Author Topic: An Unexpected Predicament  (Read 1389 times)

Steve Rogers

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An Unexpected Predicament
« on: March 15, 2020, 02:41:00 PM »
"This had better be important," Steve murmured as he threw a leather jacket on over his broad shoulders. Tony Stark had just contacted him to meet him at Avengers Mansion and to bring Nat with him. Supposedly, it was a matter of life and death, but when asked, he wouldn't say what it was about - only that it was important.

Lucy smiled at him as she gently jostled Daniel against her shoulder. "My brother may be a dick, but he wouldn't call you to Earth without a good reason," she reminded her husband fondly. "He sounded pretty stressed out, although that could be because Pepper's so close to popping out his first kid."

"It doesn't take much for Tony to get stressed out," Steve pointed out. How the guy was going to handle being a Dad was beyond him, but Tony had become pretty good at being an uncle the last few years, so there was always hope. And if all else failed, Steve was sure Pepper would be an awesome mom. He leaned in to press a kiss to Lucy's lips. "Hopefully, this won't take long."

She answered his kiss with her own. "I'm sure it won't," she promised. "He would have told us if it was something violent, after all. Maybe he's just forgotten how to change a diaper."

Steve chuckled. "He can check the internet for that." He had mostly caught up with 21st century culture and technology, but there were still a few things that surprised him. "Maybe he wants to retire," he suggested, though he doubted that. Tony would always have to be involved to some degree or die of boredom.

"When Hell freezes over, maybe," Lucy responded with a grin. "Is Nat coming over here, or didn't you tell her yet?" On her shoulder, Daniel burbled, lifting his head to look at Steve adoringly.

"I imagine she's giving Colin a laundry list of instructions," he replied, with something of a chuckle at the thought of that. He still thought it was nothing short of a miracle that Nat had gotten married and had a kid. Of course, the same could probably be said for him.

"And he's dutifully nodding and not listening," Lucy agreed. She loved the dynamic between Colin and Nat; Nat was a still a bit of a control freak at times, but Colin just seemed to let it all wash over him. They were good for each other. "Oh, and speak of the devil."

She nodded to the window, where Nat was visible making her way across the connecting gardens to the Rogers' back porch.

"Better not call her that to her face or she might take offense," Steve teased, glancing out the window to watch Nat approach. "Okay, the sooner I leave, the sooner I get back," he said, feeling a mixture of anxiety and annoyance at having to leave. He kissed her again, before smooching his youngest son's cheek. "You be good for your mama, okay?"

As Daniel burbled, flailing a little fist cheerfully at his father, the back door opened to allow Nat to enter. Like Steve, she had thrown a jacket on over her clothes, not expecting to be outside for long. Over the past year, her red hair had grown long, most often tucked into a braid out of her face for dealing with Alia these days.

"Hey, Luce," she greeted the woman of the house before looking to Steve. "Ready to go, old man?"

"Just about," he replied, so accustomed to her nickname for him that he ignored it. He had stopped pointing out that he was biologically about the same age as a lost cause months ago. "You know how to reach me if you need anything," he told Lucy. "I'll call later and let you know when we'll be back. Maybe I'll bring home some cheesecake." New York style cheesecake, of course.

"You're going to spoil us again," she teased. "Go on ... sooner you go and rescue him from his stress, the sooner you can come home. Try not to kill him." This was addressed to both of them, but they all knew it was for Nat. If Tony didn't have a damned good reason for pulling her away from her retirement, he would suffer for it.

Even though that remark was mostly meant for Nat, Steve replied with a smirk, "I'll try!" One more kiss for good measure, and he stepped out the door, a wave of his hand to Colin who was helping little Alia wave a final farewell to her mother.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah." Nat grinned at Lucy, stepping out behind Steve with a wave and blown kiss to her own husband and daughter even as she fell into step with her best friend. "So ... still no idea what this is about?"

"Knowing Tony, it could be anything from a hangnail to a resurgence of Hydra," Steve replied, hoping it was neither. "He didn't say anything about Pepper, so I'm assuming it's not the baby. He seemed a little stressed out to me though," he remarked as they made their way away from the little group of houses to an open space where they could easily open a portal to Earth.

"All it takes is for his favorite robot to knock over his coffee for him to be stressed," Nat commented, though there was a certain tension in her that likely only Steve could recognize. "I don't like the secrecy."

"Neither do I," Steve agreed, dropping the facade he'd put up for Lucy's sake, the smile fading. "It must be important though. I don't think he'd summon us all the way there if it wasn't." Which only made Steve worry all the more. "You don't think this is about what's his name, do you?" he asked, not wanting to mention Thanos out loud.

"And why just us?" Nat agreed. "If it was a big thing, he'd have asked for Colin, Lucy, and Johnny, too. Maybe even Fliss and her friends." She frowned at the query. "No," was her firm reply. "Tony knows that is too big to be kept quiet if it happens."

"Yeah, something's up, but I'm not sure what," Steve said, coming to a halt in an open area of grass and sliding the device Tony had given them that would open a portal out of somewhere inside his jacket. "I still don't get how this thing works."

"It works, that's all I care about," Nat said with a shrug. "I don't need to know the how, just that it's going to get me where I'm going." She flashed Steve a teasing smile. "Kind of like sex."

Steve scowled at the mention of sex, lifting a hand to stop her before she got started. He might have caught up with technology, but he still believed in old fashioned good manners, which meant not talking about sex, politics, or religion in mixed company. "Too much information. Save it for Colin," he told her.

"How are you still such a prude after being married to Lucy for so long?" the redhead asked, laughing at the way he had cut her off. "She's the bawdiest person I know!"

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Re: An Unexpected Predicament
« Reply #1 on: March 15, 2020, 02:41:15 PM »
"I'm not a prude!" Steve argued, shrugging his shoulders a little defensively. "I just believe in sex being, you know, private."

She raised a brow at him, but didn't push it. "Fine," she allowed. "You keep it private. Just remember that I know you've had your brains banged out at least five times."

Steve furrowed his brows. "How do you ..." He trailed off, as he realized what a stupid question that was. "Just so you know, we've done it more than five times," he dared to point out. He looked the device over before handing it to Nat. "Care to do the honors?" he asked her, not wanting to admit that the thing kind of gave him the creeps.

"Sure, you Luddite," she said, taking the little device from him with a gently teasing nudge. Pressing her thumb to the pad, it activated, and she turned the dial to the number of people passing through from this side to the other. In about a minute, the stable portal had opened, waiting for them to pass through.

"I'm not a Luddite," Steve remarked with a straight face. "I'm Christian," he told her, resisting the urge to stick his tongue out at her, just for fun. Like sex, religion was a topic he rarely brought up in conversation. "Shall we?" he asked, turning his attention to the portal hovering in front of them.

She snorted with laughter. "After you, Your Holiness." Unlike Steve and many of their other friends, Nat practised no religion, officially referring to herself as an atheist. It wasn't that she couldn't believe in a greater power; she just didn't have any evidence for one.

"Careful or I'll make you kiss my ring later," Steve said. He wasn't really known for his quips, but there was something about his friendship with Nat that just naturally brought them out. They were naturally very easy going in each other's company, but then they were best friends. "See you on the other side," he said, just before stepping through.

Nat's chuckle followed him into the portal. There was the familiar sensation of being stretched through one dimension into another, and he stepped out, into the wide gardens of the Avenger's Mansion on the outskirts of New York City. A moment later, Nat was there beside him, deactivating the portal to close with a whoosh behind them.

Steve looked around at the familiar surroundings while he waited for Nat to join him, which she did just a moment later. "Everything looks normal," he remarked. At least, as normal as a mansion could from the outside. There were no spaceships hovering or giant spiders attacking or any other obvious signs of trouble.

"Seems to be," she agreed, looking around warily herself.

A speaker rose from the ground nearby, and the surprisingly comforting tones of JARVIS, Tony's A.I. assistant, made themselves known. "Welcome Captain Rogers, Agent Prescott. Mr. Stark is in the common room at present."

The common room, Steve repeated in his head. "Thanks, Jarvis," he said, nodding to Nat for them to head that way. "Anything else we should know?" he asked, taking another look around, as if everything was too normal. What exactly was it that Tony had claimed was a matter of life and death?

"Mr. Stark has requested that I not share the reason for your arrival here, Captain Rogers," JARVIS answered, somehow managing to obey his programming while dropping Tony right in it. "However, I am able to assure you that there is no hostile activity you need concern yourself with."

"That's good to know," Steve said, a little relieved. He'd guessed as much from what Tony had said and had taken a chance in leaving the shield home with Lucy. Thankfully, his bargain seemed to have paid off, as it didn't look like he'd need it. He shrugged at Nat, as if to say he had no clue what was going on. Her guess was as good as his.

"Don't look at me," Nat commented, starting toward the house. "This is looking more and more like he got a splinter and doesn't trust anyone but you to take it out for him."

"Nah, if that was all, he'd have asked Pepper to take care of it for him," Steve reasoned. "Besides, he asked both to come here, and if he wanted a doctor, he'd have asked me to bring Luce." Steve fell into step to lead the way toward the mansion. "Maybe he wants to ask us to be godparents," he suggested, though that seemed unlikely.

"I'm pretty sure Pepper doesn't want their kid caught up in all the extra-curricular here," Nat mused.

A flash of motion inside caught her eye - for some reason, Sam was running along the first floor corridor, arms outstretched in front of him, staring at something no one could see from outside.

Steve furrowed his brows at the sight. "Did Tony get a dog?" he asked, curiously. That still didn't explain why the man had summoned them here, unless he was hoping they'd take it off his hands.

"If he did, I am not taking it home with me," the redhead said firmly. "Coco is more than enough adorable puppy for me, especially with Alia getting into everything."

"Don't look at me! Our house is practically a zoo as it is," Steve said, lifting his hands in the air. Not only did they have half a dozen kids, but a small menagerie of pets, besides.

"We're agreed, then," she chuckled. "All pets, his problem." The door into the mansion opened as they approached it, proof that JARVIS was tracking their progress, no doubt on Tony's orders.

"Thanks again, Jarvis," Steve said, addressing the A.I. almost as if he was a living being. He didn't have to hold the door open for Nat, as Jarvis was doing that for him, so the two of them just strode inside, heading in the direction of the so-called "common room".

"It is my pleasure, Captain Rogers. I have informed Mr. Stark of your arrival."

Nat smiled as they stepped inside. "Yeah, thanks, J," she added, flicking her hair out of her face.

The mansion was eerily quiet, but for the sound of someone running around upstairs. Opening the door to the common room presented them with Tony, sat on the floor with the disparate pieces of the coffee machine scattered around him, tool wrap open nearby.

Steve furrowed his brows again when he saw Tony sitting on the floor surrounded by coffee machine innards. "Um, I am not helping you fix that," he told the man. And he sure as hell hoped they hadn't been summoned all this way with that in mind when Tony could easily just buy another.

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Re: An Unexpected Predicament
« Reply #2 on: March 15, 2020, 02:41:31 PM »
"Really?" Nat said, hard on the heels of this. "You're so stressed, you're deconstructing primitive tech? What the hell happened?"

Tony looked up absently. "Pass me that wrench, would you?"

"Is everything okay with Pepper?" Steve asked unable to hide the concern from his voice as he reached for the wrench and handed it over. That was his first guess anyway, but still ... If it was something with Pepper, he'd have asked for Lucy, not Steve and Nat.

"Oh, yeah, fine," Tony assured him, apparently focused on his little hobby. "Big as a beachball, temper like my father, it's all great."

Nat snorted with laughter, moving to sit down. "That won't last long," she predicted. "It's weird having another human inside you, you know."

Steve could no more relate to being pregnant than could Tony, but he could at least sympathize. "It won't be long before you have your wife back and a mini-Pepper along with her," he told the other man. He wasn't too sure what to say to Tony to reassure him, but he was going to have to face the music sooner or later and accept the fact that he was going to be a father.

"Yeah, but that's not why you're here," Tony said, putting down his busywork. He looked over at the two of them, obviously struggling with whatever it was he had to say. "Did you two ever, you know, play hide the zucchini? Or think about it?"

"Hide the zucchini?" Steve echoed, brows furrowing in confusion, looking a little bit lost. He had mostly caught up on culture, but sexual innuendos were still mostly lost on him. He looked to Nat for clarification, assuming she knew what he was talking about.

Nat bit down on a smile, rubbing her forehead for a moment. "Tony ... why are you asking if Steve and I ever had sex?"

The man behind Iron Man actually squirmed a little, glancing between them before looking at the dismembered coffee machine. He mumbled something not even Steve could decipher.

To Steve's credit, he didn't gasp or even blush, but he didn't look amused. In fact, he looked about as far from amused as he could get. "Maybe you better just tell us what this is all about," he said, his tone of voice betraying his irritation. It wasn't that he didn't like Nat, but she was like a sister to him, not a lover.

"Look, this isn't on me, okay?" Tony announced, holding his hands up. "It just happened, and it wasn't even me. I haven't touched the AU generator since you crushed a solid metal piece in your hand telling me to stop."

Steve's expression darkened, proof of his growing annoyance. "Just spit it out, Tony. Why did you ask us to come here and why is it a matter of life and death?" he asked, trying hard to keep his temper, which was often a challenge where Tony Stark was involved.

"Wait, wait." Nat waved a hand, pinning Tony in place with a firm glare. "The AU generator? The thing we told you to scrap for being too dangerous?"

Tony rolled his eyes. "I get you're irritated, but at least listen," he said. "I never finished it. So the hole into an alternate reality that opened up here yesterday? Totally not my fault."

"What hole into an alternate reality?" Steve said, narrowing his brows. Whatever had happened, Tony had claimed it wasn't his fault, but they still didn't know what had happened yet.

"It's all closed up now," Tony told him. "And yes, we checked - no weakness remaining, no hint of anything that might bring another hole to bear here. Sam's the one who saw what happened - hole opened up in the gym, little kid bounced through, hole closed."

"Little kid?" Steve echoed, trying hard to follow what Tony was telling them. The man was hard to follow on a good day, and this didn't seem to be one of those days. "Are you saying someone from an alternate universe opened a portal into our universe and sent a kid through?"

"Kinda saying that you in another universe threw your kid into this one," Tony said. He looked at them both and sighed. "C'mon to the lab, I'll show you the test results. JARVIS, where's the tinker toy?"

There was a pause before JARVIS responded. "I believe the young one is still playing games with the rest of the team, sir."

"Is this some kind of joke?" Steve asked, eyes narrowed again. He knew what Tony was telling them wasn't impossible, but it seemed hard to believe. And yet, somehow, he knew even Tony Stark knew better than to joke about something like this, and Jarvis was proof. He didn't think Jarvis was capable of playing a practical joke, much less lying.

Tony looked him in the eye. "You know me," he pointed out. "Would I make a joke about something like this?"

It was a pertinent point. Over the last few years, Tony had definitely grown up a lot more, learning to pick his words at certain times to avoid upsetting other people.

Nat sighed as she stood up. "Look, just ... show us what you need to show us," she said. "I still don't know why I'm here."

Steve frowned, the look on his face softening a fraction at Nat's remark. "Because it's not just my kid, is it?" he asked, putting two and two together, though he still wanted to see proof. It was the only reason he could think of that Tony would ask if he and Nat had ever had sex. Of course, a child would have to have a mother, and it seemed this alternate universe kid's mother wasn't Lucy.

"Technically, she's not yours, she's another you's," Tony pointed out, taking the opportunity to lead the way out of the common room toward his labs and avoid meeting either of their gazes.

Nat frowned. "Where is she, Tony?" she asked sternly.

He hesitated, looking back over his shoulder at her. "You're really gonna take it on faith?"

"How do you know it's my ... our ..." Steve trailed off with an exasperated huff of breath.
« Last Edit: March 15, 2020, 02:47:07 PM by Steve Rogers »

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Re: An Unexpected Predicament
« Reply #3 on: March 15, 2020, 02:41:47 PM »
"Answer his question, Stark. How do you know?" Nat demanded.

Tony looked as though he was expecting to be punched for offering up what he was about to say, but plunged on regardless.

"Look, it wasn't my idea," he said defensively. "Tinkerbell got a good rummage in the kid's head and said you two were her parents but the world had gone to s***, so they sent her and a load of other little kids from the team into a portal that would drop them somewhere safe, but apparently that's not this universe for all the other kids, just this one. So I took a little blood. Just a little bit."

Steve's heart sank at what Tony was telling them and he felt a little bit sick. If he was understanding him right, somewhere - in some strange, alternate universe out there - the world had gotten so bad that their alter egos had seen fit to send their children to other worlds and universes in order to keep them safe. Whatever it was that had happened, it had been bad enough to force them to send their own children away. Was it Hydra? Thanos? Loki? Someone or something else? Something worse?

"DNA," he murmured. "You checked their DNA."

"I had JARVIS run that program Lucy used on Alyona," Tony said, continuing to walk ahead and into the labs. "We tweaked it a little to compare and contrast rather than identify, and, uh ... Well, you're both the daddy."

"And she wouldn't be here if there was any possibility that they might win in their world," Nat said, her voice dull with pain for a decision she hoped she would never have to make.

"Worst case scenario," Steve murmured further. A scenario in which there was no hope. "So, we ... they sent their kids where they thought they'd be safest. Where the alternate versions of themselves might be able to give them a better life," he reasoned, adding to what Nat had already sorted out in her head.

"How old is she, Tony?" the redhead asked, frowning as she looked at the man before them.

He shrugged. "Three," he said. "Can't pinpoint her birthdate, but probably springtime."

Nat nodded sharply. "Give me a second, I need to call my husband." She stepped away, digging in her pocket for her phone.

"Jesus," Steve muttered to himself, that worried frown still on his face. "Any idea what happened to them?" he asked, his anger dissolving, replaced by anxiety and sadness.

Tony shook his head. "Aly didn't want to talk too much about it," he said solemnly, and it was rare for Tony Stark to be so serious. "The kid isn't all that aware of what happened, but she saw enough. Aly says the portal was opened right here in their world, and the place was falling apart around them. Sounds like the last line of defense got broken and they had to go to ground to get their kids out."

Steve nodded, unsure if he should question Alyona further or let it go. "Isn't there something we can do?" he asked, feeling helpless, useless even to help that other Earth. It wasn't like Steve to feel that way. He had never been one to give up, never been one to admit defeat, even when there was no hope.

"Well, let me put it this way," Tony said. "This kid is not going into the care system. Pepper's strung out enough about having a baby, I'm not adding this to her stress. And as much fun as that kid is having here, this isn't right for a kid to grow up in."

"That's not what I mean," Steve said. "I mean, isn't there something we can do to save their world?" he clarified, the look on his face almost desperate. He'd never been one to give up on anything, and he wasn't going to start now - not if there was something they could do to help.

Tony somehow managed to produce a completely blank expression, a rarity for him that was somehow more expressive than his usually active face. "You should talk to Tinkerbell," he said, his mouth twisted in an awkward grimace.

Steve frowned, knowing Tony was referring to Alyona. It was disheartening to know that Tony Stark - the smartest guy Steve had ever known, besides Tony's father - had no idea what to do. Steve laid a hand on Tony's shoulder and gave it a brotherly squeeze. "You did the right thing calling us here. Thank you."

Tony was shaking his head in disbelief. "I just ... I don't get it, Steve," he said quietly. "How do you let things get so bad that the only thing you can do is abandon your children to difference universes, just hoping they'll be okay? I couldn't do that, and my little girl isn't even here yet."

"Maybe they had no choice," Steve said. In fact, he knew that must have been the case because he couldn't imagine ever letting his kids go like that either, unless it was the only way to save them. "Just imagine what would have happened if we hadn't stopped Loki, if we hadn't stopped Hydra. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. I don't know what happened to their world, Tony, but we're not gonna let it happen here, okay?"

"Steve, I would break the timeline before I would let that happen here," Tony told him firmly. "None of us is going to let things get so bad we have to split."

"Maybe you couldn't do it there. Maybe you-maybe you weren't around to do it," Steve said, stopping short of suggesting Tony might have died in that other universe. It seemed a moot point now anyway. If that world was dying, they were probably all dead by now.

"We're not dead here," Tony said, straightening his shoulders. "JARVIS, where's Tinkerbell?"

"Miss Evchenko is in the sensory room, sir. It would appear that she has given the child into the care of Agent Wilson."

"I need to know what happened," Steve murmured. He at least needed to know as much as Alyona knew, if only to make sure it didn't happen here. "I'm going to talk to Alyona. Let Nat know where I am, okay?" he said, asking for a change, rather than giving an order.

Tony nodded. It seemed as though the events of the last two days had shaken the usually blasé genius out of his carefree attitude. No doubt he would feel much better once Steve and Nat had come to a few decisions about what happened now.

It wasn't that Steve wasn't concerned about the child, but before he could make any decisions, he needed to know what had happened to her parents and her world, and so, he headed in the direction of the sensory room in search of Alyona.
« Last Edit: March 15, 2020, 02:48:12 PM by Steve Rogers »

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Re: An Unexpected Predicament
« Reply #4 on: March 15, 2020, 02:42:04 PM »
The sensory room had actually been installed for Alyona, as a calming space for her to be able to meditate and practice the mental skills she had developed over time. When Steve found her, however, she was lying flat on her back on the padded floor, watching the play of soft multi-colored light over the ceiling, half-smiling to herself.

"Hello, Steve," she said, almost before he'd got the door open.

"Uh, hi, Aly," he said, feeling a little bit awkward, as he often did around their resident mind-reader. "Is this a bad time?" he asked, suddenly worried he was bothering her, though he had a feeling she'd already known he was coming.

She lifted herself up onto her elbows, smiling over at him. "I was expecting you," she assured him. "Come inside, be comfortable. No one is close enough to disturb this conversation."

"You know what I'm gonna ask you then," Steve said as he closed the door quietly behind him. He took a brief look around the room before joining her on the floor and crossing his legs. It was about as comfortable as he could get without any furniture in the room.

"I do." She sat up, her smile turning sad as she absorbed the whirling emotions filling his mind. "She does not know much, and all I know is from her mind," she told him. "Her parents were another version of you and Natasha. There were different people on the team - a sort of robot thing that spoke like Jarvis, and a man who looked like Niko, but was not him. She was kept very sheltered, but what she did see ... everything had become gray. The city was in ruins, and those aliens you fought in New York that one time were everywhere. The mansion was under attack, they didn't have the resources or the time. They were going to die. The aliens were already inside the mansion when they activated the portal on their side and sent the children through. Lara - the little one - she does not know what happened, or why she is here. She wants her mother very badly."

Alyona didn't need to read Steve's thoughts to know he was upset by all this, not only for the little girl who'd been sent to them for safekeeping, but for that other world that seemed to have gone to hell.

"Was there nothing they could do?" he asked, clearly distraught by the news. How did the saying go? There but for the grace of God, go I.

"You know yourself, Steve," she said softly. "He was not so very different to you. If there was any other choice, would you have done this?"

Steve frowned, realizing she was right. "No ... I'd have done everything in my power to keep my family safe," he admitted. And if that family had included Nat, he'd have wanted to send her away, too, but for some reason he hadn't. There could have been a few reasons for that, but Steve wasn't sure he wanted to know what they were. "So, what now?"

"We have been discussing it," Alyona said. "With some of the engineers as well. The consensus is that even if they could open a dimensional portal, there is no way to pinpoint which alternate universe the child came from. We cannot help them. We cannot send her back. I am sorry, Steve, but ... she needs a family. It is a conversation you must have with Natasha."

"Alyona, in this world, Nat and I are not ... We're friends - good friends - but we're not married," he pointed out, though, of course, she knew that already. He sighed, unable to hide the sadness from his eyes. This was exactly why he and Nat had taken precautions against Thanos finding the Mind Stone. "There has to be a way to help them," he murmured. Though at the moment he couldn't think what that might be, he had never been a quitter, and he wasn't going to start now.

"Steve ..." Alyona opened her hand, reaching up to gently touch her fingertips to his temple.

She closed her eyes, concentrated ... and his mind was flooded with images of terrible loss and catastrophe. It was all from the view of a small child surrounded by chaos, glimpses caught of known adults fighting and dying as he was rushed deep into the depths of the mansion, hoisted up onto the hip of a Natasha he did not known part-way, handed into the arms of a version of himself who was weary and broken. As that Natasha turned to hold off the Chitauri that were on her heels in a fight that was doomed to end with her death, the small child was borne with haste toward a complex machine as a man who looked like Nikolai but had to be Bucky joined them, setting a little boy down beside a strange, red-skinned and caped being manning the controls of the machine. Steve saw himself bend to kiss the child as he set her down, watched as he turned away, saw that other Natasha fall with a spear in her chest, heard that other version of himself scream in fury and grief as both he and Bucky charged the attackers, desperate to hold them back. The red-skinned being activated the portal; the two children were gently urged through ... and there was Sam, looking utterly shocked as he landed on the calm gymnasium floor.

Alyona withdrew her hand, drawing in a deep breath. "Do you see now why there is no hope for them?"

"No," Steve whispered, as the tragedy played out before his closed eyes. "There has to be some way ..." he murmured, his voice breaking as he saw how hopeless it was.

He wasn't a man easily given to tears, but he felt them gathering behind his closed lids, a lump growing in his throat, his heart heavy with sorrow. He'd seen two children, but only one had arrived here - the one that belonged to him and Nat. Perhaps the boy had been sent to another universe with alternate versions of his parents, but Steve couldn't say for sure, and he didn't think Alyona knew either.

"Jesus," he murmured further, drawing a shaky breath as he opened his eyes at last. "What are we supposed to do?" he asked, though the answer seemed obvious enough.

"She was sent somewhere she would be safe and loved," Alyona said quietly. "You know what needs to be done. Natasha has already set it in motion without seeing what you have seen. I briefly touched the minds of those she saw, when the portal opened. The boy went to a different universe, one where his parents still live in safety. He, too, will be safe and loved with them."

"So, we're supposed to raise this little girl like she's ours ... like nothing happened?" Steve asked, shaking his head at the impossibility of it. He was pretty sure they could accomplish that much. There was no lack of love to go around, but they weren't her parents - not really. Everything she had ever known, everyone she had ever loved was gone. Then again, how was she any different from Martin and Lianne? She was an orphan, just like them; the only difference was that she was the orphaned child of an alternate version of himself and Nat.

"She is very young, Steve," Alyona reminded him. "Older, and this would be a much harder transition for her. But being so young, she will be able to imprint upon a different mother, or a different father, and not know that anything is different. It is not a decision I can help you with."

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Re: An Unexpected Predicament
« Reply #5 on: March 15, 2020, 02:42:20 PM »
From outside came the sound of footsteps heading their way at speed.

Steve nodded his understanding, wiping a hand across his face to wipe away his tears, proof that he was human with a human heart. How could he not feel grief and pain, sadness and horror at what he'd seen? And yet, he wasn't the type to give up. He knew what he had to do, and he'd do it. He just hoped Lucy would understand.

"Thank you," he told her quietly, thanking her for letting him see and understand what had happened. He moved to his feet at the sound of approaching footsteps, turning to face whoever it was.

Alyona nodded solemnly, though her lips were quirking into a smile before the door was pushed open and a small, redheaded toddler came hurtling into the room to faceplant squarely on the padded floor. Behind her, Sam came into view, wincing at the realization that the kid had found Steve.

Steve frowned, fatherly instincts kicking in as he went over to the little girl and gently picked her up off the floor. "You okay?" he asked, unable to hide the concern and compassion from his face even if he tried.

What might have become tears at the shock of the fall turned into a delighted smile as big blue eyes looked up at Steve and recognized him. "Papa!" The toddler threw her arms around him, hugging in close.

Steve forced himself to smile, his heart breaking for the horrors this little girl must have witnessed and the heartbreak she might have suffered had their alter egos not brought her here. He looked up at Sam as if to wordlessly ask him what to do as instinct took over and he wrapped the girl in his embrace.

"Lara," he whispered, remembering what Alyona had called her. "It's Lara, right?"

The toddler didn't seem to react, just cuddling in tightly. As far as she was concerned, she had spent a day without her parents, and now her father was here again.

Alyona nodded to Steve. "Yes, this is Lara," she said. "We have tried to explain, but she is very young."

Somehow, they were going to have to make her understand that the people she thought were her parents weren't together in this world. Steve nodded again to indicate he'd heard Alyona before quietly whispering to the little girl in his arms.

"It's okay, Lara. Everything is gonna be okay," he assured her, even though things were definitely not okay where she was from.

Outside the sensory room, Nat was approaching, nudging Sam as she arrived. "What's happening?" she asked quietly, tilting her head to look inside and find Steve holding a little redhead close.

"Looks like she found him," Sam replied with a shrug of his shoulders. "Just honed in on him, like she had radar." He turned his glance to Nat, arching a curious brow. "You wanna join the hug fest or wait a bit?"

"I think I'll let her come to me," Nat said in a low voice. "This is one hell of a situation."

Thankfully, Colin had agreed with her that they were the logical solution to this problem, and though she knew he might find it difficult at first to be raising another man's child as his own, she knew her husband. He would dote on this little one as much as he doted on Alia.

"I don't think she understands what's happened," Sam told her. "It's not gonna be easy explaining that you and Cap are not together."

"Honestly?" Nat sighed. "I think Alyona is going to have to do that mind sharing thing with her to make her understand. We'll see how it goes, but she's going to have a home, no matter what."

"Probably," Sam agreed."What's important is that she's here and she's safe." He laid a hand on her shoulder, a warm smile on his face. "It's gonna be okay, Nat. We'll figure it out."

She nodded. "Sounds like you've been playing uncle for the last 24 hours," she said. "How'd that go for you?"

Sam chuckled at the question. It wasn't the first or probably last time he'd filled the role of "uncle", considering the fact that his closest friends had children.

"It was exhausting," he confessed. "I don't know how you do it. I don't know how Steve and Lucy do it." Especially considering the fact that Steve and Lucy had six of the little urchins.

"Yeah, Alia's only just started moving at speed," Nat agreed. "No idea how the Rogers and the Storms are still awake by 7pm every day. How do you handle that many kids and stay sane?"

Sam shrugged. "Don't ask me. I'm not even dating," he said with a smirk. Whether or not there really was a lady in his life, he wasn't saying. He looked back at Steve and Lara, still embraced and not looking like they were going to untangle from each other for a while. "Maybe you should join them. Alyona says she's hurting for her mother. That's you now."

"Oh ..." For all her no-nonsense outlook and pragmatic approach to life, Nat had definitely softened since having a child of her own. She visibly melted, just a little, at the thought of this tiny girl missing her mother so much. "I guess you're right," she agreed. "Maybe Steve can be convinced to let go for five minutes."

"Yeah, well ... As far as she's concerned, he's her dad. I mean, he is her dad, as much as you're her mom. Genetically speaking, anyway," he said, though he assumed she knew that much already. "Why don't you go join them and see what happens?" he suggested.

"Worst she can do is turn into a monster and bite my head off, right?" Nat commented, tossing Sam a wry grin as she pushed out of her lean and walked into the sensory room. She nodded to Alyona, moving to kneel down beside Steve and his new friend. "Hey, you. How's it going there?"

Steve sniffled suspiciously, as he moved aside to give Nat room. "Hey, look who's here," he said, letting the little girl get a good look at the woman who could have been her mother, if things had been different.

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Re: An Unexpected Predicament
« Reply #6 on: March 15, 2020, 02:42:36 PM »

Nat forced her expression into a softer smile, not wanting to give this little girl any indication that she was in any way an unwelcome addition to their wide-ranging collection of family and friends. "Hey there, kiddo."

The little girl lifted her head from Steve's shoulder and lunged at her mother with a delighted cry of "Mama!" to throw her arms around Nat's neck.

Steve leaned back to give them room and sniffled again, wondering if he should back off to give them both space and privacy.

"Oh, wow!" Catching the little one securely, Nat let her cuddle in, hoisting her to a more comfortable position on her lap before wrapping her securely up in her arms. Automatically, she kissed the wayward red curls tickling her nose, resting her cheek on that hair as her eyes found Steve's.

"I guess we need to talk about this, huh?" she said, absently rocking the child on her lap.

"Yeah, but it can wait a bit," Steve said, noting how easily the child moved into Nat's arms and how obviously she trusted them both. "Did you get a hold of ..." He trailed off, unsure if he should mention Colin in front of the little girl. "I think we might have to stay the night."

"Yeah, I did," she assured him. "He's gonna fill Lucy in, and they'll probably talk it over themselves." She glanced down at the little girl all but buried in her arms and sighed softly. "I think you're right," she agreed. "I, uh ... I think Aly's gonna have to explain to her what's up."

Alyona raised her brows, catching the stray thought, and sighed, nodding in agreement.

Steve frowned at the mention of Lucy, worried what she was going to think about all this. Then again, she was no stranger to the weirdness that was their lives, and he knew her well enough to know she'd do the right thing, despite the circumstances. 

"Where's Tony?" he asked. He hadn't seen the data yet and wasn't sure whether he needed to or not, but at least that might make him feel useful.

"Still in the lab," Nat told him. "Should we go ahead with the explanation without you, or wait until you're a little more settled?" She frowned slightly at her own reaction; she was far too calm about this, she knew. Colin was probably going to bear the brunt of the emotional fall out in a few days.

Steve's frown deepened, as he watched the little girl nuzzle into her mother - or the woman who was the closest thing she could get to her mother. For the first time in his life, he felt at odds with himself and was entirely unsure what to do.

"I don't know," he told her, honestly. He really didn't.

Alyona raised her hand a little hesitantly, a slightly guilty expression on her face. "I can ... I can adjust her memories a little," she offered. "Make it easier for her to accept that only one of you is her parent, and the other an aunt or uncle."

Steve looked back at the little girl wrapped up in Nat's arms. From the look of things, she had relaxed enough that she was falling asleep. "I don't know," he said again, looking to Nat for help. "I need to think about it." They all did.

"Something like that, we all need to think about and talk it over," Nat agreed, still absently rocking the little one. "Did she sleep last night?" she asked Sam, looking over her shoulder at him.

"Not very well," Sam replied, frowning in concern. He was close to becoming "Uncle Sam", but he didn't seem to mind. "She's been through a lot," he reminded them both. The best they could hope for was that she got a good night's sleep while the rest of them sorted things out.

"She has," Nat agreed softly, looking down at the sleeping little girl. "I know enough to know that they wouldn't have done this unless there really was no other choice. The least we can do is honor their sacrifice and do right by her."

"They," Steve echoed grimly. "They is us in another universe."

Thank the Gods it wasn't them, but it could easily have been, if they hadn't made different choices. Even so, an entire world destroyed. Something he'd fought all his life to prevent. All those people. There wasn't a damned thing he could do about that, but he could do something to help this one small survivor.

"We need to talk," he told her quietly. And he had to talk to Lucy.

"You should call Lucy and talk to her before we sit down and talk about this," Nat suggested. "I've already got Colin's opinion on the whole thing. We need Lucy's opinion, and you need to talk to her." In her arms, the little girl sighed contentedly, nuzzling in closer as she raised her thumb to her mouth in her sleep.

Steve sighed as he watched the little girl asleep in Nat's arms. "She's so young, so innocent. What kind of monster destroys a whole world, Nat?" he said, not really expecting an answer since they could both take a pretty good guess.

"The kind of monster we were lucky enough to protect against," she murmured, glancing at Alyona.

The Sokovian telepath sighed softly herself. "I did not see who it was," she said in a low tone. "Only the creatures that made the army."

"We've seen those creatures before," Steve said, turning back to Nat and explaining in the simplest way he knew how, knowing she'd understand what he meant. "New York."

"Loki's army." Nat sighed, rolling her eyes. "I guess we need to talk to Thor, find out if he's gotten anything more out of Loki about Thanos."

"Loki's army is really just Thanos' army," Steve said. Loki just happened to be one of Thanos' generals for a time, until they managed to stop him. "I'm not sure what happened in their world that hasn't happened in ours, but we need to make sure it doesn't."

"We're already ahead on that," Nat said confidently. She looked down at Lara, moving to stand up and settle the toddler on her hip in one smooth movement. "C'mon, little one, let's find you a bed."

"I'm gonna call Luce," Steve said, needing to talk to her, needing to get this off his chest and hoping she wouldn't freak out too badly. Nat was right - they needed to do what was best for Lara. That was what was most important right now, and he had a feeling he knew what that was.

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Re: An Unexpected Predicament
« Reply #7 on: March 15, 2020, 02:42:51 PM »
Natasha nodded, reaching out to squeeze his shoulder. "We'll work this out," she promised. "They trusted us with the most precious part of their lives. We owe it to them to work this out."

"I know," he said, offering her a faint smile. One way or another, they'd sort it all out. "I won't be long," he promised her, leaning close to touch a kiss to the little girl's hair. She might not really be his daughter, but that hardly mattered now.

The toddler made a soft sound, evidently feeling much safer in herself with two familiar people nearby. Nat smiled, gently jostling her as she moved out into the corridor, murmuring to Sam to find out where she could put the little one down to sleep for a while.

Like Alyona, Sam had been quietly watching the entire exchange, but this wasn't about him or Aly - it was about Steve and Nat, and they were the only ones who could decide what happened next. He'd respect that, as would the rest of the team. He nodded acknowledgment to Nat, before turning to lead the way away from the sensory room. With Jarvis' help, they'd have the little girl situated in no time.

While Nat and Sam got Lara settled down for the night, Steve made good on his promise and called Lucy. He was as gentle with her as he could be while being honest, not really surprised when she told him she trusted his judgment and would abide by whatever he decided, but this wasn't just about him and it wasn't just his decision to make. After a little discussion, they agreed on a decision. And so, he went in search of Nat.

He found her staring out through a window on the second floor corridor, arms tucked about herself, almost as though she were standing guard over the now sleeping Lara. She glanced up as he made his way toward her. "Decision time?"

Steve paused a moment in the doorway to watch her, knowing it wouldn't be long before she knew he was there. There was a frown on his face, both sad and worried, but they'd been through worse, and they'd get through this, too.

"Yeah," he replied, coming up beside her, looking concerned. "You okay?" he asked, though she probably wasn't.

"Be lying if I said I was," Nat answered quietly. She glanced toward the cracked door behind her. "I don't want to leave her. I don't know what we're going to do. If it was just me, the decision would already be made. But it's not just me. You and me, we need to make this decision together."

"We're not her parents," Steve pointed out. "Not really, but we're the closest thing to her parents." Of course, she already knew that, too. "Alyona suggested that she could change her memories. Make it easier for her to accept only one of us as her parent. I think that should be you." There - he'd said it. It hadn't been that hard, had it?

Nat's gaze flickered to him, curiosity twinned with concern as she considered her friend. "Are you sure about that?" she asked, knowing him as well as she did. "It would be good for her, but I don't want my best friend to start resenting me over something like this, Steve."

He shrugged. "You never thought you could have kids, and now you have a chance at having two. Besides, she looks like you. It's the red hair. No one would ever believe she's mine and not yours," he teased, nudging her with an elbow, a small smirk on his face, more fond than amused.

She raised a brow, a small smile curving her own lips. "You already talked this over with Lucy, didn't you?" she accused him fondly. One thing she and his wife shared was that brutally practical outlook when it really cut to the bone.

"No more than you did with Colin," he said, knowing her just as well as she knew him. "Look, I-I just want to do what's best for Lara. She needs her mother, and that's you. Besides, we live right next door to each other. It's not like I won't be part of her life, right?"

"You will always be her Uncle Steve," the redhead said. There was never any doubt of that. "And she's about the same age as your twins. They'll spend a lot of time together. It's just gonna take some getting used to."

"I know. It'll be okay. That's not what bothers me," he said, knowing they'd do their best to raise Lara and that she'd know no lack of love. "Aly showed me - let me see what happened. Christ, Nat. It was ... I've seen a lot of terrible things in my life, but this? I've never seen destruction like that. Ever."

She sighed, finally turning away from the window to look at him. "I figured it had to be bad," she admitted. "I know myself. There's no way in hell I would ever send Alia away unless I had no other choice, and even then, I'd want Colin to go with her. We were dead, weren't we?"

"I didn't see it happen, but yeah ... I don't think there were any survivors." There couldn't have been, given what he'd seen. "I can't be sure, but I think it was Thanos," he added, lowering his voice for her ears only and probably Jarvis. He paused a moment before he went on. "Bucky was there. I think the boy was his son."

"We have to assume that they didn't have the means to hide one of the stones beyond his reach," Nat told him. "We can't assume the same thing will happen here. It would have happened already, wouldn't it?"

"Maybe," Steve said, uncertainly. "I think so long as this Thanos lives, he's always going to be a threat." With or without the stones, he thought, but didn't say out loud. "You're right about one thing - We need to talk to Thor."

"But it can wait until we take Lara home and get her settled in," she added. "Are we staying here overnight, then?" It would probably be best to let Lara sleep and have Alyona adjust her memories in the morning.

"I think it would be best, don't you?" he asked, also thinking of Lara. The poor girl had been through a lot, but she was young enough that she might be able to forget and live a normal life, with Alyona's help.

Nat nodded slowly. "For tonight, at least, we're gonna have to stay close to her," she warned him. "I don't want Aly rummaging around in the kid's head if she's not rested."

"That sounds reasonable," Steve replied. He missed Lucy and the kids, but it was only one night, and he'd be home soon enough. "How are we gonna do this, Nat? The kids are bound to ask questions." The older ones anyway. How much should they tell them?

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Re: An Unexpected Predicament
« Reply #8 on: March 15, 2020, 02:43:05 PM »

She frowned. "I ... don't know," she admitted. "Alia will just accept she has a new sister. She's young enough for it to just become how it always was for her. You're probably gonna have to explain it to Martin and Lianne, though."

"Not just them," Steve said. They were going to have to explain it to the Storm kids, too - at least, the older ones. "I think the less we tell them, the better. They've been through enough. We don't want them worrying the same thing will happen here."

Nat had to admit, she was inclined to agree. "All they really need to know is that she needs a home, and we've given her one," she agreed. "The less detail, the less trauma."

"Agreed," he said, though he thought maybe they should take it one step further. "You want her to know you're her birth mother, right?" he asked, unable to complete that thought until he had her answer.

"I want her to assume that," she said quietly. "She's young enough that she can slide into our family without ever questioning her origins at all. I'd rather the other kids didn't make a point of telling her the truth as they know it."

"Then maybe they should know the truth, as she knows it," Steve said. "Three years ago, you had a daughter in secret and put her somewhere for her own safety, but now that we're in Rhy'Din, you deemed it safe enough for her to join you." It wasn't a perfect story, but it might work.

"That works," she agreed. "Col probably won't like it much, but he's already told me she's got a home with us. He wouldn't change his mind."

"He'd be her father as much as I'm Martin and Lianne's father," Steve said, though Martin and Lianne weren't his by birth and Lara was - sort of. "I don't want to over-complicate things, Nat. I'm just trying to think of what's best for Lara ... and her mother," he said, laying an affectionate hand against her shoulder.

"Let's just keep it simple, then," Nat said, smiling a familiarly rueful smile. "She needed a home. We're giving her a home. We're her parents now. Your kids, Johnny's kids ... they'll understand that."

Steve nodded. "Okay," he agreed, a smile momentarily teasing his lips. "It is a little weird to know you and I had a kid together somewhere."

She snorted with laughter. "Yeah, kinda," she agreed. "But not totally impossible to imagine." Her smile turned a little nostalgic. "I had a torch for you for a little while. I prefer you to be my brother, though."

"You what?" he asked, eyes widening in astonishment. "Why didn't you tell me?" he said. As far as he knew, no one had ever had a torch for him but Peggy and Lucy. Maybe there had been others, but if there were, he didn't know about them.

She chuckled quietly. "You were too pure for me," she teased for a moment, but softened in the face of his surprise. "You were fresh out of the ice, Steve. You needed a friend more than you needed a lover. I don't regret making that decision."

He chuckled at her response. "I'm not that pure. I did marry Lucy, after all," he said with a smirk, though doing the right thing had and always would be important to him. And he was pretty sure he was doing the right thing now in insisting Nat and Colin raise Lara as their own.

"She seduced you," she pointed out. "I'd say she earned the right to be your wife. Makes her braver than me in some ways. And she did jump out of a plane because you asked her to. You're a good match."

"Well ..." he started, shrugging his shoulders, his smile a little wider. "No argument there." He slid an arm around her shoulders, that smile softening. "What do you say we get a little rest? It's gonna be a long day tomorrow." It was really her that concerned him. He could go weeks without sleep.

"I hate it when you're right," she grumbled, but the smile didn't slip from her face. She leaned into him, grateful that, of all the people who could have been in this with her, it was her best friend. "I'm gonna go sleep in with her. Will you at least try to sleep a little?"

"I'll try," he told her, though he didn't make any promises. He wasn't one to waste time and he planned on using the next few hours sorting out what exactly he'd seen and how they could prevent it from happening here, with the help of the only other sentient being here who didn't need to sleep - Jarvis.

Nat knew better than to expect anything more than that when it came to Steve while he was worrying at a problem. She nodded, easing herself out from under his arm. "All right. See you in the morning?"

"I'm not going anywhere," he promised, leaning over and pressing a kiss to the top of her head in a brotherly fashion. "Go get some rest. I've got work to do." And his first stop was going to be Alyona. He needed to see everything she could possibly show him about what had happened in this other universe.

It was going to be a long night for some of the mansion's residents, but for one small girl, it would be her first night of safe, undisturbed sleep in quite some time. Her arrival might have thrown them all for a loop, but with Nat curled up in bed beside her, and Steve prowling the mansion outside that room, she was the safest child on the face of the Earth. And if Nat had her way, she would be one of the safest children in the multiverse.