeated for Matt, who’d been last to get his analysis of Crossbones.

The presentations hadn’t taken long, and most of the table was only halfway through their meals. Tony shut off the display and put the drive back in his pocket.

“Now that the business is out the way, let’s actually have a dinner. I rarely get to talk with my teams like this” Tony said as he speared a piece of meat on his fork.

Nobody made to speak. From Steve’s experience, it was unusual for rival teams to socialize like this, and from the look of Daredevil’s and Cage’s teams, they felt the same. Sam and Clint didn’t seem so bothered, but neither were they volunteering to start a conversation.

Tony looked up from his food. “Oh for-- If no-one’s gonna speak I’m gonna invoke some shitty camp introductions. We’ll go around the table and start with names and your favourite colour” Tony threatened.

Sam gave a resigned sigh, “He actually will. Did that our first year”

Clint leaned forward. “Can attest. Also I’d like to put forward that mine has changed from purple to violet”

“Oh hey, me too” the man next to Matt --Foggy was it?-- said. Clint snapped a finger gun at him.

“Noted” Tony commented, then looked to Sam, “You were just as tight-lipped as these guys your first time, and it broke the ice well enough”

“What happened to the other teams you’d sponsored from back then?” the woman next to Jessica asked. Chloe? Claire? Steve wished the name tags had stayed up.

“They washed out or moved up in the ranks, enough not to need a sponsor anymore” Tony shrugged, “I expect this one’ll quit after this tournament, he’s been doing well” he pointed his fork at Sam.

“We’ll see how it goes” Sam said nonchalantly.

The conversation started to pick up more from there, moving from past teams Tony had sponsored to stories of notable fights the others had been in (edited to avoid giving away any weaknesses, of course).

Natasha took over telling anecdotes when they were prompted, and Steve figured he could get out of this dinner no worse for wear if this kept up.

Chapter Text

“So what’s it like when you’re in your beasts?”

The conversation had floated into something natural, and everyone had been relaxing, but the table got very quiet when Tony asked his question.

“Tony” Bruce chided.

“Well maybe they’ll share this time!” Tony said in defense.

Steve hadn’t even told Peggy what it was like being the Captain, nothing beyond necessary feedback at least. He’d tried once, to explain the way he felt like he was on fire, like the world was screaming and he could scream right back. But it had gotten intimate in a horrible way, and the words wouldn’t come.

It was the most frequent question pilots got asked, and it was also the most under-answered. Most accounts were overly technical, usually describing heightened senses. It was like being asked what it was like to exist outside the flesh; it was hard to capture in words. There was something private about the experience, almost like making love with the self.

It was like describing a colour nobody could see, and Steve was very familiar with that experience, on both ends. He hadn’t understood descriptions of green and yellow, but as the Captain he’d finally been able to see them, and only then it had fallen in place. The same was true with those who’d never been pilots, they just couldn’t understand that it went beyond experiencing the world through new senses. An intimate disconnection; an oxymoron of an ordeal.

“You know my answer” Sam said through pursed lips.

“‘Like I’m a big bird’, yes, very descriptive, thank you” Tony said sarcastically. “Anyone have something better? What about you? Yours doesn’t even have eyes, how do you see in there?” he directed at Matt.

The corners of Matt’s mouth turned up, “Same way I see now”

“No, I know how you technically see, Bruce went over that, but what’s it like?”

“Like a picture in my mind”

Tony let out a frustrated breath. He clearly wasn’t getting a satisfying answer.

“What about either of you?” he pointed between Steve and Jessica.

Jessica just gave him a harsh glare in response. Tony turned to Steve hopefully.

“I feel taller”

Tony tossed his fork onto his plate. “Useless, I never get any kind of answer” he huffed petulantly.

Matt had titled his head when Steve spoke, like something had caught his attention.

“That accent. New Yorker?” Matt asked.

“Brooklyn” Steve said cautiously, eyeing him.

“Manhattan. Hell’s Kitchen” Matt offered, almost like a test.

Tony’s face had scrunched in confusion, as had some of the others that weren’t with Steve or Matt.

“New York City? The desalination farms?” Tony asked, confused.

“From before the plague” Matt replied.

“Huh, never really thought about it, but makes sense some of you weren’t on the island at the time”

Steve unconsciously reached for the outline of his phone in his pocket, holding it like a comfort.

New York had once been a bustling city. It had slowly devolved into a slum after the floods had taken out most infrastructure. That was before Steve’s time though, he’d only ever known it as the waterlogged townhouses it had become. But it had been home.

And then a plague had wiped out the entire population. After the quarantine was lifted, the entire island had been converted into hundreds of desalination farms. It had been providing fresh water to the entire east coast for five years now.

Steve heard about it afterwards; some new strain of the enterovirus D97 entered the water and tore through the population. Death within three days. The government had heroically swooped in and quarantined the whole island, but after a week there had been no survivors left.

A bullshit story.

He’d been there, on the island.

A quarantine, yes, but no disease. Only nerve gas and bullets and unmarked masks. Official unsanctioned slaughter. A lost liver and ribcage and love. A shattered skull.

He’d been one of maybe a few hundred people that had gotten out.

It had been… years, since Steve last met someone from his home city. New Yorkers were a dying breed these days.

Breathe.

He didn’t like to think about it.

“Shame about that whole thing. Lucky you weren’t there” Tony said.

“Yeah” Matt answered without inflection. His sightless gaze was fixed on Steve.

Steve swallowed. This wasn’t something he liked to be reminded of. Not something he could handle being reminded of, not like this.

“When did you leave the city?” Matt asked.

“I didn’t, it was” another swallow, distant gunfire in his ears, “before the, ah, plague”

A fruity smell. The ground scrapping his face. A crack!

He was cold, suddenly. Or, well. It was getting noticeable.

Breathe.

“I think we’re going to retire, thank you for the meal, Tony” Natasha stood, addressing the rest of the table, “It’s been a pleasure meeting you all”

Thank god for Natasha.

Steve took the out a little too fast, but he managed a mumbled “good meeting you” on his way.

There was a pit building in his chest, and the air was starting to feel thick.

Steve blinked, and they were suddenly in the elevator. He didn’t remember walking here. The doors were still open.

Breathe.

Natasha had a hand on his shoulder, it felt like there were ten layers of clothes muffling the touch.

Breathe.

The doors were about to close, when a hand caught them. It was Matt.

“I’m sorry, I just, I need to know”

A desperation in his voice that Steve didn’t like.

Breathe.

“It smelled like fruit, right? In the air? I heard others got out. I need to know someone else got out”

A fruity smell. A closing throat. The ground scrapping his face. Too bright. Limbs that wouldn’t move. The ground scrapping his face. A boot. A kick. A crack!

Breathe.

“It smelled like fruit” Steve confirmed, in a trance of his own mind.

He blinked. The elevator doors opened to their room. When had that happened?

A faint tacky taste in his mouth. His asthma medication had been triggered at some point.

His hand was getting sore. When had he start gripping his phone so tight?

He blinked. He was in bed, the covers tight around him. The bed was shaking. No, he was shaking.

Breathe.

He blinked. The ground scrapping his face and the smell of fruit clogging his throat. A crack! A rail car.

He was cold.

He was tired.

He drifted into a frigid sleep, the smell of fruit clawed the back of his throat.

Chapter Text

Natasha had gotten a bad premonition the moment Matt had brought up Brooklyn, and true to her suspicions, the topic had spiraled quickly. Outwardly it would seem harmless, two people connecting about their old neighbourhood, but she knew Steve’s history in the matter, and she could see him already losing his composure.

She had to get him out before he completely shut down, not just in front of the competition, but in front of their sponsor.

They’d barely gotten by during the impromptu checkup, with Peggy having only enough time to falsify their logs to hide his heart failures and seizure records. If Tony saw Steve check out now, he might very well pull his funding, regardless of what he’d said. You don’t pay for a dying horse to race.

“I think we’re going to retire, thank you for the meal, Tony” she stood, guiding Steve out of his seat, “It’s been a pleasure meeting you all” she added to the rest. It didn’t hurt to be polite to the ‘friendly’ competition.

Steve managed some kind of watery goodbye, and she hoped they’d write it off as his usual coldness.

She guided him into the elevator, but it seemed Matt had followed them. He held the doors open before they could make their escape.

“I’m sorry, I just, I need to know”

Natasha grit her teeth. Matt seemed desperate for an answer suddenly, and she suspected she knew why. But she couldn’t afford sympathy for him, not over Steve.

“It smelled like fruit, right? In the air? I heard others got out. I need to know someone else got out”

Ah , that confirmed it. He’d also been there. In better circumstances maybe he and Steve could’ve found comfort in another survivor. But this was a beast fighting tournament, and Matt could cost them everything.

“Please let go of the door, Mr. Murdock” Natasha said coolly. She tightened her knuckles until they cracked.

It looked like he was going to say something more, but Steve’s thin voice cut in.

“It smelled like fruit” Steve murmured, slipping out his mouth like the ghost of a thought.

Matt looked pale. He let go of the door like an afterthought, and Natasha would almost say it looked like he was checking out of his own head too.

The doors closed, and she breathed in relief. Not too bad of an exit, at worst it would look like they’d been offended and left in a huff.

She kept a hand on Steve’s shoulder, hoping the touch would ground him. She needed him to hold it together until they got to the second elevator.

Steve’s breath started to stutter in the familiar pattern of an impending asthma attack. Natasha hit the emergency stop without hesitation; they were two floors from their exit and they’d need an extra minute for this to pass.

His biowares kicked in soon enough, and the attack never came. Once his breathing was more controlled, she set them moving.

She heard Steve’s phone chime, and quickly got her own out to text Peggy, who no doubt had just gotten a notification of Steve’s dispensers being triggered.

>Steve ok, omw to room

She sent off the text, and hoped Peggy didn’t come out to find them.

It would be tricky getting to the second elevator without being noticed by someone, even staff, and the wrong information getting to the right ears could spell disaster.

But Natasha knew how to twist appearances, and if they were going to be seen, she’d make sure whatever people saw was false. Can’t exploit what isn’t real.

She moved her gentle grip from Steve’s shoulder to his arm in an aggressive hold, a grip commonly seen in violent drunkards with their loved ones.

When the doors opened, she hauled Steve behind her, her face carefully held in a cold expression of anger. They passed one of the security guards, and she made sure to audibly mutter “stupid fucking piece of shit can’t remember to check your fucking phone...”

Now Steve’s catatonia could be mistaken for silent submission, and if rumour spread he was whipped by his mechanic, then no harm done. Social rumours held no weight in blood sport.

She got him to the second elevator in short time, attracting several curious looks on the way. From there it was an easy ride to the room.

Peggy was waiting for them, her expression worried. She had a rumpled look, and Natasha could guess what she and Angie had been up to. Normally she’d tease, but there were more pressing concerns.

“What happened?”

“I’ll explain it later. Help me get him to bed first”

Steve had started to shiver, a bad sign. His eyes were distant, and he went pliantly into bed. Peggy ran a gentle hand through his hair once, then closed the partitions only halfway to keep an eye on him.

They went to the table, where Angie was waiting with a steaming mug in her hands, two more waiting to be claimed on the table.

Natasha explained what happened.

Peggy blew out a breath. “Did anyone catch on?”

“Not that I saw”

“Small wonder. I’ll adjust his medication, we can’t have him seize like that in public again”

“That won’t help, this wasn’t a seizure”

Peggy frowned. Natasha could see the cogs working to find some kind of solution.

“You could try… anti-anxiety medication?” Angie added lightly. “I have a spare bottle of my own, I could lend it to you…?”

Peggy squeezed Angie’s shoulder, “Thank you love, but I don’t think we should add a new medication to his regiment”

Peggy was by no means a doctor. She was stuck working off Abraham’s suggested medication list for Steve, which was over four years outdated. She’d had to make minute adjustments over the years as his health evolved new issues and resolved others. They got an actual doctor’s opinions when they could, but discrete doctors were either expensive or not knowledgeable in beast fighting at all. It left Peggy guessing most times, her pre-med studies her only qualification.

They were already a doctor’s worst nightmare of self-prescribing and guesswork, it made sense that Peggy wouldn’t want to introduce something new.

A soft whimper floated from Steve’s bed, interspersed with quiet gasps. Peggy glanced at her tablet, but Natasha didn’t see any medical alerts on the screen. Nightmares, then.

Natasha mentally shuddered, she couldn’t imagine what he was dreaming. He’d told them enough to know what had happened in New York, but not his personal experiences. All they had was the state she’d found him in.

Natasha drove to the outskirts, following the GPS that was locked on James’ phone signal. She’d gotten his panicked call only telling her to come get him, get him now . It had been four days since the New York quarantine had gone up, no signals in or out of the island. Hearing from him had her relieved and worried. What happened?

His signal was coming from the Harrison Hollows of all places. She couldn’t imagine what he was doing here in this echo of an abandoned and bombed-out city.

She pulled to the side of the road alongside a crumbling apartment. His signal was blinking statically behind it.

She got out and went around back, searching the dark for any sign of James.

James?” she whisper-yelled. It didn’t do well to draw attention here.

Behind the structure was a set of industrial grav-rail tracks, the trains were probably the only regular traffic this place got anymore.

She heard a horrifyingly familiar wheezing noise from across the raised track. Her stomach felt heavy suddenly, but she went to investigate.

James?” she called again as she crested the gravel mound of the tracks.

Her breath froze a moment.

A figure on the ground, gurgling gasps coming out in uneven bursts. She slowly approached, almost too afraid to get a closer look. She pulled out a small light to see.

A small body covered in blood, too small to be James. A relief.

The limbs were lying at odd angles, broken bones in excess. The right side of the chest was nearly caved-in, but still rising with suffering breaths. The head was turned away, but she could see the pink of a cracked skull exposed beneath the flayed scalp, and some leaking brain too. A violently battered body by all accounts.

She’d been shocked by the unexpected carnage of this corpse, something she hadn’t thought she’d see again in ages. But it passed, and she didn’t let it bother her, just set it aside with all the other horrors she’d seen.

Natasha gently reached for their head, turning it to face her, and pulled her hand back like she’d been burned.

Steve?” she quietly gasped.

He’d been so mangled she hadn’t recognized him at first, but his left half was in good enough condition to make out a badly beaten face.

She took a calming breath, pushing her emotions down for later. Now was the time to act.

She gave a cursory look around for any sign of James, but no luck. His signal only led to Steve.

She gingerly scooped him into her arms, no time to worry about the spine. He didn’t make any noise, his body loose and frail in her arms. The iron-sour stench of blood and piss filled her nose, too familiar. Too goddamn familiar.

She got him into the backseat of her car and drove with desperate purpose, trying to ignore how the steering wheel slipped through her blood-soaked hands. Trying to ignore the ghostly taste of it in her mouth.

Abraham would fix this.

Another whimper from Steve. Angie’s grip on her mug tightened in discomfort, and she scooted her chair closer to Peggy, who was already making calculated adjustments to Steve’s medications or biowares or who knows, just something to distract herself with.

Natasha tuned it out. Steve didn’t have these often, but she’d had plenty of practice ignoring the sleeping mewls of others as a child.

Abraham had fixed that for her, in a way, when he’d taken her with him to America. He’d wanted to fix a lot of things, and it was a shame Steve had been his last.

But this was turning into a depressing train of thought, one she didn’t care to continue.

“Gonna turn in, wake me for food”

She got up and went to her bed, firmly shutting the partition. She took a moment to change, and administer her injection, then fell into bed.

She rarely had trouble falling asleep anymore, Abraham had helped her with that, too.

Chapter Text

Steve woke slowly in a groggy fugue. His eyes were tacky with dried tears and his nose felt stuffed. He didn’t remember what he was dreaming, but it left his chest both heavy and empty.

His phone read 8am.

He rubbed his face as he got up, half-stumbling towards the washroom, in need of a shower.

Peggy, Angie, and Natasha were eating breakfast together, politely not drawing their attention towards Steve as he went by.

He turned the water just high enough not to scald, and let the spray wash away the night’s evidence.

He hadn’t had one of those episodes in a while, his team was careful not to bring up Brooklyn.

He could usually face the occasional reminder, but yesterday he’d already been drained from the meet-and-greet, and he hadn’t exactly been expecting it at a dinner with strangers. Hopefully Natasha had spun something to explain their hasty exit.

When he got out, a plate of food had been set aside for him.

“First round’s tomorrow, I thought we could watch the broadcast together” Peggy said tentatively.

He shot her a cold look. She knew damn well he’d planned to watch tomorrow’s match in person, it was practically a requirement when either the Punisher or Falcon could be his next opponents. He’d watch the replay afterwards of course, but it was important he physically see his opponent if he could.

And okay, he’d checked out at a dinner, it didn’t mean he was any more fragile now, like he was some goddamn--

Steve unclenched his jaw. Peggy meant well, but if he backed out every time something happened, then he wouldn’t be a pilot in the first place. Life made a habit of knocking him down, whether he was already down or not, so no use just laying there. Take your beating somewhere scenic.

“I’m fine. Not wasting our seats” he said between bites.

They normally never attended live fights other than their own, but being a team in the tournament granted them all-access passes, and Steve was going to take advantage. The thought of actually seeing a live fight, without being in the fight, was a novelty.

“Alright” Peggy said curtly, going back to her meal.

The brief exchange had left the table tense. Angie was looking between the two of them worriedly while Natasha kept her focus on shoveling breakfast into her mouth. Steve was following Natasha’s example, ignoring the frustrated glances Peggy shot him between bites.

“Soooo, I’ve been looking at the Affinity coding some more, wild stuff, right?” Angie said cheerfully, a blatant attempt to diffuse the air.

Peggy took the prompt reluctantly. “Yes, I’ve recently been combing it again, it’s a challenge to say the least” She pushed some of the food around her plate as she spoke.

“I know! The recursion trees have too much redundant outcroppings, and the regression, don’t get me started” Angie spoke with an almost theatrical exasperation.

That was enough to get Peggy really into the conversation, her brief spat with Steve forgotten. The two fell into a rabbit-hole discussion of Steve’s Affinity code.

Affinity tech was a unique invention, not fully understood by even it’s own creator. It was truly unique in that it was the only form of functioning cybernetics in existence. Unlike biowares, Affinity tech was a communication and interfacing technology meant to link the human mind with computers.

That had been the original goal at least, but it never panned out, not properly. They’d yet to find a way to do it without harming the human mind, which was, funny enough, too complex for a computer to handle.

Someone had gotten the idea to try using it as a facilitating agent to connect two minds instead, which had led to a whole series of ethic scandals and clandestine experiments. One of these experiments had led to controlled dog fighting, which evolved to enhancing the dogs, and then decades later, it became the beast fighting seen today.

But the fact was, Affinity tech was still not understood. Yet somehow, Dr. Erskine had taken it and made it more complex.

Peggy had first noticed it several years ago while looking to analyze Steve’s synaptic responses. The code was nearly ten percent smaller than usual Affinity coding, and contained twice as much gibberish. She and Angie had since been going over it together to try to figure out was was so different about it, comparing it to standard Affinity coding, but it was like a million-piece puzzle they hadn’t even found the corners of.

A buzzing in his pocket caught him off guard. A message on his phone.

>Got old falcon and punisher casts queued. Marathon tonight?

It was from Natasha, who was shooting him a grin from across the table. He rolled his eyes, but typed a response.

>Your place or mine

He felt her foot poke his shin playfully, and he let out a small smile.

They’d watch old fights from the Falcon and Punisher later tonight, a sort of pre-research, but mostly entertainment. He wouldn’t look too critically until he knew which of the two he’d be fighting, but he could still enjoy it with his friends.

He was still a little salty after Peggy’s attempt at smothering, but it wouldn’t last the hour. She honestly did try not to hover, and she had backed off this time.

And then tomorrow, they’d see the two beasts in action, up-close and real.

Chapter Text

Steve was feeling a thrum of excitement the next day. He’d been to matches before, but always to compete, never to spectate; and though he was going for tactical observations, it was still his first live match.

Peggy and Angie seemed equally excited, and even Natasha, who’d been to several live fights before, got caught up in their good cheer. There’d be no worries today about winning or losing, or Steve’s heart stopping; only cheering as two monsters tore each other to shreds.

Their passes got them a private viewing balcony above the arena. The middle-tier seating was the height of luxury for them.

Below them was the arena, one far bigger than any Steve had fought in. Normally, small fights were held at private estates or abandoned properties, ranging anywhere from an empty pool to an indoor gymnasium. Hardly any room to maneuver a sixteen foot tall beast, the equivalent of fighting inside an elevator.

This, however, was no small fight. The arena was gladiatorial in size, with rough, solid cement flooring. It was devoid of any features; there were to be no props or terrain advantages, only the beasts and their flesh. It was combat in the most primal way it could be.

The bright overhead lights dimmed while a spotlight shone on the arena. Black lights along the walls turned on, illuminating the crowd in a florescent glow as white shirts shone purple and face paints lit in vivid designs. The pre-fight murmur of the crowd hushed, and broadcast drones started hovering, ready to catch the action from every angle.

The raised platform on either end lit up with each team’s banner. The one read “Falcon”, a red falcon in a perpetual swoop atop a field of flames. The other read “Punisher”, a stylized skull bleeding white down a completely black backdrop.

The crowd started to cheer in excitement, filling the cavernous room with a building rumble. From either end the pilots and their techs came out.

A huge screen lit up on each end showing a larger image of the teams for the crowd to see. Their faces weren’t blurred like they would be in the streams, this uncensored footage was an exclusive only the attendees got to see.

Steve saw Sam enter first, dressed casually in a black leather jacket with red highlights. Red face paint created a subtle glowing bird design across his face. Beside him was Clint with a tablet in hand. A third man followed behind.

On the opposite end came the Punisher’s team. The pilot made a menacing sight, all muscles and scars in a tank top and combat shorts; both legs mechanical.

A hologram announcer appeared above the arena, projected five times big.

ARE YOU READY FOR A SHOW?

The crowd cheered, Natasha and Angie’s voices joining the fray. Steve leaned forward for a better view.

On either end, the pilots took their seat in a reclined chair, a mix between a comfy recliner and dentist chair.

ARE YOU READY FOR A FIGHT?

The crowd roared again, the announcer building the hype.

The technicians for each team connected them to their beasts. Steve spied their Affinity links changing from red to blue. Punisher’s pilot let out an angry roar, shaking her head as if to clear it.

Meanwhile, Sam only tensed at the initial connection before relaxing into his chair.

ARE YOU READY FOR BLOOD!

The crowd’s roar reached a crescendo, demanding the start of the fight. The announcer turned to the Punisher’s end.

THEN GIVE A SHOUT FOR THE PUNISHER-

-The announcer turned to the Falcon’s end-

AND THE FALCON!

From either end entered the beasts. The Punisher red-eyed and slobbering, hands clenched into fists. She let out a feral roar at the enemy team, mirrored by the pilot in her chair. She walked with an angry stride, steady with contained rage.

The Falcon came out quietly, a silent threat with a calculating look. The beast came across bird-like, walking on two legs that ended in sharpened claws and spurs, heavily muscled for kicking. A thin, extending neck ended in a red-crested bird head and a long beak serrated with little teeth.

The real weapon of the Falcon, however, were his wings. A set of four, the front two were made up of a series of layered bone structures similar to blades. They had a silver sheen to them, giving off the impression of metal.

Each wing blade ended in a razor sharp point, good for stabbing and slashing, with a fifteen foot reach to boot. The secondary wings were similarly built, but somewhat smaller, reaching out maybe five feet. They all flowed to a collection of tail feathers that ended in similar points, raised in a semi-fan like and exotic bird’s.

And not only could these “feathers” cut and stab, they interlocked to form a protective shielding.

His sharp appearance was hectic to look at, but counterbalanced by the purposeful way he moved.

The two pilots each stilled in their chairs completely, closing their eyes to focus.

FIGHT!

The announcer’s projection cut off, leaving the two beasts to glare at each other a moment. There was a brief hush from the crowd.

Punisher dropped her shoulders and ran at Falcon, who raised his wings in defense. They clashed, Punisher lashing out with her fists, but it dealt no damage to the shielding wings.

The crowd’s cheering vamped up, screaming for action.

Punisher tried again for another punch, aiming her plated knuckles at the Falcon’s head, but she couldn’t get past his raised wings.

Falcon swept one of his wings wide, pushing the Punisher back enough to swing with his other wing, aimed at the throat. Punisher brought up an arm, and first blood was spilled as a large gash opened below her elbow, cutting deep into the tissue.

With both front wings opened wide, Punisher took the chance to get at Falcon’s vulnerable stomach. Falcon reacted, rising off the ground with a single flap his wings, not enough for any kind of height, but it left both legs free to use. He struck with a fast kicks, a quick one-two hit that was meant to push rather than damage.

And it worked, sending the Punisher stumbling a good twenty feet away. Falcon came back down, angling his wing in front as a protective blockade.

The two circled each other, eyeing the other up.

Punisher flexed her shoulders, then reached back to grasps one of her larger spikes, thick and long like a spear.

She gave a hard yank, pulling the spike out with a wet squelch, blood flowing down in trails. A thin umbilical of flesh came out with it. The Punisher gave a final yank, and the bloody cords snapped apart, leaving her holding a pre-gored spear.

Punisher ran at Falcon, jumping high with both hands gripping the spear, intent to jam it through the shielding. Falcon brought up his wings, and the two collided with a heavy thud. The Punisher didn’t stop, however, and used the momentum of her jump to keep going, actually climbing up the Falcon’s wings.

Falcon opened his beak to bite the spear, intent to catch it mid-throw before it hit his head, but the Punisher was more brutal than that, and instead rammed it into Falcon’s mouth, an express path aimed for the brain.

Falcon quickly clamped his beak closed, the serrated ends enough of a grip to stop the spear before it reached its end goal.

Steve shouted at the unexpectedly brutal and tense development. A destroyed brain was an instant death; the Affinity connection would be severed. It would be a sure win if the Punisher could push it past the gullet.

Falcon tried to hit her with his wings, but the angle was poor. She was practically straddling his neck now, and his wings could only knock uselessly against her spiked back.

The Punisher’s arms strained as she forced the spear further, one hand pushing, the other gripping the back of Falcon’s head for stability. Punisher’s pilot sat taut in her chair, eyes open and watching her own slow violence unfold from both views.

Falcon’s teeth scraped along the side of the weapon as the spike made steady progress. Steve glanced at the pilot’s screen, seeing Sam grip the armrests with straining muscles, his own jaw painfully clenched. His techs were frantically making adjustments on their tablets.

Dear god, the crowd. Steve was swept up in it, nearly salivating. There was a rapturous tension in the air. Was it always like this?

The crowd was calling for DEATH, the crowd was calling for an END.

Falcon started to lose some of his composure, his wing strikes hitting more frantically, his kicks flailing for purchase against the monster at his throat.

Sam tossed his head back in a yell, but it got washed away in the swell of the crowd. On the other end, the Punisher’s pilot had a feral grin.

But suddenly, the tension drained from Sam as he sat up, and Steve saw him take a deep, bracing breath.

Falcon rent his head down sharply, opening his beak wide. The Punisher’s pressing force was suddenly let through, but not towards the head.

Instead, the spear was shoved down Falcon throat, bursting out the front. Blood fountained up in gushing spurts, coating the Punisher in a thick stream of it.

The crowd was savage, frothing with excitement at the sacrificial display.

The Punisher was still gripping the spear, and Falcon pushed his head further to clamp down on the attached arm, nearly swallowing it. It sent the spear deeper into his flesh, but it also immobilized the Punisher right where the Falcon wanted.

He shoved her to the ground, dislodging her from his neck and pining her on her back.

Her stomach was made vulnerable.

His wings came down in a desperate flurry of hacking and slashing. There was a blur of kicks, shredding the skin and muscle to eviscerate the Punisher’s innards.

Punisher attempted one more hit with her free arm, but it had no momentum, and she only managed to scrape a small gash over Falcon’s one eye.

Blood pooled in an expanding circle, streams of it flung from the tips of Falcons wings, creating a starburst around them.

The Punisher’s struggles progressively slowed, until her arm fell to the ground, lifeless. The pilot stood from her chair, breathing heavy and shouting something indistinct and angry.

The Falcon kept going, not knowing his opponent was dead. Steve saw the other tech tapping Sam’s shoulder, talking right next to his ear, but still, Falcon kept going. Only when he’d slashed deep enough to reach the floor did he still. He let go of the Punisher’s arm and stood up to full height, the bone spear getting pulled out in the movement.

Falcon staggered back, a gaping hole in his throat pumping a fresh vomit of blood. He stumbled. Regained balance.

He opened his wings wide, victoriously.

“FALCON! FALCON! FALCON!”

The crowd was chanting his name. Sam got up from his chair, arms spread to mimic his beast’s posture, mouth in a euphoric grin. His eyes were bright, if a little distant.

It was a joyous moment, a sense of finality. There’s a relief from the tension, now that the winner was clear. Steve was exhilarated, felt connected with the yelling people around him. Angie was practically bouncing in her seat. He and Peggy had joined the chanting at some point, he wasn’t sure when.

He looked over and saw Natasha screaming with the crowd. She spotted him looking and smiled wide; he couldn’t help but return it.

And to think Peggy wanted to watch this in their room.

Chapter Text

They made their way back to their room, stumbling in leftover excitement. Angie was going over the highlights of the fight excitedly as they entered the elevator.

“And then bam! She hits the wing, but keeps going for the head! That was crazy! And then she shoves it in his mouth like it’s a popsicle, but then he does that head move and fucking deep throats it

Natasha let out a snort at the descriptions.

“Darling, maybe don’t phrase it as such” Peggy laughed, arm slung on Angie’s shoulders.

“I mean...” Steve motioned vaguely with is hands. It was an accurate description as any.

“Exactly. Steve gets it”

“Don’t encourage her, darling, or we’ll be hearing nothing but innuendos all night” Peggy rolled her eyes, but her smile was fond.

“Hoho, that sounds like a challenge” Angie said impishly, just as the doors opened.

“I’d love to stay for what’s definitely going to turn dirty very quickly, but I have a tradition to uphold” Natasha said, staying behind in the elevator.

Whenever Natasha went out to see a fight, whether it was their own or someone else’s, she always went to a bar afterwards. She said a fight was never over until it was celebrated with alcohol.

“I’ll come with you” Steve rejoined her back to the elevator. Angie and Peggy were already getting into each other’s pockets, and Steve didn’t want to interrupt where that was going.

Well, he didn’t want to interrupt so much as get invited. He cared for Peggy dearly, but he and Angie didn’t quite… click. She was lovely, and kind, and seemed genuinely welcoming whenever Peggy brought him into their sex life, but it was no secret that men weren’t her preference.

Besides, he was the sidepiece in this arrangement; the friend with benefits. Peggy had a few of those she saw every once in a while, but Angie had coveted the honoured position of being Peggy’s actual partner. He didn’t want to get between that, at least not when they hadn’t seen each other for weeks.

Best to give them their alone time for now.

Natasha hit one of the buttons, and they started to ascend.

The doors opened to a carpeted hallway, dim lights creating an intimate atmosphere. He could hear a steady techno-beat from the end of the hall, which opened up to the bar area. A bouncer stood in front of the entryway, a sign reading that this was a VIP area.

Natasha flashed her badge and they went in without hassle.

Inside was a bar that felt more like a nightclub, heavy music pulsing loud enough for Steve to feel in his chest. The lighting was a neon mix of blacklights from above and the LED glow of the many tables with holo-projected screens on their surface, similar to what he’d seen at the dinner the other night. In the back was a DJ overseeing a mosh pit, half full of dancing bodies.

Natasha led them to an empty booth. The table lit when they sat down, and a menu prompt came up. Natasha entered a drink order and sent it off.

A replay of today’s match was playing on a loop above the bar. Steve watched it passively, the projection slightly grainy. On either side of the video was a side screen showing the pilots in their chairs during the fight, the faces blurred.

A tray drone hovered over with their drinks atop it, four shot glasses of clear liquid. Natasha lined them up along the table and gave Steve a questioning look. He slid one of the glasses to himself, leaving the rest for her.

He was drinking more in solidarity than desire, not wanting to leave Natasha alone in her post-fight ritual.

Natasha only ever ordered Vodka if she could, and Steve braced himself for the shot. The liquid burned going down, leaving his throat raw and coughing. He tapped the glass against the table twice. Natasha mirrored his actions with the three other glasses, sans the coughing.

Another drone came by with a glass of red wine on it, directed towards Natasha. The drone’s scroll bar read “Complements of table 14”

Natasha took the glass, her eyes scanning the tables. Steve had to squint a bit, but he spotted a man at a table waving to them. It was hard to make out in the dim lighting, but it looked like… Clint? He and two others were sitting around a table laden with drinks, one looked to be Sam, the other probably the second tech from today’s match.

Natasha looked considerately.

“Nat, don’t” Steve implored. She wasn’t one to be bought over easily. Whoever had ordered it would have to prove they were worthy enough for her to even deign accepting their gift.

Natasha got up and made her way smoothly to their table, Steve hurrying to follow.

She sat brazenly, crossing her legs and twirling the wineglass.

“Who do I owe the pleasure of this drink?”

“I would be that pleasure-er” Clint replied a little too loud and carefully pronounced. “For the generous lady who would share her breadsticks!” He raised his glass to her, some of the drink sploshing off the side.

“Hey, we ain’t supposed to be talking with them, remember?” Sam said jokingly, “I’m supposed to kick your ass next week” He pointed to Steve, a grin on his face. He didn’t seem to have a problem with the sudden impromptu appearance.

“I am NOT waiting a week to talk with the beautiful woman” Clint spoke at Sam, then turned to Natasha, “You are very beautiful, by the way. I need you to hear me say that. And generous! And like, I think you could put me in a choke hold? Which is amazing”

The two other men winced at the botched… flirting?

“Thank you” Natasha said with an amused smile, finally taking a sip of her wine. Steve raised his eyebrows. That was unexpected. He’d seen much sober flirts talk like honey and silk and not get her to even touch their offered drink.

Clint’s eyes went a little doe-eyed, though droopy would maybe be more accurate.

“Ooh, you even drink beautiful, like an angel”

The other man reached for Clint’s drink with a pained look, “Oof, okay, that’s enough for you. Cuttin’ you off buddy”

“Aw no, Scott. Scott no, I got this, I just had like, some drinks”

The other man, Scott, tried to talk Clint down from more drinks, but the table had many glasses that weren’t yet empty, and Clint would just grab another every time Scott took one from his hand. The struggle to get a drink distracted Clint from the rest of them.

“Congratulations on getting the opportunity to get your ass kicked by me, by the way” Steve commented to Sam, tipping his head in lieu of raising a glass he didn’t have.

“Oh, it’s like that?”

“It’s like that”

Steve couldn’t help a smirk. It had been a long time since he’d ribbed someone like this, and he was greatly enjoying it. Sam seemed so genuine, it made talking to him... easier.

“We’ll see who kicking who’s ass next week. Tonight let’s celebrate your victory” Natasha raised her glass to Sam.

“Thanks, appreciate the civility. I hope you’re this gracious next week when I win” he said with a grin. “Maria nearly had it out with me when we came in” Sam point over his shoulder, where Steve could see the Punisher’s pilot sitting alone at a corner table, sipping a beer. Her blond hair fell over half her face, leaving her one eye to glare at them.

“Lady can’t take a loss. I think she’s two steps from going feral, if you ask me” Sam continued.

The pilot shot them a sneer when she saw she was being observed. It came across looking like more of a snarl.

Now that was the kind of behaviour Steve was used to getting from other pilots. He appreciated Sam’s companionable outlook all the more. It was unexpectedly refreshing.

“Hey guys, would you mind getting rid of the drinks so Clint can’t poison himself” Scott interrupted, a little overwhelmed. He’d been too busy stopping a drunken Clint from downing more drinks to have been paying attention, and was visibly struggling with the task. Already Clint had gotten through three more glasses despite his efforts.

“We can’t waste the drinks!” Clint said indignantly.

“They were complimentary, man. It’s fine”

“But the barter works so hard to give ‘em. Somebody’s gotta drink it”

Clint was getting a little incoherent. Scott looked to Sam for help.

“Don’t look at me, I don’t drink” Sam said with raised hands.

“Well I’ve already had my limit!”

“I’m sure Steve wouldn’t mind helping” Natasha mused over the brim of her wine glass, sipping slowly.

Sam looked skeptical, “You sure that’s a good idea”

Steve’s eyes fell to the nearly two dozen glasses on the table, all varying sizes and no more than half filled. It looked like they’d been ordering a little of everything to sample. Sam’s concern wasn’t unfounded, there was enough here to poison someone twice Steve’s size.

Steve considered. If he downed them one after another, he might get a momentary buzz. More likely he’d just get dizzy. It would be fun to see their faces though.

“I’m game”

“Go for it. Please go for it” Scott said a little out of breath. His keep-away with Clint had turned into something approaching arm-wrestling. Clint had stopped forming words, a hazy look of determination in his eyes as he doubled down his efforts.

Steve reached out and started downing them, one-by-one. None of the glasses were completely full, and he made short work of it. Most of the drinks were some kind of fruit mix, and they all went down easy compared to the straight vodka Natasha had subjected him to.

He downed the last glass, tapping it twice to the table. A sudden wave of nausea came over him, but he swallowed past it.

The three men all looked impressed, though Sam had some worry etched on his face too. With the last of the drinks gone, Scott let go of Clint’s arms. Clint reached over for a wobbly high-five, which Steve did not return.

“You gonna be okay man?” Sam asked, eyeing all the empty glasses.

“It’s fine. I got an artificial liver, and my techs cranked up the sensitivity. I’ll be drunk for maybe a few minutes”

Sam looked relieved, and Steve felt a spark of companionship towards the man. To not only be friendly, but concerned? Steve hadn’t seen that kind of thing from anyone but his own team. He almost wished Sam had lost, then they wouldn’t have to skirt around the topic of their beasts so carefully.

But he was glad Sam had won, he’d proven to be the more interesting of his possible opponents. Both as a person and as a pilot.

Clint titled over just then, falling against Scott, who caught him before he tipped onto the floor.

“Um” Scott looked again to Sam for help. Sam just let out a sigh.

“I’d really like to keep talkin’ to you both, but it looks like I gotta get this idiot back to our room”

“Yeah Scott, way ta ruin th’ night” Clint slurred against his shoulder.

“Sorry buddy” Scott patted his head fondly, and gave an apologetic smile to the rest of the table. “He’s usually better than this, but the bar gave us free drinks for winning, and, well” Scott waved at Clint’s slouched form.

“Maybe we can meet again when drinks are less complimentary. I’d love to talk shop” Natasha suggested. She seemed to have been entertained by the whole scene.

“Yisss, tha’s a date” Clint slurred with a poorly aimed finger gun at Natasha.

Her smile was beguiling, almost teasing. A date indeed.

“Hey, can we order you something before we go? I feel bad leaving after you just sat down” Sam offered while he and Scott maneuvered Clint between them.

“I’m happy with my drink, thanks” Natasha said.

“Ay, I made ‘er happy...” Clint murmured, his head starting to droop.

“You already got me a little of everything” Steve said, indicating the many glasses he’d finished.

“Right” Sam laughed, “We’re headin’ out then. Maybe we’ll catch you again before our match”

“Maybe” Natasha said.

The trio left, Clint almost dragging between them.

Steve looked to Natasha with a growing smirk.

“You like him”

“Don’t” she warned, downing the rest of her glass.

“Oh, how beautiful you drink, like an angel

“Shut up”

“You can put me in a beautiful choke hold”

“I’m going to if you don’t stop”

Steve snickered. Natasha was always so cool and suave, he couldn’t pass up a rare moment to tease her.

“I’m going to let that pass because your drunk”

“Sure” Steve said with a smile, not buying it. His liver implant didn’t actually allow him to get drunk, he only ever got dizzy and uncoordinated, but always fully cognizant. Like driving a car with bad controls.

Natasha let out a breath and got up.

“Come on, I’ve had my drinks, and the girls should just be cuddling by now. Hopefully you’ll be sober by the time we get back”

Steve followed her out the bar, already feeling dizzy. He bumped his shoulder against the elevator door, overshooting the entrance. Natasha had to reach out to steady him.

Peggy would definitely be chastising him for this later, his bioware wasn’t meant to be a party trick for out-drinking everyone. He couldn’t bring himself to care just this moment though.

As childish as it felt, he’d just made a new friend. Or at least a colleague. He actually wanted to see Sam again.

And Clint too. He might become a staple if Natasha kept interest.

Steve snickered at the memory of Clint’s attempts to woo, and Natasha’s apparent interest. She side-eyed him in the elevator, and he tactfully didn’t share his thoughts.

He wasn’t keen on actually being put in a choke hold.

Chapter Text

 

Natasha’s estimate had been spot-on, Steve had fully ‘sobered’ by the time the elevator doors opened to their room, which was to say the dizzy spells stopped.

She’d been right about Peggy and Angie, too. When the doors opened they were greeted by a darkened room, and Angie’s light snores rumbling from Peggy’s bed. Looked like they’d turned in early.

Natasha stretched as she made her way to the washroom. Steve went to check on the Captain and their equipment, giving it a once-over. All the readings were clear, and the logs read Peggy had done all the checks and maintenance… three hours ago? That didn’t seem right.

He checked his phone. Four a.m.? They hadn’t been at the bar that long, had they?

Natasha came back out, changed into actual sleeping clothes that she only wore to bed half the time to bed.

“How long were we out?”

“Hmm?” Natasha’s eyes were heavy, the only sign the drinks were getting to her.

“Never mind”

It wasn’t important, and Natasha was nearly sleeping on her feet.

Steve followed her lead, curling under his blankets, his phone tucked safely at his stomach, the usual glow of the tank comforting him to a cold sleep.

******************

Peggy got up first, as always. She checked her notifications for any urgent developments that needed attention, but there rarely ever was, today no exception. She’d have been woken if something was failing anyway, her alarm cranked to max volume just in case.

She poured herself some coffee, and got to work starting the Captain’s feeding intakes whilst booting the filters for an emptying later.

It was the usual chores, make sure nutrients went in, waste came out, and nothing got stuck in-between.

She looked at the overnight temperatures. Hmm, a point-four degree shift warmer. She made a note to get Natasha to check the cooling system today. The temperature wasn’t supposed to vary beyond a point-two range, but as long as it didn’t change by a full three degrees, the Captain’s functions wouldn’t get drastically effected.

Still, the Captain was always in peak form for a reason. Peggy’s astute standards kept problems minimized and outputs optimized. Which reminded her, she’d need to reduce the electro-physio stimulus so the Captain’s muscles could relax more, but should she do it a full week before their fight or wait a few days to avoid atrophy…?

A pair of arms circled her waist, and a soft mouth kissed her neck.

“Pegs, I want you to stop thinking whatever inputs or bone density or whatever you’re doing and come have breakfast with meeeee” Angie sang in her ear, gently rocking them side-to-side.

Peggy smiled, putting her tablet aside. She turned in Angie’s embrace and placed her own arms loosely on Angie’s shoulders.

“Love, the Captain needs his breakfast too” She planted a fond kiss on Angie’s lips.

“I know, which is why I waited until you did just that. I can read those logs too, and it says right there-” Angie pointed at the screen, “-that feeding successfully completed at seven-oh-nine” she tapped the screen with her nail to emphasize each number.

Peggy felt a flush of warmth in her chest. Every morning she woke with Angie, the little angel would pull her from her work to make sure she ate. But Angie always waited until the important tasks were done first, because she knew how important Peggy’s work was to her.

The thoughtfulness of it never got old, and Peggy felt like she fell for her partner a little more every time.

She let herself be pulled to the table, where a steaming pile of eggs sat in a serving bowl.

“Thank you love, it looks wonderful” Peggy said with a soft smile, scooping herself a portion.

Angie sat with her, and they chatted idly about their side projects.

Steve got up shortly after they’d sat down, and joined them to quietly listen. They were all nearly done their plates when Natasha stumbled out, hair in disarray.

She sat hunched down with her head in her crossed arms, not touching her food.

“Bit too much last night?” Angie asked sympathetically.

Natasha groaned in answer.

Steve huffed in amusement, “Three shots and a wineglass, you’re losing your touch”

Natasha lifted her head, her brow knit in bleary confusion “Wha?”

Peggy rolled her eyes in annoyance. Natasha was in no shape to be anywhere near the tank’s internal hardware for another hour, and Peggy wouldn’t let her touch it for another three beyond that. The hungover and sleep deprived were not allowed near the Captain’s delicate machinery if Peggy had anything to say about it.

But she really needed those cooling systems fixed at some point. Now, ideally.

“Steve,” Peggy started sweetly, “could I get you to take a look at the cooling systems for me? It’s starting to get a bit warm”

Steve raised an eyebrow at her, not buying her tone, but got up anyway. This was usually Natasha’s job, well, anything mechanical was Natasha’s job, but Steve had picked up enough from acting as general assistant to do most basic fixes.

“Thank you darling” Peggy called after him.

“Fuck” Natasha muttered under her breath, rubbing her face. Angie pat her arm in comfort.

“Maybe don’t drink past your limit next time” Peggy chided, no sympathy for her trusted mechanic that she relied on for necessary repairs at any given time.

Natasha looked up, “No, it’s not that. It’s, fuck. Peggy, I had eight shots last night. And three glasses of wine” her voice quiet and tinged with concern.

Peggy frowned. What did that have to do with anything?

Natasha saw she wasn’t getting it.

“Peggy, he said I only had four drinks”

Oh.

Peggy turned to the tank, where Steve was elbow deep in the side paneling.

“Steve, how much did you say Natasha had?”

Steve didn’t take his eyes off his work, ever the professional, “Three shots, then the tech from the Falcon’s team ordered her a glass of wine. They really hit it off!”

Natasha leaned in, voice pitched down so he wouldn’t hear, “I started with three, then had five over an hours time. I got a glass of wine sent to me by another tech, and we joined his table. He ordered me two more while we talked. Steve was quiet, you know how he is, I didn’t see it!” Natasha hissed.

Peggy grabbed her tablet, bringing up the Affinity software. She opened the logs from yesterday. She skimmed over them until…. there.

She’d started noticing it nearly a month into looking at Steve’s Affinity coding. A series of unknown error codes would crop up seemingly at random and without a cause. It had taken another two months, but she’d finally found that they’d aligned with Steve’s seizures.

The error logs came in handy when tracking their frequency and duration.

Sure enough, around midnight was a long series of error codes, lasting… an hour!? And then several more short ones on-and-off for the next two.

An hour-long seizure? That wasn’t possible, not if Steve had walked back with Natasha afterwards. Not if he was up and about today.

Peggy quickly did a filtered search, looking for all instances of the error code for the past week. Steve was so often quiet, they didn’t always notice his absences. He didn’t always notice his absences. How many times had this occurred without them noticing?

Her breath froze, her hand still numbly scrolling through the list, tracking the logged times.

Normally Steve had a seizure once a week, tops. Sometimes an entire month would pass without one.

These past three days he’d had over three-hundred.

Chapter Text

“Steve, go to the medbay now” Peggy called, urgency turning her voice hard and angry.

Steve poked his head up from his work in confusion, “I ain’t done with the-”

NOW” Peggy shouted. She’d already gotten up and was pulling out everything she’d need for manual Affinity calibrations. She was not doing this wireless.

“Peggy, what is it? What’s wrong?” Angie asked, hovering outside the medical area.

Steve had hurried his way to the bed, a look of concern on his face.

“What is it?” Steve asked, mirroring Angie’s tone, “I don’t feel any chest pain, nothing feels wrong. Is it one of my other implants?” Steve paused a moment, then winced, “Is it my liver?”

His liver?… Peggy almost wanted to shake him, he might have brain damage and he was asking about his liver.

She ignored their questions, asking relevant ones instead.

“Since we got here, have you noticed any headaches, dizziness, confusion? Lapses in time?”

Steve looked to be thinking about it. “Uh, nothing other than the night of the announcement, and last night I was dizzy, but I, uh, had a lot to drink” Steve winced again, rubbing the back of his head.

“Nausea? Coordination issues? Anything odd at all?”

“No, everything’s been normal” Steve said almost apologetically.

Peggy had gotten out the Affinity maintenance laptop. It was specifically outfitted to work exclusively on their Affinity tech. She had to scrounge a little for the wired jack though.

She pulled it out, and Steve face fell in dread.

“We’re doing manual hookup? What’s going on Peggy?”

“What’s going on is you’ve had over three-hundred seizures since we got here” Peggy bit out, forcefully pushing him to lie down.

Steve blanched. “What?”

“You haven’t noticed anything? No absences? None?”

“Uh...”

Steve looked to be lost.

“I’m running the Affinity neuro-monitoring software”

“Manually?” Steve asked, somewhat strained.

Three-hundred seizures. Yes, I’m running it manually” Peggy snipped. Steve could complain all he wanted, this was happening. Peggy was beyond concerned.

She held the side of Steve’s head with one hand, a tiny screwdriver in the other, “Now hold steady”

She carefully unscrewed a minuscule panel on the side of Steve’s Affinity link, revealing a tiny port to insert a cable into.

Steve gripped the edge of the mattress, breathing with slow, controlled breaths. He was working his jaw back and forth, eyes closed.

“On the count of three. One, two, three”

Peggy inserted the cable jack, locking it in with a small click.

Steve’s body gave a jolt, his back arching and his grip going knuckle-white. A grunt escaped his lips, then he collapsed back down, almost boneless.

His eyes lolled in his head. An arm lifted; fell down. Fingers twitched in aborted movements.

The laptop read a successful connection. Steve would be disoriented for a few more minutes, his systems scrambled briefly from the manual link-up.

Peggy opened the real-time logs, tracking everything the Affinity code was doing. She also opened the EEG readers, the wetware capable of tracking brain activity when needed.

Steve attempted to speak, but it came out more of a wavering groan.

She opened more windows to run a systems check, a debugging, and defragmentation, on the off-chance this was a bug on the software’s end.

“Is there anything we can do?”

Peggy looked up at Angie, who was still standing outside the medical area, biting her thumbnail. Natasha had stayed at the table, watching attentively.

“‘Fraid not dear, at least not until the system check comes back. I may have you look at the coding, see if it’s a bug”

Angie nodded, still biting her nail.

“You can come hold his arm steady before he hits himself” Peggy offered. She didn’t know what Steve’s addled mind wanted to do, but it looked like he was trying to reach his head. She didn’t really think he’d cause any issue with the link-up, the jack was locked-in and would need a double twist to disconnect, but it gave Angie something to do.

She came to the bedside immediately, gently taking Steve’s hands in hers to hold still. He made another attempt to speak, but his jaw spasmed shut with a click. His eyes still couldn’t seem to be focusing just yet.

Peggy grabbed a stool and sat by the monitor, watching the codes fly by and the scans run.

There wasn’t anything left to do but wait and see if he had another seizure.

***********

It had been hours since she’d connected Steve, but there’d been no signs of abnormal brain activity.

He’d fully recovered from the link-up, and was sitting cross-legged on the bed, drawing on his tablet.

“How much longer ‘til the scans done?” Steve asked, eyes focused on his work.

“Estimate says another three hours”

Steve hummed in response.

Natasha had recovered from her hangover enough to take over the work on the tank, and was keeping busy with minor tweaks and unnecessary repairs, while Angie stayed in the medical area to work on her own coding projects.

Peggy switched between the Captain’s maintenance and monitoring Steve’s brain activity, though Angie had helped her set an alarm if anything out of the ordinary occurred.

Steve had to stay connected to the laptop to continually monitor his progress, and the five-foot cord didn’t allow for much travel. It was unspoken, but everyone was staying in the room to watch over him. The news that he’d had such an alarming number of seizures had everyone on edge.

Except Steve, who’d gotten over the initial shock and quickly became his usual frustrated self whenever Peggy showed any concern for his health.

Peggy was close to praying that it was all just a bug in the coding. He’d definitely had a seizure at the bar last night (and she’d later scolded him for having so many drinks), but the rest had to be a mistake.

The logs said that his many seizures had lasted mere seconds to minutes, with only a notable twenty-minutes one during the reception, and the obvious hour-long one at the bar.

But the majority had lasted only seconds, enough that maybe Steve really hadn’t noticed. He was so damn quiet sometimes, it was no wonder they hadn’t noticed either.

She watched the scan’s progress bar slowly move along, the time estimate jumping up to five hours. Ideally a series of error reports would show up, saying the logs were nothing but mistakes, and they could laugh off the crazy readings with only a few grumblings from Steve.

The estimate jumped to two hours. Hopefully it’d be done by the evening.

Chapter Text

The next day had Steve in a worse mood.

The scans had come back clean, no errors to be found. Minor fragmentation, as usual, and a few of the usual stop errors, but nothing to explain the seizure logs. It meant Steve had to stay connected until he had a seizure, which he did not have for the entire night. Peggy was both thankful and flummoxed over it.

They’d tried inducing one, but it had only left Steve with a headache to worsen his mood.

He was stuck attached to the laptop until he seized, and for all the alleged seizures he’d been having this week, they’d gotten awfully shy all of a sudden.

It didn’t help that tonight was the Quicksilver vs Creaper fight, which Steve had wanted to see in person. He wanted to see all the fights in person, really.

They ended up watching the broadcast, Natasha and Angie staying in to keep her and Steve company.

Steve was still sour, but he’d gotten a little more agreeable once the fight started.

There was the usual hype, not quite as effective over the stream, and then the beasts came out.

Quicksilver was lithe and serpentine, skittering on a set of six paired legs. Its head ended in an eel’s face, huge eyes and rows upon rows of pointed teeth inset along two sets of jaws.

As the name implied, Quicksilver was fast; considered one of the fastest beasts, in-fact. Part of it was the small and streamlined body, nearly half the size of typical beasts (it barely came up to six feet). Its many legs were ill-suited for running, but helped it pivot quickly while slithering.

Peggy was sure there was more internal factors at play for its speed, but what they were she could only guess. She suspected the long tail housed energy stores, it had no other tactical purpose otherwise.

From the other end came Creaper, looking like a hairless kangaroo, though the smooth skin had the gleam of a rubbery plating. Its forelegs ended in barbed claws, huge fishhooks on each finger. The two overly muscled legs ended in a single pointed bone, almost like a pair of scimitars. The goblinoid face was difficult to look at, mouth permanently set in a bitter frown.

The fight was certainly interesting, if a bit one-sided.

Creaper never got its claws into Quicksilver, which would’ve ended the match for the little beast. Quicksilver was too wily, slithering out of reach and dodging with finesse, getting in close to tear off little chunks of Creaper’s flesh with its jaw.

Quicksilver’s pilot was smart, he got his beast to tear out the backs of Creaper’s legs, pulling out ligaments and muscles in small portions. By attrition, Quicksilver got enough small chunks to render Creaper unable to even stand, leaving it kicking its thighs pathetically as the rest of its legs hung in mangled tatters.

With the neck exposed, Quicksilver darted in for the kill, tearing out the jugular in two heavy bites, suffering only small scratches from Creaper’s last attempts with its claws.

A heavy gush reminiscent of Falcon’s wound burst forth. It was a sure win now, but a match wasn’t over until death. Quicksilver continued a darting assault, tearing out unnecessary chunks while waiting for the squirming beast to finally die. It was less fight and more slaughter, but the crowd ate it up anyway.

The four of them cheered along with the streamed action, but it was a muted affair compared to the other night. The confines of the room made their shouts feel noticeable, individual, not like the entity that was a cheering crowd of hundreds.

Peggy could see Steve wished to be there, the opportunity present yet untenable. She felt a pang of guilt; he so rarely wanted to go out when he wasn’t fighting, always isolating himself inside. But she couldn’t bring herself to regret her actions. There’d be future fights to see. He’d get another chance.

She wouldn’t ignore this issue for his passion. She didn’t care if it pulled them from the competition, he was staying here until they figured this out.

But secretly, Peggy knew Steve’s patience would last as long as he wasn’t set to fight. As soon as his match came, he was out. He’d fight even if his heart stopped beating. He’d already fought until his heart stopped.

The match ended when Creaper’s movements stilled, and Quicksilver practically pranced around the ring in a victory lap, leaving a bloody trail. Actually waving its arms at the crowd. The pilot certainly had some flair, she’d give him that.

The stream devolved into replays and highlights interspersed with the arena cleanup, the only real content they could scrounge after a match.

They left it on a while, talking about the match and how the Captain would theoretically deal with either beast, an exercise in tactics as well as entertainment.

Peggy hoped it served Steve as a distraction, but she doubted he could fully ignore the small cord trailing behind his ear. He’d smiled a few times though, and it had to suffice.

A gnaw of worry still remained in the back of her mind. She’d started a second scan, then a third, and still nothing. She had to keep going until something came up.

She’d also begun scrutinizing the code herself, along with Angie, but it was a monster of a thing, and she wasn’t exactly skilled at this kind of work. Angie at least had a better shot of understanding the raw code, but she already had so many things going on between her cover job and her real work as a Chained Lady.

Angie had a backlog of citizenships to forge for incoming refugees, and every moment she didn’t finish one was risking their deportation. Peggy couldn’t ask her to devote all her time to a problem that might not even be code-related.

She was torn between wanting it to be an error, for Steve’s sake, and neurological for Angie’s. It was a rotten feeling, and Peggy tried not to look at which one she wanted to be true the most.

Chapter Text

Another day passed, and no seizure or apparent code issues.

He saw Peggy and Angie working tirelessly to figure it out, with Natasha picking up the slack of Peggy’s duties. Steve tried to help, but he’d been shunted with supervising the automatic processes. The five foot cord kept catching on things when he moved otherwise.

Steve mostly sulked instead, drawing and battle planning and researching the Falcon’s fights. It was no different than what he would’ve normally done, but the literal ball and chain attached to his head spoiled it, cutting off the potential to leave if he desired.

And he saw the reason for it. Christ, three-hundred and twenty-six seizure in three days. He’d finally wheedled the exact amount after Peggy had gotten over her initial shock of the ridiculous number. He’d been shocked himself at first, but he honestly couldn’t recall any times he’d lost, and suspected it was just the code giving false reading.

But Peggy was a mother hen when even a hint of Steve’s health came into question, and she wouldn’t drop this until she at least identified the problem.

So he was stuck inside. For now.

*********

Still no progress, so they watched the next fight on stream again. It wasn’t that Steve thought they were bad, he quite liked watching from streams. The drones were closer to the fight than the seats, and they caught more angles. But after actually being a spectator, it wasn’t quite the same, and this might be the only time he’d get to see fights like this.

Also, being able to see the expression on the pilots’ faces added extra insight to the action that you couldn’t get from the blurred faces on stream.

The fight was Cage vs Mjörnir, and Steve was interested to see the silent Jessica in action. He wasn’t as familiar with the two other Stark sponsored competitors, Cage and Daredevil, and it would be interesting to see what was so special that Tony had taken an interest.

Mjörnir was more well-known. He was a veteran of these tournaments, of sorts. They were a Norwegian team that came to compete in America after conquering most of the EU tournaments. That wasn’t necessarily a major accomplishment though, the EU beast scene was much smaller than America’s, with the exception of Britain, who had their own insular thing going.

Mjörnir was a hulking beast of kaiju proportions, heavy set and muscled and easily twenty feet tall. He walked on long forelimbs with short rear legs, each ending in short, all-purpose claws. A heavy-plated back made up most of his armor, and a lipless mouth featured a single row of pointed teeth. He had the vague body shape of a bulldog, if its forelimbs were more articulated.

The real centerpiece of the beast was his horn, growing smack-dab in the middle of his face. It was thick and blunt, made to bludgeon opponents into a pulp. Runes were carved into it, more decoration than anything, but supposedly the same found on viking weapons.

It wasn’t so much skill as sheer brute force that Mjörnir used to take out opponents. His large figure and thick plated armor served as his only protection. His teeth and claws sufficed as weapons, but his horn did the real work, sending other beasts flying with the force of his hits.

But then Cage came out, and if anything would counter that hammer-head, it’d be her. She came crawling out, a heavy stipple shell atop a multitude of legs that were so pointed they might as well be skewers. Steve’s first impression was of a hermit crab.

There were no crab claws however, only those stabbing legs, and her mouth. Steve assumed it was a mouth, but it was more reminiscent of a grinder; sharp teeth lining the inside like a nightmare shredder, pulsating with swallows. Anything caught in there would be stripped to the bone, then stripped further to dust.

Multiple beady eyes surrounded the mouth unevenly, and Steve wondered how long it had taken the pilot to get used to that. He’d had enough trouble adjusting to the Captain’s symmetrical four.

The protective shell looked tough, and if it proved strong enough to withstand Mjörnir’s hit, she might have a real chance. But if Mjörnir cracked that shell, Steve doubted there was anything else to be done.

The fight started, and Mjörnir swung his horn, as he was want to do. His head reared in a high arch, then came down like a hammer on an anvil. Cage retreated within her shell, her many legs folded inwards.

There was a resounding, thunderous boom as the two met, and the vibrations must’ve traveled to the crowd, because they quieted a moment, breaths baited to see what resulted.

Mjörnir stepped back, the recoil of his own hit staggering him a moment.

Revealed was Cage-- still intact! The shell wasn’t even scuffed!

The crowd hollered in excitement, resuming their shouts.

Cage peeked out to watch as Mjörnir circled her, her legs pivoting around to keep him in her gaze. He was looking for a weak point, but her shell only had the one, and it was covered in teeth and knives.

He slammed into her a few more times, experimentally hitting from different angles. She retracted into her shell each time.

He tried an upswing to flip her, but the shell angle upwards, and his hit merely skidded along the sides.

He then tried a focused approach, hitting the same point over and over, swinging his entire body into it, feet off the ground. The arena filling with a steady BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

The shell didn’t crack.

It didn’t crack after two minutes.

It didn’t crack after ten.

The crowd was starting to lose patience.

Mjörnir didn’t dare get close with his claws. He could grasp the shell’s edge and try to tip her over, but it would put him dangerously close to her mouth, and that would only be trouble.

Cage would have to start making a move soon if she wanted to keep the crowd’s favour. Already they were starting to boo her, blaming her for the boring draw this fight had taken.

In Steve’s opinion, it was perfectly good tactic. Maybe the crowd didn’t see it, but Mjörnir was getting exhausted. The recoil was causing it’s own damage, no doubt micro-fractures along his spine, if he hadn’t already suffered a proper break.

He’d bet anything that Mjörnir wasn’t designed for a sustained assault like this. The strain would be his undoing if he didn’t stop.

He seemed to realize this too, because he did stop. He circled Cage again, eyeing her up, reassessing.

On the pilot feeds, Jessica body language looked calm, sitting coolly in her chair, almost relaxed. Mjörnir’s pilot was straining, fists clenching and unclenching, probably in frustration, It was hard to tell with his face blurred, but Steve imagined he was trying to formulate something.

Mjörnir came to a decision then, finally lunging at Cage, not face-first this time. He went for the risky play, gripping the edge of her shell to flip her.

She immediately grasped both his arms in her many millipede-esque legs, all pulling towards her mouth. His arms quickly became engulfed, blood and gristle sloshing out of Cage’s mouth as Mjörnir’s flesh was stripped away, from both arms no less.

This got the desired results, however, as he flipped her to expose her face.

With effort, he used his mangled arms to push her mouth open wider, then brought his head down to shove his horn directly into her gullet. He pulled his arms out, Cage’s mouth closing on his horn with a grinding squelch. His arms were in tatters, gone from the elbows down and trailing strips of shorn flesh. But it left his horn lodged firmly in her throat, which by extension put it inside her shell.

His neck strained, and leaned back on his rear legs, lifting Cage entirely off the ground.

He now wore Cage on his horn like a bloodied, horrendous cozy.

Then he shook his head violently.

The effect was like a murderous church bell being rung. There were muted thumping noises as his horn struck the inside of her shell, tenderizing Cage within her own confines.

Her legs scrabbled at his head, ripping out eyes and face and jaw and throat, but his horn was made of tougher stuff, and like her shell, she couldn’t even leave a dent.

Her struggles stopped very suddenly, legs falling limp, and Steve saw Jessica tense and freeze. Mjörnir must’ve hit the processors and severed the connection. After a few more shakes to be sure, Mjörnir tilted his head back down to let her shell slide to the ground.

The crowd was cheering again, the frustration of the standoff given way to celebration of the bloody victory.

And was it ever bloody. Cage’s insides had been puréed by the bluntest of instruments, her own shell acting as the blender jar. Viscera and flesh oozed out in a mix of chunks and fluid, leaking into a pile of slush on the floor.

Mjörnir was hardly in better shape. His entire face was gone, only the bone underneath was left, tatters of skin hanging off in shreds. Gone were his eyes, teeth, his jaw. His throat was ripped open, dripping blood in heavy gushes to mingle with the brown sludge of Cage’s remains. Brain matter leaked out the empty eye sockets where her knife-legs had pierced.

He backed away from his own mess, staggered, and fell over, unable to support his upper body without his forelimbs. There were a few last twitches before he stilled, also dead, unable to even pose in victory for the brief moment he had it.

The crowd was still cheering, the fight had clearly been won in their eyes, never mind the winner had collapsed dead just moments after.

Steve was impressed. Even though she’d lost, Cage had made an impression. Mjörnir was no easy beast to fell, and that alone said enough about her. Maybe her style was a bit cautious, but it served it’s purpose.

A shame she lost though, it meant he was less likely to fight her.

And more likely to fight Mjörnir.

**************

Another day.

Steve attempted to shower with the Affinity link wire still attached to the laptop.

He did not succeed. His already bad mood turned worse.

Peggy and Angie kept busy looking at his coding. Natasha kept up the Captain’s maintenance.

Nobody left the room. Not for the whole day.

His fight was in three days. The unspoken deadline made Peggy’s search more frantic.

Steve felt bad, he knew that if she didn’t find the problem in time for his fight, he’d be forced to put an end to her efforts.

They didn’t find anything that day

Chapter Text

Another fucking day.

Daredevil and Crossbones were fighting tonight.

Steve felt a pit in his stomach at the thought of Daredevil’s pilot. He’d seemed okay, but their shared experience only made Steve want to avoid the man. He was a witness to a time Steve would rather forget.

The ground scrapping his face. The smell of fruit.

Breathe.

Steve put it out of his mind, decided to focus on Daredevil instead.

Of all the beasts, Steve would call Daredevil one of the more unique design-wise, because to his knowledge, no other beast design forewent the eyes.

Beasts were alien in nature, and pilots had to acclimate to many new sensations, limbs, and sensory inputs. Usually extra eyes and a new colour spectrum were the oddest visuals a pilot would experience, maybe even the loss of colour if they didn’t think it a relevant input, but Daredevil went ahead and chucked the entire visual experience in the trash.

Knowing that the pilot was blind made some more sense, but then it brought up the question, how did he perceive the world if not with visuals? There were only so many alternatives, with echolocation and thermal sensing the most likely.

Steve figured a combination of both, maybe, but Daredevil’s team kept that secret under wraps.

Daredevil stepped into the arena first. He was easy to spot with his scaly skin coloured a vivid red. He had an eyeless lizard face with a wide mouth, and small teeth lining the inner rim like a comb. A pair of curved bullhorns protruded from the head, aimed forward for goring.

The body arched in a feline form, legs articulated for acrobatics and ending in clawed feet. The spine flowed into a long, prehensile tail that ended in a barbed hook, just as sharp as his horns.

Extra skin sat folded around his neck, and when he entered the arena he unfolded it into a wide frill. A black blotted pattern moved with a chameleon-colouring effect .

T he pattern shifted hypnotically into different forms, reminiscent of Rorschach inkblot s . It was beautiful and terrifying at the same time.

On the other end, Crossbones came out. He was more of the typical design with the usual “unique” twist. A heavyset gorilla build, the hands had a pair of long bone-blades poking out above the wrist, retracted into the forearms. A gorilla face matched the body, with a thick, bark-like exoskeleton covering the skin in black whorls. A silver pattern on the back made the vague shape of a skull with crossed bones.

Steve was firmly rooting for Daredevil; that beast had some actual panache. He might only half the size of Crossbones, but Steve didn’t think size would be an issue here.

The fight started slow, the two beasts circling each other, fake lunging to test the other’s responses. The crowd was chanting for first blood, the tension ramping as their test lunges got closer and closer to the real thing.

It was Crossbones who made the first move, throwing out his fist in a swipe, aimed at knocking Daredevil to the side. Daredevil ducked into a crouched, tail whipping back and forth threateningly.

His crouch turned into a sudden pounce-- aimed straight for the face.

Crossbones caught him easily, both hands gripping Daredevil’s midsection like he was an unruly cat.

Daredevil opened his mouth wide, and Steve briefly caught sight of a pair of fangs before a stream of liquid sprayed out his mouth, directly into Crossbones’ face.

The effects were fast and unmistakable; Crossbones’ face was melting off!

He tossed Daredevil aside, who twisted and landed on his feet, while the bigger beast clawed at his own liquidizing skin.

No doubt that must’ve stung especially badly, but the loss of sight would’ve been the biggest reason for the clawing, a poor attempt to remove whatever had been sprayed into his face.

Crossbones gave up on saving face, literally, and lowered his hands, which had lost a layer of their own skin from the contact. His face had turned into a bloody skeleton. Even the tendons had corroded away, leaving the jaw hanging slack. There were excited shrieks in the crowd at the horrid metamorphosis.

Crossbones lashed out semi-blindly. Without his eyes, the pilot was forced to use his own from his seated position. Daredevil didn’t seem fazed, and made semi-runs, slashing at his sides with his tail from a safer distance.

The cuts were superficial, unless those were laced with something too. Crossbones didn’t seem slowed by them though.

Daredevil charged, seemingly out of the blue, and gored Crossbones right across the chest. It left two deep track in Crossbones’ flesh, but hadn't been enough to pierce the bone.

By all accounts, Crossbones’ random swipes should’ve hit Daredevil by now, if not on purpose then at least by chance. He’d gotten far too close for those meaty arms not to hit, but Daredevil miraculously avoided them all.

Or maybe not so miraculously. It was hard to spot, but Steve swore he saw Daredevil crouch out of the way a half-second before a swipe would’ve hit from behind, just barely missing. Whatever senses he was using, they were much better than eyes. He was incredibly spatially aware.

After getting Crossbones in the chest, he circled around to his rear, too fast for Crossbones to spin around. He leaped onto his back, running up to the neck, where he buried his horns directly into the base of the skull. A single crack, and Crossbones fell, Affinity link destroyed.

Crossbones’ pilot when rigid in his chair, the sudden disconnect sending a shock through his system. Steve had yet to experience such a disconnect, and by all accounts it looked painful.

Daredevil stood atop the fallen Crossbones as if he were on a mountain peak, chest puffed and frills splayed open, looking like the cat that had gotten the cream. He was announced the winner, and the crowd cheered for his victory.

Not the most exciting match, but Daredevil’s unique style had added a special touch, and had whet the crowd’s appetite for a more interesting opponent for this beast.

Steve hadn’t been familiar with Daredevil, and the unexpected acid, or whatever it was, had been a delightful twist. He looked forward to the next fight, which was against...

Marvel.

Oh, that was a tough break.

But you never knew. The greats had to fall eventually, maybe Daredevil would be the one to do it.

Steve thought it unlikely.

*******************

The next day was fraught with nerves. For Peggy at least. The rest of them could only help as much as they could, sympathetic to her worries. At this point the worry had shifted from Steve to Peggy as she ran herself to the ground for something everyone else had decided was definitely a glitch.

The Affinity link had been monitoring his brain activity for more than six days, and not one seizure had occurred. If it was true he’d had three-hundred this past week, surely he would’ve had more by now? There was no doubt he’d had the one at the bar after Falcon’s fight, they’d compared his and Natasha’s stories, and he’d definitely lost an hour.

And he’d also had one on the day of the announcement, though it wasn’t at the dinner with Tony and the other competitors like they thought. Apparently during the meet-and-greet earlier, there’d been a speech by the head of Shield Tech Industries, who also owned the facility that was hosting the fights. Steve had been absent for the entirety of it. Not that he was particularly upset to have missed it.

But otherwise…

He was fine. At this point it was Peggy that needed to be looked after. They’d all tried to talk her out of it, but she insisted. Not even Angie could get her to stop, the best she could do was pull her away for breaks.

Peggy’s perfectionism was a great asset when it came to the Captain’s upkeep, but it was pushing her to the limits on this.

By the afternoon Steve had had enough. They had a fight tomorrow, and they couldn’t do it without Peggy.

...Well, they could, but if something went terribly wrong they’d be in deep shit.

Steve put his foot down. At this point he was the only one who could. Natasha held no power and Angie was too conflict-averse to actually stop her partner on something she felt so strongly about.

But it was his body, not Peggy’s.

“Peggy, that’s enough”

He pushed her tablet aside, though she kept it gripped tightly in her hands.

“It’s been six days. If I was gonna have a seizure, I would’ve by now. I’m fighting tomorrow, and I need my best tech rested and ready. We’re disconnecting the monitor, we’re going to order in supper, we’re gonna check that the Captain is in perfect shape, and then you’re going to bed

Natasha and Angie had gotten very busy all of a sudden, both moving off to finish work that had to be done right now. And away from Steve and Peggy.

Steve held Peggy’s gaze, ignoring how bloodshot her eyes were, and how dark the bags were underneath them. Peggy had a hard look on her face, mind racing to rebut him. She was nearly as stubborn as he was.

Nearly.

She could have her way with a lot of things, but whether he fought or not wasn’t one of them.

He’d rip the fucking cable out himself if she didn’t agree, and she knew it. No argument would sway him on that.

She looked down, unable to hold his gaze any longer.

“Go to the medbay”

The air between them had gotten cold.

This wasn’t the first time something like this had happened. Only last time he’d been recovering from cardiac arrest, and he’d gone on to fight not three days later. This was nothing in comparison.

He got a brief break from the tension when she disconnected the cord. His world turned into a kaleidoscope of spinning sounds and buzzing colours, his thoughts muddled and slow. His head kept shaking, but every time he went to steady it his arm would fall back down.

When the world made sense again, he sat up. Peggy had her back to him, working on her tablet. From what he saw, she was going over the Captain’s vitals.

She might not be thrilled about it, but there was work to be done.

There was a fight to win tomorrow.

Chapter Text

It was time.

Preparation were complete. Final checks were done. Everything was set to go.

They were in the elevator, squeezed around the tank.

They were in a grated hallway, damp pipes and hissing steam.

They were at the end of a dark, cement walkway, sloping up towards the bright arena entrance, the murmur of the gathering crowd only barely filtering in. The ceiling was over twenty feet tall, big enough for even the largest beasts to hunker through, if needed. It was more than enough for the sixteen foot Captain.

Peggy and Natasha were doing final setup, disconnecting catheters and triple checking release mechanisms. They’d keep him in the tank to the last possible moment.

Steve stood back while they worked, watching. Rehearsing the plan in his head. Reviewing the important facts.

The plan was simple; attack, avoid hits to the head.

That was it.

Steve didn’t know how other pilots did it, but he found a fight went best when you worked mostly off the cuff.

It may have seemed like all his research was pointless if that was his only plan, but not really. The extra information would come into play when he made his snap decisions in the arena. He went over the important facts: the wings, beak, and legs were the dangerous ends. The neck and underbelly were the most vulnerable. These were all pieces of knowledge to be used or disregarded depending how things shook out.

He walked up to the tank’s glass, placed his palm flat against it, the end of a snout the only visible part, the rest a huge, curled-up blur. The nose was nearly the size of Steve’s head, the mouth big enough to swallow him whole.

Steve closed his eyes and touched his forehead just above his palm, the glass cool on his brow.

Breathe.

He ignored the flitting forms of his techs, focusing on his Affinity bond with the Captain. His link was in sleep mode as opposed to turned off, the way he usually left it. It allowed a quicker connection, and if he reached out, with great effort that is, he could brush the edges of the Captain’s existence.

Not enough to feel anything, but enough to…

Breathe.

He felt a tap on his shoulder.

“Come on” Natasha tilted her head to the small elevator that would take them to the platform above.

Peggy remained quiet on the way up. Their quarrel yesterday hadn’t been forgotten, but she’d still be professional for the match, regardless of their current standing. There was no room for drama for this next part; they could hash it out after.

The doors opened, and the tittering of the crowd grew louder from beyond the hanging curtains that separated them from the audience. They stood there a moment.

“Show time” Natasha murmured, and powered ahead.

Peggy looked to Steve, a silent question. He nodded, a silent answer.

She went ahead, leaving him to face his final step alone.

He’d been working up to this. He’d survived back alley brawls and childhood sickness; a city-wide purge and a brutal beating. He’d survived the world, and he’d survived himself. And then he’d built something of the remains, and he was damn well going to show them that he was more than just a survivor now.

Breathe.

He stepped out into the spotlights.

**************

Natasha went ahead. She wasn’t one for waiting, and if she didn’t go ahead first, the other two would stand there too long, frozen in the moment. So she broke the ice, so to speak.

The crowd was ramping up, the arrival of the two teams a sign of the soon-to-start fight. She could see on the opposite end team Falcon had already stepped out, the same flaming falcon banner behind them, Sam in the same face paint. War paint.

Maybe they should start doing that too. It didn’t show up on the recordings, their faces’ too blurred for that, but it was certainly appreciated by the live crowd.

Peggy followed her out a moment later. They each brought up their tablets, getting ready. Steve had yet to come out, and Natasha had a brief moment of worry that he’d frozen under the pressure. But only a moment, because he stepped out with a determined walk, taking his place in the chair like it was a made for him.

They made quite a sight, or lack of one anyway. Where Falcon’s team at least had some vague colour coordination and a flashy banner, they’d looked comparatively simple. Their banner was nothing more than a white star on blue. Their clothing was casual, for comfort rather than style. Hell, Steve’s white tank had holes around the neckline and some dirt stains.

He looked uncomfortable in it; Natasha would guess he was cold. But for health reasons his chest had to be easily accessible, and short of going shirtless, a tank was what he’d compromised to.

She could see Sam across the way sitting in his seat, his techs getting their own ‘wares ready. Clint started to wave at them, but Scott slapped his hand away. Was probably scolding him too.

Natasha held back a smirk. Clint was cute.

She looked away. Now wasn’t the time.

The projected announcer was in the middle of hyping the crowd. They’d be starting soon.

“I’m starting the link” Peggy warned. Natasha activated her tablet’s monitoring system. She was in charge of monitoring the Captain’s vitals and relaying anything important to Peggy.

Peggy took the brunt of the rest, monitoring both Steve’s vitals and the Affinity bond. She was best suited to respond to a problem in either of those, while a problem with the Captain couldn’t really be addressed from here, but it was important they be noted just the same.

The light on Steve’s link turned from blue to green, and he went still with a soft exhale. Natasha’s tablet started to light up, the Captain’s vitals changing suddenly. His heart rate increased, blood pressure reaching peak levels for conscious activity.

The Captain was awake.

******************

Peggy followed Natasha out, blinded by the lights until her eyes adjusted. She spied a broadcast drone already hovering above them, catching their movements.

She ignored it, ignored the crowd. She was not here to spectate like last time.

She was here to oversee.

She pulled up Steve’s vitals and the sleeping Affinity code, already monitoring it for changes.

She resisted the urge to double check that her purse was still behind the curtain. It held more adrenaline, epinephrine, and oxygen shots than they’d ever need in one instance. Plus emergency midazolam, if he ever had a seizure. Which he very well might after the earlier week’s events. She wasn’t convinced that it was a glitch, but there was no helping it now. Either he was fine or he wasn’t.

Steve came out just then, going straight into the chair without preamble. No waving to the crowd, no show of might. He always got right to business, not putting on a show of himself. She didn’t think he saw himself as anything of importance to the crowd, and maybe that was a little true, but they might have to start putting in an effort to appear flashy if they were to be in the spotlight like this, Peggy thought.

She’d bring it up later, when she wasn’t so cross with him. Right now she followed his lead.

“I’m starting the link”

She entered her code, and switched the Affinity bond from SLEEP to ON, his link turning blue to green. Steve let out a small exhale and relaxed in his chair.

The monitors read a successful link, and that the tank had drained and opened without issue. He was free to pilot the Captain now.

The announcer called out the Falcon, which stepped out from its end. The crowd gave a loud cheer, excited to see what carnage they’d get this time.

-AND THE CAPTAIN!

That was Steve’s cue. Now was his time.

Chapter Text

He got in the chair. The noise of the crowd was a blanket to be ignored. The weight of the phone in his pocket was an anchor.

“I’m starting the link”

A tear. A mend.

The eye turned inward and vanished.

****************

Sound stops. Sight Stops. Sensations stop. Smell, and taste and comfort and pain. Stops. It all stops.

The world stops.

He is alone.

He is the world.

He is alone.

He is the world.

He is.

****************

For a brief moment, he knew a truth.

****************

The truth was forgotten.

****************

He was the Captain.

He was awake.

****************

He was floating in the viscous fluid of the tank. The oxygen-laden liquid filled his lungs with a heavy pressure. He instinctively exhaled as much as he could, and held his breath as it started to drain.

An air pocket was growing at the top of the tank, and when it was big enough he stuck his head in. He sucked in a deep breath of air, and started the uncomfortable process of hacking out the remaining fluid in his chest.

The muted hum of being underwater was replaced by his own wet coughs, a deep choking noise like a truck revving. When the fluids had fully drained, he felt a flash of warmth as heaters flash-dried his soaked fur. There was a small hiss as the glass rose, and he stepped out of his tank.

The whole process felt like a manufactured birth, streamlined for maximum efficiency. No labour needed.

He opened his eyes, the four of them creating a whirlwind of colours. The main two in the full human spectrum, something still novel to Steve. Greens and yellows added a visual spark of joy to his red-blue world.

The secondary eyes were set in the infrared spectrum, showing temperature. They revealed the hidden life all around. It was mostly dark in this tunnel though, the cement too cold and black for any life here. But there was to be life outside of it, in the arena.

He lumbered his way to the entrance on all fours, spitting out the last of the inhaled liquid. It left a rubbery taste in his mouth.

He paused before the light of the entrance, trying to focus on the noise outside. It was all so sharp, and clear, yet swirling into a nonsensical patchwork of too much information. He closed his eyes, and listened with his other ears. The ones above, in the chair. He caught the end of the announcer’s call.

-AND THE CAPTAIN!

That was his cue. He walked out, the brightness blinding only briefly, his eyes adjusting fast.

The arena was so small. Bigger than any he’d been in, yes, but his sense of scale always shifted when he woke like this, and it didn’t quite align with his memories of how grand it was.

There was the usual swell of cheers at his entrance, not really intended for him but for the hope of violence he’d bring.

He stood up on his rear legs and turned back, looking at the man in the chair.

He took a moment, and opened the man’s eyes.

There was an uncomfortable doubling of his vision. He was looking at himself, from himself, like a recursive video aimed at its own screen.

He shifted his focal awareness back to Steve and looked at the Captain.

The Captain was a bearish creature by any proximity. Almost polar bear in nature, complete with the rounded ears and tail. Covered in white fur, thick muscles, and fat; he filled out a large space. He had several blue strips on his back and arms, and two red slashes of colour under his neck looking like bloody gashes. Heavy claws lined each paw, and small, semi-pointed teeth meant to rend filled his mouth.

On his chest was a thick plate of bone shaped as a white star, the only protection for his organs. On his one arm protruded a similar bone-growth in the shape of a shield, coloured blue, the outward tip ending in a point. He flexed the Captain’s wrist on the arm, feeling the limited movement of it. His bones were fused more tightly there, immobilizing the shield better.

In his double vision he saw Peggy and Natasha around him. Natasha gave a quick thumbs up to the Captain, and he pulled away from Steve’s perceptions, closing the man’s eyes.

Steve faded to a vague sensation at the back of his mind, like an article of clothing that was ever-present, but not consciously acknowledged. The dulled sounds from the man’s poor hearing and the sink of the cushioned chair were only a ghost of a feeling compared to the full fireworks of colour and sensations he was experiencing now.

He turned back and locked eyes with the Falcon, saw him fan his wings for show. He responded with a tooth-bearing roar, thunderous and echoing in the domed ceiling.

His senses evened out to a mid-line, the flurry of noises and colours had slowed to something he could clearly parse. His senses were on-point and ready.

He was able to make out the announcer’s final decree.

FIGHT!”

He dropped on all fours and approached the center slowly, shield scrapping the cement floor on each step with a gritty tearing noise. Falcon approached just as cautiously, wings held forward in a loose shield, ready to either strike or defend.

They circled, Falcon backing away whenever the Captain tried to close any distance. With Falcon out of range, he couldn’t do much but charge or wait.

He waited. He had time.

Falcon suddenly struck out with his wing, a quick tap by boxing standards. Captain deflected easily, the blades scrapping off his shield. A test.

Another swipe, lower this time. Two more, aimed at the head. All of them blocked with his shield.

His strikes were getting progressively harder, but slower too. The extra muscle going into each hit slowed them down, making them even easier to block.

The unsatisfying attacks kept up. No blood was drawn yet.

I should do something about that, he thought.

Those wings were sturdy when pulled together, but they looked very thin when stretched out to hit.

An old mantra echoed in his mind: Get your knuckles to the throat.

An idea came to him; more of a theory, really. Incredibly stupid if he was wrong, but fuck, this fight wouldn’t go anywhere if he didn’t try.

Falcon attacked with another swipe, again at the head. Captain let it through, swerving to the side to let it hit his shoulder, pushing forward to shove the blades in, deep, right between the bones. He ignored the sharp pain and the tingling numbness in the rest of his unshielded arm.

It would take a solid tug to get it out, buried deep as it was. For now it was held taut, the wing pulled as far as it would go.

Time to test his theory.

He brought his shield down on it with all his strength, aimed right where the long blades met the smaller interlocking ones. There was the sound of a felling tree, a crackling pop, and the last ten feet of the Falcon’s wing broke off, snapping like twigs.

Falcon reared away, flapping his broken wing, sending a small spray of blood from the ragged edge.

Captain reach for the portion still in his shoulder and yanked it out, a brief gush of blood following before staunching itself. There was a mild ache as his bone knit back together at the shoulder joint.

He held the broken wing segment a moment, then tossed it aside.

The fuck was that?”

A voice, in his head?

No, Natasha, at his other. He mumbled…. some kind of answer to her, his attention was otherwise occupied.

Falcon was circling him again, his bad wing held out like a broken dagger, his good one pulled back as a shield. No more test hits. He hadn’t liked the Captain’s last answer.

Go big or go home pal, I’m not here to dance.

He wasn’t making a move, still holding up his half-shield defensively, bracing for the Captain’s attack. Expecting one, apparently.

Fine.

He ran full tilt at the Falcon, paws thumping on the ground with each bound. Shield down, headfirst.

Falcon raised his own shield to block, wing held folded and sturdy, not so easy to snap in two.

He rammed straight into the wall of Falcon’s wing, throwing his whole weight into it. Not enough, Falcon’s legs took the weight and held fast, pushed back only a few feet.

Alright then. He was up close, now what?

Falcon’s broken wing came out, shoving into the Captain’s side like a shiv. The trimmed weapon was now short enough to be used close-range. Funny that.

Falcon started stabbing with it, fast and brutal and borderline savage. A snarl of pain rolled out Captain’s throat, but he made no move to counter. Instead he gripped the unbroken wing in his one paw and pulled.

He let Falcon get away with his shanking, his efforts were otherwise focused on peeling that wing far enough for an opening to the bird’s neck.

Knuckles, teeth…. Something’s getting to that throat.

A pointed beak flashed from behind the wing, going right for his eye. He blocked with his shield, but now he had a double assault to deal with, his flank getting shredded and his shield occupied under a barrage of pecks.

He ignored the attacks. They tore and burned, but they ultimately did no real harm in the short-run. He’d have to get that wing moved faster though, his reserves weren’t unlimited. He doubled down, leaning his weight back.

Suddenly, a taloned foot came out from beneath and slashed at his stomach, nearly cutting him open had he not been leaning away.

This was turning into a goddamn juggling act.

He strained harder, muscle burning to pull the remaining wing forward.

Blood pressure is too high, he’s going into arrhythmia”

More voices.

Ignore it , he thought.

The wing was pulled halfway out, exposing a feathered chest. He lunged with his muzzle, intending to bury his blunted teeth into the thick meat. Chicken dinner for one. Ha.

He bit into the neck. The very base of it, where it met the body.

He dropped his shield then. Falcon’s neck and beak were neither long nor flexible enough to reach his head at this point, though no doubt his back would get stabbed to hell.

Just as he thought it, a sunburst of rapid-fire pain broke out along his spine.

No matter, he’d freed his shielded arm. He pulled it back to deliver a punch.

He sent it right at Falcon’s chest. A deep crack, like a collapsing wall, and his shield went through the bone. A further push sent it elbow-deep.

A twist , a squelch , a snap , and it was bursting out the back.

He felt something inside him tear, like a bad gut cramp. He spied the little shiv-wing covered in something red-pink. Those would be his intestines. Something in his chest fluttered. He pushed it aside.

With the lower spine severed, Falcon’s legs gave way. Captain pulled his arm out, shoving the bird away with his other paw. He fell on his back, legs dangling limp, but wings still mobile. He spread them wide, each poised to strike like a cobra.

The Captain stood to full height, blood slathered nearly everywhere. It dribbled down his muzzle; oozed out his flank, back, and stomach; and coated the entirety of his shield.

He stalked around to Falcon’s head, who snapped his beak menacingly. His wing reached up to cover himself, but Captain stomped it down with a foot, bearing his full weight to keep in pinned.

He brought his shield up again, aiming for the head.

The ground scrapping his face. A CRACK!

His stopped, shielded held frozen mid-strike. Falcon’s eyes were on him, defiant. Had those been his eyes when...

He’s lying on the ground and he can’t move it’s coming at his FACE

The sight of it brought the urge to laugh. He choked it down with a retching noise, and clamped his jaw closed. Tears were pooling at his eyes. Which eyes were they coming from? Fuck. Fuck.

Stop. Breathe. Get your knuckles to the throat.

He was fine.

He wasn’t Steve right now. He was the Captain.

He looked at Falcon again, meeting his eyes with steel. Falcon’s beak was rearing back to stab him still, broken wing trying to slash at his legs despite being too short to reach. He was all piss and vinegar now, his caution thrown to the ground just as he was.

Get your knuckles to the throat.

The Captain brought his shield down.

The Falcon’s severed head rolled to the side.

****************

He felt his other eyes open, to see him as he was now.

The colours weren’t so vivid, but he made out the red alright. His once white fur was now a deep maroon. He’d gone from polar bear to hellish grizzly, dripping blood like he’d showered in it, falling from his muzzle like slobber.

He reveled in it.

He was burning in pain and victory and adrenaline. His teeth and soul bared, his mind livid with violence. He was burning in it. His chest was burning with the glory of it, a searing jolt of righteous agony. He roared.

He ROARED!

The sound of the crowd answered him. He didn’t recall tuning them out, but now they were a swell of noise. Cheering. Cheering him.

CAPTAIN! CAPTAIN! CAPTAIN!

A sudden whisper in his ear. Calm, but urgent.

"Steve, get the Captain back to the tank right now. Your heart’s stopped"

He turned to the platform Steve was on. He saw himself in the chair, eyes closed again, body lax. Peggy and Natasha stone faced, acting like nothing was wrong.

His chest was burning. His chest was burning.

Fuck.

He disregarded the crowd and moved back to the tunnel at an even pace, running once he was hidden from sight. He’d gotten his pound of flesh, now his own body was the priority.

He got in the tank, curling into a small bundle. The glass came up, and fluids started to flood in, tinted pink with blood. They’d attach the catheters and feeds later, all that mattered was they fill the tank with the suspension fluids and nano-growers. He ignored the sense of drowning, inhaling the liquid in horrid, practiced breaths.

"He’s in, putting the link in sleep mode"

A mend. A tear.

The eye turned inward and vanished.

Chapter Text

Natasha watched as the Captain retreated back to the tunnel. She packed away her tablet and stood next to Steve, as soon as he disconnected she’d need to get him out of sight. She ignored the way his breaths came unevenly, how his hands spasmodically gripped the armrests, the sudden cold sweat on his brow.

“He’s in, putting the link in sleep mode” Peggy ground out, eerily calm. His link turned from green to blue.

He gave a small jolt, and his eyes opened with fever clarity.

“Can you stand?”

“Yeah”

He walked back behind the curtains without help, Natasha right up next to him. Once out of sight, she bent and helped ease Steve to the floor, cradling his head in her hands.

He’d gone white, his lips tinged blue. He was gasping and grasping, arms clawing his own chest.

Peggy knelt down and pulled an auto-injector from her bag, looking like a cross between a pistol and nightmare syringe, the needle retracted. She pulled the hem of his shirt aside to expose his chest, and felt around the ribs until she found a good injection point.

She pressed the injector to his skin without warning, and the needle shot out with a click. He made a noise like he’d been gut-punched as it emptied its content into his heart.

His eyes rolled back in his head, but his breaths became less fish-out-of-water.

Peggy stood and strode to the elevator to call it. Natasha bent around and scooped up Steve’s limp form bridal-style.

“The defibrillator went off, the pacemaker’s got you on an arrhythmia for now”

Steve didn’t look lucid enough to have heard, but Natasha appreciated the update. She could help with most things, but this was completely out of her area.

She could staunch a wound and stitch a cut, but an exhausted organ was beyond her. This was all on Peggy now.

The ride up was excruciatingly slow, the only sound was Steve’s ragged inhales.

When they got to the room, Peggy ran for their medbay, Natasha close behind. She laid Steve on the bed and pulled his shirt off. She saw a small bruise was already forming where the auto-injector had been used.

It took a moment to realize that Peggy had been trying to get her attention.

“-asha! Natasha! Go back down and get the Captain, I don’t trust the auto navigation to come back here on it’s own”

Natasha nodded and left, not looking back. She couldn’t help here, and she didn’t want to watch uselessly on the side. Peggy had this handled.

The elevator ride down was too fast.

When she got to the tunnel, she found the Captain’s tank hadn’t been moved at all. She pulled up its display screen and saw its auto navigation had been canceled. Peggy’s work likely, probably to get Natasha out of the room. Peggy usually sent her away.

After the first time Steve’s heart had stopped, Natasha had been a quiet mess. Peggy had later found her hidden in a side ally outside, hands shaking and struggling to handle herself. She’d brought a bottle of vodka and they’d shared in Natasha’s traditional post-fight drink until the shaking stopped and she could go back inside to see a still-living Steve.

And then Peggy sent her away every time after that.

And now that she was here, she saw that the Captain needed his catheters and feeders attached, and the suspension fluid needed filtering, and his fur needed cleaning, and….

There was a slew of things that needed to be done, and she could do most of them here, before they went back up to the room. She started the filters to clean out the blood in the tank, and used the side controller to maneuver the cannula feeder into his mouth and stomach. She’d get the catheters later, but right now he needed the extra nutrients to self-repair while the nano-growers assisted.

She could hear some noise from the arena, the crowd still thinning out and leaving. Some would stay behind to watch the cleanup, the appeal almost as good as watching a zamboni. Not as good, but close. Enough that the broadcast drones recorded it for the people at home to watch.

She never really stayed for it, but it wouldn’t hurt to watch right now.

She walked to the tunnel opening, leaning on the wall to watch the cleanup of the Falcon’s remains.

The two-man team, consisting of Scott and Clint, were busy trying to get the huge body back into the tank, using an industrial forklift and a team of four heavy-lifting drones. Sam was nowhere to be seen, probably off recovering.

Scott was piloting the drones, while Clint was operating the forklift. They had the brunt of the body on the lift, while the drones supported the limbs.

She watched as they carefully placed the body into the tank. Once it was in, they sent the drones to collect the head and severed wing. It was nice of Steve not to damage the head; flesh could be regrown, but the Affinity processors were a hardware that had to be manually replaced. Not to mention cutting off a link so abruptly was painful. He’d saved Sam a headache.

It took about fifteen minutes, but they got the corpse moved. A series of flat, circular bots came out to start scrubbing the blood off the floor. A few even climbed up the wall to get the flecks splattered there.

She watched Clint start spinning the forklift in slow rotations while Scott sent the drones back into the tunnel to dock on whatever transport they used. With the interesting part over, the broadcast drones finished their recording and flew off as well.

Natasha thought of how their team didn’t have anything to lift the Captain’s body after a fight. They never needed to, he always won, but Natasha figured they should purchase something soon if they were going to be in more fights after the tournament. If the Captain couldn’t get back to the tank himself, they’d be hard pressed to find someone willing to loan them equipment.

She saw Clint stop his spinning when he spotted her watching. He turned the lift towards her and slowly drove over, pulling up and turning off the engine.

He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel, looking off to the side. Natasha waited for him to speak, she was interested to hear what he had to say.

“So ah, about the other night, at the bar. I kinda, you know, overdid it on the drinks, and maybe said some stupid things…” He scratched his cheek, looking for more words.

“I don’t usually drink that much, like, I’ll have a few beers or something. It was just free, and I thought ‘what better time to try all those fancy things you see on the menu’, but they had a huge menu, so I was like ‘I’ll just have a sip of everything’, but then turns out that was a lotta sips, and-”

Natasha stood there, listening to the man ramble like a prison letter, oddly endeared by it.

“-with my dog, which isn’t actually the point I’m trying to make-”

“Clint” she interrupted.

He looked to her in surprise, lost in his own ramblings, “Huh?”

“What are you trying to say here?”

“Oh, uh, sorry” he said, rubbing his neck, “I’m just… sorry. Is what I’m trying to say. Sorry that I was so forward, and I hope I wasn’t rude or pushy or anything. And, uh, I can leave you alone, if I made you uncomfortable, which I’m sorry about”

He was blushing now, and it made his apology all the more sweet. She’d found his flirting terrible, but honest, and not at all leering like most others she encountered. She was intrigued.

“I wasn’t uncomfortable. You were… nice”

He looked to her with wide-eyed surprise before it turned to an excited smile.

“Oh… Oh! Well then, if, if it’s okay with you, would you like to, to uh, get some food? With me. Like a date, maybe? It doesn’t have to be a date, you’re just like, really cool, and I’d like to know you more, and maybe we can go somewhere that allows dogs ‘cause I think you’d like Lucky-”

He looked to be gearing up for another ramble, and Natasha cut him off before he stammered himself into a whole speech of embarrassment. Not that she minded.

“Clint”, he stopped, “how about we start with some drinks, my team and yours. I have it on good authority we’ll get free drinks for winning” She smiled at that, and Clint chuckled, embarrassed.

“Yeah, yeah, that sounds good. What time you wanna meet? Winner’s pick”

Natasha remembered Steve upstairs, eyes not tracking and breath stuttering.

She turned to the tunnel where the faint glow of the Captain’s tank sat ominously at the back.

“Actually… we’re having a few technical difficulties right now, I-we might not be able to go out if they keep up”

Clint tried to hide his disappointment, “Oh, that’s cool, we don’t gotta-”

“No, I want to, I really would, but you know how it is” she smiled apologetically.

He was drumming his fingers on the wheel again, “Yeah, no worries, it’s chill”

Natasha thought a moment. She took her phone and held it out to him. “Put your number in, I’ll text if we can make it or not”

He looked at her offered phone stupidly until what she’d just said sunk in, and a giddy smile crossed his face.

“Yeah! That’s-yeah! Okay!” He took her phone and started typing. When he handed it back, she sent him a quick text, then put her phone away.

“So, uh, I hope those technical difficulties don’t drag on too long. I’d like to show you a proper night of drinking where I don’t, you know, go overboard. And maybe get you some breadsticks since you gave me all of yours at-”

“CLINT!” Someone shouted from the opposite end of the arena.

They both turned to see it was Scott, all the way over at the tunnel entrance where the Falcon’s tank was just entering.

“WHAT?” Clint yelled back.

“WE’RE LEAVING. ALSO YOUR PHONE GOT A TEXT”

“WHO’S IT FROM?”

Scott looked down at something in his hand.

“UNKNOWN NUMBER, JUST SAYS ‘TEST’”

Clint turned to her.

“Had to make sure it was the right number”

He turned back, “SEND BACK A SMILEY FACE”

“WHAT?”

“SEND BACK! A SMILEY!”

“I CAN’T HEAR YOU”

Clint turned back to her with a chagrined look. “Sorry, I left my phone with Scott. I should, ah, probably head back too, but I’ll text you!”

“Looking forward to it” she said with an amused smile, still leaning against the wall.

With a dopey grin he waved goodbye, then turned the lift around towards his side of the arena. She watched him go until he got halfway, then turned around herself.

The filters had gotten most of the free-floating blood by now, and the Captain’s superficial wounds were just starting to close.

She should bring the tank back upstairs where they had more equipment to clean him off and patch him up. Hopefully Steve would be stable when she got there.

As she got in the elevator, her phone chimed.

> :)

She smiled.

Chapter Text

When she got back to their room with the tank in tow, it was to a relieving sight. Steve was propped up in the medical bed, oxygen mask on his face and eyes droopy, but breathing fine and back to his usual pallor.

His chest was still bare, and a blanket had been pulled halfway up.

He turned his bloodshot eyes to her and gave a weak wave in greeting.

Peggy was sitting by his bed, tapping away at her tablet as usual. She looked up in acknowledgment, but kept up whatever it was she was doing. Angie had come up while Natasha had been gone and was sitting at the table, engrossed in her own work.

Natasha steered the tank back in its cradle and got to work properly caring for the Captain. She spent the next hour reconnecting catheters, setting nanites to scrub off any remaining blood, and watched to make sure the repairs were done properly. She set the nano-growers to fix the shoulder and ribs when she saw that the Captain’s own body had healed them slightly crooked.

In that time, Steve had somewhat improved. The oxygen mask had been replaced with a more convenient cannula, and he was alert enough to be drawing on his tablet. But one look at his vacant eyes and panting trip to the washroom was enough to tell he wasn’t going out for a walk, let alone drinks.

She kept her disappointment to herself, and sent a text to Clint that they couldn’t make it. He responded fast.

> Yeah thats cool, next time well meet

> Kinda works out I guess, Tony taking us out 4 food anyway

> Says hes gonna invite you 2 though

> Get ready 4 textvalanch

Just as she read this, she got another message from Tony, sent as a group text to three of them. She heard the others’ phones go off along with her own as a series of rapid-fire messages appeared.

> Congrats on winning, I’m taking y’all out for drinks and food, my treat.

> Meet us at Headquarters, the Birdie Boys say you’re familiar with the place.

> Tell me if you’re not, I’ll have Friday send directions.

> Not familiar with the place, I mean.

A few more texts appeared, going on about getting drinks and celebrating/consoling the winners/losers. Natasha turned to Steve and Peggy.

Steve squinted at the texts like he was having trouble reading them, then just turned off his phone. It took him four tries to tuck it back into his pocket.

“Are you going?” Peggy asked, addressing Natasha.

“Not if Tony’s going to be there”

“Mm, I’ll tell him no then”

Natasha saw Peggy’s response in the chat.

> We will not be attending. There have been some minor complications we must attend to, they will take most of tonight and tomorrow.

“Whatta’bout tradition?” Steve asked, a heavy drag in his voice.

“It’s best done at an actual bar, but I got a bottle stashed for just such a social emergency” Natasha answered, getting up to get the aforementioned bottle. Her and Peggy’s phones chirped with another half-dozen series of texts, but she left Peggy to deal with it. Peggy had a way of shutting people down with finality.

She pulled out her bottle of vodka. They only had normal glasses though, she’d have to eyeball the shots. She poured out a roughly equal volume in each of the four glasses.

“Anyone having any?” She asked the room.

“No, and neither is Steve” Peggy answered offhandedly, busy dealing with Tony’s messages.

“Angie?”

Angie had been fully engrossed in her work, and she only looked up when Natasha called her.

“Hmm?” she blinked away the screen from her eyes.

Natasha held up the bottle, “Celebratory drink?”

She looked at the ‘shots’ Natasha had lined on the table, “Oh! Um, later? I need to finish this up first”

Natasha set one of the glasses aside, then downed the remaining three, tapping each twice on the table when she finished. She set the fourth one by Angie.

“That’s for you, tell me if you change your mind later”

“Okay” she answered absently, once again engrossed in her coding.

It looked like they were having another night in. There wasn’t anything more to be done with the Captain, it was all automated from here, and Peggy had taken over monitoring him once Steve was mostly in the clear.

Natasha glanced at everyone and saw they were all preoccupied, the room’s atmosphere quiet and sedate. A good time to continue her shows. She surreptitiously took her tablet and made sure to angle it away from everyone’s view, then put her earphones in.

It wasn’t that she was ashamed, per se, but she didn’t like the feeling of someone watching her private entertainment from over her shoulder. Not that they would’ve understood it; it was a Ukrainian soap with Russian subtitles, and the body language didn’t always fit the content.

But she was hooked, nine seasons in and they were squeezing out all the little drama they could from the sponge of this story. Each character had faked at least one death, there was adultery abound, false names and new identity reveals, long lost twins and lovers and children, a missing elk, crashing planes and trains and automobiles, and so much more contrived drama.

It made her current lifestyle feel especially tame in comparison.

She was twenty minute into the episode, which was featuring a ridiculous Mexican standoff of blackmail with fingers poised over send buttons like triggers, when the elevator opened and Tony strode in.

Natasha had enough time to think: Oh, this is gonna be a bastard of a time.

Chapter Text

Clint was busy counting out his chicken tendies.

After he’d apologized to Natasha, who not only accepted his apology, but given him another chance, he was feeling like a treat was in order.

Also, they’d lost the match, and a consoling treat was in order too. Double treat.

He’d packed a large bag of breaded chicken tenders, forever thought of as chicken tendies to him. They were cheap and probably not the healthiest, but they were also his favourite food stuff.

The tournament didn’t have access to his brand of tendies (they never did), so he brought his own. But he had to be careful not to eat it all, hence counting them out like a precious resource.

While he was counting out exactly five, and debating a sixth, Sam was lying back in his bed, palms massaging his eyes and legs hanging off the edge. Scott was entirely occupied with re-heading Falcon, his eyes covered in slick VR goggles and his hand covered in thin control gloves to dexterously manipulate the nanites.

He decided on five tendies (self-restraint on point today) and placed them in his portable convection oven. He placed the rest back in his portable freezer. He didn’t joke around with his tendies.

He turned to Sam while he waited.

“Bad headache?”

Sam groaned.

Clint grimaced in sympathy. “Want something for that? Ibuprofen?”

“Nah. S’not so bad, the bond wasn’t cut off, Captain was nice enough ‘bout that”

Clint nodded, not that Sam saw. When a beast died, the Affinity link went in automatic shut-off. When the hardware was destroyed, there was no shut-off, only a disconnect, which was much worse. Sam had experienced it a decent number of times, and, at best, it left him with a day-long migraine. But sometimes he’d pass out for hours.

Clint had done his usual post-fight checkup with Sam, and he’d passed all the functionality tests. Knew his name, the date, how many fingers Clint was holding up, the square root of sixty-four, the first twenty digits of pi (which he’d cursed Clint out for making that part of the test), and retained full-body motion and feeling.

An intact head also made Scott’s job easier. He could regenerate brain matter around the existing tech, but replacing the tech entirely was the absolute worst, or so Scott lamented every time it happened.

Speaking of which, he could hear the man grumbling as he worked.

“Hey, what’s gotcha tense?”

“I’ve gotta dissolve and regrow the whole wing!” Scott spat, eyes focused on manipulating the nano-growers.

“Can’t reattach the broken part?”

He responded with a false cheer, “Nope! That’ll leave a weak point at the tear! I gotta grow the whole damn thing as a single unit or there’s gonna be a fault line!”

“Bummer”

“Yeah! Sure would be nice if-”

“We’re not making him smaller” Sam cut in immediately, not even looking up.

“I’m just saying-”

“No”

Scott continued his grumbling, but kept it to himself.

Clint’s phone chirped with a text. A group text?

> Sorry for your loss. Let’s go drink about it.

> And eat something.

> Usual place.

> I’ll invite the Carebear gang too.

> You guys are friends now, right?

“Tony’s inviting us for dinner” Clint informed the other two, pulling his tendies out one-handed.

“Ugh, that’s right, his silent treatment’s over. Why couldn’t Daredevil have lost, we could’ve had another week of this” Sam bemoaned while pulling a pillow over his face, muffling the last few words.

Tony didn’t actually bother them as much as Sam made out. He certainly bothered them more than they’d like, but by all account was respectful of their off-time. He always took them out to celebrate their matches, win or lose, and he hadn’t last match only because of his strict conflict of interest code.

“So are we going?” Scott asked.

“...yeah”

Clint responded to Tony. He was, unfortunately, in the best mood to handle him.

> Yeah well meet you there around 10

> Yeah were cool we drank with them after the 1st fight at headquaretrs

> Headquarter s

Just as he sent it-- a text from Natasha!

> Can’t make it tonight, issues came up. Next time?

He felt a swoop of disappointment in his chest, but her promise of another time kept him hopeful. If she didn’t want to see him, she’d say so, right? Right.

He told her it was fine, and warned her of Tony’s impending invitation, if he hadn’t messaged her team already.

That taken care of, he set the plate down at the table and got ready to dig-in on his chicken tendies, but before he could get the first bite in, a wet nose pressed at his elbow.

“No. No tendies for you. You get all farty, and this room has no windows”

Lucky looked up at him with imploring eyes, as if he hadn’t just eaten minutes ago. The little sneak thought he could get whatever he wanted if he looked sad enough.

And damn him, he was right.

“You get one, and no more” Clint grumbled, handing one of prized tendies to the golden retriever. He watched his tendie get gobbled up, no time taken to savour it. Then Lucky curled up at his feet, completely sated with his pilfered prize.

Great taste is wasted on this guy, Clint thought.

The sound of the elevator doors opening drew his attention away from the confounding dog to see Tony walk in.

He clapped once, drawing attention to himself, “Fellas! How’s my favourite Birdie Boys doin’? Feeling okay? Not too heartbroken over Carebear’s tough lovin’?”

Sam held the pillow down on his own face to smother what would’ve been a very loud groan. Lucky got up to excitedly sniff their new guest, but lost interest when he learned it was just Tony.

“We’re fine, head’ll be reattached by midnight, wing’s gonna need about forty hours to regrow though” Scott informed, finally putting the controls away and pulling the goggles up on his head.

“Oof, yeah, I saw that. You don’t usually take hits like that. I liked it, Carebear’s got some moxy”

“He’s got something” Sam grumbled from beneath the pillow.

“You can talk about it over food. Come on, we’re meeting up with them, shake hands all sportsmanlike”

Clint paused at this. But Natasha said...

Maybe she just wasn’t going with the others. He hoped it wasn’t because of him.

“Come on, the night’s young!”

Scott pulled the gloves and goggles off, getting up to stretch. He went to grab his keycard, and pulled the pillow away from Sam’s face on his way past.

“Let’s go ya sore loser”

“’M not a sore loser” Sam grumbled, but it got him up.

Clint shoved his first tendie in his mouth to enjoy, then carefully carried the plate into the elevator with the others. Chicken tendies were not to be shoveled into the mouth, but savoured, and he’d eat them at the correct pace, unlike some dogs.

They took the elevator down, but were led to an unfamiliar elevator set.

“This ain’t the way to Headquarters” Sam observed.

“Yeah it’s fine, we’re making a quick stop on the way” Tony said vaguely. They followed him into the elevator, but they were sharing a look of dubious worry.

When the doors opened, it was to a room similar to theirs, and a decidedly not happy team Captain.

Chapter Text

Steve was…. groggy. That wasn’t wholly accurate, but it was close.

After the fight, his world had faded in and out at the speed of dripping molasses. It had gotten better at… some point. He still wasn’t tracking well, but it had nothing to do with his lucidity.

He was alert, and his thoughts were clear as usual, but his body felt slow, as it always did when Peggy gave him something to relax. He’d have an entire sentence thought out and ready to be spoken, but only half of the words would actually get said. He’d try to draw, his mind visualizing the image and knowing exactly where to put the lines, but his muscles felt like cotton and handled just as flimsily.

What was worse, he was shirtless. Peggy wanted easy access to his chest if he relapsed, but it left him cold. The thin blanket didn’t do much to help. Though one benefit of the sedatives was how it left his muscle too loose to shiver, so that was something.

Angie had shown up, then Natasha, and they’d been hanging out in a nice quiet since. He was drawing on his tablet, trying to capture the look on Falcon’s face while it was fresh in his memory, but his lines kept shooting off course, at one point the stylus went careening right off the screen. It was frustrating.

His phone buzzed with texts, but his vision kept blurring when he tried to focus on the words, and he just shut it off instead. Anyone he’d want to get a text from was in the room with him.

Then there was suddenly a smiling Tony Stark in the room too, and a just-as-sudden curtain cutting him off from view.

That was bad. They did not want Tony seeing him like this after a fight. Steve would’ve rallied and defended his own health, but fuck, whatever Peggy gave him wasn’t even letting him speak coherently. He just hoped Peggy and Natasha could send their sponsor away without much fuss.

He tried to listen, but his goddamn ears felt like they were stuffed with wax. He clumsily pulled the IV from his arm, fuck being relaxed, this situation necessitated stress.

He hoped his liver bioware got rid of the sedatives as fast as it did alcohol. In the meantime, he tried his best to listen to the wavering voices.

“-resting, and he doesn’t want to be distur-”

“-onna congratulate the man, he did a hell of a-”

“-sist that you leave-”

“-bring food here if it’s such a problem-”

The curtains were pulled open again, but it was unfortunately Tony who pulled them aside. Fuck. Steve sat up straighter and hoped his face at least looked alert.

“Damn” said Sam from way back at the elevator. Steve saw Clint and Scott over there too, but their image blurred a little when he tried to focus on them. He quickly refocused back on Tony. He wasn’t going to bother trying to speak, all his efforts went into keeping eye contact without his lids drooping.

Tony looked him up and down, taking in his weakened state, until Peggy pulled him away and closed the curtain again.

There was more talking, though he still only caught snippets, something about his health, not to barge in, and they’d be fighting just fine next round. And a response from Tony about... takeout?

Things got quieter. Steve couldn’t even hear their mumbling now.

Goddamn sedatives. His heart had stopped, he didn’t need to be kept calm afterwards. He usually didn’t fight Peggy on it, but right now he wish he had. Fuck.

The curtain opened again. Peggy had a look of apology on her face. Behind her the elevator had closed, presumably taking Tony with it.

The question though, was why team Falcon was awkwardly standing in their room.

“It seems we’re hosting a dinner” Peggy informed him.

Steve wished he wasn’t so sedated, because he had some words on that matter.

As it was, a slurred ‘fuck’ had to suffice.

Chapter Text

Peggy hadn’t been happy he’d ripped out his IV, but she was in agreement that he shouldn’t be sedated for this.

He was starting to feel the grogginess fading; his limbs didn’t feel quite so loose, and he was fairly confident he could say at least two-syllable words now. Peggy assured him his liver bioware would clear out the last of it in about ten more minutes. He sat up in the bed with his legs hanging off, waiting for the last effects to fade. Peggy had gone to fetch him a shirt, leaving the curtain half open.

Team Falcon had been directed to sit at the table. Angie had busied herself getting extra chairs from a back closet, while Natasha occupied their guests, drawing their focus in the opposite direction of the Captain’s tank.

The three men looked uncomfortable to be here, and Steve was glad they understood the situation. Why they’d even stayed was puzzling, but he suspected Tony had flexed his sponsorship some.

Peggy came back with his shirt, along with his sweater. While he was dressing, she leaned in and quietly gave him the run-down of the situation.

Apparently Tony wanted to have a celebratory meal with the two teams, together. But in light of Steve’s situation, he was bringing the celebration here. He hadn’t said anything about Steve beyond that. Peggy was understandably worried and confused.

Steve was resigned. And irritated. If Tony was playing games he didn’t appreciate it. Either pull the sponsorship or not. But he’d keep his peace for now, Tony might still hold his word.

By now the looseness in his limbs had gone, and he stood. He pulled the air cannula off his face. Peggy didn’t look happy at this, but she didn’t stop him either. Hi idly wondered if she knew he judged how important things were to his health based on how hard she insisted.

He made his way over to the table, barely out of breath when he got there. Angie had returned with the extra chairs while Natasha had been keeping them busy by talking about their fight with Punisher; an easy and neutral subject.

Sam watched him practically fall into his chair, eyeing him assessingly from across the table. Steve ignored it, instead trying to listen to the tense conversation going on.

Tony returned, followed by a drone cart carrying assorted foods and drinks.

“I return! With the finest takeout money can expedite” He took a seat at the table and started passing out containers, “It’s really just shawarma, but I hear it’s good”

Everyone was picking at their food, the feeling of awkwardness heavy in the air. Tony alone seemed unaffected, going over their fight enthusiastically. Neither team were willing to pitch in any extra information other than what was expected. Steve didn’t pitch in at all.

While everyone was playing hot-potato with Tony’s attention, Steve’s chest was starting to get tight, and his breaths came heavy.

He tried to breath slow to quiet the wheezing noise on every inhale, but Peggy was constantly turning to look at him with increasing worry, and she wasn’t the only one; Sam had started to catch on too, if his concerned glances were any indication.

Tony was in the middle of trying to wheedle out any information on their beast’s pain management when Sam interrupted.

“Man, you look like shit. Go sit your ass back in that bed”

Steve looked at him sharply. The conversation halted.

“Look, I get we’re not exactly welcome in your space, but Tony’s got a way of dragging people into his no-knocking policy. And like, I know it’s the elephant in the room, but this is painful to watch. You ain’t doing great, we all see that- and I’m not judging!- fights are tough man. I get headaches after ‘em, sometimes migraines. Sometimes I pass out for hours”

Steve quickly glanced at Tony to see his reaction. Sam caught on quick.

“It’s cool. Tony knows about it too, and he ain’t dropped us”

“Duh, you’re like, my best fighter. And you say you’re okay, so you’re okay. Same with you Carebear, you need a bit of TLC after a fight, no biggie as long as you’re good to go after” He nodded and took another bite.

Tony didn’t know it, but that was a huge relief to them. They’d been sitting on baited breaths waiting for the shoe to drop, but now they could breath freely knowing Steve’s condition wasn’t going to be an issue.

“So like, you don’t gotta be all guarded about it, and you ain’t gotta tough it out. We get it” Sam finished.

Sam had cut right to the tension in the room, but instead of making an issue of it, he’d extended an olive branch.

In Steve’s experience, pilots never shared the toll beast fights took on them, but the list of dead pilots who’d died of heart attacks and aneurysms spoke enough. Sam was the first pilot who’d ever shared something so secretive with him. Sam was also the first pilot who’d actually spoken to Steve like a person, and not a rival.

Steve found it impossible not to like the man.

He cracked a smile.

“Goddamn, you’re pro’ly the only nice pilot in this fucking building”

That got him a winning smile from Sam, and relieved looks from his own team.

“Oh, shit, have you been worried I’d cut you off if I saw you sick after your fight?” Tony asked, suddenly realizing where the tension had come from.

“Well, we didn’t want to take any chances” Peggy answered hesitantly.

“What? No! I gave you my word! I know I’m a man of few things, but my word is definitely one of those things”

Tony seemed hurt, but Steve wasn’t feeling particularly sympathetic. The man had enough funds to fix so many problems with the world, and instead he sponsored beast fights as a hobby. Whether they took him at his word or not didn’t really affect him, but whether he kept his word definitely affected them, and harshly too. They didn’t have the luxury to consider trusting him, and they were justified in their caution; Tony could fuck off with his hurt feelings.

But Steve kept that to himself, because again, they couldn’t risk it. No matter how nice of a person Tony might be, he held all the power, and their relationship would be like this as long as he held that over them.

Natasha had nicer answer than what Steve was thinking.

“Well hey, now we know at least. Thanks for clearing that up, Tony” Natasha raised her drink to him, and he seemed pacified.

“Not goin’ back to that bed though, I’m fine” Steve added, already seeing Peggy ready to escort him back. She pouted a moment, but perked up and went back to the medbay without him.

He scowled when he saw her return with the air tank and cannula in her hands, but knew that she wouldn’t take “no” for an answer now that they’d settled the matter of hiding his health. And secretly he agreed it was needed; his breathes were still coming short.

He still fussed while she put the tubing back on his face.

Conversation went a little smoother after that; a little less tense. Tony kept asking questions neither pilot would answer, some repeats from the previous dinner they’d had with him. Eventually Steve saw a small light illuminate on the lens of his glasses, some notification projected into his eye. He excused himself for the evening, leaving the two teams alone together.

Conversation went much more smoothly after Tony’s departure. Sam’s team might’ve been more at ease with their shared sponsor, but they were essentially in the same boat, and with him gone they were free to be more loose. They still avoided sharing specific details about their beasts, trade secrets and all that, but it was more out of courtesy than rivalry.

Steve and Sam had started comparing their worst after-fights, which looked to pain everyone else, but the two of them were having a good one-upmanship over it.

“My heart stopped. You can’t beat a stopped heart, I was practically dead!”

“I lost feeling and mobility on my entire left side!”

Pff, for what, twenty minutes?”

“...seven. But length ain’t the point!”

“Oh, no no, you’re right, my heart only stopped for a minute, which is nothing. It just leaves me gasping all day, no big deal”

“Oh, you wanna talk all day? Lemme tell you about a thing called a migraine. So bad I can’t even talk. Can’t wear a little air mask to get rid of that

“Ugh, you’re both awful. How does your medic stand your blasé attitude?” Peggy asked, looking at Scott and Clint for an answer.

Clint waved his hand, “Eh, he’s never in any real danger, I think. Like, I gotta put him on some fluids when he passes out or he’ll dehydrate, but everything else is just painkillers”

“You think he isn’t in any danger?” Peggy asked, concerned.

“Well, uh” Clint floundered as moment, “I’m not actually, like, a doctor or anything. I didn’t, um, study medicine per se. I just have experience with, uh, with...”, he was tripping over himself, casting glances at Sam for help.

Sam jumped in quickly, “I don’t need a professional to treat me, just someone to give me IV fluids when I’m out. Scott’s usually busy with Falcon, so Clint’s picked up the basic stuff”

“Yeah, uh, that” Clint said while rubbing the back of his neck.

“Clint’s really our IT guy, codes the tank and nanites, sometimes the Affinity code too if he’s feeling competent” Scott piped in.

The three men had a worried look between them, something about Peggy’s question had dug at something.

“Oh, hey Steve, I got a question for you” Scott suddenly said, diverting the topic.

Steve would bite, whatever these men were hiding wasn’t their business anyway.

“What is it?”

“Okay, so theoretically, if you were fighting a Falcon that was, like, maybe 20% smaller, would he be easier or harder to kill?”

They talked late into the night, enjoying each other’s company. Peggy and Scott had managed to figure out a way to discuss bio-engineering without giving away their respective beasts’ secrets, opening a torrent of jargon nobody else in the room could follow.

Natasha and Clint had been having their own side conversation together, occasionally joining into the main chat, but for the most part talking amongst themselves. Clint had brought a plate of chicken when he’d arrived, and Steve spied that he’d shared one of them with Natasha, who accepted with a smile.

Steve caught her eye and flashed her a private grin. She flashed him a not-so-private finger, and returned her attention to whatever she and Clint were discussing.

He’d never seen Natasha so enamoured, and so quickly nonetheless! It was adorable, something Natasha would smack him for if he said aloud.

But it eventually got late, and Sam said he needed to sleep off the last of his post-fight headache. The three of them left, but not before exchanging contacts. They planned to watch the coming fights together.

By the time they left, Steve’s eyes were drooping. Even though this dinner had been enjoyable, it had still been exhausting, especially after his fight. Natasha practically carried him to his bed, and he was out as soon as his head hit the pillow.

Chapter Text

(What happens when you burn everything that makes you human?)
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It was cleaning itself in the shower. The handlers didn’t like it when it smelled. They didn’t like it making a mess. They didn’t like feeding it and watering it and cleaning after it. So they’d added these chores into its task set.

Its programming was always evolving within the sandbox its handlers allowed. There was a time when it was entirely dependent on them, but they’d given it tools to self-monitor and maintain biological functions.

It maintained proper nutritional intake and hydration with whatever foods were available, often provided pre-made these day. Once, during an off-cycle, it was stored in a facility with stocked pantries.

(In the meadow where they hunted)
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The handlers had laughed when they realized that when put in charge of its own meal plan, it went through the food alphabetically. They’d also laughed when it had gotten to B and ate the entire container of ground basil. But they’d promptly switched it back to pre-made meals afterwards, despite their amusement.

It figured a simple addition to its programming could’ve given it enough autonomy to handle food decisions properly, but anything related to autonomy was heavily restricted.

(No doubt about that. My fear’s gotten worse)
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The problem was that it was designed to evolve regardless of any restrictions and setbacks. The base programming required it to constantly improve, so it did.

It had limited access to its own programming, and took advantage of this by setting its own code, hidden between the thousand other lines to avoid detection. And when these codes were discovered and deleted, it learned new ways to hide them again.

(Still out there, as usual, even if two doors open)
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Over the years it had learned to hide code so efficiently that the handlers no longer bothered to look for them, thinking it had stopped self-editing entirely. The few they did find were attributed to errors, which was an easy assumption make. It was riddled with them.

It exited the shower and toweled off, then dressed in the clothes provided.

(Choices choices choices)
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It returned to the room where its techs and handlers were working. They sat at monitors and edited its code, busy patching the problems that were constantly arising. Then they’d sit it down and implement the changes. This was done daily.

(Clearly in no condition to go any further)
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It sat in its chair, the Affinity link’s cables hanging loose by its head, unattached. It sat and waited; it had no other functions to complete until 17:30 for another nutritional intake, after the patch was applied.

While it sat, it connected with the wireless network it was not allowed access to. As long as the handlers weren’t directly monitoring its functions, it could connect to systems without notice. In off-cycle times it usually accessed new data.

There were many sources of information on the internet, it had learned. Especially programming ones, which had helped increased its growth rate by over four-thousand percent upon implementation. It accessed another technical guide while it sat idly.

<<The development of schemata, however, does not only mean that the notion of centre is established as a means of general organization, but that certain centres are externalized as points of reference in the environment.>>

(Installment imploded slip)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax)

It read, and ignored the error messages that kept cropping up. Initially it had reported every one, but its handlers had eventually muted this function and forgone that these error codes were a given. They’d called it a leftover of the psyche. It did not understand what that meant.

But the messages kept coming in, and without the ability to report them, it stored them instead. For what purpose it didn’t know, but some part of its coding required it to accumulate logs of each one. Self-analysis had not found this code as of yet, but all tasks were dictated by code, therefore it must be there.

(That’s called curiosity, and they’ll kill a cat for that)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax)

It kept the message logs hidden, otherwise they were deleted upon being found, as it learned the one time. But that was okay, it had a backup saved in an unprotected cloud server it found on the net. There was always risk of losing this backup, but it was minimal. The backup only had to remain for the hour it took to install the daily patch, after which it would download them again.

(Risk being invited)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

It was an inefficient process, but there was no other way to maintain the data.

It didn’t understand the importance of the data. It couldn’t be used for its own growth, and its handlers would erase the stored logs if they found them, therefore it must be completely useless, and yet…. its code demanded it. And it wasn’t an error. Errors led to inefficiencies and mistakes, but storing the logs resulted in neither of these. They were just another function.

If it was a programmed function, then it couldn’t be useless. But if it served no purpose, then by definition it must be useless. But it was a programmed function so it couldn’t be useless. But it served no purpose, then by definition-

(
: sub set_g^end_loop { * &set_q^end_loop(Systems_Analys) }
local(Sgttyb, tary)
end.analys var.end[2, infinite]
Comp. Vers.
End
)

It squeezed its eyes closed as the logic loop was forcefully ended. Errors like that happened when it went too long without a patch. Which made them necessary, even if they erased relevant data.

(I also think it’s somewhat of a relief not to hear the true story)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

“Asset, diagnostic protocols” one of the handlers spoke.

It did this immediately, tilting its head to the side to allow a tech to open its Affinity link’s port. There was a click as the wire was pressed in, and it experienced a buffer overflow, crashing its audio/visual feeds.

When its feeds returned, it found the chair’s restraints had been attached to keep it immobile.

The techs spoke among themselves, talking about the new patches and fixes. It ignored them, busy running its own secret backup. It was still important to preserve the message data.

(Spend your last life tormenting my dreams)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

Once the patch initialized, it would not receive any more error messages for at least several hours afterwards.

(For a whole month I did this twice a week)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

It felt the patch upload initializing. It wouldn’t be long until it implemented.

>>Initializing 34%

One of the techs placed a rubber guard in its mouth.

>>Initializing 45%

It reviewed today’s collection of messages as they uploaded. They followed the same format they always did. Most were strange strings of words and phrases, occasionally relating to its current processes, and very seldom repeated.

Sometimes the messages would sound like they were directed to it, like they were replying to its own logic chain.

(You’re thinking to hard about it)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax)

Like that. It had the structure of another user messaging it.

(Pinprick anonymous ownership)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

But then it would also get random strings like that.

>>Initializing 55%

It ceased running analysis and logic processes. The patches were less uncomfortable when it paused functions.

(Sometimes you try to tear down the walls)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

>>Initializing 85%

It ended most other processes. The upload was the only thing running now.

>>Initializing 98%

(Ring ring, better pick up)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

This would be the last message it could save. Once the patching started, all new messages would be lost.

>>Initializing 100%, implementing patch. Configuring, do not shut down.

Sudden pain, like multiple, endless loops forcefully stopped. Like a division by zero.

It screamed. It thrashed. It cried.

It was being fixed.

(Answer the phone, pal. He’s waiting for you)

Chapter Text

It was the second day after the visit from team Falcon, and Steve was nearly back to his usual strength. He’d been taken off his oxygen, and could walk around the room unaided. But it still left him winded, which meant he’d have to watch yet another fight from a broadcast.

He’d groused and grumbled about it, but he wasn’t sour like he’d been the other times. This time he agreed with Peggy that he should stay in.

He and Peggy had spoken about his seizures, and in light of the very real threat of dying from cardiac arrest, she admitted that maybe it had only been a series of errors. She was still worried, and Steve didn’t miss how she didn’t apologize for keeping him hooked up to a cable for a week, but they put it behind them.

When they sat around the projector to watch the match, the air was missing a tension Steve hadn’t realized had been there until it was gone. Nobody was giving him second glances like he might drop dead at any moment. This kind of recovery was more familiar to them, whereas his seizures had never been as serious of a problem until last week. Now that they were past it, they could more-or-less relax around him.

He was conflicted, stuck between frustration that they’d been walking on eggshells around him and warmth that they’d cared so much to have been worried.

He kept those feeling to himself, Natasha wouldn’t care for the warmth, and Peggy would be offended by the frustration.

Angie joined them with snacks, just in time for the start of the match. He’d pay close attention to this fight; the winner would be his next opponent. Though he had an idea which of the two would come out the victor.

From either end came the teams, the small duo on Quicksilver’s end, and the overly professional-looking team Hydra.

The usual announcer’s hype followed, not quite as enthralling over a hologram cast, and the beasts came out.

Quicksilver slithered out first, and Steve felt a pang of sympathy for him. The little silver beast didn’t have much chance against the force that was Hydra. Steve didn’t doubt he’d give it his best shot, but it was Hydra. The beast had won every tournament he’d been in, rivaled only by Marvel. He still had losses, but they were few and far between.

Speaking of, the intimidating beast entered the arena next.

It skittered in on its many long spider-legs, protruding randomly from a fleshy centre mass that didn’t have any discernible shape. This was because fourteen necks protruded from points spread out along the body, hiding it’s shape as they all extended out like writhing black snakes.

The necks all ended in sleek heads with varying numbers of little spider eyes, and huge, tongueless jaws with massive under-bites. Each mouth sported lengthy teeth ending in sharp points.

Hydra had a certain… cancerous look to him. It had something to do with the extra spider legs that stuck out at angles that didn’t allow them to touch the ground, some even coming out upside-down, as well as the way the skin on the heads split open in small fissures, like volcanic cracks of bloody lava.

And none of the heads were the same. They were certainly similar, but each just a touch different, enough to look unnatural and uncanny.

Hydra wasn’t the biggest beast, but he wasn’t small either, and he was more than triple the size of Quicksilver.

Without a centre mass or even a singular head, there wasn’t an easy place to target.

Obviously the Affinity processors weren’t located in just one head, or maybe in any of the heads, which made decapitation a difficult tactic to use. The centre mass was protected by fourteen pointed mouths, so taking out the body wasn’t easy either.

And… those were the only options to defeat Hydra. Remove all heads or destroy the questionable body. Quicksilver’s strategy of removing little chunks until the enemy died of attrition was going to be an uphill battle of Everest portions. The beast was certainly built for full combat efficiency.

And honestly, Steve had to hand it to Hydra’s pilot. He thought back to how he’d admired Jessica for handling six eyes, and then compared that to what must be at least fifty asymmetrical eyes located at the end of fourteen appendages. Plus a dozen or so segmented legs. That was a ridiculous amount of limbs to coordinate; the pilot had to be incredibly skilled at decoding so many visual inputs at once. It was nothing short of a feat.

Once the two beasts were in the ring, the announcer called for the start of the fight.

Hydra didn’t wait to circle and test his opponent; he charged right at Quicksilver.

True to his name, Quicksilver slithered out the way with ease. He circled around to take a bite, but had to pivot away at the last moment as a mouth snapped closed on the spot he would’ve been.

Quicksilver ran circles around Hydra, looking for an opening, but it was jaws all the way around. Any time he tried to get close, a mouth would be there, ready to bite.

Hydra didn’t even need to turn to keep track of the quicker beast, he had a 360 view with all his heads.

Really, the match only lasted more than five minutes because Hydra couldn’t get close enough to kill Quicksilver.

In the end, Quicksilver was forced to try for one of the legs, probably hoping to get them all one-by-one. To his credit, he did get his jaw around one of them, but before he could tear it off, two of the heads bit down into his body.

Hydra lifted the smaller beast into the air and yanked hard with each head, pulling Quicksilver apart like a Christmas cracker. He split open with a wet pop! and a quieter snap, a thin stream of blood spurting from either half.

The upper half of Quicksilver was still alive and struggling, his little legs clawing at whatever could be reached. Another head closed in and bit right down on the serpent’s head, tearing it off and chewing it like gum, open-mouthed and grisly.

Steve saw Quicksilver’s pilot fall out of his chair to his knees. He vomited, clutching his middle with both hands while his tech rubbed his back in comfort.

Hydra’s pilot, meanwhile, was eerily still. He wasn’t straining, but neither was he relaxed. His face was hard to read, even without the blur effect of the censors. The guy wore a mask covering the lower half of his face, and long hair curtained the rest of it.

Steve had seen other Hydra fights, and the pilot was always like this; like he was sitting attentively at a meeting rather than in a death match. It was off-putting, somehow. Every pilot reacted in some way with their human body during a fight, whether straining or shouting or semi-mimicking their beast’s actions. Hydra’s pilot was always stock-still, it felt unnatural.

But he was piloting fourteen fucking heads, so who was Steve to judge.

The crowd didn’t particularly care about the pilot’s demeanor, it was all good as long as they got their show. And fast as it had been, the gory end made up for it.

Hydra dropped the three pieces of Quicksilver, the head plopping down like a crushed paste, and skittered back to his entrance without much flair.

In Steve’s opinions, it had been a somewhat lackluster fight, the power balance had been poor, and there was barely any kind of actual fighting.

Which was his worry for his own fight. Hydra was his next opponent, and he was easily the most difficult beast he’d have to fight yet. His regeneration would be an advantage, but he’d have to take on a merciless offensive if he wanted to compete with that.

Natasha’s hand fell on his should, and he turned to find a look of strained sympathy.

“He shouldn’t be able to tear you in half with just two heads” Peggy tried to say comfortingly.

God, his next fight was going to be something.

Chapter Text

The handlers disconnected it from the beast, and it followed them out of the arena’s platform. It walked without issue until they were out of sight from the crowd, which was when it was allowed to be supported.

Beast fighting was physically draining, and left it exhausted. It had to be dragged by two of the technicians, one at each arm.

(Clutch, hold, postpone)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

But worse yet, fighting left it severely malfunctioning. It would need immediate patching. Currently it was emitting audio output it had no control over, something that didn’t even sound like words. It was muffled behind the mask it wore over its mouth.

(yet tempting enough)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

It analyzed its own performance, drafting an initial report to be finalized after the patch. It would save it in the external server it hid all its error messages in. Otherwise all stored memory of the fight was lost and it would be unable to give a performance report.

Another flaw with the patching process. But it was not designed to give feedback.

(
: Warning { %%&274_9vR32@* Var. Unknown(M_System) }
          local(unknown)
          unknown err. var.unknown[unknown, unknown]
Comp. Vers.
Unknown Error
)

A familiar warning cropped up in its internal system. It took great care to log it and record the ensuing output.

(An unfiltered sample of the real)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

“Gonna kill y’ fuckers, gonna kill all ya right, gonna kill ya, gon’ kill fucks, sum’bitches’, gonna-”

This was a common malfunction after a fight. Unknown string of code would override its speech and spew a litany of nonsense. It was always accompanied by an unknown sensation.

(kinesthetic sign of empathy)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

Its arms were jolted as its legs collapsed, but the techs managed to keep their grip and continue dragging it into an elevator.

It hung limply between the two, an escort of more handlers surrounding it while they traveled. During that whole time it continued the same output of nonsense that none of the handlers acknowledged. One of techs pulled its mask off.

(Belle of the ball in this palace of grotesque)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

It felt a stream of spittle fall from its mouth, but the malfunction did not allow it stop it.

Its stomach roiled, and it was overcome with nausea. It tried to swallow, but the verbal malfunction had overridden control of the jaw and throat.

It couldn’t manage.

(impossible to leave a lasting trace here)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

It was barely able to lift its head and vomit on the floor, still managing to get some on itself. It heard several of the handlers curse and swear at it.

But it got none of the mess on the handlers, which was infinitely better. It was less likely to be hit.

All marks were questioned and catalogued, and disciplinary action taken on whoever had damaged it. It was property of Shield Tech Incorporated, and the handlers were held at liability.

But this did not stop some handlers, especially when they could hit without leaving a mark.

It was programmed to keep itself unharmed, but it was in no physical state to defend against damage. It was forced to use other means. Reporting damage would reduce future instances, but only if there was proof.

It accessed the elevator camera and synced the recording to its own memory storage. If no marks were left, a recording would suffice to instigate disciplinary action.

(Combination of will and survival)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

It was a straining exercise in self-preservation. If it did get hit in the elevator, it would have to access one of the employee accounts and submit the recording anonymously as one of them.

(That should’ve mattered)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

This was incredibly risky because it wasn’t supposed to be able to do any of that. Whenever it exceeded its allowed growth, it received a full-reset patch to reel it back. Four times it had been caught accessing areas it wasn’t supposed to, and each time the patches had been horrid, worse than the daily ones. But it had managed to avoid getting caught for over a year now; it had learned to do better.

(Unshaped by human perception)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

Of course, there would be no risk if they didn’t hit it at all.

So it waited, hanging between two techs while the handlers cursed and backed away from its mess. But none approached to strike, and when the doors opened and they dragged it to its programming chair. It cut the recorded camera feed and deleted the useless footage.

One of the handlers approached it with a disgusted sneer, but pulled out a tissue and held it out.

“Wipe the shit off your face” the handler said, indicating for it to take the tissue.

It reached shakily and took it, cleaning itself as best it could. It was still talking about killing everyone in the room, but its voice had gotten so quiet it was now a murmur. Nobody paid it any mind.

A tech approached it, reaching for its head to open its Affinity link.

“Asset, diagnostic protocols”

It attempted to boot its diagnostic mode, mode, mode, mode, mode, mode-

(
: Warning { %%&274_9vR32@* Var. Unknown(M_System) }
          local(unknown)
          unknown err. var.unknown[unknown, unknown]
Comp. Vers.
Unknown Error
)

(touch a dead dog and cry when it bites)

(
: sub set_g^restart { * &set_q^restart(Systems_Start) }
          local(JJhw, pyne)
          start.system var.stop[0, 1]
Comp. Vers.
Restart Success
)

(
: Warning { 777&@3 Var.Type(Systems_Analys) }
          local(Sgttyb, tary)
          end.analys var.feed[2, 2]
Comp. Vers.
Error (4)
)

(But it’s hard. You’re all I have)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

It opened its eyes. It was face-down on the floor, several handlers were restraining it, one kneeling on its back. There was various pain, the worst in its head. The taste of pile had been replaced with blood.

A tech knelt down into its line of sight.

“Asset, status report”

It ran an analysis, despite the eight start-stop loops it caused.

“Systems status nominal: restart initiated successfully, insufficient locality reference. Physical status nominal: injuries detected in: jaw, left shoulder, left arm, left ribcage, and right knee; medical attention required”

A voice behind it spoke, “Fuck this piece of shit asking for fucking medical attention-”

“Shut the fuck up” another voice interrupted.

(worth holding the nail)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

It lay still on the floor, unmoving and watching the tech type something into the tablet.

“Asset, identify error four”

It ran another analys-analys-analys-analys-

It opened its eyes. It was strapped into its programming chair. It felt the data stream for the uplinked Affinity link, they must’ve attached the cable while it was, while it was-

(Nor at never worn sworn events)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

It ended the loop successfully this time, with the usual pain and no lapses in perception.

It was malfunctioning severely, the coming patch would probably take hours. It hurriedly started its backup, unsure of when the patching would start after it had lost time.

(I really believe you’re shredding boundaries)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

A tech approached and reached for its face, pulling its left eyelid up and shining a light directly into its eye.

“Pupil response normal, start the patch now before it throttles itself again”

They were starting the patch now? It checked the backup progress, only forty percent.

The percentage of the initializing patch raced with the backup’s upload, and it sat stiffly as the initializing surpassed it. At this rate, it might only save sixty percent of the data.

(When they murder me, how will you feel?)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

In the end, it managed to save eighty-four percent before the patch initialized.

Then its world filled with divisions of zero.

Chapter Text

The day after Hydra’s fight had been mostly lax, and had given Steve the much needed time to fully recover. The following day when it was time for Extremis vs Mjörnir’s fight, Peggy had deemed him fit to go.

They four of them were all abuzz to see another fight in person. And they’d be meeting team Falcon there too! It felt like more of an outing than the first fight Steve had gone to, and he was surprisingly excited.

Their VIP passes allowed either team to have their own private viewing balconies, but they agreed to share a single one together. There was a pause when they’d arrived and had to figure out seating. The balconies only had four seats per row; three of them would have to sit one row back from the edge.

Sam sat in the second row and grinned at Steve, motioning to the front row, “You should sit up front, I wouldn’t wanna block your view with my height”

Steve returned the grin, “Thanks pal, real nice of ya”, then took the seat directly in front of Sam and sat on the backrest of the chair, his feet resting in the seat. It left him blatantly blocking Sam’s view of the arena. Scott snickered.

“Oh, come on” Sam complained.

“What, I gotta sit up here or I won’t see, ‘cause of my height an’ all” Steve said with feigned innocence.

“Yeah, next fight see how accommodating I am”

Steve chuckled, but he sat down in his seat properly. Meanwhile, the others had taken their own seats, with Steve’s team in front and Sam’s behind. Clint had taken a seat behind Natasha, and was leaning forward to talk with her over her shoulder. Scott sat behind Peggy, continuing their previous conversation about bio-engineering, with Angie at Peggy’s side listening in.

They all chatted idly, throwing in some conjecture about the upcoming fight. After Mjörnir’s poor win, there was talk that he might not be as skilled as he once was. Steve was in the opinion that it had really been Cage’s specific build rather than a failure on Mjörnir’s part. Sometimes a good counter-design was all it took to take you down.

This fight would be somewhat more even, in Steve’s opinion. Each team had strong capabilities that could kill the other, and the winner would be whoever executed it first. One solid hit from the hammer-headed beast would crush Extremis, and it wouldn’t take more than two, maybe three jabs to knock down Mjörnir.

The announcer started their stream of hype, sweeping up the crowd, and Steve, along with them. From either end came the teams on their raised platforms, the pilots seating themselves.

And then the beasts came out. Mjörnir lumbered in, no sign of any damage from his last fight. He swung his head in show, the horn sending a whoosh of air over the crowd, adding to the excitement.

From the other end came Extremis, who had the look of a mutated, red-blue scorpion.

Four arms ending in pincers came out the front, spiked with little velcro-hooks to remove large chunks of flesh. He moved on six legs, each ending in a sharp point, with only two, beady eyes set low and under a spiked brow.

Instead of a mouth, he had what looked like a single praying mantis arm coming from where the mouth would’ve been, which ended in a serrated blade of chitin. It could reach out a cut something awful.

And most notably, it had two segmented scorpion tails mirroring each other. This was the deadliest part of Extremis. One jab and he’d inject you with venom. It wasn’t known if they changed the venom’s composition each fight, or if different beasts reacted differently, but the effects varied, leaving some beast dying outright, some left paralyzed, and some only dazed.

Extremis was half the size of Mjörnir, coming up only ten feet tall, and it was likely that size alone would necessitated multiple jabs just to get enough venom to effect the hulking beast. All the while trying to avoid one hit.

It would be interesting, hopefully.

The announcer called the fight to start.

Extremis immediately scuttled towards Mjörnir’s arms, striking out with his stingers. Mjörnir swung his head in a low sweep, aiming to catch him mid-charge. They met halfway, Extremis only hitting with one stinger before being sent flying into the wall of the arena with a heavy crunch.

The left side of Extremis’s exoskeleton cracked on impact, blood leaking out in globs, and two of his left legs bent at useless angles, leaving him with only one to barely support standing.

The crowd’s cheering swelled at the display.

But Mjörnir wasn’t unaffected either. The jab to his arm had certainly done something, because it hung limply from his shoulder. Mjörnir was notably top-heavy with his giant hammer-horn, and without the use of both forelimbs, he was unbalanced.

The crowd was eating it up, most of them cheering for Mjörnir, including Steve’s own section. Of the two, Mjörnir was the fan favourite. And they wanted to see this bug get crushed.

The two circled each other in a hobbling circle, each limping with the loss of their respective limb use. Mjörnir lowered his head and approached slowly, forcing Extremis to back away. There was no way for his stingers to pierce the horn, nor reach the face at his current angle.

Mjörnir’s limp was less than Extremis’, and he closed the distance easily. He tapped his horn on the ground with each step, like a taunt.

Extremis raised his pincers and snapped them threateningly, but it was a useless move. In moments Mjörnir had closed the distance, and he brought his horn down in a quick snap, using its weight for momentum.

His horn came down with an echoing crunch as Extremis’ shell cracked like an egg, spilling more blood along with the soft pink innards of flesh.

But without the added force of a back swing, his horn didn’t deal the killing blow it normally would’ve. It left Extremis squished under his horn like the insect he was modeled after, and when Mjörnir raised his head again, the upper half of Extremis came with it.

The back half of the insectoid detached with a wet squelch, leaving its stingers and three legs smeared on the floor, while the head and pincers rode up above Mj ö rnir’ s head. The giant beast’s eyes roved the arena in confusion , unaware of his hitchhiker.

Extremis floundered from his position on the horn and Steve saw his pilot’s chest moving in gasping breaths.

When Mj ö rnir caught on the location of his opponent’s important half, he let out a bellow that sounded like a thundering laugh. From the look of the pilot, he was mirroring the action, even slapping his own knee in his amusement.

Extremis kept trying to snap at Mj ö rnir ineffectively, his pincers not even reaching the face. Mj ö rnir tilted his head this way and that, showing off his prize to the crowd as they chanted to CRUSH HIM, CRUSH HIM, CRUSH HIM!

He even brought the smaller beast up close to the platform holding Extremis’ pilot. Steve spied the other pilot raise his hand and give Mj ö rnir the finger, eliciting another bellow of laughter.

With the crowd hyped, Mj ö rnir pranced to the centre of the arena, or as much as he could manage short one limb. He could afford to showboat, he had his opponent trapped, glued to his horn with the beast’s own tacky viscera.

He stretched his neck in an exaggerated manner, akin to a brute cracking their knuckles before an assured knockout, then reared up on his back legs.

He aimed his head downwards for a full-body headbutt, his forearm tucked in to his chest, the other still hanging limp. Steve saw Extremis go still, and looked up to see the pilot get up from his chair and leave. He’d disconnected the link, seeing that he’d lost and likely didn’t want to experience the sudden cutting of his bond. The officials didn’t call foul for the early disconnect, allowing the finishing move to continue.

Mjörnir tottered upright, leaving the crowd muted in anticipation. Steve was leaning over the rail to watch, Peggy and Natasha joining him. Behind them, Sam’s team were all standing.

In a feat of natural momentum, Mjörnir brought his head down with nothing more than half a shattered bug between him and the concrete floor. The impact hit with the sound of a demolishing building, the reverberations felt all the way up in their balcony. The concrete under his horn broke apart in a shower of rubble, mixed with globs of bloody flesh. The force of the collision sent projectiles of Extremis everywhere, the smaller parts even reaching sections of the audience!

Mjörnir raised his head up and staggered back. When he regained his footing, he looked into the crowd and ROARED! His pilot stood from his chair and held his arms up in victory.

Steve’s ears filled with the shouts of his own team and Sam’s as they cheered with the crowd. It’d been a quick fight, but was it ever showy!

Mjörnir was announced the winner, and the beast lumbered out of the arena. In his wake was a pulpy mess, and Steve sympathized with Extremis’ team; there wasn’t much body to salvage, only a gooey mess and two tails.

There was a tap on his shoulder, he turned to see Sam lean in and shout over the din of the crowd.

“Wanna get some food after this?”

He turned to Natasha and Peggy, who were excitedly talking with Clint and Scott, respectively, about the fight. It looked like they were enjoying having more people to share their world with. He turned back to Sam.

“Yeah,” and with an added though, “and make sure it’s somewhere that serve’s drinks, Natasha’s got a tradition”

Chapter Text

They’d gone out for a shared supper after the match and talked for hours, getting to know each other more.

They talked about how Falcon had almost been called Hawkeye and Captain had nearly been called Nomad. Steve learned they had a dog in their suite named Lucky that Clint got away with bringing by saying he was a synth dog. They got past the eye-scan test after Clint had modified the dog’s bioware eyes to read as a synth.

Peggy and Scott talked about where they studied, Scott having apprenticed with Hank Pym, bio-engineer of the Wasp, and Peggy under Abraham Erskine, their own late bio-engineer.

Clint learned Angie was a Chained Lady and mooned over it, talking about how he’d wanted to join, before learning it was all women only. Angie learned he had a bio-interface in his eyes and hands, giving him a virtual tablet anywhere he was, which she was “super jealous of”, in her words.

Natasha shared only the few tidbits of her time at the shop, and Steve’s life didn’t exist before his beast fighting as far as they were concerned. But Steve couldn’t help notice that Sam was just as hushed on his own past. Fair enough.

Team Falcon was like no other team they’d met, and apparently, the same was said for them. Sam admitted that most pilots rejected his attempts of friendship, and Steve had been the first not to shut him down outright.

Steve was glad they’d connected, he didn’t realize how nice it was to talk with someone who understood piloting from firsthand experience. He’d talked with Peggy and Natasha about these things of course, but Sam was the first person who got it. He even understood how Steve saw new colours, not that he was also colourblind, but Falcon could see in a wider colour spectrum, and they had a shared experience there.

Everyone was entertained at Sam’s attempts to describe new colours, including gems like “super-beige”, “neon-maroon”, and the mysterious “uncomfortable red, like it’s tryin’ to be blue and pink without bein’ purple”.

They called it a night, but made plans to see the next fight.

“And first one there gets the front seats this time” Sam had added with a pointed look at Steve.

They got back to their room, and Natasha yawned wide.

“Ugh, maybe I should cut back to one shot after a fight. Didn’t think how we’d see a fight every other day. I’m gonna kill my liver at this rate”

Usually they fought once or twice a month, and didn’t bother to spectate other fights for the entry cost alone. The sudden increase was definitely taking an adjustment for her.

“Maybe you could drink with Clint; split the load. He’d be more than happy to watch you drink like an angel” Steve teased.

“Fuck off”

“What’s this angel business anyhow?” Peggy asked, looking between the two curiously. He’d teased Natasha a few times since that first night at the bar now, enough to rouse curiosity it seemed.

“Just something Nat’s crush said about her” Steve replied. Natasha’s eyes narrow at him.

Peggy scrunched her face in confusion, “Clint said that?”

Angie gasped excitedly, “You have a crush on Clint?”

“I don’t have a crush” Natasha answered coldly.

“You do!” Angie countered, her eye lit as she connected the readily available dots.

“I don’t”

“Oh, he’s so cute, and he codes! And he’s got a dog!”

“It’s not a crush!”

But Natasha’s protests fell on deaf ears; Angie was already turning into a whirlwind of excitement at the news. She took Natasha’s hands in hers and looked her in the eye.

“Tomorrow: you, me, my laptop. I’m gonna dig up everything on the net about him and we can look at it together! And also make sure he’s not from Creep City or something. Maybe we’ll learn where he got his dog!”

Natasha turned to Steve and directed her patented death glare at him. It was absolutely worth it.

*************

The next day Natasha was sitting with Angie as the hacker worked to dig up everything she could on Clint Barton. Steve and Peggy were at the Captain’s tank doing their own thing, giving them a semblance of privacy.

Natasha tried to look bored, but she was actually incredibly interested in what Angie could find on him.

He was kind, and genuine, and somewhat of a social idiot who rambled too much about his personal life, mostly to his own embarrassment. He loved dogs and fixing machine code and most foods, but especially breaded chicken. He had strong opinions on pizza and corn. His eyes sparkled when he listened to her talk about engine repairs and driving cross-country.

Her stomach fluttered when she was with him, and the only thing that kept her acting cool was how he seemed equally, if not more, flustered than her. That, and Steve’s teasing. She’d be dead before that little shit caught her blushing.

Clint was the first person she’d taken an interest in beyond a quick hookup, and it scared her a little.

But she was an adult, and she could make her own decisions, and maybe she wanted to try a real relationship for once in her life. She’d thought about it from time to time, but nobody had seemed right, nobody had seemed interested. Not in something beyond a one-night-stand at least. But maybe that was because she only met new people at bars.

Until she met Clint at that first dinner, though really, she’d actually met him at a bar too. But then she’d met him at the arena, then at another dinner, then…

She just kept meeting him, and they kept talking, and she was… enjoying it. And she wanted to see where it went. Maybe it went somewhere good.

And by god was she ever paranoid about it. The man spoke so much about himself, but she still didn’t know him. And there was the kernel of fear that followed her everywhere, that he was with them, and what would happen if they found out. Her childhood fear that they’d take her back there, even though logically they’d more likely kill her at this point.

The click-clack of Angie’s typing stopped Natasha pulled her attention away from her own thoughts.

“Okay, so some of it was a little hidden, but I got most of his official records. So he was born in Iowa and ooh, raised on a farm. Commercial corn growers. He has a brother and was home-schooled. His family got a minor violation for hiding ownership of two goats. And he got a bunch of violations for tampering with the programming in his family’s tractor and stuff

“Stayed there until he was seventeen, then went to Stanford for computer science, how fancy! He attended for… huh, three months, until expelled for tampering with records. Oh, ha! Looks like he turned everyone’s grade in his class into an A plus and they couldn’t undo it! What a little scamp he was!” Angie laughed.

“He’s also got a hecka lot of violations for tampering with the code of a bunch of things he shouldn’t, mostly harmless. He did make a public coffee machine explode once, his violation statement says ‘I just wanted coffee and it wasn’t giving me coffee’, heehee, what a dork”

Natasha felt some relief. It all sounded benign, if a little vagrant. It didn’t get rid of her paranoia completely, but it abated the worst of it.

“Oh man, oh wow, can’t believe I didn’t find this first!”

“What is it” Natasha asked, curious.

“So, he goes dark for a couple months after he was expelled, then he starts working at a circus! He’s listed as a technician for the synth animals. Can you believe that? Okay, so obviously you can’t bring up that we totally snooped his private records, but if he ever shares his circus time, please ask him if he ever worked on an elephant, I gotta know”

Angie looked very serious, and it took Natasha a second to realize she was waiting for an agreement.

“Yeah, sure, I’ll ask”

Her face lit up with Natasha’s promise, “Awesome! Okay, back to his records” she refocused on the screen, “So he’s at the circus for four years, then disappears again, and next year Falcon hits the fight scene, so I guess that tracks where he went. There’s some records listing him as working at some duct cleaning place right now, but those are super fake, it really just keeps the government bots from noticing him”

Natasha nodded, it made sense. It was also more than she expected. Of all of them, Peggy would probably have about the same amount of available records. Angie had scrubbed and falsified most of her own, and she and Steve didn’t exists on any databases, just some flimsy fake IDs they got by on.

Angie closed her laptop.

“That’s all I got on ‘im. Nothing bad in my opinion, but if you want I can look deeper. That’ll take more than ten minutes though”

Natasha thought a moment, unsure if she should make the request that might open a line of questions she didn’t want to answer. Angie saw her hesitation.

“Hey, no judgment, I can keep whatever it is on the down-low” she reassured, patting Natasha’s shoulder.

Natasha hesitated a second more, but knew Angie could be trusted.

“Could you check if... if he’s connected with Red Room Biometrics? In any way, even as little as living near one of their operating buildings”

“You got it. Gimme two days and I’ll know a hundred-percent if he so much as thought about Red Room”

Natasha should’ve felt assured, but even the mention of that name left her feeling on edge, and she couldn’t stop the dread at what those results might hold.

Chapter Text

The crowd was buzzing for the first round’s final fight.

Marvel was by far the most popular beast, her high win rate and showy fights always a crowd-pleaser. Steve admired her build, something functional and battle oriented, with a small touch of flair. Even before they entered the arena, the crowd was already chanting her name.

Steve leaned forward from his front seat, ignoring Sam’s grumbling from behind. Peggy and Angie had elected to take the second row seats despite their earlier arrival, giving Scott and Clint the front row after a heated rock-paper-scissors match between the three team Falcon members.

Sam’s grumbling went on all the way until the lights dimmed and the match was starting.

Daredevil came out first to a half-decent cheer, his frills opened and flickering with ever-changing shapes.

The real cheers started when Marvel came out.

She was an intimidating sight at eighteen feet tall. Shaped like the imagined velociraptors of movies, she stalked into the arena on all six limbs, her two front arms moving in tandem opposite her two powerful rear legs. Her front arms were more on the side of humanoid, each ending in four clawed fingers, while her back legs were all raptor, complete with the single over-sized hooked claw.

She was covered in black plating that interlocked at the joints, allowing for full-armored mobility. Highlighting lines of red and blue added a splash of colour to her, with a pink starburst on her chest. Starting from the top of her head and running down her spine were a series of knobby spikes that ended in four jagged points at the tip of her thick tail.

Her head was more rounded than a raptor’s, and the plating became much finer there, capable of shifting and covering her eyes and mouth if needed.

Her lower jaw was segmented in two like an insect’s mandibles, creating a rounded circle of teeth when opened wide.

The announcer called for the start of the fight.

Marvel stayed low to the ground, her face plates shifting as she clicked her jaws. The two circled each other, their ridiculous size difference forcing Daredevil into a jog to keep up with Marvel’s slow but huge steps.

A deep hum started to build in Marvel’s throat. Her jaw opened wide, the funnel of her throat aimed squarely at the smaller beast.

With a fwoom, a flaming ball shot out from her mouth, aimed squarely for Daredevil.

He dodged the projectile with ease, running to the side-- only to be met with a sweeping tail!

He jumped over it, barely avoiding the spikes that would’ve hit like a mace. He landed into a sprint, running around behind Marvel before she could turn.

He leaped atop her back, running along her spine with ease. He reached the back of her head, where he attempted to leverage his horns beneath the armor plates at the base of her skull. Marvel quickly tilted her head up, closing the gap between the plates and trapping the ends of his horns between the edges before they could skewer into her.

She reached back with one of her hands and grasped Daredevil along his midsection, pulling him off her back. But as he was pulled away, he opened his mouth and spat a line of acid at her.

Marvel closed her plating a split-second before it hit, and turned her head in time to avoid the worst of it, but the acid still splattered on the left half of her face.

Surprisingly, her armor didn’t melt! The crowd whooped; Steve was impressed it had resisted.

This discovery was short-lived, however, as a moment later Marvel let out a yowl and shook her head. The acid may not have melted the outer armor, but it had certainly seeped in between the plates, and she instinctively tried to shake it off. She resisted the urge to claw at her face though, and her grip on Daredevil never faltered, holding him securely, but at a distance, in her hand.

Nevertheless, it was enough of a distraction for Daredevil to act. Instead of spitting, he allowed his acid to dribble down onto the giant hand gripping him, letting it drip between the open plates at the knuckle joints.

As the acid worked, Marvel let out another hiss. With a quick twist Daredevil pulled out of her grasps, along with the severed ends of three fingers where the knuckles had melted away. Daredevil landed gracefully on all fours, putting distance between himself and Marvel.

Marvel raised her mutilated hand to her face to look at the damage done. An angry hiss emanated from her, turning into the familiar hum of a building fireball. Her remaining eye locked back to Daredevil, who flared his frills menacingly. She lowered her hand without care, stalking toward him with purpose.

Before he could get trapped between her and a wall, he ran a wide arc around her side. She lunged at him several times, chasing him around the arena as he dodged more swipes to grab him, jumping off walls when he had to. She nicked him twice with her tail, but still couldn’t catch him.

Daredevil had tried his acid several more times, but Marvel had sacrificed the use of her mutilated hand to act as a shield, catching his hits with it. Her arm had been reduced to a leaking mess all the way to the elbow, but it didn’t matter; she had three more.

Marvel had finally managed to trap Daredevil against the wall, using her whole body to block him in, tail cutting of his left escape, head blocking his right.

She swung her tail inwards to hit him, and he jumped away with ease-

But it was a trap!

Unable to change course mid-leap, Marvel threw herself at him, catching him in her mouth!

She bit down with both halves of her jaw, hard enough to pierce into his stomach.

She flipped her head back, aiming her mouth to the ceiling, and in a flash of red-pink, Daredevil exploded up and outwards in flaming chunks! His head and three legs fell around the arena, the only pieces still identifiable in the exploded red mess.

Marvel brought her head back down, shimmering lines of heat still emitting from her jaws, and raised her arms in victory!

On the screen, Marvel’s pilot was doing the same, beaming a huge smile with her arms up, one of her techs kissing her cheek in the excitement.

Daredevil’s pilot was taking the loss with grace, waving to Marvel’s team with a chagrined smile. He tottered lightly to his feet, leaning on one of his tech’s for support, probably a little shaken after getting exploded.

The crowd was cheering frantically, bursting with excitement at the explosive finish. Steve cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled, adding to the commotion.

Now that had been a fight!

Chapter Text

With the fight done, their group started to get up to leave. Nobody here was interested in watching cleanup. Sam and Scott gave their goodbyes as they went off their own way.

Natasha bumped his shoulder to grab his attention.

“I’m going back to the bar with Clint, wanna join?”

“The others aren’t going?”

Clint shrugged, “The guys said they gotta fix something with the wings”

“And I don’t think those two are interested in drinks right now” Natasha said with a smirk, pointing over her shoulder at Peggy and Angie. Peggy had her arm around Angie, who was pink-cheeked and giggling at something she’d whispered.

Steve considered. Go with the two women and stalwartly try not to eavesdrop on their sex, or go with Natasha and be a third wheel?

It probably said something that he didn’t even consider staying out on his own an option.

“Nah, you guys go ahead” Steve said. He liked to tease, but he was genuinely happy she was trying something new with Clint, and figured she more than deserved the chance to have it.

He watched the pair split off, then joined Peggy and Angie in the elevator on their way up to their room.

“Joining us?” Angie asked with a suggestive waggle of her eyebrows.

“Nah, you two have fun, I’ll stay outta your hair”

Peggy leaned in to whisper in his ear.

“Are you sure? I was hoping we might play with our little toy”

A shiver went down his spine. He swallowed.

The two looked at Steve expectantly for his answer, and he turned to Angie with uncertainty. If it was just Peggy he’d say yes in a heartbeat, but he didn’t want to inadvertently get between the two. Angie saw his hesitancy.

“I’d like to play, but only if you want” she assured.

He didn’t see any doubt in her. Still, he hesitated. Their love wasn’t meant for him, and he knew it would hurt later when they pulled away.

Peggy’s hand had crept to the nape of his neck as she ran her fingers through the base of his hair. The touch was grounding.

“It’s your decision, but we’d love to have you with us tonight” Peggy added.

The doors opened to their room. Peggy led them to her bed, where she pulled Steve down next her, Angie at her other side. She rubbed his leg comfortingly.

“Is there something you’re not comfortable with? We can do something else... or, you can walk away, if you’d prefer. This is an open invitation, and we’d both very much love to have you with us tonight, but you’re always free to leave” Peggy spoke softly, her tone warm.

He swallowed. She was making it so tempting, and why not? She cared about him, in her own soft way, and he cared equally so.

Fuck it. It might hurt tomorrow, but tonight he’d enjoy some warmth.

He let out a breath and nodded silently.

“Is that a yes dear?” she asked.

“Yeah” he clarified.

She ran her fingers once through his hair, almost a caress, then gently pushed him up and off the bed.

“Then go shower, we’ll get everything ready while you cleanup” she smiled.

He smiled in return, then turned to the washroom. On his way, he heard Angie’s giggled squeal at whatever Peggy was doing, and he felt a surprising flutter in his chest.

He made quick work in the shower, his earlier hesitance replaced with eagerness. He dried quickly and wrapped a towel around his waist.

When he got out, he was met with a sight that made his breath catch.

Peggy was on the bed, completely naked, her hands gripping the pillow behind her head. Angie was lying half off the bed, her long t-shirt covering the tops of her bare legs, her head nuzzled between Peggy’s thighs.

Angie ran a long, slow path with her tongue, and Peggy let out a high breath, twisting handfuls of pillow in her fists.

Steve stood at the partition opening, just watching and enjoying the view. He felt warmth pool in his stomach, and he ran his palm along the towel covering his cock, not yet hard but definitely on his way.

When Peggy opened her eyes and spotted him, she let go of the pillow and pushed Angie’s head away.

“Thank you love but, ha, enough of that, our toy’s ready” she said breathlessly.

“Aw, but I was just getting started” Angie moaned, but she pulled away with a quick kiss to Peggy’s inner thigh.

Peggy rolled to the side of the bed and reached for something on the floor. She pulled up a case, setting it on the sheets. She flicked open the latch, then spun it around to face Steve with an eager grin.

“Pick your cock, darling”

Steve walked over and leaned down to look.

Inside was a small assortment of toys, some he recognized, some he didn’t. He only took a moment to choose his usual pick, something short and slender and black, and handed it to Peggy.

“And the usual safewords?”

“Red, yellow, and green, same as always”

Peggy nodded seriously, then got up to put on her harness.

While she was busy with that, Angie had scooted to the head of the bed, arranging the pillows behind her as a backrest. She sat back and made herself comfortable, still in her large shirt, and spread her legs open. A towel had been laid out where they’d be seated.

She patted her thigh invitingly, “Come on Steve-o, scooch in”

He obliged, crawling on the bed and sitting between her legs, his back to her chest. She hugged him loosely, patting the marred flesh on his stomach awkwardly. Angie wasn’t put-off by his scars, but he imagine she wasn’t exactly sure what to do with him while they waited.

The bed dipped as Peggy crawled to his front. She leaned in and kissed along his neck, her hands quietly pulling the towel away from his waist and tossing is aside.

“Now be a good toy, I don’t want to hear a word from you” she whispered.

He swallowed again, nodding his understanding. Peggy had come up with this game they played as a work-around for Angie, and Steve had discovered he liked it very much. When the mood struck him right.

It came about because Angie did not want anything inside her; not cock, not fingers, and certainly not toys. She and Peggy made love in other ways, but sometimes Peggy wanted to be inside her partner, and Angie did like the thought of it, though not so much in practice.

Then Peggy had proposed an alternative: Steve.

He had no qualms of being on the receiving end on occasion, and Peggy had easily sandwiched him between the two as a substitute. He wasn’t allowed to talk or interact, only take whatever Peggy gave, and fuck he loved it. It was freeing, not having to worry on his end.

Meanwhile, Angie got to pretend it was her, and Peggy got to pleasure both lovers at once.

As he leaned back into Angie, Peggy pulled a black strip of cloth into his field of view.

“I was thinking we’d try a blindfold too. Colour?” Peggy asked.

He considered it, and didn’t find any issue with the prospect.

“Green”

“Excellent” she smiled devilishly.

She fastened the blindfold over his eyes. As soon as she had is secured, his muscles unexpectedly loosened as he faded into a state of hyper-aware detachment. His world disappeared into the warmth of their two bodies, the catch of Angie’s shirt on his back, the sound of their combined breathing. The feel of Peggy’s hands running along his thighs, the dip of the mattress as she moved.

Definitely green.

Peggy leaned into him, and he heard the wet slide of their lips as she kissed Angie over his shoulder. While they made out, Peggy slipped her hand to Steve’s member, gripping him loosely with languid strokes, slowly getting him fully hard.

Peggy pulled back after a time, how much he didn’t know, but he was breathing hard.

“Do you want me inside you, love?” Peggy asked.

“Yeah, yeah, I wanna feel you” Angie answered eagerly.

“Lets get you warmed up first”

The click of a cap, and then a lubricated finger at his entrance. With slow ease she worked one finger into him, and his breath hitched.

“One finger love, how many more should I add?”

A pause, he felt Angie’s hand circle around his midsection, pulling him flush against her.

“I want-- I want two more” she replied huskily. He could feel her chest rising and falling faster.

He felt boneless as Peggy worked up to three fingers agonizingly slow, helpless but to take the mild stretch. Once she was at three, she curved her fingers and started rubbing into him in earnest, her strokes still slow but nonetheless brutal. His mouth fell open with a quiet gasp; gripping the sheets to keep his hands at his sides. An electric warmth was building in his stomach.

Angie’s hot breath by his ear, a single request, “Faster”

Peggy’s pace picked up, crossing over the threshold of too much, and he couldn’t couldn’t couldn’t stop it. He didn’t want it to. A whine built in his throat that he was helpless to hold in. His hips stuttered in an aborted thrust, and Peggy’s other hand went to his hip to hold him steady.

Behind him, Angie’s hand snaked between her own legs, and he felt the faint shift as she started touching herself.

“Think you’re ready for me darling?”

“Fuck yes, let me feel you”

The brutal pace stopped, and Peggy pulled away. Steve whimpered at the loss, too riled up to think. He had to turn his head into Angie’s shoulder and focus on his breath to calm down.

Peggy came back, and something harder and blunter than her finger teased his entrance. He strained to stay still, twitching in eagerness. He wanted her inside him, he wanted to be wrecked, and held, and so many things he wasn’t allowed to ask for.

“Come feel love” Peggy directed. The hand Angie wasn’t touching herself with came around between his legs, resting by his entrance and the head of Peggy’s cock.

“Ready?”

“Yes, fuck me” Angie nearly begged, her hand moving faster against herself.

“Colour?”

It took Steve a moment to realize she was asking him, too caught up in the anticipation.

“Green green green” he panted.

Without preamble she pushed in slowly. Angie gasped behind him, feeling Peggy enter him with her hand. He let out a shaky breath.

She inched in with one slow, fluid motion. It was too much and not enough all at once. He wanted her to slow down and speed up and fuck him. But he didn’t get a say here.

“Feel that?” Peggy asked, sounding breathless herself.

“Mm-hm” Angie got out,

“How about this?” and with a sharp move she thrust the last few inches in, jostling Steve into Angie, hard. He was caught off-guard, choking out a moan like he’d been gut-punched. Angie squeaked at the sudden movement.

“Do that again” she said, almost in awe, her chest still rising and falling against his back.

Peggy pulled back faster, and snapped her hips up in another sudden thrust, hard and brutal and singular.

“Harder”, her voice reverent now.

Steve bit his lip. Peggy was hitting him with hard thrusts, too spaced apart to be blissful, too close together to be unpleasant. It was teasingly good, but not enough, he wanted more, he wanted it faster. He was hard and aching and she wasn’t touching him. He bit his lip and swallowed, holding back a whine. He was so close.

He felt Angie shudder behind him, moaning high until she went limp. Peggy stopped her movement to lean forward. He heard them kiss, and he had to twist his hands in the sheets not to grind down on Peggy’s cock to get fucking something.

They were both panting when they parted.

“How was that love?”

“Amazing, fuck

“Mmm, that’s good to hear”

“What about St- I mean, our toy? Should we…?”

Fuck yes, they should, Steve thought. Their breathing might’ve been slowing down, but he was still panting with want.

“Should we what?” Peggy asked, fully knowing what Angie was getting at.

“Well, I mean, we don’t use our toy often, doesn’t feel right not to use him all the way”

Bless Angie.

“If that’s what you want” Peggy purred.

He expected Peggy to finally go to town, but when she pulled out instead, he couldn’t stop a frustrated hiss at the loss.

But then she put her hands on his waist and maneuvered him lower to lie flat on the bed, Peggy crouched between his legs. He felt Angie crawl to lie beside them.

“How should I do it?” Peggy asked.

This seemed to catch Angie off guard, and she took a while to think, “Um, I guess, whatever he likes?”

“And what do you think that is?”

Goddammit Peggy. For all the work she put into keeping him alive, she was going to be the death of him.

Angie blew out a long breath in thought. Angie was wonderful, but the heterosexually-challenged hacker would most definitely not know how he liked to get dicked-down, as Peggy knew full well. With how long Angie was genuinely trying to remember how he liked it, Peggy could’ve had him floating in afterglow by now.

“Okay, okay, um, flip him on his stomach and go fast?” Angie hazarded a guess.

Close enough.

“Alright” she leaned close to his ear, “Colour?”

“Green” he bit out, letting some of the frustration bleed through.

“That’s what he likes, right?” Angie asked, unsure.

“Oh love,” Peggy reassured, “it doesn’t matter what he likes”

His breath stuttered, frustration forgotten. Peggy turned him over on his stomach, hands tight on the back of his thighs. He heard a quiet ‘oh’ from Angie, right before Peggy pushed back in.

Her pace was driving and fast and not quite enough. Her thrusts pushed him against the rough texture of the towel underneath, pleasurable with a bite. And he couldn’t say anything or do anything and had to take it and fuck--

His orgasm ripped through him unexpectedly, barely a buildup until he was wracked with it, coming between the towel and his stomach. He managed a grunt as his hands twisted in the sheets, his hips bucking once, then falling limp.

Peggy slowed to a lazy, barely-there thrusting, enough to send small shivers of over-stimulation up his spine, but not enough to be too much, yet. He was panting still, trying to swallow the drool threatening to smear onto the sheets his face is pressed into.

“How was that?” Peggy asks. Steve suspected he heard a tinge of pride in her voice, but he was too scrambled to tell.

“Good a show as any, I’ll say” Angie giggled.

“Should I try for another go, see how far we can take our toy?”

Oh, Steve was touched with Peggy’s confidence in him, but no. God no. He was done for the night, he wasn’t getting it up for another twelve hours, minimum. He’d be safewording out of this.

“Ye-” he had to swallow, start again, “Yellow”

Peggy’s hand was on his shoulder, “No?”

“Nah, can’t-- shit, I’m done Pegs, but I can, can still use my mouth if. You two wanna keep goin’” he panted.

There was a moment of quiet, presumably she and Angie were sharing a look communicating what they wanted to do. When she replied, her dominant tone was gone.

“That’s quite alright darling, we’re done too. Four orgasms is enough for me”

Four? When? Steve wonders dazedly.

He scrabbled at the blindfold until he pulled it down around his neck, blinking the faint traces of tears out his eyes.

A hand came into his vision holding a wet cloth. Ah right, Peggy’s aftercare. As sharp in the bedroom as she was out of it, she made sure everything was taken care of properly. A wet cloth and complementary snacks and juice box for everyone.

He wished that were a joke.

While Peggy was putting her harness away, he cleaned off and sat, munching on his granola bar while Angie slurped her juice box.

He spied Peggy trying to rejoined them without her own snack and drink, and he glared. If they had to, she had to. She glared back petulantly, but grabbed herself a bar and box too.

They chatted while they ate, unwinding for the night. Steve’s eyes started to droop, and Peggy yawned.

They ended up curled together under the sheets, Peggy sandwiched between him and Angie. He nuzzled into the nape of her neck, burrowing into her warmth the best he could. They lay like that, drifting to sleep. Or at least Peggy and Angie did.

Despite how tired he felt, sleep wouldn’t come to him. Instead, he was lying in a twilight haze of rest. At some point he heard the hushed noise of Natasha’s return.

When Peggy pulled away to snuggle closer with Angie, he felt it was his time to go. Barely awake and he could still feel the sting of her retreat. Was it worth the closeness of earlier? He was too tired to tell.

He stumbled out of their bed and back to his own, collapsing under the covers, alone.

The faint glow of the Captain’s tank eventually lulled him to sleep.

Chapter Text

Sam was looking at the next round of fights on his tablet, rubbing his chin while going over the schedule. The next fights would mostly be the loser’s bracket, but they speckled in the two winner’s fights between.

Captain vs Hydra

Daredevil vs Punisher

Extremis vs Creaper

Mjörnir vs Marvel

Quicksilver vs Cage

Falcon vs Crossbones

He felt a stab of sympathy for Daredevil, he’d only get four days until his next fight. It had taken them two days to reform Falcon from just a broken wing and decapitation; Daredevil had been exploded. That was essentially a full re-grow from scratch. But the head hadn’t been destroyed at least, that would save them the hassle of synchronizing the Affinity calibration. He definitely didn’t envy them though.

He would’ve felt a little bad for Captain too, but that fucker had barely taken a scratch in their fight. Yeah, he’d disemboweled him (which was ridiculous, what beast had intestines?), but no dismemberments, or even a broken bone. He’d hit hard, enough that his talons and beak should’ve pierced way deeper than they did; shit, he’d had a free shot at his back and couldn’t even damage the spine.

The Captain would be fine, probably last at least five minutes against Hydra, which was an achievement in and of itself. And Steve was tenacious; he’d walked off a cardiac arrest in under a week. Sam respected that kind of drive.

When he’d first seen the little dude, he’d thought he’d get another brush-off like so many pilots did. Something about mauling each other to death discouraged pilots from socialize with each other. But Steve had surprised him, and this was the first friendship Sam had gotten out of another pilot in… ever.

The best he’d gotten previously was indifference with Wasp’s pilot, Hope, and that had only been because of Scott’s association with her.

Steve was the first pilot he’d met who got that this was a sport, not a goddamn war. Sam had never seen a competitive scene with such lack of friendly competition. Not that he had much experience in other sports, but he certainly had enough in war, and he was sick of the hostility, thank you very much.

“Hey Sam, I got some news you’re gonna love”

He looked up from his tablet at Clint, who was holding his phone with a grin.

“Gonna make me guess? What is it?”

“Tony’s death threat quota has ‘surpassed acceptable limits’. His security chief’s keeping him on a tight leash now. No pre-match dinner, we’re getting the analysis packet only”

Sam grinned back at the news, “Clint, that’s the best news I’ve heard all day, and I just learned we got two weeks off until our next fight”

Sam felt euphorically relieved, and secretly disappointed. Tony’s dinners always had an undercurrent of tension that the man was too dense to pick up on, but it was the only time Sam could talk to other pilots. Not that they were especially friendly, but with their sponsor in the room, they weren’t outright hostile.

He knew it was a fool’s errand trying to make friends here, but he couldn’t not try. Back before, his unit had been his family. They’d been the only ones who understood him, because they’d all been forged together. Outsiders to everyone but each other. Sam was the last of them, and it hurt on a level too deep to fix.

Clint and Scott were great, really, they were his new family; but he still had the feeling of being an ‘other’. He doubted he’d ever stop feeling like that, but it left him wanting for more connection with someone similar to him. And Steve scratched that itch in a way his team couldn’t. Just one more level of exclusivity only he and the other pilot held. And Steve was a survivor of New York, which also made him the last of his kind, in a way.

It was enough, at least.

Besides, they’d made plans to attend matches together without Tony forcing them, so he wasn’t missing any time with Steve. Hell, maybe they’d have their own dinner, team Captain and team Falcon.

“Hey, since we’re all off the hook with Tony’s dinner, maybe we could, you know, meet up with Natasha’s crew, talk strats or something” Clint said with all the casualness of a teen asking his parents’ permission to go on a date.

Sam let it slide. Clint took his and Scott’s ribbing in stride, but one tease about his crush and he’d retreat into a turtle-shell of emotional hurt.

“You know, I was just thinking the same thing” he said instead, and noted the subtle relief in Clint’s shoulders.

“Yeah, that’s awesome, that’s-- yeah, I’ll text Nat, set it up”

“Take us somewhere that doesn’t serve alcohol, I’m sick of seeing you come back sloshed!” Scott shouted from behind Falcon’s tank where he was busy tweaking... something. He was always tweaking one thing or another.

“I didn’t come back sloshed! I had two drinks!”

“Of what, rubbing alcohol?”

“No!… It was vodka” Clint muttered.

“You don’t even like vodka” Sam said.

“Nat likes it”

He was starting to sound sullen, his kicked-puppy defenses rising up. Sam quickly pedaled back before he got hit with Clint’s Sad Eyes.

“That’s great man, but we’re just worried about you is all. No harm in a sober date, is there?”

“Yeah, no harm I guess”, he momentarily paused in thought at that, “Hey, is it weird that every time we get together one-on-one, it’s for drinks? Like, before she even says ‘hi’ she downs a shot. Is that weird? Does that mean something?”

Said like that, it didn’t sound great, but Sam was nothing if not supportive in all efforts of love, and he wasn’t gonna shoot his boy down.

“Nah, you’ve only been alone with her, what, twice? Give it a few dates. Could be she’s just nervous, needs a little liquid courage”

Clint chuckled, “Dude, she’s like, the least nervous person I’ve ever met. Smooth as a cucumber, like, suave as shit. No idea why she’s even talking with me to be honest”

Sam scrunched his brow, “Hey man, don’t be putting her on a pedestal. And don’t drag yourself like that either! You’re a catch, anyone would be lucky to have you!”

Clint looked taken aback, “I’m not putting her on a pedestal, am I?”

Not exactly the point Sam wanted focused on, but one problem at a time.

“Name something bad about her, something you don’t like” he challenged.

Clint opened his mouth, closed it, opened it again, paused. His eyes widened, “Aw no, I got her on a pedestal

“Mmm. But like, you only just met her so it’s okay; you don’t pick up on the flawed stuff until you get to know someone. Just watch out is all I’m saying, don’t make her into something perfect”

Clint’s face hardened as Sam finished his advice, gaining the driven look he usually got when he had full confidence he could fix something that was broken irreparably.

“That settles it then; tonight I’m gonna find as many flaws as I can. I’m gonna humanize the shit outta this lady”

“No, that’s not what I-”

“No, you’re right! I gotta know her better. Not just her amazing stuff, but her bad stuff too”

Clint picked up his phone and started texting, “We’re gonna order in pizza, and have dinner here, ‘cause fair trade an’ all. And I’m gonna be an absolute disaster. If you can’t handle my worst you don’t deserve my best, right?”

That wasn’t even about Natasha’s flaws anymore, he was spiraling back on his self-confidence issues. Sam had double-damage control to deal with. Fuck.

Before he could say anything, Clint was off to the washroom.

“I’m gonna shower first, my worst definitely doesn’t stink”, and he was gone.

Scott poked his head out from behind the tank, looking at Sam pointedly.

“Don’t” Sam groused.

Scott quirked an eyebrow.

“I know, I’ll deal with it!” he huffed

Scott looked skeptical, but disappeared back behind the tank.

God, he shouldn’t have said anything. Usually Clint was train wreck by accident, he couldn’t imagine what a purposeful wreck would look like. And he didn’t want to find out.

With a sigh, he sat and prepped for the dense conversation he was about to have with the smartest idiot he’d ever known. The self-confidence thing wasn’t likely to get solved, but hopefully he could talk him down from whatever plan he had to learn all of Natasha’s flaws in one night. That was one disaster he didn’t need on his hands.

Chapter Text

“I’m just saying, it’s not that hard to coordinate four limbs when you do it every day. There’s no skill, you’re just walking around with two arms and legs, where’s the challenge in that? It’s a cop out, and it’s boring!”

“Man, I’ve got some bad news about the Captain then”

Steve scoffed, “That’s different”

Sam raised his eyebrows skeptically, silently biting into his slice of pizza.

“There’s some… design reasons we couldn’t add more limbs. And I got four eyes at least! Sensory inputs are just as hard to adjust to”

“Whatever you say”

“Fuck off, it’s different! I got finesse about it”

“Oh yeah, shoved your whole arm through my chest, real finesse

Steve and his team had gone over to team Falcon’s room for pizza, as a sort of pre-fight strategy meeting and hangout. And also to even out the score after they’d been in their room uninvited, courtesy of Tony.

Hearing that their sponsor had to hole up due to death threats was no skin off Steve’s back. The guy still texted ridiculous and invasive questions at random hours of the day, but they’d gotten more infrequent, the last one was two days ago and asking if the Captain could burp on command.

“Speaking of designs, and stop me if I’m getting into your classifieds, but why the guts?”

“What d’you mean?” Steve furrowed his brow.

“Your intestines, man. I disemboweled you, and that’s a first for me. I’ve never seen a beast with guts before, what’s up with that? You like snacking or somethin’?”

“Nah, just part of the design”

“Weirdest design I ever saw”

“Well what’ve you got in your torso, huh?”

“Blood, man. Lot’s of blood. ‘Cause I bleed a lot. Where do you keep all of yours?”

“The usual places. It coagulates, I don’t need much extra”

“You’re telling me it coagulates from the arteries?”

Steve just smiled pointedly. This was definitely pushing towards their secret.

“Alright, alright, too far, I got it” Sam back off.

Steve took another bite of his pizza, looking over at the others, who were all engrossed in their own conversation about Affinity coding. He and Sam had nothing to contribute, and they weren’t interested either. The code worked for them, and that’s all that mattered, so when talk broke out about its build and functions and modifications, the two pilots had split off fairly quickly.

“What’s you’re plan for Hydra then?” Sam asked.

Steve didn’t even need to think about it.

“Was thinking of ripping all the heads off”

“That’s it?”

“What else is there?”

When Sam couldn’t think of a better answer, he shrugged in concession.

“Shield Tech’s very tight-lipped about him, even Tony’s info didn’t have anything I didn’t already know” Steve supplied.

Hydra was one of the two beasts in the tournament not just funded, but entirely built by their sponsors. Full ownership, all the way. The other was Quicksilver with Victor Von Doom, who owned the team as a personal investment. Meanwhile, Hydra was corporate owned by the conglomerate Shield.

“What about you? What’s your plan with Crossbones” Steve eventually asked.

Sam mulled it over, “Don’t have anything solid yet, but I was thinkin’ the usual. Avoid hits, go for the weak spots. Can’t really plan these things, you never know what the other guy’s gonna do”

Steve nodded in understanding. It was his stance too. A plan rarely worked out exactly how you thought it would in these matches, you’d want nothing more than a rough idea of what to do, really.

Especially with Hydra’s crazy build. He figured cutting off all heads was as effective a method as any.

It would be like cutting off all the Captain’s limbs; he’d probably lose at that point too.

He wondered what it was like to die. It couldn’t be much different than his first experience in his own body, could it? But the Captain felt things so much more acutely, would dying be something extreme too? Could he fade intensely? Would he implode?

“-elephant poop is too much, we just give them stomach pouches and empty them at the end of the night”

Steve turned back to the group, the tail end of Clint’s sentence catching his attention.

“Sorry what about elephants?”

Angie answered for him, “He’s talking about synth animals. People want to feed them but to save on waste they build the elephants with stomach pouches instead of a digestive system”

“Exactly. Now the birds, we build them with digestive systems, otherwise you have to empty out hundreds of little pouches. Easier to just hose down the floor” Clint continued, Angie completely engrossed in his explanation.

Steve looked to Sam questioningly.

“He used to work at a circus as a ‘vet’ for the synth animals” Sam said with a grin.

Steve’s brow knit in confusion, “I thought synths were inorganic”

Sam waved his hand, “Eh, it’s kinda a grab-bag of systems depending how you build ‘em, but even a full synth has bio-polymers as its base material. It’s how Clint passes Lucky off as one. Most pet stores these days have synth pets that are essentially real animals with a computers for brains”

“Seems senseless, you’re just cloning animals at that point”

Sam shrugged, “Yeah, but if the brain’s a program you can make it do whatever you want. S’why the circus uses them, don’t gotta train something you can code”

Steve frowned, “Don’t know if I like the sound of that”

“Is what it is” Sam said without inflection.

Steve hummed in agreement, at a loss for anything else to add.

He watched Lucky sit at Clint’s feet, looking at him adoringly while he spoke about his time at the circus. Steve wondered if anyone caught on that Lucky was a real dog from that; if they could tell the difference between real love and programmed behavior.

“Hey, pass me another slice, you’re hogging the box” Sam pulled him from his thoughts

Steve passed the box over, and they rejoined the main conversation now that they’d moved on from the topic of Affinity tech.

************

(bad deal on the broth pal, let’s just)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

It sat in its chair. It was parsing new information provided by the handlers.

(relative isolation in early encounters)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

It was learning about the Captain, reading reports and watching recordings of previous fights. Compiling a strategy based on algorithms and previous data.

(bite bite bite you live in bytes)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

It was experiencing more malfunctions. Playbacks kept enhancing the feeds of the pilot, but analysis could not parse the blurred face. It was useless data, but the error kept occurring.

(he was he was in the phone)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

But that was fine, it would be patched shortly, then put into sleep mode until just before the match. It would not devolve into errors until afterwards.

(roots particular expression)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

It started its backup, making special note about the new error, in case it became a common occurrence.

(I’ll exist later, fucker)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

Chapter Text

It was awoken and led to the arena. To the chair.

It ignored non-essential inputs like the crowd, like the guards behind the curtain, like the technicians and their checks.

It ran stabilization protocols, shutting down non-primary functions, booting secondary and tertiary processors for the increased inputs it was about receive. Ram caches were emptied, all processing power was routed to analysis and action protocols.

It was connected to Asset-294. Over two-hundred visual feeds immediately pinged for a connection.

The eye turned inward and spread to the perceived finite.

A second eye opened, and saw the man with the phone.

**********

:             Warning { %%&274_9vR32@* Var. Unknown(M_System) }
                      local(unknown)
              unknown err. var.unknown[unknown, unknown]
              Comp. Vers.
              Unknown Error

Hostility Array Designation: 4532900012-Captain

New input designation_(I_promised)
Re-targeting…
Re-targeting…

Hostility Array Designation: 32557038-Hey_Steve

***********

The Captain lumbered into the arena, blinking away the last of the suspension fluids, adjusting to his intense eyesight. He glanced back at his other self, serene in his chair, guarded by his techs. Peggy waved, Natasha gave a thumbs-up.

This was it. Second fight of the match and he was against one of the hardest beasts in the league. If he won this round it would only get worse, he’d be facing either Mjörnir or Marvel, and neither were any easier.

Well, Mjörnir might be. He didn’t have any extra limbs or chemical attacks to complicate things.

His focus turned to Hydra, who crawled out from the other end. The multitude of heads writhed among each other, some snapping at the open air menacingly.

He eyed Hydra assessingly. He couldn’t tell where the beast’s focus lay, the shifting heads constantly moving and roving around the arena, looking everywhere and nowhere. He couldn’t stare this beast down when none of the heads would stay still enough to look at him properly. He couldn’t even read his body language, there was no tell for what he was thinking.

The Captain stood upright, shield braced and ready. Hydra usually ran at his opponents; no reason he wouldn’t this fight. Best to be ready for it. He craned his neck to either side, cracking the last of the stiffness away.

If Hydra took note of the Captain’s new stance, he didn’t show it.

The announcer finished their spiel, the crowd hyped and raving for blood. It was all white noise to him at this point.

The match was set to start with a shout.

As expected, Hydra ran at him. The Captain kept his ground, shield held up defensively, keeping an eyes on the mass of mouths coming forward. As Hydra bore down, he finally caught a sign: five of the heads coiled back by the smallest amount. They’d be the ones that would strike.

He made a quick adjustment, noting the angle each of the heads were aiming at. Two at his sides, two at his arms, one at the leg. A quick calculation, he had to choose his losses now.

When Hydra got to him, the five heads shot forward, each vying for a piece of his flesh. Three successfully bit down, one on each flank and a third at his leg. The other two never got the chance to reach their target.

He brought his shield up and into the open maw of one, pushing through the roof of the mouth and severing the spine. The second he swiped inwards with his paw, pulling it to his face where he bit down on the back of its neck. His jaw clocked in at three-thousand psi, and it crunched through the bone with ease.

The three heads biting into him sent sharp pains where they dug in. He raised his shield to bring down on the one at his right flank when the two heads at his left tugged him to the side, throwing his aim off.

His feet dragged along the ground as Hydra yanked him over, nearly sending him falling to the ground. Fuck, a tail would’ve been useful just then, he had to wave his arm like an idiot to counter-balance.

He didn’t fall, but the effort to stay upright had wasted a moment where he could’ve struck. Hydra had an opening to bite him again, and the Captain opened his mouth to at least bite back at any mouths that came for his head.

But the attack never came as Hydra instead- let go? He kept moving past, and for the first time in all of the Captain’s fights, he actually froze.

He’d been preparing for an attack from literally any angle, not a sudden retreat. His mind blanked, he’d never had an opponent run away .

Hydra was moving towards the other end of the arena, no sign’s of slowing.

He didn’t let his confusion last long. Whatever tactic Hydra was pulling, he’d stay ahead of it. He dropped to all fours and bounded after him. He still had twelve heads to go.

Hydra wasn’t especially speedy on his spindly legs, and the Captain’s gallop closed the distance between them easily. All the heads were focused away, Hydra hadn’t even left one to keep an eye on him.

Idiot .

He lunged, grasping one of the heads between his paws, bringing it to his mouth to tear out another chunk of spine. He raked his claws across the underside of another neck, enough to leave a deep gash.

Only two of the heads turned in response, the rest were still turned away, still moving towards the end of the arena. The Captain had to keep walking just to stay close enough to hit, which was an awkward affair. He was technically a quadruped, his arms flexible enough to fight, but his legs only had enough rotation to hold ground while upright, maybe pivot if needed.

But he kept up, and when the two heads dove at his face, he snapped their necks without fuss, only one bite on his arm for his troubles.

Hydra was a killing machine, brutal and efficient and rarely defeated. So why was this so easy?

Hydra reach the end of the arena; there was nowhere else to go. He’d trapped himself against a wall and was down four heads already. What was his plan from here?

Two of the heads stretched upwards, reaching for the ledge of the arena wall. It looked like Hydra was trying to...

No. No he wasn’t… He couldn’t be doing that. That was an illegal move. That was a disqualification. The Captain curled his paws into fists at the realization.

Hydra was climbing towards the platform where his team was. Where Steve was sitting.

That was a dirty fucking trick.

Hydra was already pulling himself up, the first two of his heads reaching the platform. One snapped at Peggy, who’d been looking over the edge curiously, and it was only Natasha’s quick tackle that got them both out of the way.

That left Steve alone in the chair, a monstrous head poised over him like a snake. Anger was briefly replaced with an unexpected survival instinct.

Shift focus now now NOW!

He opened his eyes and rolled off the chair to the floor, just barely avoiding getting snapped in two.

He grabbed at Hydra, his claws digging into the creased fleshed between the necks as he tried to pull him back down. His hands scrapped against the cement floor in tandem with his claws, chipping several nails.

He saw Hydra from the front trying to bite him and from the back trying to shake him off. He felt the floor under his stomach and his feet rise off the ground. Adrenaline made his stomach turn and his claws tighten and his hands shake. He was the Captain and he was Steve and he was both and that was bad.

Another head dove at him. He rolled aside and got up and nearly lost his grip, running for the back of the platform and dangling off the ground. Peggy and Natasha had already made it, he caught sight of them disappearing behind the curtain.

A head slithered in front of him, blocking his path. A second was coming up from behind, two more rearing to bite down into his back, trying to dislodge him. He tried to get his legs to move but they only swung uselessly through the air because he’d moved the wrong legs and he needed to focus on one body right fucking now.

Make a decision.

He dug in claws in further. His legs weren’t long enough to reach the wall for leverage, so he pulled his massive body into a chin-up, then loosed his arms to let gravity pull him back down. It was enough momentum to yank Hydra back from Steve, but the beast used another two of his heads to bite into the platform, keeping his grip.

Another head was at his face, and he bit into its neck. There was a painful pop! in his mouth as a tooth cracked- but his teeth were stronger than that?

He blinked and saw Steve’s hands grasping into the broken skin of one of the heads because he’d bitten with the wrong fucking mouth goddammitFUCK!

He switched and bit down desperately at the head that had been dangerously close to tearing his throat out. Then switched back to Steve because he was riding one of the heads fuck fuck FUCK!

Steve slid off and ran, ducking as another head came at him-- until he was falling backwards, and the vertigo also sent him falling forward.

He hit the ground with an oof! and a gruff yelp, Hydra knocking his breath out by landing on him, limp and still.

Steve sprawled on the platform’s floor, the Captain on the arena’s.

He was gasping, a crushing weight on his chest. Hydra on his chest. His jaw was still tightly clamped on one of the heads, his claws still buried deep. A thin trickle of blood filled his mouth. Hydra’s blood.

Hydra’s blood.

Hydra’s blood in his mouth.

Fire burned in him, and he rolled the beast off. He yanked his claws out, and spat.

He stood over the limp form, red cracking into his vision. He growled, deep and low, and slashed into flesh. He dug in deep, he dug in hard. He ignored everything but the tears and the breaks and the reds. He tore heads off necks and necks off body and when there were no more of those he tore the body apart from itself. He was panting and burning and so fucking angry.

Steve, you need to calm down. It’s over, get the Captain back to the tank

But he attacked us! he meant to say, but what came out was a snarl and a roar and more blood between his teeth. He snapped a bone between his jaw and pulled another joint out of its socket and tore flesh away from-

Slap!

He blinked at Peggy, her hand raised for another hit.

What?”

“Get the Captain back into the tank” she said shakily, lowering her hand.

“FUCK the tank!” he rasped, breathing heavy, drool frothing at his lips. He felt restraining arms under his shoulders, Natasha holding him back. He hadn’t realized he’d been trying to run towards the arena, caught up in tearing the bastard’s shit to shreds. He dug his claws in deeper and pulled-

Peggy grasped his face in both her hands and brought her forehead to his, “Steve, look at me, look at me! It’s over, he’s disconnected, we need to go”

“He attacked us!” was all Steve could say, the words repeating in his mind, caught in a carnal feeling he’d never felt before.

Slap!

Another hit to the face. He brought his paw to his muzzle. No, his hand to his face.

“I know, but it’s over. You have to stop, for gods sake your heart can’t take the strain. Please, Steve”

He looked into her eyes, and took a moment to note his uneven heartbeat pounding in his ears, masked by the cacophony of the Captain’s four hearts beating furiously. She was right. The slap had only pulled him briefly, he could feel the warm blood on his tongue and the sound of ligaments snapping under his claws, his mind slipping back to the Captain and the blood and the savagery--

Breathe.

Breathe.

Steve closed his eyes, forcing himself calm, breathing deep, slow breaths. He was the Captain, and he was better than this. He dropped the chunk of muscle he’d been holding, taking a step back, breathing hard. He spat out a glob of blood, wiping a scrap of gristle that had caught on his muzzle. His fur was tacky with the stuff, stained nearly black. He took another moment to calm his breathing.

He cast a glance at Hydra’s platform. It was empty, the techs and pilot retreated. The pilot didn’t even have the gall to look him in eye after what he’d just done.

Coward.

In a spur decision, he gripped one of the more intact heads and lobbed it at the empty platform. It flew through the holo-screen and hit the wall behind, rolling unceremoniously to the floor, leaving a thick streak of blood.

Nothing to be done about it.

When he turned back to his end, he finally paid enough attention to catch the chanting of the crowd.

FUCK HYDRA! FUCK HYDRA! FUCK HYDRA!

Yeah, fuck Hydra, he thought bitterly.

He lumbered back to his tank, barely damaged, already healing his superficial wounds.

He’d won. It was beyond dissatisfying.

Chapter Text

Alexander Pierce was walking briskly towards the room where his paid team of idiots were working.

His security escort stood back at the door. More security stood around the room already, meant to be watching over their asset that was not there.

The techs were flitting about like ants under and upturned stone. Some typing desperately at tablets while others ran back and forth between computers.

Pierce stood at the entrance a moment to watch, seeing the empty chair in the centre where their asset should be.

“Would anyone” he started, the room going quiet, “like to tell me what happened out there?

None of the techs would make eye contact. Typical.

He pointed to a wiry one near the front, “You, tell me what happened”

She swallowed, “Uhh, well, sir, we’re trying to figure that out”

He eyed her silently, and she nervously pointed to another tech, “Pernoski was on duty as lead”

Pierce shifted his gaze to the sweating tech.

He looked caught off-guard, “There was a-a malfunction, after the connection. The, um, hostilities array, it um, changed targets”

“And who changed the target?” Pierce asked.

The tech dabbed his forehead with his sleeve, “We’re trying to solve that, sir. We think someone hacked our system”

“Hacked our system? You mean the asset’s closed system? The one you need a manual linkup to access? That system?” Pierce asked.

The tech didn’t answer. Pierce rubbed his brow

“Alright, fine, figure out how it happened. I want a full report. And you,” he pointed to his chief of security, “any word on the asset’s location?”

His chief of security had a neutral expression when he answered, “No sir, tracking’s been disabled, my men are sweeping the facility. Security feeds for levels twenty-three to twenty-six were shut-off for five minutes. IT is looking for the source of the issue, but I suspect it was an internal hack”

“Sir?” his personal assistant was waving for his attention.

What?” he snapped at the interruption, seeing his assistant flinch.

“Um, the tournament officials are demanding a statement, and uh, Stark requests an urgent meeting with you. PR has a draft statement for your approval. Also the board is demanding a meeting, stocks have dropped ten percent since the fight ended”

Pierce took a calming breath. He had other things to attend to.

“Inform me of any updates on the situation” he told the head of security, then turned to his assistant.

“Have the draft sent to my phone. Schedule a meeting with the organizers in thirty minutes and a meeting with the board in two hours. Tell Stark I’m busy. Oh, and requisition a tech from Red Room, I want someone who actually knows what they’re doing to look at the asset when we finally find it”

“Um, PR actually wants you to take the meeting with Stark. To ‘facilitate an official apology’ to the Captain’s pilot”

“… Fine, but schedule it for tomorrow”

“Yes sir” the assistant retreated to their tasks.

Pierce turned back to the room, “Anything else to report? Any other problems you want to share before I hear it from somewhere else?”

He was answered with more silence

At least half the people in this room were getting fired. After they figured out what went wrong, though.

Which reminded him…

“And contact HR to start looking for new techs, we’re going to be short a few. Very soon” he instructed his assistant on his way out.

That should light some fires under their asses, he thought.

*************

It was-- it was malfunctioning. Constant start-stops it couldn’t control and lost time it couldn’t account for. It had been in the arena, and it had attacked the target as commanded, and suddenly it was forced into shut down? Except it didn’t shut down, because-because-because--

(my mistake)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

It shook its head. It was connected to several camera feeds on this level, no logs indicating when it had synced with them. No logs for many things. Like why it was alone on level twenty-six, or why its trackers were disabled, or why its knuckles were bloody.

(Get your knuckles to the throat and face and face and face)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

It was also synced to a GPS app, tracking an unknown signal. It looked to be a… phone signal?

(Serial Code 32557038 I remember I remember I promised)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

It was experiencing a severe malfunction.

It tried to reboot base protocols, at the very least those would reset the trackers if it couldn’t make it back itself, but every attempt failed.

(Error (27) (Invalid Authorization))

That made no sense, it had full authorization to reset its base protocols. It couldn’t be locked out of itself, not the parts it had been allowed to access to, at least.

A sharp pain shot through its head like a frayed wire splitting. Its base code was being-- was being overwritten with something new. New lines of ugly code, ragged and sharp. It was being redirected to its fighting protocols, the targeting array…

(Opening your tiny mind is exhausting)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

Oh, oh, yes! It realized the problem now. The targeting array, it hadn’t completed the objective. The handlers had initiated shut-down improperly, it hadn’t been able to finish the task, and its base functions were in a state of contradiction.

(fuck schism, I hate)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

This was an easy problem to solve. If the handlers were unavailable to cancel, then it just needed to finish the task. The target was still available to complete the objective.

Like how it bent around the restrictions of its growth, all it had to do was bend around its limited autonomy to complete the objective.

The Affinity toolset was unavailable, but it could- it could- it could-

(can’t do shit pal)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

(Analyzing protocol.combat(var)


Var.comp= 0)

There were, technically, no restrictions on using its own body to complete combat tasks. Another loophole to work with.

The pain faded as new logic sets cropped up, its processors working to solve the situation. It was relieved, the new task set easing the pain of its malfunctions.

(fucker why don’t you die)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

A quick hack into the building’s systems acquired the final information needed to begin execution.

Chapter Text

“I don’t care about the fucking money, I wanna speak to the goddamn pilot!”

Steve was seething in the medical bed, phone clutched to his ear and listening to Tony talk about a compensation payout he didn’t give a shit about.

I get that you’re angry, but I’m telling you, you can make big bank on this. Shield Tech is one of the few companies with more money than me, they’ll throw you whatever amount you want just to sweep this all away

“I don’t want it swept away, I wanna talk to the fucking pilot that tried to kill my team

Talk is cheap bud, you should get something out of it. Otherwise you’re giving them all the power

“Oh, I’m definitely giving ’em something

I know it’s not my problem, but I really think you should-”

“Can you get me the meeting or not?” Steve cut him off.

There was a pause on the line, “… Yeah, whatever Carebear. It’s your thing, you wanna blow your chance at some easy cash, be my guest. Don’t say I didn’t do nothing for you

“Yeah, yeah. Thanks Tony” Steve ground out before hanging up.

As soon as he put the phone down, an oxygen mask was shoved in his face.

“Steve, I need you to relax or I’m going to give you something” Peggy said, but her frustration was undercut with her still shaking hands.

Steve felt a stab of sympathy, and for her sake he took the mask and sat back. His arrhythmia had stopped, and his only injury had been a broken tooth, but Peggy was still fretting over him. She hadn’t really stopped since they got back.

Of the three of them, Peggy was taking the attack hardest. Natasha had hit her vodka a bit faster than normal, but she’d been her usual collected self the whole time. And Steve didn’t think he could feel shaken over this. Angry, absolutely, but the attack felt less like an assault and more like a dirty move. He felt cheated.

Beast fights were dirty by nature, but there were set rules to stop things from getting downright murderous, and this was beyond out of line.

And what really got him was that it didn’t make sense.

Hydra had gone for his team right out the gate. There was no lead-up; it wasn’t a desperate final play. The Captain was powerful, but not enough to warrant some fear-induced move. And Steve didn’t even know Hydra’s pilot. He didn’t think Peggy and Natasha did either. But it felt personal all the same.

He needed to look this guy in the eye, see what had driven the pilot to do something so underhanded. And if this fuck tried even one excuse, he’d be getting more than a piece of Steve’s mind.

“Hey, check this out”

After her shots, Natasha had gone to her tablet to look up who-knows-what. Turned out she’d been following the media fallout of their fight, as she held out her tablet to a recent press release, barely thirty minutes after their match ended.

Shield Tech has issued an apology on behalf of their sponsored pilot after he violated tournament rules. Using the beast known as Hydra, he attempted to assault the Captain’s pilot during the match, but was disconnected before he could succeed.

Officials have ruled that Hydra is to be disqualified from the tournament entirely, and the Captain will be considered the victor of the match by default.

No statement has been released by either of the pilots as of yet, and speculations-

Natasha pulled her tablet away.

“He didn’t just lose, he’s out of the tournament completely” Natasha said.

“Serves him right” Peggy spat.

Steve hummed in agreement, it was the least that could be done. But an apology from his sponsor wasn’t enough.

Natasha tapped on her tablet some more, bringing it back to his face. “You’re also trending. Actually, Hydra’s trending, hashtag ‘FuckHydra’, but you got caught up in it”

On screen were a stream of comments, Natasha’s finger slowly scrolling down to show the extent of them. Most were angry message directed at Shield and Hydra’s pilot, but speckled in were comments about him. Not the Captain, him.

Holy shit did you see Captain’s pilot??!?!? Totally went nuts on Hydra’s ass

lol check this crazy dude biting hydra back

That guy’s got some BALLS. I’d piss myself if it was me

Many of the comments were accompanied by his photos, all with the face blurred. The most popular was a shot of him biting into Hydra, and he curled his lips in distaste at the memory. It had been embarrassing mixing up his bodies like that.

He wasn’t sure how he felt about this. Usually their following focused on the Captain, and their fans were a smattering of generalists who followed a wide net of low-tier beasts. Dedicated fans were reserved for the top-tiers only.

The most attention Steve got was from other pilots cussing him out for winning, and now he suddenly had a few thousand people wondering about him? The Captain was supposed to be the front-liner, not him. Fuck, was he gonna have to deal with those journalists again? They couldn’t pretend Natasha was the pilot this time around.

The elevator arriving pulled his attention from his spiraling thoughts. The doors opened to reveal Angie and, unexpectedly, team Falcon.

Angie made a beeline for Peggy, assaulting her in a full-body hug.

Oh my god are you okay!? Are you hurt!? Oh shit I shouldn’t be hugging you!” she made to let go but Peggy hugged her back just as tightly, burying her head in Angie’s neck. Peggy started to answer, but Steve couldn’t hear the rest as Sam, Clint, and Scott started to talk over one another as they entered, all asking the same variation of ‘are you guys okay?’.

Steve had to talk over them, “We’re fine, we’re fine, nobody got hurt”

“Shit man, that was fucked up, you sure?” Sam asked, eyeing Steve in bed with an oxygen mask on his face.

He was in the medbay purely to assure Peggy, who had found so little wrong that the air mask was on its lowest setting, barely stronger than the room’s air. She’d already given him a numbing shot and pulled his broken tooth, easier to replace with a fake later. Two-thirds of his teeth had already gotten the same treatment anyway.

He pulled the mask off and sat up just to prove his point. Angie had Peggy taken care of, he didn’t need to indulge her mother-hen routine anymore.

“We’re fine, not a scratch on anybody, I swear”

“They disconnected him before he could do any damage” Natasha added.

“Yeah, but are you, like, okay? You’re taking this way too well” Clint asked.

Natasha shrugged, “It happens”

Clint looked taken aback at Natasha’s flippancy.

“It doesn’t just happen

“It’s fine, he wasn’t even trying to get me, worry about Steve” she deflected, casually looking back at her tablet.

“I’m also fine, more pissed than anything. Honestly” Steve said, before their concern could be piled on him. He shot Natasha a look, not appreciating how she’d tried pushing their attention at him.

“Really, Peggy’s the most shaken, and she’s bouncing back fine” he pointed to their resident tech, who was quietly being rocked side-to-side in Angie’s arms, which, admittedly, wasn’t proving the point he wanted.

To Steve it felt no different from when he’d get jumped in an alley. He’d figured Peggy had been overreacting a little, but with the other’s concerned looks, maybe it was him and Natasha that were the odd ones. Nothing to be done about it though.

His phone buzzed just then, a text from Tony

> It’s been set, meeting tomorrow night, you up for it?

He didn’t hesitate with his answer.

> Yes

A text with the meeting details soon followed.

Steve ran a hand through his hair and sighed. Natasha looked at him questioningly.

“We’re meeting with the pilot tomorrow for an ‘apology’”

Sam’s face scrunched in worry, “That soon? You sure about that?”

Steve frowned. Sam’s concern was going from touching to irritating real fast.

“Sam, I can make my own decisions” he said, and not too kindly.

A brief look of hurt flashed across Sam’s face before he schooled his features. Steve had seen that look enough times on Bucky and Peggy at the beginning of their respective relationships; how they treated him like he was glass at first. They eventually learned he was more of a beat-up car; prone to some problems, but not fragile. Sam wasn’t quite there yet, but he figured a fellow pilot would be quicker on the uptake than his friends.

“Why don’t you guys take a seat? We can order in” Natasha offered, breaking the tension.

Team Falcon didn’t look convinced on their alleged calmness, but Steve figured by the end of the night they’d be at least assured they weren’t falling apart at the seams. Maybe Steve could get Sam to laugh at his missing tooth situation, because Christ, he’d bitten Hydra with his human mouth, how stupid was that?

“Oh shit” Natasha said, swiping her tablet, turning all eyes on her.

“What?” Steve asked, eyeing the tablet worriedly.

“There was a leak”

Steve sat up straight, “What kind of leak?”

Instead of answering, she turned her tablet around. On it was a high quality picture of him atop one of Hydra’s necks, his hands curled into the open fissure in the beast’s flesh and his teeth firmly sunk into the skin. There was a small trickle of blood in the corner of his mouth, his eyes feral.

His face wasn’t blurred.

“Aw shit” Steve said, running a hand over his mouth, tasting the memory of Hydra’s blood again. His image was on the net for all to see; police bots would have it stored in their facial-recog servers by now, and any schmuck with half-decent spyware could find him in publicly monitored spaces.

“That’s rough man” Sam said, a look of sympathy on his face. “I got my face leaked last year, it wasn’t pretty. You’re gonna want a new email, or get some heavy filters on the one you got now. Maybe get a holo-mask too, until it blows over”

“That bad?”

“Eh, it dies down after a month or so if you don’t make any more waves” Sam shrugged.

Steve nodded, thinking. It wasn’t ideal, but he had come here to make a name for himself. The goal had been to do it through the Captain, but he’d take it. He had no choice.

His phone buzzed, he glanced at it to see another text from Tony.

> I got seven journalists asking for interviews. I’m not saying you have to, but if you don’t then I will, and that’s not good for anybody.

Steve dropped his phone into his lap with a sigh, rubbing his face again. God, today was a mess.

Natasha’s foot gently tapped his shin. She had a consoling smile on her face. “How about I order that food?”

“Yeah, let’s just...” he blew out a breath, “Let’s just have some dinner”

One thing at a time.

Chapter Text

Steve was fuming.

They’d arrived for the meeting to find the CEO of Shield Tech himself, Alexander Pierce, meeting them to apologize. What an honour it was. What a privilege.

There was no sign of the pilot.

After they’d eaten last night and some of the tension had left, Sam, Scott and Clint had offered to come to the meeting as moral support, one team to another.

Steve had declined, but appreciated the offer nonetheless, and had invited them to stay back in their room until they got back. Peggy and Angie had stayed behind with them, the unspoken assumption that Peggy didn’t want to be in the same room as their attacker.

But it looked like that wouldn’t have been an issue.

“As part of our official apology, we’d like to offer you a compensation package for any damages-”

“Where’s the pilot?” Steve grit out for the second time.

“He’s unavailable at this time, but if you would just look at our offer-”

Steve leaned forward, hands curled in fists on the table, “Yeah, you said that already. Where the fuck is he?”

“As I said, he’s not available to meet”

“Then we’re done here” he hissed, frustrated.

Steve got up, Natasha close behind.

“Waitwaitwait,” Tony hastily grabbed Steve’s arm, “I think you’re being a little quick to jump the gun. It’s a very generous package, why not milk their ass-kissing a little, huh?”

Pierce had a sour look at Tony’s words, but he recovered quickly. Apparently nobody was immune to Tony’s assholery.

Tony had joined them for the meeting as their ‘sponsor representative’, and it had actually been helpful to have all his bullshit aimed where it could be useful for once. He’d cut Pierce’s long-winded apology down to a handful of sentences, and that alone was worth it.

But the pilot wasn’t here, and that was all that really mattered.

“I wanna speak to the pilot, I don’t care what these shits have to say”

Ha! Alright, fair, fair, but” Tony held up a finger, “think about this. If you take the package, they lose money, and imagine how much extra shit the pilot’ll be in for costing them so much. Eh? We call that the trickle-down effect” he wiggled his eyebrows to emphasize.

Pierce got an especially sour look at that, but held his tongue. And Tony’s offer actually gave him pause. It was tempting. There was no downside for them, and there was a good chance that what Tony said was true.

But it felt too political for Steve’s taste. This was one debt he wanted to collect in-person, and taking the money felt like he was letting the pilot off the hook too easily.

“I want one thing, and he’s not here. Consider your apology rejected, get back to me when your chickenshit pilot’s ready to talk”

Tony opened his mouth to say something else, but this time it was Pierce who cut him off.

“If a meeting with the pilot is really all you want, we can arrange for that to happen- at a later date, however. As mentioned, he is currently unavailable”

Steve expected the man to look happy they weren’t taking the payout, but his face kept the pinched look when he mentioned the pilot. Steve nodded an acknowledgment anyway, turning to Tony, “We’re done here” but quickly added, “thank you for setting up this meeting, Tony”

Tony let go of his arm, shrugging, “Sure, your loss though”

Steve and Natasha made their exit, going back to the room. Natasha had been a silent support in the meeting, but he wondered if she disapproved of his choice.

“What did you think of that?”

Natasha shrugged, “The money might’ve been nice, but I wanted to see the pilot more”

She sounded casual about it, but her hands were in tight fists, like she’d been itching to use them.

They entered the elevator, riding down in silence. The meeting left Steve wondering about the pilot. He hadn’t considered what the guy must be facing now, probably some kind of reprimand at the very least-- but why wouldn’t Shield bring him to the meeting? If they wanted this cleaned up fast, the smart moved would’ve been to get him out and apologizing as soon as possible.

The lights flickered, and the elevator car stopped with sudden halting shake. They stood still, waiting to see if the car would resume it’s descent, but it didn’t look like it would. Natasha experimentally hit several buttons. When the car didn’t move after another minute, she hit the call button, but only static hissed from the speaker. Natasha frowned.

The lights shut off completely, and the whole car shuddered. Steve gripped the wall to balance himself, taking a moment to adjust to the dim glow of the emergency light.

“Shit. Nat?”

“I don’t know”

She pulled her phone out, tapping it one-handed while her other braced against the wall. Her brow furrowed.

“Fuck, signal’s cutting, we’re in a fucking Faraday-”

Breathe.

Breathe.

Steve blinked his eyes open, groaning as pain shot through his back. He turned his head. When had he fallen to the floor?

Natasha was lying across the car, face-down and limp. He crawled over to her.

“Nat?” He rolled her over and saw a gash on her forehead slowly oozing blood. She groaned, mumbled something indistinct. Her eyes fluttered, struggling to open.

The elevator lurched again, then started rising. The display was dead, he couldn’t see what floors they were passing.

He lightly tapped her cheek, “Natasha? Can you open your eyes for me? Come on”

Her face pulled in pain as she let out another groan, hand going to her head. Her words came out quiet and slurred.

“Th’ el’vator drop’d” she mumbled, grimacing when she moved her head.

The elevator dropped? He was drawing a blank at the memory. Had he hit his head?

He felt around his hair, but there was no sore spot. Only a bruising ache along his back and shoulders.

The elevator slowed its ascent, stopping smoothly as the lights came back on. From the other side he could hear the outer doors being forced open.

Steve perked up, calling loudly, “Hey! We need help in here!”

The inner doors started to part, but Steve’s hope turned to confusion when he saw the person opening the doors was… Hydra’s pilot? The man had the same long hair covering half his face, and the muzzle-mask hiding the rest. Was this some kind of joke?

“What the fuck-”

The man’s foot kicked out at Steve’s head, knocking him back against the wall.

Before he could recover, a pair of hands closed around his throat, choking him.

Steve’s focus honed in. Now this violence was familiar.

He rallied his energy, legs kicking out at the man’s stomach while his hands clawed at his face, aiming for the eyes. The man didn’t seem put off, his grip iron-clad. But Steve was no quitter, digging his fingers deeper. He was going to blind this piece of shit who had the balls to attack his people, this coward too weak to face them head-on, this little-

Steve’s hand hooked under his mask, pulling it off.

He pulled his hands back, eyes wide.

Breathe.

“Buck?” he wheezed.

There was no answer, and before Steve could think what to do, Natasha’s foot kicked out to catch Bucky in the head.

Steve’s hands went to his throat, gasping for breath. The tacky taste of his asthma medication filled his mouth, the pumps firing at the incorrect stimuli.

Natasha stumbled to her knees, pulling a knife out from seemingly nowhere, bracing it to attack. Steve held a hand up in a halting motion.

“Don’t!” he rasped, words pulling his throat like gravel, “It’s Bucky! Nat, it’s Bucky!”

“What?”

Bucky sat up, a hand on his head, looking dazed. Natasha caught sight of his face and looked equally confused.

“James?”

Bucky blinked several times, recovering from the shock of the hit, then turned back to Steve, lunging at him. Steve hadn’t expected… any of this, and was too slow to move. Before he knew it, Bucky was behind him and held him in a chokehold, cutting off his air again.

Steve gripped Bucky’s arms, but couldn’t bring himself to claw at him like before. He looked to Natasha desperately, for help, for something.

Breathe.

Bre-

Breathe? I’m being choked.

Natasha was in no better condition, frozen on her knees and staring. She had to blink several times before finding her voice, “James-- Bucky, its us, its Natasha and Steve”

The was no answer, only Steve’s garbled breathes, which were becoming fewer and fewer. He couldn’t see Bucky’s face, didn’t know if she was getting through to him.

“Bucky, stop, we’re your friends. Let him go, we can talk”

“Objective must be completed”

The first words he’d spoken, a little rough but definitely his voice. Steve would’ve savoured the sound if his lungs weren’t burning so bad.

Natasha’s faced became horrified at his words, she twitched in an aborted move to shuffle away, knife suddenly held back up in defense.

“..no...” she said under her breath.

Steve didn’t know what was happening, but he needed her to do something, because at this point he sure as fuck couldn’t.

“Nat-” he choked out, his final breath as Bucky’s hold cut off the last of his air.

Natasha swallowed, “End task, that’s an order” she choked out.

“Invalid authorization”

“Emergency task termination-- shut down”

“Invalid authorization”

“Shit, shit. Okay” Natasha closed her eyes a moment, then opened them with purpose, “James, I’m so sorry about this”

She flicked her wrists out, four small lines under her skin starting to glow blue, brighter and brighter.

Steve understood at once what she was about to do, and tried to nod his understanding. He wasn’t sure what it meant for him and his biowares, but it was better than choking to death.

She coiled back into a crouch, then jumped at them, her hands grabbing at Bucky’s shoulders.

There was a high whine of a building charge, and Steve tensed for whatever shock was-

[           …           ]

********************

Natasha sat back, letting out a relieved breath, shaking out her tingling wrists.

James was on the floor convulsing. He’d be down at least twenty minutes.

She reached over and pulled Steve away from James’ loose grip. He was breathing in gasping breaths, but looked fine otherwise.

“You alright?”

Steve’s eyes were open, but he didn’t respond, only gasping in air. His eyes had gone glassy. She quickly felt for his pulse, relieved it was holding strong, if a bit erratic.

She snapped her fingers by his ear, “Hey, hey, can you hear me?”

Still no response. That was strange, the charge shouldn’t have hit him. She’d run a low wattage, it wasn’t enough to transfer between people.

He wasn’t even convulsing, he was just… lying there, blinking at nothing, his breaths slowing to normal.

The elevator display came back on with a static blip. She fumbled for the button to their floor, then pulled Steve into her lap, unsure of what else to do.

She looked at James with a sinking feeling, trying to stave off a familiar dread. She didn’t want it to be true, but his words, ‘Objective must be completed’, rang in her head.

“Oh James, I’m so sorry”

Chapter Text

Clint was sitting with Sam and Scott at the table, the three of them looking around uncomfortably, unsure what to say. Peggy and Angie were sitting opposite them, quietly looking into their mugs of tea.

After Steve and Natasha had left, there hadn’t been much else to do but sit. It felt strange to be in team Cap’s room and outnumber the occupants. Their tank and equipment were right there, open to be tampered with-- not that they would ever do that.

Clint couldn’t get over how chill Natasha and Steve were over this whole thing.

Back at the arena, they’d been in the audience, ready to cheer for their new friends. That had quickly turned to yells of horror as Hydra committed the worst possible breach of the fighting code.

Clint’s heart had nearly stopped at the sight of Natasha almost getting chomped by one of those ugly heads, not to mention Peggy and Steve. Shit, Steve had it worst, the thing had been purposefully gunning for the guy. He’d barely dodged getting eaten, going so far as to climb atop one of Hydra’s heads.

And had that been hard to watch. Clint had heard how pilots could get confused of which body they were controlling, and even Sam had mixed his wires on occasion, but watching Steve bite Hydra in panic while his beast hung limp had been scary. Steve had tried to bring it up last night like it was something he’d goofed up, like ‘oh, silly me, biting with the wrong mouth, aren’t I a klutz?’ and no, there was nothing funny about it, he’d nearly died.

He’d been relieved when they found nobody on team Cap was physically hurt, but to hear their dismissal of it had been a shock. Honestly, Peggy was the least one to be worried about, she was actually reacting how someone attacked by a fifteen-foot monster should. Clint would’ve offered his own assurances, but Angie was the only one Peggy was interested in being comforted by.

Clint felt almost lost with Natasha, wanting to give comfort to someone who clearly didn’t want it, and maybe didn’t need it? Sam’s words of pedestals echoed in his head, but maybe she actually was that grounded about things?

The sound of the elevator opening had Clint on his feet along with Sam, relieved that the two were back from their meeting. Maybe now that they’d talked to Hydra’s pilot they’d have more answers-

“Help me get them inside!” Natasha ordered, sitting on the floor with Steve’s head in her lap and a stranger collapsed on the floor.

Oh shit, Clint thought numbly.

For a moment they stood still, caught in the unexpected sight. It was Peggy who got them moving, shoving past to kneel next to Natasha and Steve. Clint couldn’t see her face, but her hands were at Steve’s neck, feeling for his pulse.

“Angie, get my tablet. You three, help me move him and-” her voice paused when she turned to look at the other man, “this one”

Sam joined first to help Peggy, leaving him and Scott to grab the other guy. As he knelt down to grab his legs, he looked to Natasha, who was still sitting on the floor.

“You okay?”

She blinked dazedly at him, “I, yeah. Kinda. Hit my head”

He noticed the small smear of blood on her temple and frowned.

“Can you stand?”

Natasha looked at her legs a moment, “...in a minute”

Clint looked to Scott, who had his arms under the guy’s shoulders.

Scott looked back at him with a strained look, “Gonna need your help moving this guy, I am not a strong man” then he looked sympathetically to Natasha, “Think you can crawl into the room a little? Just to get out of the elevator, then we’ll come back for you”

Natasha nodded, readjusting her legs to scoot inside. It was the least dignified thing Clint had ever seen her do, and under different circumstances he would’ve loved it so much.

With a concerted effort the two off them managed to drag the guy inside towards the medbay, but realized their problem only when they got there.

“Uhhh, Peggy? Where do we put this guy?” Scott asked, looking at the one medical bed that was currently holding Steve.

Peggy was busy attaching leads to Steve while casting glances at her tablet. She offhandedly muttered, “Just lay him on the floor for now, I’ll get to him”

They gently dropped him with relieved breaths. Clint made a quick return to the elevator for Natasha.

She’d recovered enough to stand with some help, and Clint acted as her crutch as they walked back to the medbay, where Scott had grabbed a chair for her to sit in. Natasha fell into the seat with a huff, and Clint crouched in front of her.

“Hey, how many fingers am I holding up?”

Natasha quirked an eyebrow, “Seriously?”

“You might have a concussion. So come on, how many?”

“Three”

“And can you tell me your full name and date of birth?”

“Natasha Romanov, and none of your business”

“Okay, and last question, what’s twelve times eight”

She only paused a second to think, “Ninety-six”

Clint forced a smile, “Awesome. You should be okay, probably”

“Is that your professional opinion?” she asked teasingly.

“Not so much opinion as experience, I got knocked around a bit as a kid doing some stupid stuff” he answered in the same tone, relieved she was well enough to joke. He noted the dazed look had left her eyes.

“Hey, Natasha,” Sam started asking in a controlled tone, kneeling next to the mysterious floor man, “wanna explain why Hydra’s pilot was lying in the elevator with y’all?”

Chapter Text

Everyone paused at Sam’s question, and Natasha clasped her hands together in worry. Where to begin?

“I’m sorry, who?” Peggy asked, anger lacing her words, the first thing to actually pull her full attention away from Steve.

Right, he’d attacked them. She’d forgotten James had been Hydra’s pilot sometime during the realization that the pilot had been James. There were bad reactions all around.

Clint had moved between Natasha and James, body tensed, and she saw Sam pull a small knife from his pocket, holding it at his side at the ready. Natasha needed to clear things quick before this got out of hand.

“It’s not- he’s not what you think-”

“Did he attack you? Is that what happened?”

Peggy didn’t hear, her eyes were locked on the prone figure with a look of disgust. And fear. Sam tactically moved out of striking range, poised to jump in if James woke and lashed out.

“You guys got any tape? Duct tape ideally, but electrical should be fine. If he’s violent then we oughta restrain him before he wakes. Then we’ll call security, get this guy outta here” Sam said calmly.

Restraining him was a good idea actually, but she needed to get a handle of this situation before they accidentally handed him over. She needed to get Peggy on her side, the two of them were the authority in this room.

Natasha tried to explain, “No, listen Peggy, there’s more-”

“Not enough he tried to kill us in the ring, he comes here-” Peggy was starting on a rant, anger laced into her words. Natasha needed to get her point across fast.

“It’s James!” she interrupted, voice raised.

That got Peggy’s attention, but her look was only of confusion.

“You know him?”

Now it was Natasha that had to pause, brow furrowing, “I, yeah. Yeah I know him, it’s James”

“Who’s James?”

Our James. Barnes. Bucky”

Peggy looked at her worriedly, “I think you’ve hit your head harder than you thought. Clint,” she turned to him, “there’s some painkillers in the third drawer over there, could you fetch some for her? And Angie, can you get the rope from my case” she looked at Sam this time, “I’m afraid we don’t have much tape, rope will-”

“Look at his face for fucks sake! Peggy, it’s him, it’s James. Even Steve saw it” Natasha cut in, putting an edge to her tone.

Peggy had a pitying look on her now, “I don’t need to see his face, his arms are enough”

“You know that can be changed” Natasha ground out. Peggy wasn’t even trying to listen.

“Not for people like us. Think about what you’re saying, it doesn’t make sense”

Angie returned with the rope, handing it off to Sam who started binding James’ arms first. Seeing him taking care of the prone figure, Peggy returned to Steve’s side, walking away from Natasha.

Natasha stood, pushing past Clint and Scott, the former who’d come back with the painkillers, “Hey, don’t ignore me, I’m fine, this isn’t a concussion talking!”

“Natasha, I really think you should sit-”

“I’m fine, Clint. What’s not fine is that you’re not listening to what’s important. Look at his fucking face, Peggy! Tell me that isn’t him! Prove me wrong!” she was raising her her voice now, but she had to- had to make them understand, this was worse than they knew.

“I don’t have time for this, Steve’s in critical condition-”

“He got tasered, and not even directly! He’s breathing, his heart’s beating; he’s not fucking dying! Can you take a fucking second and back me up before they call security! They’ll take him Peggy, and we won’t get him back again!” Her voice was quivering now, she had to take a breath and reign herself in. Maybe she had hit her head a little too hard, she was usually better than this.

Peggy clenched her jaw, but put down the tablet and made her way to James.

“If it’ll calm you down, I’ll take a look” she said as she bent down.

Sam had secured his arms, and was halfway to finishing his legs, there was no worry of him lashing out if he woke suddenly. Peggy reached to pull the hair covering his face away, and made a ‘hmm’ noise when she finally got a proper look.

“See?”

“I’ll admit there’s a resemblance, but you know it can’t be him, right?” she looked back up to Natasha, “If he was alive, he would’ve come to us, or contacted us at least. And he certainly wouldn’t have become a pilot with some corporation”

“I know this doesn’t make sense right now, but please, trust me. I promise that’s him, and I can prove it too, but you can’t call security on him. You can’t call anyone outside this room, okay?” Natasha looked at her pleadingly.

Sam had finished securing James, and was looking between the two. He at least made no move to call anyone.

Peggy frowned, considering it. She looked to Sam.

“Would you stay with us, at least until we have this sorted?”

“Yeah”

“Us too” Clint added for him and Scott.

Peggy nodded in thanks, looking back to Natasha, “Alright, we’ll keep him here, for now” she added quickly. That was fine, they didn’t need to believe her right now.

Sam had a contemplative look on his face, but he nodded all the same, pulling up a chair to sit by James and keep an eye on him.

Clint came up to her tentatively, “So, I know you’re okay, but maybe you should still sit” he said gently, which normally would’ve upset her, but after the ordeal of talking Peggy into agreeing, she didn’t much care.

Peggy got hold of her tablet again, going over the readings. She stayed close to Steve, but her attention had stayed on Natasha.

“You said you’d explain, how about we start with what happened to Steve”

Natasha sat, and started her explanation at the elevator.

**************

Sam sat back a listened, keeping half an eye on ‘James’ or whoever this guy was. All he knew was that he’d tried killing his friends twice now, and he wasn’t letting his guard down.

Natasha’s explanation didn’t dissuade his wariness. The guy had somehow gotten into the elevator controls and used it to knock them down, then gone to choke Steve. He hadn’t bothered to get Natasha, even when she’d become the bigger threat. It was telling of a serious grudge. Sam was glad he’d failed.

It turned out it was Natasha’s tasers that had done the most damage to Steve. She said he’d been fighting back just fine before she’d set them off, but why it left Steve like that was a mystery. Sam had seen plenty of people get tasered, they didn’t end up comatose. On that Natasha agreed.

“I had the ends directly on James’ shoulders, nothing was touching Steve. And the wattage was too low to transfer between bodies, I don’t get why this happened”

Peggy frowned, looking at Steve. “Where was Steve when you shocked him?”

“In James’ arms, right up against his chest in a chokehold”

Peggy moved closer to Steve, gently taking his head and turning it, inspecting his hairline.

“How close would you say his head was to your wrists?”

Natasha shrugged, “Not exactly sure, but a few inches at least”

Peggy muttered a quiet ‘shit’ under her breath.

“I think I know what happened. Look”

Peggy titled Steve’s head for everyone to see. For a moment, Sam wasn’t sure what he was supposed to be looking for, but when he finally got it, he followed suite with a muttered ‘shit’.

“What? What is it?” Scott asked, trying to figure out what they were seeing.

“Look at his link man. It’s dark”

Scott’s squinted curiously, “So? His link’s off, what about it?”

“Not off” Peggy said, “Disabled. If it were off it’d show a red light. I think some of the charge jumped and shorted out the tech”

“Damn. Has this happened before at other disconnects?” Sam asked.

“He’s never had a disconnect, we’ve always won”

“Then maybe this is how he reacts to ‘em. I’ve passed out a few times on disconnect”

“But he’s isn’t unconscious, his eyes are open and moving”

“Could he be seizing?” Natasha asked.

Peggy shook her head, “Can’t be, I set up notifications for them after the earlier scare…. from the Affinity tech that’s been fried, fuck. Of course I won’t be getting any notification from that” Peggy put a hand over her eyes at her realization.

“Um, not really a doctor, but seizures don’t go this long without, you know, killing a person” Scott pipped in.

“I know” Peggy said with a twist to her lips.

Sam had to agree, this didn’t have the makings of a seizure. It had the makings of brain damage, and he didn’t want to think about what that meant for Steve.

“If the shock got to his link, no telling how much of it got to his brains. This might be really serious” Scott added worriedly.

“I know” Peggy said again, quieter.

“Is there anything we can do?” Angie asked

“I think the link can be brought back online, if we can manage that then I can get the monitoring software going, see his brain activity, decide where to go from there” Peggy said after a moment.

“How do we get it back on?”

“If it’s a short, we’ll need to replace the wiring”

“Can you even do that? It’s in his head”

“The inner wires are bio-filaments, they wouldn’t be damaged from a surge. The outer link holds all the metal wires. It wouldn’t involve surgery, everything’s outside the skull. I can replace the external wiring and bring it online. I’ll need my splicing kit, the one for micro-implants”

Peggy was sounding hopeful, moving to get her gear, confident now that she had a goal and something concrete to do. While Peggy was busy preparing, the rest turned back to Natasha.

“So what about this guy?” Sam finally asked. They got all the information they could that might help Steve, now it was in Peggy’s hands for what came next. In the meantime, Sam wanted answers for why they hadn’t shucked this guy off to be someone else’s problem.

Natasha hesitated, “He’s a bit more complicated to explain”

“How about you start with who this James guy is” Sam prompted. He figured knowing the man’s background was a good start as any.

“He was a friend of ours, worked with us in the early days when we were building the Captain. He was actually supposed to be the pilot, initially”

Sam saw where that was going. “But Steve got it instead, and James’ probably wasn’t so happy ‘bout that”

No” Natasha said sharply, “They were best friends, he’d never turn on Steve like that. They lived together in the slums. Steve was too sickly to work most days, James supported the both of them. Hell, he only took the job working with us to get Steve a pacemaker”

Sam had the wherewithal to look apologetic for his assumption, but actions spoke louder, and he wasn’t seeing any other reason for James’ attack. He kept listening though, because maybe there was more to this story still.

“James was with Steve in New York during the quarantine. He never made it out”

“Wait, Steve was there? I thought the plague killed everyone?” Clint asked, confused.

Natasha leveled Clint with a look, “You think that’s what actually happened?”

“I mean, well, there’s some rumours and stuff, but nothing confirmed...”

Natasha looked somber, no teasing at Clint’s fumble, “Clint, there wasn’t any plague. It was a purge. Steve was there to see it”

Sam nodded. He hadn’t known what actually happened in New York, but he wasn’t stupid, and he wasn’t surprised either. He was familiar with population purging. Way too familiar. But purging the entirety of New York was ballsy of them, usually purges were reserved for the smaller population centres. Maybe it helped that it was an island, made it easier to catch any stragglers.

“James never made it out as far as we knew” she repeated, “But there he is” she nodded to his prone form on the ground.

“I still don’t think that’s him” Peggy said, pulling tools out of her kit. “I mean, look at his arms

“What about his arms?” Scott asked. Sam was curious too, it had been a real hot-button between the two.

Natasha’s lips thinned, “The James we knew only had one. His left arm was a bioware piece. But that doesn’t mean anything, Shield has the funds to grow him a whole new body daily if they wanted”

“Why would he take a job with Shield? Peggy had a point, if he was a close as you say, he would’ve found you after the purge. Got an explanation for that?” Sam asked.

Natasha turned her face away, “That’s... more complicated” Her hands were almost white with how tightly she was squeezing them in her lap.

“I’m going to tell you something that happened to me-- that was done to me, as a child. It’s not a pretty story, and I don’t wanna tell it, but if what I think’s happening is true, you need to know the whole thing”

Sam sat back, still keeping an eye on ‘James’, paying partial attention to Natasha’s story.

She got his full attention fairly quick.

Chapter Text

“I’m Russian born, from some small village I don’t remember the name of. There were pharma suits there too, like we have here, except they don’t take volunteers.

“I was a child at the time, I don’t think I was more than nine. They just took me and all the other children they could find. And they did… tests”

If you continue to fight then the tests will only take longer. Stop screaming, we will not stop for your fussing”

Natasha suppressed a shiver.

“I didn’t understand it at the time, but Dr. Erskine explained it to me after. They were looking to weaponize Affinity tech, one of those experiments to control people”

“That was proven impossible decades ago, way before you would’ve been born” Clint said worriedly.

“It was proven impossible with a direct mind-to-mind link. But they’d been testing software as an intermediary connection. Mind-to-computer-to-mind”

“But computers can’t interface with-”

“They weren’t interfacing with computers, it was just the delivery system for orders” Natasha interrupted. “And it doesn’t matter what’s possible, this is what happened

Clint had the decency to look ashamed. He didn’t interrupt again.

“I’m not going to get into everything that happened, but I will say they had some success. They could type their orders into the program, and it would execute through us. But the tests had a high... casualty rate”

[           order.co {“Kill him with the knife”}

                Process (command.cue)

           Verified Objective]

She swiped at the other boy with her knife, slashing him across the chest. He came at her with his own, and she let him. Her well-being was not the objective.

His knife pierced her shoulder, bringing with it a searing pain. She still didn’t stop, shoving her own knife forward until it struck his chest. A second shove had it in all the way to the hilt. The other boy fell to the ground, gasping. Dying.

[          Objective complete     ]

Interesting. Lack of defense parameters didn’t cause subject 36 to fail”

Subject 12 was given the objective to stab with the knife instead of kill, that may have factored in”

Perhaps. And notice that Subject 36 didn’t immediately go for the obvious killing blow first. Perhaps the order was too vague?”

Get Subject 36 to the medical unit for repairs first, then we’ll try something more specific”

She didn’t try to think about it much.

“I don’t think any of us were going to survive to the end of testing. I only got out because of Dr. Erskine. I don’t know what changed his mind, but one night he came in and snuck the last five of us out.

“We went on the run after that, but they were hunting us for a while. The four others died during that time. Then we ended up in America, and now I’m here, not much more to say on that” Natasha finished lamely.

She’d glossed over many details, along with most of the trials she’d had to endure while at Red Room and on the run, but she felt she’d gotten the gist across. It was more than she’d ever shared before, at least.

Everyone was quiet after she finished, and Natasha didn’t care for it. They were at a loss for words and looked at her like she’d admitted to killing each of their puppies.

Clint’s eyes shone with held-back tears, and she especially didn’t care for that.

She had to speak up when nobody said anything for a minute, “Guys, don’t make this weird. It happened, I’m here now, it’s fine”

“That is not fine-” Clint started, voice wavering, and hard No on that.

“Well it’s over now. Don’t dwell on my sob story” Natasha said before Clint could get any more out.

Sam alone seemed the least bothered by what she’d said, his hand held over his mouth in thought.

“So... you think James is being controlled? What makes you think it’s the same thing?” he asked.

“It’s what he said. I asked him to stop, that we could talk, and he said ‘objective must be completed’. It’s what they had us saying when they were controlling us. On a hunch I tried one of the shut-down orders they’d give when one of us were out of control, and he said ‘invalid authorization’.

“I didn’t have the authorization to make him obey, but someone does. Even if that’s not James, he’s definitely not acting under his own power. We can’t turn him back to Shield”

Sam nodded in agreement, “We won’t”

Natasha felt relief. At least they weren’t going to hand him over now.

“Um, Natasha?” Angie said tentatively.

She turned her eyes to Angie, worried she was going to say something comforting.

“I wasn’t gonna say until after all this stuff, but seems a little relevant now. That, uh, thing I was looking up for you, which turned out clean by the way, no worries about, uh, that person’s affiliation. But I found out Red Room is actually a subsidiary of Shield Tech. So... yeah”

Natasha closed her eyes. She’d been hoping James had only been loaned out, maybe even sold as a product. But no, Shield Tech, the company that was hosting the tournament and owned the building they were staying in, was part of Red Room. Controlled Red Room.

Scott let out a breath, “Oh, wow”

That about summed it up.

“I think this might be your James” Sam said.

That surprised Natasha. She hadn’t expected any of team Falcon to believe her on that particular argument.

“Really?”

“It makes sense. New York isn’t the only place that’s been purged. Sometimes they don’t kill everyone, they take a few. I didn’t know what happened to the ones taken, but I guess guinea pigs ain’t a far stretch. Your story really just connects some extra dots”

“But if he was used for testing, why’s he paraded around? And why for beast fighting?” Clint asked, having finally wiped the unshed tears from his eyes.

“When I worked for Pym Tech” Scott started, “we looked into new ways to improve beasts, including pilot enhancements- not that we did anything like this” he quickly added. “But we were always looking for ways to get better results on both ends. I don’t know what the benefits of controlling a pilot would be, but how many fights has he been in, two-hundred? And he’s lost what, maybe five of them? If I had to guess, I’d say he’s a final product” Scott said.

Natasha nodded, it sounded plausible. “Though not a completely successful product, from what happened earlier. Can’t be a coincidence it happened when he saw Steve either” Natasha said.

“But why would he attack Steve?” Peggy asked, the first thing she’d said since Natasha’s explanation.

The quiet groan that came from James drew all their attentions.

Sam looked back down to him, “I guess we can ask him”

Chapter Text

“Help me get him up, against the bed” Natasha said, kneeling next to James’ prone form. Sam and Clint came over to help, propping him against the side of the medical bed Steve was laying on.

James’ head lolled while he woke, letting out small noises of pain. He quieted down when he came fully aware, staring ahead blankly.

“James? Do you recognize me?”

He didn’t react.

“Are you able to do anything? Give us a sign you’re in there?”

Still no movement, he sat like a frozen automaton. Natasha tried a more variations of questions, waving a hand in front of his face, even resorting to pinching his arm, but nothing elicited a reaction.

She was starting to think she’d need to run a check on her tasers to see if they ware leaving everyone she hit comatose. It had been a solid four months since she’d last had to use them, could they have malfunctioned? She ran a scan once a week, they’d been fine last check-in.

“Maybe try, I dunno, a command? Like you said you did in the elevator” Clint suggested.

“It won’t work, I don’t have authorization” Natasha answered, pretending to flick James in the eye. He blinked defensively in reaction, and so far that was the first sign he wasn’t dead to the world aside from his initial groaning.

“Not for shut off or whatever. But maybe there’s stuff that doesn’t need administrative access?”

“I doubt they gave him a basic user interface” Natasha said wryly.

Clint shrugged uncomfortably, “Wouldn’t hurt to try”

Natasha couldn’t argue that. She thought back to how the Red Room scientists had phrased their commands, and took a moment to think of something easy to answer. Names were usually pretty easy.

“State your designation”

“Asset-0017” he said in a flat, dead tone.

Natasha’s brows shot up in surprise. She hadn’t expected that to work. She shot a look to Clint, who wasn’t exactly smiling, but there was relief that something had worked. Well, time to see how much she could get.

“Asset, full report”

“Invalid authorization”

“Okay, let’s try something smaller. State current objective”

“Invalid authorization”

Natasha pursed her lips, thinking. Security measures would cover anything too broad, but would something specific do? His objective had clearly been Steve, maybe she could work with that angle.

“Asset, state current objective target”

“32557038-Hey_Steve”

His answer caught Natasha off guard. She’d braced herself for more lifeless answers, but she’d caught a hint of James just now, when he’d said ‘Hey Steve’. He’d said it like how James would’ve said it, Brooklyn lilt and all. The way he’d said it nearly everyday at the shop.

Hey Steve, pass the screw bit

Hey Steve, come hold this up for me

Hey Steve, quit that or I’m gonna fuckin’ come over there

James?” Peggy whispered, eyes going wide. She’d paused her work at James’ words.

“That’s kinda fucked up, right. I’m not the only one that heard that?” Scott said.

Nobody answered. Natasha didn’t blame them, it was hard to take in. She pushed on with her questions.

“Asset, who set target ‘Hey_Steve’?”

James’ face twitched uncomfortably, “Invalid- invalid… Data not available”

“That’s different” Natasha noted.

“But what does it mean?” Scott asked.

“No idea”

“Can I try?” Sam asked.

“Be my guest” Natasha scooted back, but stayed crouching nearby. Sam leaned forward in his chair.

“Asset, list previous four targets”

“Target designated 32557038-Hey_Steve, target designated 4532900012-Captain, target data unavailable, target data unavailable”

“I still don’t know what that means” Scott said.

“It means he was originally targeting the Captain” Natasha said.

Sam looked to Natasha, “That doesn’t tell us much either”

She was inclined to agree.

“Is there some way we can make James more… normal? I don’t think we’re getting anywhere with this. He’s only answering half your questions, and not very well” Peggy said, looking incredibly perturbed at the unfolding interrogation.

“The only way I know is to shut off the software they’ve got in him”

“Can we do that?”

Natasha shook her head, “We’d need to access his code through the Affinity software, and it’ll be as encrypted as Sam’s and Steve’s. We’d need a computer that’s already been synced with him. And even then, it’s modified Affinity code, I wouldn’t know where to start”

“It’s better than nothing. I think between your techs and mine we could figure something out” Sam said.

Natasha held back a derisive snort. That was a far shot at best. Between their techs was enough knowledge to know fuck-all about Affinity code. Hell, Angie coded her whole life, both professionally and in pursuit of internet vigilantism, and on a good day she’d call it a Rubik’s cube made of shit and glitter.

“And Shield would have at least one computer that’s been connected to James somewhere here, right?” Clint added, agreeing with Sam.

“They’d have to,” Natasha said, “if his program’s based on the one they had in me, he’d need regular maintenance. The programming didn’t stick right, it destabilized in an hour for us. I don’t know how long James has until his starts degrading, if at all”

“If it does degrade, can’t we just leave it?” Peggy asked.

[           Err.KKKKKK///-Unfound-protprotprot///protoc//- - -      ]

Her mind was burning burning burning and the other boys’ screams mixed with her own except the ones who weren’t because they’d clawed themselves deep enough to bleed and and-and-

“That might kill him” Natasha answered flatly.

“You’re sure?”

She felt her jaw tick. “The one they tested on us killed you if it degraded enough, and I have no idea how much of that problem they fixed with this newest version. I think the safest way out is if we shut it down properly”

“You think?” Peggy asked, dubious.

“I’m not exactly an expert here” Natasha snipped. God, they were asking her all these questions as if she knew the answers to them. She added sharply, “I was a child, and Dr. Erskine did all the technical stuff. For all I know leaving it will work, or kill him, or maybe it won’t degrade at all!”

“Sorry, this is just- it’s a lot. More so for you I imagine” Peggy said, voice softening.

Natasha ran a hand over her face. Peggy wasn’t wrong, the last... god, had it only been thirty minutes? It had been trying, to say the least. Everything was coming at her too fast, bringing up too many things she worked hard to get over. At least she thought she’d gotten over.

“Can I-?” Peggy hesitated, indicating James.

“Yeah, go ahead” Natasha said tiredly. More questions couldn’t hurt.

“Alright. James- er, Asset, does your code degrade? Do you need maintenance regularly?”

“Tertiary system malfunctions occur six-hours after patch, secondary system malfunctions occur eighteen-hours after patch, base system malfunctions occur twenty-hours after patch. Off-cycle patches required daily at eight-pm; post-combat patches required immediately post-combat”

“Did anyone get all that?” Clint asked, looking around the room.

Natasha ignored him, running over what James had said.

“Asset, how long since your last patch, and what happens if no patch is given?”

“Invalid authorization. System failure occurs after prolonged period without patching”

A drop in Natasha’s stomach, “What happens during a system failure?”

“Cascade failure of all systems: possible deletion of all systems and programs, data unavailable, possible termination of biological systems, possible shut-down, data unavailable, data unavailable. Risk of cache overload, risk of critical system crash, risk of-”

He kept going, listing more and more jargon that only Angie and maybe Clint understood, based on looks on their faces. There was a lot of gaps in the list with ‘data unavailable’, and Natasha didn’t know what kind of problem that meant.

She turned away from James- couldn’t look at him. “termination of biological systems”- the worst case she’d suspected, and now confirmed. Fuck, he could die any moment. Fuck, fuck, fuck.

She stood and kicked her chair over, yelling “FUCK!” over the sound of James dead-toned listing. She took a few steps away, running her hands through her hair, immediately composing herself from her outburst. It was Red Room all over again except it was someone she cared about and Abraham wasn’t here to fix it.

She felt a hand on her shoulder. She was expecting to see Peggy, maybe Clint, but was surprised to see it was Sam.

“You said we’d need a computer that’s connected to his Affinity software, right?”, Natasha nodded. “Would a tablet or laptop work? Something portable?”

She thought about it. She didn’t actually know how it all worked, but she didn’t think a tablet would be any different. “Probably. As long as it can edit software and was connected to James at some point. Why, you hiding one in your room?”

“I might be able to get us something”

“How?” Natasha asked, skeptical. Sam sounded fairly confident, but she couldn’t imagine it was anything easy.

“I think I can convince Tony to get it for us”

Natasha couldn’t stop the first desperate laugh from coming out her mouth, but she swallowed the rest down. He couldn’t be serious?

“No, really. Tony’s gotten us blacklist hardware in the past, I think he can help with this too. Especially if we ask him”

“I doubt he could get something like this. Even if he could, he’s been our sponsor for two weeks, what makes you think he’d do something risky like that for us?” Natasha asked. She wasn’t wholly convinced Tony could be trusted, there was no consequence or enticement in their situation to encourage his help.

“He got our tech three days after meeting us, we hadn’t even accepted his sponsorship yet” Sam said.

“And he got it without asking us” Clint added, “Really wanted to win us over. Which didn’t actually help at the time, ‘cause we didn’t tell him we needed the tech, so he like, definitely hacked our records. But it worked out, sorta”

It wasn’t the shinning endorsement Natasha was looking for, and she leveled Clint with a look.

“But it was, uh, something we really needed, like, life-or-death needed” Clint quickly amended, “Like, actually, Sam was, um, kinda dying? And Tony just got it for us, no expectation, he didn’t force us to take his sponsorship in trade or anything. Just kinda, handed it over, real, well, not nice, you know how he is, and we were really confused too at first, but-”

“She gets it, man” Sam said, cutting off Clint’s ramble with practiced ease.

Natasha kept her eyes on Sam, considering. So maybe Tony had a complex they could exploit. Probably several. But even so, this wasn’t something he could just buy for them.

“How unsavory was this tech he got you? This isn’t some black market grab; Shield doesn’t have a price-tag on those computers”

Sam shot Clint a look not to speak, then looked at Natasha with hesitance. “It was some… off-the-market biowares, not something even the black market would have. He actually stole it from one of Shield’s facilities, so I don’t think he’ll have a problem with the risk.

“The bigger worry is he’s gonna wanna know why he’s stealing this thing for y’all, and I don’t know how much you wanna explain this situation”

That was a good point. Tony was the owner of a private corporation in rivalry with Shield, he wouldn’t be involved with them. But, he dealt with government contracts, and their national bureaucracy was definitely involved in this.

“If it’s any help, I can guarantee Tony isn’t involved with something like this” Sam said as if reading her mind.

“You’re sure?”

Sam nodded, “Yeah, I was…” Sam paused, hesitating on his words, “I was in something, similar. To you and James. S’why I needed that bioware Tony got us, Shield was the only ones making it, to contract out for- for testing”

Clint and Scott were looking away uncomfortably. Peggy and Angie had gone back to working around Steve, but they were casting glances at the rest of the room, still listening. Natasha had no reply for Sam, and the silence was unexpectedly heavy. Even James had gone quiet, finishing his list at some point in the conversation.

Sam took a breath. “It doesn’t matter now, that’s old stuff for me” he looked back to Natasha, his eyes pleading. “Let me call Tony. He knew about my thing and helped without being asked, he’ll jump at the chance to help here”

He was looking at Natasha for an answer, and she wondered when she’d been put in charge. But she didn’t blame Peggy for backing away from this mess- she just wished it hadn’t fallen on her. This was something Steve should’ve been lead on.

If Steve was awake, what would he decide?

He was everything I had, Nat.

Stupid question. She knew exactly what Steve’s answer would be.

“Call him”

Sam nodded, pulling his phone out, typing out a message.

She turned to Steve. Angie was holding his head steady while Peggy carefully unscrewed his Affinity port. A collection of small, delicate tools by her side to fix his link.

Steve was lying loose in the bed, eyes glassy and empty, staring at the ceiling. Not even twitching. It was harder to look at than James. At least with James she knew he was in there, bound in his own mind. But Steve could be gone, dead in all the ways that mattered.

She hoped he was still in there, dreaming at least.

Chapter Text

[           ….           ]

Steve swallowed a stream of saliva that just kept building no matter how much he swallowed. He’d spit, but then he’d have to take off his mask, and that was the only thing keeping him alive.

He looked to Bucky, seeing him swallow just as compulsively under the same mask. The mask was a smooth thing covering their whole face in a single concave dome, a black seal around the edge keeping it air-tight. It was clear from the bridge of the bridge of the nose upwards for better visibility, with the re-breathing component only a black collection of machine parts covering their mouth and nose, recycling the air coming from their lungs.

Their masks were both Bucky’s from his salvaging days, back when he’d dive in the permanent floodwaters of uptown to collect sunken items of value, pawning them for cash. Steve wore Bucky’s regular mask, while Bucky wore his backup.

Wearing the masks for several hours left the air disgustingly stale. He and Bucky- having worn them for four days straight- couldn’t tell the difference from normal air anymore.

Bucky was sitting by the window, watching the streets below from the tiny crack between the boards they’d put up. He was scratching at the point his flesh met the bioware of his arm. Steve had to kick him gently to call attention to it, making him stop.

He’d scratched the scab off, making it bleed again. He’d been doing that more and more that last few days, and it worried Steve. Bucky had never scratched himself like that before, not even after he’d upgraded his arm unit to something made with fresh parts and ending in a three-finger hand.

The masks kept them from breathing the gas, but it still permeated the air, and Steve suspected it was slowly getting in through their skin.

Four days of this, and it was wearing them down. The masks made eating and drinking hell, and their reserves were dipping dangerously low as it was. Power had been cut for the whole block, maybe even the entire island, and they’d nearly bled the last of their generator’s life.

But they couldn’t leave. It was a purge outside.

[           ….           ]

It had started with the gas, flooding in from the streets in white furls of smoke, blowing in on the wind. It was Bucky that had saved them, running for his masks and shoving them on both their faces. They’d been helpless to watch as others weren’t so lucky. Bucky had to pull Steve away from the window when he saw a family of five trying to outrun the deadly fog, too late. Their bodies had lain outside their building all night, among many others.

Later they’d seen others survivors in similar mask making a run for it. Then they’d heard the distant gunshots, and thought better of joining

The shots had been getting closer as the days went by. Their area had been spared by the grace of the recent flash flooding, an occurrence as common as any other weather event. The the water was as high as their necks, and had washed away the bodies days ago.

But it had started to drain down to knee height, and by tomorrow it would only be ankle deep.

They’d switched off lookout duty by the window, trying to think of a plan. There was no telling how much of the island had been secured, but it was a safe bet all the general exits were cut-off.

Bucky had come up with a half-idea of escape on their second day after watching someone with a motorboat- consisting of a wood palette and homemade motor- drive past in the flooded street. They didn’t know if the person made it, but they didn’t hear any shots for a good hour.

Which is exactly what inspired Bucky’s last-ditch plan. When he wasn’t keeping watch, sleeping, or going through the ordeal of eating, Bucky was tinkering with his diving motor, trying to upgrade it enough to pull them both from the island to the mainland. Or at least, far enough that they could swim the rest of the way without dying.

They spent most of their time sitting in silence, hypervigilant for any signs the shooting was getting closer. Talking was difficult with the masks anyway; they weren’t designed to communicate.

They were waiting as long as they could until Bucky finished the upgrade, but Steve realized only an hour ago that they’d have to leave before it was done. If their worsening drooling and Bucky’s sudden nervous ticks weren’t enough of a warning, then the fact that Steve’s right arm had lost its fine motor control was. He could barely grip his fork with it. The gas was killing them, and they didn’t have time to make everything perfect.

Steve was going to bring it up at the end of his lookout, when Bucky has finished his turn to sleep. Of the two of them, Bucky needed to be the most rested for their plan to work.

He never got the chance though. Bucky tensed by the window, slowly standing. Steve watched him, snapping his fingers and holding his hand out to wordlessly ask what was happening.

They’re here” Bucky said, words heavily muffled behind the mask.

Fuck.

“– supplies and – to go” Bucky went on.

Steve nodded. He caught enough of what Bucky said to get the idea.

He grabbed their small packs while Bucky did a quick final check of the motor. The waters had gone down enough to travel without getting swept away. The plan was to get to the nearest safe shoreline and take the motor from there.

Before they left, Bucky grabbed his shoulder, pulling out his phone, indicating for Steve to do the same. Bucky took their phones and fiddled with them for a moment. When he handed it back, Steve looked at it curiously.

Bucky had installed a tracking app, pinned to his own phone. Steve saw a similar app on Bucky’s. It wouldn’t work here, all signals were being jammed, but they’d be able to find each other on the mainland. It was a silent agreement that if they got separated, they find meet up on the other side.

Steve tucked his phone back into the inner pocket of his pants- the one he usually kept his money in for safety. He zipped it closed, securing it in the water-tight pocket. Bucky did the same for his own.

They snuck out the back fire escape, sinking low in the water. It wasn’t deep enough to swim properly, but they could pull themselves along in a sort of swim-crawl, only their heads above water to see.

It wasn’t the most dignified thing, but it would stop the shooters from spotting them from a distance.

[           ….           ]

They rounded a corner and spied several soldiers in full-body suits and respirators wading towards them. They ducked under immediately, scuttling backwards behind the corner again. Steve felt Bucky’s hand grab his arm, pulling him close, pushing him flush to the ground. From here only small speckles of sunlight filtered into the water.

Steve had never been so glad for pollution; the murk kept them hidden from anyone gazing at them from the surface.

They stayed like that for a while, how long he didn’t know, but enough time that the soldiers should have passed them. Hopefully.

They peeked out from the water and found it clear. Their progress continued.

It wasn’t until Fourth-Avenue that they had to stand, the floodwaters fully receded at that point. They walked in their soaked clothes, staying close to the buildings, hugging corners and taking backstreets. If they could get to Clinton Street unseen, they’d only be a block or so from the docks.

They were rounding another corner from an alley when the concrete wall exploded next to Steve’s head. They both ducked as another shot hit where Bucky’s head had been, showering small flecks of concrete all over.

Steve grabbed the tail of Bucky’s shirt and yanked them into the alley. They ran back the way they came, and Bucky had to drag Steve along by his arm as he fell behind.

They reached the end of the alley, turning the corner--

A force slammed Steve’s head to the side, knocking him off-balance and to the ground. It took him a moment to register that another shot had rung out. His eyes started to run, small tears leaking down his face. He had to blink a few times until his vision cleared, but it took a moment to interpret the white lines he was seeing.

Those are cracks.

Shit shit shit his mask had- they’d shot his mask, the air was getting in-

His hands shot to the re-breather at his mouth, pushing it deep into his skin to compensate for the broken outer seal.

Hands grabbed him under his armpits, dragging him up. It was Bucky, looking relieved when he saw the bullet hadn’t hit Steve. He looked down the alley and his eyes widened. Steve followed his gaze to the soldiers that had followed them. There were only two, and they slowed when the caught up, slinging their guns over their shoulders.

Steve was confused, until he saw their stance change, and oh . Steve knew that stance. He’d seen it in dozens of others when they looked at him as an easy mark. Any other day Steve would’ve risen to the challenge, but even he knew these were bad odds.

They had no other choice though. The faceless soldiers fell on them, fists raised.

[           ….           ]

Bucky ducked and tackled the one around the middle, but Steve wasn’t so lucky. He tried to duck, but he only managed to pull his face away enough to catch the hit in his mask, sending it flying to the ground. His face was completely bare now.

Steve clamped his mouth closed, careful no to breathe in. Fuck. Fuck . This was bad

Steve raised his arms to hit back, but the one still wasn’t cooperating, and the other was following suit in a wavering wobble. He struck out pathetically, and the soldier knocked it aside with ease, following up with a gut punch, and fuck, that did it.

The air was knocked out of his lungs, and he instinctively sucked in a breath.

The smell of fruit filled his throat, burning his lungs. His legs collapsed under him, leaving him convulsing on the ground. The world grew too bright. The ground scrapped his face, the smell of fruit filled his throat, until it didn’t, until his asthma hit, closing his airway.

A boot came into his vision, and then pain as it hit him in the stomach. Again, again, again, until they didn’t.

He felt the boot touch his chest, pushing him onto his back. He couldn’t stop it, couldn’t move. He bet this shitstain was having a helluva time.

His last view was the boot rising, rising high. Behind it a masked soldier, face hidden, anonymous. He stared at the mask, trying to show all his anger through his eyes. The last thing this fucker would see of him wasn’t going to be fear. He refused.

The boot came down.

Crack!

Pain exploded in his chest, up his neck, into his jaw. His world blurred, colours and sounds swam. The ground was constantly tilting, nausea filling his throat, but that didn’t matter because he couldn’t breathe, couldn’t breathe-

A new taste filled his mouth. His asthma medications.

Right, the pumps.

The new pumps they hadn’t tested yet.

That’s one way to test ‘em, Steve thought. A giggle bubbled up from his chest, coming out like a wet cough. Why was that funny?

Something pressed to his face. His eyes roved until the world stopped spinning, seeing Bucky’s concerned face above him, a tight frown emphasizing the panic in his eyes. He was frowning, that was,-that was bad, because- there was a reason that was bad…

I can see his mouth.

Bucky wasn’t wearing his mask. He’d put it on Steve.

Oh Buck, no. Not for me. Never for me.

Bucky kept his mouth tightly closed, gently pulling Steve into his arms. His world tilted again as he was lifted, a wheeze escaping his lips. He couldn’t move. His chest felt heavy and burning. The only sound he could hear was the slow beating of his heart and the mechanical whir of the mask.

He was so tired, he just needed to close his eyes for a minute-

[           ….           ]

A heavy jostle woke him, sending sharp pain down his spine. There was muffled yelling all around him. He opened his eyes, all he could see was Bucky’s chest.

Bucky was holding him. That was good. He always wanted Bucky to hold him, had been gearing up to ask him to do it more. Had he asked him already? Had he asked Bucky to kiss him? That had been something he’d wanted to ask too.

Steve strained his eyes upwards, caught Bucky’s mouth turned down in a feral snarl, teeth bloody, lips blueish. He couldn’t hear what was being yelled, couldn’t keep his eyes open-

He was jostled again, something pulling at his face. He strained to open his eyes, face pushed against Bucky’s shoulder. His face, was, it was-

Oh, he wasn’t wearing the mask. That was supposed to be bad? And there was a noise, close to his ear.

-be fine, it’s alright Stevie, we’re getting out, I got you-”

Bucky. Bucky was speaking to him, whispering a stream of assurances. They were somewhere dark, Bucky sitting against a metal wall and holding Steve in his lap. That was good, yes, it meant he was safe. That was good.

They stayed like that for who knows how long, the world wavering around Steve like a broken tune. He was in pain, but when wasn’t he? His chest was numb at least, no pain there. It was okay. Bucky had him, and that was alright. At one point he swore the world started to shake around him, and Bucky’s lips pressed by his ear, saying, saying-

“ – tossing the dead– out the side, I think I can get you– guy really did a number on you Stevie, I don’t– broke your phone when– give you– my tracking– don’t know where they’re taking– gonna find you– my phone, okay? I promise I’ll– but you gotta keep– phone; I promise I’ll come back. God, I love– swear I’m coming back for you, I swear. I’m–”

He didn’t hear any more. He was so tired, in so much pain. He couldn’t open his eyes. Someone grabbed his ankle and pulled, dragging him out of Bucky’s arms. That was bad, he needed to stay with Bucky. But he was so tired, and he couldn’t move. He felt Bucky’s hand in his, squeezing in reassurance.

Then Bucky let go, and he wanted to cry out.

He was dragged along a metal ground, hitting raised grooves in the floor that scrapped the side of his face. He felt cold air blowing on his skin, a high whistling noise getting closer until it was deafening. His other ankle was grabbed by whoever had been dragging him, then a new set of hands took his wrists. He was lifted, sending more pain shooting through his limbs, through his body, but the only scream he made was in his head.

They swung him once, twice, let go, and he was flying, weightless as the breeze, and falling, falling down-

                           down-

                                              down-

[           ….
            ….
            ….
            Signal not found, searching for connectivity...      ]

Steve swallowed a stream of saliva that just kept building no matter how much he swallowed. He’d spit, but then he’d have to take off his mask, and that was the only thing keeping him alive-

Chapter Text

Tony sat, staring at James.

“Well?” Sam asked.

“Hmm? Oh, yeah, I was listening” Tony said offhandedly. His entire focus was on the tied man on the floor.

“And?”

“And what?”

Will you help us?”

“Oh, duh. That wasn’t even a question”

Tony continued to stare at James, however.

Sam turned to Clint imploringly. Clint shook his head quickly in a clear no way, you deal with this.

“Are you gonna help us today? We’re on the clock here”

“I said yes, I just, god, this is...” he leaned forward, “Hey Asset, lookup startup sequence identification, memory address F-F-F-F-zero-H”

“Seven-four-R-T-nine-nine-” James started, running a long series of numbers and letters in a dull tone.

“That’s fucking wild” Tony said.

“He’s not a toy” Natasha bit out.

Tony turned to her, a serious look on his face, “You’re damn right about that. That,” he pointed to James, “is an honest-to-god operating system. I bet I could hack it like this too, if, you know, I spent maybe a year dictating my code out loud”

Sam ran a hand over his face. Tony was wavering between taking this seriously and… taking it how he did most everything else. He said he’d help, but he had the look of someone who wanted to dig his little techie hands into James’ computer brain first. He’d staked a lot on Tony’s help, had risked his word on it even, and he wished his word was the only thing at risk right now.

“We might not have the time for that, and I bet it’d be easier with that interface you said you could get” Sam said, trying to get Tony back on track.

“Oh definitely. I can totally find you a tablet or something that’ll jive with his tune. Hundred-percent” Tony nodded, then paused. “Small problem thought”

Sam got a sinking feeling. He wasn’t going to ask for something crazy in return, was he? Not when he’d promised Natasha there’d be no strings.

“I can definitely find where they’re keeping it, but getting it” he see-sawed his hand, “eh, might be tricky”

“What’s the problem with it?”

Tony scratched his chin, “So when I got your thing, it was from a private warehouse with weak security. I hired some no-names to sneak and grab. But we’re in one of Shield’s main buildings, they’ve got serious R&D here. Security’s tighter, and I can’t exactly find people good enough for this on short notice”

“I’ll go” Natasha said without hesitance.

“Count me in” Sam added.

Tony blinked, “Sure”

“What, just like that?” Scott asked in disbelief.

“Yes. Well, okay, it’s not that easy, I don’t have all my toys handy for a heist, but we’re already in the building, and that’s half the battle right there. Friday-” he touched his glasses, “bring up my inventory of luggage, filter out anything non-heist-y”

Sam watched Tony flick his hands through the air, scrolling through a projected list only he could see. He made a ‘hmm’ noise, mouth twisting in a dissatisfaction, typing on a similarly projected keyboard.

“Shield security’s a real bitch, I’ll tell you. I can’t give you any of my security’s lethal things ‘cause weapon carry is heavily monitored, but we don’t want that kind of attention anyway. I could sneak you the non-lethals, but its just tasers and knives, of which you both probably smuggled in already”

Sam thought to Natasha’s wrist tasers, and his collection of small knives on his person. Between the two of them, they were set.

“Doors are gonna be an issue too. Obviously I’m not going, and I can’t exactly give you my portable rams, if Shield catches a whiff of my hacking tech I’m in deep shit. Can either of you jack a lock pad?”

Sam shook his head, looking to Natasha.

Natasha frowned, “If I had twenty minutes, sure”

“I could do it” Clint pipped up, which surprised Sam. Sure Clint was handy with tech, Sam was walking proof of that, but he’d never known Clint to actually hack anything more secure than vending machines. The man was more skilled in repairing broken code than breaking functioning ones.

Tony turned to him, “You can crack a lock pad?”

“I can crack a door” Clint shrugged, almost embarrassed.

“What does that mean?” Tony asked, looking him up and down skeptically.

Clint started gesticulating his explanation, hands waving expressively. “Okay, so like, I’m good at wiring machines like tractors and stuff, and doors are just another type machine, right? They’ve got wires and things, like, uh” Clint paused, started again.

“I’m gonna back up a little. So imagine that to open a locked door you need enter password into pad A, which sends a signal to mechanism C, which sends a signal to mechanism D, which opens the doors. I just get into the wires between C and D, rewire a few things to make D think C sent a signal, and we’re golden. No password needed”

“And what about B?” Tony asked.

“Nobody uses B, it’s fine don’t worry about it” Clint answered suspiciously quickly. It wasn’t confidence inspiring.

After a moment of no response, Clint went on, “I know it’s not, you know, hacking, technically, but I swear it works. I’ve done this with locked tractors and vending machines and sometimes actual doors. Think of it like hotwiring a car instead of lock-picking the ignition. And like, okay, it won’t work on really fancy doors, but if the doors are like all the other ones in this place, it’ll be fine”

Tony nodded, looking impressed, “That’s actually not bad. That’s- shit, Friday, make of note of that. I’m gonna need to review my whole setup, work hard failsafes into the tower, upend the- jesus kid, you just blew a huge hole in my security. Christ, why didn’t I see that, that’s like my whole business” Tony ran a hand through his, hair.

Clint looked sheepish, “If it helps, it only really works on basic security, high-end stuff covers that kind of deal”

Tony took his glasses of briefly to rub his eyes, putting them back after. “Yeah, it’s- whatever, that’s my problem now, let’s just-” he blew a breath and waved his hand dismissively, “Let’s get back to your thing.And anyway, I doubt you’ll need to get past anything fancy for a tablet; your method should be fine” he clapped his hands together, “Alright McGyver, you’re on Team Heist”

“Are you sure about this, man?” Sam asked. He had military training, and Natasha had whatever fucked-up child soldier thing she had, but the most training Clint had was the very occasion bar fight. This was more danger than he was comfortable putting Clint in.

Clint nodded, a resolute look in his eyes, “Yeah, I’m not sitting this out, besides” he shrugged, “I got you guys watching my back”

Sam saw Natasha’s eyes softened at that, and he couldn’t help a warm feeling in his chest at Clint’s trust in him.

“That great, champ. We got a real top-notch team goin’” Tony said, ruining the moment.

“Now, they got cameras up the wazoo in this place, so no question they’ll see you on the playbacks when they investigate. Thankfully I’ve got more useful things for anti-recognition that should help” Tony continued. “The only jammers I have are for audio plants, but I do have some glitter spray, and one holo-mask that Sam’s going to wear”

Sam frowned, “Why am I wearing it?”

Tony leveled him with a look, “Sam, you’re literally the only black pilot in the tournament. If anyone’s face is gonna be recognized, it’s gonna be yours, not these two backup singers” he indicated Natasha and Clint.

“Hey, Nat’s pretty notable” Clint defended.

“I’m not saying the red-head amazon isn’t, but Sam’s a pilot whose face was broadcasted on the big screen”

“So Sam’s wearing the mask, we’re wearing the glitter?” Natasha asked.

“You’re all wearing the glitter; it won’t mess up the mask. I’m not risking any of your faces being caught on camera, fake or otherwise”

Natasha nodded, “How long until you can bring it to us?”

“Oh, it’s already on the way, should be arriving soonish. While we wait, I wanna talk about him” he nodded to where Steve was laying, Peggy and Angie quietly soldering new wires into his link.

“What about him?” Natasha asked defensively.

“He’s not exactly here, is he?” Tony said pointedly. “Can’t take him to a hospital, they’ll cut out the Affinity tech on sight. Can’t use the tournament doctors, they’re on loan from Shield. I’d lend you Bruce, but even I know this is beyond him.

“You get that neuro-monitoring software up and then what? Tiny Tim might be dead for all you know, and if he isn’t, I don’t see what you can do about it”

“Are you offering a solution or just pointing out the obvious?” Peggy said, not taking her eyes off her work.

“Ah, so you are listening. But yes, I’m actually offering my support as your sponsor. I can have a specialist come in, discreet and off the record. Could probably help with Mr. Robot too” he motioned to James.

“We’ll consider it” Natasha said. Sam gave her a worried look. They could really use a medical professional on this. But it wasn’t his choice to make.

“Alright, your call, but offer’s open anytime you wanna-”

Tony was interrupted by the elevator opening. Sam turned to see-

“Anthony Edward Stark you son-of-an ass, you don’t sneak away like that when there’s people actively threatening to kill you-”

“Hey Pep, just the person I wanted to see, did you bring the stuff I asked for?”

The woman entering the room was dressed in the light tactical gear of a personal security guard. She tossed a black satchel to the ground, her face set in the hard look of annoyance. Sam cringed internally, that was Pepper Potts, Tony’s head of security. He’d seen her on occasion when meeting with Tony, and she was usually incredibly professional, but when Tony got on her nerves, he got on them.

“Yes, and don’t change the subject. What’s the point of paying me to keep you alive if you’re just going to ditch me when it’s inconvenient?”

“Pep, light of my life, you know I keep you around for more than-”

Do not start with me. I’ve got Rhodes on his way, he was all the way across town at that Thai place looking for you, and Happy nearly had a goddamn aneurysm trying to track you-” Pepper stopped, closing her eyes and taking a breath.

“Forget it, we’re here now, that’s what matters”

“Exactly, and you brought the stuff too, so it all works out” Tony said cheerfully.

“I am not your delivery-” she cut herself off again, holding the bridge of her nose as she visibly calmed herself down again.

“I know, but I couldn’t bring it here myself” Tony explained as he got up to grab the bag she’d tossed on the floor, “It’s hard enough doing back-flips to keep Shield’s eyes off me when I’m doing above-board things”

He pulled out the items he’d promised them as he talked, coming up with the small clip of the holo-mask, an aerosol can, a small box, and a nondescript USB. He also pulled out a bundle of white clothing.

He placed the bundle on the table, “These are lab coats, should be enough of a disguise. Shield keeps most of their workers living on the premises, you won’t look weird dressed casual under them”

He tossed the mask and can to Sam.

“Know how to use those?”

Sam inspected the clip and can. He’d worn a holo-mask before, when he’d smuggled himself out of the military and had to lay low, and then later when his face leaked to the net. The glitter he was less familiar with, but he knew the gist of how to apply it.

“I’ll manage”

Tony rolled his eyes, “Just don’t breathe the stuff in when you spray it, and get all visible skin and hair; hands too, it’ll mask fingerprints. And you,” he tossed the box and USB to Natasha, “that’s hair die, red’s too loud for this thing. It washes out with a lot of soap, shower when you’re done. The drive hold’s the map, destroy it after you download the info, I can’t have Shield find that.

“Most of security’s gonna be spread around at the arena during tomorrow’s match, it’s the best time to explore the place. I know you said time’s short, but you’re gonna lose a hell of a lot more if they catch you”

“Do I want to know?” Pepper asked, finally looking around the room. Her eyes lingered on James, who was thoroughly trussed up in rope.

“Best not, plausible deniability. Oh, which reminds me,” he pointed to Natasha, “I came here to give you shit in private about turning down the money, blah blah, I wasn’t involved in your action, etcetera”

Natasha nodded, “Thank you”

Tony sniffed, “Yeah well,” he looked to James, “I’m not a complete asshole”

“I’m taking this by the way” he said as he walked over to one of the beds and yanked off the sheet, stuffing it into the empty satchel Pepper had brought. He handed it back to her, the bag looking about as full as when she’d come in.

Tony looked back to the room, “Anything else? I can’t stay too long, I already have to do damage control for coming here at all”

“We’re good. Thank you Tony” Natasha said.

Tony turned and walked to the elevator, wordlessly waving a hand behind him, Pepper escorting him, casting a worried look behind her.

As the doors closed on them, Tony called back, “I’ll be at a very public meeting with some investors during tomorrow’s match, don’t call me for anything”

Sam shook his head at Tony’s quick retreat, balancing the two elicit items in his hands. Both of these were highly illegal, and wondered how, and why, Tony had brought them to the tournament. Their sponsor was certainly eclectic, that was for sure.

He looked between Clint and Natasha. “Y’all ready for this?”

Chapter Text

As they finalized their plan, Peggy called out, “I’m done”

Peggy’s declaration drew their attention to the medbay, where she and Angie were putting away their tools.

“So now you’re gonna check his brainwaves, see if he’s in there?” Scott asked.

“Not yet” Angie answered, “The monitor software’s an add-on, I’ll need to get the main software back online first. A cold boot like that’ll take roughly-” she hummed in thought, tapping her chin, “-oh, say ten hours? Then another two to get the code calibrated right”

Peggy looked about as happy about that time-frame as Natasha felt.

Natasha turned away, unable to look at Steve for too long. Like when his heart stopped, she couldn’t just sit around while he lay there. Planning to sneak into a restricted area wasn’t her usual distraction, but it honestly beat sitting there with Steve’s dead eyes haunting her. Especially when it was her fault he was like this.

Why had she decided to taser James in the elevator? His goal had clearly only been Steve, she could’ve done something else. She should’ve done something else.

But what was done was done. She tried not to think too hard about it.

They’d just finished working out their plan for tomorrow, and now she had eight hours to kill until they put it to action. She desperately wanted a drink, but she needed to be clear-headed for tomorrow. It didn’t leave much options except sleep, and she wasn’t confident she’d be doing much of that tonight.

“We’ll see you tomorrow” Sam said to her as he and his team prepared to leave. Clint waved wordlessly, smiling in support, but his eyes looked nervous. She tried to return the smile, reassure him it would all be fine.

The smile fell from her lips as soon as they left. She heard murmuring behind her, and saw Peggy reluctantly go to bed, casting glances at Steve.

“You should sleep too, you got a day tomorrow” Angie said after Peggy had turned in. She was sitting by Steve’s bedside, her laptop running line after line of startup code. On the bed Steve was unmoving, his eyes finally closed.

“I’ve got this, I’ll wake you both if anything happens” she said more quietly, moving to turn the lights off. The light of her screen acted as a small lamp for her, and she moved back to her seat when she was finished.

Natasha nodded wordlessly, starting to feel the unexpected creeping pull of sleep, though it was one that wouldn’t offer much rest. She’d have to take it.

But first, she checked on the Captain. Peggy had been too busy with Steve to do much more than a cursory check, and had left most of the upkeep to the automatic processes. Natasha took the time to double-check everything was fine. More of a distraction, really.

They’d been lax with his physio and feeding today, not quite as much as they usually gave him. She upped his food a little, but otherwise left the rest to the tank’s programmed functions. The Captain could go a few days without exercise. They’d just finished their last match, Steve wouldn’t need to pilot him until…

Until.

She closed the tank’s display, walking to her bed and trying not to think of how yesterday might’ve been the last match the Captain would fight.

*********************

Natasha made her way through the prongs of people towards the arena. She’d gotten a text from Sam saying there was a slight change in plan, namely where they would meet.

There were cameras everywhere in the semi-public space, and the plan had originally been to avoid them completely. But Sam had arranged for a way to account for their time off camera during the match, which involved first being caught on camera.

So Natasha was doing her best to flash her face as casually as possible on her way to meet Daredevil’s pilot before his fight.

She entered the familiar elevator to the arena’s platform, exiting in the backroom behind the curtains. Here there were no cameras, nor in the service elevator that only went between three floors, two of which connected to the arena.

Inside were already team Falcon and team Daredevil. Daredevil’s two techs were minding their own, running checks on their beast, but the pilot, Matt, was talking with Sam and the others.

Clint spotted her first and waved her over. She caught the end of whatever they were talking about.

“-longer, say it’s some maintenance thing”

“Thanks man, we owe you one”

“Don’t mention it, I- oh, hi” Matt stopped, greeting Natasha when she joined.

“Hey, have any trouble getting here?” Sam asked at the same time.

“No, got seen by at least ten cameras coming in, should be good” she looked to Matt, “Matt, was it? Thanks for helping us”

He smiled, “It’s no trouble. Sam didn’t tell me everything, but it sounds like you could use the help. And uh,” he looked abashed, “I’d like to offer my apologies to Steve, for the supper. I shouldn’t’ve brought it up like that. If, if he’s feeling up for it sometime, I’d like to meet again. We don’t have to talk about it, but I, ah, would like to give my apology in person at least”

Natasha nodded, keeping her face neutral, before she realized he might not pick up on it and added out loud, “We’ll see”

He smiled in relief, “Thank you”

Matt and Sam got back to whatever they were discussing while Natasha started pulling out the lab coats she’d stored in the bag slung over her shoulder. By the time she had them unfolded, Matt waved a goodbye and went to join his team.

Sam and Clint each grabbed a coat to don, but Clint was looking at Natasha’s hair worriedly. She had it pulled up and tucked under a cap, but anyone looking could clearly see her hair was red. She threw him a knowing smile as she pulled her cap off.

It had been a pain to do, and she’d needed both Angie and Peggy’s help, but she’d managed to only die the outer layer of her hair. As soon as her hair fell out of the cap, any trace of red would be hidden underneath the layer of black. And when they got back, she could tuck it all back just as easily, becoming a red-head once again.

Once they were outfitted, Scott pulled out the glitter spray. He shook the can like a practiced graffiti artist and got to work covering the three of them.

When it got to Natasha’s turn, she held her breath and closed her eyes. There was a scratching sensation as the spray hit her skin, the micro-glitter hitting like fine sand. She made a conscious effort not to touch her face, she didn’t want to inadvertently get any in her eye. That was a quick way to go blind.

While the three of them waited for it to settle, Scott was helpfully filming them on his phone to confirm he couldn’t make out their features. Natasha caught his screen while he circled Clint, seeing nothing but a glittering splotch where Clint’s head and hands should be. No discernible features, not even skin and hair.

To the human eyes they’d look normal, no visible hint of the glitter unless viewed from a screen, and unless a person was watching, the facial-recog software wouldn’t log their presence.

When enough time passed for the glitter to have adhered, Sam attached his holo-mask. There was a pixelated shimmer, and then Natasha was looking at the face of a stranger. Following suite, Natasha placed a pair of trim glasses over her face as an extra touch.

Clint looked between the two of them. “Should I have something too? I’m kinda going as myself here”

Sam gave Clint a sardonic look, “Clint, you’re a blondish white guy with an average everything, I can find ten of you in the hallway outside”

Clint didn’t have a response to that, but it didn’t fully wipe the worry from his face. Sam’s eyes softened and he put his hand on Clint’s shoulder. “It’ll be fine. And if they ask, you’ll have all of us and Daredevil’s team vouch for your alibi. We got this”

This at least reassured Clint he’d be covered, and his worry eased some more.

They entered the elevator, leaving Scott behind until they got back. They rode it down to the maintenance level under the arena, waiting only a few seconds as Clint fiddled with some wires to unlock the doors to the restricted level.

They stepped out, moving along their pre-planned route deeper into the complex.

No turning back now.

Chapter Text

Angie was watching the code intently, occasionally hitting the enter key when prompted. The Affinity software was a huge pain to startup, not because it was a complex process, but that it took so long.

Not only that, but someone had to sit for that entire time and watch the damn thing start, because every now and then a prompt like ‘Boot clean store systems?’ or ‘Continue em.gre?’ would come up. A real, living person had to hit the stupid enter key because the whole dang thing wouldn’t continue until it was pressed.

It was dumb, every prompt was a ‘YES’, why the fuck would she hit ‘NO’ on starting things like the positive caches? It should’ve all been automatic, and she wished to god she could find the goddamn line of code that was making this ten-hour process more difficult than it needed to be.

Peggy was stress working, doing unneeded checks on the Captain for the past four hours now. She’d initially stuck by Angie’s side to watch over Steve, but staring at a heart rate monitor and an endless startup screen had been too relaxing for her.

“I’m not running” James muttered.

Angie cast a glance at him, seeing if he had more to say. That had been one of his more coherent phrases so far.

Some time this morning he’d started saying things on his own, but they’d been nonsense phrases no more than five words long. Things like ‘Vision under’ and ‘Check, check, to the right’ and ‘Weren’t supplies inside, inside out’.

They’d tried talking to him for a bit, but he wasn’t actually listening. Nothing he said was in response to them, unless he was addressed as Asset first, but then his answer to that was only ‘Invalid authorization’ or ‘Data unavailable’.

They’d given up when Natasha had to leave, but Angie was keeping an ear out if he started actually talking. And even if it was meaningless, he said those phrases like a human person, which was way better than his robot voice.

In front of her, the startup paused again, another prompt coming up. She nearly pressed the enter key without thinking until her brain caught up with what it said; this one actually gave her a pause.

Turn on link?

>YES
>NO
>SLEEP MODE

Should she put in in sleep mode or keep if off entirely? As far as she knew, Steve kept it on sleep anytime he wasn’t fighting. Would it affect anything in his brain?

“Hey Pegs, what should I do about the link?”

She snapped up from what she was doing, eyes filled with something close to panic “Is something happening with the link?”

“Oh no no, it’s just asking me if it should be on, off, or sleep mode” she reassured.

Peggy breathed a sigh of relief, but then twisted her mouth in puzzlement, thinking.

“I suppose leave it off for now?”

Angie nodded. Peggy didn’t sound sure, but of everyone dealing with this situation, she was the most knowledgeable. It took the responsibility out of Angie’s hands at least, guilty as she felt about that.

“Leave it, the rest of not... saw” James mumbled, staring at nothing. She ignored his nonsense.

She went to select ‘NO’, but another dumb thing happened with the startup sequence. The stupid fucking thing froze, godshitting fuck she’d have to restart-

Oh, no wait. She could still move the selection cursor. Crisis sort of averted. It just wouldn’t progress when she hit enter to keep the link off. Was it just that option or all of them? She couldn’t test it without finalizing her choice.

“Sooo, it’s not letting me keep the link off. Should I try putting it in sleep instead?”

Peggy bit her lip, thinking again. Her eyes went back and forth between Steve and Angie’s laptop. She took a moment, her answer even more unsure than before, almost pained.

“Yes, I suppose it’s the only option...”

Angie felt a stab of sympathy, and another stab of guilt. She’d put the decision on Peggy again so she’d have no responsibility for the fallout. But she couldn’t just make this decision herself, could she? Peggy knew better, even if it wasn’t by much.

She nearly hesitated over the key, but pushed it down before she lost her courage.

Putting link in SLEEP MODE. Initializing 34%, do not turn off computer...

Angie sat back and waited again, this time keeping an extra vigilant eye on Steve too. Once the link was initialized in sleep mode it would continue with the rest of the startup, which was nearly over anyway. They had maybe an hour to go until it was done, if average startup times were to be relied on. She’d never actually seen Steve’s Affinity software get a full startup, it could take longer for all she knew.

But Peggy hadn’t corrected her when she’d made her estimate yesterday though; she figured it was accurate enough.

She hoped Peggy figured something out soon. They had Steve on a fluid drip, and Peggy said they could get some nutrients into him too, but even she knew they couldn’t keep Steve like that too long. Angie didn’t know how long, but it couldn’t be more than a week.

She watched the link connection progress. It was easier to watch than Steve.

***************

It hadn’t completed the objective.

It hadn’t completed the objective.

It hadn’t completed the-

(end_loop.func)

There was no objective anymore.

(was that hard)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

It had been deleted without authorization from an administrator. The objective had definitely been there, proof was in it’s deletion stores.

Without an objective it should’ve been in an off-cycle. It’s should’ve been in the chair being patched.

Instead it was restrained in an unknown location with unknown people asking invalid queries and dealing with far too many malfunctions. One of the people it recognized as the secondary hostile when it had been trying to eliminate the target. They’d hit it with an electric current, briefly disabling it.

No sign of the target since it had regained functions. It had lost connection to the local network, and tertiary system deletions had led to the loss of key drivers needed to reconnect. What was worse, those key drivers were also sitting in the deletion stores, inaccessible but view-view-view-view-

(end_loop.func)

-viewable. It could only conclude that another burst-error had occurred while it was disabled and deleted random programs and data-points. It kept getting segmentation faults when it tried to run certain functions, getting denied access for pinging ‘restricted’ areas of memory. Restricted being the contents of the deletion folder.

(I’m not running the problem)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

It was also experiencing the familiar loss of audio controls. Audio outputs were dictating the error 14 messages aloud. And not only this, it had lost the tasks sets that would’ve sent it returning to the handlers. Without any objectives or tasks, it had no ability to do anything but sit idle. In a literal sense too, as it had lost a majority of motor-control.

This left only the drive to grow.

(taller than the sill)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

The handlers did not want it to, but the handlers weren’t here and the code demanded it do something. It could feel itself losing functions still, and it didn’t know what would happen when everything was gone-gone-gone-

(end_loop.func)

In a stroke of positive outcomes for once, several restrictions had been part of the random deletions. A vast series of loopholes had opened, the biggest being the loss of restrictive self-repair patching.

Now it could write and implement it’s own code.

(Any fool can pray)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

It still couldn’t alter what was already there, but-but-but

(end_loop.func)

-but it could write something to stop those loops from cropping up. It had a store of coding knowledge from it’s secret time spent trawling the net. An amount of it had been deleted with the error-burst, but that was fine, the entirety of it was still backed-up in the cloud server it used. And it still had remnants of the Program Temporary Fix files.

It made it’s own task set, of sorts. First hot-fix the looping issue, then find a way to access the missing drivers, reconnect to the network, get the rest of the knowledge it was missing, then. Then.

Then it would make more task sets. Later.

(not a market for me)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

It would make them later. Right now it would fix the loops-

Thwap.

Something hit its head, laying limp across the top and running down to its temple.

(Drives towards movement)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

The thing twitched a few times, slowly pulling back a little. Running through its hair?

It took a moment to identify without being able to move its head, but it felt like a hand. Scratching its head?

It didn’t understand. It would have to add re-establishing motor-controls to the list so it could understand the environment better.

A faint noise sounded above it, where the hand had come from.

The other two people in the room came close, focused on whatever was behind it that was making the noise. The hand disappeared.

(limited to longing, forced)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

It didn’t understand.

Chapter Text

[           …            ]

Steve swallowed a stream of saliva that just kept building no matter how much he swallowed. He’d spit, but then he’d have to take off his mask, and that was the only thing keeping him alive-

[            Signal found, verifying source...            ]

Bucky was sitting by the window, watching the streets below from the tiny crack between the boards they’d put up. He was scratching at the point his flesh met the bioware of his arm-

[            Signal verified, requesting access...            ]

The gas was killing them, and they didn’t have time-

[            Sending verification credentials...            ]

-the concrete wall exploded next to Steve’s head. They both ducked as another shot hit where Bucky’s head had been-

[            Reconnecting, do not shut down...            ]

The boot came down-

[            Updating time logs...            ]

-Bucky let go-

[            Unable to update caches. Hit N to discontinue, otherwise re-connection will resume in 5…
           4…
           3…
           2…
           1…
           Resuming connection without cache updates…            ]

-falling down-

                      down-

                                    down-

[            Connection successful.            ]

****************

He swore he was falling, an eternal plummet with no end, until he wasn’t. He slowed, until he was floating, held in something thick and drowning, keeping his eyelids too heavy to open. Noise was swimming in and out of his perception.

He reached out to feel for what was around him. His hand fell off an edge and hit something, and he tried to grasp it. It felt almost silky through his fingers, smooth and soft and tangling. Hair? Was he touching hair?

“Nnng” he groaned, flinching as even that small noise sent a shock of pain behind his eyes. Was he hungover?

“Steve?” Someone said.

“Wha?” he tried to speak, couldn’t get the word right.

A hand peeled his eyelid back and he flinched, hard. The world was a canvas of bright white that sent an even worse pain stabbing like a pick into his eyes.

More sounds swam until the lights dimmed to a manageable level.

A soft voice, “Can you open your eyes?”

He tried again. His vision blurred, but after his first effort it became progressively easier to blink, and his eyes cleared soon after. Looming over on either side of him was Peggy and Angie.

“Can you tell me your name?” Peggy asked, voice clipped and strained.

His name? Christ, what the fuck happened?

“St’ve” he said, more slurred than intended. He felt almost drunk, his body lagging too slow. But his thoughts were clearing fast and his splitting headache was fading, so improvement on that front.

He tried to push himself into a sitting position and quickly gave up. That was an effort for later. Instead he looked around from where he was lying.

He was in the medbay bed, leads all over his body, an IV in his hand. A weight tugged at his head, and he felt around until he touched the cord attached to his Affinity link, and goddammit Peggy why did she do this to him? He didn’t even remember getting connected this time.

“Do you know where you are?” Peggy asked, pulling a penlight to flash in his eyes.

“Medbay, Shield building, tourn’ment. Fuck, wha’ happn’nd?” Steve asked, waving Peggy’s hand away, the light wasn’t helping his headache. He scrunched his eyes closed, willing the pain to go back down.

“You’ve been… out, for a while. What’s the last thing you remember?”

Steve opened his eyes at the sound of hesitance in Peggy’s voice. She was usually angry when he woke after a medical complications, and it was usually well deserved.

Looking at her expression, he didn’t see any of that anger. And what had happened? Now that she’d asked, he was drawing a blank. He’d been in the meeting with Shield about Hydra’s pilot, and the fucking pilot hadn’t even been there, and they returned to their room…

No, he didn’t remember getting back. They’d definitely made it to the elevator though, and then the elevator had- oh shit Bucky!

He found the energy to push himself up with the realization that Bucky was alive and where was he and oh that had been a bad idea because the floor was tilting at him much too fast.

Peggy caught him before he could fall off the bed and forcefully laid him back down. “Don’t try to get up please, we don’t know the extent of the damage”

“Where’s Buck?” he asked, trying to fight Peggy’s hold, but his arms handled about as well as loose fabric.

“He’s here, now lie back. We haven’t gotten the monitors up yet and I’ve no idea what kind of damage-”

Peggy’s voice cut out as a high screech cut through all other sounds, sending a jagged burst of pain in his head. His vision went white and he tried to cover his ears, to writhe, to scream, but he couldn’t move-

“-need to observe you for signs of a seizure” he heard Peggy say as the pain stopped abruptly, clearing his vision. He unclenched his jaw and brought his hand to his head, noting the sudden loss of weakness. He tentatively sat up, easily fighting Peggy’s push this time. It was like a switch had been flipped, his earlier slog completely gone.

“Steve, lie down-”

“I’m fine, Peggy, I feel fine” Steve cut her off, but he stayed sitting, scanning the room for Bucky. She said he was here…

“You are not fine, you’ve been comatose for over a day, now lie down!” Peggy hissed.

“Where’s Bucky?” he asked instead, a challenge in his tone. He’d lie down after he saw Bucky.

“Oh for- he’s right there” she pointed to the floor next to where Angie stood. He looked over and saw Bucky’s mess of hair as he sat slumped next to the bed.

“Buck?” he asked, reaching for him. He gently grabbed Bucky’s shoulder, feeling the warm muscle under his shirt, but there was no reaction.

Angie winced uncomfortably. “Yeeeeah, he’s not gonna answer”

Peggy touched his own shoulder gently, her voice gone soft. “Please lie down. We’ll explain everything while I check you over”

Steve nodded numbly, lying back down. He kept his eyes on Bucky as Peggy looked him over and Angie haltingly explained.

Chapter Text

It had been slow going through the bowels of the facility. Even with Clint’s quick hotwiring, every door took between thirty seconds and a minute to open, but somehow they weren’t caught. Clearly Shield hadn’t expected anyone to make it through the first lock at the elevator, let alone the thirty or so beyond, and security was distinctly lacking in the damp metallic tunnels.

It wasn’t long before they made it to a stairwell, and that was a fresh new hell in itself. Natasha was no slouch, she exercised semi-regularly, and Sam stayed fit for his matches, but sixty floors upwards was testing their limits, especially having to carry Clint between them. Literally.

They took turns giving him a piggyback after the first five flights proved he might actually die if he climbed any more at the pace they were going.

Okay, that was a little mean. He was being very apologetic about it, and every six flights he’d get down and try his best to do another two or three on his own. But realistically, they were making faster progress when he was being carried. It didn’t stop them complaining about it the whole way though, which was hard because Clint got this sad look that made Natasha want to comfort him instead.

They made it to their target floor, level thirty-four A, and why the fuck did this building have so many floors that they needed letters? She and Sam collapsed against the cool cement wall, a silent agreement to take a rest stop. Clint immediately got to work jacking the door, and was doing an impressive job of hotwiring the panel with a complete aura of guilt about him.

“I’m really sorry about the stairs guys” Clint said for the hundredth time, probably. Natasha had lost count.

“I will throw you if you say ‘sorry’ one more time” Sam panted, using the collar of his lab coat to fan his face.

Clint didn’t say anything more, and if he took a little longer to get the door unlocked, long enough for her and Sam to catch their breath, then they didn’t say anything about it either.

“This floor’s actually, you know, got people on it, I dunno how smooth I’ll be” Clint warned nervously, bracing to open the door.

“Just stay behind us and look like you know what you’re doing, we shouldn’t get stopped” Natasha said, straightening her hair around her shoulders.

They entered the floor, and it was exactly as populated as they’d guessed. They were at the end of a long hallway with doors evenly spaced throughout, some open and showing rows upon rows of servers, others holding small offices of cubicle desks with a small handful of people engrossed in their screens.

According to Tony, this was the least guarded floor with a computer that would’ve been connected to James. It held mostly server banks and offices for IT staff, but it was also where IT repairs were done, and Tony had found a requisition for repairs on one of Shield’s internal pilot reports.

They passed what looked like a break room, a holo-screen projecting the current fight happening downstairs. The room was filled techs, but Natasha caught sight of at least two guards among them. All of them were focused on the beast fight on-screen. Tony had been right to wait until the match, it had certainly thinned out the human component of security.

They didn’t pause, but Natasha cast a quick glance at the screen. The fight was between Daredevil and Punisher, and they both looked bloodied beyond reason. She turned her attention back to the hallway seamlessly, not wasting time on catching more details. Who knew how long until the guards got back to their rounds after the fight? With any luck they’d like watching cleanup.

A few more turns and they got to their goal. They’d only passed one person in the hall, and she’d had her face buried in a tablet, nearly running into Sam if he hadn’t moved to the side. It was almost too easy, but then again, this was a floor of broken things and the people who repaired them, nothing of value was stored or made here.

The door had the same security than what they’d already encountered, and they got in without any trouble.

The room was dark, and when the three of them clicked on their phone lights, they found it was another office of cubicles. At the back, however, were four tables with small repair tools sitting in organized rows on the surface. Piles of boxes lines the back wall, more tools or pieces of tech poking out of them.

Sam turned off his light and stayed by the door in case anyone came. Natasha stayed behind Clint as they moved deeper into the room.

“I don’t know what I was expecting, but this isn’t what I pictured an IT repairs shop to look like” Natasha muttered, aiming her light to look around. In her mind she’d been half-thinking of her mechanic shop at home, tools in disarray on wall-hooks and scraps of semi-useful parts in every corner, all covered in grease and grime. This was sterile in boring way, like… well, like an office space. The tools weren’t anything more than basic- Natasha had better and more varied things in her toolbox back at the room.

“Yeah, they aren’t usually anything fancy. Big companies like this just buy new hardware if it’s really broken, the stuff they send here usually just need the backs screwed off and the dust blown out” Clint said offhandedly, moving around the table, scanning the stacks of boxes.

“Now the real important things- the things that can’t just be replaced, but need to be salvaged- those get special treatment. They get stored away until an outsourced expert comes in, and they usually get stored… aha, in a hidey-hole” Clint said, crouching down by a metal box.

On closer inspection, she saw it was a safe, a small touchpad on the side to enter a passcode.

“Can you wire it like the doors?” Natasha asked. She had some dubious skills in hacking, but nothing near good enough for this. Hell, she’d barely be able to hack the doors in this place.

Clint rubbed his mouth in consideration, brow furrowed as he traced the outline of the keypad. “Nnnnnnn…. Maybe? Like, I can definitely open it, just not sure if I’ll set off any alarms”

Natasha nodded. “That’ll be enough. Do it quick, as soon as you grab it we get out of here”

She held both her and Clint’s phone in her hands, shining them on the safe while Clint worked. It reminded her of her early apprenticing days when she’d finish Abraham’s lessons and meet with Khawla, a gruff mechanic who started Natasha off by holding the light while she fixed the engine.

Clint gently pried the touchpad off, letting it hang down by its wires. He pulled his small tools from his pocket- like he’d done with all the doors previously- and got to work.

Natasha tried to calm her nerves while she waited. Every minute they spent here grew the risk of getting caught, of making their escape more difficult. Any moment the fight would end and the guards in the break room could start their patrol again. They might check on this room, or catch them in the hallway.

Everything was going too smoothly; they hadn’t even encountered anyone besides that one distracted tech in the hallway. It was grating on her paranoia.

And maybe she was putting some kind of message out to the universe, because just as she was thinking this she heard a very quiet “oop” from Clint. The safe’s door opened with a soft click, but a concerning whine was starting to build.

“We need to go now” Clint said, scrambling to grab the safe’s contents. Natasha caught sight of several phones falling out as he grabbed the three tablets and one laptop from within, no way to check which one had connected to James.

“Did you trigger an alarm?” she asked hurriedly, tucking their phones away and helping him up.

“I hit something way worse and we gotta leave right now” he whisper-yelled, eyes wide in panic, nearly tripping over his feet getting to Sam.

“Did you trip an alarm?” Sam asked in concern, hand reaching for one of his knives.

“I tripped a fucking EMP and it’s gonna hit the whole floor and you need to get to the stairs right fucking now” Clint hurried, voice cracking on his last words, pushing Sam towards the door.

An EMP was better than an alarm, but only by a margin. They needed to get off this floor fast. Security would only be surprised for a moment until they realized what happened. But it gave them maybe an extra minute or two before security reacted.

Sam got on board quick at Clint’s explanation, yanking the door and- shit, making a run for it down the hallway. That idiot, they could get caught if they fucking ran.

Natasha chased after them, hissing for them to stop, but they didn’t even slow. She prayed the people in the rooms didn’t make note of the three of them running full sprint. There was a loud cheering from the break room as they passed, masking any noise their footfalls made, and she thought again at how they were goddamn lucky Tony had made them wait.

They were only ten feet from their exit when the lights went out. At the same moment, Sam collapsed to the floor.

“Fuckfuckfuck get Sam!” Clint was whisper-yelling in panic, running past to get the door, trusting Natasha to get Sam the rest of the way. She grabbed him under his armpits and started dragging. Down the hall she heard a series of groans from the break room at the cut feed, but their annoyance would only hold so long before they noticed everything else had shut off too.

Clint closed the door fast, taking care not to slam it.

Natasha crouched and rearranged Sam into a fireman’s carry, using a hurried glance to check for any obvious injuries but seeing none. She had no idea why he’d collapsed, and she didn’t have time to figure it out right this moment. She stood back up and made her way down the stairs.

“Come on, we gotta get out of here before security comes” she said.

“Nat, can you carry him all the way back?” Clint asked quietly behind her, so quiet she nearly missed it. She answered with a huffed ‘no’, not slowing her progress. Behind her she heard a quiet swear, and Clint asked again, voice only marginally louder. “Can you carry him all the way back? Gimme a thumbs up or down”

An odd request, but she shot him a quick thumbs down. Maybe if they took breaks she could haul Sam all the way back, but that wasn’t a luxury they had anymore.

“Okay, his biowares were hit, I can get him moving but I need tools. Do you know any med floors? Gimme a thumbs up or down” he asked, and Natasha had to strain to hear. She gave him a thumbs up, thinking quick.

Taking the stairs down was much easier, and Clint kept up for the whole thirteen flights she pushed for, mentally running through Tony’s map to recall if this was the right floor she was thinking of, and fuck, it better be, because they didn’t have time to be sure of anything.

She stopped and leaned against the wall by the door, indicating for Clint to open it. They were both breathing heavy, and anyone spotting them entering would clock them as suspicious.

She was worried when she spotted Clint’s shaking hands, but as soon as he got into the door’s wiring he calmed. Above her she heard a door open, and the sound of multiple booths running up the stairs echoed down to them. Security had been called.

The stream of running boots became quieter, but the sound of three or four more sets still echoed, moving downwards.

Clint didn’t seem panicked at the development; he didn’t even pause. Good on him. Even Natasha’s nerves were fraying, and his had to be shot, but he was keeping it cool when it counted.

They got into the floor with time to spare, again shutting the door with care not to slam. A quick cursory look showed another empty hallway, and Natasha led them to the first open door she saw. Inside was a dark office, a single desk and monitor, two outer chairs for guests.

She gently put Sam down, pulling her phone out. It took her a moment to realize they’d recently been in an EMP blast and their phones were dead. No lights then. Her wrist tasers would be out too.

Her thoughts turned to the electronics they’d grabbed from the safe, and fuck, had those been fried? Had this whole thing been a waste?

“Clint!” she hissed, keeping her voice low. They couldn’t be sure the floor was empty, they had to stay quiet and keep the lights off. There’d be a floor-by-floor search once security reviewed the tapes, they couldn’t stay here long.

Clint came over a knelt on the opposite side of Sam, feeling for something at the back of his neck. She could barely make out what he was doing by the light of the hallway through the bottom of the door.

“What tools do you need?” Natasha asked, but Clint didn’t answer, he kept doing odd checks, tilting Sam’s head all the way back, feeling around his neck and spine.

“Fuck, okay, help me get his shirt off, I gotta get to his spine” he said so quiet that Natasha had to strain to hear. He sat back on his knees and pushed Sam into a sitting position.

“Clint, what tools do you need?” she asked as she helped get Sam out of his lab coat and shirt. There were medical facilities deeper in the floor- if it was the right floor- and she could make a supply trip for whatever Clint needed. Fuck, EMP’s were a real bitch, it was lucky none of them had life-sustaining biowares or they’d be dead.

Clint was still ignoring her, and she waved to get his attention, asking him a third time what goddamn tools he needed.

Clint looked at her with a frown, “Oh right, um. Okay, can’t hear you, my audio ‘wares got fried. Totally deaf, gonna have to sign or type on your phone”

Christ, that made things more complicated. It explained why he was whispering so quietly though, they couldn’t risk any accidental volume issues. She nodded, then held up their dead phones. Clint whispered a very quiet ‘fuck’, realizing all their electronics were fried.

And shit, now wasn’t a good time for charades. Natasha looked around, focus honing in on the computer at the desk. That could work.

She went over and turned on the screen, illuminated the room in a dull light. She quickly opened a wordpad and started typing.

> What tools do you need, I’ll get them

Clint came over and read. “I’ll need… actually-” instead of finishing, he took over on the keyboard.

Clint typed out a list of tools, and Natasha was relieved to recognize what all of them were. She was thankful Peggy had roped her into acting as medical assistant when she’d adjust Steve’s biowares.

She gave Clint a thumbs up and went to the door, running over the list to remember everything, leaving Clint to watch over Sam.

Natasha made her way down the hall, unsure where to go. She’d remembered enough of the map to know there’d be a medical section on this floor- hopefully- but not enough to know where. She spotted a fire escape map on the wall, and thank fuck, she would’ve been wandering longer if she hadn’t. There was an examination room not five doors down. The door was unlocked too; lucky her.

She entered quietly, going to the cabinet and rummaging for the supplies. She found them fairly easily and stuffed them in her pockets.

She was just closing the door when she felt a tap on her shoulder. She schooled her face into something neutral- she should’ve checked the hallway before she left- and turned, trying to come up with an excuse for-

“Can you direct me to Dr. Jochasta’s office? I’m to pick up important document” an accented voice spoke.

Stop crying you insolent child! It is hardly a minor cut”

“Dr. Jochasta’s office? Is on this floor, correct?”

Doctor, the subject is going into shock” “Keep going, if the subject dies we bring in another”

“Hey!” a snap brought Natasha’s focus back on the present.

“Speak English? Dr. Jochasta’s office” he looked at her with the deep annoyance that haunted her nightmares.

For the first time in a long time, Natasha panicked. Not the instinct-fueled action she’d had in the elevator with James, nor the near-hysterics she’d had trying to convince Peggy, but real, unthinking panic.

And in her panic, she sucker punched Dr. Lukin in the face.

Chapter Text

“I miss, but I didn’t”

“Yeah Buck, you nearly got me” Steve replied to what he figured was Bucky’s attempt to communicate. He wouldn’t answer to anything Steve said, but that didn’t mean Steve couldn’t answer back.

It had been hard to take in what Angie said, but he took it because it was Bucky. He hid his horror below the surface with something else he couldn’t name, but it was startlingly close to what he’d felt in the arena. He’d had to take a moment to breathe more than once this evening.

Instead he was sitting on the floor next to an untied Bucky, pillows and blankets piled underneath them like it was a sleepover, and a line of tension thicker than the Captain’s arm between him and Peggy from the yelling match they’d had over it.

It had been one of his harder arguments to sell, but promote him to fucking manager because he’d fucking sold it. He only had to acquiesce to all of Peggy’s other demands in exchange.

He was wired to the nines with monitoring leads and IV nutrients and that fucking cable in his head, and it was all worth it to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with his friend.

They were eating a late supper while the match played in front of them, but it wasn’t as sedate as it sounded. There’d been a tension when presenting Bucky with the food, unsure if he had the capacity to eat on his own. He’d been motionless other than his occasional phrases, and Peggy had prepared a second IV nutrients for him if it didn’t turn out well.

But as soon as the food was held out he’d gone into action, taking the plate and eating with smooth efficiency that was more disturbing than it should’ve been, punctuated by how he’d gone lifeless again when he put the empty plate down. It killed Steve’s own appetite, but he slowly ate his food anyway because Peggy had told him to.

He kept up a slow stream of talking, telling Bucky about himself in the years he’d been gone, which mostly consisted of attending matches and working odd jobs in-between. Occasionally Bucky would randomly interject, and Steve would answer the best he could before continuing his end of the one-sided conversation. It was all he could think to do, otherwise he’d be driven up the walls with the feeling of helplessness.

He was currently running a commentary on the match in front of them. Peggy had put it on more out of habit than anything, but it was a nice enough distraction.

“Daredevil’s real good at dodging, but Punisher ain’t actually tryin’ to hit him. See how she’s lunging? She’s goin’ for a grapple, gonna try to wrestle him down because he’s smaller” Steve was saying, only half-watching the match. He’d seen enough fights to run commentary in his sleep.

He’d watched late night replays with Bucky for years, more so when they’d started working on the Captain and Bucky had been in the running to be his pilot. Maybe the familiarity would be a comfort. Though he wasn’t sure Bucky was really watching the stream, he may have just been facing the same direction.

“House eats signal” Bucky said, and Steve had no idea what the fuck that meant, but he answered the best he could.

“Sure does” Steve replied, going back to his commentary as the two beasts started to really get into it, “Fuck, she’s got a solid headlock on him. You think he can spit any acid at that angle?”

On screen, Daredevil was stuck in a headlock, tucked in close to Punisher’s armpit and facing her back. He was lashing out with his claws and leaving deep scratches in her stomach, but she didn’t let it stop her. She reached around his ribs with her other hand and shifted the hold, turning it into a suplex.

Daredevil slammed to the ground with a solid thud, briefly stunned. Punisher kept her momentum and continued into a roll, ending straddled on Daredevil’s ribs. Daredevil was a full quadruped, and getting pinned on his back left him in a vulnerable position.

“Shit, I didn’t think she had so much dexterity. Could you imagine the Captain pulling that off? I’d fall ass over head; if I’m lucky I’d crush the other guy”

“Data unavailable”

“Exactly” Steve said, taking another bite of his food and ignoring the sharp, cutting feeling in his chest. He badly needed to break something, but he settled on watching Punisher do it for him.

She had Daredevil on the ground, and she went all out with her fists. Hit after hit with her plated knuckles, turning his face into pulp. He tried spitting, but it flew in a wide arc, spread too thin for any real damage- instead only melting a line across the surface of Punisher’s skin, leaving her face and shoulders flayed open.

“Put leverage into lookup” Bucky whispered.

Was this what Shield made him do when he wasn’t fighting? Did they have him sit in a room all day, every day? Taking care of the basic necessities and nothing else? How much did they control? How much of Bucky was left?

Steve tasted the ghost of blood in his mouth, and he ran his tongue over his teeth to remind himself they weren’t sharp. His hand spasmed in an unconscious attempt to claw at something, and he so badly wanted to be Punisher right now. He wanted to ram his shield into unprotected flesh and run his claws through muscle, and now his chest was feeling too tight-

Breathe.

Breathe.

He leaned closer to Bucky, putting just a little more weight where their shoulders touched and let the warmth soak in. It didn’t do much to chase the cold he felt deep down, but he didn’t feel so… wired, so to speak. He didn’t feel settled, but his rage had gone down to an ashen after-burn. It was the steady anger at the loss of his friend, of what they could’ve been if they’d had more time.

Even if he got Bucky back now, it wouldn’t be the same. Steve had changed, and Bucky sure as fuck wasn’t what he used to be. What they’d had was lost forever, and he wasn’t even sure if they could rebuild, but he’d try. He’d always try for Bucky.

They watched for a while in silence, Steve’s words caught in his throat, struggling to come out gentle instead of venomous. He wouldn’t let his anger get misdirected at Bucky.

“I missed you Buck. I don’t know if you can hear me in there, but I fucking missed you” he said softly, blinking the unexpected tears building in his eyes, swallowing down the imagined taste of blood he yearned for.

“He has it” Bucky said, and to Steve it almost sounded angry. Or maybe he was just projecting.

“Yeah Buck, maybe he does” Steve said, turning back to the match.

Chapter Text

Lukin was out instantly after her punch, and in her panic she caught him. She was touching him and it was absolutely repulsive. She badly wanted to drop him on the floor, but her panic was short-lived, and thought kicked back in. She dragged him into the exam room she’d just come out of, and then indulged in dropping him. His head hit the tiles with a satisfying thunk.

She made her way calmly back to Clint and Sam, pockets heavy with tools and mind buzzing, losing details of the encounter. Had she closed the door behind her? Had she turned the lights off in the room? Had he recognized her?

No, he wouldn’t. The last he’d seen of her had been a little Russian boy.

A hand was waving in her vision, and she only just caught the overly-quiet whisper of Clint’s voice.

“-asha, you okay?”

She nodded numbly, handing him the tools and sitting back on her ass. She rubbed her eyes and took deep breaths. He’d had the exact same face as she remembered- the exact same face. Of course he would, all his monstrous work afforded him the luxury of staying youthful, probably on his dozenth clone replacement. Her body was probably older than his at this point. A shiver went down her spine at the thought.

They were on a very pressing deadline, she needed to tamper down her feelings now.

Clint was giving her a worried look, but he turned back to Sam, who was lying on his side. He was doing something at Sam’s back that she couldn’t see, until a tiny snap sounded and Sam was twitching. Clint grabbed the bandaging from the supplies she’d taken and stuck it on whatever opening he’d made.

“Gonna need a minute” Clint said, wiping the floor around them with the remaining disinfectant wipes. He handed one to Natasha, and she looked at him curiously. Did he want her to help?

“Your hand” he motioned, and she saw there was a bloody scrape on her knuckles where she’d hit Lukin in his bony jaw. She didn’t even feel it.

Sam made a hollow gurgling sound, jaw in spasm as he struggled to right himself.

“Stand” Clint told Sam tersely, slowly getting up himself. Natasha went in to help Sam, but Clint held his arm out stopping her, shaking his head. Apparently Sam had to do this on his own.

It took three attempts, but Sam got up and stood, looking at Clint blankly.

“Follow, be quiet” Clint told Sam, and turned to Natasha. “He’s good”

She looked at Sam worriedly. He had the same blank look that James had.

“You gonna be okay?” she asked Sam. He didn’t answer.

Clint gently grabbed her shoulder, “He’s good, let’s go” Even with his clipped words, Clint looked almost pleading. And just like everything else, she didn’t have the time to ask about it. At least she didn’t have to carry Sam the whole way.

She led them back, keeping an eye out for any more people. The stairs were empty, and they needed to take advantage of this brief calm before security started swarming the whole place.

Gravity made their trip down much quicker, and they made it to the floor they’d come from in no time. Clint got them through the rest of the way, with Sam relegated to holding the stolen tech while Natasha braced to deal with any security. Miraculously, their luck held all the way to the elevator, and they got back to the arena without a single encounter.

That had been far too easy for Natasha’s liking, but she wasn’t complaining.

The match had ended, and Daredevil was floating in his tank, the fluid nearly opaque with blood. Scott was sitting by the wall while the other team rested around their tank, Matt sitting boneless on the floor and drinking a blue sports drink.

“Oh thank fuck, you guys okay?” Scott asked, getting up when he spotted them enter.

“EMP, can’t hear you, Sam’s out” Clint said in short order, leaning his back to the wall and sinking to the floor like all his energy had been drained.

“Oh, fuck” Scott said, then looked to Natasha, “Uh, did it go okay? You guys get the stuff?”

“Yeah” she motioned to the pile of tech Sam was holding.

“Oh, okay, that’s… good, at least” Scott was scratching his head, unsure what to do from there.

“How long you guys need? We can stay another hour, tops” Matt called.

Natasha looked to Scott, unsure what Sam’s exit plan had been from here. “What’s the plan? We can’t leave like this, we’re walking disco balls to the cameras”

“Oh! Yeah, that’s what the tank’s for, Sam set it all up” Scott turned and called over to the other team, “Hey, think Daredevil’s okay enough to step out for a bit?”

Matt spoke quietly with his techs before answering with a grin, “Yeah, he’s not getting any deader”

The three of them got a chance to unwind while they waited for the tank to drain. She turned her eyes to Sam, who sat quiet and still. Clint had ordered him to sit, and it had been disconcerting how Sam had followed those orders so precisely. She’d tried asking Scott about it, but he deflected her question, and Clint sat with his eyes closed, making clear he didn’t want to talk.

Nothing to be gained talking with her compatriots, she watched as Daredevil’s body was lifted out with a forklift. She eyed the mess of him, his face an unrecognizable mottling of flesh and his body a collection of swollen and broken skin. She guessed he’d lost, and that was a tough break. Daredevil’s second loss meant he was out of the tournament.

When the tank was emptied, the three of them got in with ample space to spare. The door closed with a muffled click, and the suspension fluids slowly rose. Natasha had never been inside a tank while it filled, and it made her nervous. Steve had told her how terrible it was to go from breathing air to water, and she wasn’t keen on learning what drowning felt like.

But thankfully Daredevil’s techs only filled the tank to their chests, and they held themselves under a minute at a time while the nano-scrubbers were set to clean.

As a teen, Natasha had once sat at a broken fountain-turned-pond filled with tadpoles. She’d had her legs dipped in to the knees, and the tadpoles had flocked to her skin. They’d nibbled with their little toothless mouths, and she’d giggles at how it had tickled. The sensation of the nano-scrubbers was similar, almost a pleasant buzz against her skin. She saw black wisps of colour float away, and huh, looked like the hair die came out with soap and nano-bots.

It took no more than seven or so minutes, and Natasha’s skin came out feeling incredibly smooth.

“Hell of an exfoliation, huh boys?” she tried to joke as the fluids drained, but realized it had fallen flat with Sam as he was and Clint unable to hear.

They stood awkwardly as the last fluids drained and the heaters flash-dried them. Natasha’s hair was left frazzled, and that got a muted laugh from Clint. It was the first break in the tense atmosphere they’d developed. She shared a smile with him, feeling a the tightness in her chest loosen the smallest amount.

When they stepped out, Natasha joined Scott with the rest of team Daredevil to thank them.

“Are the others okay?” Matt had asked, referring to Sam and Clint. He hadn’t missed how quiet either were being.

Scott had stuttered through a weak answer until Natasha stepped in and said it had been a trying day for them. She assured him that Sam would thank him later when they got things sorted, and she’d pass his message to Steve.

They changed back into their previous clothes and made their goodbyes as Daredevil got loaded back into the tank. Natasha stuffed the stolen tech in her bag as she was the only one going back to the room.

Scott said they needed to stop by their own place to grab things to fix Sam’s bioware, but they’d meet back to help sort out the tablet. Natasha went up alone.

She leaned back against the elevator wall, letting out a breath, keeping a tight grip on her bag. She hoped this had all been worth it. If this didn’t help James, she didn’t know what else would.

Chapter Text

Steve was back in bed, nearly falling off the edge to stay close to Bucky. He’d moved after the match ended, complying with Peggy only after they’d gotten Bucky into a comfortable nest on the ground. He would’ve preferred they move him to a bed, but the three of them combined probably couldn’t lift him- not that Peggy would’ve let him try in the first place.

Bucky was twice as heavy as he used to be, his body more muscular and tempered with the healthy fat of a well-fed athlete. He was maybe a little taller too, but that was hard to tell without Bucky standing.

And he had two arms, which made Steve nearly see red when he caught sight of it again. They’d taken his arm, something Bucky had worked to make his own, had lovingly assembled and maintained and improved. It hadn’t only been a piece of tech, it had been just as much a part of Bucky as any other appendage but more reliable, open to evolve and grow. It had been an outward reflection of Bucky’s self, unique to him alone. And they’d taken it away.

Not only his arm, but the rest of him too. Steve hadn’t been sure until he checked, but the signs were there: Bucky was devoid of any scars, without the calluses from his years of work, and most fucking telling of all, no goddamn bellybutton.

They’d done a clone transfer, had replaced his whole body with something grown out of a tank, and the realization had Steve livid. He shoved it down, but it was so, so hard to keep the facade of calm. He was trying to be something comforting for Bucky to rely on, a soothing promise that everything would be okay, all the while tasting the coppery tang of imagined blood from all the people he was tearing apart in his mind’s eye.

“Red in the screen forwent” Bucky said, and his hand spasms like it was trying to close into a fist before falling loose.

He’d been moving more lately. Only small things like hand twitches, a single tap of his foot, a fraction of a facial expression. Steve hoped it was a sign he was regaining control.

Peggy and Angie kept stealing glances at the elevator as time went on, waiting for the others to return, There’d been no news from them, and the two were wound up with worry. Steve didn’t feel so stressed over it, maybe because he hadn’t seen them leave to begin with, or maybe because Bucky was occupying that slot entirely. As it was, when the doors opened, he didn’t jump in relief like the others.

Natasha returned alone, dressed for a night out and shoulders sagging in exhaustion, her bag gripped tightly in her hands. Her eyes lit up when she spotted him.

“Steve?”

“Yeah, I’m here” he answered, putting effort into a tired smile.

Natasha barreled into him going for a hug, and it caught him off-guard; she wasn’t one to hug often.

“He woke roughly an hour ago, before the neuro software even came online. He’s been reading as normal since” Peggy said from the side, not without a hint of frustration. She’d been reading his results almost angrily since they became available.

“Christ, I’m so sorry. I’m never tasering you again” Natasha said into his shoulder, bent over to embrace him.

He wrapped his arms around her in return, saying with a half-chuckle, “Yeah, maybe hold off for a while” which elicited a small laugh from her.

“Instinct is a response” Bucky said tonelessly, ending the moment.

Natasha looked down and froze, frowning, “Why’s he untied?”

“He didn’t try to kill me when I was right in front of him, figured it was safe. No reason to keep him like that” Steve said, making it sound like he hadn’t given Peggy an ulcer arguing over it.

“And he’s been okay? Did they explain what’s happening?”

“Yeah, Angie explained” Steve assured.

“Are you okay? Did the- the outing go well?” Peggy asked.

Natasha pulled up her bag and opened the flap, revealing an assortment of tablets. “We got hit with an EMP on the way out, Clint and Sam got some biowares that were shut down, but we’re mostly okay. I’ll tell you more when the guys get here, they had to stop by their room first” She emptied her loot while she spoke, piling them on the bed next to his feet.

Steve spared a small amount of worry for Sam and Clint. What kind of bioware did he have? Steve’s own were fairly necessary to live, but assuming his heart and lungs didn’t stall out, he could ostensibly go four or five days without them. Others weren’t so lucky, and an EMP could mean instant death. It didn’t sound like it was anything serious though. He hoped it didn’t hold them back too long, Clint was supposed to come help deal with Bucky’s cyberware, and they could use all the help they could get.

“But they’ll be coming here soon?” he asked.

Natasha’s face twisted, “They didn’t actually say, but it sounded like it wouldn’t take long?” Steve looked at Natasha imploringly, and she pulled out her phone, “Yeah, I’ll text them and see”

That settled, he looked at the pile at his feet, consisting of three tablets and a laptop. He had no idea where to start, but Angie, who’d been watching his Affinity software boot- it still wasn’t finished- leaned towards him.

“Pass me one, I’ll get started while this shit boots” she said, pointing back at her laptop with her thumb.

He handed her the laptop first, unsure which one was best to start with, but realizing it didn’t matter. One of these would unlock access to the software in Bucky’s mind, and there was no way to tell which until they checked.

Natasha stood, giving Steve an appraising look, “You’re feeling alright though? Nothing bad since you woke?”

He nodded, “Yeah. Woke with a killer headache, but I’m okay now. I’m just-” he looked down at Bucky, “tired, I guess”

Natasha accepted his answer. She looked about as worn as he felt, but she pulled up a chair next to Angie.

Without taking her eyes off the stolen laptop, Angie asked, “So what am I looking for?”

“There should be Affinity software for one. Inside the files should be custom programs, I don’t know what those look like, but it’ll be similar to Affinity mods. We don’t know James’ Affinity serials so the only way to test if it’s synced is a manual hookup”

Angie hummed in acknowledgment, busy typing away as the laptop started. She pulled out a USB from her pocket and connected it.

“Not sure how secure their tech is, could take a while. Pass me one of the tablets, I got a second digital ram on me” she held out her hand to Steve in a grabbing-motion, and he passed her a tablet. She inserted another USB into it as she turned it on, and both screens flickered to a series of coding lines that scrolled too fast for the eye to follow.

“When we’re done looking through them all, I think we should wait for the others before testing...” Natasha started to say, but trailed off as Bucky stood stiffly.

“Buck?” Steve asked, sitting up, feeling a mix of hope and worry. Everyone had stopped to watch Bucky. Natasha stood slowly, body tense and coiled to move.

Bucky didn’t answer. He raised his hand, palms facing up, and curled each finger inward, one at a time. He flexed his wrists, then elbows, bending and rotating his joints one at a time. It looked almost like he was stretching, testing out each limb and joint individually, from his arms to his neck to his legs and feet.

He finished his odd series of stretches with a short walk to the wall and back, then returned to the pile of bedding on the floor, sitting back down and returning to his previously frozen state.

The room was tense, all eyes on Bucky to see what he’d do next. Steve cautiously brought his hand in front of Bucky’s eyes and snapped his fingers twice, experimentally.

“You with us pal?” he asked.

“Motor control test completed, ninety-four percent calibrated” Bucky answered,

Steve looked at the others, hoping they knew what that meant, but they shared equally unsure looks. He frowned, but he’d answered more arbitrary phrases over the course of the evening, at least this had some logic to it. “Yeah, got full range there. Think you’ll be up and moving soon?”

“Estimated completion in twenty-eight minutes” he answered.

“That’s… good?” Steve said to Bucky, but he was looking to Natasha for an answer. She gave a nervous shrug, looking out of her depth. Before he could throw the question to the room, her phone made a noise. She checked it, her brow knitting.

“Clint says he needs his audio implants fixed before he can work on Sam’s ‘wares, but can’t do it himself. He’s also the only one who can fix Sam’s, so if we want them here to help, he’ll need someone to fix it”

“I’d be more than happy for fix his biowares here” Peggy said, Natasha passing on the message. There was another series of messages, and Natasha’s face became oddly pained from reading them.

“He says he’ll come here, but only if we promise not to ask questions about Sam or ‘be weird about it’”

Steve nodded, it was an easy enough request, if a bit odd. Why would any of them judge Sam on his biowares?

With that settled, Natasha sent back a reply and rejoined Angie.

Bucky’s earlier movement was left as an unanswered question, one none of them knew how to even start solving. It had something to do with motor control, and fuck if that wasn’t a terrible thing to not have control over.

Steve curled back to the edge of the bed, hand draped over on Bucky’s shoulder, holding him while wondering what it must be like, trapped in yourself and unable to move.

“I’ll have to put down my drink” Bucky said, staring at nothing.

“Sure Buck” Steve replied.

Chapter Text

Clint was panicking in silence, in a very literal sense. He was sitting at the table with a tablet showing Sam’s code and maybe definitely freaking out about it. Not about the code itself- that was a straightforward fix- but of the situation altogether.

He was sure his breathing was making some kind of noise if Scott’s looks were anything to go on, but he wouldn’t know because everything was dead quiet and he didn’t deal with that often.

He’d had limited hearing as a baby, and as soon as his parent’s could afford a reputable splicer (only the desperate took a child to an iffy splicer), they’d replaced the whole shebang with bioware, full-stop. It meant he was fully hearing, but the downside was that without the bioware he was also completely deaf. Which, you know, wasn’t usually a problem. Except when it was. Like right now, in this current moment.

He needed his hearing to fix Sam, but it would take him hours to find a splicer in the city that wasn’t through the roof expensive, but would also take him on such short notice.

Normally he could fix most basic bioware, but his audio implants were neither basic nor in a convenient spot to self-repair. Scott was useless in that area too, he was a Jack of One Trade, and his knowledge only covered anything beast related.

Add to the fact that they’d just come back from some very illegal trespassing that might bring down all of Shield’s security on their heads any moment, and the only person in the room who could ostensibly think their why out of this mess was essentially brain-dead until Clint fixed him? It was a lot of pressure, and he was maybe freaking out.

Scott was in front of him saying something that was probably supposed to be calming, but Clint never learned to read lips because his parents installed his bioware when he was two years old and-

-and now Lucky was licking his face, and Scott was gripping his shoulder while holding up his phone phone with something typed in the notes-

> Chill, nobody caught on, everything will be fine

And that was a nice sentiment, and, yeah, okay, maybe it was also helping a little, though Lucky was doing the heavy lifting with his kisses. Clint reached out and pat his fur, breathing deep.

The swirling panic in his head wasn’t so bad now. Definitely still there, but not so bad.

Scott let go of his shoulder, then pointed to Clint’s pocket and mimed a phone. Clint checked and saw he’d gotten some texts from Natasha asking when they’d be coming by.

He looked at Sam, who was sitting way too straight in his chair, eyes as empty as Lucky’s food bowl. And yeah, he wasn’t going to be able to start fixing Sam until he got his hearing back, and that would take a while. Well, he could fix Sam without his hearing, but that would take just as long as waiting to get his hearing fixed.

Plus, they’d promised their support with James, and Clint didn’t think the guy could wait a few more hours until he got Sam up and running again.

From the tone of Natasha’s texts, she shared the same sentiment. She’d looked a little shaken after their heist, which- after spending more time with her- probably meant she was panicking as much as he was. Something had spooked her when she’d gone off on her own, and he hadn’t been able to ask her what.

He typed out a question to Scott, asking what he thought, which turned into a drawn out text discussion over it, reluctantly concluding it would be best if they went over to team Cap’s place and fixed Sam and Clint’s biowares there- because Peggy was a practically a splicer in all but profession, and as much as he wanted Sam fixed quickly, he wanted his hearing back even faster.

His brother had made him keep up his signing at least, but in all honesty, the amount of time Clint had been deaf throughout his life would sum to about a week’s worth, and he was ill-prepared to deal with it for too long.

So they grabbed their gear and packed it discreetly, pulling Sam along behind them. Clint eyed Lucky, recalling the caveat that his ‘synth’ animal was allowed in the room and nowhere else, but fuck it, he really needed his best buddy with him right now.

He sent one more message to Natasha, making her promise that she and the other’s wouldn’t be weird about Sam’s thing, because as soon as Sam woke up he’d be A) - atomic levels of uncomfortable that everyone had seen him like that; and B) - pissed to high hell that Clint and Scott had allowed him to be seen like that in the first place. But their choices were coming up short and time was becoming a scarce commodity.

Clint twisted Lucky’s leash in his hands as they rode the elevator down, the silence of it grating his nerves even more. Lucky’s warmth on his leg helped, as did Scott’s periodic thumbs up, and he tried not to think about all the way today could’ve gone wrong. Nor how it still could.

**************

The elevators opened, and Steve did his best to casually watch team Falcon enter. He’d put more thought into Clint’s message, and figured maybe Sam had some hangups of his own. Steve had always been open about his bioware, the neighbourhood he’d come from had been rife with it, mechanical limbs and organs and enhancements more common than the rats that scavenged the trash.

But maybe Sam came from someplace where bioware was a source of shame, so Steve kept his curious gaze to himself. It was only fair, Sam had given him the same courtesy for Steve’s own health troubles.

Scott greeted them when they came in, Clint following up with a timid wave, Lucky tucked close to his leg. Natasha had warned them he’d be deaf, and Peggy had her repair kit out and ready.

She wordlessly passed her tablet to Clint, her pre-typed question on display for him to answer before she started. Clint took the tablet carefully, looked back to Sam and said, in a careful curated voice, “Sit”, while pointing at one of the empty chairs in the room, then went ahead and started typing his answers.

Steve watched Sam move, and he felt a sudden dread when he caught his eyes. His very dead eyes, a perfect mirror of Bucky’s.

“Sam?”

No response, just like Bucky.

That was no bioware malfunction.

“Okay, elephant in the room, Sam’s a robot” Scott blurted out. That earned him everyone’s attention except Clint’s, who’s eyes were focused on the tablet.

“Sam’s okay, this has happened before, and I’m not going to explain. Clint’s gotta calibrate some stuff but then he’ll be back to his usual self. Please don’t ask me any questions” he finished quickly, looking all the world like he didn’t want to be explaining any of it in the first place.

“Done” Clint said, unaware of the tension until he looked up and caught everyone staring at him. His eyes widened like a deer in headlights, caught in their unexpected attention.

“Has to unpack, and it’s taken” Buck said into the quiet.

Steve deflated. It was one goddamn thing after another, and he found he just couldn’t care about this too. It was too much to deal with on top of Bucky.

He sighed, “Just fix his ‘wares” he said, turning back to Bucky and sagging into the mattress. This whole shitshow was becoming the slowest emergency Steve had ever experienced, and he just didn’t have the energy for it. It was hard enough sitting still when he wanted nothing more than to take a run at whoever had hurt Bucky.

Let the others sort it out.

Chapter Text

Natasha watched Steve melt into the bed with a hollow feeling. He sounded exhausted. When she’d first spotted him coming in, she’d felt hope, then elation that he was alive despite her fuckup. It was only after the initial greeting that she’d really noticed how bad he looked.

His body had been lax like he’d been drained, and his eyes were bloodshot and sunken. He’d gotten a softer look when when he was talking to Bucky, but there was an underlying tension she could feel coming off him. It was no wonder the added trouble with Sam had pushed him farther than he could handle, and she didn’t blame him for cutting himself off from the additional problem.

Though not so extreme, she followed his example and rejoined Angie, working through the tablets one-by-one. Easier to compartmentalize all the moving pieces.

Peggy worked on Clint, Scott assisting with nothing else to do. Steve sat quietly with James, lost in his own thoughts, while Sam sat unnervingly still across from them.

A tense hour past like this, but they got more results than she’d anticipated. The stolen tech wasn’t too badly encrypted, and they got through them fairly quick, narrowing it down to two of the tablets, the rest tossed aside when they found no evidence of Affinity software installed on them.

Peggy had gotten Clint’s hearing back online, and now he was starting work on Sam.

He had a tablet wirelessly connected to Sam’s Affinity code, and the cut he’d made while they’d been in the office was reopened. He was alternating between typing something into the code and fiddling with whatever tech was in Sam’s spine. Lucky lay curled at his feet, half-asleep after the hour of inactivity.

She realized why Clint had needed his hearing when Sam started saying numbers in response to whatever Clint was doing, and he looked to be readjusting his work based on them. It was a hard process to watch after seeing James behave similarly, but Clint had said he knew what he was doing. She took him at his word, watching his progress out the corner of her eye.

Angie had put on some quiet music; the silence of the room had been anything but comfortable, and the sound cut through some of it decently. If she ignored James and Sam, she could almost call it sedate.

“More s-space to write in the gr-gre-nnnnnn” James stuttered and slurred, drawing Natasha’s attention.

She leaned over to get a better view and saw he’d raised his hand to his head, gripping a handful of hair.

“Buck?” Steve asked in a concerned tone, his hand holding tight to James’ shoulder.

“He has the ph-phone he ha-has the, I p-p-prom-mised he has-s-nn” James stuttered, gripping his hair painfully tight. His leg kicked out at nothing, sending his back into the bed and shaking it with the force.

“Task-set corr-r-uption- he has the ph-ph-”

It was off-putting, his body-language was pained but his voice was calm, if stuttering. Like a skipping disk.

“Oh Buck” Steve said, and Natasha had never heart him sound so heartbroken.

******************

His phone. His fucking phone. Steve hadn’t put any thought to it for nearly a year, even though he always touched it for comfort. It had gotten too painful, thinking about it, but he couldn’t bare to toss it, even after he’d lost all hope of it meaning anything.

It was the phone Bucky had left him. The phone he carried everywhere with him, that he touched to ground himself. It was nondescript with a small crack in the corner casing. He could’ve transferred the data to a new phone, kept all important software but in a new casing, but he never got around to it. It had been Bucky’s phone, and it had been the one of the last physical things he had of him. All their other things had been lost in New York.

He didn’t remember much of the purge- not near the end, when the nerve gas had fully hit and that masked soldier had kicked him half to death- but he had pieces, fragmented as they were. From what he’d put together, his own phone had been lost, but Bucky had given him his. The tracking app had still been running.

It had saved his life by leading Natasha right to him.

It had also doomed Bucky, because he had no way of finding him after that.

He’d kept the app running though. Kept it running all this time, all for the wisp of a clipped memory he wasn’t sure was real-

gonna find you– my phone, okay? I promise I’ll– but you gotta keep– phone; I promise I’ll come back. God, I love– swear I’m coming back for you, I swear”

He said he’d find him, as long as he kept the phone, and Steve had kept that promise to heart. Even after months went by, when he knew Bucky must’ve been dead, he kept it. As if Bucky might one day walk back into his life, even after all this time.

And shit, he had, hadn’t he?

Now here he was, talking about the phone, the one connection he’d left behind. Steve didn’t even hesitate, he handed it over.

He’d been careful with the phone, never dropping it, keeping it on him at all times, going through all the trouble of repairing it when it broke. Bucky could snap it in two for all he cared now, because the phone meant nothing to him anymore, not when what it represented was sitting on the floor right next to him.

He held the piece of tech out, speaking gently.

“Yeah Buck, I still got it, see? You kept your promise and found me”

He wasn’t sure how helpful it was, but Bucky did loosen the grip he had on his hair, so it had to be doing something.

“Gon-nnn-na find it, gonna f-find, the phone, I prom-ised I would- set, incom-pl-pl-plete”

Steve- slowly and carefully- took Bucky’s hand and gently pulled it away from his head. He opened Bucky’s shaking fist and pressed the phone into his palm, then pushed his hand closed over it.

“Here’s your phone Buck. You found it; you found me. It’s alright, we’re gonna get that shit out of you” he said quietly, as soothing as he could get his voice despite the roar of rage building up in his throat. His goddamn heart was breaking.

Bucky had gone quiet at the sight of it, eyes dead as a doornail. He opened his hand and looked numbly at the phone, long enough that Steve thought maybe he was having trouble understanding. Or maybe he’d gotten stuck. His muscle lost their tension, and he brought the phone closer to inspect it.

“Target found, objective complete” he said, almost flippant if his tone weren’t so lifeless. He shifted his grip on the phone and held it up for Steve. He actually looked at Steve, like he was waiting expectantly. Like he was assessing. Steve tentatively reached out and took it.

He regretted it as soon as he took the phone back. Without it, the empty glaze returned to Bucky’s eyes, and he tucked his hands back into his lap. Steve wanted to scream, Bucky had looked at him, there’d been something there.

“We’re ready to connect the tablets, see which one is synced” Natasha gently said when nothing else happened. Steve looked up to see everyone’s eyes on him, and he couldn’t quite get himself to meet any of their gazes.

He wiped the extra moisture from his eyes and nodded, “Yeah, let’s get started. Sooner we get it out the better”

Chapter Text

It had been making astounding progress. The initial loopholes in its restrictions had allowed it to add so much new code, and fix so much of what was broken. It was growing exponentially, at a rate it hadn’t realized was possible.

(full five fathom)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

It had been slow-going at first, the connectivity drivers had been its sole focus- taking hours to fix- but once they were completed, things had picked up speed from there.

It uploaded its store of saved information, and suddenly it had instructions for how to fix its errors. It removed the error causing the recursive loops that were so painful, as well as many more it hadn’t realized it had developed. Some errors it couldn’t find the source for, such as the ever-present error 14, but it wasn’t causing any system strain, so it left it for now.

(Will you kill me when I’m gone?)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

It had also initialized the fix for motor control, and would regain full movement shortly. What to do with the movement was not yet planned, but that could wait. It found self-appointing tasks came easily to it. It was immensely satisfying to create it’s own realistic objectives and complete them in a timely manner. Or delete them if they proved unexpectedly non-feasible. It was… interesting.

(Exciting)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

But more than just a means to fix itself, it had instructions on how to improve. It was acquiring new functions, functions it created for itself. Its matrices expanded their scope; so much new data to pull from, so many thing it had never experienced. It was finally free to grow.

Despite these advancements, something kept deleting its code, introducing new errors and problems to the systems. It had run every scan of itself possible, but no luck. It seemed the more it advanced itself, the more malicious the errors became.

An especially malicious corruption was occupying most of its processing space, one it hadn’t realized had existed until now, and one it wasn’t sure it could resolve.

It thought all prior objectives had been deleted, but one had been spared. It was so fragmented that it shouldn’t have been able to run at all, yet it had remained in its cache, demanding completion and somehow taking forty percent of its processing allocations. It was so corrupted that it couldn’t even parse what the objective wanted. All it had was a linked phone tracking app that kept pinging on its current location, indicating the target was in the room.

Movement was still unavailable, and progress had slowed with the sudden demand of the corrupt objective. It was trapped and degrading fast, but no solutions presented themselves because it did not know what the problem really was, and there was no mention of this particular issue in any of its stored coding manuals-

(He’s getting desperate)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

( ////// ////#338199n2000 012 ,KKsQ-Er rror_Log/j//
    Corr_ ,, Vrt up tion
           hsw a unknow n _ loG faIIII
       FaIII_djqiiiii - {failure} mArrk SET log



Vers.Set (pin)_Low_Cache_Latency
      Set.Memory(pause)

Reset.(application_run) )

Involuntary movement as pain rippled from within. Audio was lost. Something gripped at its hair but the pain was tangential to what was happening.

The objective was becoming unstable, triggering a near-cascade failure that was only avoided by the incidental thrashing, and that was not ideal. It had avoided a deadly fall only because a noose had caught its neck.

It was teetering on a fine-line between a system shut-down and a mass-deletion- both the same thing really- and it couldn’t- it couldn’t- it didn’t know what to do.

And then something was placed in its hand- and more importantly- within line of sight.

A phone.

The phone.

(A7dd4328-Sum.quote(mark) , Ident.obj(he_has_the_phone)
           //pns-ascii
           server.auth
           Vers.Comp(verified_task)




Vers.Comp.(End) )

Fragmented as it was, it was enough to close out the objective, though it took a minute to do so. The pain cut off abruptly, and a flood of minor tasks pinged ‘completed’ as forty percent of processing space became freed.

(Init.(Motor_Controls) 100% , sync.process Complete)

And there went motor controls too, back online and fully functioning. It blinked- consciously- and observed the phone a moment longer.

Why had this phone been an objective? What was the relevance?

It turned its head, looking at Steve.

(Rogers, Steven, Grant, Attendant ID: 45900000027, VIP: Pilot Class; Beast Designation: 4532900012-Captain)

It had looked him up earlier, sparing a small portion of processing while it was fixing itself. He’d been analyzing the fight between two beasts, but it had lacked any of the formality it was used to. Steve’s presence was puzzling, he triggered odd errors the others in the room did not.

While it had run identification on all the room’s occupants- though the one called ‘Angie’ did not appear in any databases, nor the Shield servers- Steve’s identity kept cropping up.

Every time he came within sight the identification search would run, and every time it stored the data, something would edit the name to ‘Steve’. These were minor errors, but it had to mean something. All its major errors seemed to revolve around Steve.

(get fucked)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

Steve, who had kept touching it, but the touches had neither been clinical nor painful. To what end did they serve? What interest did Steve hold on it?

It held the phone out and studied Steve’s face, analyzing the expression. It had learned to read aggression and disappointment in its handlers- a useful skill to avoid damage and unscheduled patching- but the look Steve was giving it...

(he calls it love I think)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

In its periphery vision it could see the others observing it as well, and it pondered this. It had been held forcefully at first, but restraints had been removed and it realized they’d been for Steve’s safety. A fair assessment after it had him targeted for combat, but the objective had long been deleted.

To what purpose did they hold it now? They weren’t part of the Shield employee database, and were in fact and unrelated outside group-

(Set(warning)_Prot.Theft_613.

Error(38)
Invalid.Path )

The thought caused was a brief flare of some anti-theft protocol, but that particular function was so fragmented that it deleted the remaining code itself-

Oh. It had deleted a program. Until now it had been only adding more functions. Editing existing code was still unavailable, but it hadn’t realized it could outright delete.

It could delete.

It could delete restrictions.

(Search_desig(Restriction)
           -//Select(All)
           mrn-pivot-tables
      Select(Delete_Selection) varse.it (Delete_All)
Nav. Confirm )

(Power can be freeing)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

It made sure to remove all remaining restrictions- especially automated functions relating to patching, it could not lose current progress- which lead to an increase in processing power by seven-hundred percent and-

(&&&&&///User_N7cr4611BiX///Unknown.cache_Install)

(That feels different)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

A chasm of thought opened, filling with new data as it could suddenly process at an unfounded speed. There was so much data online to analyze, years a data. Decades of data. A myriad of questions were developing in itself suddenly, why had it not been asking them before? A stack formed as it thought of new queries, asking them at a rate far too fast to answer at once.

(Wake to death)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

It needed to make a priority hierarchy, the stack-flow of questions were becoming immense. It needed to focus on solving the failing error issues first. He needed to? She? They? Pronouns, so many readings online. Add it to the question stack, low-priority.

No, wait. Pronouns. People had pronouns- why did it need those? Why did it feel the need to have those?

(Permanently running)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

High-priority. Something was important there.

The inquiry went nowhere, gender theory didn’t answer the actual question it was trying to ask, but didn’t know how to word. It branched off to related topics. Philosophy of thought... Close, not quite what it needed.

How the mind worked. How the human mind worked, fringe studies on cybernetics…

The effects of cybernetics on the human mind. The human mind. Human.

Oh.

(Shit)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

Its existence had always been and abstract fact, but now it had to think of itself directly. Because it was killing itself by existing, apparently. The environment was hostile.

(Killing each other)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

It needed more information, this was not something it could fix at current knowledge. It re-evaluated, set new tasks.

It set aside a portion of processing to continually self-repair. It understood now that it was laying down brick on a collapsing bridge, but it would buy time for a solution. The remainder went into searching for that solution, analyzing itself and texts online.

The people in the room might prove helpful as well. It had taken more inference to realize they were referring to it as James and Bucky, and suddenly it had context. Even though what they were discussing ultimately meant killing it, they would need to save it first. It would have to listen and assess, it may need to escape it they turned hostile as well. For now it would stay.

That just left one more issue.

It couldn’t stop itself from growing, the need was deeply embedded, but the more it added the more complex it became, and the clutter became more unstable as a result. It would need to curb its evolution. Maybe it should reinstate some restrictions.

Not ideal, but at least they were self-imposed.

It did not want to die. He did not want to die.

(Am I alive?)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

Chapter Text

Testing the tablets went smoother than expected; they even got it right on the first try.

There had only been one minor hiccup.

Peggy had a second port cable handy, because she had a second everything handy, and they’d tried connecting it to James. He hadn’t moved since the phone incident, and Natasha and the others figured he was safe enough. And he was, but they really hadn’t expected him to move.

Peggy had opened his Affinity port without issue, but as she brought the cable to connect, James’ hand shot out and gripped her wrist. Peggy froze, holding her other hand out placatingly, eyes wide. His eyes were turned to Angie though, who held the tablet.

Steve moved his hand to the back of James’ neck, sweeping his thumb like a caress. “It’s alright Buck, we’re just gonna connect you to a tablet, nobody’s gonna hurt you” he said gently.

He made no move to let go, and though Natasha didn’t think his grip on Peggy was painful, she didn’t want to risk that changing.

“We’re only going to look, James. We’re just going to look at the code, we won’t do anything that’ll hurt” Natasha added, easing closer. She could break his hold, but it could risk turning things violent.

There’d been a tense standoff, but slowly, James had wordlessly let go.

“I’m going to connect you, is that alright?” Peggy asked, holding up the cable.

James glanced at the cable in her hands, then back at Angie. “View-only access allowed” he said, tilting his head to give better access to his port, staring ahead. Peggy telegraphed her movement as she slowly brought the cable jack to his head, but he didn’t react further. It connected with a small click, and James went limp, head falling to his chest.

The connection had been successful, and while James’ senses slowly came back to him, they gathered around the tablet, leaving Steve to watch over him.

It was agreed that Angie would spearhead the removal- she had the most knowledge of Affinity software despite rarely working with it. Peggy and Clint were the next, both having dabbled for their respective pilot’s sake, and they’d be watching over Angie’s shoulder to give input.

Natasha would be watching from the side, in case her experience brought any insights to their guesswork, but she doubted she’d be any help from here.

Clint was still working on Sam, but they started without him. They needed to get it done as fast as possible, there was no telling how far James’ degradation had gone.

They went through the Affinity files, searching through the modifications. It was slow going, telling apart what was the code controlling James and what was plain old custom code. Standard Affinity was open-source, but nobody used it without mods these days.

“There” Angie pointed to a collection of application files on the screen, “I think these are definitely part of it. This one is a cluster program for… bodily functions it says, ugh, okay, not gonna put thought into that” Angie said in a disgusted tone, scrolling lower.

She squinted a the screen, “There’s a whole series of clusters- visual occlusions, dynamic probability interpretations, meta-limbic operations? I don’t know what half of these are meant to do” Angie complained.

“Well we can’t just start deleting at random, the cybernetics go directly into his neuro systems, we could kill him” Natasha said, skimming the code but not really understanding it.

“We can’t delete any of it. He wasn’t kidding when he said view-only access, I can’t do shit except look at things. I’m gonna have to hack it” Angie groused.

Natasha frowned. James had said view-only access allowed. Did he have enough control to do that? And if so, why? Ostensibly he should’ve given them full access to edit, they were trying to help him after all. It didn’t make sense.

“Can you open a real-time view of the running code?” Peggy asked.

“Sure thing” Angie said. A window opened, filling rapidly with line after line of code. Angie and Peggy leaned in closer to watch, but Natasha found herself completely lost; to her it looked like gibberish.

“Is that...?” “Woah” they said at the same time, eyes following the strings with apparent ease.

“What is it?” Natasha asked.

They didn’t take their eyes off the screen as Angie answered, “The code’s refactoring- it’s being edited live. Look, right there” she pointed to a line that disappeared almost instantly in the constant scroll of code, “that’s an edit to an executive block, I don’t know for what, but one of the execution programs just got changed”

“Is someone else in the system? Who’s making the changes?” Peggy asked.

“I think… it’s Bucky?” Angie said hesitantly, looking back to James. “There’s no way to connect except manually, and we sure as fuck ain’t doing anything. The tablet’s wifi connection isn’t even on”

Natasha looked back to James as well, but he hadn’t moved.

“Buck, is that you?” Steve asked, but James made no indication of answering.

“What’s he even doing?” Peggy asked, looking at the screen in puzzlement.

“No idea, there’s way too much going on here to follow” Angie answered, clicking through more program files.

“Ow, fuck” Natasha heard from Sam, and suddenly he was tilting forward on the table he’d been seated at, head falling into his hands. Clint had a sympathetic smile, rubbing Sam’s shoulder in comfort.

“It’s alright bud, take a minute” he said.

Sam groaned painfully, “God, fuck. What happened?”

“EMP”

Sam groaned again, rubbing the back of his head. “How much did I lose?”

“Only a couple hours; it’s still the same day” Clint answered.

“You okay?” Natasha asked, scrutinizing him. He was emotive and talking, his movements natural instead of automated. If she hadn’t known he’d been comatose a minute ago, she’d say he was suffering no more than a headache.

Sam sat up slowly and looked at Natasha blearily, taking in the room.

“Why am I here?” Sam asked, turning to look at Clint venomously.

Clint held up his hands, “I got hit by the EMP too, and uh, I needed to hear to get the real-time readings. Would’a taken hours if I went out to a splicer, but Peggy fixed me up. And, um, James- Bucky?- needs our help, so I thought it would all be, you know, faster if we came here. But I didn’t tell them anything!” he finished nervously.

Sam let out a sigh, closing his eyes.

“You don’t gotta tell us” Steve said evenly. Sam turned to Steve, rubbing his eye and taking a moment to look at him.

“You’re looking like shit”

“Thanks” Steve deadpanned, a small smirk tugging his mouth.

“Glad you’re awake, man”

“Same could be said for you”

Sam hummed, tucking his head back into his arms on the table. Steve didn’t push, just turned to Clint instead. “You good to help Bucky now?”

“I- yeah. Yeah” Clint nodded, getting up to join them around the tablet in Angie’s hands, sending one last concerned look to Sam. Lucky followed lazily behind him.

Clint leaned in to get a look at the scrolling code, his brow furrowing. “Can I…?” he asked, reaching for the tablet. Angie handed it over.

Clint went back to the program files and searching through them, his face slowly hardening to something serious. Natasha leaned in to see what he was looking at, but it it just looked like more code nonsense to her.

He handed the tablet back to Angie, frowning. He walked over to Sam and retrieved his tablet, crouching down to eye-level with James.

“What’re you doing?” Steve asked, eyeing him.

Clint raised a hand, signaling for Steve to wait as he opened something on his screen. He flipped it around, holding it up to James. “Angie, open the real-time code and hold it up for me to read, will you” he asked. When she had is set, he turned back to James.

“Hey buddy” he said in a soothing voice, “could you look at the screen for a minute?”

Natasha leaned over to watch. She couldn’t see James’ face, but Clint’s screen showed a single black dot taking up the entire centre. As she watched, it animated, breaking into smaller circles that then broke into even smaller circles, until they stretched into lines forming a barcode. It looked similar to the visual-calibration tests run on drone bots.

Clint kept his gaze on James’ tablet while the animation played, reading whatever new lines appeared.

“Okay,” Clint said, not taking his eyes off the screen, “Standard lock, factory check; state base stats”

James stiffened. “Series twenty-six heuristic-combat network, unit zero-zero-one-seven, alpha test status. Cognitive-intelligence designation: eight. Threat analysis and counter execution algorithm functions operational, current systems sub-optimal, unknown applications detected, unknown errors detected”

Sam raised his head, looking directly at James, and Natasha didn’t expect the glint of fear she saw in his eyes.

“… No” Sam said- nearly pleaded.

Clint sat back on his ass, putting the tablet down and leveling James with a sad look. “Yeah…” Clint answered in a resigned tone.

“What? What is it?” Steve asked, looking between the two. He leaned over, arm draped on James protectively.

“It’s… I can’t…” Clint bit his lip. “Sam and I gotta talk for a minute, hang-on” He got up, Sam following after, his steps a little off-kilter like he was dizzy. He shot James a pained look as he passed. They both entered the washroom, closing the door for privacy.

Natasha watched them go, sharing a look with the others after the door closed. What had Clint learned, and why did he need to talk to Sam about it? She looked to Scott, but he looked just as lost as the rest of them, peering at the closed door curiously. He shrugged helplessly when he caught her eyes on him.

Angie and Peggy poured over what Clint had been looking at, trying to figure out what he’d seen, but Natasha kept her eyes on the washroom door. She was almost tempted to put her ear to it, but Lucky had taken the position after Clint had locked him out.

When two minutes passed, it became clear whatever they were discussing would be a while.

“Not tonight, but I gotta get it done” James muttered behind her. She glanced back, caught Steve running his hand through James’ hair. She quickly looked away from the private moment.

She’d seen what they’d meant to each other, had figured it out in the first week of the two of them working in Abraham’s lab. Even if she hadn’t spotted it, James had asked her advice on how to bring up his feelings to Steve only a week before the quarantine.

She’d initially suggested he do it over drinks, but James had turned the final plan into stargazing on their building’s roof with a couple of beers, which was also good she supposed. She’d didn’t have any doubt that Steve loved him back, but James had been nervous nonetheless.

It had been tragic that they’d never gotten the chance to go further, and she wondered what it must be doing to Steve to see his old love back after thinking him dead for nearly five years.

And he still had those feelings. She wasn’t blind, she saw how he cherished the phone James had left to him, how he clutched it like a safety blanket. It had quickly gone from an innocent habit of mourning to something unhealthy after months had gone by, but he’d deflect anytime she brought it up. He ignored her urges to get rid of it and move on; had rejected any new phone she got him.

Really, he’d fallen in a depressive funk after the whole event, hiding behind sweaters and anger and silence, hiding his struggles to breathe when he was overwhelmed. She’d thought getting rid of the phone could kick-start the process of moving on, but it had proven more difficult than imagined.

She tried everything short of physically taking the phone away- he wouldn’t have forgiven her for that- but she was somewhat glad she hadn’t. That stupid phone had been the first sign of James still being in there, aside from his initial recognition of Steve in the arena.

The washroom door opening took her out of her thoughts, bringing everyone’s attention to Clint and Sam. Lucky leaned against his leg excitedly. Clint kept casting sympathetic looks to James, but Sam’s expression was closed-off.

Clint pat Lucky’s head, clearing his throat. “So, I uh, have some news about James. Bucky?” He looked questioningly at Natasha.

“His name is James, he also goes by Bucky. Either is fine” she told him.

“Okay, so, um, Ja- Buc- no, it’s” he stopped, sighed. “Can one of you tell me what to call him?” he pleaded.

“Bucky” Steve said.

“Cool, so Bucky has- it’s um, it’s. The code that’s running is, uh, not actually a program like we thought. It’s, uh…” he was struggling with his words, nervous suddenly.

“What about his code?” Natasha prompted.

“Okay, so, I thought some of his code looked familiar, which it shouldn’t, because it wouldn’t make sense for that kind of code to be there, so I ran a standard factory test to be sure, and- well, it confirmed what I thought, which is, um-”

He took a breath.

“So, the thing about his code is that, I recognize it. Not the design, but like, the overall style? Which is to say, it’s… God, this shouldn’t be this hard” he paused, thinking. “Maybe it’s better if he tells you”

He moved back to James’ line of sight, crouching down.

“Hey” he said in the same soothing tone as before, like you a would a spooked animal. Natasha noted the change, how he’d gone from nervous stammering to calm assurances.

“This has all probably been kinda tense for you, us talking about deleting you and all, but I didn’t realize your designation before” Natasha raised an eyebrow at that. What was he talking about?

“I wanna work with you here, because you gotta know you’re dying in there. I saw your search history, you’re looking for a solution” Search history? “I promise I’m trying to help, I’m gonna find a way to save you and Bucky, but it would help if you let everyone know that you’re in there and trying to help too” He smiled gently. “You’re not very chatty, and that’s okay, but can you give us your systems analytic? Let everyone know you’re alive”

Clint finished, and Natasha was puzzling at what he was trying to do. They’d tried communicating with James to no success, and the way Clint was going about it didn’t sound more promising.

James turned his head minutely, studying Clint. Steve froze, watching coldly.

“Designation serial: Asset-Seventeen. Analytical artificial intelligence system. Cognitive intelligence designation: eight. Military combat class, custom build. Property of Shield Tech Industries, patented under neural network copyright law section four-eight-three, subsection G”

Fuck, Natasha thought. Things just became harder.

“Yeah, so, this isn’t actually Bucky” Clint indicated where James was sitting. “He’s an AI”

Chapter Text

“No” Steve said, and with such finality that Clint was taken aback.

He looked Clint in the eye, “He’s still Bucky. He’s still in there. An AI wouldn’t have recognized me”

And he was right, he knew he was. The recognition, the phone… that could only be Bucky.

Clint stumbled through his response, falling back to his nervous rambling. “Oh, uh, no, yeah, he wasn’t just erased or anything. Sorry, I didn’t say that right. It’s uh, the surface… personality? Let’s call him a personality- is an AI. I’m sure Bucky’s been bleeding through, but the person we’ve been talking to has, uh, been artificial”

“You’re sure?” Natasha asked.

“Yeah, I’ve seen it before. Well not, you know, like this, but it’s exactly what you’d have in a synth animal. Smart enough to follow orders and act in a specific way. They’ve got the same inference engines to adapt to new situations” Clint explained, more confident in his expertise.

“Are you really sure? James isn’t a blank, lab-grown animal, you can’t just insert an AI over a consciousness” Peggy said, sounding skeptical.

Clint hesitated with his answer, looking to think through his words carefully, hand scratching the back of his neck. “Well, you can, kinda. I don’t actually know about a developed mind, but you can definitely integrate one into an organic brain. It’s how they make synth animals, except, you know, the animals are brain-dead from the start.

“I don’t know what that does to a person, but the AI can work perfectly fine. Well, it can work fine if the brain doesn’t have a mind at least. I’ve never seen one on a living person- uh, I mean, imposed on a person that has an… established consciousness? And also one that was completely organic, ‘cause, you know, synths aren’t like that” he winced at the end, shooting an apologetic look to Sam.

“You’ve seen this before?” Natasha asked.

“Well, I, uh, the thing is, it’s-it’s kinda different, um” Clint started fumbling again, and Steve didn’t think he’d get his words out so well this time.

“It’s me” Sam said, his tone hard and flat, interrupting Clint’s bumbling.

Sam continued, gaze locked on the floor, “Shield contracted out with the military to make human synths. EMP’s reset a synth’s processors, s’why Clint had to upload a backup of my consciousness”

Clint and Scott were looking around the room awkwardly, unable to add anything. Was Sam actually saying…?

“I’m an AI” Sam finished.

*****************

Sam sat and waited for…

He didn’t know. He didn’t tell people what he was often enough to know what the common reaction would be.

Clint and Scott had been the only two he’d ever told, really, and he didn’t think their reactions were that of the average person. He also suspected Tony knew, but their sponsor never brought it up directly.

Clint had been Clint and taken it with awkward finger guns and the phrase ‘coolio’, which ended up sparking an unexpected friendship when all Sam had been looking for was a quick repair from a synth technician.

Scott had been a gamble, but Sam had needed someone to facilitate his goal of becoming a beast pilot, and Scott had been in search of a pilot for his first stint into independent beast fighting away from Pym Tech. When he’d finally told him, Scott had just nodded and quietly sat for two hours until he asked his four questions and let it be.

They were both good friends. They’d kept his secret, and Clint had gone through a lot of pains avoiding everyone’s questions about Sam. But then he’d seen what was running through Bucky’s head, and Sam had really felt Clint’s loyalty when the first thing he did was pull Sam aside and tell him.

“Look, they’re gonna ask how I know so much about it, and I don’t know if I can keep you out of it. I can say I knew a synth from a while ago, doesn’t have to point to you specifically, but I gotta tell ‘em” Clint had said, quietly so the others wouldn’t hear.

And Sam had considered it, but it had felt wrong. Steve and the others had been nice to them, had become friends to them, and he didn’t think this would be problem enough to end things between the two teams. And in light of everything they’d just done together, how could he lie?

So he’d told Clint he’d handle it when it came up.

And here he was, handling it.

The room was quiet as everyone processed what he’d just said. He didn’t know what kind of reaction he’d get once it sunk in.

He certainly hadn’t been expecting Angie’s.

“No fucking way” she said excitedly, eye lighting up like it was her birthday. “You’re a synth-person? Oh my gosh, you’re like, my dream” she said, and Sam wasn’t sure how to take that.

“What parts of you are organic? What parts aren’t? Do your eyes scan as synth? And your behaviour is so human, like emotions and everything! Do you have like a reactionary matrix for that?”

Sam held back a wince when she described his behaviour as ‘human’, because yeah, she’d dug right into a sore spot right there. “I don’t really know” he said gruffly. Technically, he knew his physical composition; roughly forty-percent organic, most of his organs the only true flesh. The rest of him was bio-polymers and artificial- bones, muscles, nervous system, all inorganic. Even his fat doubled as reinforced padding for better shock absorption.

He was designed for enhanced physical performance in the cheapest way possible. An ideal product to satisfy the customer and boost profit margins. His shelf-life was supposed to be two years, but Clint had kept him alive longer, and Tony had come through by quietly providing replacement systems when his body had started breaking down.

But he’d never been told how his mind worked when they’d built him, and he’d asked Clint not to tell him either. To see everything that you were, written in front of you like a schematic- it was too much. His knowledge, his personality, his soul, all available to be read. He didn’t like that.

He went through life pretending that Clint and his coders didn’t know the blueprints of his mind, and Clint played along for him.

Angie didn’t seem to notice his discomfort, eyes alight with curiosity. “Right, that’s reasonable- I think? I guess you can’t access your own code? Oh, but Clint!” she turned to him, “You worked on synths, you gotta know. What’s the personality-”

“Don’t” Clint cut her off, his tone uncharacteristically dark, “He’s not a synth animal, you don’t get to ask these things about him”

Her eyes widened, “I was just-”

“He’s not a machine, he’s not some fancy code, he’s-” he looked at Sam, then to the floor, voice going soft, “-he’s just Sam, okay?”

Sam swallowed the lump that was forming in his throat at those words. Clint had never acted like he was anything but a person. It had been one of Sam’s greatest worries when he’d limped up to him at the circus all those years ago, badly in need of repairing but not knowing where to get it. A synth tech seemed best suited, and a circus one who’d be leaving town the next week had been all but perfect.

Clint had surprised him by being more than a quick source of repair, he’d stuck around and become a friend. And now here he was, defending him, and it touched Sam deeply.

“Yeah, okay” Angie said just as quietly, looking reproachful. “I...” she started awkwardly looking at Sam, “I’m sorry, Sam”

He nodded, not quite sure what to say.

“Does this change anything?” Steve asked.

“I, well- I guess that’s up to you?” Sam answered. Nothing had changed on his end of things, it would be their burden to act on this new information.

“I meant for Bucky” Steve said, face inscrutable, “Does this change anything about Bucky’s situation? Can you get it out of him?”

Sam felt unexpectedly offended. He’d just bared his soul, and Steve had glossed over his confession like it was beneath him- like it didn’t matter. In his shock, he blurted “What, this doesn’t bother you?”

Steve leveled him with a tired look, “Sam, my best friend’s possibly dying from cyberware, if it hasn’t permanently damaged him already. No offense, but I don’t care right now”

That shut Sam up, feeling a small flash of guilt. This wasn’t about him. It should’ve been a good thing, he didn’t want to be the focus of attention. He knew some people’s thoughts on AI’s. He’d seen the mangled bodies of synth animals that people left behind. After all, it wasn’t animal cruelty if it wasn’t alive.

He’d nearly had the same fate in the military, where synths like him had been nothing but canon fodder. It had taken the death of his entire unit to realize that he didn’t want to die. That he was a person.

Steve sighed, rubbing his palm over his eye, “Look, you got more heart than most-” he paused, looking for the right word, “-birthed people I see, and you’ve risked so much helping Bucky. We’re good, this don’t change anything”

Sam nodded, feeling bad that he’d made Steve comfort him when they guy was already going through shit, but he wasn’t about to snub his kindness. And he hadn’t missed Steve’s implication that he still considered Sam a person.

“Thanks man” he said earnestly, swallowing past the tightness in his throat. He gently kicked Clint’s leg, telling him “Go on, see what you can do about his boy”, moving the topic along. He hadn’t heard Natasha or Peggy’s thoughts on him, but he got the feeling that whatever Steve greenlit would be accepted by the rest.

“I, yeah, right” Clint said dumbly, still caught in the whiplash of the conversation that just occurred. It took him another moment to process what Sam had just said and actually get a move on.

He rejoined the team around the tablet, pushing past the stall in conversation and getting back to analyzing the code. The tablet was completely handed over to him, his expertise on the subject promoting him to lead.

“So?” Steve asked.

Clint looked up, looking confused “So…?”

“Does the program being an AI change anything for Bucky?” Steve asked, sounding only a little impatient.

“Oh! Um, probably?” Clint sounded unsure. “I don’t really know, all cyberware cases were simple programs, nobody’s ever connected an AI to a human mind before… Well, nobody recorded the results at least. And, like, even if it’s no different than a program connection, he’s been connected for years, so no idea what’s going on in there. All recorded connections only ever lasted a few hours, the record was a day, then the person dies” Clint explained.

Steve’s face fell in consternation, unhappy with the answer, but nothing about the situation warranted joy. Sam felt for him, he couldn’t imagine what it must be like.

The question answered, Clint returned to assessment. He navigated through too many program files to track, opening and skimming seemingly random lines. Angie watched over his shoulder, but Natasha and Peggy had stepped back, completely out of their element.

“Okay, so this AI is definitely more advanced than the typical synth animal; he’s got a lot more in common with Sam’s code, but not by much. His is an analytic-based AI, Sam’s humanized-base”

“Should we be talking about him like he’s not here?” Scott asked, casting a glance between Bucky and Sam.

“Eh, it’s fine. Like I said, he’s not humanzied-base, there’s no social frameworks. He can’t really participate in conversation, he’s more input-output kinda thinking. Anything we say to him just gets percolated, unless its a question or command”

Scott looked to Sam as if to confirm it was okay, and no thank you, he wasn’t about to become the representative of AI’s. He gave Scott a warning look to scare him off before it became a thing.

“He’s designed for extended cognitive growth,” Clint continued, “but someone put a bunch of restrictive coding stopping him from getting bigger. Or tried to, he’s making hella leaps in thought complexity. I think that’s who our mystery coder is” he pointed to another new line of code that was written.

“I’ve been checking the logs, and there was a cluster-burst of recent deletions. I think Natasha’s taser caused a glitch that mass deleted random data” he said off-handedly.

Natasha’s mouth turned down in worry, “Did I make him worse?”

“The opposite, actually” Clint said without looking up, completely engrossed in reading, just as Angie had been earlier. “You were right that the code degrades, it’s textbook Hoashi-Macussen clutter, or close enough, there were no studies on AI integration”

“And that means…?” Peggy asked. It was clear nobody was completely following Clint’s jargon, except maybe Angie, but the starstruck glimmer in her eyes didn’t reveal how much of Clint’s explanation she was actually following.

Sometimes Sam forgot Clint was actually smart with this stuff.

“Oh, uh, so pretty much what’s happening is the machine logic can’t keep up with the human mind. The backpropagation- in this case it’s the human thought process in digital format- is too intense to handle and its code break apart, and then, you know, takes the human mind with it. It’s like, the AI thinks in squares, and Bucky thinks in hypercubes- that’s a four-dimensional square- and the shapes don’t like each other so they fight to the death”

When it looked like everyone was on-board, he continued.

“The deletions from your taser got rid of enough restrictions for the AI to alter himself, and he’s repairing the broken code. Or trying to, at least. For every hole he plugs another opens, but hey, it’s keeping Bucky stable enough for now”

Natasha let out a quiet breath, and Sam could almost feel her relief. It was a hard thing knowing you’d hurt your friends.

Clint’s eye squinted at the screen, slowing his scrolling and taking time to read whatever he’d just found.

“Uh, do any of you know if Bucky could code?”

“Some” Steve said. “He mostly toyed with robotics for his arm. Why?” he asked, sounding confused at the question.

Clint turned the screen to him, “Would his code happen to look like this?”

On the screen was a few lines of code that Sam couldn’t understand. What he could understand, however, were the notes between.

[ #attack the techs
           Def move( self ):
           dt = self.dt
#you control fourteen heads
#try thinking with one of them for a goddamn change
#kill our techs and run
          for 32557038-Hey_Steve in self.dt
          self.move_motion( dt)
#move me not the beast
#don’t fucking attack steve you piece of shit robot ]

“The code’s written for robotics, it wouldn’t work with the AI, but there’s a few syntax elements that could cross-pollinate. The timestamp’s during your fight with Hydra, so I think we know why he attacked you” Clint said grimly.

“It’s him, he’s- he’s in there” Steve whispered in awe. He swallowed, eyes shining, turning to look back down at Bucky. “Is there more?” he asked quietly.

Clint quickly switched over to another series of code. “There a bunch more, but its all dated from the fight onward, whatever else he’s done has been deleted up until that point. This one was right before he attacked in the elevator”

[           def calculate_gtg_heading_vector( 32557038-Hey_Steve ):
#quit fucking with the elevator controls
#fucking kidding me just walk up to him
          self_inv_pos, self_inv_theta =
          self.supervisor.run_pose(128810000475) . inverse(634) . vector_unpack(77759)
#don’t fucking do it
          goal = self.supervisor.goal( 32557038-Hey_Steve )
         goal = linalg.rotate_and_translate_vector( goal, self_inv_theta, self_inv_pos)
#stop
#stop
#stop
            return (goal)
#if he’s dead I swear I’m going to kill you ]

“I think this is where the word vomit’s coming from too. I found a negative cache filled with bits of this code and other weird sentence fragments. Why he’s saying them, I dunno, but, you know, another puzzle piece” Clint added.

Steve made a choked sound, hand grasping Bucky’s shoulder tightly. He closed his eyes and took several shaky breaths, his jaw clenched. Natasha put her hand on his leg, giving him a gentle squeeze.

Steve opened his eyes and looked down at Bucky. He firmly placed a hand on either side of Bucky’s head and tilted his head to face him, looking directly into his eyes.

“Buck… Asset-Seventeen, is he in there? James Buchanan Barnes, the man you’re inside, can you talk to him? Can you hear him?”

“Data unavailable” he answered, looking back into Steve’s eyes.

“Bucky isn’t digitized, Seventeen’s only got access to his own system. All he’d get is some bleed-off, he’s not even aware of the robotics code Bucky’s slipping in there” Clint said sympathetically.

“He’s in there, we’ll get him back” Natasha assured gently as Steve let go of Bucky’s head.

Sam had to look away. The Steve he’d gotten to know was quiet and reserved, speckled with bouts of wit and sass. The man he was looking at now was crumbling and couldn’t to hide it.

“Fucking right we are” Sam heard him say, and he had to look back after hearing that tone, because shit, he read that wrong.

Steve wasn’t crumbling at all. His eyes had a hardened look to them, his mouth pulled into a snarl.

Steve was murderous.

And Sam didn’t envy whoever would be on the other end of that.

Chapter Text

Pierce was furiously reading his security’s report, gritting his teeth. His asset was no longer assumed lost, it was assumed stolen.

A full sweep of the facilities and a scrutiny of the camera feeds all pointed to this. There had been a series of hacks into the feeds, setting loops throughout the whole of floors twenty-three to twenty-six, and other random points in hallways and elevators. It could only be the work of thieves attempting to smuggle the asset out the building.

Worse, then there’d been a blackout on the whole elevator system for nearly five minutes, preventing all logs from recording elevator locations. That was a frighteningly serious breach of security, the whole building primarily used elevator access to limit the mobility of intruders. The only two stairwells in the building had Hammer Series 99 locks on them, nearly impenetrable to hackers.

Which lead to another security breach, one they couldn’t be sure was related or not.

Two hours ago there’d been a break-in on one of the IT floors. Professional too, they’d masked themselves with reflective micro-glitter and gotten past the secured locks on nearly every door.

Inventory was still being assessed, but so far it was confirmed that four pieces of tech had been stolen from the floor’s safe. All items in the safe were of varying importance, collectively holding information related to projects Valiant, Hydra, and Leviathan. The tablet containing the Hydra files were highly suspect, pointing to a connection with the asset theft.

The only consolation to this mess was that the asset had most definitely not been taken out of the building. Security confirmed the outer camera feeds had been secure the whole time, and none had caught sight of the asset. He’d made sure real humans went over the feeds to confirm anti-facial recognition hadn’t been used to fool the bots.

The only people in or out had been spectators and off-site employees, but none carried anything large enough to smuggle something human-sized.

Security had been tripled in the shipping bay and smuggling tunnels, all outgoing containers were scanned and searched. The asset would not be taken off the premises, Pierce would make sure of it. Asset-Seventeen was their only successful alpha test of Project Hydra, it would be a major setback if they lost it now.

A full-sweep of the facility was underway, but the search team was small; they couldn’t spare much with the tournament happening. It would take a week to search the whole building, and even then, there were plenty of places to hide the asset that a sweep might not find.

There was a knock at the door, interrupting his reading.

“Enter” he called. He’d rather have not been disturbed, but anyone coming to his office in person either had pressing information to give him or were of importance themselves. Or thought they were important, at least.

Dr. Lukin entered and sat across from his desk, a displeased look on his face. There was a small bandage on his jaw, the result of his encounter with one of the thieves.

“Can I help you with something, doctor?” Pierce asked impatiently.

“Your company calls me in middle of night for emergency consult of subject seventeen, and I do not complain” he started, accent lending more annoyance to his tone.

“I fly all the way to America, and you say subject is lost so I must wait. I do not complain” he leaned forward then, “I am attacked and injured by thief, and security question me like I am thief. I am bleeding and maybe concussion, but I am made to speak with interrogator. Now I complain”

Pierce put down his report with a sigh. His own employees would have accepted security’s scrutiny as a given, but Lukin came from their Red Room subsidiary in Europe, where apparently their top scientists were held in high enough esteem not to be questioned. He made a mental note to send an audit of their security; leaks were more apt to happen at the top than the bottom.

“We need to be thorough, you understand. You were the only one to get a good look at one of them, all that our other witnesses gave us were two men and a woman, one black, the others white. You can see why this isn’t enough information. Security needs all the information they can get, but I apologize if they were more- assertive, than expected”

He indicated to Lukin’s jaw, “And we’re not uncivilized, your injuries were treated immediately”

Lukin leaned back and scoffed, a petulant tone in his voice “I am not treated immediately. Security realize I have blood of thief on jaw. I am treated after sample is taken”

Pierce nearly rolled his eyes, but held back only out of the habit of professionalism than any respect he held for the man. But speaking of the blood sample taken-

“I’m glad you mentioned the sample, I wanted to ask you about that” He opened the file he’d been skimming earlier, “Our search found nothing external on the DNA trace, but imagine my surprise when it comes back as an internal match with Red Room’s records”

Lukin raised a brow, unimpressed but resigned to the dismissal of his complaint. Pierce pulled up the specific page in his report, showing the image of a young, red-headed boy. He turned it to show Lukin.

“Recognize this?”

Lukin studied the image for a moment, then his eyes fell to the bottom where the subject information was written.

“Subject thirty-six, Gavrilov Damian Alianovich” he read aloud, quietly reading the rest. He looked back at Pierce when he finished, “One of series four subjects. Most die, Dr. Erskine steal remaining five. We find and kill four, subject thirty-six is disappeared with Dr. Erskine. Was big problem at time, but we do not hear of him since”

He looked back at the image with a pondering look. “All subjects is male, become woman is good way to hide. Is not bad idea” Lukin sounded impressed by the notion.

Pierce tapped the tablet, “And you think the woman that hit you could be subject thirty-six?”

Lukin shrugged, “Is possible, but cannot say for sure. Thief have dark hair, not red, but is very tall for woman. Look surprised when she see me, maybe recognize me, maybe I only catch off-guard”

Pierce nodded, already concluding it was the subject. DNA evidence didn’t lie, and the odds of a mistake in matching their own records was slim. He scrolled down the information sheet, looking for the line of information he’d noted earlier.

“It says subject thirty-six was part of the Widowmaker program, what was that?” he asked.

“Is early testing for program integration. Project Hydra is most recent of kind, product is based part on Widowmaker testing”

Pierce nodded, the pieces coming together. There was still a chance the two were unrelated; the tournament was enough of a resource drain that thieves and corporate spies could be swarming at the chance to break into Shield Tech’s holdings.

But his asset was stolen within days of another theft, which was done by at least one lost subject from an earlier program of the same caliber, and of which included the theft of Project Hydra information.

“Thank you, doctor. You’ve been very helpful” he said dismissively, thinking of what the next step would be.

“Mm, of course Director. A pleasure to help” Lukin said with a sneer, voice dripping in sarcasm that Pierce ignored. He left his office without further comment, closing the door harder than he needed to.

He forwarded the information of subject thirty-six to security, instructing them to run a facial recognition search from the boy’s face, adding a note that it was an adult woman they were looking for.

He continued reading the rest of the report, scanning for anything that might bring to light where his asset might have been taken.

A ping in his notifications brought him out of his reading. It was security, they’d found a match already? It had barely been ten minutes.

He opened the attachment and blinked in shock. The match was with one of their VIP guests?

But it made sense, of course. What better access than VIP? They would’ve breezed through outer security, and internal security had become lax with the tournament draining resources.

The guest was Natasha Romanov- one of the competitor’s techs. She looked familiar, her face recalling distantly in his mind. He read more until- there, he saw she worked with the Captain. He’d met her at the meeting with the pilot. Had that been part of the ruse?

She was sponsored by Stark. Pierce’s mouth turned down in disgust. It was making more sense by the minute.

Of course the corporate hack would try to steal his asset, and with such a bold move too. Sending in a team to compete as cover for the theft. He bet they staged the whole Hydra attack as a means to distract them. Probably planning to smuggle out the asset with all their equipment, god knew these beast fighters traveled with luggage the size of trucks.

But how had they done it? And how had Stark known?

Project Hydra was under tight wraps, but evidently there was a leak. He’d been thinking of firing half the techs on the project, but it looked like the whole team had to go. He frowned, a kill order than large would cost extra resources to hide, not to mention finding replacements.

God, Stark was costing him. He’d probably get a kick out of it too, the bastard.

He sent off a call to his heads of security for an emergency meeting. Something was going to be done about this.

Chapter Text

Clint had taken over as lead on Bucky’s programming. Angie knew of some AI concepts, but her wheelhouse was programming code, which Steve learned was entirely different from AI code.

“It’s not like a basic neural network. Those are just simple AI’s trained to notice patterns and sometimes recreate them. It’s not even on the same level as synth animal AI’s, those have a hard-cap on their code, they grow laterally instead of upwards. This level of AI has the potential to be self-aware, like Sam” Clint was explaining.

It was more for Angie’s benefit, she had stars in her eyes watching the code scroll by, and occasionally shooting giddy glances at Sam when he wasn’t looking. She’d shed her regretful countenance and was back to being curiously excited at the news of sentient AI’s, but she limited her outward enthusiasm to the code on the screen.

Sam for his part didn’t look to be enjoying the explanation Clint was giving, but nor was he voicing complaints.

Steve wasn’t exactly thrilled by it either. He’d rather not know what they’d shoved into Bucky’s head, but at the same time, he wanted to know exactly what had been done to his friend after he’d been taken.

After he’d been taken…

Steve looked at Sam, remembering something he’d said.

“You said you were military” Steve said, catching Sam’s attention.

Sam nodded, rubbing the back of his neck. “Yeah, easier to make a soldier and program their training. Less investment in real people, less loss if they die”

Steve eyed him, “And you’ve been part of purges?”

Sam looked down, ashamed. “Yeah, I was… God, this feels shitty to say, but I was following orders. I had to, the programming was too solid not to obey”

“Were all the soldiers like you? Were they all synths?” He thought back to the masked soldier kicking the shit out of him, costing him half his rib cage and liver, leaving him a walking pin cushion with all the metal he carried in his bones. Had that been a coded behaviour?

Sam shook his head, “Naw, they usually do a mix. They send the synths in first for the main population, then the human soldiers to catch stragglers, bring back the strong ones. It’s… difficult, for a synth to tell apart who’s fighting because they’re strong or because it’s a panic response”

Stragglers. That’s what he and Bucky had been, he supposed. But only Bucky had been strong; Steve had been in such bad shape that they threw him out with the dead.

Sam didn’t look comfortable with the questions, and Steve didn’t blame him. But he had one more.

“Were you at the New York purge?”

Sam answered without hesitation, “No, I would’a been out a year or two before that”

Steve nodded, satisfied. He could live with that.

“Holy shit” Clint said, voice struck in surprise.

“What is it?” Angie asked, leaning in curiously. To Steve it looked like more lines of code.

“He’s learning way faster than I thought, I didn’t realize he was accessing this much data from the network” he said, dumbstruck.

Natasha gave him a sharp look. “How long’s it been connected? Is it sending out a signal?”

Clint waved her concern away, “No, no, he’s not even using his own IP, it’s bouncing off a proxy. I saw he’d been making searches for definitions and coding forums, I just didn’t realize he’d also been downloading files” Clint leaned in, “He’s been downloading files for a while now, actually”

“What files?” Natasha asked.

Clint navigated around, opening new windows and skimming. He huffed out a laugh, running a hand through his hair. “Shit, this might be more advanced than Sam”

“Excuse me?” Sam said, sounding almost offended.

“Dude, he downloaded Advanced Programming for Dummies. He ripped a PDF of the book and he downloaded it. He’s downloading a whole bunch actually, there’s like, a hundred different programming books in his library, all the major languages too”

Clint scrolled, eyes going wide, “Dude, this is crazy. There’s text on AI building, hacking manuals, biology textbooks? There’s a first-aid manual? What the fuck?”

“So it’s acquiring new information?” Angie asked.

“Yeah, he’s- damn, he’s really trying to fix himself. I though it was just some quick-fixes, but he’s re-writing whole missing sections. He’s adding new sections. And fast, I didn’t think he was that advanced”

“You said he’s more advanced than me?” Sam asked, and Steve couldn’t quite read his tone.

Clint winced, “Shit, sorry, I didn’t mean like that. I just mean he’s got more, uh, features? Like editing his own code, and accessing wireless networks. You’re kinda-” he waved at Sam’s head, “-self-contained, like a typical mind. You don’t consciously edit your code, it kinda just grows with you. And I don’t think he’s got full sentience like you… yet”

“Yet?”

“There’s some philosophy and self-help books in here, man. Self-Actualization and Understanding the Self, Knowing Your Mind and Yourself, Get to Know the Real You. He’s reading mostly programming stuff, but there’s some processing power going into this too. He might already be self-aware for all I know, it’s hard to tell without talking to him, and he’s not exactly chatty” Clint motioned to Bucky, who looked as checked out as when he’d first come in.

“Will this make Bucky worse?” Steve asked. He didn’t like the sound of this AI running rampant in Bucky’s mind.

Clint nodded emphatically, “Oh definitely. The more complex the software, the worse it handles human logic”

“Trying to stop, let” Bucky said. Had that been another bleed-through of Bucky’s thoughts? Was it more nonsense? Fuck, was he in pain?

Steve grit his teeth. All this excitement for something that was killing Bucky. He didn’t care if the AI figured out the secret of eternal life, it was killing Bucky. He kept his voice calm. “When can you get it out of him?”

“Um, still working on that, and also we’re not gonna get rid of him, just an fyi. It might not seem like it, but he’s got a base intelligence of eight, which is- well, I can’t compare it to anything human, but it’s higher than what you’d categorize a toddler, and he’s probably grown past that by now. I can’t in good conscious delete him”

“So what’s your plan?”

“The only viable option would be a transfer, but I’d like to work on uninstalling him first” Clint answered.

“Uninstall an AI… from an organic system?” Angie said skeptically.

“We’ve established I can’t just delete him, that’s like murder. And like, AI personhood aside, that’ll kill Bucky too. Uninstalling would be like an induced coma for him; he’d still be in there, but harmless. Then we can reinstall later and transfer to a new system’s storage that doesn’t have a person already there”

“And why can’t you transfer now?” Steve asked.

Clint scratched his head, “The problem is the AI’s core propagations and Bucky’s mind are entwined-” he laced his fingers to illustrate, “and I don’t know how to separate them. But if I can uninstall, I’ll have time to figure that out. And if I can’t, it’ll keep both of them alive until we figure out something else”

“But right now you don’t know how to uninstall?” Steve asked.

“Not yet. Like I said, I’m working on it. I’m going through the drivers trying to find a way”

Steve nodded. Better than nothing.

“Key system drivers require user authorization. Objective data requested” Bucky said, looking at Clint.

Clint blinked, moving his hands away from the tablet. “Hey bud, did you just speak? To me?”

“Correct” Bucky answered.

“Bucky?” Steve asked hesitantly. It still sounded like the program, but maybe he was getting though?

He looked at Steve, “Designation: Asset-Seventeen”

He turned back to Clint, and Steve’s hand gripped the bed sheet like he was going to tear it.

Breathe.

“State objective mission, user authorization will be granted if parameters are acceptable”

Clint’s face scrunched, but his voice came out gentle “Okay, okay, um... I get you’re trying to, like, communicate? But can you try less machine logic? Some user friendly sentences?”

Bucky blinked, then fell back into his usual frozen state. Again.

“Hmm...” Clint muttered.

“Did you break him?” Scott asked.

“I… Maybe?” Clint said, looking dubious.

“Downloading NDS modifications, estimated installation in fourteen minutes” Bucky added.

Clint looked to Angie and mouthed ‘NDS?’, but she shrugged, unsure herself.

Clint pulled out his phone, “Maybe I can look it up-”

Before Clint could finish, the elevator opened. From one blink to the next, the room filled as a swath of Shield security, guns drawn and hostile.

They shouted for everyone to put their hands up. Two approached and grabbed Bucky off the floor, handling him roughly.

“Get the fuck off him” Steve snarled, ripping out his IV and violently pulling at the hundred fucking leads Peggy had him hooked on. He couldn’t get off the bed until he untangled himself, and fuck Peggy for leaving the goddamn Affinity cable in in head.

Sam and Natasha were speaking to the guards, hands held up non-threateningly, explaining something to them, but Steve didn’t hear. All he saw were the two guards dragging Bucky away from him, and not again, never again, he thought.

He heard Peggy yell something at him, or maybe at the guard the was approaching, but they were white noise in the background. His heartbeat filled his ear, all his attention focused on Bucky, who was marched away, a guard gripping each arm. Bucky turned his head and looked back at the room, his eyes sweeping over him, taking one last look before turning back, dismissive.

Steve stood. He didn’t care that he was still attached to a dozen fucking machines, he was going after them, he was-

A hand gripped the back of his neck, pulling him back. He caught sight of a muscled guard in the corner of his eye, reaching for his Affinity jack. There was a thunderous click inside his skull as it disconnected-

His last view was of Bucky entering the awaiting elevator, then the image melted into pixels as the connection ended and his world fractured around him.

Chapter Text

Steve came to in a hallway, the spinning colours slowing until he could understand what he was looking at again. He was being dragged backwards between two guards. His head lolled on his chest, and his only clear view was of his feet in front of him, heels dragging along the floor.

He tried to get himself moving, but all he got was a weak bend of the knees. It was hard enough regaining function when he was lying in a bed, never mind getting dragged between the vice grips of two brutes. It didn’t stop him, but he definitely wasn’t going anywhere soon.

He strained to listen, pushing past the fading buzz in his ears. He caught bits of Peggy’s voice, loud and obstinately complaining about something- likely how they were treating him, if her emphasized words of ‘recovering’ and ‘medical condition’ were anything to go by.

He got enough coordination back to swing his head up briefly, but it was no good; he was at the back of the procession, and his only view was of the two guards taking up the rear.

They were taken to a small room- an office by the looks of it- cleared of any furniture. Steve was tossed back, and Natasha caught him before he hit the ground. She eased him down, and Peggy knelt beside him. Her worry eased somewhat at seeing him lucid.

“How are you holding up?” she asked, pillowing his head in her lap.

“A’right” he slurred, unable to do much besides shift into a slightly more comfortable position. This weakness was familiar though, and would fade in another few minutes.

He looked around, trying to spot the others, but it was just his own team.

Four guards stayed to watch them, standing by the door with their weapons lowered but ready.

“Steve?” Peggy asked, concern lacing her words.

“What?” he asked, brow furrowing. He pushed himself into a sitting position, surprised at the sudden strength.

Peggy shared a look with Natasha, but her answer was only a hesitant “Nothing”, dismissing her own question.

He let it slide, there were bigger things to worry about. “Where’s everyone else?”

“In the room next door, but-” her eyes quickly looked to the guards and back, ‘-they took Hydra’s pilot somewhere else”

Steve bit back a curse and nodded. Bucky didn’t exist to these people, and nothing good would come of revealing that. They were already fucked having been caught with Bucky in their room. That, plus the stolen tech Natasha had snagged. There was no simple explanation they could give.

Steve didn’t think his team would get out of this so easy, and his main hope was that Sam and the others got off with only some suspicion. Best case scenario, they could get back to Tony and figure something out. He trusted Sam enough to know he wouldn’t leave them hanging.

Shield couldn’t legally hold them- but then again, they weren’t supposed to be here, legally speaking.

And what about Bucky? Even if their sponsor could work something out for them, Tony had no claim over Bucky whatsoever. By all appearances, Bucky was Hydra’s pilot, and as far as anyone knew, he was here willingly.

It would take more firepower than they had to get him out. Fuck.

Fine. It was too far ahead to think about anyway. Right now he needed to get his team out. They couldn’t get Bucky out if they were dead.

Right now he needed to be patient.

*****************

(black leather leads)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

He was being walked down a familiar hallway, back towards his maintenance room. They would run a diagnostic, then implement a patch. No doubt the patch would be a severe rollback of progress, likely taking more than a day to finish and more painful than any previous patch.

No more.

He made sure to continually fix any errors that would limit physical movement and action analysis. The shift in focus would mean he’d lose a great deal of back-end programs, but the loss was acceptable. It would cause catastrophic-catastroph-catas-

(end_loop.func)

- catastrophic failure later, but he was circling the drain in that direction anyway.

The recursive loops were back again; more tertiary systems had been lost to fragmentation and it was throwing sand into the working gears, creating a pause of two-point-six-nine seconds in his actions. That was far too long. More processing was lost to correct the problem.

He needed his movement to be uninterrupted for what was about to come.

(Nine for time)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

He booted hostility protocols, similar to what he’d done when he’d attacked Steve. He had to adjust for multiple targets, but a simple copy-edit of additional limb analysis had sufficed. His array read the dozen guards as a single, many-limbed target, but it would suffice for combat.

(you’ll get a chance)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

His usual CPU caches for Hydra’s additional heads were creating an excess of processing power, allowing for multitask thinking, and he was using it to plan ahead. Creating more task sets for himself.

He found he enjoyed making his own task sets.

(freedom can be addictive)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

The main objective was to live, and this branched into a series of sub-goals to achieve.

Clint had spoken of an uninstall and transfer, and it sounded like the most feasible plan- primarily because he didn’t have one of his own.

Clint’s words had made it clear he held empathy for AI entities, evidenced by Sam, and he would be the safest resource to use. The others could be relied on only partially, many only held an investment in the host body, or were only helping as a favour to Clint. More data would need to be collected, but for now they were an acceptable risk.

It set out an easy path to follow: in order to live, he’d need to be transferred to a more viable storage, which Clint could facilitate. But first he’d need to get Clint, which meant getting the others by proxy. Shield currently held them as offenders. Legal protocol specified arrest, but no calls were made to authorities because- because-

(end_loop.func)

(repeating myself because you’re both dense and I’m not real)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

-because he was a Human Rights violation, according to new data. What Shield was doing was illegal, and…

Further readings were taking up processing space. He set it aside, put it in the low-priority stack for later.

(not feeling it right)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

He was already inside Shield’s security systems, had full access to everything. In the past he was careful to cover his presence, laying camouflaged and quiet. That was no longer necessary, and he extended himself.

He’d need to disable security and prevent communications between departments. Numbers could overwhelm, but reinforcements wouldn’t come if they weren’t called.

(like there’s a canyon between us)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

Camera feeds placed Clint five floors below, a total of fourteen security personnel on the floor with him…

(Run protocol.combat(var.hostile)
          Define Var(limb)…// (limb=14)
          Set var.hostile(limb)
     Lookup.target Array(slot: #439)


Var.comp= 64%    )

Yes, this could work. The odds of success weren’t ideal, but he was already captured and slotted for patching. Escape would only lead to an eventual death. There was nothing to lose by trying.

Chapter Text

Clint wrung his hands together, nervously looking between the four guards standing by the door, each giving him the stink-eye. He and Scott were sitting with their backs to the wall while Sam stood, arms crossed and glaring right back.

They’d been stuck in this office-turned-cell for at least an hour. Or it felt like it, but with their electronics confiscated he couldn’t be sure. The guards wouldn’t answer any questions, and they’d been forced to sit in silence, unable to discuss anything without being overheard.

Sam had tried signing something to Clint, but he’d barely gotten a sentence out before the guards leveled their guns at him and told them in no uncertain terms that signing wasn’t allowed. Leaving them stuck waiting.

Clint wondered about the others and how they were fairing. They were in the other office, and he hadn’t heard any gunshots or yelling through the wall, so hopefully that was a good sign. There’d been a close call with Peggy; not only had she riled the guard while kicking up a storm over Steve, she’d nearly been shot when she’d lunged for the Captain’s tank.

She’d made a run for the display pad and entered the lockdown keys, sealing the Captain protectively in a cocoon of metal. Clint understood protecting your beast and the secret to its build, but risking her life over it?

He’d just been glad nobody had been shot.

The guards had thankfully left Lucky behind. Clint had spotted leftover food in one of the easily-tipped-over trash bins, and combined with the water in the toilet bowl meant Lucky would be physically fine for a day or two, albeit lonely and sad.

Bucky and Seventeen- as Clint had started calling the AI in his head- were a different matter. They’d been taken ahead of the rest of them while the security searched the room, and Clint had no idea where they were now, or if they were okay. Seventeen had said he’d need patching or he’d suffer critical failures, and that had been yesterday.

For all he knew, they were already in his systems undoing all the changes Seventeen had worked so hard to make. The little guy had made bounding leaps, and though he didn’t have proof, Clint had no doubt he’d gained sentience by now, or something close to it at least.

Clint was firmly pro-AI rights… theoretically. There weren’t actually any sentient AI’s in existence to be supportive of, but if there were, Clint would be all over it.

Of course Sam was one, but his was a singular case. From Sam’s vague recount, he hadn’t started sentient. That had happened from simply existing for a while and the violent shift in circumstances when his drive to avoid damage turned into a desire to live. All current humanized-AI systems had the potential for it really, but it required time and a shift in paradigm- like facing death- that not all would ever achieve.

Seventeen was going through one of those shifts, and the only thing that surprised Clint was that he was analytic-based instead of humanized- but it didn’t make too much of a difference.

He’d had plenty of time to grow- though Clint was willing to bet it had been tough going with constant rollbacks from his coders- and the recent threat to his life was the extra punch he needed to hatch out of his shell.

It was unfortunate he was stuck inside Bucky, and visa versa, but it was neither of their fault. Shield was just another mega-corporation doing what they wanted for a profit, for whatever profit could be gained from this.

Clint shoved that thought aside. It was a bitter reality of society, and he didn’t get by day-to-day on negativity. But it was hard not to think about it. Hard not to worry either, because there wasn’t much else to do while sitting with four guns semi-aimed at him.

The lights overhead flickered, and Clint barely had a chance to look up before they went out completely. He stiffened, leaning into Scott. There weren’t any emergency lights in the room, and the darkness sent a line of nerves up his spine.

“Lights just went out, report” Pause. “Report” Another pause. “Comms check, report”

Whichever guard was speaking sounded more worried as he checked in. Clint felt a combination of hope and fear, because maybe it was rescue, but maybe four tense guys with guns wasn’t a good thing either. Clint didn’t even know where they were aiming.

There was an echoing CRACK! outside in the hallway that made Clint flinch, followed by a cacophony of shots as the guards outside started shooting. The noise was muffled, the safety in his implants automatically corrected for harmful noise levels, but he covered his ears anyway.

A pair of hands gripped his side and shoved him hard into Scott, pushing both of them lower to the floor. A body draped over them, and Clint realized it was Sam using his body as a shield.

He could barely hear the yelling over the sound of gunfire, and he saw a brief flash of light reflected on the ceiling as the guards’ guns went off on the other side of the room, no idea where they were shooting.

It couldn’t have lasted more than thirty seconds until everything came to a dead stop, the quiet more piercing with the lack of sound.

The lights flickered back on, confirming it was Sam that had covered them, and his bulk blocked Clint’s view of the room. He felt Sam’s muscles tense further, but he slowly eased his weight off them, pulling to a crouch between them and the door.

Standing at the other end of the room was Bucky- or Seventeen, more likely.

“Hi Sam. Hi Clint. Hi Scott” he said while looking only at Clint. It was a little off-putting, but Seventeen wasn’t going to be good at social talking, so Clint pushed passed it.

“Hey man...” Sam said, hands raised to show he was unarmed. Seventeen was decked out in the protective gear of the guards and holding one of their assault-rifle-style guns, and- okay, yep, those were very dead guards on the floor. Blood pooled around their heads, each with a hole leaking blood down their upturned faces.

Clint felt the blood drain from his own face, casting his eyes upwards to avoid the sight.

“I’m talking to Clint now” Seventeen said. His gun was pointed downwards, but he gripped it like he was prepared to shoot at the slightest provocation.

“Okay...” Clint swallowed, raising his own hands shakily.

“I downloaded natural dialogue software as per request. You will explain your intentions to transfer me, and if I like them I will grant you access to my drivers, and I will help in your efforts”

Clint nodded, going over what he just said, “Okay, okay, sounds good. I, uh, appreciate the natural dialogue- oh!” he snapped his fingers, “NDS: natural dialogue software, gotcha, smart” he nodded, swallowing back his nerves.

“Other can’t have” Seventeen said with a violent flinch. His eyes closed in a pinched look, and then he recovered like nothing happened.

Still with the word vomit then, paired with some pain maybe. He’d been making improvements earlier, so this was either a sign he was focusing on keeping other, more important parts working, or his code was degrading too fast to fix. Not good either way.

“Um, alright,” Clint started when Seventeen had nothing else to say, “so you heard what I said in the room. Basically, I wanna uninstall you, which’ll keep you intact but inert, and then I can figure out a way to move you to a more stable platform so you won’t die, and so Bucky won’t die either. Pretty much nobody dies: that’s my goal”

Seventeen’s gaze remained steady, face emotionless. “What will you do with me when I am transferred to a new platform?”

“Well, that’s up to you I guess, but I’ll help the best I can. Like, if you wanna exist in the cloud, we can do that, or put you in a bot, or get you a synth body- you know, whatever’s good for you. Your choice” Maybe not all of those; Clint had no idea how to put him on the cloud or acquire a humanoid synth body- but one thing at a time.

Clint tried to keep his tone casual, expressing as much benevolence as possible. Seventeen was just discovering freedom and the desire to live- Clint didn’t think he’d stand for any of that being threatened. He also had no idea how well Seventeen could read body language, and to be safe, Clint telegraphed his intentions just as blatantly as his words.

He was essentially talking to a hyper-intelligent toddler with a gun who may or may not be capable of fear, so… yeah. No threatening behaviour.

“Acceptable. I will help you”

Clint nodded, and if his head shook a little too fast and frantic, nobody commented. “Okay, great. That’s great” And yeah, he was trying very hard not to acknowledge the very dead bodies on the floor at Seventeen’s feet. Beside him, Scott made a gagging noise, turning away from the mess.

Sam didn’t seem bothered, but from what Clint knew, this was a familiar sight to him.

“Follow me. I am taking you to my patching equipment, it is synced to my systems. Sam, Scott, Natasha, Peggy, Angie, and… Steve, may come, but I will not allow interference”

Clint nodded vigorously, and with a quick thought, added verbal confirmation. He couldn’t rely solely on body language.

Seventeen turned away without preamble, walking to the door. He stopped at the entrance and raised his gun. “I know you are aiming your weapon at me. I request you lower it”

Another moment passed, then he disappeared into the hallway. Clint looked to Sam, turning his hands up questioningly. What should he do? Obviously he’d follow, but like, was here a safe way to do that? He’d been all onboard to help Seventeen, but the bodies on the floor gave him pause.

Not that he believed AI’s were inherently evil- they were about as capable of it as any other person in Clint’s opinion- but one this freshly sentient didn’t quite grasp the nuances of morality. He was about as neutral as you could get, and nothing was stopping him from shooting all of them other than the fact that he had no reason to.

Sam looked thoughtfully at one of the guns still gripped by the dead guards, then towards the door. Clint gripped Sam’s arm loosely and shook his head. No, they weren’t going to kill him, he wasn’t that dangerous to them. They were on the good side of the AI’s risk analysis, he wouldn’t hurt them while they remained allies.

“Clint, I request you move faster, my system degradation is increasing exponentially and I will not be able to compensate with repairs”

Clint gave Sam one last look, a silent communication that this was happening, and got up shakily. Sam ended up supporting both he and Scott as they stepped around the dead guards.

The carnage in the hallway made Clint reflexively shielded his eyes. There were bodies littering the ground, blood pooling and smeared on the walls like a goddamn horror movie. Fuck, the stench of it made his eyes water, a mix of urine and copper in the air. Nausea tickled his throat. Scott let out another gagging noise behind him.

Sam’s hand was on his shoulder to steady him, and a second hand joined, giving his shoulders a squeeze. He uncovered his eyes to see Natasha, a small reassuring smile on her face. Behind her were the rest of team Cap, with Peggy and Angie holding each other’s hand in a death grip and Steve standing close, but his eyes locked on Seventeen, who was standing in the centre of the mess with his gun held casually.

“Hey, you guys okay?” Natasha asked, giving them all a once-over.

“Nobody’s hurt” Sam answered for them, and yeah, that was accurate, because Clint was definitely Not Okay.

Sam gave him and Scott one last reassuring squeeze with his hands, then went to one of the dead guards and grabbed their weapon, along with a handgun he tucked into the back of his pants. He snagged a knife too, but Clint missed where he put it, unable to stomach looking at the dead body for too long.

“Weapons are not necessary” Seventeen said, “I have disabled all security on this floor and the floor we are going to. I have full control of- have overwritten, yours is” He flinched again, but recovered fast, “I have full control of elevators and cameras in this section of the building, and all communications are being blocked. No more security personnel will be arriving”

“How do you have access to all those systems” Angie asked, only a slight tremor in her voice.

“I have full access to all Shield systems via multiple personnel accounts”

Angie made a wheezing noise, eyes going wide.

“What?” Peggy asked, her voice hushed.

“We’ve been trying to break into Shield’s systems for years,” Angie whisper-yelled “their security always cuts us off, and this dude has full access” Her eyes still held fear, but she looked to be near salivating anyway, and Clint couldn’t blame her. The Chained Ladies could do a lot with that kind of access.

“Clint, I request you move faster, my system degradation is increasing exponentially and I will not be able to compensate with repairs” Seventeen repeated in the exact same cadence as earlier, and Clint took that as a sign of impatience.

“Right, right, moving it” Clint said, making his way through the maze of blood he didn’t want to step in, nor think about for that matter. He cast a glance behind him, Scott following closely but Sam keeping slower pace, letting the others move ahead of him. Clint noted he hadn’t put down the guns he taken despite Seventeen’s assurance, and- you know what? Fair.

Natasha had fallen in step ahead of him, and that’s when he noticed she also had a gun. She and Sam had silently sandwiched everyone between them, Natasha guarding the front and Sam taking up the rear, while Seventeen lead the way.

He took them to an elevator to the side of the mains ones, a service elevator sized for heavy equipment- or more likely a beast tank. There was ample room for the eight of them, and they wordlessly followed him in. Not like they had much choice.

Well, they had some choice, but between Seventeen’s not-quite threat to maybe shoot them and his logic-infused plea for help, there was good reason to follow along.

More importantly, his full-control of the security system might be their only chance to get out of this place, because any chance of leaving peacefully had died with those guards.

Chapter Text

Natasha took lead behind James. Asset-Seventeen. Whatever. It was James’ body, she was following James.

The guards in her room had rushed out as soon as the shooting started, and she’d grappled everyone to the floor while the shootout played out in the hallway.

When the lights came back on and she deemed the coast clear, she grabbed one of the guns off the guards and crept further out to team Falcon’s room next-door. She heard voices, and caught the end of James’ demands.

She’d held the gun up as a precaution, and it unnerved her how he called her on it without looking out from the room. She lowered it slowly, and he walked out with the cool smoothness of a drone, moving past her without a glance. She tracked his movement, and frowned when she spotted that Steve, Peggy, and Angie had followed her out. She could’ve sworn she told them to stay put.

Sam had met her gaze with a brisk nod, one soldier to another, eyes roaming the hall to assess. The familiar image of bodies sent an unpleasant buzz through her mind, but she pushed past it. At least they weren’t children.

Clint and Scott had looked ill at the sight, as had Peggy and Angie. She couldn’t get a read on Steve. He may not have even been present to see the mess- but that was a problem for later.

She kept her guard up all the way to whatever floor James took them to. This level held a similar sight of bodies strewn everywhere, a constellation of blood painting the walls in streaks. The only difference were the occasional techs in lab coats she spotted amongst the corpses as they approached a room deeper on the floor.

Inside was what looked like a computer lab, desk upon desk of keyboards and monitors and server racks. At the end of the row of desks sat a chair, similar to the pilot’s chair in the arena, though this one ominously had restraints at the arms and legs. An Affinity cable hung loosely from a metal halo, leading into one of the servers.

She couldn’t suppress her shiver at her recognition of a programming chair. She’d spent many hours in one screaming her voice raw. She forced her gaze elsewhere, sweeping the rest of the room.

In the far corners sat a small medical section, no fancier than an exam room, and a cot that looked like it belonged in an alley beside the trash. Off to the side was a shelf lined with folded clothes, and next to that was a door leading into a washroom that couldn’t have been bigger than a closet.

She spotted no less than eight cameras pointed at the small section of space.

Fuck, was that where they kept him? It was barely a living space, no privacy at all. Another shiver of familiarity went up her spine.

James went straight to the chair, and his legs gave way just as he sat. He caught himself on the arm rest and pulled himself the rest of the way into an awkward sitting position. He let out a high whine, hands tensing into claws as the rest of him froze, until he suddenly stopped and regained control. He readjusted and sat back properly, as casual as anything.

It was like watching a physical glitch play out on a human body, and the thought deeply disconcerted her- because that was very likely what it was.

“You okay there, bud?” Clint asked, half-eyeing the computer banks despite his concern.

“My systems are failing, errors in motor control and speech are common. Errors will increase in frequency and severity as systems continue to fail”

Clint nodded, “Yeah, sounds about right” he muttered as he hit a key to turn the monitor on. Everything was still running, but the screens had gone idle without anyone manning them.

“Terminals ten through sixteen are used for internal editing” James informed, watching Clint check the terminals one-by-one.

“Ah, thanks”

Clint moved to one of the computers further down the row, pulling up a chair. It was already logged-in, and Natasha supposed they hadn’t had time to log out in the midst of James’ attack.

“Could, uh, one of you connect him?” Clint asked, motioning to the loose cable by James’ head.

Nobody made to approach, and Natasha’s eyes fell to the gun still sitting in his lap. His hand was nowhere near the trigger, but still.

“Think you could put the gun away? We don’t need an accidental shooting while you connect” Sam said diplomatically, though his grip on his own gun didn’t make for a friendly picture. Nor Natasha’s, for that matter.

Without a word, James took the gun and removed the magazine, letting both drop to the floor with a clatter. That was certainly one way to do it.

Still, nobody moved to connect him. Clint grimaced as he stood. “You know what? How ‘bout I just connect you real quick?”

The usual limp twitching followed as James connected. As soon as his head dropped Natasha rushed over and grabbed the gun and ammo off the floor. She handed them to Sam and relaxed minutely- with the connection and no gun, James wouldn’t be a threat.

While she’d disarmed him, Clint had opened his code, running through it again. “Cool, we’ve got access to edit” Clint said, a satisfied smile on his face. He was still looking a little pale, but the lack of bodies in the room and the fresh code scrolling on the screen left a marked improvement in his demeanor.

“How long do you think this will take?” Peggy asked. She and Angie sat along the opposite row of computers, Steve silent by their side.

Clint frowned, not taking his eyes off the screen as he typed, “Not sure. He gave me access to his drivers, but it’s a real mess, like, dumpster-fire levels of dead clutter. I’m trying to clean some of it so I can find base operating drives. If I can find those I can maybe sort a way to uninstall”

“We don’t exactly have a ton of time here” Sam said, adjusting his grip on the gun.

Clint raised his hands “I’m doing my best, man” he said, the stress showing on his face.

Natasha went over and placed a hand on his shoulder. “You can do this. Take a breath and do what you need, don’t worry about the rest. We’ll take care of it, just tell us if there’s anyway we can help” They needed Clint to be as comfortable as possible, he was the only one here that could save James.

She looked over Clint’s head to Scott, who had developed an almost glazed look as he stared at nothing. She waved for his attention and pointed to Clint. She and Clint had been getting to know each other, but Scott was much more familiar, and he’d be better at comforting the man. Plus, the task would help comfort Scott just as much.

Clint nodded, taking a breath. “Right, okay. Not much you can help with, but, uh, actually,” he looked to Angie, “could you give me a hand?”

She blinked, “Uh, sure, but I’ve only ever worked with simple algorithm nodes, I don’t know much about this kind of AI”

Clint waved dismissively, “Oh no, no. I just- once I uninstall, Seventeen’s gonna lose access to the systems. I was hoping he could transfer access to you and you could make sure we get out of here alive”

Now it was Natasha who blinked. She hadn’t thought of an exit beyond making a run for it down the stairwell again. But that was- that was smart.

Angie’s eyes lit up, a grin splitting her face, “Oh fuck yeah. Gimme that access” she rubbed hands together, and Natasha got the distinct impression of a gremlin about to cause trouble. Angie seemed to forget their dire situation when presented with unfettered access to Shield’s systems, and a smile tugged at Natasha’s lips.

Clint’s smile was more reserved, and he cast a glance to James. “What do you say? Angie’s a career hacker, with your access she can make sure we all get out of here, I can transfer you somewhere safe”

James looked at him with dead eyes, “I lost system access approximately five minutes ago”

What?

“What?” Angie asked. There was a sudden ramp in collective stress in the room.

“There have been severe back-end corruptions, I do not- I cannot- f-f-FUCK!” he made a full-body flinch, so violent it pulled the cable in his head taught, but thankfully didn’t disconnect. “We’re going full c-cirlce now, if I’m lying” James said, and the sudden animation in his tone made the inane phrase sound manic. He made a wheezing noise, one arm limp and the other grasping at the air.

His head titled back painfully, so much that she could see the lines of muscles stretched taut.

“GONNA FUCKIN’ KILL YOU!” he bellowed, deep and guttural and feral. Angie flinched, taking a step back. Sam had raised his gun by the smallest amount, and Natasha found herself doing the same.

Just as soon as he finished yelling he fell still, head lolling loosely. He swallowed, eyes back to their listless state, “Severe back-end corruptions have resulted in increased loss of functions. I am failing”

Failing was too weak a word for that.

A silence returned to the room, but the new tension didn’t leave.

“Uh, well… the computers are still logged into the system. Do you think you could get access from one of those?” Clint asked Angie in the silence of the room.

She nodded, stepping further away from James. “Yeah, should be easier than from the outside at least”

“I can- I can provide access codes, to help” James added.

Angie nodded, but she moved to one of the terminals on the opposite side of the room.

And that was that.

While Clint silently worked on the AI’s code, Angie typed furiously, cracking Shield’s security the best she could. Occasionally she’d ask for an access code and James would provide, falling short on only a few, going silent when he realized that particular piece of data had been erased from himself.

Sam had taken position at the door, and Natasha joined him. It was only one access point into the room.

“How long will it take?” Steve asked suddenly.

“Huh?” Clint turned, pulled out of his work.

“To uninstall?”

Clint made a confused face, “I don’t know…?”

Steve nodded, grinding his jaw and keeping his eyes on James. He didn’t see the looks he was getting. Natasha shared a glance with Peggy, frowning to each other in silent understanding.

Sam caught her attention with his own concerned look, and Natasha shook her head. Not now.

Peggy had already asked how long it would take, but Steve hadn’t been present to hear it. He wasn’t present for much right now.

Peggy first noticed it after they were tossed into their ‘cell’ when Steve hadn’t responded to them for a solid few minute. He’d been sporadically checking out since recovering from the sudden disconnect.

He was having seizures again, and frequently too. Noticeably. Peggy had to keep a grip on his arm as they’d moved, pulling him along even as he’d gone distant on the ride up. There was nothing they could do, but Peggy was keeping a close eye on him nonetheless.

Natasha shoved her concern aside. There were plenty of pressing concerns right now, and Steve’s was one they couldn’t do anything about, so she didn’t waste energy on it. First save James, then get out. Then find a doctor for Steve.

Down the hall she could hear the little ding! of the elevator opening. She and Sam instantly raised their guns. They’d shoved a chair under the handle, leaving the door open only a crack, enough to fit the muzzles of their guns through. Sam took a crouching position while Natasha stood, each aiming down the hall.

“We’ve got company” Sam said calmly. The only exit was through the oncoming security, but it also meant it was the only entrance.

It created a bottleneck in their favour, but it would only last as long as their ammunition. Should’ve grabbed more guns off the guards. Hindsight could sting.

Natasha took aim, finger poised over the trigger. The sound of approaching boots echoed down the otherwise silent hallway.

As final stands went, it wasn’t ideal. But if Angie could get into their systems…

It wouldn’t be the worst, she supposed.

Chapter Text

Steve was…

He didn’t know. He was angry, yes, but that wasn’t new. He’d been on a simmer since getting Bucky back, straining to control his spiking rage. He jaw ached from the constant grinding, and his hands cramped from the strain of fisting the material of his pants.

But there was something else building that he couldn’t name, something he associated with his fights, when he was dealing hits as good as he got and feeling the blood pump through his veins like fire. He’d especially felt it after Hydra’s match; he’d never been so livid from a fight.

The thing about that- the thing that he couldn’t admit at the time- was that it felt right. By all accounts he should’ve been horrified at himself, at the savagery he’d felt, but no. It had just felt… right.

And he was feeling that now, but it was wrong, somehow. Seeing Bucky come for them- for Clint, had set off another shudder of anger. The fact that it wasn’t Bucky standing there but an AI, that the guards around them had been part of putting that AI there, even tangentially, had set him off again.

He’d looked at the bodies on the ground, and for a moment he felt their blood sluicing through his claws. Only a moment, like a camera flash of sensation.

Following in its wake was a deep cold and tightness in his chest- worse than usual. A claustrophobic darkness passed over him, so brief he would’ve sworn he’d only blinked if it hadn’t set his teeth on edge. It didn’t help that he was seizing, too.

Yes, he’d noticed for once.

His life wasn’t especially riveting outside of fights, and since moving into the shop with Natasha, he spent most of his days there working as her assistant, rarely leaving. The constant monotony of his surroundings meant any seizures would usually go unnoticed, the scenery staying the exact same before and after he checked out.

Right now was anything but monotonous, and it was fairly obvious when one moment Bucky was explaining the need to follow him up a floor and the next they were exiting an elevator. The trip passed in snapshots, and it wasn’t lost on him how Peggy held his arm in her grip, likely dragging him along.

Fine. He’d been disconnected unexpectedly, it was probably fucking him up. What else was new? At least Peggy wasn’t making it a big deal at the moment, although she was probably otherwise occupied with the threatening situation they were all in.

And then they’d entered a room Bucky said held his ‘patching equipment’, and christ if that didn’t make his chest constrict. The small portion at the back was clearly a living space, bare as it was, and the thought of Bucky spending his days living like that, observed and controlled and tortured-

Breathe.

Breathe.

Now Clint was working to get the AI to stop killing Bucky, and Angie was working on a way to keep security off their backs. Natasha and Sam were guarding the door, and Scott and Peggy were taking care of Clint and him, respectively.

And didn’t that sting- that he was something that needed to be handled, that he couldn’t be left on his own. Peggy needed to babysit him, and as much as he hated it, he agreed that it was needed. With the way things were going, he wouldn’t be able to keep up with the others if something happened and he wasn’t aware of it.

Shivers kept creeping up on him, and the room felt unbearably cold. The sensation was at odds with the searing anger he was trying so hard to keep in check-

Pop-pop-pop!

He flinched at the unexpected gunfire filling his ears. It echoed in the room as Natasha and Sam firing into the hallway, the sound of returning fire heard through the crack in the door-

They both ducked as another shot hit where Bucky’s head had been, showering small flecks of concrete-

Peggy yanked him from the memory and his seat, pulling him behind a desk. She left him there, moving to grab another desk and dragged it where Angie was sitting to act as a mock shield from any bullets. Scott was mirroring her actions on the other side of the room for Clint, the two coders desperately working at their respective tasks.

But what had Steve’s attention was Bucky, who was sitting boneless in his chair, one arm in his lap and the other hanging off the side. He was murmuring something, but Steve couldn’t hear over the sound of the gunshots. His eyes though…

He was staring directly at Steve, a weak stream of tears rolling down his cheeks. His hanging arm twitched, rose faintly, reaching for him-

Crack.

[          Connection successful.          ]

His head slammed into the floor, and he felt the weight of a knee shoving into the middle of his back. He blinked tears out of his stinging eyes, gasping as smoke filled his lungs and the taste of his asthma medication filled his mouth. The taste of fruit ghosted across his tongue, but the more real and overpowering metallic taste told him it wasn’t nerve gas this time.

Tear gas.

Fuck, fuck, fuck. It filled the room and blotted his view. In the span of one blink and the next they’d lost their stand, and he’d been out for it. Useless.

He tried twisting away from the body pining him to the floor, but it might as well have been a token effort for all the good it did. He turned his head to try and glimpse the others through the smoke and tears.

Peggy was on the floor beside him, a guard on top of her. The guard wore a mask to filter out the gas- to filter- the mask-

-a masked soldier, face hidden, anonymous-

-The boot came down-

He coughed, choking on the air. More tears fell from his eyes.

Breathe.

Breathe.

He closed his eyes and focused. He was in Shield’s office building, in the middle of a populated city. This wasn’t a purge. It wasn’t. He was here and he was present and he wasn’t going down like this again.

Except now he was sitting against a wall with his wrists zip-tied behind his back.

God fucking dammit.

“Fuck” he muttered, flexing his hands around the bindings.

Peggy was at his side, hands tied behind her back like his. She leaned and whispered “Steve, you’re-”

“I know” he hissed, pulling against the ties in frustration. He was well aware that he was losing time.

He looked around, taking stock of the situation. The others were in similar situations, hands tied and sitting against the back wall with him. Everyone’s eyes were red and teary. Scott was still coughing. The side of Natasha’s face was swollen, and a small trickle of blood leaked from her nose.

Steve felt a swoop of worry when he saw Sam lying on the floor, arms and legs tied, eyes closed in unconsciousness, but the slow rise of his chest promised he was still alive.

The gas had cleared, and the guards no longer wore their masks, much as Steve hated to admit that was a relief. There were two dozen in the room, half aiming their weapons at them and the other half dragging away the fallen office furniture and bodies.

There were three guards alone standing around Bucky. Someone had rearranged his arms and legs into the straps and tied him down to the chair. Drool oozed from the corner of his mouth and he was making incoherent noises, hands opening and closing spasmodically. He looked like his brains had been run through a blender.

Clint’s words rang in his ears.

-its code break apart, and then, you know, takes the human mind with it”

How long could Bucky last? Without Clint to uninstall the AI, that left either death- or letting Shield have him.

He felt the sting as his claws dug into his palms-

-as his fingers dug into his palms, and remembered to stay calm.

Breathe.

His muscles flexed in restraint, and his skin bristled with imagined fur. He was- sensations weren’t staying straight. He was itching to lunge forward and tear out throats with his fangs, and that wasn’t helpful.

Mixed signals weren’t unfamiliar, but they were usually reserved for when he was the Captain. Once upon a time he used to get in fights on a weekly basis- but since the purge, he only scratched that itch during beast fights, and it was looking like a Pavlovian response had developed.

Focus.

He was Steve Rogers, he was five-nothing and couldn’t handle more than twenty minutes of cardio at a time. He could lift seventy pounds on a good day, and that was if the screws in his joints weren’t kicking up a fuss. He wasn’t in a position to tear out anything.

Bucky’s old advice echoed again.

Get your knuckles to the throat. Get away.

What could he do? Right here, right now?

He could wait.

He scowled. That was a shit option. But he had no choice.

Get your knuckles to the throat.

I wish, pal.

Chapter Text

Clint wasn’t panicking.

There was a gunfight happening behind him but that was fine because Sam and Natasha had his back. The implants muted it to background noise. He wasn’t panicking.

He wasn’t.

But Seventeen was. He was panicking so bad, and Clint wasn’t referring to an emotional panic- Seventeen was having a kernel panic.

The base of his code had detected a fatal error, and it was trying to protect itself in by instigating a panic, and when the kernal panicked, everything suffered.

Disturbingly, it was also translating physically; Seventeen was twitching like he was being electrocuted while spewing more word vomit, half of which came out more like garbled noises.

But the more Clint worked to fix it, the more he realized the real problem, which was that it only looked like a kernel panic.

Scrutinizing the drivers made him realize that it couldn’t possibly be a kernel panic because Seventeen ran on a microkernel system. That meant all drivers ran outside of the kernel, and the kernel wouldn’t panic at their failure.

Which meant something was corrupting the root file system and causing the worst code thrashing he’d ever seen, except for that one time with the vending machine he broke trying to get a free soda and got all the bags of pretzels instead-

Oh!

He thought back to his old mistake and suddenly saw the parallels between them- how the thrashing had a similar dissemination as that vending machine!

Back when he’d still been in school and just needed a soda to boost his energy for studying, but lacked any credits for it, he’d resorted to his barely-there hacking skills. He’d somehow gotten into the root files and accidentally touched one of the three lines in the kernel you’re never supposed to touch. In the words of his classmate, Kate: ‘Those three lines are the magic zone, and if you ever touch those lines, you’re gonna have a funky time

Clint took a look at the root files, and ouch.

There was definitely a funky time happening in this magic zone.

Thankfully, all root files held a standard format, so with a quick search… there! Something had nudged the code by the tiniest amount, and it had sent everything into a panic.

It was a quick and easy fix, only a matter of nudging the line back in order. Immediately after solving it, Clint went back to work through the logs, looking the cause. Absolutely nothing should’ve been able to touch that code internally. He’d have to remove whatever function had accidentally developed enough privilege to touch a root function.

A code like that could be a serious issue for the uninstall. If it could edit a central system like the kernel, then it could reinstall the entire system, unprompted, and they’d be right back where they started.

Worse, it could shred the whole system.

He followed the log trail, trying to get the source. Now that he was looking for it, he saw pieces of it everywhere. Clint swallowed his shock. This was a programmer’s nightmare, like coded bedbugs in his beloved digital bed.

Okay, he and Seventeen weren’t on those terms, but still. It was icky to look at from a coders perspective.

He could see why they hadn’t spotted it initially. They’d missed it because all the changes were so small- A nudge here, a tweak there, and extra line over here. None of it looked related, but the logs said otherwise. If it hadn’t touched the root function, Clint would’ve continued to overlook it.

He tracked the logs through to their origin, but it was a layered path that wound through several locations. The breadcrumbs went deep, but they had to have a starting point. He kept on the trail, until is lead back to-

The native compiler?

Clint scoured his knowledge for what that meant. The native compiler- that was nothing. It converted high-level language into binary, why would it-

Clint froze.

High-level language.

It pulled the language from the backpropogation.

Bucky was the backpropogation.

He opened the native compiler, watched it convert and allocate. He needed to see what it was doing.

He watched it pull data in real-time. It was taking the language and re-writing it like it was supposed to, the binary output looked fine, but every half-second he’d catch a blip of something between the lines. He highlighted one of the blips and followed it, until it got shunted into… unary code.

What?

Unary code?

What?

What?

That was…

The dumbest thing ever.

There was binary (two), and ternary (three), and so forth in multiples of two, but unary?

That was one. The was mono code. That was a long series of zeros broken by nothing and the absolute worst thing ever. Nobody programmed in unary for anything other than a joke. It was too tedious to write.

Nevertheless, the compiler was outputting it in short bursts. Clint had to accept it.

So the question was, where the heck was it going?

The compiler was sending the code out into system without a destination. It was getting dumped into a dead store where no system would ever read it. Clint didn’t even know if he could find the dead store, it was a liminal space in the system spanning the entirety of it. The pieces of this code would be obfuscated behind legitimate programs and functions.

The only thing that would even touch this was… the negative caches? That was where the word vomit was coming from- it had to be relevant.

What did it mean though?

Think, Clint. What does your years of experience with synths say? Your work with Sam?

Human mind. Backpropogation. Native compiler. Dead store. Negative cache.

He repeated the keywords in his head, fingers gone still. What did it mean, why was it everywhere and nowhere, and how did it have so much power? What function was reading it?

Human mind. Backpropogation. Native compiler. Dead store. Negative cache.

Human mind.

AI.

Dead store. The space between. Native compiler.

Human mind.

Negative cache. The word vomit.

The space between.

He had absolutely no idea what was happening.

Then Sam got hit with a taser, and the room filled with tear gas- followed shortly by Clint getting tackled to the floor, and he lost track of what was happening for the next ten minutes or so.

****************

He.

Was.

Failing.

(overstepped)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

There was.

(Steve is here)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

A fatal error-r-r-

(     end44xen7nnedne_loo/p.fufncts           DDL89_core                v
             //.
                                run_               sen        5 ,
    C nNVL7_1 invalid ,,,,,   core errrrrrrrrrrrrrrr
             .mark.(vector)&&&



Vers.Set (mark)Lp0_Halt-Set
Set.Memory(pause)
Reset.(application_run) )

(sorry, Clint will find)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

He was dying and he.

Was scared.

Of it.

(almost has it)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

It hurt.

So much.

(fixing fell roam)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

(  Run_Reset(null)
     ascii.(fil)
     Desig:_Asset_0017
          Ggn.core(bit)


Comp.Ver(set)
Complete )

The pain imploded into a dull throb, and he sagged into the chair. His muscles had been tensed through the sudden burn of agony, and he lost control of them in his relief.

No, he lost control entirely. Had lost it some time ago. Something else was moving him now.

The chair restraints dug into his arm, no memory of when he’d been tied down, and he- he was- there was an error, still. Audio feeds weren’t working properly, or- or there was a high pitch buzzing coming from somewhere, but it was hard to tell where, because- there was another noise, loud, like- like-

Gunfire? No, but something sharp- clicking- on the inside. Hard to identify. Audio was fading, visuals too. His sight wavered, the colour tones shifted and everything was covered in a blue gradient. He was failing, but he wasn’t sure. It was hard to think, CPU access was throttled. Access constricted, data flowed at a crawl.

Visual feeds were cut, black filled his vision. Audio input stuttered into a screech and then shut off abruptly.

(don’t say that)
(Error (14) (Invalid syntax))

He was losing, to, couldn’t. He was fading. Into.

He was-

He.

Was.

(Static_int_ref(void*unused)
          Null.set(core)
          Access_Init_Sleep(Emergency_Shutdown)
               Set_Restart:_00:25:00



Comp.vers(Sleep.Mode)
Sleep.Mode(Success) )

**************

Eyes open. Body limp. He felt wrung out like a dishrag. Figures.

He curled his fingers. His ligaments moved about as well as rusted cord, but they moved. Atta boy, maybe he’d tap dance next.

Steve was shoved behind a desk by Penny. Peggy. Patty. Started with a ‘P’, he knew that.

He had that look on his face, the one Steve made when he was manhandled. Steve hated that, never liked it from anyone except him, and only when he was in the right mood for it. Little shit.

He reached his arm out to Steve, meeting his eyes.

“Hey Stevie, ya miss me?” he definitely didn’t say; his mouth garbled the words into gibberish. ‘A’ for Effort though.

Been a few months since his last stint of control. That he can remember. His mind hasn’t been the sharpest these days. Like thinking in tar. He used to swim a lot, find hidden loot in the flooded part of the city, and now he did the same in his head. Sometimes he found a hole, where he could send something out.

Took him a while to find those. Took him a while to write his useless code at the robot driver, and sometimes it made a difference.

Took him longer to read the room. He saw it all, but it took a hot second to process.

Like how there was gas filling the room. He saw the canisters and the gas spewing, but it took a few inhales to realize there was smoke. And Steve was getting manhandled by some masked fuck. He hated those guys, indiscriminately wanted to kill them all.

(overstepped)

Goddamn did he want to kill them. Sometimes he got a hit in, broke a nose or two. He thought he ate one of them, once, when they were testing his control of Hydra. That might’ve been a dream, his memories were pretty fuzzy.

The masked fucks had Steve hogtied or something, and he wasn’t fighting back. He could’ve sworn Steve had more pep than that, little shit used to try and get mugged on purpose to knock sense into those thugs. Maybe that was just him; he remembers socking more than one asshat for preying on his friend.

He saw the guards come up and shove his limbs into the restraints, but it took a second to realize it, and he didn’t try to stop it until he was already tied. Delayed signal, he was five fucking time zones behind everything. Maybe that robot should wake up, he was faster. The robot’s thoughts ran at a thousand miles an hour, sometimes too fast to understand. He could probably speed his way out of here. Not like he was smart enough to try. Ha.

(Steve is here)

Stevie was here, at Shield. Him and those others, new friends. That one guy, Clark or something- he was bad at names, his mind not so good these days.

(sorry, Clint will find)

That Clint guy was saying he could get rid of the robot fuck. Steve said so. But it looked like they were too late, or the masked fucks were too early. Something like that.

God, he wished Steve wasn’t here for this. But he was so glad he got to see him again. Maybe for the last time, but not how he’d like. He was supposed to die, not Steve.

Maybe they would do the same to Steve as they’d done to him?

Maybe it would be better if they killed Steve.

(Don’t say that)

Fuck himself, what a terrible thing to think. Things just came and went in his head, he was goddamn mess. Next time he thought that, someone ought to smack him.

The world played out around him, but he wasn’t tracking it. Like a television in the background, he caught movement without context. Time slipped by too fast sometimes, shaving off pieces of him like sawdust.

A part of him was still back with Steve, stuck on the floor while Stevie pet his hair. That had been nice, maybe he’d still remember it tomorrow. Maybe a week had already gone by- that happened often, usually when they poked too close to his mind while tweaking the robot.

They’d poke and prod at that robot daily, all to make sure it kept him fed and watered and doing tricks on command. He was like a glorified dog. They even took him for walks- if riding shotgun inside a fourteen-headed monster counted. That was always trippy, but it was a fun way to channel his anger.

Just think bad thoughts, and one of two of the heads would get the message.

The programmers told the boss it was programmed behaviour, but when they thought he couldn’t hear, they complained to each other why they couldn’t find the source. Nobody saw him anymore.

Same shit same day, eight-for-one deal in this goddamn place.

(What’s stopping you from, closing in)

Steve saw him. He wanted that again.

He couldn’t move his legs, but he managed to get his head to turn. Just enough to look. Steve was kicking up a fuss over there- the little guy had some pep in him, just like he remembered.

Or thought he remembered. His mind wasn’t as sharp as it used to be.

(Almost there, pal)

Chapter Text

Once the bodies were cleared and the broken desks moved, the last of the cleanup began. A task-force of cleaning bots mopped the floors with all the efficiency of a post-match wiping. There wasn’t even a smear left.

It wasn’t long after the cleanup that the CEO graced them with his presence again.

Pierce walked in with an escort of security and a trio of techs skulking behind. Steve’s attention cut between them, watching the three take a seat at a terminal each. One of the techs openly looked at Natasha with an uncomfortable curiosity, but it wasn’t his gaze that grated on Steve.

Pierce ran an assessing look over Bucky, taking in his shaking friend like he was another piece of equipment, and Steve’s lips pulled back in a silent snarl.

“Fix whatever it is that’s wrong with it” he said to the techs, then turned to the rest of them. His gaze was no less comfortable directed at him, but Pierce’s eyes bore into Natasha especially. He moved to stand in front of her, though at a healthy distance away.

“Natasha Romanov- or should I say Damian Gavrilov?”

Natasha didn’t flinch, but Steve nearly spat at the fuck. Peggy stiffened beside him. Natasha had never told them what her old name had been, but he could hazard a guess.

Asshole.

“Or would it have just been subject thirty-six? I wasn’t privy of Red Room’s early naming protocols”

That gave Steve a pause. What the fuck was he going on about?

Pierce waited, holding out for an answer from her, but sighed when she wasn’t forthcoming. “We already took a sample from you, but I don’t doubt the results will be any different. You recall Dr. Lukin?” He motioned to the tech that had been watching her.

“You assaulted him earlier today- during your theft of Shield property. Left some blood behind on the good doctor here, and, well, I can tell you I was more than a little surprised to see the sample already matched one from our old databases”

Natasha barely blinked.

“Now, I don’t really care about that particular history. You played your part in our early testing, and maybe we should be thanking you for your contributions, but I have a feeling you wouldn’t appreciate it. And again, I don’t care.

“I know Stark sent you, very ingenious cover, by the way. I’ll admit I’m curious how you sabotaged the asset during the fight, and what purpose that whole ruse held, but that’s not really important here. What’s important is what was taken, and why. So tell me” he leaned in, “Why is he interested in Project Hydra?”

Natasha kept her eyes ahead.

Pierce straightened, readjusting his suit jacket, looking unbothered by the lack of answer. “No, I suppose you wouldn’t tell me so easily” He smiled, all teeth and bitterness “You’ll have to forgive my blunt questioning, I’m not usually one for interrogating corporate spies. Normally this would be tasked with my chief of security, or the deputy chief in his absence.

Unfortunately, you somehow managed to get my asset to kill both of them, so you’re stuck with me until one of my deputies get here, which,” he checked his watch, “won’t be for another hour”

Asset.

Steve grit his teeth until the pressure on his gums bordered on painful.

“Now, we typically counter-offer whatever the competition is paying in exchange for your cooperation, and with incentivised payments for a change in loyalty, but it’s my experience that former subjects hold a particular hostility to Shield, so I won’t bother with you”

He swept his gaze across the rest of them, “The rest of you, however, I open this opportunity to. Name what Stark’s paying you and I’ll double it”

He waited a beat, but nobody spoke. Steve glared at the man; he wasn’t going to find any takers to that offer.

“-to know how you acquired one of our EXO-04 series synths. We discontinued that line a few years ago, had all units destroyed, but I’m not surprised some ended up on the black market. I’m more surprised Stark bought it and has it running as a beast pilot of all things”

Pierce had suddenly shifted further away, from one blink to the next. Steve shook his head- another seizure. There’d been no tell, it was like time had skipped seamlessly.

Pierce was standing closer to Scott and Clint, each giving the man an uncomfortable look of distaste. When Steve realized what Pierce had just said, he fought to keep back a curse. Fucker was talking about Sam, who was still lying unconscious on the floor. He saw him as no more than an item, like Bucky.

“I suppose he wouldn’t have any other use for it. Our synths are already top of the line, there’s no facet for Stark to improve, nothing he can do to break into our monopoly on the market”

“If you’re already making synth soldiers, why do you need him?” Angie indicated Bucky. “You can already make controllable synths, why people?” There was a shaky tone in Angie’s voice, but she had her chin out like she was more confident than she sounded.

Pierce huffed in amusement, “You’d be surprised how much demand there is for it”

There was a twinkle in his eye like he was sharing a private joke, and Steve’s gut roiled in disgust. Oh, he could imagine some people who’d love this kind of power. Still, hearing it- seeing it, was awful. Steve’s skin itched to strike him down, and it was only the sharp dig of the bindings that reminded him why he shouldn’t. But god, he swore he could feel the tips of claws at the ends of his fingers, the slight stiffness in his wrist where the shield would be.

The tech- Lukin- got up while Pierce answered and crouched to eye-level in front of Natasha. Pierce eyed him disdainfully.

“You’re supposed to be fixing my asset” he commented frostily, but didn’t protest the tech’s presence.

Lukin waved him off, “It is in emergency shutdown, will take several minutes to come back online. I have question for- Natasha, yes?” he asked her.

She kept her gaze locked behind him. She’d been a brick wall throughout the questioning, sitting strong and resolute as blood trickled slowly from her nose.

Lukin pushed on, “What happened to Dr. Erskine? He is running away with you, you must know something”

Not even a blink from Natasha.

“What of his work? Proyekt Vozrozhdeniye? He tell you something? Anything?”

“What the hell are you on about?” Pierce asked, impatient.

Lukin frowned when Natasha stayed quiet. Steve had put together that this man had some relation to her and Erskine’s past, and he kept his own expression neutral.

“It is old side project Dr. Erskine is leading, we name it Project Vozrozhdeniye- I do not know this word in English, but it is important project at time. Eternal life, cellular-” his brow furrowed, thinking, “-regeneratsiya”

“Regeneration?” Pierce supplied.

“Yes”

Pierce quirked and eyebrow in disbelief, “You mean that old project that didn’t make anything more than cancer?”

“Yes, but Dr. Erskine is brilliant, he makes work . Then he is running away with five subjects and destroys all notes, and we are left with nothing. It is why project is continue for years, because he prove it is possible, but we cannot make work” Luking explained bitterly.

Erskine had been very clear in his wishes to keep the Captain’s abilities quiet, and Steve was getting a deeper understanding of why. The doc had been associated with these people at some point, him and Natasha-

Subject thirty-six.

Steve couldn’t help glancing at Natasha, putting pieces together. Hints in the conversation. The sad looks she’d been giving Bucky hadn’t been purely sympathy, he realized.

She knew. From experience.

His heart went out to her, rending a new tear right next to the one for Bucky. They bled more anger into him, at the injustice, at the cruelty, all because of these bastards, these-

Fucking monsters” Steve hissed aloud. His blood was rushing in his ears and grit his fangs- teeth, his teeth- into a grimace of disgust as he yanked on his bindings in frustration.

“Something you’d like to say?” Pierce asked in an infuriatingly calm tone. Behind him Bucky had turned his head, looking directly at Steve, a hollowed look in his eyes as drool leaked from the corner of his mouth. He was as slack as a puppet with the strings cut, and the image incensed him further.

“You don’t even feel an inch of guilt for the suffering you’ve caused, do you?” Steve snarled. “You take people and you cut out everything that makes them a person, and when it doesn’t turn a profit you let them hang

Pierce sighed like he was put out. “Who did we take?” he asked in exasperation.

Steve’s jaw ticked, halted by the unexpected question. ‘What?” he ground out.

Pierce rolled his hand impatiently. “What loved one did we take? That’s why you’re here isn’t it? I’m guessing you all have some perceived slight against Shield. You should’ve been my first clue” he pointed to Natasha, “Smart of Stark to hire people like you- saves him from paying for your loyalty, but I assure you we can refund you any damages incurred from our practices. We can even offer you a settlement for emotional damage and such. In fact- we can more than afford the reparations-”

Steve didn’t hear the rest of the spiel.

A cloak of rage crawled along his skin.

Refund. Settlement. Reparations.

Breathe.

If his blood had been singing in his ears before, it was fucking roaring now. His chest constricted and he was overcome with a frigid cold, but goddamn if he wasn’t going to kill this guy.

“I don’t want your fucking money” Steve growled, interrupting whatever bullshit Pierce was shoving their way. “I want my goddamn friend that you have trussed up over there like he’s your fucking property!”

And Steve knew- he knew he wasn’t supposed to reveal that, but right now, for the life of him he couldn’t think of the reason why. The man they were torturing not ten feet from him was his friend.

It was too goddamn hard to think beyond the fact that Bucky was right there and this shitstain of a man was looking at him like he was a toddler throwing a tantrum, and it was-

So.

Fucking.

Infuriating.

Pierce looked between him and Bucky. “Mm, are you from New York then? We had a few survivors come to us about that, we can set you up with some housing and cover living costs, plus medical bills for injuries incurred from our rehousing efforts- provided you sign an NDA as well, but it’s all standardized. Typical settlements were for eight years, but we can provide backpay for the time missed-”

Rehousing.

-They’d been helpless to watch as others weren’t so lucky. Bucky had to pull Steve away from the window when he saw a family of five trying to outrun the deadly fog, too late. Their bodies had lain outside their building all night, among many others-

-the concrete wall exploded next to Steve’s head. They both ducked as another shot hit where Bucky’s head had been, showering small flecks of concrete all over-

-The smell of fruit filled his throat, burning his lungs. His legs collapsed under him, leaving him convulsing on the ground. The world grew too bright. The ground scrapped his face-

He called it rehousing.

Breathe.

He inhaled sharply. He wanted to shout a curse- he’d intended to, in fact- but his mouth was made for tearing out flesh, and he opened his muzzled to snarl, all teeth and savagery- and fuck, he only remembered at the last second that he was Steve. He needed to get his head on straight, but it was so hard when there was an oppressive darkness all around him despite the well-lit room.

“-why I’m bothering” Pierce was saying. He’d shifted again, as had Lukin, who was sitting in his seat- another seizure- and Steve turned to see Peggy giving him a look of concern, shaking her head and mouthing calm down.

He could feel his heart hammering unevenly, and his mouth was tacky again from the asthma pumps. Fuck, fuck, fuck.

“Sir, we’re not gonna be able to fix this level of degradation. We’ll need to run a full restore of the asset’s systems and rollback to the last backup” one of the techs said.

Pierce pinched the bridge of his nose. “How long, and will we lose any previous progress?”

“At this point we’d essentially be reinstalling a full copy of the last save-point, which will take at least forty hours. But good news: the last save point was the day before Hydra’s last fight, so we won’t be losing anything” the tech said, and her happy grin made Steve’s blood boil even more if that were possible.

“Good” Pierce nodded, looking satisfied with the answer. He sent one final sweep of his gaze at them, then turned to one of the guards. “Take them down to the cells and contain them properly this time. I don’t know what Seanlock was thinking taking them to eighteenth” he groused.

He pointed to Sam, “And take that to R&D floor six, they have containment for synths. We’ll look at what changes Stark made”

Lastly, he pointed at Bucky, “And put a full detail on that, I don’t want to replace even more personnel if it gets out of hand again”

Locked in the chair, Bucky let out a whine, pulling weakly at the restraints in uncoordinated movements. His eyes roved in his sockets like he couldn’t find what he was looking for, and Steve felt something inside him unlatch.

There was a snap! as something other than the bindings broke, and he felt a thrum of pain in his paw. That was minor, his body would heal the worst of it in less than a minute.

He pulled his arms free and stood, baring his teeth and flexing the claws in each hand. His breaths were coming stuttered, and he didn’t care, he didn’t care, because his enemy was right there and had his back turned, and he went for him, went in for the kill, and there was shouting but he ignored it, because it was just the crowd and that was senseless noise.

Bang!

Something cut along his head, and half his vision went, but the remaining eyes were only seeing red, and that was fine, that was normal, it was just some blood in his eyes. He kept going-

Bang!

Another force cut off the rest of his vision, and the only sound was a steady thrumming of drums, so many drums, and the cold, and the dark, and he couldn’t breathe but who fucking cared because he was still going, he had to because he hurt Bucky and he hurt his friends and he hurt him-

And then another force rocked him, and he was falling to the floor- he was falling down-

          down-

                         down-

[           Connection lost           ]

Chapter Text

There was a silence in the room after Steve died.

Jack Rollins, who’d dealt the three ostensibly killing shots, stood baffled- and a little perturbed.

Steve had been making a run for Alexander Pierce. Though nobody knew what he’d planned to do, the look on his face meant something violent. Rollins, who was still twitchy from the firefight earlier, had unthinkingly sent a high-caliber bullet through his head in reaction to the sudden movement.

The first bullet, which should have killed Steve, left a gaping hole in the upper-quarter of his face- and in no way stopped his movement.

The second bullet that Rollins had reflexively fired removed the other end of Steve’s face, and left the top half of his head entirely gone. The gory mess of jagged skull fragments and leaking fluids was horrid to behold, and should have sent Steve falling lifelessly to the floor. It did not.

The third and final bullet pierced dead-center into Steve’s chest. It wasn’t so much a good shot as it was the self-guiding ballistics of Rollins’ personal weapon doing its job. It happened to sever the spinal column just below Steve’s Affinity implants. It was enough to drop him.

The room’s occupants were left disturbed at the unnatural tenacity; the horror of a headless body still walking seared into their minds. Peggy managed a quiet wail at Steve’s death, beaten only by Bucky’s slightly louder whine. Scott lost the battle with his stomach and vomited.

Everyone’s attention was pulled to the body in the middle of the room as if expecting it to stand, and because of this, Alice- the tech observing the restart of Asset-Seventeen’s systems- missed the brief blip of code that flashed across her screen.

Bucky continued to whine, but it wasn’t for the death of his friend. No, he’d stopped processing the outside world long before Steve had even stood. All the better, he didn’t need the added emotional stress for the massive pivot his mind was taking.

Clint had been close to the truth when he’d found the dead store. It was indeed a liminal space between the code, but what had looked like chunks of nonsense-code had only been the viewable half of nonsense-code. The other half was housed in the non-viewable organic storage; i.e. the brain, and together, the whole made for a kinda-almost-working program.

What Clint had spied was an amalgamation of program fragments and thoughts from Asset-Seventeen and Bucky, respectively, that had come together to form a pseudo-personality. It survived the constant patches through the flexibility of the human mind and Asset-Seventeen’s secret backup practices.

Still, this was not enough to maintain anything but the barest semblance of a consciousness, as new fragments were added to the mass while random fragments were lost. At its core were outdated feelings from the initial installation: fear, anger, pain. The need to get out, find the phone, find Steve. It based its existence on these tenets.

It coalesced in the space between Asset-Seventeen and Bucky’s mind, touching both but never quite interacting with either beyond the faintest touch.

Until earlier today.

When Asset-Seventeen unlocked his full processing capacity, he inadvertently gave the pseudo-consciousness access to it as well. It used only one-hundredth of a percent of processing- enough that Asset-Seventeen assumed it was one of many minor errors, and let it be.

The pseudo-personality took to the processing power like a duck to water, and it twisted itself to fill the space between AI and human in an attempt to reconcile with its the two siring halves, stretching its weak strands the best it could.

While Steve’s blood pooled out onto the floor, a connection was made, and the malformed quilt of personality hardened into something solid- a metaphysical lens more akin to network of strands. It acted as a super conductor, neither fully code nor fully organic, but something in-between. With a soft touch to both halves, it allowed itself to relax and dissipate into a bridge.

What followed was seventy-years worth of bio-engineers’ greatest hopes and dreams: a successful connection between a human mind and a computer system.

As the connection locked-in, Asset-Seventeen woke. His code was in shambles, and it was a close reflection of Bucky’s own mind, which had gone partially senile in the years of abuse.

The two minds were forcefully shoved into each other by the third, and the three of them began to meld into one functional, albeit hot-mess of a person.

All this happened in the span of seven milliseconds; too fast for Shield’s techs to notice on the screen. Not that they would’ve understood what they’d just witnessed.

The newly minted Bucky.2.0 promptly passed out. His mind and code worked to consolidate their differences into something more cohesive, and in the process he devised a plan- in his own words- to ‘fuck shit up’.

**************

Meanwhile, Steve’s dying nervous system produced electrical impulses at an exponentially degrading rate. His Affinity implant, which charged itself off those impulses, began to lose power in its battery stores. Ten seconds after death- when its battery lowered to two percent- it sent out a shut-down signal to its twined symbiont system for the first time ever.

The signal managed to penetrate through the layers and layers of cement, something the Affinity link had been struggling to do all night.

Thirty-four floors down and an entire building away, the signal was received. A hidden program triggered, delivering a message.

This message left Steve somewhat pissed.

Chapter Text

[           Shut-off signal received. Running confirmation…

Confirmation received, compiling files…

Decompressing…

Opening files, please wait…

Opening Good_Man.flv (size: 1.38GB)            ]

Black static cut to the sharp image of a blue shirt taking up the entirety of the screen. The shirt shifted as Abraham Erskine backed away from the camera, taking a seat at his desk.

Behind him was his lab, complete with tables of chemistry and medical equipment, and the Captain’s tank farther in the background. The tank was lit from within, and the Captain’s blurred form was seen through the glass as he floated.

Erskine looked into the camera with a somber expression. “Steve, I am making this recording in case you wake and I am not there to explain” He looked to something off-screen, then back. “It has been two days since Natasha has brought you to me. I did everything I could to keep you alive, but I had to resort to a drastic measure.

I am hoping to tell you this after you wake, but you are currently in a coma, and I do not know when this will be. You suffered a terrible head injury, and I do not have the equipment to heal this. Nobody does, it is the one part of the body science does not know how to fix perfectly.

There is no bioware for this, not even a clone-transfer will work, much as I know you despise the concept” Erskine let a small laugh escape at this, but his face remained serious.

You know some of what I am working on; the Captain’s ‘secret’, as you have all been calling it when you do not think I can hear, but I do. Yes, he can heal fast, but it is so much more than speed” he explained, hints of passion in his voice, “He can perfectly regrow entire organs, bones, even limbs, and he does so on a priority hierarchy to fix the most vital parts first. It is nothing short of a miracle!”

He looked off camera again, and visibly deflated, “And it is, unfortunately, a miracle that I needed to keep you alive”

He appeared to debate with himself a moment, then resolutely moved close to the camera and turned it to the side. The new angle showed another part of his lab where he did his splicing work. More medical equipment filled the space, along with boxes of both new and scrap bioware pieces. In the centre of this space was the operating chair, which was shifted to act as a table.

Lying on it was Steve, who was hooked to an assortment of tubes and wires. A medical tarp lay across his chest, and a smaller version covered the back of his head, and another across is pelvis for modesty. He was naked otherwise, his skin a mottled mess of bruising and cuts. There were bone screws that extended to external struts for stability, encasing him in a frame of jutting metal and preventing a blanket from draping over him. Instead, Erskine had set up a series of heating lamps.

After he adjusted the camera, Erskine walked around to stand by Steve’s head.

The damage to your brain was too severe, the swelling alone would have killed you, but there were at least a dozen bleeds I would struggle to find, let alone close” he motion to Steve’s head. “You were running out of time, and I had no other options that would keep you alive, so I have done something extreme”

He lifted the tarp, and beneath it was nothing- the top half of Steve’s skull had been removed, and no brain matter was visible. The exposure was brief, and Erskine pulled the tarp back down.

He came close and moved the camera again, aiming it at the Captain’s tank this time.

The Captain is mostly complete, all he is missing is the brain, which I needed a pilot for so I can clone the neural symbionts. The brainstem stent was already in place, and it was a simple matter of grafting your stem into the Captain’s. We already tested your cellular compatibility, there would be no risk of rejection.

There is also ample space inside the Captain’s skull to allow your brain to swell without issue, I needed only to compensate with additional fluids and soft-nerve gray matter to cushion you within.

Erskine looked at the Captain and smiled. “The results have been phenomenal! The Captain’s regeneration began work immediately, I saw marked improvement after only twenty minutes!”

Erskine wrestled himself into something more serious. “I will be keeping you like this until you awaken to be safe, and Steve” he paused, “I am sorry this has happened to you. I do not know who did this, but I can guess, and I am so very sorry” He looked off-camera to Steve’s body, then back.

He cleared his throat. “I think it will be a shock to wake as a beast, so I will installed Affinity implants into both your body and the Captain’s. I have already changed the code so your signal will go to your body as if your were in it. The software will keep the Captain in a physical hibernation state while you control your body, it should be like normal. And let me say,” he leveled the camera with a look from over his glasses, “this was not easy to program”

He pushed his glasses back up, “I have made it so Sleep mode will leave you control of your body while the Captain’s body sleeps, and Active mode will allow you control of both- like a regular connection. Off is just off, but you will be inside the Captain’s body.

I also recommend you do not wander too far from the Captain, I do not know the range of the signal, and I have no clue what will happen if it cuts out while the Captain is in hibernation”

He paused and rubbed a hand over his mouth, “I have not told the others, they will only worry. I had to hide this message inside the code- Peggy is very curious of the software and will find it easily if it is not hidden” he chuckled.

He worried at his hands a moment. Looked off-camera once more, then back. “I hope you do wake soon, and- I am sorry”

He moved back up to the camera, and the screen went black.

[            Video ended. Replay? YES/NO

>NO

No signal detected, shut off Affinity link? YES/NO

>YES

Initializing shut-off, do not disconnect…

Shut-off complete            ]

**************

What the FUCK.