Natasha shook her head as she lifted the tablet computer in her hand. A blurred reflection in the cherry dining table mirrored her action.
She’d chosen a seat with her back to an interior wall. The other chairs sat silent sentinels as china and silver gleamed from the matching glass-fronted cabinet in one corner. Two sconces cast a golden glow against the cream painted walls, echoing the afternoon sunlight peeking around the edges of the drawn drapes.
Her fingertip swept the screen as she scrolled through more headlines and frowned. So few clues, and no sense to them.
The sound of footsteps in the hall jerked her head up. Instinct shot her free hand toward a pistol, but the familiarity of the tread had her relaxing before Steve appeared in the archway. She lifted her chin in a quick greeting. “All done?”
“Yes—sorry to take so long.” Steve approached and laid an envelope next to the flip phone already resting on the table. Tony’s name marched in careful letters across the front.
Steve had cleaned up and changed into some of the clothes that Nat acquired during her contingency planning: jeans, boots, T-shirt, button-down overshirt. Nondescript colors in a vague attempt at blending in with average citizens.
Not unlike her own outfit. She smirked at the memory of their last attempt at suburban American stealth.
The reflection of Steve’s fingers flickered in the table’s polished surface as he indicated the phone. “Thank you for this. I’ll feel better, knowing that Tony can call for backup.”
“It’s important to keep the lines of communication open.” Natasha studied Steve’s face, arched an ironic eyebrow. “Nice of you to remember that, this time.”
Steve’s expressions tended to be quick and subtle, but not really hidden. Natasha’s theory was that Steve had been so ignored for so much of his life that at some point he stopped giving a shit what other people saw when they looked at him.
Funny how it made no difference whether they looked at Steve Rogers or Captain America.
In any case, Natasha knew Steve wouldn’t leave the comment unquestioned when his focus sharpened. He pulled out a chair perpendicular to hers and settled sideways on it to face her. His lifted brows requested that she continue.
She didn’t bother to analyze the edge to her own voice. “I understand why you wouldn’t reach out to Tony, or the others.”
With a click the tablet hit the table as Natasha leaned forward. “But did you even think to call me?”
Natasha found herself matching Steve as he straightened. Watched as he glanced away as if reviewing events.
After a moment his gaze returned to her as he inhaled and exhaled, a long breath through his nose as he shook his head. “No. Sam and I discussed contacting Tony—figured he either wouldn’t believe us or wouldn’t be able to help because of the Accords.”
Steve’s fingers rested warm on the back of her wrist as his mouth thinned. “I’m sorry, Nat. We didn’t consider that option—only focused on the fastest way to get a team together and get to Siberia.”
Natasha nodded, dropped her lashes as she debated ending the conversation there. With her holding the clear upper hand.
But a grunt from Steve forced her to reassess. His wry smile told her he’d already figured things out even before he spoke. “And I’m sorry the ‘chance meeting’ you arranged in Leipzig went from a conversation to a brawl.”
She shrugged. “That wasn’t all on you.”
Steve frowned. “I can’t help thinking—it seems like we haven’t had a chance to catch our breaths since Ross delivered his ultimatum. First with Peggy…” He swallowed, moved on. “Then the bombing and Zemo’s plot…”
A weary sigh seemed to come from the bottom of his soul. “I wonder what would have happened if we’d only had more time.”
Natasha allowed a small smile, thinking of the difference between Russian fatalism and American optimism. Or maybe just Steve Rogers stubbornness. “Doesn’t matter. Things went down how they did and we go from there.”
Steve huffed an acknowledgment. But his eyes warmed as he gave her wrist a quick squeeze. “Still…thank you for coming through when it counted—then and now.”
He lifted his hand away to smooth a thumb over one eyebrow. “I guess Sharon and you will be heading out soon. Any news yet?”
The reminder of her frustration pushed Natasha out of her chair. She paced to the foot of the table, pointing an accusing finger at the tablet. “I can’t figure out what kind of game Ross thinks he’s playing.”
Steve touched the tablet but didn’t pick it up. “Still nothing?”
“No—and yes.” Natasha stopped to cross her arms with a grimace. “The manhunt for Barnes is done. Gone. No explanation. And there’s no call for your head, or mine—no mention of the others surrendering—nothing.”
She let herself drop backward until her shoulders hit the wall. “Ross put out a statement calling Leipzig a training exercise gone wrong. A training exercise. Officially, we’re status quo from before all this went down. Sharon should probably check in—maybe she’s still in the clear.”
“And unofficially?” Steve’s brows furrowed as he took his own turn at guessing Ross’s strategy.
Natasha’s head thunked as she delivered her report to the ceiling—or to the laughing gods of espionage. “That’s what really scares me. There’s nothing. Nothing about the Raft. Nothing about its prisoners.”
She dipped her head to catch Steve’s gaze. “If T’Challa hadn’t told us where to find them…” She couldn’t finish the thought as her guts clenched. Didn’t want to think it.
“I wanna go and get them right now.” Steve stood like he meant it literally, all coiled muscles and knotted fists.
“I know.” Somehow seeing Steve’s stress acted like a safety valve, letting her own tension bleed out. “But we didn’t get a lawyer just to ignore her advice. Ninety-six hours—it’s not too much to ask to try and let the system work.”
At least, Natasha hoped it wasn’t.
Steve ran his hands through his hair as he moved. Chose his own perch against the archway—of course his shoulders took up most of the space. “I guess one good thing comes from it. If nobody acknowledges that there’s a prison, they can’t exactly squawk when there’s a prison break.”
“If it comes to that.” Again Natasha considered making this a stopping point. Everyone’s timing seemed off these days, including hers. And the next subject was not an easy one.
Steve confirmed that he was no slouch in the figuring things out department. With a slump of shoulders he went back to his seat, dropping into it the right way this time to rest his forearms on the table. “What else?”
Steve’s only response was his patented unimpressed look. Natasha could understand it—there wasn’t much that any of them had liked in the last month.
She pushed herself off the wall and drifted to the opposite end of the table. Rested a hip against the edge as her nails drifted across the wood, too lightly to mar the bright surface. “Have you given any thought to what’s going to happen?”
“We’ll get the rest of the team off the Raft—by whatever means necessary.” The tension in Steve’s jaw suggested that he was already aware his answer was too simple.
Natasha lifted a hand to rub the back of her neck, run her fingers through her hair. She didn’t usually indulge in such unnecessary movements, but she wanted Steve to know he wasn’t the only one uncomfortable with the situation. “In the short term, yes. But we have to start thinking long-term, map out a strategy that keeps us all out of Ross’s clutches and gets the world back on our side.”
“You think the whole world is against us?” Steve’s mouth twisted as if the words left a bitter taste on his tongue.
“I think that a lot of people—or at least, a lot of power brokers—got what they wanted out of the Accords.” That thought thinned Natasha’s own lips. If Maria was right about where things were headed… “And it’s not going to be easy to shift policies that are so very explicitly laid out.”
Steve expelled a sharp breath as he pushed his chair back and rose to his full height. Sharp blue eyes held hers. “I don’t know what you want from me, Nat.”
Natasha’s shoulders tightened as she slid to standing. “I want you to take a good, hard look at the hole we’re standing in and what we’ll have to do to climb out of it.”
“I thought I already had.” The quick flick of Steve’s hand—out to the side, then back—seemed like an unconscious wish to push away his thoughts or her words. “What do you want me to say? That it was wrong to go after Bucky? That it was wrong to try and stop Zemo? That it was wrong to reject the Accords?”
His eyes raked her as his body stiffened, turning rigid in rejection. “I can’t, Nat—I won’t. I won’t leave a man to be shot on sight or shipped off without even a hope of due process. I won’t stand aside while a terrorist gets ready to destroy the world. And I won’t sign my name and give a promise when I know there’s no chance in hell I’ll keep it. The Accords are wrong.”
“Yes!” Her hand slammed the table. “But damn it, Steve, that’s not enough.”
They were breathing in sync—short, sharp, both ready to leap at each other. To fight, even when they were on the same side.
Natasha could almost laugh at the picture they made. How many times had two Avengers faced off in the last few days?
Steve took a step back, literal and figurative as he consciously relaxed. His fists opened, palms lifting as he shook his head and sighed his resignation. “What do you want from me?”
“I know you think you’re doing the right thing—I even agree with you.” Natasha let the crunch of the moment fade as well. Her brows furrowed as she pondered. How did you tell a man who sacrificed his life for a noble cause that his compass may still point true, but no one cared?
She lifted her gaze to Steve’s, fixed on those blue eyes that were so often open windows to her. She didn’t want to do this. She had to. “You grew up in a very different world. Clear targets and clean missions…”
A corner of her mouth twitched. “At least, you knew that you were getting your hands dirty for a good reason.”
A shake of the head accompanied Steve’s frown. “I know times have changed. I-”
“Then you need to start acting like it.” Natasha let all the frustration of the last week roughen her voice, clench her jaw. “It’s time you take off your god-damned blinders and see things as they are, not as you think they should be.”
She jerked her hand to stop Steve before he answered—interrupted. Crossed to his side of the table, each step and word falling sharp into the quiet room. “This is not the world you knew—hell, it’s not even the world you woke up to. Too much has happened. Nowadays people don’t care if their knights are in armor—they just want them wearing body cameras.”
By the time Natasha reached Steve, he’d turned away to reveal only his shuttered profile. But she knew from the lines of his body that he was listening. “Steve, we had a good run—with SHIELD, then on our own. But that’s done. Reality’s come knocking and we have to adapt. And that’s going to be—must be a conversation, not a speech.”
After a moment to swallow and brace herself, Natasha reached out to wrap one hand around Steve’s arm. The warmth leaching through his shirt belied his utter stillness—he could have been a statue except for his silent breaths. “You’re going to have to find a way to let someone else get a hand on the wheel—have a say in where we’re going and how we get there. Because all your moral certitude will mean nothing if we can’t do our jobs.”
She tightened her hold a moment, then let go. Felt the space between them. “That’s the new shape of the world, and we have to deal with it.”
Steve chuckled, but the sound held no mirth. “Brave new world. This is my sixth? Seventh? It doesn’t get any easier.”
A nod was Natasha’s answer. She’d lost count of the times she’d crashed everything and rebuilt. But for her, each change brought her farther away from the Red Room, into the light of freedom, friends, family.
Every shift in Steve’s world seemed to draw him into a murkier shade of gray.
Steve turned to her, and she flinched at the fierceness of his stare. “All of the institutions I’ve put my faith in have been tainted—have failed and fallen.”
But the fire in his gaze flickered, then died. He swallowed. “How do you still trust?”
“I don’t.” Natasha shrugged. Offered a weak smile that admitted that no matter how much her world might change, in some ways she never would. “That’s why I’m hoping you’ll stick around and help us hash out something we can all live with.”
The beautiful room now held its own taint, a sense of aftermath that left the taste of ash on her tongue. A need to escape shivered along her skin. “I have to do my equipment checks.”
She turned her back on Steve and moved to the beckoning archway.
“What if I can’t?” The thick, strangled sound of Steve’s voice stopped her as much as his question.
Natasha pivoted to face him. Recognized from London the thin line of red rimming Steve’s lids.
Felt an unwelcome sting in her own eyes—even as she fought a smile. Because of course Steven Goddamnit Rogers would ask. Would push. Would have to know the worst.
She steeled herself to tell him. “Then you really will be done. Because that will be the right thing to do.”
But he was hardly gonna refuse an offer of free beer.
Brown eyes crinkled underneath the bangs of Sharon’s short, brunette wig. Her denim jacket shifted as she leaned over to set a second bottle on the faded wooden table, in front of the empty half of Bucky’s matching garden bench.
Then Sharon took a quick slug of her own beer as she dropped into one of the chairs that completed the furniture grouping. “Aunt Peggy used to make the same face.”
A grunt was Bucky’s only response as he took another sip and let the quiet settle around them.
The courtyard was well-designed for safety and privacy. Mature trees sheltered the brick paving blocks and white-pebbled paths. Hiding the occupants from satellite and drone surveillance. The space itself was enclosed on all sides by different wings of the house that formed a square with a hollow center. An unexpected luxury for a residence that from the street looked like a modest, two-story affair of white stucco and red tile roofs.
Somehow he felt like he should be dressed in more than sneakers, sweatpants, and a long-sleeved T-shirt. The surroundings seemed to call for more classy threads.
Bucky flicked his eyes back to where Sharon sat, jean-clad with her bootheels resting on a crosspiece of the table. “So this was Carter’s place?”
“This was one of Aunt Peggy’s secrets.” Sharon turned her head to gaze at their surroundings. “I think everyone had them in the early days of SHIELD—Howard Stark, Colonel Phillips—boltholes where you could lie low and go off the grid.”
Sharon’s free hand waved away the past. “I don’t think Aunt Peggy ever actually used this place, but a few years ago she created a few off-book aliases for me, and gave one of them the deed.”
Bucky let another swig of beer wash through his mouth before he lowered the bottle so it rested against the bench. He tilted his head to study this woman whose last name echoed in his scattered memories.
Peggy Carter was pretty clear in his head. A no-nonsense bombshell of sleek curves and straight shoulders. Dark hair always perfectly combed, pinned, and pomaded. Her features were sharply defined, and her brown eyes could go bullet-cold when she pinned you with a steely glare and that cut-glass accent. Even her kindnesses had held a hint of brusqueness—as if she were reluctant to let any softer feelings show while in the middle of the boys’ club made of the Howling Commandos and the SSR.
Back in the day, he’d sometimes wondered whether she relaxed when she was alone with Steve, or if Steve enjoyed getting nicked on her edges.
This new, American Agent Carter seemed someone else entirely. She was like Peggy’s opposite: soft outside with a hidden steel core. Sharon had a gentleness to her face, a roundness to her cheeks and chin. She was lithe and toned and confident, lean in the way lots of women were now. And blonde, usually. The wig didn’t boost the resemblance. “You know, you don’t look anything like her.”
Sharon huffed, but she lifted a shoulder as if to agree. “I’m actually her grand-niece. But she refused to be called a great aunt.” Sharon’s voice took on familiar British tones. “One cannot assume at this point in our acquaintance that I am a ‘great’ anything, much less a great aunt.”
Bucky chuckled. Went to scratch his chin and froze at the jolt of awareness that he was attempting to use his left hand. His nonexistent left hand.
The fingers around Sharon’s bottle tensed, relaxed. She sighed and gestured. “After we get settled, maybe there’s something we can do about—”
“I’d rather focus on getting those words out of my head.” Bucky didn’t mean to cut her off, but this was one thing he was clear on: He was gonna be free or finished.
One way or another, he’d never be Hydra's tool again.
From what she’d read, heard, and seen, Bucky seemed like a kaleidoscope: You never knew what kind of pattern the parts of his personality would fall into at any moment. Quiet and introspective, harsh and bitter, charming and funny. As if he were still gathering the pieces of himself that had been scattered across the years.
Or shattered by Hydra.
The Winter Soldier had not really been a person—more like a dark spirit of vengeance from some ancient myth. Sharon could still feel the slam of her body into the table, the grip of metal fingers on her throat.
Could still see the soulless, empty gaze…
Bucky sighed and shifted on the bench. “Sorry.”
Sharon offered her own small smile of apology. Of course that was a sore spot for him—one of many, no doubt.
Steve’s voice interrupted the awkward moment. “You ready to go, Sharon? Nat’s gearing up.”
She tilted her head to see Steve coming toward them, his steps crunching in the gravel. Tension stretched along his shoulders, but Sharon couldn’t guess at the cause.
“Yep.” Sharon tilted the bottle to suck down the last few swallows of beer. Then she set the empty on the table as she swung her boots to the ground and levered up to her feet.
With a few more steps Steve arrived at her side. His brows furrowed slightly as solemn blue eyes regarded her. “You sure you don’t want backup?”
A snort escaped before Sharon could think to stop it. She followed up with a shrug. “My job is to squeeze shoulders, hand out beers, and avoid gropers. Nat has the trickier part.”
With the Raft coordinates, they’d figured out where the personnel were stationed and how the guards and other workers traveled to and from the prison. Tomorrow they’d have some surveillance equipment on the Raft—if tonight went according to plan.
Sharon was the lookout—she’d while away a few hours playing waitress at the local watering hole to keep an eye on their targets. Nat would infiltrate the barracks to plant bugs, button cams, and signal boosters on uniforms and equipment. Getting eyes and ears on the Raft would help them get an extraction plan in place.
She focused back on the conversation in time to hear Bucky’s question. “Was the lawyer able to do anything?”
Steve huffed and shook his head. “Bernie wants to hold off until there’s official acknowledgment of the arrests. But Ross seems to be playing coy.”
He glanced at Sharon. “Nat may want you to check in with the office to confirm your status.”
Surprise lifted Sharon’s brows. Natasha and she had tried to hide Sharon’s involvement in the fugitives’ escape—not to mention the equipment appropriation—but neither one of them figured it would actually work. Sharon had filed for time off when Aunt Peggy passed—time interrupted by the bombing—and had used that excuse to depart after the Winter Soldier’s breakout. “OK. I guess I should take a look to see how full my inbox has gotten.”
“Be careful tonight, and call us if you need us.” Steve’s eyes brightened with a smile before he took one hand in a gentle grip. “Although I doubt there’s anything Nat and you can’t handle.”
Sharon could feel his calluses against her own. She wrapped her fingers around his.
By now she was used to the lack of zing between them. Looked like their first kiss would be their last. At the time it had felt good—very good—but it hadn’t felt right. Neither Steve nor she had tried to repeat the experiment. Sharon could appreciate the symmetry: one Steve Rogers kiss per Agent Carter.
With a nod to Bucky’s beer-bottle salute, Sharon turned and made her way to the house and the first step to freeing the Raft’s prisoners.
He barely waited for Bucky’s nod and shrug before taking a long pull. Slumped forward to rest his elbows on his knees, bottle dangling from his fingers.
“What’s up?” Bucky started nudging Steve in the ribs with his own bottle in a time-honored pester-Steve-until-he-spills tactic.
Steve smiled at the flash into the past. But then he leaned back and gusted out a sigh. “Just…feeling my age, I guess.”
Bucky swung one knee onto the bench to face Steve more fully. “Thirty-one or ninety-eight?”
“Both.” He’d never actually expected to live this long. Not when he was a scrawny punk always waiting for the next breath or the next heartbeat to be his last. Or when he was fighting battle after battle against such powerful foes. Steve scraped his nails along the edge of the label as he frowned. “Does the world make sense to you, now? The way things are done?”
Bucky snorted. “You’re gonna have to be more specific, pal. My little corner of the world wasn’t what you’d call trend-setting for the twenty-first century.”
Guilt shivered down Steve’s spine, the icy wind mocking him as Bucky fell away, away… “I’m so sorry, Buck. You were living a quiet life before you got dragged into all of this.”
Bucky’s brows lifted as he shook his head, a slow I can’t believe we have to discuss this movement. “Not your fault.”
“In a way, it is.” Steve could hear himself getting louder, felt himself locking into that chin-up shoulder-straight pose when his blood was up. “Zemo wanted to destroy the Avengers, and he picked you as the weapon.”
He winced at his own phrasing, but let the statement stand—along with the silence that followed. Bucky’s brow furrowed as his eyes unfocused, but Steve had no clue where Bucky’s thoughts ranged.
Bucky did another slow head shake before he lifted his gaze to Steve’s. “Somebody was always gonna come for me, Steve. Why d’you think I had escape plans already mapped out?”
He paused, swallowed, expression tightening. “If it’d been Hydra, I’d be down some dark hole or back in the freezer. If it’d been—if you hadn’t been there—I’d be dead. So while there’s a lot I wish hadn’t happened—a lot of hurt that can’t be undone—I’m not gonna complain that you’re the one who came for me.”
Steve pursed his lips to speak, stopped, started again, stopped. Was this really the time or the place? Did him wanting to know make it OK to force Bucky into a discussion he clearly didn’t want to have? Steve shook his head but spoke anyway. “I’d’ve come for you, Buck. Wherever, whenever.”
He locked eyes, needing to see the truth. “It’s been years since the Potomac—why didn’t you ever contact me?”
Steve’s gut clenched as Bucky set his beer aside to swipe his thumb and forefinger over his closed eyes. Time passed, counted in the sound of their breaths.
Finally Bucky nodded to himself. When he dropped his hand, Steve couldn’t untangle the emotions in his friend’s tired eyes.
“I wasn’t myself.” Bucky barked a short laugh. “Literally. I remembered you, Steve. Enough to break the programming, enough to pull you from the river. But I didn’t remember me.”
He shrugged. “I went to the museum, read about who I was, about all of us. But it didn’t feel real. And I thought…I guess I thought I needed to remember what it was to be your friend before I leaned on that friendship. But it didn’t work out that way. Mostly I remembered him—the Soldier—and all the blood on my hands.”
Steve opened his mouth, shut it against the helplessness that was becoming all too familiar. Instead, he reached out and clasped Bucky’s shoulder. Hoped it was enough.
Bucky leaned into the touch. “The funny thing is, the last few days I’ve felt…more me. The memories—they seem to be coming faster, clearer. The Commandos, the old neighborhood. Good things.”
His lips lifted with a hint of his old devil-may-care grin. “Even when it’s remembering the smack of Sister Constantine’s ruler across my knuckles after you’d dragged me into trouble again.”
Steve snorted and pulled back to thwack Bucky’s arm. Failed to hide his own grin. “Forget it, Buck. No way I’m lettin’ your Swiss-cheese memory rewrite the past. Only thing you could pin on me was fighting, and it was always Sister Prudence doling out the punishment for that—when she wasn’t pattin’ you on the back for throwin’ such a good right hook.”
Bucky snorted. “So it was.” After a moment, his eyes narrowed. “But that doesn’t tell me what this conversation is really about.”
The brief surge of mirth faded as confusion washed through Steve once more. His fingers clenched around the bottle—but not hard enough to break, never that. He’d spent too much time learning the strengths and limits of his body. To be sure that fragile things would be safe in his hands. “It seems like the Accords delivered an ultimatum: Obey or be gone.”
He shook his head, wondering if Bucky could read the bewilderment on his face, hear it in his voice. “I don’t understand it: How can anyone claim the right to tell one person not to save another? It’s like you see a child drowning, but you’re supposed to stay on the boardwalk because you’re banned from the private beach between you and the ocean. You’re expected to watch the child drown and do nothing. Who can demand that? Who would want to? And how am I—how is anyone—supposed to live with knowing that the only thing that stopped them was the word ‘No’?”
Steve put his beer on the table. Clenched his fists, felt his jaw tighten, eyes stinging. “What if we fail and there’s no way to fix this? I can’t—”
“I know.” Bucky scooted over. Laid his palm on Steve’s back, rubbed circles like he did when he was trying to help Steve breathe, a lifetime ago. “You never could stay out of it—even when all you were gonna get for your trouble was a bloody nose and a tear in your good shirt.”
Steve snorted and hunched, letting his head hang as he stared at the bricks between his feet.
“I’ve heard folks say that the world is smaller now.” Bucky’s words came slowly, like he was feeling his way along an unsure path. “With the tech, and the speed, and how you can peep into the windows of every corner of every country on Earth. But the people...sometimes it seems like we’re farther apart than we ever were back when it took weeks to get anywhere. And even with all of the—all of the everything—food, clothes, stores and stores of stuff…people are still clawing to get what’s theirs and they don’t wanna let it go for anything or anyone.”
Bucky leaned back, picked up his beer. “Hell Steve, all you can do is give it your best shot. Maybe you and that group of intimidating dames’ll figure out something that works. But if not…maybe the only way you can live with it is to move away from the shore and find somewhere to live your own quiet life.”
Steve shook his head, but more in desperate wish than denial. It was a truth that he didn’t want to look at, but like Nat’s new world, he would have to. And hope they could find a way to change it.
He nodded his thanks to Buck, grabbed his own beer and sat back. Let the sounds of the world settling to sleep soothe him as he watched evening fall.
“Incoming vid call, boss. Helen Cho.”
Friday’s voice jerked Tony out of his reverie. He blinked and scratched his chin, a quick glance at his charcoal suit and around the office confirming that everything was company-ready. The desk was, in fact, almost painfully neat. He’d been perhaps a little too intent on getting things in all of his rooms just so. “Put her through.”
The screen across from the desk filled with a backdrop of Cho’s South Korea office, with the lovely doctor herself center stage seated at her desk. Looked the same, dark hair gathered back and immaculate scrubs over her slim form. She nodded a greeting. “Hello, Tony. How are you?”
“Could be better.” A lot of things could be. But whether he—or anything else—would be improving anytime soon was still a question.
Cho’s expression tightened as she glanced at the files on her desk. Then her dark eyes lifted to his. “I am sorry about Colonel Rhodes. From the reports, the damage appears…extensive.”
“But is it reparable?” Tony kept the question calm, professional. Ignored all of the hopes that he'd layered upon it. He’d seen the way Cho could manipulate her cellular matrix to create sheets of new skin. But a spinal cord was a little more complex.
“Maybe. Eventually.” Cho’s arms and slim fingers spread to encompass the scope of the problem. “The cells of the spinal cord are active and conductive in a way the cells of many other tissues are not. We’ll need to address those differences, along with the formatting of cord strands versus the skin sheets.”
With a nod to herself, Cho continued. “Plus we’ll also have to design an implementation process, to introduce and integrate the new cells so they bypass the damage—without causing more injury ourselves.”
“So what do you need?” Tony rocked back in his chair, his own hands lifting an offer. “Personnel? Materials? And what kind of timeline are we looking at?”
It would happen as fast as Stark resources could make it happen. This was Rhodey. Tony shuddered as he heard again the sound of Rhodey crashing, smashing to earth...breaking.
“Tony, I understand that this looks like a solution and you want Colonel Rhodes to regain function as soon as possible. But I will not risk my patients’ health and welfare.” Cho shook her head.
Tony’s automatic protest stalled to silence at Cho’s raised palm. At her stiff shoulders and implacable expression.
“Even if I could get the protocols approved tomorrow, it will still be months or years before we’re ready for human trials.” Her somber gaze pinned him. “No matter who is on the waiting list.”
Tony drummed his fingers on the desk. Concentrated all of the anxious, mad, sad into those precise movements. He’d known that would be Cho’s response—known it—but still couldn’t stop the disappointment slumping his spine. “OK. What about—what about the specs I sent?”
Cho shifted to the new topic with the same efficiency that she used to pull forward another set of notes. “Your technological wizardry is as impressive as always.”
She nodded as she looked up, approval softening her features. “It’s obvious that you used the current hardware and software as a starting point, but your streamlining of the interface will make the apparatus easier to tolerate long-term. And it should do well to keep the musculature and connective tissues from atrophying.”
“So if I whip up a prototype in the next few days we can go for it?” The faster Rhodey was up and about, the sooner things could start approaching some sort of post-apocalyptic normal.
“If his attending physicians have no objections, then neither do I.” Cho offered a small smile, a mixed dose of empathy and encouragement. “Good luck and let me know if there’s anything else you need.”
Tony smirked, but shook his head. “Probably nothing, unless you manage to invent a time machine in your off hours.”
He clicked off and rubbed his temples. For a moment, he let himself imagine such a thing. A chance to make up for—to make things right. But the next moment, a darker thought slithered along his stretched nerves. Even if Cho—if anyone—managed to pull off that little history-shifting miracle, just how far back would Tony go? Before Vision made his shot? Before the airport, before the Accords? Before Ultron? Before Extremis? Before the ambush in the desert? Before his parents left for their fatal detour?
Before he was even born?
With a slap of the desk, Tony shoved his grim thoughts aside and pushed to his feet.
He had some leg braces to make.
Pepper looked up from her seat as they stepped into a secluded alcove, only the slight widening of her eyes betraying her reaction to Maria’s appearance. “So glad you could make it.”
Maria sat and smoothed her skirt, tucking her legs to one side as she leaned in for an air kiss. She almost giggled at the way her hat brim flopped over Pepper’s hair. “Thank you so very much for making the time to see me.”
“I had to see it to believe it,” Pepper murmured back. She scanned the tea accoutrements and the three-tiered selection of savories and sweets, then dismissed the hostess with a nod and polite smile.
The hostess’s assurances that they could take all the time they needed and Pepper’s navy power suit suggested that Pepper favored this venue for her more leisurely business discussions.
Maria set her Chanel clutch to one side, then interlaced gloved fingers. The accessories—gloves, purse, pearls, makeup shaded in discreet beiges and browns—both complemented the couture dress and hat and reinforced the impression of someone much older and discreetly wealthy. “I’ve already activated the signal scrambler. We don’t have to worry about electronic surveillance.”
And their lips couldn’t be read thanks to Pepper’s choice of location, a discreet nook cordoned off by silk screens decorated with images of birds and dogwood blossoms.
Perhaps the precautions were more paranoia than actual peril, but it never hurt to be careful. And Maria had been in the spy game too long to be anything else.
Pepper nodded, then lifted a sterling silver teapot to pour a fragrant blend into a china cup and saucer so delicate they were almost transparent. She passed it over and topped off her own serving. “How did you make out with Bernie?”
A sip of mint tea made Maria smile at the balance of sharp and sweet before she set the cup down with a careful clink. “You were right. She’s exactly what we needed—or will need, if any of this ever reaches a courtroom.”
She’d taken a risk, reaching out to Pepper when it became clear that the Accords were much more than a simple bid for oversight. But Pepper had come through with a name: Bernie Rosenthal. A former schoolmate and a lawyer not associated with SHIELD, Stark Industries, or the Avengers. But someone who understood the ramifications of the Accords—actual and potential—and was more than ready to argue against them.
“Bernie does love a good tussle, legal or otherwise.” A small grin lifted Pepper’s lips. “Watch out for her left jab.”
“At least that’s one item crossed off the list.” Maria sighed as she reached out to set a chocolate-dipped madeleine on her plate.
“What’s your next step—” Pepper interrupted herself with a sharp gesture. “At least, what can you tell me about what comes next?”
A noncommittal hum was Maria’s first response as she nibbled at her pastry. It was, of course, delicious. Then she nodded. “Short-term, we’re doing some recruiting for the project—trying to acquire some folks who are locked into what look to be some long-term contracts.”
She shrugged. “After that…objectives and alternatives. Looking at what—if anything—can be salvaged. We’re not speculating much until we get a better idea of how current measures will be implemented in the foreign and domestic spheres.”
Maria took a fortifying sip. “How we move forward partly depends on the next name you have for me—assuming you have one.”
“Yes, I do.” Pepper’s long fingers ghosted along her cup rim as her brows drew together. “Someone who has some very definite ideas about what is needed—and what is to be avoided. With a broad scope of experience in organization, establishing infrastructure, processes and procedures, and securing funding.”
Maria nodded when Pepper paused. This person certainly sounded like a good fit—if he or she was willing to take on such a daunting task under such challenging conditions.
Pepper’s deep breath left one more moment of suspense. Then Pepper locked eyes with Maria as if daring Maria to disbelieve. “Pepper Potts.”
Pepper needn’t have worried. Maria trusted Pepper’s experience and instincts—admired the woman’s clear-headed and calm balance to Tony’s wilder ideas and more dramatic personality. If anyone could help navigate the turbulent international waters stirred up by the Accords, it was Pepper.
But…was this the right move for Pepper? Maria took a long moment to study her tablemate. There were subtle signs of strain, but you had to pay attention and be familiar with how Pepper looked when things were going well. “Pepper, I’m certainly not going to say no. But taking this step is going to have some serious personal, professional, and even political ramifications. It could be dangerous, and there is no guarantee of success.”
She leaned forward, close enough to see the freckles under Pepper’s flawless makeup. “Are you sure that you want to do this?”
“Yes. I’ve been considering it since I read the Accords.” Pepper shifted in her seat, straightened her spine. “This needs to be done and I think I can help.”
If this weren’t an undercover operation, Maria would be leaned back, arms crossed, eyes narrowed. Instead she tapped her point onto the linen. “One problem: You have a major conflict of interest.”
A rueful smile softened Pepper’s expression. “I prefer ‘incentive’.”
But she acknowledged the issue with a dip of the chin. “Give me a few days and I’ll have everything squared away.”
“All right.” Maria reached into her clutch, pulled forth an envelope. Knew the shape of the key it held, wrapped within a typewritten page of instructions. “Take two days to reconsider. If you’re still certain, then this will give you information and access.”
As Pepper secreted the envelope, Maria raised her cup in salute. “Welcome to the team.”