Author's Note: As with the Taskmaster's cell number at The Raft last chapter, which referred to his debut in Avengers #195, Leonard Samson's address and office number refer first to the issue in which he appeared, and then to the year: in this case, Incredible Hulk #141 (1971). More of an effort, then, on my part to establish little corners of New York out of which our heroes live and operate, as well as a bit of a Easter Egg hunt for you, dear readers. Something that's plagued my writing ever since I took this up back in 2004.

Anyway. One of the issues with the setting and time-frame of this story was wrangling together all the various parts of Marvel history that were going on circa 2000. A previous draft mentioned 'some trouble with Kang', which is an Avengers Forever reference. Below, we made reference to the Fantastic Four's time at Pier 4—and their return to the Baxter Building (the end of the Pier 4 days and the return to the Baxter Building can be found in Fantastic Four vol. 3, 35-36 & 39, by Carlos Pacheco). Our sense of the Baxter Building and the Fantastic Store comes primarily from Mark Waid's now-sadly overlooked run on the quartet, and a particular story of his called 'Authoritative Action', which begins nowhere else but the gift shoppe. Here, as there, I've tried to adopt as much of the space age élan that so characterised the book under Waid. The narration for the Fantastic Four's holoprojection comes in part from Star Trek's usual opening narration: the idea is that these two outposts of optimistic sci-fi complement each other in tone and scope (next time, Fantastic Four meets Doctor Who!). Also, I've battled for years over finding a suitable use for Sue Storm, aside from eye candy and the voice of token disapproval. Other FF stories I've written have somewhat consciously put her on the fringe because I wasn't sure what to do with her: here I think I've finally found a niche. The heart and soul role. Could have gone to Johnny, could have gone to Ben or even Reed (who we've used extensively already, so that was right out). Using Sue was more of a challenge. I'm still not as comfortable with her as I'd like to be, but I guess if there's a point to this story, it's about discomfort, and the natural barriers between people. And how those can be broken.


Scott and Steve Rogers.

2001.

Scott stayed at the Baxter Building through Christmas and into the New Year. It took an act of God for Peggy to let him see Cassie for the holiday. Scott saved it by saying he didn't want to argue and that all he wanted was to give Cassie her gifts and maybe some of Sue's delicious turkey dinner and then Peggy could take possession once more. Possession. His words.

He actually smiled a bit when he heard Peggy sigh through the phone.

"Noon," she said. "And I'll pick her up at six."

Christmas had gone well. Scott got her a bicycle and Dr Seuss' Greatest Hits—a box set of his big books; The Lorax and the Grinch, and Horton and the Red Fish. Cassie got him a necktie with the Fantastic Four logo in little slants across a blue field. He smiled and asked "where did you get this?" and she said, "Mom got it for you a long time ago, she found it a few months back and saved it, said you might appreciate it."

And he did. So too did Reed and Sue, who indeed had been reminded of the times they'd spent with Scott years before.

It was like old times. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, Scott, Ben and Johnny took Franklin down to Times Square to see the ball drop. Reed and Sue stayed in, with Reed's liquor cabinet and Sue's Miles Davis collection to accompany.

"All the family together," Sue said, later that night over eggnog and the fireplace in the lounge. "I'm glad you stayed with us, Scott."

Scott was three eggnogs deep. So was Reed. Together they stood by the window staring out at the winter's snow whirling through Manhattan. "So am I," Reed said.

So it was nice. The time he spent with the Fantastic Four and their idyllic little urban life. There was laughter and childish mirth, he thought. Scott taught Franklin about computers. Franklin taught Scott about Galactus.

It ended shortly after the New Year.

When Captain America visited the Baxter Building.

Not his first time in the building but one of the most surreal. Certainly the first time he'd ever stopped to look at their public side. The celebrities the public loved.

He might have flown the Quinjet and landed on the roof, dressed like the flag, the shield slung strapping and proud around tall and straight shoulders. The model of heroism, the Daily Bugle once called him.

As it was, Steve Rogers, anonymous to anyone who wasn't looking for him, walked the length of Fifth Avenue. Right out the Mansion's front door and down the street, until he hit the Public Library at 41st and followed the hook up to Madison.

And there it was. The building shone on an otherwise grim, drizzling day. Recently rebuilt, or so Rogers heard. Built in space and then lowered to the site of the former building.

The ground floor housed the Fantastic Store, the gift shoppe through which merchandise ran, the profits going to Richards' research and the upkeep of Fantastic Four, Inc., of which Susan Storm was the chief executive.

No one noticed him. The beauty of civilian clothes: trousers, boots, a drab grey hoodie and a dark brown motorcycle jacket over that.

He had to smile that that. No one knew him.

He breathed deep and cocked his head at a row of Johnny Storm's headshots on the east wall.

He didn't even have a suitable cognate for what he was seeing. The far wall lined with Warhol quarter prints of each of the Four. Plush toys of each of the Four. in open-end boxes and display cases underneath. Action figures. Karate-chop Human Torch. Fist-of-Fury Thing. Super-stretch Mr Fantastic. An Invisible Woman and She-Hulk twin pack—'women warriors', it read.

And overhead, he heard a computer's voice narrating the story of the Four. He turned away from the action figures, to the holo-display at the centre of the store, shuddering and brilliant as it dramatised their creation:

'…Bombarded by cosmic rays, which transformed their bodies—fantastically!—Dr Richards and his family returned to Earth where they decided to use their newfound talents for the good of mankind, and became-The Fantastic Four! Explorers of the Unknown! Challengers of Tomorrow! Here in the Baxter Building, in the heart of New York City, Dr Reed Richards and his family live and work, exploring new worlds, new civilisations, and making the world a safer place…"

Rogers smiled and turned away.

The rest of the shoppers stayed, entranced. High school and elementary student groups on day-trips. University students with clipboards, eager to pick Richards' brain on their professor's latest tenure-attempt. Looky-loos eager for a peak at the real-life Ben Grimm. Girls eager for Johnny Storm to come strolling out and sign a photo of himself for them or just to brush past them. And rural and suburban types on their first trip to Manhattan—and where better to go first than the headquarters of the world-famous Fantastic Four.

This was important, he thought.

Showing them we're not monsters. That we don't have to hide.

"Captain."

The voice was calm and pleasant, from somewhere in front of him. He looked around, surreptitious for a moment, and then stopped.

"Mrs. Richards," he said with a fond little sigh. Slid his hands into his jacket pockets.

A meter ahead of him, she materialised. Or became visible. Susan Storm nee Richards. Her hair pinned high and smart on her head. Brilliant blue eyes locked on his. An easy and agreeable smile. Her arms folded across her chest. Wearing grey trousers and smart heels and a rich black turtleneck.

He met her handshake and said, "Please, call me Steve."

"If you insist," Sue said and smiled. "Now what can we do for you?"

Rogers checked a thumb over his shoulder. "You're not worried about being seen?"

She waved a hand. "I relish it, but I imagine you don't want to draw attention to yourself. Otherwise, you'd have come here in your suit, yes?"

"Yes," he said. Glanced over his shoulder. The tour groups and looky-loos were still enraptured in the holoprojection. He looked back to Sue. "I had some time to spare. I thought I'd reacquaint myself with the Baxter Building."

She laughed. "You and me both. So what can we do for you, Captain?"

"Well, I've come to talk to Scott. Can we go upstairs?"

"Sure," Sue said and turned. The elevator bank lay three meters ahead, pressed into a smooth wall of Connemara marble, deep green against the gift shoppe's blue and white motif. Set into the marble, at Susan's own height, was a thin black panel, with a single red eye staring out.

She leant in front of it and waited for the beam to recognise her iris.

"Reed saw 2001 last week," she said. "Frankly, I was surprised he hadn't seen it before, but Johnny insisted it was right up Reed's alley. Anyway, he's modelled this week's security programs, as you might imagine, after HAL 9000. Franklin got a kick out of it."

The doors pinged open, and a small flat voice said, 'Welcome, Missus Richards'. Rogers stepped in dutifully after her.

Rogers said, "So how do you like being back?"

Sue gave a half-shrug. "I like it fine. This is home, you know. The pier was terrific, we did some great work there, but this—this is where we belong. Franklin loves it here, the boys love it. We do the most good here."

"I'm glad," Rogers said with a smile. "The world needs the Fantastic Four, and the Fantastic Four need the Baxter Building."

"That's very true," Sue said. "May I ask you something?"

"Of course."

"You said you're here to see Scott. May I ask why?"

Rogers smiled. Let out a quiet chuckle and glanced at the floor. It was a feigned sort of bashfulness, an act he acquired a long time ago. It put his friends at ease. And his enemies on edge.

"I want him to be an Avenger."

"Again?"

"Yes," Rogers said. "Full-time."

The doors slid open.

The lounge was bigger than it seemed. Bigger than Rogers remembered. Walls that doubled as windows, but for foot-high bases. A spiral staircase in the centre of the room. Furniture to match dim beige carpet and angular brown fixtures. A low coffee table flanked by davenports in rich brown, and a matching Eames chair at the head.

Sue slung her hands on her hips and said, "We did a bit of repurposing, as you can see. I tried to keep the original look and spirit of the public spaces, the ones our visitors see when they come up here. Of course we let everyone designs their own rooms: you'd love Ben's, he's come into these fascinating posters and prints from the war, really spectacular. And of course Johnny's is a mess, but he insisted on his own space. Reed and I did our quarters in an Art Deco style, black and white."

"It looks great, Susan." Rogers folded his arms across his chest. "Very much you."

"Coffee?" Susan asked.

"Oh yes, please," Rogers said and sank into the Eames chair.

"HERBIE," Sue said and looked at the ceiling. "Two coffees, please. You remember how Captain America likes his, yes?"

"Of course," the room said. A pleasant voice, not unlike, Rogers thought, the one in the elevator.

"Let me guess," Rogers said. "You took Reed's service robot and wired his algorithms throughout? Giving you hands-free amenities."

Susan smiled. "Why aren't you on this team?"

She looked ahead at the spiral staircase, at the legs bouncing down, taking the shape of a man.

Scott. In the Ant-Man suit, with the helmet stuck under one arm. He stopped in his tracks when he saw Sue and Rogers

"Oh Sue, hi," he said. He stepped forward as Rogers stood and met his handshake. "What, ah, brings you here, Steve?"

"Well, you, Scott. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I've been talking to Tony and Clint."

Sue glanced between them. "I'll go, ah, see what's become of your coffee, Steve." Then she was gone. Turning away and invisible all in the same move.

Scott's eyes narrowed as he listened. Bent down and put the Ant-Man helmet on the coffee-table gingerly. "So how is Tony? Still upset about me throwing him into the wall?"

"He's fine," Rogers said and waved a hand. "You know Tony."

Scott cocked an eye. Muttered, "Yeah, we all know Tony."

"We'd like you to become an Avenger," Rogers said.

Scott looked up at him. Silent. Confused.

"Full-time," Rogers said. "Tony says your old position at Stark Industries is yours if you want it. You can live at the Mansion, come and go as you please."

Scott sighed. Kept the narrow, glazed look. He sunk slowly into the davenport. His mouth hung open.

He was thinking. Rogers saw it.

"Um," Scott said. Swallowed a lump of saliva at the back of his throat. "What, uh, what about Cassie? My visitations?"

Rogers was enthusiastic about that. He threw his hand out in a wide flail, the old come-on-down. "We'd love to have her. If your wife and Judge Coffin agree to it, of course."

"I don't want to impose," Scott said. Locked steady and apologetic blue eyes onto Rogers. "Really."

Rogers stood and patted Scott's shoulder. "It's no imposition. Do you remember what I told you last summer? The Avengers need Ant-Man. We need Scott Lang."

He slouched deeper into the davenport.

"Um. Can I—I mean, I don't want to seem ungrateful, Steve. Can I think about this?"

"Of course," Rogers said. "Take as long as you need. I'm always around."

Rogers stood and turned for the elevator. The doors opened for him, and said, 'Welcome back, Captain America'.

He laid a hand on the jamb, and looked back. "Thank you for your hospitality, Sue. Tell Reed let's do dinner this week."

Then he was in the elevator. The doors shut. And he was gone.

Scott stared at the floor for a long moment.

Out at the skyline, the top of Madison Avenue staring back at him.

At the spiral staircase in the centre of the room.

"Sue?"

She half-materialised on the landing.

"What do you think?" he asked.

She gave him half of a smile. Sad and joyful. The way one looks back and looks forward. Janus, Scott thought. And wondered where he knew the name.

"You mean not to go," she said.

"I don't know what I want to do," he said, still staring at the floor. Unoffencive beige berber. He looked up at her, his face drawn and calm. "I know I can't stay here forever."

Sue glanced out the window slyly. "Scott, you know you can stay here as long as you like."

"For how long?" he said. "Until the next time-travelling idiot blows through town? Until Victor gets clever?"

"We could use the manpower."

"But not the extra weight. You—Sue, you've got a family here. One I can't pretend to impose on."

Sue sat next to him. Narrowed her eyes.

"Where's this coming from?"

He frowned. "What?"

"We both know you wouldn't be imposing," she said. "Franklin loves you. Johnny loves having another set of hands in the shop. And I know Reed seems like he refers solitude when he's in the lab, but—Scott, you help us out."

"The world famous Fantastic Four," Scott said and breathed deep. "You don't need my help."

"We choose to accept it, Scott. It's a matter of free will. Steve and the Avengers choose to accept it as well. Just because one person decided to do without you doesn't mean we have. So I mean it when I say you can stay here as long as you like. We can put fives on the uniforms. We can help you."

He sighed and ran his hands through his hair. Staring at the floor again.

He said, "Why can't I be happy?"

Sue waited. Frowned. Looked away, as if searching for distant and invisible answer. She smiled a bit at the irony. Looked back to Scott and laid a hand on his shoulder.

"You know," she said. "When we came back to Earth. After the accident. We woke up in a field. A field." She chortled. "And then other things happened. The hospital, the hearings, but all that was peripheral."

"Why are you telling me this?"

"I'm trying to prove a point," she said. "When we were in the hospital, Reed came to my room one day—they told us all not to move, that no one could be sure what would happen, if our legs would snap off or if Johnny got too excited and took the ICU up in flames. We came home a few days later. He knelt beside my bed and he told me—he said he'd made a mess of our lives, that he was truly sorry, and that he was going to spend the rest of his life making up for it."

Scott was looking at her now. Listening intently. This was part of the story he hadn't heard. Not in a very long time, and certainly not from Sue herself.

"And?"

She smiled fondly. "I told him he didn't need to apologise. That what happened was a marvellous thing. A gift." Then she looked at Scott. "I told him I loved him. And that just because a terrible thing happened to us, it didn't mean our lives were over. We could still do good. We could still be a family."

Scott sniffled. Wiped his face and looked offhanded at the Ant-Man helmet, sitting next to him and catching some of the gleam of the afternoon sun through the windows.

He looked at Sue. And she looked right back.

"Okay," he said.


Scott and Reed.

2001.

Noon of a spring day. The sun stuck high in the sky and beating down on Manhattan. Enshrining all the skyscrapers, Liberty Island, the rivers. On the street, a cold gust barrelled down Fifth Avenue. Sitting in the passenger's seat of Reed's Mercedes, Scott felt it. Swore he could. When he looked out the window and saw hunched bodies, heads staring at the sidewalk as they went about their days, yes, he knew it.

He found himself missing Coral Gables. For once.

Missing the sun and the ocean and the light. The way you threw a towel on the sand and how if you sat for too long it moulded to every mound in your ass. How the sand worked its way inside your trunks. Not an altogether unpleasant feeling, he thought and cracked a smile.

The way the sun beamed off the water. And the bodies. Guys with something to prove, showing off their Bowflexes. Girls showing off their vegan diets and tanning salons. Volleyball, sandcastles, Mai Tais.

The way Peggy looked in her old two-piece, rising slowly from the water and scanning the beach till she found sight of him, and waving, her arm sliding through the air, a human windshield wiper, brisk and firm. How the sight of her diving into the deep parts or even just walking her beach walk, a slow, seductive sort of swing she knew turned heads, gave him a tickle the sand in his pants didn't.

He'd never been that free with her. Maybe it was too late.

I miss that, he thought. Very matter of factly. Maybe he didn't miss Florida so much as he missed Peggy. Maybe it was just starting to sink in, in some meaningful way. Maybe, he thought again.

The smell of her. Chlorine and Chanel No. 5. The feel of her. The way she smiled, the way she gasped and grabbed his arm at the sight of the alien bursting out of John Hurt's stomach. What a night. The way he'd hold her close,, bring her in and smell her hair and even cop an inadvertent feel, his hands warm and still on her breasts.

He looked out the window. The Mercedes was doing about 35. Speed limit, he thought. Boring. Not a lot of traffic, though, for a Saturday. He sighed.

Maybe life goes on, he thought. Start taking Murdock and Steve's advice for good this time instead of using it to spend a weekend with praying mantises. Have a good life and believe that you can. Owe yourself some respect. Everyone's doing it these days, why yes-sirree. The heroin of optimism. And the withdrawal of life.

He frowned. Maybe too grim, that.

He supposed he had been pretty down. Beaten, lessened. Made to look a fool, to be less hurtful about it.

Something strange had happened in the lounge, those days ago when Steve Rogers asked him to be an Avenger again. The anger melted away. Like he was upset before—certainly there had been anger. Most of it directed at Peggy. Some of it even directed at Reed and Sue, for reasons he no longer remembered. But all that melted away that day. He didn't have the qits to see it. Come Be An Avenger. And why not?

A chance to build a meaningful life away from freeloading at the Baxter Building any longer. To do some important work with important people.

And to make a comfortable life for Cassie.

That was the first thing.

He'd spent so long running. Trying to find meaning in the most impossible places. Among the mantises and at the Raft.

Hmm.

The Taskmaster had tried to teach him a lesson, a fractured fairytale. So had Steve and Murdock and Richards. Advice from all the right quarters, so what was there to be angry about?

He was rudderless. Had been rudderless. Would probably continue being without rudder. That was it. He let out a breath. Rudderless. Peggy had strip-mined the ship, and the Taskmaster had taken it off-course, trying to goad him into righteous anger. Which wasn't productive.

Captain America had given Scott a rudder again. And other metaphors.

And if Captain America believes it, he thought, so can I.

He'd lost his family. Or had it reapportioned into something like a family. Now he was being given a chance to rectify that. Not to make up for old times, but to make new times.

Life goes on, he thought again.

Reed stopped the Mercedes and looked out his window. The gates to the Mansion, wrought iron and the colour of deep gold, swung open, a noiseless herald. Scott's eyes narrowed. He pursed his lips. Apprehensive. unsure. Sure. He'd been here plenty of times. But.

Never like this. Not one to one, and not for good.

But it is for good. Isn't it.

Scott was still looking at the Mansion.

"I have to go," he said. "Don't I."

Reed was silent for a minute. Then he smiled kindly, sadly. "I could make a phone-call and we could be at Muir Island by midnight. Or embrace the principles of Thoreau in the Savage Land."

Scott chuckled.

Then Reed was more serious. "You've gone through a tough thing. I sympathise, Scott, I really do, even though I lack a full understanding. There's something I was thinking of giving you but there's no way I can without inviting at least a measure of your disdain."

"What is it?"

Reed plucked a card from his jacket pocked, clasped between his index and middle fingers. Held the face out so Scott could read it.

Reed looked at the card, imprecise and unsold on his own idea. "He's an old friend, a psychiatrist. Very good. One of the best. I don't mean to tell you what to do, but I wanted to offer his services. He's helped me and Sue many times before, and I thought perhaps you would benefit from his services."

Scott took the card.

He thought of Steve's advice.

And he looked at it.

Leonard Samson, Psy.D
1971 N Broadway, # 141
New York NY 10023
By Appt Only

Scott smiled.

"Thank you, Reed" he said.

Reed gave a tentative and comforting smile.

Then Scott was out. Opening the back door. Fetching his rollaway from the backseat and jaywalking over. He stopped in the middle and looked back at Reed: leaning against the car, his arms folded across his chest, his blue suit and black turtleneck, his hair tousling in the breeze, his face almost locked in a prideful smile.

Scott yelled, "Coming in?"

Reed cocked an eye and leant away. Strolled across the street, one hand in his pocket, the other swinging leisurely at his side.

Scott looked at the front doors, twin oak behemoths lined with impossible science to deter Masters of Evil, Infinity Gauntlets, Skrulls, Nukes, Iron Mongers…and the Avengers that fought them.

At the top of the steps, Jarvis was waiting, a silver platter in one hand.

Scott remembered Peggy again.

There was love there once. Suppose that was corny, but it was true, like most corny things. Love, even the sloppy kind, soaked in sweat and lust and seat cushions and clothes, tripped teenage hormones operating at max. Maybe that's all they ever had, he and Peggy, but it was nice. No denial. It was nice and it was rare and it was treasured.

And the other stuff. Boeing and MIT and prison, but all that was peripheral.

There was a carnival once in Coral Gables. He and Peggy on the Ferris wheel, and getting stuck at the top when the damned thing broke down, rusted and sparking to a halt with their car so luckily stuck at the top. They stared out at the ocean for an hour before the technicians got the thing working again.

She laid her head on his shoulder and said she loved him and always had.

He kissed her and said the same thing. And proved the point an hour later by winning her Wubzy, the comically-oversized teddy bear, from the bottle shot game.

He missed that Ferris wheel.

I swear, we saw fucking Italy from that thing.

So they'd fallen in love. Then other things happened. A job, a life, a child. The bravest one you'd ever know. Fifteen years away from the Ferris wheel, he thought, that becomes a family Peggy decides to keep for herself.

A job. A life. A family.

Friends that he cared about and who cared for him.

That's the kicker.

He looked ahead and made himself smile.

Stark came out, a leisurely step to him, a smile on his face and a bottle of Perrier in one hand. Now Clint, with a bottle of Stella in one hand and another he handed out to Scott. Steve Rogers hovered near the back, almost out of sight. Scott swore he saw a smile there anyway.

Reed joined Scott and patted him on the back.

Together they went in, to see what lay ahead.


The End.

August 2010-March 2011