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Stark ended up forcing him to watch a Disney cartoon after they'd gotten back rather than have a doctor see to his ankle. Steve allowed it on the condition Stark let him wrap his now extremely swollen ankle and put some ice on it. And if Steve was being honest, he'd liked Mulan a lot. Stark dragging him out to KTV for two hours of karaoke and alcohol though, that he didn't like as much, no matter how plush the room was. Still, keeping Stark from dying of alcohol poisoning was part of his job description, so he stayed and suffered in silence. He also came to an agreement with JARVIS after Stark had passed out that the footage of Steve singing some Cole Porter and Irving Berlin songs at Stark's insistence would be deleted permanently.

The next day saw a few more doctor's tests (and Steve insisting on a proper look at the sprain) and then exploring the city with Stark and his newfound 'pimp cane' as he called it. It was a mistake to take Stark into a local supermarket though, and one Steve was seriously regretting. "Are those lobster-flavored potato chips?" Steve asked, appalled.

"They are!" Stark said gleefully, adding them and the cucumber-flavored ones to the basket. "Why don't I do my own shopping more often? This is awesome!"

Steve decided it was better not to think about how much the Chinese liked to put random flavors into everything. At least with drinks, it wasn't too bad.

When Stark tried to force him on the plane with an overnight bag though, Steve put his foot down. "Stark-"

"You can ask JARVIS. I'm not going anywhere near the doctor's office tomorrow," Stark replied. "Look, I'll even set up an alert on your phone if I go near the building, alright? Jesus, I didn't plan on you taking your babysitting duties so seriously."

"Then why send me off?" Steve growled, tracing his shield through the cover of the canvas bag that held it. It helped calm him, which was always an added benefit when one was around Stark. And no, he wasn't upset because it hurt a little that Stark was just shipping him off. He was just doing his duty. Though if he were truthful, the past couple of days had been pretty nice, frustrations and all.

Too bad Steve didn't feel like being particularly truthful.

"Because you should go see the pandas," Stark explained patiently. "I've been assured by Chinese school children on my last visit that pandas are cute. But I've seen them before and it's a lot of walking. So you should head out without me."

"I don't have to-"

"Look, the pandas are in Sichuan province, and I'll be in boring meetings all day explaining company policy about the treatment of our Chinese workers to people who want to lower minimum wage." Stark fiddled with a tablet, not looking up at him. "You can visit the panda research center in Chengdu, then I'll meet up with you for hot pot. You might have to put on the uniform to do a few photo-shoots while you're there, but that's because Fury is being a bastard about how you left without telling anyone. Your fault."

Steve winced, holding back a comment about how Stark really hadn't given him much time to tell anyone about the decision, but he really could have spared a five minute phone call to Fury on the plane ride here.

"Just go and enjoy the pandas, alright? And go early, so that you can see their feeding time," Stark said with a sigh. "Then we can go to Xi'an or something. I've never been to Xi'an. The test results won't be done for a while, so we might as well have fun."

He was about to argue when he saw Stark tapping at his chest. Stark was nervous about something. Was it the test results making him worry? Steve wondered if he should say anything.

He squashed that thought before it got too far. If Stark was nervous, it was none of Steve's business. Even if a small portion of him wanted to make it his business.

Instead, he told Stark to stay out of trouble and got on the plane. Spending the night alone in a strange hotel was a lot lonlier than Steve thought it would be. He told himself that it was a good thing as he pulled out his sketchbook. This was how things should be, if he wanted to keep from losing someone again.

* * *

Steve looked up at the gates of the Panda Breeding Research Center, wondering if he should just go back and wait for Stark. He had no real desire to see the pandas, and he'd already ditched the guide, preferring to strike out on his own. The pandas were just bears, right? He was able to afford to go to the zoo occasionally before the War. Seen one bear, seen them all.

Stark had already paid for the ticket though, and he was here, so he might as well go in. He went through the gates, wishing he hadn't worn the uniform under his clothes. Chengdu was hot, and the humidity was sweltering. Going back to the hotel to change before the photo-shoot was less of a bother than he thought it would be, but he was here now, and the uniform was already sweaty. Putting it back on again wouldn't be fun.

At least the shield on his back was comforting. It was covered by his canvas bag, which also held his sketchbook, but it was the first time he'd brought it with him on these excursions. He hadn't wanted to look at it and what it stood for recently, even if the weight was comforting.

Too bad it hadn't saved the person he needed it to when it mattered the most.

Steve closed his eyes for a moment, then stared at the golden statue of a Panda and her cub. He refused to think about this. He couldn't think about this, not now. Definitely not while strangers were snapping pictures of him simply because he had blond hair.

Picking a direction at random, Steve wandered down the long path. He could see why Stark had decided to sit this one out. It was a lot more walking than he'd expected for a zoo of nothing but pandas. His phone started ringing, and he fumbled with it for a second. He always felt self-conscious holding the small rectangle to his ear, like it was just a joke that the others were playing with him rather than an actual phone.

"Hello?" he answered once he got the damn thing to accept the call.

"See any pandas yet?" Stark said in lieu of a greeting. His voice sounded clear and strong despite the fact he was half-way across the country, which was one modern improvement Steve didn't object to.

"Not yet," Steve admitted, wiping some of the sweat off his face. "You could have warned me it would be this hot."

"Oh," Stark said, as if it hadn't actually occurred to him. "Yeah. Sichuan Province is pretty hot this time of year. You uh, might want to check the indoor enclosures for the pandas if you don't see any of them outside."

"I thought you were supposed to be in a meeting," Steve asked, knowing that waiting for an apology would be a waste of time.

"Canceled," Stark said cheerfully. "I'm headed your way now, so I'll meet up with you for lunch. Buy a fan or something if it's that hot. There's more than enough gift shops there to find one if I remember correctly."

"I'll let you know if I find something," Steve said, walking up to a nearby signpost. "Apparently there are pandas 100 meters this way."

"Well? What are you waiting for, Rogers? Go see the pandas."

Steve could picture Stark rolling his eyes, but Steve felt strangely better than he had since getting on the plane. He couldn't say that it was because of Stark's call but... his mind was coming up with a surprising lack of alternatives. Stark had called to tell him he'd come in early, but he hadn't hung up after that. Stark was just chatting, which wasn't unusual, but he was chatting with Steve, and really, there hadn't been many people other than Coulson who had tried to do that since Steve had been defrosted.

Steve watched people sometimes when he went out to sketch. Many of them were on their phones, either talking or texting. Once, he'd drawn a girl, maybe about sixteen or seventeen, staring down at whatever message had popped up on it minutes before. Steve hadn't seen the message, but it was an important one, he'd known that much. The small smile on her face when she saw it had been positively radiant with love. Steve had ached when he'd drawn it, trying to capture a little bit of her happiness for himself, no matter how impossible it was.

Phones were things that connected people in this future world, but his had only been used to call him in for meetings or missions. It was one more way he failed to connect, one more way he failed to integrate. This was the first time he'd really talked to anyone using the device, and it was a bit of a heady feeling. It scared him more than he wanted to admit as well, because he wasn't ready to take a further step into the future, not with all he had to leave behind.

"So what's this hot pot you told me about earlier?" Steve asked. Despite the fear, he wanted to keep talking. He hadn't realized how starved he'd been for a connection, that he'd want one so desperately. And it was better, when he didn't have to see Stark. He could tell himself it made him feel more distant, regardless of if it were actually true or not. He stood off to the side as he talked. The pandas could wait for a little while longer.

"It's a specialty of the Sichuanese. To hear them talk, all they do in Chengdu is eat hot pot, drink tea, and play Mahjong," Stark replied as if he were reciting a list.

"Mahjong?"

"It's a game. Really complicated," Stark said. "You'll see people playing it if you walk around enough. Four people sitting around a bunch of tiles. Watch out for the old women. They will bleed you dry if you play for money."

Steve blinked. "Are you speaking from experience?" Stark seemed to be the sort that could play the odds to his favor in most games.

He could almost picture Stark wincing from the tone of his voice. "Yeah, not one of my better gambles. Never bet against a conniving old Chinese woman. I'm still not convinced she wasn't cheating somehow."

Steve tried to picture an old Chinese woman taking Stark for all of his money. He found himself stifling a laugh. "That's not funny, Rogers," he heard Stark saying as his shoulders shook with quiet laughter. "I know you're laughing, but she was vicious. She didn't speak a lick of English, but that woman was just as evil as Loki. Wait, maybe she was Loki in disguise..."

"I doubt it, Stark," Steve said, wondering what he was doing. He shouldn't be doing this, no matter how much he needed a connection, not when Stark was potentially dying, but he couldn't bring himself to stop either. A part of him just ached, and Stark sounded happy instead of the usual mask he put up for everyone to see. This was dangerous, but Steve somehow couldn't stop himself from clutching painfully at the phone.

"Are you at the pandas yet? Jesus, are you a ninety-year-old man, walking that slow? Oh, wait, you are."

And then they were back to the teasing. For the first time though, Steve saw that the only maliciousness in the phrase was what Steve himself put there. It was sort of the good-natured ribbing that Bucky...

Cutting that thought off, Steve started a brisk walk to the nearest panda enclosure. "I'm going," he said curtly, in hopes Stark would get the hint that malicious or not, the teasing wasn't welcome. It was crossing the line for being too friendly. What was so important about seeing these pandas anyway?

"Steve?" The phone picked up the insecurity that had crept into Stark's voice, but Steve could pretend this was one of the phones from his time. He was good at pretending by this point. "Is everything alright, or-"

"I'll talk to you when you get here," Steve said, making sure that his voice was calm and impersonal.

"Wait! Steve, please. Did I-"

"I'm hanging up now, Stark. Good-" he started to say. He made the mistake of looking up first, and the words died in his throat.

"Steve?"

"It's just lying there," Steve said, and God help him, but that was the most intelligent thing he could think to say.

"You just saw the pandas, didn't you?" Stark said smugly.

"All it's doing is lying there," Steve repeated, because he was Captain America and capable of forming complex battle plans in a matter of seconds, yet this creature who did nothing but lay there with its face mashed into the ground got past every single one of his formidable defenses and made him want to melt into the pavement.

It bore repeating that all the massive black and white creature had to do to achieve a complete and total meltdown of Captain America was lie there. Steve didn't think he'd ever been disarmed this quickly before, even before the serum.

"Yup. You just saw a panda. Cute, aren't they?"

It took a few moments for Stark's words to filter through the mush that Steve's brain had become. It took a few more to formulate a reply that wasn't just gibberish. "I don't think 'cute' is really strong enough."

"Damn, I knew I should have gone with you. I bet your face is priceless right now. Captain America, cooing over a panda."

"Shut up, Stark," he said absently. It was good to know some phrases were so far ingrained that his first response to Stark was to tell him to shut up, no matter what weakened state Steve was in. Really, pandas needed to come with some sort of warning, because Steve was not prepared to deal with it. These were not just any bears.

"If they weren't endangered, I'd say they should be our ultimate weapon against super-villains," Stark continued. "Doom could not send his robots to destroy lower Manhattan when faced with a panda. Loki would-"

"You're not letting a panda near Loki," Steve growled, half-panicked at the thought.

"Steve, Loki would melt into a pile of evil green goo with daddy issues on the spot. I'm serious. I have one of the blackest souls on the planet. My soul is darker than the blackest coffee, and it took approximately five point six seconds for a panda to render me unable to put two and two together," Stark said. It was a surprisingly convincing argument, despite the fact that Steve would never allow the plan to take place. Or maybe he couldn't think of a counter argument because the panda had rolled over. "What is two plus two, by the way?" Stark asked casually.

"Blue," Steve replied, not really hearing the question but knowing it was something basic.

"Uh-huh. Point proven," Stark said in a tone that should have set off warning signs that Stark was up to something. But Steve's world was narrowed down to black and white, and really, that wasn't fair. It was just lying there.

"Just wait 'til they start feeding time."

"They eat too?" Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, his brain was never going to recover from this.

"And occasionally, they'll even move around to get more bamboo sticks," Stark said. "You're really far gone, aren't you? You know, I could arrange for you to hold one if you want."

"They let you do that?" Steve asked.

"Yeah, it's a tourist-trap thing. You pay enough money, and you can hold a panda cub. And I've got enough money to spare, so don't worry about it."

"They have panda cubs here?" He really should be scolding Stark for needlessly spending money, but the thought of panda cubs sort of broke him. This place was going to be the death of him. Not Nazis, not Norse gods, but pandas.

Stark chuckled. "Really? That's what you get out of that sentence? It's a panda breeding research center, Rogers. That's what they do. Of course they have panda cubs. They might even have little baby pandas at this time of year. You'll like them. They're like you, all small and scrawny and like a tenth of their size when they get bigger. You can emphasize with them. There's a metaphor in there somewhere. Or in the very least some patriotic imagery."

"Oh," Steve said intelligently, his mind going blank as the panda blinked sleepily. It looked sadly around at the old, half-eaten bamboo shoots that surrounded it as it sat up. It looked so sad that Steve thought it needed a hug. A hug and someone to hurry along the panda caretakers.

"Yeah, I'll have them schedule it in a couple hours. I might even make it back in time to see it," Stark said, and it sounded like he was smiling. "Until then, you'll have to take pictures. Then you can show me and the others when we get back. You'll infect us all. It's like second hand smoke being more dangerous, only these will be second hand pandas."

Steve felt his lip quirk up against his better judgement. "Now you're just being ridiculous, Tony."

Instead of a return quip, he was met with silence. Which was odd, because Steve was the only one being besieged by black and white. "Did something happen?" he asked, five seconds away from grabbing the shield off his back.

"No," Stark said, though there was something off about his voice. "But you just... never mind. Anyway, pandas! Have they started feeding yet? Because they're even cuter with bamboo sticks stuffed in their mouths, which, yeah, I know that sounds impossible but it's the truth."

He listened to Stark's babble, searching for any guess of what might have happened. But if anything, Stark sounded... happy? He rewound the conversation in his head as Stark continued to talk about the nutrients in bamboo. He found his mistake easily enough, and suddenly Steve wanted nothing more than to throw the phone as far away from him as possible. And he could throw pretty far.

He'd called Stark by his first name, and he'd done it after laughing. Suddenly, the happiness in Stark's voice made the bile rise up in his throat. Because not only could Steve not handle being friends, but he was apparently leading Stark on. The guilt made his anger slip away as he tried to keep his voice calm and waited for Stark to take a breath. "I should probably let you go now," he said, proud of how neutral he sounded.

Maybe too neutral. Stark seemed thrown off. "Uh, right. I guess you should get back to cooing over the pandas. Though I could... no, never mind. I'll let you have fun with the super-cute. I'll text you when you get to hold the panda, okay? See you in a bit."

Stark hung up before Steve could say more, and privately, Steve was glad. He got the feeling that Stark had wanted to keep talking, and that left him with even more guilt. At this rate, it would start to overflow. It was like he was letting Stark down, and it just made him feel worse. But Steve wasn't the friend Stark needed. He couldn't be. If he was, Stark would...

Steve closed his eyes and walked to the next panda enclosure. He knew intellectually that Stark wouldn't die just because he became friends with Steve. That didn't mean he was ready to chance it just yet.

When he got there, however, all thoughts of Stark and Bucky and the sweltering heat promptly disappeared. There were six pandas sitting on the wooden platform. Six. As if that weren't enough, they were sitting up like a human might, chewing on the bamboo shoots that were spread around on the ground. Then one of them laid back, hands thrown to the side as if he were flying, and the higher functions of Steve's brain just shut down. He couldn't handle it anymore. It was too much. Captain America admitted defeat by cute things, and he couldn't even say he minded.

(A small part of his mind recognized the strategic value of Stark's earlier comments about super-villains. He wondered how the Chinese hadn't taken over the world yet, with this power at their fingertips.)

Steve took plenty of pictures, wanting to test the theory in their next fight against a super-villain without putting them in danger. There were lots of other people around, taking pictures of both him and the pandas, but he'd gotten used to it, surprisingly enough. Now that he knew it was just his height and hair, Steve didn't mind so much. It was just a little strange, but he'd even put one little girl on his shoulders as her grandparents took pictures and she chatted at him excitedly in Chinese.

After some of the excitement around him died, Steve noticed that one of the smaller pandas sat apart from the rest. It sat on the upper platform, eating a bamboo shoot that it had brought with it. Steve watched as it looked down at the other pandas. He couldn't help but think it looked a little lonely up there.

"Are they bullying you?" Steve asked. "Or don't you know how to make friends? You shouldn't..."

The panda closed its eyes and fell asleep. Steve's mind stuttered to a halt, and it took him a few seconds to find his original train of thought. Then he chuckled, low and self-deprecatingly. "Fantastic. I'm projecting on pandas now."

He went through the rest of the park, wondering what Bucky would have thought if he could see Steve now. He'd probably be laughing at Steve when he himself wasn't melting at the sight of two panda cubs wrestling.

The red pandas were another shock of cute. They didn't quite have the all-encompassing grab of the giant pandas, but Steve spent an hour watching them scamper about with a half-smile on his face. It was okay to smile now. He could be happy by himself.

Eventually he found a small bench by the lake after seeing the baby pandas (They were so tiny Steve didn't know how they survived. Then he wondered how many people had seen him before the serum and had thought the same thing) and he pulled out his sketchbook. He hesitated a moment as he decided what to draw. Most of his sketchbook was Peggy, Col. Phillips, the Howling Commandos and other people from his time, but recently all he'd been able to draw was Bucky. Bucky, who had followed Steve instead of...

Steve closed his eyes. He couldn't think about that right now. The world needed Captain America, no matter how tired of the world Steve was. The Battle of New York showed him that. He couldn't afford to lay down on the job because it was too much effort to get out of bed in the morning.

Opening his eyes, Steve started to draw one of the panda cubs he'd seen sleeping while suspended in a tree. Once he'd gotten the panda's face sketched, it was hard not to smile at it, even just a little.

"Captain Rogers?"

Steve looked up to see a Chinese woman of middle height with a surprisingly decent... what Stark would call a 'rack' and what Steve would politely put down as 'very nice curves'. She had a bright smile, and that was where Steve reminded himself firmly that his eyes should be. She seemed like the exact sort of person Stark would send, even if he didn't remember ever getting the promised text. "That's me," he said.

"Hi! My name is Ginnie! Mr. Stark told me to find you. If you'll follow me, I'll take you to where you can hold the panda." Ginnie had a round face framed by dark hair that was pulled back into a pony tail. She held an umbrella over her head, like many people Steve had seen walking around today, despite the fact that it was sunny out.

"Sure," Steve said, gathering up his sketchbook and pencil, putting them away carefully so as not to reveal his shield. "'Ginnie' doesn't sound like a very Chinese name, if you don't mind me asking."

"Ginnie is my English name," Ginnie answered. "My old English teacher gave it to me. I think she said it was after a character in a book?"

A book that she clearly expected Steve as a foreigner to recognize. "It's a pretty name," Steve said instead of admitting he had no idea what it was.

"Thank you!" she said, starting down the path. Steve followed her once he slung his bag over his shoulder. "Mr. Stark made a really big donation to the research center, so you'll be able to hold the panda for as long as you want," she continued. "Usually guests only get a short time to-"

"He made a big donation?" Steve asked, unsure if he should be appalled that Stark was spending this much money on him or glad that the pandas were being funded. He thought back to the phone call, and he could have smacked himself for letting Stark get away with that. But what was done was done, and at least it was for a good cause.

"We're very happy he sent it," Ginnie said, her pony tail swaying back and forth as she walked. "Pandas are endangered, after all, so people supporting them is really good. This way we can continue the research into protecting them."

And really, Steve couldn't argue with that. "So why does everyone have umbrellas here?" Steve asked. Hers was a pretty blue one with lace and butterflies that was obviously not meant for the rain. It reminded him of some of the things the upper class dames had when he was little.

Ginnie giggled at this. "It is to protect me from the sun," she said, giving the umbrella a twirl. "See?"

She held up her am to Steve's, and he looked at them blankly. "I'm so dark, compared to you," she said with a small whine. "I work outside all day, so I get so much sun. You have such nice skin. I wish I had skin that pale!"

Steve blushed, quite sure that his Irish heritage made it impossible to hide the red tint to his cheeks. "S-so you like white skin? It seems like it's the opposite back home right now."

"Every girl wants white skin in China. It's beautiful," she said, leaving Steve to blush harder as she pointed to his arm. He'd never been very good at talking to dames, and he wished Stark were here to...

No. He was doing this alone. He could do this alone. He has been for nearly a year, so he doesn't need his most obnoxious team mate to hide behind.

Ginnie was oblivious to Steve's inner debate, chattering about the various methods used at the research center to ensure that pandas continued to breed. He winced in sympathy when she described how they used electric shocks on the male pandas to get them to produce sperm. That was something Steve could have lived without knowing.

But all of that left his mind when he saw the baby panda in the room, obviously waiting to be cuddled by well-off foreigners or equally well-off Chinese people. It gave an odd little bark when it saw them enter that melted Steve's insides. "I can touch it?" Steve asked tentatively.

"You can hold her, if you like," Ginnie said. "Her name is Miao Miao, and she was born in September of last year, so she's not quite a year old yet."

There was a chair in the middle of the room that Steve assumed was for him to sit in. Instead, he knelt down next to the panda as she watched him carefully. "Hello, sweet girl," Steve said, for the first time in his life not caring how awkward he was around a beautiful female. He reached out to touch her head, amazed at how soft her fur was. "You're a real beauty, aren't you?" he told her softly.

And that was how Steve Rogers became enamored with a panda cub in under a minute. Ginnie helped him hold Miao Miao so that he wouldn't hurt her, and Steve scarcely noticed the click of the cameras going off. Which is why he shouldn't have been surprised that he was caught entirely off guard by the click of the safety being pulled off a gun. That was a sound that was deeply engrained in him as danger, and he looked up in time to find the barrel at his temple. Really, he should have seen this coming, if he was considering using pictures against super-villains, obviously they could have the same thought and less scruples about the pandas getting hurt.

Steve stilled immediately, subtly moving Miao Miao to the other side. "You weren't sent by Stark," Steve said through his teeth, kicking himself for letting his guard down this much.

Ginnie smiled sweetly before it turned malicious. Her accent as she spoke was no longer Chinese, but one Steve was intimately more familiar with. "No, Captain Rogers. We have looked long and hard for a way to isolate you from your new team. Imagine our surprise that you did our work for us," she said with a twisted version of her earlier cheerfulness. "Heil Hydra."

He felt the blood drain from his face at the name, recoiling as if she had struck him with the gun. "The Nazis were destroyed. Hydra was destroyed."

"You killed our leader, yes," Ginnie said. "But you know how the saying goes: cut off one head..."

Two more will take its place. Steve nearly choked on the bile that rose in his throat. The organization Bucky had died to destroy, the organization Steve had died to destroy, was still alive and kicking. He felt sick, with a terrible twisting in his gut that threatened to turn him inside out.

Bucky was dead. Everyone was dead, or old and frail, beyond his reach, gone to a place he couldn't follow. But the nightmares, the nightmares always came back. Hydra came back.

There was a sharp bark from his arms, and Steve immediately loosened his grip, forcing air into his lungs. "Sorry, sweet girl," he told Miao Miao as she pressed her nose at his neck and pawed hard at his chest to get away. Letting her go would make her a target and it'd be harder to protect her if Ginnie turned violent, though, so he held on.

"Pathetic creatures," Ginnie spat. "No ambition. It is a fluke of nature that they have survived this long. Humanity should let the race die out if it can't sustain itself. Evolution values only the strongest."

"And Hitler's vision of an Aryan race is the strongest?" Steve spat, putting as much of himself between Ginnie and the panda as he could. "It's me you want, so don't hurt her."

"We welcome the superior race, Captain. You should be aware of this," the woman said. "Though Hitler's view on color and religion was far too narrow. Now we simply select the best. And we won't harm the pandas so long as you come quietly. Hydra has use for you, Captain."

Before Steve could respond, there was a faint electronic whine coming closer. Both Steve and Ginnie looked up, but Ginnie was blown back a split second later, crashing against the wall with a terrible crack.

Iron Man stood in front of him, faceplate gleaming in the Sichuan sun. "Sorry, babe, but this is the future. Cap can come as loud and hard as he wants to."

Steve stared blankly at Iron Man, knowing he needed to move but feeling like his legs wouldn't support him. Ginnie had no such problems, standing up and clutching at her stomach with one hand as the other lay limply at her side. "You know how the saying goes, Captain America," she said ominously, before crunching down on something inside her mouth.

"Wait, no! Suicide is not - Damn." Stark's face plate shot up as he stared down at her. He looked unsettled over the death, but quickly turned back to Steve. "You okay? You weren't answering your phone and Cherry said she couldn't find you for the pandas, so I figured something was off and checked your GPS. I finally managed to get a remote control link to your com a few seconds ago, but by then it was just kind of easier to drop in and see what the commotion was myself. Who was psycho chick with the death wish? Hey - hey, Steve! Let go of the panda, okay? It's hurting you!"

Steve didn't let go, despite the claw scratches that now graced his neck. "The saying..."

"Steve..." Stark said, worry in his voice. "You look like you've seen a ghost. Who was she?"

Steve swallowed, trying to stand, but his feet did, in fact, buckle under him. Miao Miao finally got away from him, but she didn't wander too far. "Steve!" Stark shouted, scrambling to take Steve's weight.

Steve recoiled from him and the metal touch, ignoring the hurt in Stark's eyes. "There's more of them," Steve gasped, trying to pull himself together.

"How do you know?" Stark asked, looking around and finding nothing.

"Cut off one head and two more take its place," Steve said, aiming for bitter, but ending up more than a little hysterical.

Stark's eyes narrowed. "Isn't that Hydra's catch phrase? Steve, they haven't been active since the-"

"Stop calling me that!" This time, Steve wasn't imagining the hurt in Stark's expression and he couldn't ignore it. He challenged it head-on, because he couldn't afford to care about the fact that he put it there. "And there's more of Hydra. They never go away. Everything good in my life is ripped from me, but Hydra keeps coming back. There's more of them. That's what she meant. There's always more."

There was a short pause, then Steve heard the hiss of hydraulics as the suitcase armor compacted. It wasn't long before very human hands were touching his shoulders, and he wanted to shake Stark for leaving himself defenseless like that just to comfort him, but he couldn't get the scolding out of his throat. He had to admit he wouldn't have reacted well to metal either, not when it was so impartial and reminded him of the anonymity of the Hydra masks.

"Rogers, calm down." Stark's words cut through his hysteria, and Steve took a deep breath. He couldn't afford to breakdown now, not with Hydra attacking. He couldn't. His isolation would be meaningless if he broke down anyway.

"Okay, so Hydra's back," Stark continued. "That's a thing. It's a fucking thing now, but that's okay. I'll take care of it. Protect the pandas while I-"

"I'm not staying here and-"

"Cap, no offense, but you're not up for this one." And damn Stark for having to say the obvious.

"They're after me," Steve said as he scrambled for reasons. "They came here for me."

"Then I'll keep them away," Stark said with a steely resolve. "Look, just stay here and take care of the panda. I'll lead them off."

Stark limped over to the side of the room where there were some bamboo shoots, grabbing a handful before kneeling down close to the corner of the room that the panda had retreated to. Before Steve could come up with a more convincing argument, Stark's face softened. "Hey there, sweetheart. Sorry for scaring you. I know, you're probably not a happy panda at the moment, but we need you to work with us, honey."

Stark held out a bamboo shoot for the panda like a peace offering. The little panda whined, but sniffed at it a few times before crawling out and accepting it. Miao Miao shucked the outer portion of the bamboo with her teeth. "There you are," Stark said with a gentle expression Steve had never seen on him. Steve felt a little better knowing that the panda's charms affected Tony Stark just as much as anyone else. "Cap will take care you, baby girl, so you just-"

An explosion shook the building, and the panda gave a bark of surprise, clawing at Stark's hand. Steve didn't think. He pushed Stark down, shielding both him and the panda as the building started to come down around them.

"Steve!" Stark shouted, trying to scramble for the armor.

"Don't." Steve didn't know if he was protesting Stark moving or the name, but he pulled Stark against him with the hand that wasn't shielding his head. A block of wood caught his back, but his shield was there, covered by the bag, but still strong.

Stark looked miserable, but he huddled closer as a piece of rock scraped down Steve's arm. Stark's forehead rested against Steve's shoulder, the panda whining fearfully between them.

A few seconds later, the debris stopped falling. Steve lowered his arm, looking around carefully. He tightened his grip around Stark, telling himself that it was to make sure the man didn't move away prematurely, and not because that had been far too close of a call, but the excuse felt far too weak and flimsy. The latter was the exact reason he was pushing Stark away, and he couldn't handle that right now, not after Hydra.

When nothing fell on them and what was left of the building was seemingly stable for the time being, Steve stood and started rooting through the rubble. He'd feel a lot better once Stark was back in the suitcase armor.

"Let me look at your arm," Stark said, starting to follow.

"Stay where you are," Steve commanded, terrified either the floor would give way and swallow Stark whole or that he'd set off the structural integrity of what was left. Steve could survive that. Stark wouldn't.

Stark looked about to argue, but he turned and gave Miao Miao the rest of the bamboo as Steve lifted a particularly big boulder off. Part of the hill had blown off with the building, and it was a miracle they weren't buried alive. The suitcase armor underneath was dusty, but not dented. Stark built it sturdy, he'd give the man that much.

Picking up the case, Steve made his way back over to Stark and the panda. He pushed the armor into Stark's hands. "Take the pandas, and get out. Get the civilians to safety. Do not engage with Hydra. I'll draw them off."

"Ste-Cap, that's a crappy idea," Stark said, opening the case with a yank. The armor started to mold around him, and Steve felt better as more of Stark was enclosed. "It's you they want. We can't split up if you're going to take their fire. I'll-"

"You do not engage," Steve nearly shouted, his eyes hard. "Civilians, pandas, and then you get out."

The armor was fully in place now, but the faceplate didn't come down. Stark looked furious. "And what makes you think I'll follow your orders?"

Steve was pulling off his outer clothes, wincing as the fabric brushed over his arm. His suit had caught most of it, but it still hurt. He was awfully glad he'd worn the Captain America armor under his clothes now. "Stark," he said warningly after he'd gotten rid of the unnecessary layers. He wasn't in the mood to deal with Stark's theatrics, and he pulled the cowl over his head after unslinging his shield.

"Those are shit orders, Captain Stick-in-your-ass, and you know it. I'm not going to-"

Steve slammed Stark, armor and all, into what little remained of the wall. "Get the civilians and animals out, then get out yourself. Those are orders, soldier."

And that was the exact wrong thing to say; he saw it the moment the last word left his mouth. "I'm not a soldier," Stark said, trembling in anger even through the suit. The face plate snapped down as Stark shoved him away, and Steve let him go. Stark picked up a panicked Miao Miao and flew off without a backward glance.

Steve let out a breath. At least Stark was following orders, even if it was only for now. He couldn't let Stark fight against Hydra. Not now, when it was so close to...

Steve traced the edge of his shield, clearing his mind. Then he walked out of the rubble, looking around for a target. The civilians had cleared out of the immediate area, and the plaza looked empty.

A rustle in the trees made Steve bring up his shield. Something hit with a loud clang, and Steve risked a glance down at the ammunition. Tranquilizer dart. Hydra knew all about the serum due to the Red Skull, so odds were that the tranqs in that dart would be enough to take out someone with Steve's metabolism.

"So Hydra is hiding up in trees now? Pandas do that, and I'm told they're an inferior species," Steve said with a calm he didn't feel as several armed Hydra agents dropped down. He didn't even wait for them to stand, flinging his shield and rolling away as they started shooting at him. The shield knocked out two of the Hydra soldiers as it rebounded back to him, and Steve caught it in time to bring the edge down on someone who tried to close in on him. He heard vaguely over the coms Stark directing civilians to evacuate, then asking JARVIS to translate 'without using that Google Translate shit.' Which meant Stark was occupied and following orders so long as there were civilians present. Steve had to end this quickly.

It didn't occur to him until he'd taken out another Hydra soldier that Stark usually kept his conversations with JARVIS off the coms. He might be furious with Steve for the admittedly jerk move he'd pulled, but he's still letting Steve hear that he was okay. Steve didn't want to think about how relieved he felt at that.

Steve used his shield to knock down two more men before throwing it again, ducking as a tranq dart whizzed past his ear. He put his weight behind a punch as another Hydra soldier clipped him with a knife on his cheek. Steve felt the sting as blood dripped down to his chin, but he kicked the knife away with a solid connection that probably broke the man's wrist.

"Come on, sweetheart," he heard Stark say over the coms. "No, damn it. You scratched the paint job! Come here you cute little bastard, I'm not going to hurt you." Steve caught his shield, stumbling as one of the Hydra soldiers kicked at his feet. "Don't give me that 'I'm so cute you'll forgive me anyway' look," Stark continued. "It won't work on me. Do you have any idea how much this armor costs and you just... okay, okay, stop with the cute. I admit defeat. Let's just get you out of here."

"Focus, Stark," Steve hissed, fighting a wave of dizziness. He did a mental check to make sure none of the tranq darts had hit. That only left his cheek, which meant the weapons had to be laced as well. Damn.

"Right, your patriotic panties are still so tightly twisted that-"

"Stark, cut the chatter," Steve said, ducking under a punch a little too slowly and taking a clip to the side of his head. What had been relieving at first was now a distraction, and one he couldn't afford.

Stark growled over the coms. "I'd like to see how you plan on making me follow-"

Steve lost the rest of the sentence, the force of the next blow sending him tumbling over the railing into one of the panda enclosures. A panda looked up from the platform a short ways away where it had been taking a nap.

"Cap?" he heard over the coms as he saw one of the snipers take aim.

Steve knew in that second a few things. First, the sniper was aiming at the panda. Second, the dosage in those tranq darts would kill the panda easily. Third, they wanted him to throw the shield to save it, leaving himself defenseless.

Steve didn't hesitate in throwing the shield, tumbling forward as he did, making himself a moving target. The shield hit the sniper and a tranq dart missed him by half an inch. Too close. He was moving too slowly, and God, what was on that knife if just a graze was getting to him?

He caught the shield, running to put himself between the panda and the attackers. He nearly fumbled catching the shield, but it was up in front of him for the next hit.

The panda, through it all, did nothing but roll over. When Steve turned back to yell at it, to try to get it to run away, his anger at the creature melted quicker than ice would have in a Sichuan summer. And really, he didn't need to be thinking about ice right now. Instead, he stood in front of the panda and threw his shield again to keep the assailants from closing in.

Unfortunately, there was a sniper he'd missed. Steve saw him a second too late, as the shield slipped out of his fingers, and there was nothing he could do, nothing he could use to block the blow. There was no dodging, not with the panda behind him. He calculated the trajectory in the split second before the shot was fired, knowing he could do nothing more than control where he got hit.

But as the sniper pulled the trigger, a gold and red blur got in the way.

Iron Man staggered into him. Steve barely had time to catch both Stark and his shield, but he managed somehow, giving them both cover from the next round of fire.

"Fuck," Stark said, going entirely too stiff in the armor.

"Stark, status," Steve demanded, unable to look down with their attackers still coming. He picked off the sniper with his shield, blocking the closer Hydra soldier with his forearm.

"Fucking Hydra weapons," Stark said, firing a repulsor blast at the man who had been attacking Steve, creating a giant hole in the man's chest. Stark knew better than to use that kind of force against regular humans, unless his consciousness was slipping from the drugs. But Stark was in the armor. The tranq darts had all bounced off his shield, so it shouldn't affect Stark's armor either, right?

"Stark-"

"The dart got through," Stark said, tipping to the side unsteadily. Steve's blood ran cold, but he couldn't turn and look. There were still Hydra soldiers swarming around them. "Damn it," Stark cursed, his words sounding slurred. "Get me one of those guns. When this is over, I want to know what the hell they have that can pierce the armor."

Stark would be dead before Steve could even get his hands on one. Stark fell to one knee as he fired another repulsor blast, picking off another Hydra goon. "JARVIS, keep my arm steady if you have to!"

Steve put himself between the panda, Stark, and their attackers, but they would overrun him soon. There was no place to bottle neck them in the open like this. The drug was racing through Stark's body. Steve felt useless.

He wasn't going to be able to hold them off. He'd known that going in, which is why he'd sent Stark away. But now...

Now they were shouting the German word for retreat. Steve stared as they started to fall back, easily blocking the last few rounds with his shield. They were getting away. They'd get away and bring twice as many people next time, and he wasn't going to let-

Out of the corner of his eye, Stark fell to the ground. Steve gave one last glance around to make sure no one was around to take advantage of his guard being let down (too late, Stark had already done it, and damn him for doing so only to get hit like this), before taking a few long strides to Stark. "Get the suit off," he ordered.

"That's a change," Stark slurred. The faceplate slid off with the armor following suit, and Stark blinked hazily with unfocused eyes. "I screwed up again, didn't I?"

"What are you talking about?" Steve asked, panicking when Stark's eyes slid shut for a second too long. "Stark, stay awake! That's an order."

"Not very good at following orders, Cap. You should know that by..."

"Tony, stay with me. What do you mean you screwed up?"

"Thought I could fix things," Tony said with a small, rueful smile, his voice fading as the armor retreated. "But I keep making things worse. Can't even get you to smile. I really... fucked up this one. Rhodey said I wouldn't. I wanted to be proved wrong. Just this once, I..."

Tony didn't open his eyes again this time. He was lousy at following orders, but the bastard could have... he could have at least followed this one. Steve bowed his head, grasping at Tony's prone form and wondering why they bothered to wake him up just for this.

He tensed at the sound of footsteps, jumping to his feet and fighting back a bout of dizziness. Was Hydra back? Why had they left in the first place? He raised his shield, wondering how much of a fight he could put up. The drug had to be burning through his body by now, and he couldn't... he couldn't let Hydra get the armor.

He owed Tony that much. Actually, he owed Tony a lot more, but this was all he could give now.

But the soldiers who started to appear were all Chinese. And they were speaking to him in Chinese, which made about as much sense to Steve as usual. He got the feeling they weren't hostile though, and they were probably the reason Hydra had been scared off. He lowered his shield, motioning back to where Tony was lying. "Tony is - Stark is down," he said, knowing they wouldn't be able to understand, but needing to try anyway. He looked back to see the panda sniffing at Stark's shoulder and whining softly. The image just about broke his heart.

He thought it'd been broken beyond repair after Bucky had died and Steve lost everyone when he woke up in the future, but it turns out stomping on the bits and pieces still hurt. His isolationism had only made it worse. Not only was Tony going to die (if he wasn't already dead while Steve had been distracted), but he would die believing he'd failed, because for some wild and insane reason, Tony had decided he wanted Steve to smile. Steve had found it easier to smile since coming here than he had in months. Would it have killed him to have shared one or two with Tony? And how pathetic was it that he had only started calling the genius Tony when there was no point in wallowing in denial? Funny how death made a lot of things pointless.

The Chinese military took over, and he let them usher him wordlessly into the ambulance with Tony, but not before he'd picked up the suitcase armor. Against all odds the man was still breathing, but Steve could only assume the drug was working slower through Tony's normal metabolism. It was a matter of time. It was always a matter of time.

Steve sat in the ambulance, feeling too big and too useless to do anything to help. He thought that maybe he should take Tony's hand, but in the end he couldn't even do that. They took Tony into the emergency room, and Steve wasn't allowed to follow.

~TBC~