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and this is the map of my heart

Chapter Text

Wakanda was gorgeous. All tropical greens, rich golds and brilliant reds.

It just wasn’t home.

Steve stood at a window, staring out at the forest that stretched as far as the eye could see.

“You okay?” Sam’s quiet question had him turning.

“Yeah,” he lied

“Right.” Sam tilted his head. “That world getting a little heavy there, Atlas?”

Steve’s mouth twisted in a smile. “I will be okay,” he amended. His eyes caught the discarded package on the bed. “Eventually.”

Sam’s gaze went to the bed. He walked over and shook the phone out of it. “What’s this?” he asked, holding it up to Steve.

“An answer,” Steve said, something that felt like hope curling up and dying inside him.

“I don’t…” Sam stopped. “Stark.” It wasn’t a question.

Steve nodded. “I sent it to him. Told him to call if he needed me…us.”

“You told him where we were?” Sam sounded afraid. Steve hated that his friend was afraid.

“No.” He turned back to the view. “He’s known where we are the whole time.”

Sam made a confused noise. “But then he should have reported us. Handed us over.”

“Yeah.” Steve dropped his forehead against the cool glass of the large window. “He should have.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I didn’t listen to him.” Steve rubbed at his chest, a phantom pain as he remembered his friend’s anguished face. “I didn’t trust him.”

~~~~

“No.” Rhodey glared at Tony. “Get the hell out of here and let me suffer with Nurse Pratchett here.”

The tall, beefy physio just rolled his eyes at Tony. “It’s fine, Mr. Stark. I’ve got this.”

“I’ve told you to call me Tony.” He’d almost given up on getting Derek to use his first name. “Buttercup…”

“Seriously. Fuck off, Tones. It’s bad enough without you here.” Tony’s flinch didn’t go unnoticed. “We are not having another conversation about who’s fault this is.” Rhodey flapped a hand at the latest incarnation of the exoskeleton. “I’m alive. I’m walking. End of.”

Tony rolled his shoulders. “I’ve got a meeting with the WSC,” he said.

Rhodey glared at him. “And just when were you planning on telling me?” His jaw jutted out. “I need to be there.”

“Vision is on guarding Tony duty.” Tony said. “It’s not like I can keep avoiding them.”

“You need more than Viz,” Rhodey insisted.

Tony’s laugh was sharp and bitter. “He’s an artificial intelligence powered by one of the most powerful things in the universe. Who’s going to take him on?”

Rhodey made a disgruntled noise. “Nice, dickhead, way to remind me how utterly fucking useless I am.”

Tony’s eyes went wide at the thought of insulting his friend. “Jim. No. I …” He glared when he saw Rhodey’s shoulders shaking. “You are an asshole.” But his chest didn’t hurt anymore. “I hate you.”

Rhodey grinned at him. “I’ve been getting you like that for thirty years, Tones. Every goddamn time.”

Tony gave him the middle finger and kissed him wetly on the cheek. “I will get my revenge,” he promised, smacking Rhodey on the butt. “The exoskeleton really shapes the globes of your ass beautifully.”

Derek gave a snort of laughter, looking away as Rhodey whined, “Why do you always have to make it weird?”

~~~~

The World Security Council didn’t often meet face to face. It was dangerous to have them all together and the last time it had happened, Hydra had tried to kill off a quarter of Earth’s population. Of course, only one of the Council had survived that.

This meeting was secret in all of the best ways. Secret location, secret agenda, even secret identities. Tony had made Vision wear a baseball cap and dark glasses as a nod to the mission. Vision had not been impressed.

“Councilors.” Tony walked into the room with Vision at his back. He didn’t bother to attempt to disguise himself. Nobody on the planet was ignorant of what Tony Stark looked like anyway.

“Mr. Stark.” The woman with the British accent nodded her head.

“Councilwoman Hawley.” Tony held out a hand. She shook it. “The rumors of your death were clearly greatly exaggerated.”

She curled her thin lips in a smile. “They do say that cream rises to the top.”

Tony inclined his head. “And I assume these are your new best friends?” He looked around at the three men and one other woman watching them.

“This is Councilman Yamamoto, Councilman Chayka, Councilman Hogan and Councilwoman Delany.” She introduced them one at a time, Tony moving down the line, shaking hands with each of them. He was relying on Vision to analyze body language and vitals to look over later. “Representing the East, the West, the North and the South.”

Tony’s gaze swung between them. “Do I get to guess who runs where?"

Councilwoman Hawley shook her head. “No, Mr. Stark. That isn’t how we work.”

“And who do you represent?” Tony asked. He watched the micro-expressions crossing her face and decided that she was the one he needed to convince.

“I am merely the secretary,” she said, the steel in her eyes telling Tony everything he needed to know.

“Head Bitch in Charge then?” Tony had little time for diplomacy these days.

This time her smile was genuine. “You’re a smart man, Mr. Stark,” she acknowledged. “Now, tell us why we should support your amendments to the Sokovia Accords and make a submission to the United Nations in our own capacity?”

“Because they won’t listen to me.” Tony went to a seat around the small conference table, Vision behind him like a shadow. “Please. We need this to be ratified so that the damage done to the Avengers isn’t all for nothing.”

The councilors took seats around the table, Hawley opposite Tony. Each of them had a copy of the ratified Accords in front of them, amendments marked with bright post-it notes.

“They are criminals,” Yamamoto was the first to speak. “The rogue members of your team went against the Accords.”

“I’m not looking for you to pardon them.” Tony ignored the twinge of agony his words caused. This wasn’t the time for sentimentality. “I’m looking for you to make it better for those of us who believe in the idea behind the Accords.”

“Why didn’t you take this to Secretary Ross?” Delany asked. “He was the architect behind it. Surely he’d be the best person to suggest amendments to the UN?”

“Ross created the Accords under a false premise.” Tony felt the rage welling inside him. “He didn’t want to manage us. He wanted to control us.”

“And that would be a bad thing?” Chayka asked in a softly accented voice. “Look at what happened when you were governed by nothing more than your own sense of morality.”

Tony felt his body tense. It was only the solid weight of Vision’s hand on his shoulder that stopped him from snapping. “I’m well aware of what happened, Councilman. I was the chief cause of what happened in Sokovia. I was also the first of the Avengers to sign the Accords.”

“But you had doubts.” Hawley wasn’t asking him.

Tony sighed, rubbing at his eyes. “Of course I had doubts.” He looked up, meeting Hawley’s eyes directly. “Ross hates superhumans. Actual legitimate hate. He’s a racist in every sense of the word. So anything starting with him was going to raise every red flag in the book.”

“And yet you signed it.” Hawley watched him. “Why?”

“I think that you may be the first person who actually asked me that.” A small, slightly hysterical giggle escaped him. “God. If only Steve….” He stopped. Swallowed hard. “It doesn’t matter anymore.”

“I rather think it does.” It was Hogan who said that, the twang and flattened vowels identifying him as Australian. “Why are you wanting the Accords changed?”

“Because, as much as people said they were all about me, they aren’t.” Tony knew his words were bitter. “There are many more superhumans out there than just the Avengers.” He stood, Vision taking a step back. “The X-Men, the Fantastic Four, the hundreds of kids at Charles Xavier’s special school.” He rolled his shoulders. “The UN wants the Accords signed by all of us. But they won’t sign it. None of them will unless things are changed.”

Hawley watched him, silent for a moment, her gaze like a laser. Then she sat forward, pulling the document in front her towards her. “Why don’t you go through the changes with us, and then we can decide?” She waited, one raised eyebrow that reminded Tony so much of Natasha that it physically hurt.

“Okay.” Tony sucked in a huge breath. “That would be a great start.” He sat down again, taking his own copy from Vision. “If you could turn to page eleven, article three, clause seven. It’s where the pink sticky thing is…”

~~~~

“You are not sleeping, Captain.” T’Challa’s voice startled Steve out of his thoughts.

“I’m not the Captain anymore, your Majesty.” Steve turned back to the pond. Large, brightly colored koi fish swam lazily in the clear green water.

“You will always be the Captain,” T’Challa insisted. “It isn’t a title; it is part of who you are.”

Steve shook his head. “Not anymore.” He looked at the king. “Did you need me for something?”

“I am just here to inform you that I am leaving later today. The United Nations has called an emergency meeting that I cannot miss.”

Steve’s gaze sharpened. “Emergency meeting?”

“More, I cannot tell you.” T’Challa smiled to remove the sting. “But if I can, I will tell you on my return.”

Steve knew from experience that he would get nothing more from him. “How are your doctors doing with Bucky?” he asked instead, changing the subject. Saving Bucky had been the only good thing about this entire god-awful situation. And even then, he was locked away in ice now, a prisoner of his own mind.

T’Challa sighed. “It is beyond much of our expertise,” he admitted. “It would help if we could access the files that Zemo and Zola kept on him.”

“I wouldn’t know how to get that.” Steve clenched his fists. “I’m going crazy here sitting on my ass waiting for something to happen.”

“I think perhaps peace is a better option than something big enough for the Avengers to attend to, don’t you?” T’Challa’s tone was quietly remonstrating.

The king looked at Steve until he couldn’t stare into those calm dark eyes any longer. “You turned on the Accords.” Steve’s voice was small.

“Once I realized that your friend was as much a victim as my father was and that General Ross had ulterior motives in creating the Accords, I could not in good conscience support them.”

“”You still think we need to be held accountable by someone.” Steve watched him, this regal man who protected his people and those he considered vulnerable with the ferocity of a pride of lions.

“I do.” T’Challa inclined his head. “No-one should be without boundaries. Not even you, Captain Rogers.”

Steve’s chest hurt. “I still think…”

“No.” T’Challa was gentle, but firm. “Perhaps you believed that you were right. But what has being right brought you?”

Steve wanted to protest, to defend his decision, but here, exiled from everything he knew, he couldn’t. “The Accords were wrong.” They were. Steve truly believed it.

“Perhaps,” T’Challa admitted. “Perhaps Tony Stark had another plan all along. But not one of us thought to ask him.” He watched Steve closely. “You have been friends for several years now. Is he an untrustworthy man?”

Steve closed his eyes, swallowed hard. “No.” It was barely a whisper. “Tony is the most loyal, generous, infuriating, fascinating person I’ve met since I woke up.”

“Then you need to examine your own motives for not trusting him.” The words were kind, but cut into Steve like a thousand knives. “But, enough of this introspection. I must go.” T’Challa put a big hand on Steve’s shoulder. “Your friends followed you because they trust you, Captain. Do not betray that trust further.”

He turned on his heel, leaving Steve to his thoughts. Everything was so messed up. Steve hadn’t realized just how much of the burden of leadership Tony had shared. Those broad shoulders had helped Steve to bear a load that felt overwhelming to him right now.

He ran his fingers through the water, watching as the fish raced up to nibble at the salt on his fingertips. Maybe it was time for him to clear the air with the team. The team he’d left to Tony and who’d followed him into exile anyway because they trusted him.

He needed to face the consequences of his decisions. Even if it cost him his friends.

~~~~

“I miss my friend.” Steve wasn’t sure who he was talking about anymore. The library was always an oasis of calm for him and today one of his favorite people was there. He’d grown tired of his own company.

Natasha lifted her head from her book. “Barnes?” she asked green eyes intent on him.

Steve shook his head. “Tony.” He sat down in the easy chair opposite her. “Why did you come with us?”

She closed her book carefully, movements precise as always. “Why are you asking me now?” she countered.

“Yesterday, before he left, T’Challa asked me something that made me think.” Steve leaned forward, elbows on his knees. “Do you trust Tony?”

“Of course.” Her reply was immediate. She frowned. “Why?”

“Why didn’t you trust him about the Accords?” Steve persisted.

“I did.” Natasha’s mouth curved in a bitter smile. “I only left when I realized that he wasn’t going to forgive me for letting you and Barnes go at the airport.”

“Nat.” Steve felt sick. “Why didn’t you say something?”

“What would that have helped?” she asked with a shrug. “He won’t trust me again.” The sheen in her eyes belied her casual calm.

“I’m sorry.” Steve reached out with one hand, relieved when she took it. “We should have talked more before.”

“You and Tony, same stone, different utensils,” Natasha said.

Steve frowned in confusion at her. “We are nothing alike,” he said.

“Oh, that’s where you’re wrong.” She squeezed his fingers. “You are cut from the same stubborn, I-am-always-right cloth. You just show it in different ways.”

Steve shook his head. “No, that’s not true.” But even as he protested, something about her words resonated inside him. “It isn’t.” It sounded weak, even to him.

Natasha’s perfectly groomed eyebrow went up.

It made Steve think of Tony leaning over to him during one of the many endless post assignment debriefings and whispering, “Which eyebrow do you think is the most dangerous? The left or the right?” Steve had spluttered out a laugh that he’d tried to disguise as a cough, but Natasha’s cool gaze pinned him. She knew. “The left,” Tony had decided. “Definitely the left.”

“Steve?” Natasha’s voice snapped him out of the memory.

“Sorry, Nat. Just thinking.”

Natasha’s eyes were knowing. “You made a choice between your two best friends.” Her words were blunt. “Bucky, the boy you’d idolized all your life and Tony, the man who just wouldn’t be ordinary. You were always going to lose one of them.”

Steve sighed. “I don’t know why I bother talking to you,” he mumbled. “You already know all the answers.”

Natasha gave a short chuckle. “If I knew all the answers then I wouldn’t be here.” She pulled away from him, leaning back into the soft cushions.

“Nat.” Steve felt her withdrawal like a punch.

“No,” she held up a hand. “I made my choices.” Her mouth twisted. “I live with the consequences. And so should you.”

“Bucky needed me.” Steve had to make her understand. “He’s all I have.”

“No.” Sam’s voice had them looking up. “Barnes isn’t all you have.” His mouth was hard. “You have …had your team.”

And that small hesitation, that correction was the truth that Steve really didn’t want to face. “We’re still a team,” he said.

“We really aren’t.” Clint pushed past Sam into the room, flopping down next to Natasha. “I wonder if we ever were.”

She smacked his forehead lightly when he rested his head on her thigh. “Don’t be an ass. Of course we were.”

“We are,” Steve insisted.

“Not anymore,” Sam said, moving to one of the other soft chairs in the library. “We’re as far from a team as we possibly could be. We’re here, Tony, Rhodey and Vision are in New York and Bruce and Thor are god knows where. We’re no team, Steve.”

Steve wanted to protest, insist, but Scott came barreling into the library with a yell. “You guys! You have got to see this!” And ran out as quickly as he’d arrived.

They looked at each other in confusion. “What the hell?” Clint’s succinct question said exactly what they were all thinking.

Scott ran back in. “Come on!” he shouted. “Move your asses!”

Still bewildered, they all got up to follow him.

Chapter Text

Tony took a breath. “How do I look?” he asked.

Pepper rolled her eyes. “You know you look gorgeous,” she said, smoothing hands across his shoulders and straightening his tie. “Stop fishing for compliments.”

“Pep, it’s the only time I can get honest commentary from a beautiful woman,” Tony said. “I know you don’t want to get into my pants so you won’t lie.”

She grinned. “Even when I did want to get into your pants I didn’t lie.”

Tony clasped a hand to his chest. “Woman, your tongue should be registered as a lethal weapon!” He felt a real smile cross his lips for the first time in months. “Seriously though, thank you for being here.” He looked at the others in the room. “All of you. I mean it.”

Laura Barton helped Rhodey with his jacket. “Nowhere else to be,” she said. Then flushed. “Sorry, Tony. I don’t mean to appear ungrateful.”

He waved her apology away. “Bygones. Besides, who else would keep DUM-E and U busy if your monsters weren’t around?”

Laura’s smile was small, but at least it was genuine. “Seriously, you saved our lives, Tony. Literally and figuratively.” She patted Rhodey’s cheek. “And Coop and Lila adore your robots.”

“What else was I supposed to do when I heard that your home was compromised?” Tony asked. “Actual no-brainer.”

Vision stepped into the room. “The General Assembly is ready for you, Tony.”

Tony nodded, squared his shoulders. “Show-time.” He winked at them all. “Watch this.”

~~~~

Tony couldn’t lie to himself. He was goddamn terrified. What happened today would change the world. Well, his world mostly, but that usually meant the whole world would end up changing anyway.

Rhodey and Vision took their places at his back. “You ready for this?” Rhodey asked quietly.

“No,” Tony admitted. “But I’m a great bullshitter, as you well know.” He smirked. “I’m going to make them listen to me.”

Rhodey nudged him with a pointy elbow. “Of course you will,” he grinned. “You’re Tony fucking Stark.”

Tony nudged him back. “Damn straight, Butterbean. It’s about time people remembered that.”

The applause when he stepped out was muted, a sign that many were still not comfortable with the idea of superhumans.

Tony didn’t let that bother him. “Good day, honorable ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for agreeing to this special sitting of the General Assembly.” He looked over at King T’Challa. “My name, in case any of you were unaware, is Tony Stark and I am here to request that you agree to discuss the ratification of the Sokovia Accords with immediate effect.”

The shouting started almost at once.

~~~~
“What?” Steve whispered, eyes glued to the screen. “What is he doing?”

“What he always does.” Natasha’s tone was almost neutral but Steve heard the pride there. “Surviving.”

~~~~

Tony held up a hand. “Please, allow me to explain myself and then you are all more that welcome to ask me questions.” He paused, waiting for the noise to die down. Eventually the President called them to order.

Tony took a deep breath. “I signed the original draft of the Accords because I agreed that superhumans needed to be governed. Despite the deep reservations that most of the team formerly known as the Avengers felt, I knew that the world would need to see us under some form of order.”

He pointed to Vision. “He’s not human.” He pointed to Rhodey. “He is.” And finally at himself. “Very human.” There was a scattering of laughter that was a little encouraging.

“I know what it is to be afraid.” He put his hands on the podium, leaning a little forward. “Hell, most of the time I’m terrified.” He shook his head. “I did some very stupid things, made some very bad decisions that ended up with a hole in the world and more death than anyone should have on their conscience.”

He licked his lips. “When Secretary Ross came to me with his proposal, I was bleeding inside. I knew I was at fault for the devastation of Sokovia. I had no excuse but my own arrogance. I could see that people were starting to fear us instead of trusting us to save them.” Rhodey’s hand was a solid warmth on his shoulder and Tony took courage. “I knew that the Accords were going to happen, no matter if I signed or not. But in signing, I hoped that I would be able to have a little control on just how they were triggered and actioned.”

He rubbed at his eyes. “I knew that Secretary Ross hated superhumans. What I didn’t know was just how much he hated and how far he was prepared to go.”

He turned to Vision. “Viz, you want to show them that clip?”

Vision nodded, stepped forward and projected a video that to this day made Tony feel sick. Wanda sat curled up in on herself on a metal shelf with a thin mattress. The collar around her neck was the worst of it, the straitjacket not much better, but it was the expression in her eyes that haunted Tony.

Acceptance.

“She’s a kid. Ross trussed her up in a shock collar and straitjacket that would have taken her about a second to break out of. And she didn’t.”

“But Ms. Maximoff escaped along with Captain Rogers and the rest of your team, not so?” King T’Challa raised an eyebrow. “Surely this was the act of a fugitive.”

Tony looked over at him again. “Yes.” He gritted his teeth. “But they had help getting out.”

“Ms. Romanoff.” The representative of Russia spoke up.

Tony met his gaze. “Correct.” He braced himself. “What isn’t known is that she was acting on Intel that I’d amassed about the high-security prison known as the RAFT.”

The shouting started again.

~~~~

Steve stared at Natasha. “Stark sent you?”

“Of course Tony sent me,” Natasha said. “Do you seriously think I would have been able to come up with that information on my own that quickly?”

Sam moved in front of Steve, whether protecting him or preventing him from launching himself at Natasha, Steve wasn’t entirely sure. “And you didn’t think we needed to know that?”

Natasha’s gaze was cool, cutting. “You had chosen your side.” She nodded towards Steve. “You all had. Tony gave me that Intel on condition of anonymity.”

“But why?” Steve asked. “Why didn’t he say something?”

“Who was he going to talk to, Steve?” Natasha wasn’t mincing her words. “He was dealing with Rhodes’ rehabilitation, trying to keep Ross off his ass and knowing that his friends had betrayed him.”

Steve flinched. “I….”

“When are you going to tell us about Siberia?” Natasha asked, her words sniper-sure.

“Nat….”

She shook her head. “Betrayal is something I am very familiar with, Steve.” She met Sam’s gaze. “Do you remember what Tony said when he asked you where Steve was?”

“He said that he’d made a mistake, that he was wrong.” Sam bit his lip. “He promised to go alone. As a friend.”

“And did he, Steve?” Natasha was relentless. “Did he come alone?”

“Yes.” Steve was shaking. He’d been so very wrong.

“You haven’t said anything about it,” Clint said. “What happened there?”

“Bucky…”

“Fuck Bucky!” Natasha spat. “Tell them the goddamn truth! Tell them all how you left your teammate lying on the freezing floor of a concrete bunker in Siberia with a disabled suit and no way of getting out of there!”

Steve realized that Natasha’s real regret was that she couldn’t be with Tony right now. That she was stuck here with him and the others because of the choices she’d made. “I….”

“Steve, man, say it ain’t so?” Sam begged, eyes wide with shock. “You wouldn’t do that to your friend.”

“I didn’t mean…” He stopped, dropped his chin. “He wanted to kill Bucky.”

“Why?” Scott asked. “I mean, when Tony talked to Sam back on the RAFT he sounded like he knew that your buddy had been brain-washed.”

“He was reacting emotionally and in anger because he just found out that his parents had been murdered by the Winter Soldier.” Natasha’s harsh words fell into the sudden silence.

“Sonofabitch,” Clint swung his gaze back to Steve. “No fucking way.”

“Did you know?” Sam’s question was like a knife to Steve’s heart. “Steve, did you know?”

“Yes.” And there it was. The simple truth laid bare with a word.

“He must have been so hurt.” Wanda’s voice had Steve turning to her. She’d been sitting so quietly, watching and listening, that he’d forgotten she was there. “It must have broken his heart to be betrayed so by a friend.”

Natasha walked over to her, put a hand on Wanda’s where the tendrils of crimson were beginning to seep out. “Not now, Wanda. Not yet.” She waited for Wanda to look at her, for the scarlet to bleed from her eyes.

“Despite that, he saved us,” Wanda said, that red-tinged gaze on Steve. “Knowing that we had abandoned him, he still tried to help us.”

“He knows where we are,” Sam said suddenly. “He knows, but we’re still here. Free.” He took a step away from Steve.

“Tony’s talking again,” Clint said, carefully avoiding Steve’s eyes. “Maybe we should finally give him the benefit of the doubt and listen.”

~~~~

“Are you saying that you were instrumental in assisting the fugitives escape?” The American representative was on his feet. “You should have taken their place!”

Tony folded his arms, jaw jutting out. “Pop quiz, who in the room knows what Ross had planned for the Avengers once he had them all trapped?” He held up a hand, Rhodey raised his and so did Vision. T’Challa waggled a finger out of sight of everyone but Tony.

“Tell us then, Mr. Stark,” King T’Challa said. “Enlighten us.” His tone was almost a dare. Tony held back his smile. He’d given the king the questions, told him to trust his own judgment. They needed to guide this conversation in the direction that Tony wanted it to go.

“Have any of you ever heard about Project Rebirth?” Tony asked apropos of nothing.

“That was the project name for the development of the Super Soldier Serum back in the war,” King T’Challa said, not missing a cue. “The project that produced Captain America.”

Tony nodded at him. “Well, Secretary, then General, Ross decided to try to develop it for the purpose of using it on American soldiers a few years ago.” There was a sort of hum of muttering around the room. “Bruce Banner was on that project.”

He waited for the chatter to die down again. “Thaddeus Ross was the one who helped create the Hulk, the Abomination and he would have carried on experimenting on superhumans until he had a viable sample to create his perfect super soldier.”

“You have proof of this?” The General Assembly President leaned forward in his chair.

“I do,” Tony said.

The rear doors of the chamber opened, several ushers came in carrying folders that they started handing out to the delegates.

Tony narrated as the ushers made sure each delegate got a copy in their own language. “The files you’re being given are basically the CliffsNotes of the entire situation. Ross planned on using the blood of Wanda Maximoff and Scott Lang as some sort of conductor of the Super Soldier Serum. Now, I’m not sure how it was going to work, but that guy is on a special level of crazy that I can’t even hope to achieve.”

Pages flipped, voices murmured and Tony waited. It was a very difficult thing. Patience really wasn’t one of his many, many virtues. He watched as delegates talked among themselves, every now and then an exclamation of surprise, anger or disgust. T’Challa didn’t bother looking at his folder. He’d already read it. He nodded to Tony with a tiny smile of approval.

“I have one final bit of evidence,” Tony said, raising his voice after a while. “A sort of from the horse’s mouth kinda thing. You might want to hold on to your hats, ladies and gents.” He smiled up towards the back of the room. “It’s time for that grand entrance, Jolly Green.”

Bruce Banner walked in.

Chapter Text

Steve wasn’t the only one whose mouth dropped open in surprise. “Bruce?” He looked over to Natasha, but she appeared just as shocked. Well, as shocked as Natasha could look which meant that her eye twitched.

“That fucking wily asshole,” Clint said admiringly. “He just flipped the game on everyone.”

“I’m not sure I understand,” Scott said. “Isn’t that…?” He waved a hand at the screen.

“The Hulk,” Natasha said, a small curve of mouth the only reaction now. “He found Bruce.”

~~~~

Tony watched as Bruce made his way to where they stood. “Hey boo.” He held out a fist.

Bruce rolled his eyes, but obliged with a fist bump. “You know you’re ridiculous, right?”

Tony shrugged. “It’s all about the attitude, Brucie-bear.”

“You have way too much of that,” Rhodey told him, shaking Bruce’s hand. “Glad you could make it, Dr. B.”

Bruce nodded towards Vision. “Good to see you, Vision.”

“It is good to be seen, Dr. Banner,” Vision replied.

Bruce glared at Tony. “Are you teaching our kid how to sass, Stark?”

Tony laughed then, a genuine belly-laugh that shocked the entire Assembly into silence. “Damn, I’ve missed you, Doc.”

Bruce smiled, his eyes shadowed. “The feeling is completely mutual, Dr. Stark.” He turned to face the General Assembly. “Tony Stark asked me to come here to speak to you about what happened to me. What Thaddeus Ross did to me. There are not many people in this world that I trust. This man is one of them.” He nodded towards Tony.

Tony squeezed his shoulder, throat closed. “I just want to tell you that I love you, Bruce.”

Rhodey huffed out a laugh. “And he does it again.” But his face was soft as he smiled at Tony. “Always with the weird.”

Bruce moved to take Tony’s place on the podium. “Ladies and gentlemen, if I could ask you to turn to page twenty of the dossier in front of you, I’ll talk you through the time that Ross hunted me like an animal and basically turned the Hulk loose on the world with no care of people’s safety.”

~~~~

Steve held his breath, watching the scene on the television.

“Do you think he’s going to change their minds?” Scott asked him.

Steve shook his head. “I don’t know.” Nothing made sense. Why would Bruce risk his life and safety coming back to New York?

He didn’t realize that he’d asked the question out loud until Natasha replied, “Tony has a way of getting people to think along his lines. And most of the time they end up thinking that it was all their idea anyway.” Natasha still wouldn’t look at Steve.

“How did we forget that he is our friend?” Clint asked. “Nat, we fucked up.”

She pressed her lips together. “We fucked up. But so did he.” She watched as Bruce started taking the United Nations General Assembly through the absolute horror that had been his life since he’d injected himself with his own version of the super serum. “Tony was too quick to accept Ross at face value. He thought he could argue for change from a position of power. What he forgot was that Ross thinks the only good superhuman is a dead one.”

On the screen, Bruce was discussing how the creation of the Abomination had come about and everyone was gasping. None of the politicians had known just what an obsessed lunatic Ross had become. Nat hadn’t trusted him, apparently, neither had Tony, not really. But Tony had tried to take Ross on alone and that had led to the splinter of the Avengers.

“We need to make this right.” It was Sam who voiced what they were all thinking. Sam, who had trusted Steve, followed him because they were brothers in arms in more ways than one.

“If he’ll let us.” Unlike Natasha, Wanda hadn’t taken her eyes off Steve. “If he’ll let you.”

Steve pressed his lips together. “He’ll forgive you all,” he said, sure of his words. “You were following me. Tony’s a good man. A generous man. He won’t hold it against you.”

Natasha leaned against Clint. “What about you?” she asked, eyes sharp on him, belying her relaxed demeanor.

“I’ve already apologized,” Steve said, thinking of the small, outdated phone that he’d shoved at the back of his cupboard. “He’s given me his answer.”

“And that’s it?” Clint glared at him. “All of it. Everything we’d been through together, and you just give the fuck up at the first hurdle?” He pointed at the screen. “Don’t think that any of what he’s doing right there is about anyone other than you, Captain.” His tone was venomous, angry in a way he hadn’t been since losing Coulson.

“Clint.” Natasha’s soft word had him clamping his jaw, breathing heavily through his nose. “They’re both idiots. We have already established this. Right now, we have bigger concerns than getting Captain America to admit he’s scared shitless.” Her lips twisted a little cruelly. Steve couldn’t remember her being this deliberately nasty to him.

“I’m not scared,” Steve said, straightening from his defensive hunch. “I’m just realistic.”

Natasha made a scoffing noise. “Realistic? Says the man who willingly submitted to a science experiment that had little to no chance of success?”

Steve glared at her. “Why are you pushing so hard, Nat?” Because that’s what she’d been doing for days now. Pushing and pushing and pushing at him until he felt like he was about to burst into a million pieces.

“Because one of the best friends I have, one of the best people I know is standing in front of the world, practically alone, and making a declaration that you’re too fucking stubborn to hear!” Natasha was practically shouting at him at the end. This time it was Clint who put a cautioning hand on her arm.

She sighed, slumping down again. “Why are you so goddamn blind?”

Steve was completely bewildered.

~~~~

Tony had never been more proud of anyone. Bruce stood there, threw it all down, his soul bleeding on the cold stone floor, and told the world about the atrocities he’d endured. He didn’t try to mitigate his own errors in judgment. He spoke openly, honestly and they listened.

They listened.

When Bruce came to discussing Johannesburg, he swallowed hard but continued, talking in shorter, sharper sentences that spoke volumes as to his grip on the Hulk.

Tony leaned forward, murmured, “You okay?”

Bruce just nodded. And carried on talking.

“He’s got the biggest balls on anyone,” Rhodey whispered to Tony.

“Literally,” Tony shot back, and they started giggling because of course they had no self-control even in the General Assembly of the United Nations.

“Tony,” Vision hissed. “This is inappropriate.”

They struggled to stop the laughter, eventually managing to appear at least a little sober. Bruce had started taking questions.

“Why should we trust what you say?” The South African representative was a regal-looking woman. “Your alter-ego just about destroyed one of our cities. Your lack of control is part of the reason for the necessity of the Accords.”

Bruce nodded. “That’s a very valid question.” He looked over at Tony. “Perhaps Dr. Stark can answer that for you.” It was a very deliberate use of Tony’s title. One that the public seldom got to hear.

Tony cleared his throat, suddenly serious. “I’m guessing that most of you don’t know about B.A.R.F.?”

Rhodey hastily hid a chuckle in his fist behind him as the General Assembly stared at him in confusion.

“Yeah.” Tony rubbed the back of his neck. “I’m really going to have to think of another acronym.” He grinned at Bruce. “We need to get on that.”

Bruce rolled his eyes, a small grin on his face. “Not quite the time, Tony.”

“Aaaanyway.” Tony swung back to the assembly. “So B.A.R.F. is a little thing I’ve been working on for a while. It stands for Binarily Augmented Retro Framing.”

“And that means?” T’Challa caught the thread easily, throwing Tony the opening he needed.

Tony nodded to him. “I’m glad that you asked, Your Majesty. I developed the basics when I was at MIT. I had a few issues that I thought needed addressing. I didn’t like head doctors. Felt I was smarter than them. Usually was, but that wasn’t the point. I wanted to see my parents one more time. Wanted to say goodbye properly.”

He blew out a breath. “I perfected it all before the shit hit the fan. Got my goodbye. It didn’t change anything. What happened, happened and I never saw them again.” This confession session was getting maudlin and Tony shook himself. “So, I decided that the technology could be adjusted and used to help people like me.” He glanced at Bruce. “Like Bruce.”

“I don’t understand,” the Japanese representative frowned. “How does this technology work?”

Tony pointed at him. “Thank you for asking. Now, to avoid the risk of me devolving into geek-speak, I’ve prepared Vision to give you a visual demonstration.” He nodded at Vision. “Viz, hit it.”

The Mind Stone shone once more, projecting a scene in a laboratory. Bruce was sitting in a chair, several wires strapped to his chest, a large pair of glasses perched on his nose, and a metal circle wrapped around his head.

“Before you all freak out, Dr. Banner agreed to undergo the treatment. We liberated the chair used to condition the Winter Soldier from the Ideal Federal Savings Bank where Alexander Pierce had kindly left it.” Tony leveled a glare at the machine. “I decided that it needed to be put to use for something positive instead of the evil that HYDRA had perpetuated.” He refused to think about who could possibly be watching this. The idea that a certain star –spangled man with a plan and his war buddy might see it wasn’t anywhere near a thought.

“I thought that machine suppressed memories?” King T’Challa was the only one in the gallery who had any idea of what had been done to James Barnes.

“It did,” Tony said, watching as his own image appeared in the projection. “I made a few adjustments.”

“Don’t worry, pumpkin, this won’t hurt a bit,” Tony said, looking down at Bruce.

“I’m more concerned about hurting you.” Bruce said, eyes a little wild. “The Other Guy isn’t happy right now.”

“I’m going to count down to three,” Tony said, ignoring the pale green tinge on Bruce’s skin. “Three…two…” He flipped the switch before Bruce or the Other Guy could tense up.

Tony looked out at the General Assembly. “So, a quick explanation of B.A.R.F. for the non-scientific minds out there. It’s basically an obscenely expensive way to hijack the hippocampus in the brain to clear traumatic memories.”

He waved at Vision to continue. In the image, Bruce twitched in the chair, flinching at something that only he could see. Tony waited until the clip got to the point where the memory appeared like a mini film within a film in the middle of the lab. “Pause it there please, Viz,” he asked. “So, B.A.R.F. basically relies on an implant installed on a pair of glasses, the pair you see there on Dr. Banner’s face. The implant connects with the user's hippocampus, allowing it to find a certain traumatic memory and alter it before projecting that memory onto an external infrastructure.” He paused. “Through the altered projection, the user is able to successfully re-experience and hopefully work through overcoming traumatic experiences. What you’re about to see is Dr. Banner re-experiencing what he felt was the worst moment of his time as the Hulk.” He nodded to Vision one last time.

~~~~

The room was silent as they all watched the scene unfold. Steve stole several glances at Natasha as she watched the man she...felt something for, turn into a green monster and pick up a beautiful brunette woman in his arms as though she was a fragile flower.

“I’m sorry,” he said quietly.

“What for?” Natasha asked. “Doc and I were never going to work anyway. He was always in love with his Betty.” Her tone was neutral and Steve was frustrated at not being able to read her.

“Nat, you know that you and Bruce were something.” He held his ground even when she turned an icy gaze on him. “We all saw it.”

“We were merely on the way to being something,” Natasha said, voice as cold as her eyes. “When he left, it ended.”

Steve didn’t understand her anger. “He left because he didn’t want to hurt anymore people.”

“He left me!” The rage in her voice was a palpable thing. Everyone took a breath. “I don’t tolerate cowards who run from their commitments.”

“That’s not fair.” Steve didn’t know why he was defending Bruce, he’d felt just as abandoned when Banner had left. “It was because of Ultron and Wanda and Johannesburg and everything. I think he’s a lot like me. He’d seen too much war, too much death.”

Natasha spat a curse in Russian. “Don’t you fucking talk to me about war and death, Steve Rogers! You know nothing of what I have seen, what I have been through!”

“Tasha.” Clint’s soft voice broke the tension. “He doesn’t know. Don’t be angry with ignorance.”

Steve wanted to protest, remind them that he’d fought in the War, but something in both Clint and Natasha’s faces stopped him. He closed his eyes. “I just keep stumbling around like a giant baby, bumping into things and breaking them without knowing their value.”

“That is perhaps the most true thing you have ever said, Captain.” Wanda looked at Natasha. “Come, sit with me, дорогая, let me ease your pain.”

Natasha swallowed her next words, looking as though it physically hurt her. She walked to Wanda and dropped into the seat beside her. Wanda’s slender hand covered hers, ruby swirls wrapping around Natasha’s wrist in a snake of comfort.

Steve blinked. When the hell had that happened?

~~~~

The projection snapped off, Vision stepped back to his position at Tony’s shoulder and not a sound was heard in the room.

“So,” Tony cleared his throat. “That was lovely.” He glanced over at Bruce. “Thanks for not traumatizing us with make-up sex, Doc.”

Bruce flushed bright red, dropping his face into his hands. “Oh my god, Tony, remember where you are and show at least a little decorum.”

But Tony’s quip had done its job and people were chuckling, murmuring to one another after what they had seen.

“What does this mean?” The South African spoke up again. “All it showed us was that he wanted to take care of the woman he loved.”

Tony waved Bruce forward again. “Your turn, Bruce.”

Bruce’s hands were fists inside his pants’ pockets, but he stepped up beside Tony anyway. Bravest. Motherfucker. Ever. “What B.A.R.F. did was change the memory in my head. Didn’t make it unhappen in reality, but in my mind it never happened. So the trauma of hurting Betty Ross was a guilt the Hulk no longer lived with.”

“You speak of him or the Other Guy,” T’Challa said. “Are you not the same person?”

Bruce frowned. “It’s not like he’s another person,” he began. “It’s like having a twin, a larger, angrier twin, but instead of standing next to me, he’s inside me.” He looked frustrated. “I’m not explaining this properly.”

“It’s like a shadow.” Tony put a hand on Bruce’s shoulder. “It’s him, but not him. He has no memories of what he does or says as the Hulk, but the Other Guy knows us, trusts us, works with us.”

“And since I’ve spent the last few months with Tony’s B.A.R.F. technology, we’ve come to a sort of understanding,” Bruce added.

“Understanding?” The American asked.

“I’m not angry all the time.” Bruce explained. “That was usually the trigger that brought out the Hulk.”

“We called it Code Green,” Tony said.

“If you are not angry then the Hulk does not appear?” T’Challa looked interested now, he hadn’t been briefed on this part of the presentation.

Bruce shook his head. “No. But, he still shows up when I need him. Just less damage, more control both of him and myself.”

The South African representative tapped a finger on the desk in front of her. “Are you saying that this ‘B.A.R.F.’ technology has given you control of the monster?”

“The Hulk,” Bruce corrected; his voice glacial. “And, yes.”

 

 

 

*дорогая– Russian for ‘dearest’ – thanks so much to Sirrian for the correct Russian word <3

Chapter Text

The noise in the room built and built until finally the General Assembly President banged his gavel. “Please! Settle down, everyone! Order! Order!”

Tony exchanged grins with Rhodey and Bruce. “Now that’s how you do it.”

“Dr. Banner, if you have control of the Hulk, as you claim, then can you prove it?” T’Challa’s question was like a bomb in the sudden silence.

“Sure,” Bruce said.

Tony barely flinched as Bruce morphed into the Hulk in a liquid roll that had most of the Assembly screaming. There was a mad scramble as several members tried to flee the room.

“Hey, Big Guy.” Tony held out his fist in the exact same way he’d done to Bruce.

The Hulk peered down at Tony.

Grunted.

And bumped Tony’s fist with a roll of his eyes.

Tony started laughing.

~~~~

“I don’t fucking believe what I just saw,” Clint said.

Steve was too busy scraping his jaw off the floor. “He’s just standing there,” he said. “Not roaring or freaking out. Just standing there.”

“He’s got them.” Natasha’s mouth curled into a smile. A real, beautiful, wide smile that lit up her face with job. “That insane, amazing, genius.”

“Are you talking about Banner or Stark?” Sam asked.

“Either. Both.” Natasha blinked rapidly and for just a moment there was a sheen in her eyes that caught the light.

“It’s happening again,” Wanda said and they all turned to look at the screen, gaping as the Hulk shifted back to Bruce, naked but for a pair of what looked like lycra shorts.

Steve started laughing. He couldn’t help himself. He tried to get himself under control but nothing worked. Eventually he was heaving breaths as he bent over, gusts of laughter billowing out of him. The tears that ran down his cheeks started out as happy but they turned into salted sadness as he dropped to his knees, sobbing.

Sam slid to the floor next to him, anger forgotten. “Steve! Take a breath, man. Deep breaths.” He put his hand between Steve’s shoulder blades, a grounding touch that had its desired effect on Steve almost immediately.

Wanda stayed seated, gaze curiously remote as she stared between Steve and the television.

Clint and Natasha appeared torn. They were pissed off at Steve but the concern for his well-bearing was still there.

Scott came over with a glass of water. “Small sips,” he instructed, shoving the glass into Steve’s hand. “I’ve had some experience with anxiety attacks.”

“So have we.” Natasha’s voice was fairly neutral. But her hand came out and rested on Steve’s head. “Tony used to have them.”

Clint gave a chuckle. “Would always deny it, though.”

Her mouth curved. “He’s an idiot.” She sounded fond.

Steve slumped to his butt on the ground, leaning back against the sofa. “I’m sorry,” he said.

“Don’t apologize for something you can’t stop,” Natasha said. “You sound like Tony.”

Steve felt suddenly exhausted. “I meant, I’m sorry that I didn’t listen to you,” he told Natasha. “And I’m sorry about Bruce. I don’t care what you say; I know how you felt about him.”

Natasha sat down on the sofa, her knee at Steve’s shoulder. “I was perhaps a little harsh before,” she admitted.

Clint threw his legs over the sofa, dropping down beside her. “You’re a girl,” he scoffed. “You have those things called emoti…aaaahhhh!” His scream was accompanied by a rapid jump away from Natasha. “You’re the actual devil,” he complained, rubbing at a spot below his ribs.

“Don’t test me, bird-boy,” she told him. Her hand came up to Steve’s head again, fingers kneading at his scalp. “I’m sorry for shouting at you earlier,” she said. “I was taking my anger out on the wrong person.” Her mouth twisted. “Perhaps I haven’t quite come to terms with Bruce leaving.”

Steve reached up, took her hand in his. “I don’t know what happened, but I believe that Bruce has real feelings for you Nat.”

She nodded, her fingers limp between his. “We were going to leave together. After…” she said, tone far-away. “And then he left alone.”

Steve hadn’t known. “I’m sorry,” he repeated, knowing the words were useless.

“He’s a moron,” Clint said. He scooted back to Natasha’s side. “Gave up the best thing he ever had.”

Natasha leaned her head on Clint’s shoulder. “Never had anything to give up,” she said. She turned her hand so that she could twist her fingers between Steve’s, her grip deceptively powerful.

Steve remembered then that despite her deadly skillset, her cold exterior, her icy self-control, she was still a woman before all else. A human being with feelings and emotions that, even though they constantly, ruthlessly shoved down, were bound to come to the surface occasionally.

“They seem to be ready to carry on,” Scott said.

“Well then, let’s see what other surprises Tony has in store,” Natasha said.

~~~~

Once the yelling stopped, Tony took charge again. “So, on the subject of Bruce Banner’s symbiotic twin, the Hulk, it’s under control. Capisce?” He looked around, meeting several of their gazes.

“What does this have to do with Accords, Mr. Stark?” The Egyptian council member waved a hand towards Bruce. “While I’m sure that Mr. Banner is happy to have his monster in chains, it is of no pertinence to the safety that the Accords offer to the world.”

“First off, it’s Doctor Banner.” Tony could feel his jaw clench. He’d been ready for this line of questioning. “And it’s relevant because one of the reasons for the Accords ever existing was because Thaddeus Ross had a rage boner for Bruce and wanted a way to control him!” He took a deep breath. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to shout. The Accords are necessary. I’m not disputing that.” He indicated the men with him. “We are not disputing that.”

“Then what is it you want?” T’Challa’s quiet question had Tony looking at him. “What do you want us to do?”

Tony rubbed at his eyes. “I asked the World Security Council to go through my suggestions first. Before I came before you. I requested them to go through my suggestions, to schedule this meeting because you’d never listen if I was the one asking.”

The same group of people came in with another set of documents. This pack was considerably larger. They did the same thing as before, handing the documents out to the members of the General Assembly, taking care to match language to person.

“What is this?” the American asked with a frown.

“It is a copy of the Accords, with a few amendments added,” Tony said. “I would appreciate your time as I go through my suggestions. The first change is marked by a red tab. If you can entertain me as I sum it up for you?”

“Here goes nothing,” Rhodey murmured.

~~~~

Steve watched Tony playing the crowd like a Stradivarius. One after another, he bulldozed through the modifications, all amendments that he’d spoken with Tony about. Changes that Steve had actually suggested. That Sam had asked for. That protected Clint and his family.

He’d never felt more ashamed.

“This is what he was planning to do all along.” Natasha was still sitting there, fingers idle in his hand. “He knew the Accords were going to happen. He just wanted to buy us some time to plan to change them.”

“I feel like a horse’s ass.” Steve put a hand over his eyes, pulling his knees up to his chest. “I read this wrong from the start.”

“You thought only of your friend.” Wanda wasn’t looking at him now. She was staring intently at the screen. Red swirls of light wound around her arms and hands, restless snakes of power that appeared eager to be used.

“Bucky would have been in trouble,” Steve started. He stopped before Natasha could snap again. “I know. Tony had a plan.” He was a little frustrated too. “Why the hell didn’t he just tell me?”

“When was he supposed to tell you his plans?” Natasha rolled her shoulders. “When you ran after Bucky the moment he escaped? Or when you deserted Rhodes in a heap on an airport runway? Or when you caved in the Iron Man suit and left Tony to find a way out of Siberia alone and incapacitated?” She was merciless in her questions.

Steve hunched lower and lower over his knees. He remembered Tony’s face. “So was I.”

~~~~

Tony’s throat felt raw. He took a sip of water, trying to get the words in the right order to make this happen. “I’m not asking you to dispense with the Accords, ladies and gentlemen. I’m asking you to take some time, read through my proposal and then help me to make the world feel safe again.”

He stepped back, every cell in his body drooping with exhaustion. “Thank you.”

With Bruce at his side and Rhodey and Vision at his back, Tony walked out of the General Assembly room with a tiny bit of hope.

Pepper grabbed him the moment she saw you. “You wonderful, incredible, outrageous man!” She kissed him hard. And then hugged him harder. “I don’t think I’ve ever be more proud to be your ex.”

Tony kissed her cheek. “You’re the most important woman in my life, Potts. My CEO, my left hand, my best girl. Nothing as plebian as merely my ex.”

She arched an eyebrow. “And who would your right hand and best boy be?” She looked over to Rhodey.

“Well, you know it was my Rhodey-bear, but now that he’s not of much use, I’m going to say Bruce.” He ducked a swing from Rhodey with a laugh. “Aw, bubba, you jealous?”

“You are an embarrassment, Stark. I swear to god, I’m done with you.” Rhodey beamed at him. “Fucker.”

“Well, yes, I do prefer to be on top.” Tony waggled his eyebrows.

Rhodey recoiled. “Ugh. Weirdo.”

Laura handed Tony a glass. “You said you wanted a shot of the best when you came off.”

Tony tossed the whiskey back with a moan of happiness. “I’m so glad I made you the boss of me,” he told her. He gave the glass back to her.

“Now what?” she asked.

“Now we let the boys and girls argue in there for a while until they say yea or nay.” He reached out to Bruce. “You were incredible, Jolly Green.”

Bruce grunted at him, accepting a shirt and trousers from Laura. “Thank god you created these pants, Tony. Thanks for not making me go naked.”

“Anything for you, boo,” Tony crooned. “Come on, let’s blow this Popsicle stand. I’m starving.”

He walked out of the United Nations with the five people he trusted the most in the world. The sixth was somewhere in Africa, hopefully kicking some sense into certain people. Not that he cared.

~~~~

Steve lay back on his bed, arm over his eyes. He kept seeing Tony’s face. The moment that his friend had realized that Steve had betrayed him in the worst possible way.

He wondered what Tony would do if they came back, handed themselves over, begged for forgiveness. Not that they could. Thanks to the actions that Steve was solely responsible for, Wanda, Clint, Natasha and Scott were wanted criminals. Clint had kids. So did Scott. They had women who loved them. And Steve had taken them with him like a tsunami, uncaring of the consequences.

Because of Bucky.

A knock on his door had him sitting up. “Come in,” he called.

Wanda crept in, a fragile figure who sometimes seemed transparent with grief. “I wished to speak with you, Captain.” Her soft accent had her words sounding like the rasp of flesh on velvet. She seldom used his name, keeping him at a distance that sometimes hurt.

“What is it, Wanda?” Steve felt a peculiar urge to protect this girl. Her decision to fight on their side had cost her her brother and nothing Steve could ever say or do would change that.

“I think perhaps I must hand myself over to the authorities,” Wanda said, perching on the edge of a chair. “They will just keep hunting for us. If I go in…”

“They’ll still keep looking for the rest of us.” Steve rolled off the bed, going to crouch at her feet. He took her hands, trying to ignore the ropes of scarlet that twisted around his wrists. “I won’t let you do this. You chose to follow me because you were afraid of what the government would do to you.”

“Everything is so confusing,” Wanda said, her fingers fluttering against his like broken birds. “Pietro would have known what to do.”

“He wouldn’t want you to make a senseless sacrifice.” Steve met her gaze. “We need to wait and see what happens with Tony’s amendments. If they are accepted, then it may mean that we have a chance to go back home to our families.”

She blinked, her eyes endless windows of sorrow. “My home is lying in pieces at the bottom of a sea,” she said. “And my family is buried who knows where.”

Steve frowned. “You don’t know where Pietro’s body is?” That didn’t sound right.

She shook her head. “I felt him die, but I never got to tell him goodbye.”

Steve nodded. “That’s something else that Fury will have to answer for.” He stood up, tugging her to her feet. “I think that after today, after the things Tony has done, that people like you and Bruce and Vision will be safer.” He pulled her carefully into his arms. “Tony was on our side all this time. I betrayed him and he still went to bat for us.”

We betrayed him, Steve.” Steve lifted his head to look at Sam who was watching from the doorway. “It wasn’t a one-man army out there on the runway.”

“You followed me…” Steve didn’t want his friends to be blamed for his actions.

“We’re not fucking robots that obey commands!” Sam snapped, angry at Steve for the first time that Steve could remember “We made our choice.”

“Let us take responsibility for our actions at least.” Clint stood at Sam’s shoulder. “We followed you because we believed that the Accords as they are were not a working solution.”

“We were afraid.” Wanda’s soft voice whispered across Steve’s collarbone. “I think I’ve spent most of my life being afraid.”

The phone that T’Challa had given Steve rang suddenly. Steve picked it up, putting it on speaker. “Your Majesty?”

“Captain, I assume that you are not alone?” Steve waved them into his room, Scott and Natasha slipping in behind them.

“No, Your Majesty. My friends are all here.” Steve looked at them, wondering what else was going to happen today.

“I have been asked to relay a message to you,” T’Challa said, an undertone of amusement in his voice.

Steve frowned. “A message? From who?”

“A friend,” T’Challa replied. “My friend says that you should shortly receive a package that will assist in melting your ice-block.”

“My….” Steve stopped. “Bu….?”

“Not over this line,” T’Challa said. “The General Assembly has taken a recess to consider the changes to the Sokovia Accords that have been proposed by Mr. Stark. We will be voting tomorrow. Your package will arrive in the morning.”

The line went dead and Steve stared down at it for a moment. “I don’t understand.”

“Man, I hate riddles,” Scott muttered. “I’m crap at them.”

“Let’s hope it’s a simple one to solve then,” Natasha said; her eyes on Steve.

Chapter Text

Tony watched the monitor. He’d been called back about two hours ago. He jiggled his leg impatiently, wanting to burst into the chamber and demand a response. It had been two damn days already. He wanted this done.

Rhodey’s hand dropped onto his thigh. “You’re making me crazy, Tones.” Laura mouthed a thank you to Rhodey from Tony’s other side.

Tony put his hand over Rhodey’s. “If you wanted to hold my hand, sugar bear, you shoulda just said.” Laura shook with silent laughter as she continued working on her StarkPad. Tony swallowed. “Why do you think they’re making us wait?” His gaze was fixed on the double doors in front of them.

“Because they can?” Rhodey suggested. He shifted on his seat, the braces making a hissing noise. “I mean, this is the United Nations, man.”

Tony’s thunked back on the wall behind him. “Do you reckon we made it stick?” he asked.

“Guess we’ll find out soon enough,” Rhodey shrugged. “Where’s Bruce with the coffee?”

“He’ll be here in a minute, passionflower.” Tony grinned at the face Rhodey made at that name. “I often wonder why you and I didn’t hook up.”

Rhodey looked down his nose at him. “Because this gorgeous piece of chocolaty goodness has higher standards than the Whore King of MIT.”

Tony cackled. “My favourite title, let’s be real.”

Pepper stopped in front of him. “Well, your majesty, I’m pretty happy I only found out about that name after we broke up.”

“I just heard from one of my old friends at the State Department; Ross has gone to ground.” Bruce passed Steve and Tony each a mug of coffee. “Nobody knows where he is.”

“Hmm,” Tony mused as he deliberately slurped his coffee extra loudly. He ignored the disgusted twist on Pepper’s face. He was goddamn adorable, dammit. “I wonder why?”

“Maybe because you have exposed him as a psychopathic superhuman mass murderer?” Bruce suggested.

“Eh.” Tony wasn’t sure. “He’s not the sort who hides from a fight. He’s up to something.”

Before he could think a little more on it, the doors opened. A tall woman waved them forward. “Mr. Stark, Colonel Rhodes, Mr. Banner, we’re ready for you.”

“Time to put on those big girl panties, boys,” Laura said.

Tony side-eyed her. “You know, more and more I’m seeing why Legolas married you.”

She snorted. “It had nothing to do with me being a hot chick, right?”

Tony pointed at her. “Stark levels of snark, right there, Barton. Congratulations.”

“Tones.” Rhodey waited for him, Bruce rolling his eyes. “This isn’t one of your media conferences where you get to control things.”

Tony tied the middle button of his charcoal suit jacket. “Watch me,” he said, striding into the General Assembly room as though he owned it. “I’m Tony Fucking Stark.”

~~~~

One of the king’s personal guards came into the gym where Steve was sparring with Clint. “There is someone here to see you, Captain.” She had been left behind at the palace, much to her disgust. And she hadn’t hesitated to tell Steve and the others about her annoyance at being their babysitter.

Steve stopped, mid-punch, and looked at her. “Thank you, Ayo. Where is the guest?” He tried to stay on their good side because they were as fearless and almost as fearsome as their king. He’d learned some devastatingly effective new fighting techniques from the Dora Milaje.

“I have left him in your living area,” she said, turning and leaving as abruptly as she’d arrived.

“If they weren’t so fucking terrifying I’d marry one of them,” Sam said from the side-lines.

“She’d eat your heart for lunch,” Natasha said as she walked in. “Come on, guys. Here’s where it gets interesting.”

Steve, Clint and Sam followed her to the living room. Steve stopped in his tracks when he saw who was there. There was a comical sort of concertina behind him as Clint and Sam walked into him. “What the hell, man?” Clint complained.

Steve took a step to the side, saying nothing. The litany of swearing from Clint was answer enough. “Vision?” Steve waited for Vision to look up. He had his arms around Wanda, holding her tightly. She was clinging as hard to him, muffled sobs barely audible.

Natasha headed for Vision. “It’s good to see you, my friend.”

That had him looking at her. “While you might perhaps be sincere, Agent Romanoff, I am not in the least inclined to echo the sentiment.”

“Fair enough.” Steve had finally found his voice. “Are you the package that the king mentioned?” He didn’t feel like dancing around the topic today.

“Not exactly,” Vision said, moving away from Wanda who made a small sound of protest. “I am the bearer of the package.” He leaned down and picked up a fairly large case that Steve hadn’t spotted. “Mr. Stark wanted you to have this.”

He handed to case to Steve who took it silently.

“What is it?” Clint asked.

“It is the key to saving the Winter Soldier, Agent Barton.” Steve had taken note of the way that Vision was addressing them. He was keeping his distance with all of them. Apart from Wanda.

Then his brain registered Vision’s words. “What? Saving Bucky?” He wasn’t sure he’d heard correctly.

“I’m sure you’ve heard by now of Mr. Stark’s latest breakthrough in assisting victims of post-traumatic stress disorder.” Vision seemed to be calculating every one of their micro-expressions

“He calls it B.A.R.F.” Steve stared at the case like it was going to open up and bite him.

“I thought it was a bigger infrastructure,” Natasha said.

Vision’s cool gaze moved back to her and Steve felt it as a physical slap. “Mr. Stark has spent months attempting to make the units smaller and more portable. What you have in here is a prototype.” He looked at Steve. “And a few other items.”

Steve couldn’t bear it any longer. He put the case on the large coffee table and almost wept when his old code from the tower worked to snap it open.

He stared down at the shield.

“I…” His throat closed and it was suddenly impossible to breathe. He staggered back, stumbling into a sofa and sucking for air.

Sam was beside him in an instant, murmuring reassurances that meant nothing with that circle of metal in his view.

“Why?” Natasha was the one who asked. “Why did he send it back?”

Vision still watched Steve. “Mr. Stark said, and I quote: “That fucking piece of vibranium has taken more from me than anything else ever has. I never want to see it again. You may as well give it back to the bastard.”.” Vision’s words, repeated in an exact replica of Tony’s voice hurt Steve in a way that felt like a small death.

Natasha merely nodded. “Is there anything we need to know about the program?” She spoke briskly, keeping the tone professional.

“The instructions are on the laptop provided,” Vision said; something thoughtful in that dispassionate tone. “Mr. Stark said that he hopes you get what you need when you use it.”

“Does he believe it will work?” Steve rasped, trying to get his mind around this thing that Tony had done.

“He knew that you would be sceptical,” Vision said. “He told me to remind you that he’s a genius.”

“I don’t understand why,” Steve said. He stepped up to Vision. “Why has he done this?”

“He said something about red in his ledger,” Vision said. Steve didn’t miss the slight flinches from both Natasha and Clint.

“He doesn’t owe me anything,” Steve insisted.

“He didn’t do it for you, Captain. He did it to keep a promise to Margaret Carter.” He looked around the room. “I need to return to New York. I hope that the technology helps you.”

Steve watched dumbly as Vision flew out of the palace.

“Fuck,” Natasha muttered to herself. “That was unnecessarily cruel of Stark.”

“No.” Steve squared his shoulders. “I deserved that.”

“Now what?” Clint asked. He rummaged through the case, packing out item after item including a pair of glasses that looked like something out of one of Bruce’s god-awful James Bond films. He passed the laptop on to Natasha who promptly set it down on the dining table they’d been given to use.

“Now we get Barnes back.” Natasha booted up the laptop.

Clint pulled out a mobile. “Huh.” He poked at it. The display lit up and he started scrolling through the contact list. He went white and slumped into a chair.

“What is it?” Natasha went to Clint, her hand on his shoulder; an anchor that Steve could see he clearly needed.

“Laura.” Clint held the phone up to show her. “He’s got her number in this phone.”

“Then you should call her,” Natasha said.

“She must be so pissed off at me.” Clint stared at the phone as though it might bite him. His eyes were a little shiny.

“I think that Tony doesn’t do anything without a reason,” Steve said. “I mean, he sent me my shield and the system for Bucky….” He swallowed hard. “What are the other numbers in there?”

Clint wiped at his face, looking back down at the phone. “Fury, Hill…” he paused. “Bruce.”

Natasha snatched the phone so quickly that Steve didn’t even see her move. “He wants to talk.” She sounded wondering. “After running away, leaving me alone, he wants to talk.”

Steve just wished that Tony had felt the same.

“Tasha.” Clint held out his hand. “Please, I just want to talk to my wife.” He spoke softly, carefully.

She watched him for a moment, seemingly unheeding.

“Nat?” Steve stepped towards her. “You can’t call Bruce.”

Her gaze swung to him. “Why not?” Her stillness was that of a wild animal anticipating an attack.

“Because Clint needs to call Laura.” Steve used her affection for the Bartons to convince her. He refused to think of the fact that Tony’s number hadn’t been on the phone.

She shook her head. “I should call him, tell him how I feel.” She sounded far-away. Steve was legitimately terrified for her.

“No, babe,” Clint’s voice was very gentle. “Not yet.” He cautiously took the phone from her grasp. “I need to talk to Laura. Find out how the kids are.”

“Yes,” Natasha said, blinking suddenly, snapping back to her normal no-nonsense self. “You should call Laura.”

It felt like the room took a breath of relief.

Clint pressed the call button. Steve motioned for them all to step away, give him some privacy, but Clint shook his head, holding a hand up to stay them. “Laura?”

~~~~

Tony took his position in front of the General Assembly. He was tempted to make a quip, say something Tony-esque, but this was too important to trivialize.

He dug his fists into his pockets, pushing against his thighs in an attempt to keep control.

“Mr….Dr. Stark, we have spent a few days reading and discussing your proposed amendments to the Sokovia Accords.” The President of the Assembly stared at him. “We are prepared to vote on them.”

“What?” Tony’s voice strangled in his throat. “I, mean, now?” He’d thought it would take longer to vote on them. That he’d have to do more tap-dancing.

“While we are all in agreement that there is a need for some sort of ‘management’ of superhumans, perhaps, in our fear, we allowed a bill to pass that wasn’t exactly bipartisan.” The President smiled a little at him. “We didn’t take those on your side of the equation into consideration at all.”

“And you’re prepared to do it now?” Tony asked.

“With a few amendments of our own.” An usher handed a set of documents marked with a couple of tabs to Tony who passed it directly to Bruce.

“He’s a speed-reader,” Tony explained to the room at large. “He’ll tell me the juicy bits.”

There were a few minutes of silence as Bruce read through the amendments of the amendments. He looked up at Tony. “Agreed to no jail-time for the rogue Avengers,” he said.

Tony did a mental high-five. “That was a non-negotiable,” he murmured. Bruce nodded.

“Amendment here, Tony.Captain America to be stripped of his leadership of the Avengers.” Bruce’s voice was flat as he looked up at Tony. “The United Nations does not trust him put the world first. The leader of the Avengers needs to be someone who is prepared to put the safety of humanity ahead of any personal relationships.”

Tony opened his mouth to protest. And then he shut it again. “Fair enough.” He looked towards T’Challa who gave a minute nod. The king agreed with this particular adjustment. “Any idea who you’d like to appoint?” he asked the room.

“We were thinking that perhaps you might be amenable to the task,” the South African said. “In all of this you have conducted yourself with the needs of the many ahead of the needs of the few.”

“But, Ultron,” Tony protested.

“A lesson perhaps,” T’Challa suggested. “One that it appears you have taken to heart.” He smiled. “Think on it, Dr. Stark. The decision does not need to be made now.”

“I think it’s a great idea,” Rhodey interjected. “Plus, he’s got more money than God so he’d keep the Avengers in the avenging business.”

The smattering of laughter had Tony relaxing. “Just call me Daddy Warbucks,” he retorted. Rhodey’s eyes rolled so hard they practically fell out of his head.

“Another amendment,” Bruce said. “The assassin known as the Winter Soldier must be handed over for court martial. He must be made to pay for his actions.” Bruce looked troubled.

Tony’s gaze darted back to T’Challa. The tiny shake that proved the king had not agreed with this had him standing taller. “No.” It was only one word but it had everyone staring at him.

“But surely you wish the person who murdered your parents to face the consequences of his decades of atrocities.” T’Challa gave Tony the opening he so desperately needed.

This was something he’d thought long and hard about. His chest hurt but it was the right thing to do. “James Buchanan Barnes was, is, a hero and should be treated as such.” He held up a hand when he could see arguments forming. “You have to know that I, of anyone in this room except perhaps King T’Challa, have cause to be righteously angry with the Winter Soldier. And I am. But that isn’t the man who left with Captain Rogers.”

He sucked in a breath. “That stupid kid from Brooklyn was left to die and then forcibly brain-washed by enemies of democracy for over seventy years. And he still managed to break through the conditioning on his own. I don’t care what else to want changed. Well, I mean I do, but Bucky Barnes will get his life back if I have to kill the Winter Soldier to do it.”

The silence in the room was resounding. Tony waited.

“How do you propose to do this, Dr. Stark?” the American representative leaned forward. “You, yourself have said that he’s been brain-washed for so long.”

Tony smiled a little. “Remember my demonstration with Dr. Banner and his session with B.A.R.F.?” There were nods in reply. “I’ve made some adjustments to the program and I believe that it will break the repression of the real James Barnes.”

“And if it doesn’t?” T’Challa’s question was soft, his eyes on Tony.

“Then I will make sure he’s locked up for the rest of his days,” Tony swore. And he’d never meant anything more.

Chapter Text

Steve watched Clint’s face. He could hear that Laura was yelling at him, but tried not to focus on the exact words. It was very difficult with the combination of her voice and his exceptional hearing.

“But…” Clint had been trying to speak for the past few minutes. Apparently his wife had other ideas. Clint had winced, closed his eyes, flinched and groaned more than once during the conversation. “Okay, baby. I promise.” With a sigh he ended the call.

“That didn’t sound too horrible,” Scott said. He smiled hopefully at Clint.

“Oh, I am in deep, deep shit, my friend,” Clint said, dropping the phone onto the table. He rubbed at his eyes. “My wife threatened to cut off my balls and feed them to one of Thor’s Bilgesnipe. Oh, and by the way, Laura’s working for Stark now.”

“What?” Steve couldn’t stop the exclamation.

“Apparently the farm was compromised so Laura took the kids to the safest place she could think of.” Clint’s mouth twisted.

“She went to Tony?” Natasha’s gaze was sharp again, whatever had been going on in her head clearly dissipated.

“Since when has Tony Stark been the beacon for safety?” Sam frowned. “He’s the reason we’re…”

“No.” Steve sent a firm glance Sam’s way. “Remember you told me that you made your own choices?” He looked around at them all. “If you don’t blame me, then you can’t blame Tony.”

Sam sighed. “I hate it when you make sense.”

Steve smiled. “Occasionally I do.” He watched Clint’s face. “What else did she say?”

Clint handed the phone to Steve. “She says that currently Tony, Rhodes and Bruce are in a closed-door meeting with the UN General Assembly.”

“Closed door?” Natasha asked, gaze sharp. “Interesting.”

“Why” Steve didn’t understand politics. He certainly didn’t try to understand this century’s convoluted, incestuous mess of politics. Besides, that had always been someone else’s department. He was more mission-oriented. This, come to think of it, was probably why they were in the situation they were currently in.

“It means they’re discussing it with Tony,” Natasha explained. “It means that there’s a chance the ratified Accords may make it through.”

A surge of hope hit Steve like a tidal wave.

“We might be able to go home again?” Scott voiced the thoughts they were all having.

Natasha and Clint exchanged a loaded look. “What?” Sam stared between them. “Stop with the creeptastic spy telepathy and share with the class.”

“We’re still facing charges,” Natasha said, obviously choosing her words carefully. “Tony may have amended the Accords and the UN may agree to them, but there is no way we walk back home without facing some sort of consequence.”

Scott looked glum. “Well, fuck.”

“Yeah,” Sam pointed at Scott. “What he said.”

~~~~

Tony was exhausted. The political wrestling ring wasn’t his arena of choice and the past five hours had been nothing short of draining.

Rhodey wrapped an arm around his shoulders. “You okay there, Churchill?” Bruce, Laura and Pepper followed them towards the car where Happy stood waiting.

Tony glared with little heat. “I am not a large, British pensioner, thank you very much.”

“Would you be happier if I called you JFK?” Rhodey retorted as he man-handled Tony into the limousine.

“I am my own man,” Tony insisted, body melting into the soft leather. “Oh my god, I am going to sleep for a week.”

“More like an hour and then you’ll be running around like a rabbit on steroids again,” Laura said.

“I pity Katniss more and more every day, Bartowksi,” Tony said, dropping his head onto Bruce’s shoulder. “Bruce my goose, guess what?”

“What?” Bruce asked, slumping a little so that Tony’s head wasn’t cricked in an awkward position.

“We won.”

Tony was asleep before he finished saying the words.

~~~~

T’Challa arrived late the next day. There had been nothing more on the news about what had happened in the closed-door meeting. Clint had tried to pry the information out of Laura who had told him to fuck himself and had refused to answer his calls.

After that none of them had been brave enough to try to call anyone else. Not even Natasha.

Steve was too impatient to wait for the king to come to them, so he requested an audience as quickly as possible. Fighting jet-lag, T’Challa agreed to see Steve almost immediately.

“Captain.” T’Challa tipped his head towards Steve. “You wished to speak with me?”

Steve resisted the urge to start shouting. “You know why.” The words were almost forced out. “What happened?”

“Ah.” T’Challa’s serious face transformed with his smile. “The final vote was not made public.”

“Majesty….” Steve felt as though he was going to explode out of his skin.

“The General Assembly has agreed to the amendments to the Accords that Mr. Stark proposed, with a few provisos.” The king stopped teasing. “I believe that you and your team will be pardoned and allowed to return to the United States shortly.”

Steve couldn’t breathe. “I…What?” His chest hurt and he ruthlessly shoved the impending anxiety attack back.

“There are some compromises that Tony Stark made, but I do think that you will be much more prepared to sign the new version of the Sokovia Accords.” T’Challa’s gaze was kind. “You will be able to go home soon, Steve.”

The pain in his chest grew until it was a vice that pressed his entire being together. “I don’t understand.”

“Since the inception of the Accords, Tony Stark has been working to discredit General Ross.” T’Challa motioned for Steve to sit. He stumbled into a chair, struggling to get air.

“He never said…” Steve remembered Tony’s attempt to talk to him in Siberia. “I guess I just didn’t listen.”

“We all made mistakes in this debacle, Captain.” T’Challa handed him a glass filled with something that looked like liquid gold. “You and Tony Stark most of all.”

“No, it was all on me,” Steve said, taking a large sip. It burned going down, fire that swept the fear away. “If I’d just stopped and thought about it, I would have known that Tony wasn’t the sort of guy to sign on for rules and regulations.”

“He made his own choices, Captain. What the Scarlet Witch showed him in Sokovia caused him much personal agony,” T’Challa said. “Much of what he did after that was as a direct result of that. Do not excuse everything until you have all of the information.”

“What did she show him?” Steve asked. “He never told me.”

T’Challa shook his head. “That is his story to share. He only told me to explain his reasons for signing the Accords.”

“He always jumps into things,” Steve said. “Why couldn’t he just wait and talk to us all before he signed our freedom away?”

“Do you believe that weapons should be given out indiscriminately, with no controls in place?” T’Challa’s dark eyes were fixed on Steve’s face.

“Of course not,” Steve said, confused at the sudden change of subject. “Unrestricted access to guns is one of the single biggest causes of death in the world. Especially in the US.”

“Then why is it acceptable for weapons in human form to be used without regulation?” T’Challa asked.

“I’m not a weapon,” Steve protested. T’Challa didn’t reply, just stared at him. “Bucky was made into a weapon by Hydra. As was Wanda.”

“Indeed,” T’Challa agreed. “But, despite your insistence, you are weapons, all of you.” He paused. “All of us,” he amended.

“It’s not the same thing.”

“You are a stubborn man, Captain. And often a little too sure of yourself. Being right all of the time is not something any imperfect person can claim.” T’Challa handed Steve a flash drive. “This is a copy of the ratified Accords. I would suggest that you and your friends spend some time reading them.”

“Thank you,” Steve said, fingers curling around the drive. “Your hospitality is something we are extremely grateful for and will never be able to repay.”

“Repay me by reading the Accords with the eyes of a reasonable man,” T’Challa said. “Forget about your quarrel with Tony Stark or your fear for your friend. You owe Tony that much at the very least.”

Steve nodded. “I owe him so much more than that, but I guess it’s a start.” He stood. “Thank you for making the time for me, majesty.”

“It was not something that could wait,” T’Challa said. “I believe that you have begun to use the program that Tony sent you?”

Steve didn’t think he could feel any worse. Apparently he could. “Natasha has been working with your scientists. Bucky has been conscious for about half an hour at a time twice now, and the B.A.R.F. technology has maintained control both times.”

“That is very good news,” T’Challa said. “Tony Stark is an exceptional man.”

Shame swept through Steve and he looked down at the drive in his hands. “Yes,” he whispered. “Yes, he is.”

~~~~

The burning on his eyelids had Tony blinking awake. “Who opened the blinds, my girl Friday?” he asked, rolling over and shoving his face into his pillow.

“Colonel Rhodes did, boss,” Friday said, sounding far too chipper for this time of the day. “He said, and I quote, ‘get your lazy ass out of bed, Tones.’.”

Tony groaned. “Or? I bet there was an ‘or’ there.”

“Indeed there was, boss.” Perky needed reprogramming Tony thought viciously. “Or he’d tell Mrs. B about that time with the eggs and the fireworks and you know that would get back to Mr. B.”

“I’d like it on the record just how much I hate Rhodey.” Tony rolled off the bed, stumbling to the bathroom.

“So noted, boss.”

“Are you sassing me, Friday?” Tony asked as he peed.

“Perish the thought, boss,” Friday assured him. “Your constant notes are a litany of delight for me.”

Tony stared into the mirror. He looked awful. Stress had clearly not been beneficial to his rakish good looks. “Where is everyone?” he asked.

“The Colonel is doing some physiotherapy with Derek,” Friday said. “Mrs. B and Lady Boss are in the study going through some paperwork. Doc is in his laboratory doing something that I think might either blow us all up, or give us all superpowers.”

“And Vision?” Tony rubbed at his jaw. His beard needed some attention.

“He got back about an hour ago, with Pete.”

“Pete?” Tony blinked in confusion. “Oh hell no!” He took off at a run. “I swear to god, Parker if you’re here I’m going to take away all of your allowance!”

He skidded into the living room where Vision and Peter were sitting watching the television.

“Hey Tony!” Peter’s barely broken squeak of greeting was accompanied by the biggest grin Tony had ever seen. “Geez, Vision is so fast. I could barely keep up with him on the way over here!”

“What the hell are you doing here anyway?” Tony demanded. “I explicitly told you…”

Peter shrugged. “Aunt May told me to get out of her hair,” he said.

“So you called Vision?” Tony was confused.

“Viz helps me with my homework,” Peter explained. “He’s like a genius.”

Tony was momentarily offended on his own behalf. “I’m a genius, Parker. Why didn’t you ask me?”

“Really? You’d help me too?” Peter’s eyes got even bigger. “That would be so awesome!”

“Wait!” Tony held up a hand. “That wasn’t an offer.” The crestfallen expression didn’t fool him. “Don’t even try it, you little schemer.”

Peter grinned again. “It was worth a shot.”

“What is going on out here?” Pepper stood at the entrance to the living room with her hands on her hips. “Why are you here on a school night, Peter?”

Tony glared at her. “Why is he here on an any night, Pep?”

She turned that sharp gaze on Tony. “Because May asked if we could keep him occupied. On weekends only.” She pointed at Peter. “Out.”

Peter got to his feet with a whine. “You’re so mean, Ms. P.”

“Now.”

Peter scowled at Tony like this was all his fault and stomped out of the mansion.

Pepper sighed. “That boy is going to be the death of us all.” She crooked a finger at Tony. “We have something to show you.”

Tony trailed after her to the study. He tried to avoid it whenever possible. Memories of Howard behind his desk, ignoring him, weren’t exactly what he liked to dwell on. “What’s up, Pepperpot?”

“The President is about to address the nation,” she said, pushing him into a seat facing the large screen television on the opposite wall.

“And I couldn’t have watched it out there?” Tony grimaced. “I think I….”

“Sit.” Laura didn’t lift her head from her laptop. “Bruce is on his way.”

“What about Vision?” Tony asked.

“I’m here already,” Vision announced, making Tony jump a little.

“Do you know how creepy that is, Viz?” Tony demanded. “You need to not do the stealth walk around friends.”

“Stealth walk?” Bruce came into the study and flopped onto the sofa beside Tony. “Who are you complaining about now?”

“It is a legitimate complaint,” Tony insisted. “I think Viz gets a little thrill out of making me jump out of my skin.”

“It is fairly entertaining,” Vision admitted.

Tony narrowed his eyes. “Are you trolling me?”

“I’m sure I don’t know what that means.” Vision’s countenance was smoothly blank.

“I bet you’re trolling me,” Tony mumbled, snuggling up to Bruce. “Aren’t we inviting Rhodey to this little soiree?”

“He needs to focus on his rehab,” Pepper said. “We can catch him up later.”

Just then the news anchor announced that the President was ready to begin his address.

“Maybe after this they can all come home,” Bruce whispered to Tony.

“As long as they stay away from me, I don’t care where they go,” Tony said. He looked up and met Laura’s gaze. “Well, except for Clint. He can come here if Laura says it’s okay.”

Laura made a skeptical sound. “He’s not on my Christmas card list yet,” she said. “We’ll see.”

“That means Clint’s in troooooouble,” Tony sang into Bruce’s ear.

“Behave,” Bruce told him.

“My fellow Americans,” President Matthew Ellis stood in the White House Press Room, hands firm on the podium. “I’m going to make an announcement. I’d appreciate it if you could all hold your questions until I’m done. That means you, Louise.”

The reporters laughed.

“As you are aware, several months ago, one hundred and seventeen sovereign nations approved the Sokovia Accords. It stated that the group known as the Avengers would no longer be a private organization. Instead, they would operate under a United Nations panel, only when and if that panel deems it necessary. They were meant to serve as a middle point between the Avengers’ desire for world peace and the international community’s concern over what could be viewed as the consequences of the actions of these ones.”

He took a sip of water. “Public opinion has been divided with as many viewing them as vigilantes as those who view them as heroes. I, for one, having been someone whose life has been saved, see them as patriots. But, I agreed with the Accords in that these powerful individuals needed to be regulated. However, I was unaware that the purpose behind the implementation was less than honorable.”

He looked around. “Effective immediately, Secretary of State, General Thaddeus Ross, has been relieved of duty both in the military and in the government. There will be full investigation into his activities in the past, partly including his intent to recreate the Super Soldier Serum that Captain America was given.”

The noise rose in the room and the President held up a hand. “Please, let me finish and then the hysteria can begin. Thanks to Tony Stark, Colonel James Rhodes and Doctor Bruce Banner, General Ross’ heinous actions have come to light. He will be dealt with in the severest way when he eventually shows himself.”

President Ellis stared into the camera. “Once the United Nations realized the magnitude of General Ross' interference, they agreed that many of the more egregious statutes in the Accords should be amended. As of today, the Avengers are a fully private organization, funded by Stark Industries and answerable to the World Security Council. However, the Avengers will not be not ruled by them. If they wish to intervene in situations where they feel their skills may be of use, Director Tony Stark will liaise with the WSC in their behalf. They no longer fall under any government institution and any nation is welcome to call them in.”

The reporters all shouted at the President and he merely waited in silence for them to settle down.

“I trust these men and women. They are honorable, passionate and peace-loving. But they have proved that they are willing to go to war on behalf of humanity if the need arises. And the need will arise as our planet is now on the map for all species.”

He paused. “And finally, to those members of the Avengers who refused to sign the Accords. Who went into hiding for fear of what could be done to them. Come home. You are pardoned with immediate effect. The assassin formerly known as the Winter Soldier may return too. There will be consequences for the many murders he has committed over the decades, but I give my personal assurance that he will be treated fairly. Thank you.”

Steve couldn't believe what he'd just seen and heard. He sat there trying to understand everything. He heard the buzz of conversation around him but didn't hear the words. Tony had done this. He had put everything on the line in their behalf and somehow won.

“So,” Scott asked. “When do we leave?”

Chapter Text

Tony lay back on his bed. He hurt in places that shouldn’t hurt. His chest, his gut, his hands. Places that were his emotional touchstones. He rubbed at the scar that was his constant reminder of the person he’d once been.

A knock at the door had him lifting his head. “Yeah?”

“It’s Laura.”

“Come on in, Lady Legolas,” Tony called.

Laura slipped in, Nate on her hip. “You got a minute?” she asked.

Tony scooted up to lean against the headboard, holding his arms out for Nate. “Gimme.”

She grinned, passing the sleepy toddler over. He was going on three now, plump with the baby fat that made all babies the best cuddlers. Laura had made sure he learned their names. She’d informed him that Baby Barton wasn’t an acceptable form of address.

“What’s up?” Tony asked once Nate was settled against his chest.

She sighed, sitting down on the bed. “They’re coming home. What do you want to do?” She met his gaze fearlessly. “Whatever you choose, I’ll support you.”

Tony patted Nate’s back, appreciating the heavy warmth of a child as he thought how to answer her. “He’s your husband.”

“He betrayed you,” she snapped back, eyes flashing. “He betrayed me!”

“Laura.” Tony held an arm out and she climbed onto the bed, falling into him as she’d done several times since this entire thing had started. “I know how much you love him. Don’t punish him for doing what he thought was right.”

“He didn’t even talk to me about it,” Laura mumbled into Tony’s shirt, her fingers stroking Nate’s chubby foot. “He just said that Cap needed him and left.”

Tony pressed a kiss to Nate’s head, breathing in the unmistakable smell of baby. “Clint is an idiot. We’ve established this over several bottles of exceptional red wine. But he isn’t a traitor.” He pondered his words in a way that he wouldn’t have done before everything fell apart. “He’s not made to be a farmer. A civilian. He’s made to do good, to make changes in the world. I don’t think any of us thought about the results of him standing down from the Avengers.”

“You’re being reasonable,” Laura accused. “That’s not fair.” She rubbed her face against Tony’s shoulder. “And I hate that you’re giving him an out here.”

“Well, nobody ever accused me of being reasonable before,” Tony said. “If you say it’s okay, Clint can come here, be with you. I can’t promise that I’m going to be mature about it, because, well, it’s me. But the kids miss him, you miss him.”

“He’s sleeping in his own room,” Laura said.

“Okay.” Nate let out a soft snore. “Now, take this blanket hog and get some rest.”

Laura kissed his cheek. “You don’t fool me, Stark. You’d lie on a bomb for this nutbag family you’ve collected.” She maneuvered Nate into her arms, careful not to wake him. “I hope you’re going to make them grovel.”

Tony smiled. “How do you know me, toots?”

She carried Nate out of the room, closing the door quietly behind her.

His smile dropped the moment he was alone. Nothing any one of them did would be enough for him to forgive them. He had a feeling that of them all, only Natasha knew just how betrayed he felt. He’d be a fool to let them back into his life.

And Tony Stark was no fool. He’d learned about betrayal at the hands of those closest to him. He wasn’t about to give anybody the chance to betray him again.

~~~~

T’Challa stood, watching as the cryogenic chamber hosting Bucky was loaded onto the Quinjet. Steve stood at his side, hoping that they were doing the right thing.

“Director Stark has promised safe passage for all of you, Captain.” T’Challa repeated what he’d said to Steve about ten times already. “Your friend will be in safe hands until he is able to answer to the United Nations on his own.”

“Bucky shouldn’t have to pay for something he had no control over.” Steve shook his head. “I’m prepared to face the music. I made my choices knowingly.”

T’Challa looked at him. “Are you so arrogant that you suppose that you are the only one who feels that he needs to make amends?” He shook his head. “You are a man, Captain. A super-man, perhaps, but nevertheless fallible and imperfect. You have made grievous mistakes in your quest to free your friend from the consequences of his own actions in the past, no matter that he was forced to comply.”

Steve was stunned. The king sounded genuinely furious. “I…”

“No!” T’Challa held up an imperious hand. “I suggest you spend the time of your flight home to think about what your choices have cost those who followed you. As well as what they cost those you left behind.”

Natasha and Clint walked up to them. “We’re ready.” Sam, Scott and Wanda had already boarded the jet.

“Okay.” Steve was numb. “Thank you for giving us sanctuary, your Majesty. You have been a true friend when we had none.”

“I didn’t do it for you, Captain.” T’Challa took a breath. “Tony Stark is a good man. He acted in good faith. Impulsive, impetuous, a little thoughtless, yes, but incredibly protective of those he loves. Did you ever ask him why he created Ultron?” Steve shook his head, Natasha and Clint silent at his side. “I suggest you ask your magical friend why he did the things he did. She has some atoning to do of her own.”

The king nodded to them and spun on his heel, flanked by two of his guards.

Steve watched them walk away.

“Come on, man.” Clint took his arm. “It’s time to go home.”

Natasha looked up at Steve. “What do you think he meant about Wanda?”

Steve shook his head. “I don’t know. But we’ve got enough time to find out, right?”

He headed for the Quinjet, determined to get the answers to the questions he should have asked a long time ago.

~~~

“I am gonna kick your ass!”

Tony skipped out of Rhodey’s range. “Only if you can catch me!”

“Oh, that’s nice, Tones, rip a hole in the heart of the cripple,” Rhodey sneered.

“That particular argument is considerably less effective now that you’ve regained feeling in your feet,” Bruce pointed out from his spot on the sidelines.

“Shut up, Banner!” Rhodey panted, running after Tony who kept running away from him, cackling like a crazy person.

“Catch me if you can, RhodesRunner!” Tony called, squeaking when Rhodey spun around and headed towards him from the opposite side.

“When I catch you, asshole, I am going to sit on you until you explain yourself,” Rhodey grunted.

Tony zigged when he should have zagged and tripped over his own feet. With a crow of triumph, Rhodey threw himself on top of him, sending the air whooshing out of his lungs in an explosion.

“It is a constant amazement to me that grown men can behave like this,” Pepper noted, sitting beside Bruce. He offered her some of his popcorn.

“I’m not sure that the term ‘grown men’ could be applied to those two,” Laura said from his other side.

“Get him, Uncle Rhodey!” Cooper yelled from the sidelines.

“C’mon, Uncle Tony!” Lila was jumping in delight. “Don’t let the machine win!”

“Machine?” Rhodey squawked, his surprise allowing Tony to wriggle away and hurtle towards Vision.

“Dew sex machine, right Uncle Tony?” Lila asked, grinning at him.

Tony stumbled as he ran, doubled over, wheezing with laughter. “Not exactly, LeeLoo,” he said as he held Vision in front of him like a shield.

“What the fu…dge are you teaching my children, Tony?” Laura bellowed, leaping to her feet.

Rhodey flopped onto his back on the mat, howling. “Oh my god!” Tears ran down his face and then Cooper and Lila hurled themselves at him, little fingers finding the ticklish spots on his torso that sent him squirming and gasping.

“My secret weapon,” Tony declared proudly, watching them wrestling. He didn’t say anything when he saw Rhodey’s toes curl while he laughed. But he wanted to punch the air at the visible proof that Extremis was working.

Laura headed towards the body pile, ready to wade in, but the moment she grabbed for Cooper, Rhodey shot a hand out and yanked on her ankle. She went down with a shriek and the kids turned their attention to her, pouncing on her with glee.

Tony moved away from the safety that Vision had sort of provided and sauntered towards Bruce and Pepper. “I think we’ll call that a tie,” he said with a grin.

Bruce shook his head. “Nope, Rhodey took you down, Tony. You cheated.”

Tony wanted to protest, but in that room, with these people, it seemed unnecessary. He plopped down beside Pepper. “I’m pooped.”

“You are getting on in years, Tony,” Vision said as he came over to them. “It’s only logical that your stamina isn’t what it used to be.”

“Oh fuck you very much.” Tony glared at him. The gleam in Vision’s eyes had him pause. “Oh lord. He’s discovered his funny bone.”

Vision frowned. “There are no bones involved in humor, Tony. It’s merely a matter of…” He paused, computing what Tony had said. “Ah, one of your human colloquialisms. I see. Ha ha.”

Tony laughed hard then, great gulping breaths of laughter that each felt like a release from an emotional prison he hadn’t known he’d been in.

The laughter turned of course, as it always did. His chest seized, breathing became an effort and his eyes filmed over with tears. Pepper hauled him into her arms, holding him as tightly as she could. Bruce wrapped himself around him from behind, his wiry arms surprisingly strong.

“Deep breaths, sweetheart,” Pepper said, her arms an anchor as they always had been. He struggled to get air, everything seizing, and then there were other arms around him, soft arms, small arms, new arms that hadn’t been there before but were now a tether in the storm.

“Uncle Tony, are you having a panic tack?” Lila asked, worming her way between Tony and Pepper, snuggling into the curve of his body like a piece that had been missing.

“Lila,” Laura said with a warning tone.

“Yeah, LeeLoo, I get them when I’m too emotional.” Tony never talked down to them. He treated them with the respect their sharp young minds deserved.

“When you’re too happy or too sad?” Lila persisted.

Tony pulled one arm away from Pepper and picked Lila up, putting her on his lap. “That’s exactly right,” Tony said. “I can’t believe how smart you are about some things.” His chest loosened, air moving into his lungs normally again.

“And so dumb about other things,” Cooper muttered.

Lila shrieked at him, throwing herself at him and pandemonium reigned again as Laura and Vision tried to keep the children from tearing each other’s hair out.

“Well, gotta say that’s a new remedy,” Rhodey said, watching Tony carefully.

“Kids,” Tony agreed. “Whoda thunk it?”

“We need to talk about how we’re going to handle the management of the Avengers,” Rhodey said. “You’re the defacto head now, but you said you didn’t want to be part of the team.”

Tony nodded. “I’m going to give you field command, if you’re okay with that?”

“Sure,” Rhodey said. “And what are you going to do?”

“I’ll be Operations,” Tony said. “Keep my eyes on the world. Plus I reckon the politics will keep me pretty busy too.”

“You’re not putting the armor on again?” Pepper asked.

“No.” Tony met Bruce’s calm gaze. “The Science Bros have tapped out of the superhero business for good this time.”

~~~~

Steve pondered what to say. He knew how fragile Wanda was, there was something not quite stable in her eyes occasionally that concerned him. But, she’d chosen to stand with him and Steve had not thought to ask why. He’d been too happy to have her magic to counter Vision’s.

“What did you do to Tony?” Natasha had less hesitation than he did. She’d heard what T’Challa had told Steve and her loyalty had ultimately always been to Tony.

Wanda looked up from the dancing crimson flames that curled around her hands. “What?”

“T’Challa told us to ask you why Tony created Ultron.” Clint was as merciless. He’d lost the most of them all.

Wanda blinked. “I don’t understand.” Her face twisted in confusion, looking so young that Steve felt guilty about cornering her like this.

Natasha had no such reservations. “What the fuck did you do to Tony?” Steve was actually afraid for Wanda.

Something moved behind Wanda’s eyes, something dark and angry. “I did what I did to all of you,” she said, tone flat. “I showed him his greatest fear.”

Steve found his voice then. “What was it?” Wanda turned those strange eyes on him. “What was he afraid of?”

Wanda smiled. It wasn’t a pretty sight on that beautiful face. It was malice and hate and vindictive delight. “Why, he killed you all, of course.” Steve wondered how he’d missed this. How had he not seen that this woman still hated Tony?

“You bitch,” Clint breathed. “You utter, utter bitch.” He clenched his fists. “We trusted you.”

“But why?” Wanda asked. “You killed my Pietro. Why would I choose you to replace him?” She tilted her head to the side, staring at Clint. “Not one of you is worthy.”

Steve shivered, a horrible sense of being encased in ice once more. This time though, he wasn’t left to wait for rescue.

“Were you ever on our side?” It was Sam who asked the question, who leaned into Wanda’s space with no fear.

She sighed. “I wanted to be.” Then she shook her head. “Tony Stark needed to pay for what he did.”

“And you think that this…” Sam waved his hand at all of them. “That this is going to make a difference?”

Wanda’s mouth curled in a little smile. Cheshire cat satisfied and full of spite. “It already has.”

Chapter Text

Steve stared at her. “You don’t just hate Tony, do you?” he asked. “You hate us all.”

She rolled her shoulders, letting out a sigh. “You all forgot,” She looked around the jet. “My parents died at Tony Stark’s hands when I was ten. My family died at the Avengers’ hands in Sokovia.” Her eyes gleamed scarlet. “And you expected me to be your friend?”

“Was anything you said or did real?” Steve asked, hurting in a way he hadn’t since Tony had told him he didn’t deserve the shield.

“Some small part of me cared a little, I suppose,” Wanda admitted. “But I had a goal, Captain. I had a mission. Zemo was not the only one working on breaking the Avengers apart.”

“You played us all,” Sam growled.

“You’re so very human,” Wanda said, that remote gaze turning on Sam. “Not one of you held off in throwing yourself into battle when Tony Stark created the monster. Despite it being of his own making, you all fought beside him. When he attempted to make amends, what did you do then? Follow him? Stand beside him? Defend him?”

Shame washed over Steve again. How had he not seen this perverse thing that Wanda was? She’d not changed once freed from Hydra’s clutches. Just like the operatives who’d been sleeper agents at S.H.I.E.LD., she’d merely gone underground, become the person, on the surface at least, they all hoped she would be.

“So, how does us going back home fit into your mission?” Natasha asked.

“It doesn’t.” There was no change in her tone or body language as she replied. “I’m a little upset with Tony Stark’s interference. It has made things complicated. But then, I am accustomed to thinking on my feet.” That vicious curve crossed her mouth again as she met Steve’s eyes. “I will succeed no matter what I have to do.”

“Steve.” Sam’s low warning came a moment too late as bloody tendrils twisted around his temples, magic shoving into him like a million knives. He shouted, arching up as Wanda tore into his brain, shredding love and memory in tissue-paper ruby.

It was one long shriek of pain as she sliced through thought, ripping him apart. He was vaguely aware of the others reacting in the same way. Ropes of red entwined them all, slashing them into atoms of agony.

The jet wobbled in the sky as Clint lost control, bellowing his anguish and clutching at his head. The autopilot engaged just as they started a downward spiral.

Natasha screamed and screamed, her voice going hoarse in terror. Sam and Scott were on the ground, writhing and crying, blood streaming from their noses and ears as the pressure burst in the jet. Steve couldn’t think, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move.

And then it stopped.

Steve fell to the floor of the Quinjet, sucking desperately at air. “What…?” He lifted his head slowly and struggled to focus his burning eyes.

Wanda was a crumpled figure on the metal floor and Bucky stood over her with a knife in his hand. “Saving your ass again, punk?” he asked with a smirk, holding a hand out to Steve. “Just like the old days.”

“How the hell…?” Steve allowed Bucky to pull him to his feet. He looked around and his friends were all in varying states of recovery.

Bucky shrugged as he helped Natasha up. “Chamber blew open and I was awake.”

“Her magic must have done that,” Natasha said, looking down at Wanda’s body. “She didn’t bargain on you, Barnes.”

“I’ve always been the shy, retiring one in this relationship,” Bucky agreed with a sly grin.

“Is she dead?” Clint croaked from the pilot’s chair, wrestling the jet back under control. Steve felt a pang of sorrow for his friend. Wanda had been Clint’s protégée and it was almost cruel to have not only lost his family, but the girl he’d trusted to have his back.

“Steel kills,” Natasha said, crouching to feel for a pulse. “She’s dead.” She looked up at Bucky. “Where did you get the knife?”

Bucky handed the knife to Natasha. “You dropped it.” His smile was a little mean and Steve wanted to kick his ass.

“Buck,” he admonished.

“What?” Bucky asked.

Steve shook his head. “You’re such a jerk, you know?”

Natasha pushed up again. “What do we do with her?” Her face was smooth, expressionless. This was the Black Widow, the woman who had helped bring down several governments in her time as an asset.

“We take her with us to Tony,” Steve said. “I mean….” He looked around at them. “Are we going to Tony or do we go to the Avengers compound?”

Scott put up a hand. “Um, question?”

“Yes, Scott?” Steve motioned for him to speak.

“What the fucking fuck just happened?”

~~~~

“They’re on their way.” Tony ended the call and turned to face his friends. “T’Challa reckons they’ll be here in a couple of hours.” It was late, the kids were in bed, and they were all in the kitchen enjoying one of Bruce’s special teas. Tony was sure there was something more to the ‘tea’ but teasing Bruce tended to end up with Tony hanging upside down by the foot thanks to the Other Guy.

“Here?” Pepper frowned. “As in the mansion?”

Tony lifted a shoulder. “The Kitty King didn’t say.”

“They’re not coming here.” Rhodey’s eyebrows were so low he looked like Gimli from Lord of the Rings. Tony had an urge to laugh inappropriately.

“They can’t go to the compound,” Vision said. “It doesn’t really exist anymore.”

And wasn’t that a kicker, Tony thought. The place of safety he’d commissioned and built for the friends who had betrayed him was now under government control in every way. The hope that he’d had when he’d designed it had faded the moment Wanda had slammed Vision deep down into the ground of the facility.

“They are not coming here.” Rhodey gritted the words out again. The hydraulic braces made a hiss as he stepped into Tony’s space. “They can find somewhere else to fucking get their shit together.”

Tony knew that Rhodey was right. That bringing them here to the mansion was a bad idea, but he was fresh out of other options. “Where else can they go?” He met Rhodey’s furious gaze. “They’re bringing a human weapon of mass destruction, a pair of super spies who could kill with an eyelash, a war veteran who has no loyalty to anyone other than the soldier who left me lying on a slab of ice in Siberia. And that’s not even mentioning Big Bug Boy and Barnes.”

He held out his hands. “Where else can they go?” he asked again. “Who else will take them in and not put them in chains as they step off the plane?”

“I got no problem with that.” Rhodey’s chin jutted out.

“Ms. Maximoff will not get the better of me again,” Vision assured them.

“And Clinton won’t be a problem,” Laura promised, an almost manic gleam in her eye.

“Guys, let’s be real. Any one of them puts a foot wrong; the Other Guy is going to be pissed.” Bruce smiled at them all. “And now that we can control the change, well, the threat is that much more effective, right?” He clasped Tony’s shoulder. “You’re not alone, Tony.”

Laura and Pepper exchanged a look. Tony had learned to fear the collaboration of the two women in his life.

‘We can house them in the East Wing,” Vision suggested. “None of us have taken up residence there yet.”

Tony nodded, body suddenly aching with exhaustion. “That’s a great idea, Viz. Can I leave you and Laura to take care of that? Maybe call them, let them know where they should be headed.”

They both nodded. The kitchen emptied then, Bruce following them, leaving Tony alone with Pepper and Rhodey.

Tony rubbed at his eyes. “I’m so fucking tired of this crap,” he confessed.

“Why don’t you get some sleep, Tony?” Pepper urged. “You’ve been awake for almost two days straight with the revising of the Accords and the signing of the new draft. I’ll make sure they settle in here. You don’t need to deal with them at all.”

Tony peered at her. “Don’t you have a company to run?”

A perfectly arched eyebrow rose. “You don’t think I can handle more than one thing at a time?”

Tony wasn’t going near that particular minefield. “Of course not, Pepperpot. You are a wise and glorious woman. I bow to your superior ability to juggle the world.”

She smiled at him. “Shower and bed, Mr. Stark. Things are going to be pretty bumpy in the next little while.”

He saluted her and then kissed her cheek. “How could I have been so dumb as to let you slip through my fingers, Ms. Potts?”

Her smile turned a little sad. “Sometimes love really isn’t enough, Tony. Perhaps that’s something you need to remember when Steve and the others get here.”

Tony sighed. “I know I’m not exactly the poster child for successful relationships, Pep, but…”

He stopped when she held up a hand. “I’m saying that you deserved better from the people that you loved, Tony. They let you down. They didn’t give you the chance to explain why you took a stand for the Accords.”

“To be fair, Pep, I didn’t exactly try all that hard to get through to them. Maybe that was my fault.” Tony had no idea why he was defending them.

“You are so very worthy, Tony.” Tears glittered in Pepper’s eyes. She put a slender hand on his cheek. “I just wish you believed that.” When he opened his mouth again she shook her head. “I couldn’t bear it if you made a crack about this right now. How your so-called friends treated you, has made me so angry for so long. They don’t deserve your love.”

Tony pulled her into a hug. “I’m so grateful for you, Pep,” he whispered into her hair.

“And so you should be,” she retorted, a little choked up. “Now, thanks to you, I have to fix my make-up before our unwanted guests arrive.” She stepped back, poking Tony in the chest. “Sleep. That’s an order, by the way.”

She left the kitchen, wiping surreptitiously at her eyes.

“Well, Tones, I see you haven’t lost your touch with the ladies.” Rhodey’s drawl had Tony bark a startled laugh.

“You’re a horrible person, Pooh Bear.” Tony’s throat was tight.

“You sure you want to do this, man?” Rhodey waved a hand in the air. “This place has been your sanctuary since all that shit went down.”

“Who would have believed that anything of Howard’s would be of use to me?” Tony joked.

Rhodey fixed him with an unimpressed look. “You don’t get to pretend with me, Stark.”

Tony rolled his eyes. “You and Potts are quite the team, aren’t you?” He stopped as he saw Rhodey’s dark skin go a little darker. “Wait a minute. What? Seriously? You’re hooking up with my ex?” He glared at Rhodey. “Way to break the bro code, asshole.”

Rhodey glared back at him. “First off, show some respect, dickhead. That’s Pepper you’re talking about. And second, there has been no hooking of any sort.”

“Yet,” Tony added, because he was a petty, petty man.

Rhodey slumped down onto one of the chairs around the kitchen unit. “I didn’t plan anything, brother,” he whined, thumping his head against the table. “She’s just so amazing and competent and I mean, have you seen her?”

“Rhodester.” Tony propped his fists on his hips. “Not cool.” Then he broke, cackling as he fell back against the cabinets. "Oh my god, your face!”

Rhodey lifted his head. “You’re a complete dick, you know that, right? His mouth curved. “I hate you.”

“Pfft,” Tony scoffed. “If you were even a little bit gay, you’d be all over this.” He patted his ass.

“You gonna tell Steve the truth?” Rhodey asked.

“About what?” Tony could play dumb with the best of them.

“You know that denial ain’t no river in Egypt, right?” Rhodey shook his head. “I think you might have become revirginated. I’m worried about you not getting any while you pine away for the boy who ran.”

Tony bared his teeth. “You shut up.”

“No, you.” Rhodey jumped to his feet, raising his fists. “Wanna take this outside?” Tony took a lurching stride towards him.

“Are you both twelve?” Pepper stood at the doorway. “I thought I told you to go to bed, Tony?”

“Rhodey’s being mean to me, Pep.” Tony wasn’t above cheating. “Plus, he’s just confessed his love for you and we decided to work out who gets you by settling it like men.”

He squawked and hurled himself out of the way as Rhodey lunged for him. “I will end you, Stark!” he roared.

“Gotta catch me first!” he yelled from the safety of Pepper’s back. He pressed a kiss to her blushing cheek. “Go get him, tiger.”

~~~~

Sam had found a piece of tarpaulin and covered Wanda’s body. Steve couldn’t stop looking at the broken thing that had been a powerful and dangerous girl. A girl who had betrayed them more times than Steve could remember. Every word, very kindness, all a lie.

“She wasn’t who we thought she was,” Sam said, sounding as devastated as Steve felt. “She saw right into our souls and took what she needed to use us to achieve her mission.”

“I’m sorry,” Steve said, staring down at his hands.

“What for?” Sam asked. “You didn’t make her hate us. She set her path a long time before we met her.”

“Maybe if I’d tried harder.” Steve couldn’t help wondering.

“Steve, you are not responsible for the decisions every person on earth makes.” Natasha sounded impatient. “Now step down off that cross and help us figure out what to do next.”

The crackle of the Quinjet radio startled them all and Clint glanced back at Steve. “I don’t recognize the call sign,” he said. “Do I answer it?”

“Who else other than King T’Challa knows we’re on our way?” Sam asked.

“I’m guessing….” Clint began.

“Mr. Barton, this is the Vision.” The android’s voice was smooth and cool. “I have been instructed to request that you and your friends please land at the co-ordinates that I have uploaded into the Quinjet’s guidance.”

Steve winced. Vision may not have emotions per se but he was clearly still firmly on Tony’s side.

“Where are we to go?” Natasha asked. “We thought the compound…”

“I’m afraid that the facility has been appropriated by the United States military,” Vision replied. “Mr. Stark has made arrangements for you to be accommodated elsewhere.”

“Where?” Steve demanded. “We at least need to know if we’re walking into a trap.”

If anything, Vision’s tone went colder. “Mr. Stark was instrumental in negotiating your return to American soil, Mr. Rogers. It would be counter-intuitive for him to hand you over to authorities who wish to imprison you. The co-ordinates will take you somewhere you will be safe.”

“Sorry, Vision. I didn’t mean to be paranoid, but it’s been a rough year.” Steve didn’t want to get even further on Vision’s bad side.

“Indeed.”

“Thank you, we’ll follow your directions and hopefully we get to see you and the others some time?” Steve knew that he was being naïve, he’d burned those bridges thoroughly.

“Excellent. Goodbye.” The pop of the disconnect told them he was gone.

“Well, that was lovely,” Clint said. “Nothing says I miss you like a pissed-off, infinitely powerful being.”

“What’s his game?” Scott asked. “I mean, why would he do anything to help us further?”

“That’s a very good question,” Natasha said. “The simplest answer is usually the truth.”

“And that is?” Sam asked.

“There’s nowhere else for us to go.” Bucky looked at Steve. “Right, Stevie?”

“There’s nowhere else for us to go.” Something wrenched at Steve’s heart as he said it. “Tony’s offering us refuge.”

“Why?” Scott frowned. “He hates us doesn’t he?”

Steve felt that well of shame sweep over him again. It seemed as though he’d got everything wrong. “No, Tony doesn’t hate you,” he said. The burning behind his eyes had his vision blurring. “He only hates me.”

Chapter Text

Sam moved to the co-pilot’s seat beside Clint. “You okay?” he asked.

Clint shrugged. “Anyone messing with my head makes me antsy. She tried it once before but thanks to lessons learned, care of Loki, asshole brother of Thor, I was prepared. Not so much this time.”

Steve listened to them speak, trying to control the shaking in his hands. Tony was giving them sanctuary in much the same way T’Challa had done almost a year ago. He just needed to figure out why.

“What’s his angle?” Bucky asked, echoing Steve thoughts as he sat beside. The cryogenic chamber had been destroyed by Wanda’s magic so there was no other option other than keeping an eye on Bucky. Steve had been ‘volunteered’ for the job.

“Whose?” Natasha asked when it became clear that Steve wasn’t going to respond.

“Stark’s,” Bucky said. “Last time I saw him he was trying to kill me.”

“No.” Steve’s voice was hoarse. “No, Buck, he wasn’t.”

“Hey, I remember him handing us both our asses,” Bucky pointed out.

“If Tony wanted you dead, you’d be dead.” Natasha’s flat declaration had Bucky stare at her.

“He was pulling his punches?” Bucky gave an incredulous laugh. “I have bruises that lasted for days and one less arm that would disagree with you, Natalia.”

Steve held his breath.

Natasha’s cool gaze met Bucky’s. “I wondered when you would remember me, James.” Her hand hovered over her thigh holster.

Bucky put his hands up, palm out. “I’m not interested in a fight, Natalia. Just starting to get bits and pieces back in flashes.” He looked over at Steve. “Up till now, you’ve been the only one I really remember.”

“That’s awesome, Buck.” Steve was grateful for at least something positive to come out of this clusterfuck.

“Not that I’m not happy about your buddy getting his memories back,” Scott said, leaning forward to meet Steve’s eyes. “Just a thought, anyone think it may have been a good idea to tell the scary robot dude that we’re bringing a body with us?”

Steve froze.

“Fuck.” Clint smacked his forehead. “We’re complete dumbasses.”

“For the world’s greatest hero’s, we’ve been fucking up a lot lately,” Sam agreed.

Steve nodded. “We need to stop doing that. I guess the first thing we need to do is trust that Tony has always had our backs.” He remembered the icy tone that Vision had used on him. “It’s time to take some responsibility for our actions.”

“Our?” Natasha asked, eyebrow raised. “That’s refreshingly different.”

“Yeah,” Steve said. “We all fucked up. We all need to make amends.”

“Language,” Clint chided.

Steve wanted to laugh and cry in equal measure. “Thanks, Barton. That was exceptionally helpful.” He looked at them. “Are we agreed?”

Natasha shrugged. “I signed the first draft of the Accords. I expect that Tony has put extra protection in for us in the revision. I’ll sign that as well.”

“I’m going to sign too,” Clint said. “I want my family to be safe again.”

Scott nodded to Clint. “I’ll go with the flow. I mean, I’m still not entirely sure why I was against the Accords since I didn’t really read them.”

Steve gaped at him. Scott was a riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a whole lot of dumbass sometimes.

“I’m still with you, Cap,” Sam told him. “I’ve got your six.”

Steve shook his head. “No. This time, we read them properly. Maybe have a round-table read and take the time to understand what they involve; who we’re accountable to, what is required of us. Tony didn’t go into the UN without making sure we….” He stopped. “He didn’t abandon us, even though we abandoned him.”

“And me?” Bucky asked. “I killed his parents. He doesn’t strike me as the forgiving type.”

“He forgave us all,” Steve said. “The announcement by the President for us to return was a Tony Stark blanket statement of forgiveness. He knows that you may never escape the Hydra conditioning. He’s made a provision for that.”

“How do you know?” Bucky asked.

“Because somehow I lost sight of the fact that he’s my friend,” Steve replied.

~~~~

Tony flopped onto his bed with a groan. “F.RI.D.A.Y. no disturbances on pain of death,” he ordered.

“You got it, boss,” she chirped. “What if Lady Boss wants to talk?”

“On pain of death,” Tony repeated. He closed his eyes, trying to get his brain to shut up. Steve was on his way here. Along with the man who had murdered his parents. And the friends who’d betrayed him.

Tony wasn’t one for introspection. He usually accepted things as they were and either changed them or moved on. This situation with Steve and co wasn’t something he had either option to do. He was going to have to deal with them.

That final confrontation. That angry exchange of words.

“He's my friend.”
“So was I. Stay down. Final warning.”
“I can do this all day.”
“That shield does not belong to you. You don't deserve it! My father made that shield!”

Words calculated to hurt in the worst possible way. They had cut into him with surprising force and Tony had a feeling that he hadn’t stopped bleeding.

Tony had grown used to betrayal. His father, Obadiah, Stone, Hammer, god, the list was endless. But there was something about Steve that had broken Tony in a way that he hadn’t been able to fully recover from.

It was cold in the room. His feet ached with the chill. He rubbed at his chest, the phantom hum of the arc reactor a comforting constant.

“Boss?” F.RI.D.A.Y. sounded nervous. It still took him by surprise after J.AR.V.I.S. had always been so confident.

‘I said no disturbances.” The cold was spreading, encasing his calves, twisting around his muscles in a blanket of ice.

“Your vitals are spiking, boss.” F.RI.D.A.Y. said. “I have protocols to follow if you….”

“Leave. Me. Alone.” Tony gritted the words out through clenched teeth as he lost all feeling below his waist. He took short, sharp breaths. He knew the cold wasn’t real. That it was a by-product of that day in Siberia. Suit powered down, unable to release, damaged in a way that Tony hadn’t been able to fix.

“Boss. Please.” F.RI.D.A.Y. begged.

The door opened and Rhodey rushed in, Pepper at his heels. “What’s going on, Tones? F.RI.D.A.Y. woke us up, saying you were in trouble.”

They moved to either side of him, warm palms touching his hands, heat bleeding into his frozen flesh.

“Breathe, Tony,” Pepper urged. Her voice was almost frantic; Tony could hear the panic that she was struggling to keep under control.

“Can’t…” Tony gasped. “Chest. Heart. Hurts.” Before anyone could do anything more, the Iron Man suit flew into the room, knocking Pepper and Rhodey out of the way.

“I’m going to get the boss to a hospital, ASAP,” F.RI.D.A.Y. said. “I’ll let you know where he is.”

In the comforting embrace of titanium, vibranium and the technology of the Mark XLVIII, Tony started to breathe again. “I’m okay,” he rasped.

“You really aren’t, boss.” F.RI.D.A.Y. told him. “I think you’re having an actual heart attack.”

Tony closed his eyes. “Well, that’s poetic, I guess.” He blacked out before they’d even left the mansion.

~~~~

The Quinjet’s stealth technology had them clearing American airspace with no challenge. Steve had stopped trying to figure out where they were going. The Sam/Clint running commentary had been enough.

“We’re somewhere on the east coast,” Sam said.

Clint snorted. “Good thing you have those techno gadgets of yours ‘cause you are directionally challenged, my friend.”

“Sam’s right,” Natasha said. “I think I know where we’re going.”

“He wouldn’t bring us back to the tower, would he?” Clint asked. “That would be seriously not normal.”

“We’re heading to the mansion.” Natasha’s quiet words had them all looking at her.

Howard’s mansion?” Steve asked. “Tony’s there?” Everything he knew about Tony Stark was clouded by the knowledge that according to Tony, Howard Stark had always seemed to think that Steve was more important than his own son.

“Maybe he knows that it’s the last place that people would look for him,” Natasha suggested. “I don’t think he’s been back there in years.”

The Quinjet started to drop, heading for a smooth patch of lawn in front of an enormous house. Steve took a deep breath.

“Here goes nothing,” Clint muttered.

The bay door opened, but before any one of them could get out, Rhodes and Pepper barreled in. “Move! Move” Rhodes yelled, pushing Clint out of the seat and taking the controls.

Pepper looked haggard, her eyes were cold and her fair skin blotched red.

“What’s going on?” Natasha asked, moving over to allow Pepper to sit beside her.

“Tony’s had a heart attack.” Pepper didn’t bother with mincing words. “F.RI.D.A.Y. grabbed him, bundled him into an Iron Man suit and took him to the nearest hospital. Vision took Bruce with him, following the suit, but we need something a little faster than Tony’s Bugatti.”

She looked around the jet. “Forgive me if I don’t say welcome home, but it’s against my better judgment that Tony brought you all here and it looks like I was right.”

“He had a heart attack because of us?” Steve was appalled. “We would never have come here if we knew we were endangering his life.”

Pepper’s pretty eyes were scornful as she stared at him. “I’d rather you didn’t speak, Captain. My urge to punch you is only under control because I know I’d probably break my hand.”

Her gaze slipped from person to person. “Every last one of you should be on your knees thanking Tony for saving your lives.” She stopped abruptly. “What is that?” She stared at the covered body.

“We had a little trouble mid-air,” Natasha said. “Wanda tried to kill us. We didn’t really feel like dying today.”

“You have a fucking dead body on the fucking plane and you didn’t fucking think to fucking say anything?” The sheer rage that emanated from Pepper was extraordinary. Steve was more than a little afraid.

“Er…” Steve began.

Pepper shook her head so hard it should have given her whiplash. “Not. Another. Word.”

Rhodes turned in his seat. “Seriously, Rogers. You arrive in the US with a body in tow and a should-be-dead assassin sitting next to you with no restraints. You’re a fucking menace.” The look of disdain on Rhodes’ face was even worse than his words.

“I was supposed to still be in the cryo-chamber,” Bucky said. “When Wanda flipped her shit she shorted out the unit and I woke up.”

“He saved us,” Sam added.

“Whoop-de-fucking-do,” Rhodes said. “Not our problem, well, except that it fucking is!”

“Rhodey.” Pepper’s voice was softer now. “We can kick their asses later. Tony needs us to be calm.”

“Man, you have no idea how fucking angry I am right now,” Rhodey spat. “But my best friend somehow found it in him to give you all a place to hide while you sort your crap out. And then he freaked out so badly that he had a fucking heart attack. I really don’t give one tiny shit about your problems; so silence would be advisable for the foreseeable future. Capisce?”

Steve felt nauseous. Everything he’d done, every decision he’d made, had led to this. To his friend being so afraid to see him again that his heart literally broke.

“Sure, James.” Sam’s answer was subdued. Clint moved to Natasha’s other side, leaning against her as he watched Rhodes pilot the jet.

Pepper stared at the phone in her hand, apparently willing it to ring.

The only sound was the jet engines taking them to where Tony was being treated.

Steve wanted to vomit. He was shaking without realizing it, until Natasha crouched down in front of him. “This isn’t the time to crack, Rogers. Pull it together.” Her voice was hard, her eyes harder.

He took several shaky breaths, trying to get his body under control. Bucky gripped his thigh with his hand. “Come on, punk, you can fall apart once we know that Stark’s okay.”

“I didn’t think you cared.” Pepper wasn’t looking at them. “Not one of you asked Tony why he supported the Accords. Not one.”

“Wanda told us what she did,” Sam said. “How she manipulated Tony.”

“And then Ultron happened,” Clint added. “Tony messed up, Pepper. He didn’t even talk to us.”

“Did any of you blame Bruce for Ultron?” Pepper asked instead. “Ask him why he helped Tony create a murder robot?”

“I did,” Natasha said. “He told me that he agreed with Tony, that the world would be safer without the Avengers. That we were, we are dangerous.”

“What?” Steve was astonished. “He never said…”

“Because you never asked, Captain Asshole.” Rhodes took the jet down in a slow guide. “Just once, it would have been nice for you to trust Tony Stark instead of Iron Man.”

~~~~

“Well, this is embarrassing.” Tony opened his eyes and saw Bruce and Vision standing beside his bed. “Did anybody kiss me?”

Bruce’s lips quirked, but it didn’t erase the worry from his eyes. “Tony, you stopped breathing for almost two minutes.”

“Oh boy, there goes that genius I.Q.” Tony looked at Vision. “You’ve done your scans?”

Vision nodded. “You are unharmed, Tony. It was an episode of angina, not a heart attack as F.R.I.D.A.Y. erroneously surmised.”

“So, when can I leave?” Tony asked, the machines beeping already making him antsy.

“Angina is a warning sign for an actual heart attack, Tony.” Bruce sat in the chair next to the hospital bed. “The doctor seems to think it is stress related.”

“Gee, I wonder why,” Tony deadpanned.

Bruce wasn’t deterred. “They want to do some tests.”

“Nope.” Tony started pulling at the sensors and needles attached to various parts of his body. “Whatever Vision can’t find, J.A.R.V.I.S. will.” He ignored the increased alarms going off.

“You mean F.R.I.D.A.Y.” Bruce put a hand on his arm. “Tony. Stop. Let the doctors do a full check-up. Even if you don’t want to do it for yourself, do it for me, for Rhodey, for Pepper.”

Tony glared at him. “Not cool, Banner. Not cool at all.” He hadn’t even noticed his slip of the tongue. J.A.R.V.I.S.

Just then Pepper burst in, followed by Rhodey. Her face was white and her eyes wild. “Tony!” She hurled herself into his arms. “You absolute asshole!”

Tony held her close. “I love you too, Pep,” he said into her hair. “I’m like a noxious weed. You’re not getting rid of me that easily.”

Rhodey flicked Tony’s ear. “Dick.”

Tony made a kissy-face at him. “You know you want it, Rhodey-bear.”

Rhodey grimaced. “I have no idea why I care about you,” he said.

Tony stared at him. “I know how Bruce and Viz got here, but you and Pep made good time. What supersonic jet did you appropriate?”

Rhodey sighed. “Sometimes I just wish you weren’t so smart, Tones.”

Pepper pulled away, tugging at her hair and clothes. “We hitched a ride,” she said with a warning glare at Rhodey.

“Hm.” Tony waved at the nurses and doctors at his door. “Thanks all, I’ve got this covered.” Vision closed the door in their faces. That’s why Viz was his favorite.

“You had a heart attack, Anthony Stark!” Pepper yelled.

“It was angina, Ms. Potts. Tony is perfectly fine.” Vision tried to pour oil on troubled waters.

“I don’t give a continental fuck if it was bad heartburn,” Pepper told him. “Tony will stay in that bed until the doctor says that it’s safe to leave!”

“Hitched a ride, huh?” Tony said, ignoring her, mind working at warp speed. “I’m guessing the prodigal children gave you a lift.” He wasn’t sure how he felt about it, but was pretty glad that he’d ripped off the cardiac sensors.

“Tony, we wanted to get to you as quickly as possible,” Rhodey explained. “It was convenient.”

Tony waved a hand. “Oh, I’m not mad at you for rushing to my bedside to hear my dying wishes,” he said, grinning a little at their scowls. “Just wondering where the errant sheep are now.” He didn’t honestly want the answer.

“They’re outside,” Pepper said. “We told them they weren’t allowed to come in, but they refused to leave anyway.”

“That’s just great,” Tony muttered. “So much for avoiding them at the mansion.”

“You might want to monitor him after this next tidbit, Viz,” Rhodey said, pushing Vision towards Tony. “Not sure if this information will cause another attack.”

“What information?” Tony asked, unsure if could really handle anything more right now.

“Maybe we should let one of them in to explain?” Rhodey said, exchanging glances with Pepper.

“No!” Pepper’s eyes were fierce. “They can all fuck off the end of a cliff for all I care. I’m not letting them near Tony.”

“Pep,” Tony said, grabbing onto her hand. “Let Natasha in. She went to them because I asked her to. I’m not happy that she stayed, but she couldn’t exactly come back once she was declared a fugitive. She’s the only one of them that I even remotely trust.”

Bruce went pale. “Tony, please, not Natasha. I can’t deal…”

“Suck it up, baby. You ran away from her. It’s getting time for all of us to deal.” Tony felt a little mean, but he really didn’t care. “Rhodey, bring her in.”

Rhodey went to the door and opened it. “Agent Romanoff, please can you come in?” There was a hum of sound. “No. Only her.” His voice was icy enough to give Tony shivers.

Natasha slipped into the room like a wraith. Her face was pale and she studiously avoided looking at anyone other than Tony. “Are you alright?” Her normally husky voice was raspier than normal.

“I’ll live,” Tony told her, motioning her closer. “You?” He held out a hand and she grabbed onto it like a lifeline.

She shook her head. “Not remotely.” Tony knew how messed up she was because Natasha never admitted fear.

“Apparently there’s something you need to tell me,” Tony said, waiting for to talk in her own way.

“Wanda.” Natasha spat the name as a curse.

“What happened?” Tony asked, glancing quickly over at Vision who had frozen at the mention of his protégée.

“She’s dead. We had to kill her when she attacked us. But Tony, she finally told us the truth,” Natasha said. “About the vision she’d shown you, the purpose she’d kept hidden from us all along.”

“That she wanted us all dead?” Tony asked. “That she was still, to all intents and purposes, a Hydra agent?”

Her eyes went wide. “You knew?”

Tony sighed. “That amount of hate was never going to disappear with a couple of sparring sessions with the Avengers,” he said. “No matter what Captain Perfect said.”

“But you let her stay with us, you never said anything.” Natasha sounded as though she was getting angry.

“And just when would any one of you have listened to me?” Tony asked. “After Ultron? Vision? The Accords?” He laughed and it felt as though something had died in his heart. “Iron Man, yes; Tony Stark, not recommended. You remember, right? You wrote that profile.”

“Tony.” Natasha’s face crumpled. Tears welled in her eyes for the first time that Tony could remember. Not even when Bruce had left had she allowed her sorrow to show. “How many times have we let you down?”

“Too many to be allowed back into his life,” Pepper said. She pointed at the door. “You can leave now.”

And Natasha went; one last gaze back across her shoulder. “There’s no fixing this, is there?”

Tony shook his head. “No, Nat. There really isn’t.”

Chapter Text

Steve watched Natasha come out of the hospital room. “Is he okay?” he asked.

Natasha met his gaze. “He’s alive.” It wasn’t an answer. Or perhaps it was the only answer she would give him.

Rhodes followed Natasha, carefully closing the door behind him. “Tony asked me to take you all back to the mansion.” He didn’t appear too happy about it. “I wanted Vision to do it but he has to bring Bruce back and well…” He turned, heading for the roof where they’d left the jet. Steve winced every time he heard the soft swish-snick of the hydraulic braces.

They followed him. They had no other option.

Steve felt a hand curl around his and he looked down at Natasha. “He’s so sad, Steve. So sad and angry and wounded and, oh god, I think we’ve lost him forever.” The hitch in her voice had Steve pull her in close, wrapping his arm around her.

“We’ll have to try, Nat,” he whispered. “I can’t imagine a world where Tony could hate us.”

“Three’s the thing.” Rhodes turned around, eyes stormy. “He doesn’t hate any of you. He’s a sentimental fool who has spent most of his life buying people to show him affection. What the hell do you think the Avengers Tower was? He didn’t need to keep you all close.”

“He made it sound convenient,” Clint said with a considering expression on his face.

Rhodes snorted, walking again. “Nothing about any one of you is convenient. Tony made places for you in his home, in his heart. He gave you little pieces of himself so that you wouldn’t leave. And still. You did.”

“He built the facility for us, but he didn’t stay there.” Sam asked the question that Steve wanted answered.

“He was busy trying to rescue his company after the events of Sokovia and Ultron,” Rhodes said, not bothering to turn again. “Pepper and he were breaking up, and Ross was already on his case about managing the Avengers. There was no way he was going to stay there with that much public scrutiny on him.”

Steve hadn’t understood. “He said he was tapping out.”

“Tony Stark has never tapped out on anything in his entire life.” Rhodey’s direct words hit Steve like a gut-punch.

“No, he hasn’t.” Steve wanted to run back to that hospital room and make Tony listen, make him forgive him, make him not regret the last year of their lives. They followed Rhodes into the elevator, watching the numbers of the floors counting up.

Scott sighed. “Guys, I’m really grateful and all, but I really don’t want to hang out at some moldy old mansion when I could get home to my kid. I just hope Cassie remembers who I am and that Hope doesn’t entirely kick my ass to the curb.” He tapped Rhodes on the shoulder. “Do you think maybe you could give me a ride to San Francisco?”

Rhodes stared at him. “I’m not a fucking taxi service, Lang.”

Scott’s shoulders slumped. “It’s just, I want to go home. Maybe it won’t be the same, but I’m not used to hanging out with a team. I want Cassie. I want Hope. Hell, I even want Hank.”

Rhodes raised his eyes to the heavens. “I’ll see what I can do,” he said grudgingly. “Having one less traitor on the premises wouldn’t be a bad thing.” Steve barely flinched. Rhodes pulled out a phone, pressed a number. “I need a pick-up at Tony’s place. The package needs to be dropped off in ‘Frisco.” He paused. “Lang.” Another pause and then a laugh. “You are entirely welcome, man.”

He pocketed the phone again. “You’re sorted,” he told Scott. “Your free ride will be at Tony’s place by the time we get there.”

Scott stared at him. “You sound entirely too excited about this,” he said. “You planning on screwing me over?”

Before Steve could defend Rhodes, it was the Colonel whose face turned to Scott’s. “Let me be very clear. I don’t want any of you anywhere near Tony. He’s decided otherwise. I’ve arranged for a friend to pick you up back at the mansion and get you to your family. I honestly don’t give one single crap about you. Is that understood?” He spoke with every nuance of his years in the army in his voice. They all automatically straightened up.

“Sorry,” Scott mumbled. “I’m a general all-around fuck-up so I tend to believe the worst about people.”

“If Rhodey says you’ll be okay, then you’ll be okay,” Sam said.

“That’s Colonel Rhodes to you, Airman Wilson.” Rhodes met Sam’s surprised eyes.

“Yes, sir,” Sam gulped, sending a wide-eyed look over to Steve.

“Let’s go then. I’d like to get back to my friend as quickly as possible.” Rhodes stepped out of the elevator onto the roof, keeping a brisk pace.

Steve hurried to catch up to him. “Is Ms. Potts not coming with us?” He was so very tired of everything now. He wanted a bed and a shower and, most of all, a conversation with Tony that he feared would never actually happen.

“She has some paperwork to complete for Tony,” Rhodes said, the words dragged reluctantly from him. “She’s trying to make him stay and get tests. To make sure he’s okay.”

“I know it’s not my place, Colonel, not any more. But please, just tell me that he’s not in danger.” Steve had not often begged, but he was prepared to do more if it meant that Rhodes would tell him about Tony.

The look Rhodes gave him was part scorn, part despair. “Tony says he’s fine. He apparently had an angina attack which can be a pre-cursor to a full-blown heart attack. We’re trying to get him to stay down and get the tests done.”

“Did we…did I cause this?” Steve asked. He didn’t think he’d ever felt so small.

Rhodes sighed, indicating that Steve sit in the co-pilot seat. “I’m so pissed at you, Rogers. I have no words just how mad I am that you …” He stopped. “Tony trusts two people in the world. Pepper and I. That’s it. That’s how it’s been since his parents died. He created J.A.R.V.I.S. to have someone around who didn’t want anything from him but him.”

“I don’t…” Rhodes held up a hand.

“Tony trusted one other person. One other person who got into his space and wouldn’t let his money or his possessions or his bullshit push him away.” Rhodes took the jet up. “In case you missed the memo, that person was you.”

~~~~

Tony pulled a face. “I hate needles, Pep.” The nurse and Pepper ignored him as they strapped him back up to wires and tubes until he looked like something from the Matrix.

“Stop whining, Mr. Stark.” The nurse patted his head as though he was a puppy. “The sooner you let us get this over with, the sooner you can go back to being an idiot.”

He narrowed his gaze. “Have you been taking lessons from Pepper?” He sent a suspicious glance to Pepper who was focused on her phone. “Are you turning everyone against me, Ms. Potts?”

She looked up, more color in her face now and a tiny smirk on her lips. “It’s your charming personality, Mr. Stark. It inspires people.”

Tony stuck his tongue out at her. “You’re a mean woman, Potts.”

“I try.” She waited for the nurse to finish taking blood. “Can I take this idiot home now?” she asked. “If you don’t say yes, he’s going to leave anyway.”

Tony nodded. “I will. I’m like David Copperfield. I can get out of anything.” He tried his best smile.

“The results of your tests haven’t come out yet,” the nurse said, unmoved by his obvious charms. Tony was going to call her NurseZilla. “It would be inadvisable for you to leave until the doctor releases you.”

“Copper. Field.” Tony said, already unhooking, unplugging and unsticking. “It’ll be like I was never here.”

“I should be so lucky.” NurseZilla’s eyes twinkled. “If you leave, it’s at your own risk.”

“He knows,” Pepper said. “It’s a theme.” She sighed. “I’ve put a change of clothes in the bathroom. Happy is waiting for us.” Bruce had left just after the others, opting to stay at the hospital and confirm Tony’s test results before going home with Vision. It warmed him to think of Bruce putting himself out there for Tony’s sake.

He wandered into the little bathroom and tugged on the jeans and t-shirt that Pepper had brought him. The slip-on shoes were just about all he could handle right now so he gratefully headed out

Pepper silently handed him a jacket and it took almost the last of his energy to shrug it on.

“You do know that the only way you’re leaving here is in a wheelchair, right?” NurseZilla’s eyebrows could give Pepper’s a run for the money.

“I have a suit,” Tony pointed out.

“No you don’t,” Pepper said. “I asked F.R.I.D.A.Y. to send it back to the mansion.” One high-heeled stiletto tapped on the tiles. “Will I hear any more arguments from you?”

Tony sighed and plopped down into the waiting wheelchair, trying to hide the momentary grimace of pain. “Fine.” He gave a jaunty salute to NurseZilla and pointed at the door. “Right, Potts. Mush!”

Her scowl wasn’t her best. Tony could still see the fear in her eyes and was so mad that he’d put it there. Pepper pushed him out of the hospital room and stopped cold.

Tony stared up at the man that stood in their way. “Barnes?” He hated the slight quiver in his voice.

“Let me help,” Barnes said, indicating the wheelchair. “I want to help. Please.”

Tony swallowed hard. His last memory of Bucky Barnes had been of him hobbling away with Steve’s arm wrapped around him while Tony lay struggling to breathe as the icy cold of winter folded over him. “I don’t need your help,” he rasped.

“Okay,” Barnes said, without a pause. “So maybe you could help me?”

Pepper stepped in front of Tony’s wheelchair, every muscle in her body shaking. “How dare you come here and ask anything of him?” She shoved Barnes hard, taking him by surprise and making him stumble back. “You of all people….”

“Are innocent,” Tony said as exhaustion finally set in. “He’s the only one in this entire shit-show who actually has nothing to be sorry for.” He waved a hand at Barnes. “I’ve got a car waiting, let’s go.” He met Pepper’s outraged gaze. “I’m semi-okay with this, Pep. Barnes is maybe the best one to actually start with.”

“He killed your parents!” Pepper hissed. She wasn’t budging.

“The Winter Soldier did that.” Tony met Barnes’ dark blue eyes. “You’re not him anymore, are you?”

Barnes shook his head slowly. “Not entirely,” he admitted. “It’s like pieces of him are still stuck to me like a snake skin and I’m peeling them off bit by bit.”

“So my B.A.R.F. technology worked.” Tony felt strangely satisfied. And not a little bit smug. Shut up, he was allowed this.

“You know you should really think up a better name for that, right?” Barnes stepped carefully around Pepper and took the handles of the wheelchair. “Where to, ma’am?”

~~~~

Steve only realized that Bucky was missing when they’d been in the air for a few minutes. He stood up so quickly his head buzzed a little. “Buck?” he called, despite the fact that there wasn’t exactly a place for anyone to hide on the stripped down plane.

“He said he had something to do.” Natasha met his wild eyes with a flat stare.

“And you let him go?” Steve yelled.

“I’m sorry, but I’m not your boyfriend’s guard.” Natasha looked very unfriendly. “He’s your responsibility.”

“Fuck!” Steve rushed back to Rhodes. “We need to go back to the hospital. Bucky’s gone missing.”

Rhodes lifted his gaze to Steve’s. “No, he hasn’t. He’s with Tony.”

Steve stumbled; fell back into the co-pilot’s seat. “What?” It was a whisper. He was terrified.

“Tony just let me know,” Rhodes said, jaw set. “Trust me; I’m as unhappy about this as you are.”

“Bucky’s not quite…” Steve struggled to get the words out.

“Sane?” Rhodes suggested with a slight sneer. “Safe? Stable?”

“Yes.” Steve hated to admit it, but he swallowed hard as his breath sped up again. “I don’t want anything to happen to ….”

“Your fucking Bucky will be just fine,” Rhodes snarled. “Tony knows that he’s basically a POW and won’t fucking trigger him.”

“I meant I don’t want anything to happen to Tony.” Steve refused to look away from Rhodes’ disbelieving glare. “I’ve done enough damage. To both of them.”

Rhodes stared at him for a moment more and then closed his eyes. “F.R.I.D.A.Y. patch me through to Tony’s mobile please.”

There was a moment of silence and then Tony chirped, “Gumdrop! I told you I was fine. Don’t be such a worry-wart!”

“There’s someone else here who needed reassurance, Tones.”

Silence again and then, “Guess it’s Rogers then. Barnes is fine.” Tony’s reply was as flat as Natasha’s had been.

“I’m sorry, Tony; I didn’t even notice that he wasn’t with us. I had no idea he planned on coming to see you.” Steve needed Tony to believe this if nothing else.

“He’s not in danger from me, Stevie.” Bucky’s voice crackled over the comm. “He does have Ms. Potts sitting here with him and, swear to god, she’s more terrifying than Red Skull.”

Steve choked out a laugh. “You’re so messed up, Buck. How do I know I can trust you not to hurt him?”

“I know Barnes isn’t responsible for the things he did as the Winter Sol…” Tony began with hot anger in his voice.

“I was talking to Bucky, Tony,” Steve said very carefully.

“You don’t.” Bucky’s answer was blunt. “But I won’t.”

“You can’t make promises like that, Buck,” Steve said. “It’s only been a few days with that program that Tony sent you. It’s seventy plus years you need to get out of your head.”

“And that’s why he came directly to me,” Tony said. “He knows where the technology came from. He came to the source.”

“Buck, that was a mistake.” Steve said. “At least until we could be there to protect you from him.”

“Fuck you, Rogers. I already told you that he was safe with me! I know that he’s been through hell and come out the other side.” Tony spat.

“Tony.” Steve took a breath. “I’m talking about Bucky. He’s the danger here, not you. I know I made a whole boat-load of mistakes. I want to give you the chance to punch me in the teeth until I’m bleeding, until you feel like maybe there’s a chance you could forgive me. That’s not going to happen if Bucky regresses and attacks you.”

Tony’s laugh was bitter. “Now you’re worried about me?” Steve could practically see the scorn on Tony’s face. “That would have meant a lot more if I don’t have the abiding memory of my friend leaving me to die on a floor in a cave in Siberia.”

“I fucked up, Tony,” Steve admitted. “If I’d told you about Bucky and your parents…”

“We are not doing this,” Tony said.

“Please,” Steve begged. “Tony, please.”

“No.” Tony’s voice was firm. “I know we need to talk. Fuck knows I don’t want to talk to any of you, but hey, I fought for your pardon so I’m stuck with you. We’ll see you at the mansion. And then maybe talk about talking.”

Steve felt the knot that had twisted in his stomach loosen just the slightest bit. “Thank you.”

“What for?” Tony scoffed. “It’s not like I had any choice about bringing you to my home. You’re all compromised and the UN doesn’t trust you. Until you’ve proved that you’re willing to work within the framework of the revised Accords, you’re not going to be trusted.”

“Thank you for getting us home,” Steve said, ignoring the hostile words. “Thank you for giving us a home to come back to.”

Tony sighed. “Rhodey, I’m done, sugarbear. See you at home.” And the comm went silent.

There was an air of resignation in the jet. Steve couldn’t bring himself to look around at his team.

“Well, that went swimmingly,” Clint said. “I’m feeling all the warm and fuzzy love.”

“Man, I reckon you’d better shut your ass up,” Sam advised. “Your wife is waiting at our final destination and if I know anything about women, and I do, you are in the biggest shithole of the entire lot of us.”

Clint flipped him off.

Natasha’s mouth curled a little. “Laura is going to make him suffer. At least there will be some entertainment.”

Clint flipped her off too and then yelped when she reached over and pinched his bicep. “You are a truly horrible woman, Romanoff.”

“It’s taken years,” Natasha said. “I’m a perfectionist.”

Steve tuned them out, gazing at the landscape beneath them.

“You don’t deserve him.”

Rhodes’ words had him looking up in surprise. “I beg your pardon?”

“Tony, you don’t deserve him. You never have. None of you. He’s given and given and given until he’s almost empty and I swear to all that is holy, Rogers, if you ever put one foot wrong with him again, I will find a way to end you.”

“I’m not perfect, Colonel,” Steve said with a sigh. “I know I’ve fucked up. And not just with Tony. Clint, Sam, Natasha, Scott, god, even poor, sad, misguided Wanda. I’ve made more mistakes than I know how to count, but I can promise you this one thing. If I betray Tony again, I’ll help you end me.”

Rhodes shook his head. “I just know it’s going to end badly and then I’ll get stuck with the fallout. Again.”

“Nothing about this is going to be easy,” Steve agreed. “You don’t trust us and quite frankly, since Leipzig, we don’t really trust you.” He ignored Rhodes’ protests. “You all fought us. Yes, maybe we didn’t think everything through, but still, the people we trusted most tried to take us out. And then the RAFT just made it all worse.”

“Tony tried to talk to you,” Rhodes said. “You wouldn’t listen. You had those people back there follow you for the sake of one man. One man that Tony already had the ability to help.”

“Tony didn’t listen to me either,” Steve said. “He thinks he’s so smart. That he has the answer to everything. But Tony isn’t people-smart. And that’s where he failed. He didn’t stop to think that anyone could possibly disagree with him about the Accords. By the time he was willing to talk, it was too late.”

“You should have told him about Barnes.” Rhodes’ started the jet’s descent. “That was the worst thing you could have done to him.”

“I know.” Steve rubbed his eyes. “And somehow I’m going to make him sit down and talk to me about it. I’m tired of being sad all the time. I miss my friend.”

“You almost killed your friend,” Rhodes said. “How can I trust you with him again?”

“I’ll let you put a bullet in my brain before I betray him again.” He allowed Rhodes to see the truth in his eyes. “I give you my word.”

He meant it.

Chapter Text

On landing in a field behind the mansion, Steve noticed another jet, smaller and more streamlined than the Quinjet. “Who’s that?” he asked Rhodes.

“Lang’s ride,” Rhodes said, unbuckling and heading out of the door. A beautiful dark-haired woman waited for him, tapping a thick-soled boot.

“You’re late,” she told Rhodes.

He grabbed her into a hug. “I’m never late, Melinda. You’re always just too fucking early!”

She hugged him back with a laugh. “The new Quinjets are amazing,” she said. “Tell Tony that, as always, he’s my favorite.”

“Hell, no,” Rhodes said. “That one’s head is big enough as it is thank you.” He turned to Scott. “Agent May will see that you get home safely,” he said.

Scott shook Sam’s hand. “That’s for the adventure, man.”

“Anytime,” Sam said. “Stay out of trouble, you hear?”

Scott grinned. “Come on, dude. When has that ever worked with me?” He made his rounds with the team, shaking hands and hugging. When he reached Natasha he gave her an awkward shoulder pat that had Steve smiling.

He looked around at them all. “I’ll let you know how it’s going in California. Hopefully my kid hasn’t grown up too much while I was gone. Y’all keep me posted on this side, okay?”

Steve held onto his hand for a little longer. “Thank you for risking everything to help us. It might not have turned out the way we planned but at least we made it out alive.”

“Most of us,” Natasha said. Steve tried to ignore that twinge of guilt whenever he thought of how stupid he’d been to trust Wanda so quickly.

“Come along, Bug Man, it’s time to leave.” Melinda May hugged Rhodes again before heading to the jet.

“It’s Ant Man!” Scott hustled after her. “Ant not Bug.”

May shrugged. “Eh, I squash ‘em all.” Scott went a little pale. Steve caught the slightest curve of May’s lips as she climbed on board.

“Squash?” he bleated as the door closed behind him. “I’m not actually an ant. You know this, right?”

The jet lifted off smoothly and shot up and out of sight before Steve could even catch his breath.

“How come we didn’t get one of those?” Clint asked.

“Because we’ve been international fugitives for the past year, dumbass,” Sam told him with a nudge.

“Oh. Right.” Clint dragged his feet as they followed Rhodes to the imposing front door.

It swung open before he could even knock. Vision stood in the doorway, blocking the entrance. “Good afternoon, Colonel Rhodes.”

“Viz, I’m tired, I’m pissed off at Tony and these douchebags, just let us in, alright?” Rhodes shouldered past the android, patting him on the back as he went. “Do me a favor and show them where they’re bunking down, please. I need to find out how much longer before Tony gets here.”

“Of course, Colonel.” Vision met Steve’s gaze. “Captain.”

Steve wasn’t exactly expecting a warm welcome, but the chilly reception from Vision, who had made better time from the hospital than they had, was disconcerting. “Hey Vision, good to see you again.”

“Dr. Banner is in his laboratory,” Vision said, ignoring the friendly overture. “Allow me to guide you to your quarters in the East Wing.” He floated away in that eerie glide that Steve hadn’t realized how much he’d missed.

“The East Wing?” Sam asked. “Just how big is this place?”

“Stark Mansion is considerably smaller than the tower,” Vision replied. “But there is sufficient space for you and the rest of your team. You will all have your own suites with bathrooms.”

“So, you’re putting us as far away from Tony as possible,” Natasha said. They were looking around them as they walked. Steve spotted several priceless artworks on walls that were light blue and green swirls that seemed to be oceans of color guiding their way.

“Of course,” Vision said. “Your presence here has already caused Mr. Stark considerable physical and emotional trauma. I intend to mitigate it as much as I possibly can.” He paused. “Mr. Stark requested F.R.I.D.A.Y. inform me of Wanda’s demise. May I enquire as to the reason for her murder?” He sounded as though he was asking about the weather.

“We discovered how she had been deceiving us,” Steve said. “We didn’t know about what she’d shown Tony, that she’d made him see that he would be the death of us all.”

“The desire to protect you all was the reason Mr. Stark created Ultron,” Vision said, frowning a little. “Why else would he risk so much?”

It was such a simple question. It made Steve ashamed that he’d never taken the time to ask Tony. “We didn’t know,” he repeated. It sounded weak.

Vision stopped in front of a set of large doors. “This is the East Wing. There are several suites available to you all. There is a fully stocked kitchen as well as a gymnasium and an entertainment area. Your needs should be fully met.”

“I’m sorry about your friend,” Sam said to Vision. “She seemed to have successfully deceived us all.”

Vision tipped his head to the side. “Mr. Stark had Wanda under surveillance from the moment she joined the Avengers. He never trusted her.”

Steve was shocked. “But he didn’t say anything to any of us!”

“Would you have believed him?” The question had no true inflection, just remote curiosity. “Your default response to Mr. Stark has always had an element of antipathy. You disagreed with him about many things. You accepted that he didn’t want to return as Iron Man without much question.”

“Tony chose to walk away,” Clint protested. “Like I did.”

Vision nodded. “And yet, Agent Barton, when the Captain called, you came.”

“Because my friend needed me,” Clint said.

“So did your family.” Vision pushed the doors open. “I hope you’re all very comfortable here.”

He glided away, cloak waving in a non-existent wind. They silently trooped into their new residence.

“That didn’t go quite like I expected,” Sam said.

“He’s going to pretend we’re not here,” Natasha told them as she wandered around, hand trailing over velvet and soft cotton pillows and throws strewn over the large, comfortable lounge suite.

“Tony?” Steve asked.

“Natasha nodded.” He’s going to play ostrich. Stick his head in the sand and hope that we eventually go away.”

“He thinks we’ll stay here, hidden away like something he’s ashamed of?” Clint asked.

“Or something he’s afraid of,” Sam said.

“I’m not going anywhere.” Steve walked to the nearest door. “I’m going to do whatever I have to do to make Tony my friend again.” He pushed it open and felt a sigh escape him. He’d never been here, but at that moment, he felt like he’d come home.

“Good luck with that,” Clint said, taking the suite opposite Steve’s. “He seems pretty intent on acting like we don’t exist.”

“You going to talk to Laura?” Sam asked.

“Shut up,” Clint muttered. “I’m working up to it.”

~~~~

Tony smacked at Pepper’s hand as he got out of the car. “I can walk, Pep! It was my heart, not my legs.”

She smacked the back of his head in return. “Don’t be an idiot. It was the precursor to a heart attack and I’d like you to take it seriously.”

Barnes came around the other side of the car. “I can carry him if you like?”

“You only have one hand,” Tony scoffed. “Let’s wait until you’re not disabled before you get all cocky with me, Barnes.”

“I only need one hand to get cocky, Stark,” Barnes shot back. Tony couldn’t stop the grin.

Pepper sighed. “Why do I stay around you? I’m in constant terror of whatever you’re going to destroy next. I’d like it not be your heart. Again.”

He tucked his hand through her arm, guiding her towards the mansion, Barnes at their heels. Happy honked the horn once as he drove off. “You’re not the boss of me anymore, remember?”

“Laura will be even worse,” Pepper snorted. They all ignored the Quinjet in the field beyond the house. “She’s going to make you so sorry.”

“Have I ever mentioned how smart I was to make you CEO?” Tony asked as the door swung open. “Viz, don’t you think that Pepper is the perfect woman?”

Vision stared at Pepper for a moment. “Symmetrically she is pleasing to the eye, both hair and eye color are desirable. Her form is exceptional and her skin tone is smooth and hydrated. So, yes, I would agree that Ms. Potts is a most excellent specimen of the feminine gender.”

“You flatterer,” Tony said with a grin, enjoying the flush on Pepper’s cheeks. “So, I’m guessing the gang is all here?” He headed for the kitchen. He had a sudden urge to see Rhodey, the kids, Laura, to make sure that his little family was still safely together.

“Captain Rogers, Agent’s Barton and Romanoff and Airman Wilson are indeed in the residence,” Vision said, looking over Tony’s shoulder. “Sergeant Barnes.”

Barnes nodded at Vision. “Scary robot dude.”

Vision visibly puffed up. “I am not a robot! I am a sentient android created with the power of the Mind Stone and capable of destroying you with a thought.”

“He’s messing with you, Viz,” Tony assured him, pushing the kitchen door open. Laura looked up at once, her eyes wide.

“You’re back!” Her shoulders dropped with relief. The kids were only too happy to desert their homework and hurl themselves at Tony. Lila and Cooper each grabbed a leg and clung.

“We were so scared,” Lila sobbed into his stomach. “We thought you were dead!”

Tony crouched down and met their eyes. “What did I promise you when you moved here?”

“That you wouldn’t ever leave us,” Cooper said.

“Unless it was a ‘mergency,” Lila added.

“But…?” Tony prompted.

“But you’ll always come back.” Lila threw her arms around his neck. “And Iron Man always keeps his promises!”

“Darn straight,” Tony said, holding onto her just as hard.

“Who’s this?” Nate stood in front of Barnes, staring up at him.

“I’m Bucky.”

“That’s a stupid name,” Lila announced.

Tony smothered a snort.

“Lila Barton, that is about the rudest thing I’ve ever heard you say!” Laura’s hands were propped on her hips. “Now you apologize immediately!”

Lila’s mouth set. “Sorry,” she muttered. “It’s still a stupid name though.”

Barnes leaned against the doorway. “Do you know why they call me Bucky?” he asked. All three children solemnly shook their heads. “My full name is James Buchanan Barnes,” he said. “Captain America was my best friend when I was a kid about your age. He hated my name, said it made me sound like a fancy man.”

“What’s a fancy man?” Lila asked. Laura almost choked on her coffee.

“It’s like Uncle Tony,” Cooper explained with the authority of the old. “Cos he wears fancy clothes.” He looked over at Barnes who was shaking a little. “Right?”

“You’re absolutely correct,” Barnes told him, his blue eyes twinkling. “Anyway, Steve, that’s Captain America’s name in case you didn’t know, said I needed a cool nickname.”

“And he came up with Bucky?” Cooper sounded disgusted. “That’s so lame.”

Tony laughed. He loved these kids.

“No,” Barnes said. “Steve wanted to call me Barney.”

Lila gasped. “Like the dinosaur?”

Barnes looked helplessly at Tony. “The what?”

“I’ll introduce you to Barney the Dinosaur later,” Tony said. He was astonished at how easily these traumatized children had taken to Barnes. There had been not one single moment of fear.

“That would have been cooler than Bucky,” Cooper admitted.

“I didn’t think so,” Barnes said. “I decided that calling me Buck would be okay.”

Cooper nodded. “That’s better.”

Lila frowned. “Who changed it to Bucky?”

“Steve’s ma,” Barnes said. “She told me that Buck was a name for a big guy.”

“But you’re a big guy,” Cooper pointed out.

“Well, now I’m a big guy,” Barnes agreed. “Back then, there wasn’t much food, so I was kinda skinny.”

“I thought Rogers was the little guy,” Tony said before he could shut his stupid mouth.

Barnes met his gaze. “He was. And then he wasn’t. So Bucky stuck.”

Someone cleared their throat behind Barnes. “Uh, is it okay if we come in?” Steve’s soft question had Barnes spinning and grabbing onto him in an awkward one-armed hug that Steve returned ten-fold. “You’re such a jerk, Buck. You shoulda told me you what you were planning on doing.”

“Stark’s the one I wronged, Stevie. It had to be done.” Barnes tugged Steve into the kitchen. Pepper, Rhodey and Vision all moved closer to Tony, a visible show of support that he completely appreciated.

Tony wanted to run. “Rogers.” He forced the name out like a curse. “You and your prodigals all settled in?”

Steve shifted out of the way to let Natasha, Sam and Clint come into the kitchen as well. The kitchen was a little too crowded for Tony’s comfort and he needed to get out of here before the inevitable panic attack set in.

Lila and Cooper moved to Laura’s side immediately, edging a little behind her, distress on their faces.

“Thank you, Tony. For everything. There are no wo….” Steve tried to speak.

Tony held up a hand. “I’m totally not interested in apologies. Just so that you know, the chain of command is that you all answer to me for the foreseeable future. If you don’t sign the revised Accords, you’re grounded. If you do, then we can talk about missions.” He waited for Steve’s nod before turning his face away.

Clint hadn’t taken his eyes off Laura. “Hi honey, I’m home.” He smiled a little, a sick, terrified thing that made Tony’s stomach hurt.

“So I see.” Laura’s voice gave nothing away. “Coop, Lila, go and say hello to your dad.” Tony watched the expressions on the kid’s faces, torn between joy at seeing their father and wanting to support their mother.

“Hi Dad.” Cooper didn’t move. “Are you back for good this time?”

Clint crouched down, careful as a wrangler with a twitchy colt. “I’m sorry I left without saying good bye, Coop. I made your mom a promise a very long time ago that we’d never go to bed angry with each other. I let her down, I let you and Lila and Nate down. I just hope that you can trust me again someday.”

Tony watched Cooper stare at his father. He saw the face of a scared little boy who’d been let down by the most important person in his life. He knew just how that felt.

“Your dad isn’t allowed to leave, Coop,” he said. “Because he did some stupid shi..stuff, the government says he has to stay here with me until he’s made up for being a dumbass.”

Lila ran to the swear jar, holding it up to Tony. “You must pay, Uncle Tony, you said a bad word.”

Tony sighed. “You thieves are going to bankrupt me.” He pulled out a dollar from his pocket. He kept them because he knew how much of a kick the kids got out of him having to pay up every time he swore.

“So Dad’s like a prisoner?” Cooper asked, still watching his father with that careful, distrustful gaze.

“I said he could come back here to see you guys instead of putting him somewhere else,” Tony told him. “The government isn’t very happy with some of the things your dad and his friends have done, so he needs to have supervision.”

“Like Super Nanny?” Lila asked; eyes bright. “Are you Super Nanny, Uncle Tony?” The spluttering laugh from Pepper had Tony glaring at her.

Cooper tilted his head to the side as he studied Clint. “He can’t leave?” He wasn’t going to be distracted.

“He can’t leave,” Tony assured him.

That was all it took. Cooper launched himself into Clint’s arms with Lila not far behind. Snot and tears and angry shouting reigned for the next few minutes. Tony saw Laura’s hand cover her mouth as she tried to control her own emotions.

He walked over to her. “He’s home, Laura. In the end, for you and your family, that’s all that matters.” He cupped her cheeks in his hands. “I’m not saying don’t give him hell, but don’t push him away.”

She wrapped her fingers around his wrists. “But what he did to you, Tony. How can I…how can you let that go?”

“I don’t count here, hon. This is your family. Your choice. I certainly won’t hold it against you if you take the asshole back.”

Her laugh was watery, her smile the barest curve. “I don’t want to betray you, Tony. You’ve done so much for us, given so much to us. I don’t want you to think…”

He put a finger on her lips. “You will always be family. There’s a show I used to watch. Someone once said that family don’t end with blood.” He smiled. “You can call me Don Tony if you really want to.”

This time the laugh was real as she wrapped her arms around him. “Fuck you, Stark.”

“I think your husband would possibly dismember me if I even tried,” Tony said, hugging her just as tightly.

Laura moved away, went to where Clint was still crouched on the floor, surrounded by his children. “We should probably talk,” Laura said.

Clint stood up with Nate on his hip and the older kids wrapped around his legs. “I’ll do whatever you need or want me to do to make this up to you.”

Laura shrugged. “I first have to decide if you’re worth taking back.” She walked out of the kitchen, stopping at the door. “Follow me.”

Hobbling behind her because the children refused to let him go, Clint followed.

“Well, that went a little better than expected,” Sam said.

Natasha made a noise. “Oh, you poor deluded man. Barton is going to pay for decades.”

“Tony used to buy me shoes,” Pepper said. “Louboutin, Jimmy Choo, Manolo Blahnik. I have a lot of shoes.”

“What do you want?” Rhodey wasn’t going to play nice Tony realized.

Steve shuffled from foot to foot. “I thought maybe we could talk, clear the air, you know.”

“The time for talking was when Tony came to you in Siberia,” Rhodey said. “You left him there knowing that the suit was broken.”

“No.” Tony put a hand on Rhodey’s shoulder. “The time for talking was when you found out that the Winter Soldier killed my parents. We could have cleared the air then. You think I don’t know what a fucked-up life Barnes had?” He pointed at Barnes. “Why the fuck do you think I sent the technology to you to help him?”

“Tony…” Steve took a step forward.

Tony backed up into Vision’s chest. “No. If you had trusted me. Told me what you’d found out, what Hydra had done to him, do you think there would have been anything I wouldn’t have tried to help him.? To help you?” He felt his chest tighten.

“Stark.” Barnes was suddenly in front of him. “Breathe, Stark. Eyes on me.” Tony lifted his gaze to stare into Barnes’ eyes. “Focus.” Barnes picked up Tony’s hand, placed it on his chest so that Tony could feel the steady lub-dup of his heart. “Breathe with me.”

And Tony did.

Chapter Text

Steve watched Bucky calm Tony down. He remembered Bucky doing the same thing for him back when he’d been a scrawny little runt who picked fights with bullies and had his ass handed to him. Seeing Bucky being the rock for Tony made something in him go cold.

He wanted to be the one to pull Tony back from an anxiety attack. Not Bucky, not Pepper, not Rhodes. Him. And only him.

He was jealous as hell and he had no idea how this had happened. It didn’t make sense. Nothing felt like it made sense anymore.

“You need to leave.” Pepper stood in front of Steve, arms folded. “I don’t think this is a good idea. Not yet, anyway.”

“I can’t keep letting this go,” Steve said. “We need to talk. We need to get past this. I need to ask him to forgive me.”

“You will work at whatever pace Tony is comfortable.” Pepper wasn’t budging.

Natasha stepped forward. “Pepper, this has already gone on too long. We need to get the past year, the bad choices, and the losses out of the way as soon as possible. The wounds have been festering. They need to be lanced and cleaned.”

“She’s right.” Tony had moved away from Bucky, breathing easier. “I’m a big boy. Let’s make like a Band-Aid and rip it off as quickly we can.” He walked out of the kitchen into the dining room. The table was long and big enough for them all to find a seat.

“F.R.I.D.A.Y., can you please ask that Barton and Bruce meet us here? And remind my sometimes green buddy that Romanoff is here.”

“Sure thing, boss.”

Tony sat at the one end of the table, Steve at the other. The rest of the team spread out around the table. It didn’t escape Steve that Vision, Rhodes and Pepper stayed close to Tony. What did surprise him was Bucky. He didn’t sit down at all, choosing instead to watch from the doorway.

“Buck?” Steve motioned for him to join them.

Bucky shook his head. “I’m messed up, Stevie. The Asset is still in my head and I don’t get to make choices for anyone here. I ran with you because I had nowhere else to go.”

Steve felt shaken. “The B.A.R.F. technology isn’t working anymore?” He started getting up.

Bucky held up his hand. “I’m two people, Stevie. I’m Bucky Barnes and the Winter Soldier. They are fighting for control of my brain and my body. On the way over from the hospital I asked Stark for help. For now, I’m going back into cryo, just until Stark has figured more out.”

Steve stared at Tony. “I don’t understand you. You’re so fucking angry at me but you’ll do whatever you can to fix Bucky?”

Tony didn’t flinch. “I can separate the man from the Asset, Rogers. It took me some time, but I got what you were trying to tell me about him. As the Winter Soldier, he had no choices. He obeyed no matter what. He’s not someone I want in my life.”

“So you’re going to make sure the Soldier disappears.” Natasha’s soft statement had them looking at her.

“Yeah,” Tony said. “I like what I’ve seen of James Barnes so far. He’s full of shit but he’s not half bad. Kinda reminds me of myself a little. Only not as pretty or as rich. Besides, I know that Rogers won’t stay unless Barnes stays, so basically I have no choice.”

Steve rubbed a hand over his face. “I won’t run again, Tony. I swear. Whatever happens from now on with the Accords and the UN and whoever comes through the next tear in space, I won’t leave.”

Tony’s laugh was a horribly bitter thing. “Forgive me if I’m skeptical. I learned my lesson the hard way.”

“Tony,” Bruce’s voice came from the doorway. “The only way this is going to work is if we all talk this out and then let it go.”

“That’s what she said,” Rhodes said, pointing to Natasha. Bruce kept his head down, avoiding Natasha’s gaze as he went to sit next to Rhodes.

“This is going to be so much fun,” Clint muttered as he followed Bruce into the room. Laura wasn’t far behind.

“The kids?” Tony asked.

“They’re playing with catch with Butterfingers and U. DUM-E is putting Nate to sleep.” She sat down beside Pepper.

“And you trust your children with those robots?” Sam asked. He hadn’t spent a lot of time around Tony’s ‘kids’ so had no real idea of just how much he’d insulted Tony. Steve did, watching the clench of Tony’s jaw as he fought not to snap back.

“More than I trust you,” Laura said, smile like a shark. To his credit, Sam only flinched a little.

“I think we need an impartial mediator,” Natasha said. “We’re all too close to this. We need someone who can handle us when we get out of control.” She didn’t look at Bruce.

“I took care of that,” Tony said. “Should be arriving in a minute.”

“Who did you ask?” Steve was curious. “Everyone took sides.”

“Not everyone.” The cool voice sent a shiver down Steve’s spine. As one, they all turned towards the door. “Some of us think that you all behaved spectacularly badly.”

“Coulson?” Clint was on his feet, rushing towards his former handler. “I thought you were dead!”

“Reports of my death were a little exaggerated,” Coulson said dry as dust.

Natasha stood in front of him. “You let us believe this for six years?” Her face was a mask. “You lied to us.”

“For the safety of the world, yes.” Coulson met her gaze with more calm than Steve would have. An angry Natasha was a terrifying thing. “Did you miss me, Agent Romanoff?”

“You utter asshole.” She slapped him so hard that his head snapped back. “Sir.”

Clint looked murderous. “I thought I got you killed! You let me live with that!”

Coulson’s impassive mask slipped a little. “To be honest, my recovery was touch and go, and by the time I was capable of coming back to work, well, things had changed.” He sighed, lifting his arm to show them an artificial hand. “A lot has happened.”

Steve came over to Coulson, holding out his hand. “While I’m not happy about being lied to, I’m really glad that you’re alive, Agent Coulson.” Coulson shook his hand with a small smile.

Natasha swung her gaze to Tony. “When did you know about him?”

Tony stared back at her. “That’s not something I’m at liberty to share with you.”

When it seemed as though she wanted to launch herself at him, Coulson put a hand on her arm. “As the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D I was unable to give that information out. And Tony is now the Director of Superhuman Affairs, so he has a certain amount of responsibility to keep his mouth shut too.”

Tony blew him a kiss. “Gonna sign up with my little dysfunctional band, Agent?”

“I have my own dysfunctional band as you well know, Stark. Thanks for the offer, but they’re all yours.”

“He’s the mediator?” Sam asked. “Seems a little too close to Stark.”

“One of them,” Tony corrected. “And if I’m not mistaken, that’s the other arriving right now.”

Thunder and lightning shook the mansion and Steve gaped at Tony. “Are you telling me…?”

“Brothers!” Thor boomed as he strode in, cloak billowing behind him and Mjolnir hanging from his wrist. “I bid you welcome.”

“It’s my house, but okay,” Tony said, squeaking as Thor swept him up into a crushing hug. He barely avoided being brained by Thor’s hammer. And there was a euphemism that he wasn’t going to look too closely at.

“Man of Iron, you are most gracious to host this conclave,” Thor declared. “The time for dissent between us is long past. We have much to discuss and even more horror to prepare for.”

“Well, that sounds perfectly wonderful,” Bruce drawled. “We have to save the world.”

“Again,” Tony sighed. “It’s getting tiresome. We should just let them have it.” He slumped back into his seat.

Coulson and Thor took the center chairs, opposite one another. “Who would like to begin?” Coulson asked.

The silence was complete.

~~~~

Tony leaned his elbows on the table. “I guess I could go first,” he said. “I mean, the Accords were my fault, right?”

“Tony.” The way Pepper said his name was an effective gauge of her degree of annoyance with him.

“The Accords would have happened, regardless of what you did, Tony.” Rhodey stared at Steve. “No matter who agreed or didn’t agree to sign them.”

“Why did you sign them?” Thor asked. “Of everyone on the team, you would have been the least inclined to accept a leash, my metal friend.”

Tony inclined his head. “You’d be right. I’m not the guy who likes to be controlled.” He looked down at his hands. “When we were in Sokovia to retrieve Loki’s staff, Wanda showed me the future.”

“She lied,” Clint said.

“Maybe,” Tony acknowledged, “But I’d just watched a lunatic put liquid fire into the blood of the woman I loved and I wasn’t sure that what the witch showed me couldn’t happen. Nothing was off the table after a portal opened and Thor dropped in.”

“What did you see?” Thor’s question was a gentle one. “You were the only one she ensorcelled then. The rest of us only had our visions in Wakanda.”

“I saw you all dead.” Tony kept his face impassive. “Every one of you was dead. Except for him. He was dying.” He pointed at Steve. “He told me that I should have done more.”

Pepper reached out to take Tony’s hand. “You almost died flying that nuke into space,” she said. “Why on earth would you believe that any one of us would expect more from you?”

“Because of Howard.” Steve watched Tony. “You’ve never felt worthy to be his son. But Tony, you are so much more than Howard could ever have been. Look at the things you have done.”

“You didn’t know him,” Tony said, not wanting this line of conversation to go any further.

“I know you,” Steve said. “And the man I call my friend would have done, and has indeed done, everything he could to save the world.”

“So was I.”

It was humiliating to think about just how much those words had hurt. How much Steve’s betrayal had hurt. Not even Pepper ending their relationship had done as much harm as that moment when Steve had smashed the shield into his arc reactor.

“We’re not friends, Rogers,” Tony said with a sigh. “Not anymore. We’re colleagues. I’m going to fix your frosty buddy over there and then maybe we can work out a way to be a team again.”

“What will that involve?” Natasha asked, all business.

Tony rolled his shoulders. “Each of you have a revised copy of the Accords on the tablets in your rooms. Read through them. Let me know what you think. If you sign on then we talk. If you don’t, well, you walk.”

“Walk?” Steve asked. “Where?”

“The Avengers are mine now. Actually, pretty much anyone with a power is under my jurisdiction. Since the disbanding of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the re-writing of the Accords, there hasn’t been anyone in charge of the superhuman community.” Tony looked over at Coulson. “So, the UN decided that I was the guy for the job.”

“Wait, you’re the new Fury?” Clint asked.

Tony nodded. “Which means that I’m out of the field. For good.” He patted Pepper’s hand. “I should have stayed out a long time ago, but an old man’s ego is a terrible thing to waste.” She pinched his hand with sharp fingers.

“So, we sign and we’re on the team, under your supervision,” Sam waited for Tony’s nod before he continued. “And if we don’t sign then…?”

“Then you’re done in the superhero business.” Tony decided that bluntness was the only option. “Either you’re with me or you’re done.”

“That’s not a choice, Tony.” Steve was on his feet. “It’s just another way to control us.”

“So, you think I’m like Ross, huh?” Tony asked as he sat back in his chair. “You think I’ll abuse my power and experiment on you. Try to get you to fall in with my own agenda?”

“No!” Steve put his hands on the table, leaning forward. “You are not a power-hungry nutjob, Tony. You’re an inventor, you love being in the field. Being Iron Man isn’t a suit you slip on, it’s who you are! Why would you agree to this?”

“Because it’s the only way to keep you all out of prison for the rest of your life.” Coulson’s words had the impact of a bomb.

“What?” Steve slumped back into his chair. “I don’t…”

“It was either put Tony Stark in charge or put all superhumans in jail.” Coulson was even blunter than Tony had been. He was also over-sharing. This wasn’t supposed to come out.

“That makes no sense,” Sam said. “Most of us are just plain human, nothing super about us.”

Coulson just stared at him. “And yet… Besides, now is not the time for division. More than ever we need all those with superpowers or special abilities to be ready to fight with us.” Coulson looked over at Thor. “Would you like to tell them what you’ve told Tony and me?”

Thor nodded. “My vision in the Water of Sights was not only that of the Vision being the caretaker of the Mind Stone.” He stared at them. “The Infinity Stones are in play and all of the Nine Realms are in grave danger. For us to survive, we need to be as one, to trust one another.”

“You mentioned those stones the last time we saw you,” Steve said. “What can they do?”

“In the hands of the wrong person?” Thor shrugged. “Destroy every atom in existence.”

“Vision has one,” Steve said. “Who has the others?”

“One is the Tesseract,” Tony said, “Safely locked away in Odin’s vault.”

“In my vision I saw Asgard destroyed,” Thor said. “I can only assume it was for the Space Stone’s location.”

“Well, that isn’t good news,” Rhodey said. “Next?”

“The Reality Stone,” Thor said. “The Aether that almost tore my Jane apart and destroyed half of London. That has been taken to Knowwhere and the Collector Taneleer Tivan keeps it safe.”

“That’s three,” Clint said. “And the fourth?”

“It is in Xandar, kept within the vault of our allies Nova Corps,” Thor said.

“Someone else we don’t know,” Clint muttered. “I’m starting to feel a lot left out.”

“So where are the other two?” Steve asked, ignoring him.

“You’re going to love this,” Tony said, forgetting for a moment that he hated Steve. “It’s in a necklace protected by a bunch of wizards.”

“Like Harry Potter?” Steve asked eyes bright with glee.

Coulson sighed. “The Sorcerer Supreme is nothing like Harry Potter, Captain Rogers.”

“Yeah, he’s more like Draco Malfoy,” Tony muttered. “Strange is a douche.”

“That statement makes no sense,” Natasha said.

“You’ll love him almost as much as you loved me the first time you met me,” Tony assured her. “Stephen Strange is a dick.”

“Who is helping defend the earth from its enemies,” Coulson reminded him.

“Whatever,” Tony rolled his eyes. “He’s a poor man’s version of me.”

“Oh, we’ll be best friends then,” Natasha said with a curve of her mouth.

“That’s only five.” Steve, as per usual, was mission-orientated. “Where’s the sixth stone?”

“The Soul Stone,” Thor said. “That one has yet to surface, but my fear is that the enemy already has possession of it and means to collect the others and wield the Infinity Gauntlet to destroy us all.”

“Well,” Bucky said from his spot against the wall. “Looks like you all will have to make nice if you want to save the world.”

All of the worlds,” Thor added. “And we have no time to lose.”

Chapter Text

Steve couldn’t listen anymore. He shoved away from the table.

“Cap?” Clint asked.

“I need a minute,” he rasped, the enormity of what Tony and his team had been dealing with on their own while he and the others had been skulking in Wakanda washing over him in a tidal wave of anguish.

He walked through the large glass doors, into the garden. It wasn’t the neat, precise rows of cultivated beds that Steve had expected. It reminded him of one of the books Tony had recommended to him, The Secret Garden. There were nooks and crannies, bowers and hidey-holes all around and it didn’t take Steve long to burrow himself into one of the hammocks that swung gently between two huge trees.

“Dollar for your thoughts?” Tony’s voice broke into the silence, startling Steve so that he almost fell out of the hammock.

“Geez, Tony, warn a guy.” Steve clutched at his pounding chest. “Besides, shouldn’t that be a penny?”

Tony looked a little too pleased at being able to creep up on Steve. “Inflation,” he said waving a casual hand. “So, what was it that sent you running? The probability of death, or the possibility of having to report to me?” He said it so casually, a throw-away line that cut at Steve.

“I’ve always had someone to answer to, Tony,” Steve said, looking up at the blanket of trees as he swung gently in the hammock.

“That’s not what you said when we first talked about the Accords.” Tony’s voice was sharp with accusation as he tucked his hands into his armpits. “What were your exact words? Ah yes, “The safest hands are our own.””

“I was wrong.” Steve watched the shock cross Tony’s face. “I’m just a man, Tony. Sure, I’ve got some extra juice in my blood, but I make mistakes. I’ve made so many mistakes that there’s no way I should be allowed to command the team again.”

Tony watched him, eyes narrowed. “That doesn’t sound much like the Steve Rogers I go to know,” he said.

“That guy was a bit of an ass,” Steve said, pushing at the ground with one lazy foot to set the hammock swinging again.

Tony sputtered a surprised laugh. “He wasn’t all that bad.” He dug his hands deeper under his arms. “So what does this mean then? For the team?”

Steve sighed and rolled off the hammock, planting himself in front of Tony. He saluted sharply. “Steve Rogers reporting for duty, Sir.”

Tony stared at him. “We still have some pretty serious shit to work out,” he said after a moment. “All of us.”

Steve nodded. “I know. But there’s serious trouble coming so we need to do it fast.”

“The last time I tried to talk to you it didn’t go so well for me,” Tony said, touching his chest with one hand.

“The last time you tried to talk to me you found out that I’d been lying to you for years.” Steve wasn’t pulling his punches either. “And then you tried to kill me and my best friend.”

“So we’re even?” Tony’s mouth went thin. “Is that the party line?”

“Tony, I’m trying to say that we both made mistakes. Sure, I made a few that, in hindsight, may have prevented so much of this shit-show, but you talked to Ross about the Accords before you even tried to talk to us.” Steve wanted Tony to stop and think, just for one moment, that the blame for the mess they were in didn’t rest entirely on Steve’s shoulders. “I’m not saying I want a get out of jail free card. I am saying that you never gave any of us a chance to contribute to the Accords. You just presented them to us as fait accompli and expected us to sign them within three days.”

“There wasn’t any time,” Tony said. “Ross was going after the Avengers no matter what we tried to do. I couldn’t discuss them with you because I didn’t have a choice.”

“Then you should have asked for more time.” He ran a hand through his hair. “Have you ever read through, agreed with, and signed any contract for anything in three days in your life?” He waited, watching Tony’s face.

“You’re not a politician,” Tony began.

“And neither are you!” Steve said. “Did you stop to think that maybe there was an agenda behind Ross’ eagerness to push the Accords through so quickly?”

“Do I look stupid?” Tony said. “Of course I knew he had an agenda! Bruce is one of my best friends and he’s told me almost everything that fucking nutjob has done. But he was the goddamn Secretary of State and I had no fucking wiggle room!”

Tony started pacing. “The world had seen what happened in New York. Not our fault, but we were a big part of the mess that was left to clean up. Then Sokovia. God, I blame myself for Sokovia. Ultron was my fault. Me and my fears for what could be expected of us in the future. And Johannesburg. That was the final nail in our coffin. It was why Ross could get the Accords ratified so quickly. We made everyone afraid of us.” His voice was shaky, his hands whirling in a blur of motion.

Steve put his hands on Tony’s shoulders, desperate to stop the frantic staccato speech. “Tony, I need you to breathe.”

Tony crumpled against Steve suddenly. He staggered under the unexpected weight. For a brief, panicked moment he thought that perhaps Tony had suffered another angina attack and then Tony muttered into his shoulder. “I was so terrified, you see. I thought the vision that Wanda had given me was going to come true if you didn’t sign.”

“Tony.” Steve’s throat closed. He moved carefully, pulling Tony into his arms. There was no resistance and that made Steve afraid. Tony always fought back, always pushed back. And that he had given up like this with Steve of all people….

“Ross gave the order to shoot to kill in Leipzig.” Tony said against his chest. “I asked him for three days. He gave me thirty-six hours.”

“What?” Steve couldn’t believe the words. “He wanted us dad?”

Tony nodded once. “See, Ross figured if you wouldn’t be under his thumb, then you shouldn’t be allowed to live.”

“And the Accords that you signed have him that power?” Steve asked.

A head shake. “No. Not autonomously. That was the moment I knew we were all in serious shit.”

Steve tried to process this. “So he wanted us to be his what…weapons?”

Tony pulled away and Steve let him go, reluctantly. “Ross sees us as a threat that needs to be contained. And then he wants to pull you apart and figure out how you work.”

Bile rose in Steve’s throat. “Bruce knew.”

Tony nodded. “It’s why he came back. There was no way he was letting Ross have control of the Avengers. He knew what he was capable of.”

“You did really well in that room full of powerful people, by the way,” Steve said.

A shrug. “Eh, I could buy several of their countries outright. Besides, I’m used to it.” Tony’s mouth tilted up. “I made sure that I was prepared for anything.”

“Including Ross trying to stop you,” Steve said. “Have you found him yet?”

Tony shook his head. “He’s not come up for air since Bruce outed his crimes. I’ve got F.R.I.D.A.Y. keeping an eye on all channels to be ready for when he pops up again. And he will.”

“Can I ask you something without you giving me a smartass reply?” Steve asked.

“Shoot,” Tony said, straightening up as though expecting a blow.

“What Agent Coulson said in there, about you taking on the position of Director of Superhuman Affairs because you wanted to keep us out of prison, was that true?” Steve watched the myriad of micro-expressions flit over Tony’s face.

“He wasn’t supposed to tell you that,” Tony muttered.

“Why not?” Steve asked. “Why did you want to hide that from us?”

“Because I don’t want any of you to feel like you owe me something,” Tony said as his shoulders hunched up. “I actually didn’t want to see you, but there was nowhere else you’d be safe until the ratified Accords are announced.”

The twinge of hurt Steve felt at hearing that Tony hadn’t wanted to see him was unexpectedly painful. “I’m sorry we’re imposing on you.”

“Don’t be an idiot,” Tony snapped. “Don’t you think I’d have come up with something else if I really hated all of you?”

“Natasha I can understand,” Steve said, ignoring the biting words. “She came to us at your request.”

“She was in danger. She’d broken the Accords and needed to be safe.” Tony sounded more than a little defensive now.

“You knew where we were. You could have turned us in. You should have turned us in.” Steve wanted to understand the choices that Tony had made and why.

“I would never betray my friends.” Tony stared at him. “Why would you believe that?”

Steve swallowed hard. “Because I betrayed mine and I’m trying to figure out why, after what I did, you didn’t hand us over to Ross.”

Tony nodded slowly. “I guess I can understand that. So, here’s the thing. I don’t have family. Not blood family anyway. So when you losers moved into Avengers Tower, it was like I suddenly was overwhelmed with family.” Tony waited for Steve’s nod to continue. “I hid out a lot in my workshop.”

Steve gave a dry chuckle. “We used to draw straws for who was the one who would go down and drag you out.”

Tony grinned. “Really? I didn’t know that.” He leaned back against the trunk of a large tree. “So anyway, things started changing for me. I found out that having the crazy in my house was actually a crap-load of fun most of the time, apart from pissing Bruce off, but that goes without saying.”

“We had some very good times,” Steve agreed.

“And then Alexander Pierce and Hydra happened,” Tony said. “And you started keeping secrets from me.”

“I kept secrets from everyone, Tony,” Steve said.

“Not Sam and Natasha,” Tony said. “You think I didn’t monitor what was going on in the Tower? The huddles, the whispers, the searches. I knew you were looking for someone. But you never came to me. Never asked me for help.” He dropped his chin. “It proved that the family I thought I’d built was a lie.”

“No,” Steve protested. “It wasn’t. It isn’t. Tony, you gave us a home, a refuge, a place where we could just be ourselves without putting on our public faces. You gave us a family. You.”

Tony’s laugh was short and bitter. “Until you found out that Bucky Barnes was alive and everything we’d built came crashing down.”

“I made a lot of mistakes,” Steve admitted. “Throughout this whole thing, I’ve make some big ones. But Tony, please believe me when I say that the thing I most regret, out of it all, was lying to you.” He met Tony’s gaze. “If I’d told you the truth about Bucky from the start, then so much of this could have been avoided.”

“I would probably still have fucked up with Ultron,” Tony said. “And the Accords would have happened no matter what we did.”

“But we’d have faced that all together,” Steve said. “I’m so sorry, Tony. I betrayed your trust in the worst possible way and tried to justify it to myself by saying I was protecting my friend. I should have been protecting both of my friends and that failure will haunt me forever.”

Tony closed his eyes. “I don’t know how you keep doing this to me, Steve. You keep choosing everyone and everything over me…the team, and then when you apologize I want to keep hating you but…”

Steve took a step towards Tony. “All I’m asking is that you give me a chance to regain your trust.” He watched the emotions roiling in Tony’s eyes. “I’m not insisting on forgiveness. I wouldn’t dream of it. But please, let me try to earn your friendship again.”

Tony scrubbed at his face. “I want to hate you. I really do, Rogers.”

“I can hate myself for both of us, Tony,” Steve whispered. “Please, don’t give up on me.”

“You mean the team,” Tony corrected.

Steve shook his head. “They will have to figure out their own path. One thing I’ve come to realize is that we are all responsible for our actions and choices. I won’t try to take on their burdens too. It might break me.” He tried to smile. “Clint, Sam, Natasha, they’re going to have to work it out with you and the rest of the team. I just need you.”

“Why?” Tony asked. “I mean you hurt Rhodey and Vision too. Bruce is pretty pissed off at you as well but then he told me I was a dumbass to sign the Accords in the first place so there may not be too much of a problem there.”

“Because I hurt you.” Steve shoved a hand through his hair, messing it up further. “And everyone knows that I wasn’t a leader alone. I always had you at my side, calling me on when I was being too rigid, challenging me when I got too in my head. If we can work our shit out, then maybe we have a shot of making the team work again.”

Tony’s jaw dropped. “I’m not your co-captain!” He pushed away from the tree, starting to pace again. “I’m out of the field, remember. Iron Man is retired.”

Steve grabbed his arm on the next pass, swinging him around to face him. “Tony, don’t you get it? It’s not the suit that makes you Iron Man. It’s you that makes the suit. It always has been. You are Iron Man whether you’re dressed up in that vainglorious suit of armor or in a three piece suit and tie or a Black Sabbath tee that’s seen too many washes and too much grease.”

“You’re fucking with me now, aren’t you?” Tony asked, eyes narrowed in suspicion.

“Hand on the Bible, swear to God, I’m not,” Steve said. “All I’m asking for is a chance to prove that I can be the person you hoped I was when I was thawed from the ice.”

Tony shook his head. “That guy was perfect. You aren’t.”

“I know,” Steve said. “But that guy badly wants to make up for his bad choices. So, what do you say?”

The silence was unnerving. Steve held his breath waiting for Tony’s answer. The sounds in the garden stilled too as though the world was taking a breath.

Tony held out his hand. “I can’t promise anything, Steve. I can only promise that I will try.”

Steve grabbed Tony’s hand. “That means a lot, Tony. Thank you.” Something heavy lifted off his chest, a weight he hadn’t known he’d been carrying.

“We’d better go back inside and make sure that the others haven’t started a war,” Tony said, pulling his hand out of Steve’s.

“Yeah,” Steve agreed. “Laura might gut Clint.”

“Oh, you have no idea what sort of punishment Legolas is facing, Steve.” Tony’s mouth curled a little. “That is going to be fun to watch.”

“And then we’re going to have to figure out how to stop whoever it is that’s hunting for the Infinity Stones,” Steve said.

“Well, at least I’ve got some extra help now,” Tony said. “I mean, Bruce and Vision are awesome, but the spy twins know things that nobody should know.”

“We’ll handle this,” Steve said. “Like the Chitauri, like Ulton.”

“Together?” Tony asked.

“Together.”

Chapter Text

Tony walked back into the dining room with a silent Steve beside him.

Natasha looked between them. “Better?” she asked.

Steve took his seat again. “We’ve made a start,” he hedged. “It’s going to take time and, more importantly, action to get us to trust one another again.”

“I have no problem trusting Tony,” Rhodey said, bristling a little.

Tony sat down, grabbing Rhodey’s hand. “I know how much you love me, Butterball, but let’s keep it PG for the kids, okay?”

He met Rhodey’s searching gaze. “We’re in trouble. There’s not much time to sort our shit out.” He looked over at Bruce. “Feel like conducting a mass therapy session, Doctor Banner?”

Bruce sighed, but his mouth curved in a tiny smile. “I keep telling you that I’m not that kind of doctor, Tony.”

“Pish,” Tony said, grinning back at him. “And yet….”

“Shield brethren,” Thor said. “While I am delighted to see that you are well on the road to making amends for the tragedy that has split our unusual family apart, there are things of great import to discuss.”

Tony groaned. “Can we just have one crisis at a time please?”

Thor frowned. “This is no mere crisis, my metal friend. This is the possible end of all things.”

“Does he always talk this dramatically?” Bucky asked Tony, having moved closer to the table at last. Tony didn’t miss the way Steve looked at Bucky, watchful, thoughtful, wondering. There was something pure about the absolute love Tony could see in Steve’s eyes. It made him want to stab his own out with a spork.

“Oh, he’s usually much more dramatic,” Natasha said from her seat. “Glass tends to shatter when he gets a little too excited.” Thor grinned at her.

“Jane is a brave woman,” Pepper noted.

“You have no idea,” Natasha muttered. Tony agreed. There had been several traumatizing nights of very loud Asgardan sex and singing. Tony really didn’t know how Jane did it.

“My Jane is the most noble of all womankind!” Thor boomed, eager to extol the virtues of his lady-love.

“Yeah, yeah, we know, Prince Charming.” Tony held up a hand. “We really don’t need any more information.”

He watched as Steve ducked his head, hiding a smile.

“Back to the matter at hand.” Phil Coulson’s dry tone had them all looking at him.

“Always the party pooper, Agent Agent,” Tony complained.

“I used to call him Super Nanny,” Clint said, making sure he was out of Coulson’s reach. He yelped a moment later. “What the hell?”

“I’ve acquired several new skills,” Coulson said with a tiny smirk. ‘You’d best be careful, Hawkeye.”

Muttering under his breath, Clint rubbed at his leg. “You’re just as much a pain in my ass as you always were.”

“Clinton.” Laura’s voice was like ice. “Please treat Agent Coulson with the respect he deserves.”

Clint went a little pale. “Yes, ma’am.” This time it was Tony who hid his smile. It looked as though the Barton relationship was on its way to recovery, despite the fact that Clint was an idiot. Tony had told Laura that she could do so much better. She had agreed.

“I don’t think I’m needed here right now,” Laura said, pushing away from the table. “I’m going to check up on the kids and answer some mails.” She put a hand on Tony’s shoulder. “You good?”

He patted her hand. “I will be.” She smiled at him, nodded to the team, sent a glare Clint’s way and left. Clint’s pale and terrified face was pretty priceless. Tony hoped that F.R.I.D.A.Y. was recording this. It was better than any comedy he’d ever seen.

“Thor, do you have any idea who is behind the plan to destroy the universe?” Steve brought the subject at hand back to their attention.

“I am told by the All-Father that it is one of the Titans who seeks to dominate all those who refuse to subjugate themselves to his will,” Thor said.

Tony blinked. Sometimes following Thor’s words was like trying to find his way out of a maze.

“Uh in English please?” Sam raised his hand.

“My brother has divulged his alliance with the Mad Titan, Thanos, in his quest to conquer Earth,” Thor sighed.

“And we’re just going to believe everything that lunatic says?” Tony remembered all too well a dark sky scattered with stars and rings of fire flying towards him as he fell through a hole in the world. He tried not to shudder.

“Have a care, friend Tony, Loki is still my brother,” Thor warned.

Tony narrowed his gaze. “I believe you said he was adopted?” Thor flinched.

“And just what has your brother been doing since you took him back to Asgard?” Natasha asked, picking carefully at her nail with a knife. Tony had no idea where she’d hidden it and he wasn’t going to ask.

Thor squirmed a little. “He assisted my Jane and I in defeating the evil dark elf Malekith in his desire to rule this world. I thought that he had died in the battle, protecting me. I was prepared to offer a hymn to his courage, but discovered that he had fooled me once more and taken the throne while our father was mourning the loss of our mother.”

“Huh, imagine that,” Tony mused. “Loki using one of the Infinity Stones to get a world at his feet. Whoda thunk it?”

Thor frowned at him. “Your words are true, my friend and yet I sense irony in them.”

Tony tried not to roll his eyes. Making a god angry wasn’t on his to-do list today.

Pepper stood up suddenly. “I’ve got to leave. There are so very many things I still need to say to some of you, but I have a company to run and, no matter what Tony believes, it doesn’t happen by itself.”

Tony stood too. “Lies,” he said as he kissed her cheek. “I know your minions do all of the work.”

She smiled at him, a tiny thing, but each one was more genuine than the last. They were finally getting back to the friendship that their break-up had almost destroyed.

“Indeed, Mr. Stark. I need to get new shoes. You know me so well.” She patted his cheek and pointed at the rest of the team. “I’ll be back. And there will be talking. Don’t take advantage of Tony’s nature. He loves you all and this has been incredibly difficult for him. Do not disappoint me.” She left in a swathe of expensive perfume and righteous anger.

Tony didn’t dare look around as he sat back down.

“That lady is fucking terrifying,” Sam noted. The tension broke and there were a few chuckles that had Tony relax again.

And then Steve was on his feet, striding towards Tony. “I think it’s better if I sit here,” he said as he sat down in the chair Pepper had just vacated, at Tony’s side. “Seems more appropriate, since you’re the boss now.”

Rhodey opened his mouth to say something, but Tony shook his head, mouthing, “Baby steps.” Rhodey settled back with his eyes fixed on Steve’s face. Yeah, there was still a lot of shit they needed to sort out.

“So what’s the plan, Thor?” Tony asked. “How do we stop this Thanos dude from getting all of the stones and turning the universe into a pile of rubble? I’m assuming there is a plan?”

Thor frowned. “The stones are powerful objects tied to different aspects of the universe. Each possesses unique capabilities that have been enhanced and altered by various alien civilizations over millennia.”

“And?” Tony made a rolling motion with his hand to hurry Thor up.

However, as with everything, Thor did whatever the hell Thor wanted. “Only beings of immense power can wield the stones. It is why my Jane almost died when exposed to the Aether.”

“And why the Tesseract destroyed Red Skull,” Steve added.

Thor nodded. “Indeed, Captain. However, it is possible to for a container to hold the stones without being in contact with the wielder, but allowing that one to access their power.”

“Ah yes,” Tony snorted. “Like the Time Stone that’s in the Eye of Agamotto, and in the hands of an egomaniac.”

“Stephen Strange is a hero…” Coulson began.

“He’s an arrogant know-it-all who thinks he’s the smartest person in the universe,” Tony said.

“Gee, I don’t understand why the hell you don’t like him,” Clint said. Tony barely stopped before he stuck his tongue out at him.

“Not that this isn’t fascinating, Thor, but I’m still not hearing a plan.” Natasha raised an eyebrow.

Thor steepled his fingers as he leaned his elbows on the table. “I must explain their power to you, my friends; else you will not feel the same urgency as I do.”

“There has been something pulling at me of late,” Vision said, silent up until now. “The stars keep calling.”

Thor suddenly looked very worried. “And you are able to resist the call?”

Vision shrugged. “I do not have emotions as humans do. Desire is not a thing that consumes me. The Mind Stone is safe within me.”

Thor beamed. “I am most delighted to hear this. But you must remain vigilant. The power of the Infinity Gauntlet will continue to pull at the Mind Stone.”

“Like a puzzle,” Tony murmured.

“What?” Steve asked, turning to look at him.

“I’m betting Loki was sent to collect the Tesseract for this Thanos guy,” Tony said instead to Thor.

“Indeed. In exchange for the Tesseract, my brother was promised the Chitauri army,” Thor agreed.

“Hmm, so Thanos must have been pretty pissed off to have come so close to getting his hands on it.” Tony tapped a finger against his lips, thinking furiously.

“Where are you going with this, Tony?” Natasha asked.

“Gimme a minute,” Tony said, his mind going over what information they had so far. “The Aether, that’s with this Collector guy?” He looked to Thor for confirmation. He nodded. “You sure it’s safe?”

Thor frowned. “Taneleer Tivan is one of the Elders of the Universe. He has dedicated his life to collect artifacts and living beings to place them out of danger.” He sounded offended at Tony’s suggestion.

“Not to play devil’s advocate here, Thor, but how much do you really know about him?” Bruce asked. “I mean, do you know him well?”

Thor stood and started pacing. “What you are suggesting is that despite the stones being placed in vessels of protection and scattered to the far corners of the universe, they are unsafe?”

“When last did you check in with Heimdall or the Collector?” Steve asked.

“Or those Nova Corps people?” Bucky added. Tony realized that he’d moved behind Steve, still keeping his distance from the others in the room.

Thor’s cape swirled around him as he stalked around the room. “If any of the stones had gone missing Asgard would have been told,” he insisted.

“Really?” Tony asked. “If I’d lost one of the most powerful objects in the universe, I wouldn’t be telling anyone about it.”

“I’d be too fucking terrified,” Clint agreed.

“Can you find out, Thor?” Steve asked. “Contact those you know who have the stones. Ask them if they are still in their possession.”

“I shall do this,” Thor avowed. He held Mjolnir up.

“No!” Tony shouted. “Outside, you idiot! I’m not going to fix another hole in my roof!”

Thor lowered his hammer. “Apologies, friend Tony. In my eagerness to complete my mission I forgot that the Bifrost can sometimes cause great damage.” He started heading towards the doors leading to the garden. “I shall confirm with Heimdall, Nova Corps and Taneleer Tivan that the stones are still in their possession. One of you must confer with the Doctor.” With a crack of lightning and light he was gone.

“Not me!” Tony said quickly, crossing his fingers. “That guy is a douche.”

Coulson sighed. “I will speak with Dr. Strange and get back to you as soon as possible.”

“You do that,” Tony said. “Good luck getting him to make sense.” He made a face. “I think he tries too hard to sound sage and mysterious.”

“That’s because he is sage and mysterious, Stark,” Coulson said. “Plus being a brilliant man with a mind like a trap.”

“More like a trapdoor spider,” Tony muttered. Coulson’s look would have melted glass.

“Perhaps, while we wait for our thundery friend, you could all focus on trying to locate the Soul Stone?” Coulson suggested as he headed back into the main part of the mansion, phone already at his ear.

“I thought Thor said Thanos had it,” Sam said.

“He said he suspected that Thanos had it,” Rhodey corrected. Tony loved his bestie with all of his heart, but his visible animosity wasn’t making things any easier.

He put his hands on the table. “Right. Not helping, Appleblossom. We have to get the air cleared now. This isn’t the time for us to be pissed off with each other. There just isn’t time. We need to be able to work together if we want to win this thing. So, I’ll go first.”

He took a deep breath. “Steve and I had a chat outside. We are going to try to learn how to trust each other again. It sucks that we took sides, but at the end of the day, Fury created the Avengers to save the world. So, no matter how I feel about each of you personally, I will do my job.” He looked around the table. “Next?”

Clint raised a hand. “I followed Cap. Not an excuse, but my whole life has been one of being accountable to someone. Captain America was the guy I followed when Phil died. He called, I answered.” He rubbed his hands together. “I hated the idea of us being answerable to the same people that wanted to nuke New York.”

“That’s about right for me too,” Sam added. “Steve’s my friend. I made the choice to support him rather than the Accords. He’d never let me down before. Plus, that shit that went down with Hydra made me lose trust in almost every government institution in the world.” He nodded at Steve. “Where he goes, I go.”

“You’re idiots.” Rhodey’s blunt words had them staring at him. “Soldiers follow orders. There’s a chain of command. Steve Rogers was never the head of that command.”

“The guy who was, faked his death and pretty much disappeared,” Sam pointed out.

“Ultron was the tipping point,” Natasha said. “That was when the world stopped trusting us to protect them.”

“I can’t keep apologizing for that, Natasha.” Tony rubbed at his eyes. “I made a colossal mistake, I fucked up, but then I tried to fix it.”

We did.” Bruce waited for Tony to look at him. “I was just as desperate as you were to not be needed anymore. We created Ultron, Tony. You can’t take this on your shoulders alone. I won’t let you.” He smiled, a sad, pitiful thing that made Tony want to rub at his chest. “Why do you think I left after Sokovia? There was no way the Other Guy would ever be seen as a hero again. I could see what was coming and I knew I couldn’t do it.”

“You wouldn’t have signed the Accords?” Rhodey sounded astonished. Tony wasn’t.

“Are you kidding? With Thaddeus Ross the mastermind behind it, there was always a hidden agenda.” Bruce took off his glasses, cleaned them absently with the bottom of his shirt. “But then Tony sent me the revisions, the proof he had of what Ross planned to do. I couldn’t stay out of it then. He was out there, facing them on his own.”

“Hey!” Rhodey protested.

Tony patted his arm. “You’re my number one boo. Brucie-bear is my number one bro. You need to learn to love each other.” Steve gave a strangled chuckle.

“I didn’t mean to make you feel guilty, Tony,” Natasha said. “We had already done so much damage, despite the good. Ultron was the reason that I agreed to sign. Accountability. I left Russia to become better, to be someone that those who created me would despise. That was what the Avengers gave me. Until we fell apart.” Her eyes dropped to her hands. “I signed because it was the right thing to do. I left because of the same reason.” She looked at Steve. “If I had known what you had done to Tony, however…” The low warning was enough to make anyone twitch. Steve wasn’t immune.

“I know that humans are innately violent,” Vision said. “My choice to stand with Tony Stark was because I knew that it would be inevitable. To have a group of powerful individuals making choices for personal agendas or vengeance or personal profit, regardless of the reasons, it could not stand. The Avengers needed to be put in check. We needed to be answerable to someone, not just ourselves alone.”

They all looked at Steve. “So I guess it’s my turn, huh?” he said, mouth twisting. Tony saw Bucky reach out, put his hand on Steve’s shoulder and squeeze. It shouldn’t have made him angry, but some tiny, petty, jealous part of him was furious.

“I guess I should start back in Washington, when I recognized Bucky,” Steve said, briefly meeting Tony’s gaze. “I didn’t tell any of you. The only reason that Natasha and Sam knew was because they were with me when I saw him. We decided to keep it between us, until we could figure out what had happened to him and how I could get him back.”

“When did you know about my parents?” Tony’s question was like a scream in the room. He could hear the rawness in his voice. “When did you decide to lie to me?”

~~~~

Steve couldn’t look at Tony. This was it, the elephant in the room. Not the Accords, not Bucky, not the War, not the Fight.

The Lie.

“I didn’t know,” he said quietly. The snort from his left told him what Tony thought about that. “Not for sure,” he insisted. “Zola intimated that your parents had been killed by one of the Winter Soldiers. I didn’t know about Bucky then.”

He lifted his head. “Once I knew Bucky was alive, I knew it was a possibility, but, Tony, it wasn’t really Bucky.” He needed Tony to understand his reasoning, faulty as it may have been. “Until I was sure, I couldn’t say anything. And then, when Bucky told me in one of his more lucid states that he remembered Howard, I was too afraid to tell you.”

“Why?” It was Rhodes who asked. “Why were you afraid to tell him? Did your old war buddy mean more to you than your new team-mate?” His lip curled and Natasha was the one who touched his arm this time.

Steve shook his head. “I was afraid that I’d lose Tony too.” His confession was a muted thing, an acknowledgement of something that he hadn’t yet put a name to.

“I knew about Barnes,” Tony said. “I told you, I knew that you and Wilson and Natasha were hiding something. I’m the world’s most nosy human being, so of course I went trawling through the mountains of intel that Widow posted on the internet. Thank god I got to most of it before our enemies did.”

He stared at Steve. “I knew that Barnes was a victim. Hell, I forgave him pretty much the moment he rescued me from the hospital room.” He grinned up at Bucky and Steve wanted that smile to turn to him. “Barnes is my new pet project. That arm needs to be rebuilt.”

“At least it’ll keep you out of trouble,” Bruce muttered.

Tony cackled. “Whatever makes you sleep at night, baby.” Bruce just rolled his eyes. He sobered up. “What made you think that I wouldn’t understand about Barnes?” He sounded curious now. “When, in all of our years of working together, did I make you believe that I was an unreasonable man?”

Rhodes snorted this time. “Yeah, not the right word, Tones. Try another.” He softened his words with a smile. Steve wondered how he could have given this up, walked away without a thought.

“I was terrified,” Steve admitted. He met Tony’s surprised gaze. “Bucky was the only link to my past and he appeared to be a murderer. In the eyes of the world, he was.”

“That’s changed,” Tony reminded him.

“And I could not tell you in words how grateful I am.” He tried to smile at Tony but it felt wrong on his face. “I lost my mind when I thought that last link would be taken away from me.” He laughed then, the bitterness in his voice a palpable thing. “Captain America isn’t supposed to lose control. Captain America is supposed to make the right choices. Captain America isn’t allowed to make mistakes.” He spat the words out like nails.

“Steve.” Tony’s eyes had gone soft and he reached out towards him. “Nobody ever expected you to be perfect.”

Steve grabbed onto Tony’s hand. It felt like a life-line.

He did.” Bucky’s words dropped into the silence like a stone. “This dumbass punk thinks he has to be perfect. He thinks that’s the job, what people want when they see the shield.”

Steve blinked in shock. “Buck,” he began.

Bucky’s hand squeezed his shoulder. “Shut up, Stevie, I’m about done with this crap.” He moved to the seat that Laura had vacated, beside Steve. Tony mouthed ‘Stevie’ at him with a smirk and a raised eyebrow.

“Alright, this all started because people are fucking scared,” Bucky said. He looked around the table. “We can all do things that normal humans can’t do. I’m guessing, from some of what I’ve heard here, that there were fuck-ups along the way.” Steve winced at the language but held his tongue.

“An understatement,” Bruce murmured.

“So, I’ve read the revised Accords and I’ll sign them,” Bucky said. “I agree to the terms of my rehabilitation. Tony Stark will have complete access to my memories using the B.A.R.F. technology and if necessary I will go back under cryogenic suspension again.” He looked at Steve. “That covers my shit. Now, no more excuses, Stevie, Stark. I’m not going to be the reason any of you lose your family.”

Tony opened his mouth but nothing came out. Clint gave a wheezing laugh. “No words, Stark? That’s a first.” Tony flipped him off but it was half-hearted.

“Nothing will ever make up for the fact that I lied to you, Tony,” Steve said, still holding onto Tony’s hand. “I want to apologize about a million times but it will never be enough. I never intended to trade one friendship for another. I hope that you can forgive me one day. Until then, I’ll sign the revised Accords. I’ll report to you. I’ll do whatever it takes…” His heart sank as Tony pulled his hand away.

“Steve, words don’t mean anything.” Tony didn’t sound angry, he just sounded tired. “It goes both ways, you know. Do you trust me to fix Barnes? Do you trust me not to strike out one day and kill him?”

Steve’s mouth dropped open in shock. “No!” he exclaimed. “Tony, you could have killed us both in Siberia. You pulled your punches, let us beat you. I know that. Of course I trust you!”

Tony just stared at him. And then shook his head. “God, you drive me nuts,” he whispered. “Just when I think I’ve figured you out.”

“For fuck’s sake,” Bucky groaned. “Would you two please just get a room and have angry fucking make-up sex and get it over with?”

Everybody turned to gape at him.

“Uh, Buck, me and Tony, we’re not like that,” Steve said. “We never were?”

Bucky frowned. “Seriously? You’re not fucking around with me?” he asked. The entire group shook their heads.

“Also, ew,” Clint said, wrinkling his nose. “That’s like thinking about your parents doing the nasty."

“Whoah,” Bucky said, holding his hand up in apology. “Sorry guys, I looks like I read this whole thing completely wrong.”

Steve was sure he was the color of an overripe tomato. He didn’t dare look at Tony. No need to worry about anyone hurting his best friend. He was going to murder Bucky himself.

Chapter Text

Tony started laughing. This was the absolute juiciest cherry on the top of an exceptionally fucked-up day. The idea that Captain Perfection would even look at Tony in that way was beyond absurd.

“Tony.” Natasha leaned forward, her eyes on his face. “Are you okay?”

He shook his head, getting his laughter under control. “No, Natasha, I’m very much not okay. I haven’t been okay for a long time. But somehow, having you all here, under one roof, there’s almost a sense of rightness.” He pushed up and away from the table. “I’m past exhausted, practically delirious, so I’m not going to deal with that just yet. I’m going to get some rest and then start the search for the Soul Stone.”

He looked around at them, his friends, his family, those who were utterly loyal and those who had betrayed him in one way or another. “I would suggest that you all do the same. I don’t think we’re going to have too much time to sleep in the near future.”

“You got a place I can bunk, Stark?” Bucky asked.

“There’s place with me,” Steve offered.

Bucky shook his head. “No offense, Stevie, but you and me sharing a living space ain’t gonna work. I need to be near the guys who can put me under if necessary.”

“You can stay in my suite,” Bruce said. “There’s a second bedroom and I think that if you cause any problems, the Other Guy would be able to handle you.” He smiled. Tony wondered just how much more Bruce and the Hulk were sharing these days.

“Cool,” Bucky said. “That works.”

Tony gave an airy wave. “Bonne nuit, mes amis.” He turned to go, Rhodey at his heels. Bruce rested a hand on Tony’s back as they left with Bucky in tow.

It was quite the exit, Tony thought to himself, not looking back once.

~~~~

Steve watched them leave, his best friend happily following a man who could kill him with a fist.

“You know it’s the right thing to do,” Natasha said.

“I just got him back,” Steve said.

“Which one are you talking about?” Sam asked. “The childhood buddy or the guy you’re sort of in love with?”

“And that’s my cue, lady and gentlemen,” Clint said, standing abruptly. “I have groveling to do and a marriage to save.” He brushed Natasha’s cheek with a gentle hand. “Stark loves you, Tasha. He’s already forgiven you.” Clint was still the only one who called her Tasha. Their history made them family like Tony and Rhodes were family.

Natasha smiled up at him. “I know. But he shouldn’t.” Clint left, seeming only mildly terrified at facing his wife again. Steve suspected that he was seriously underestimating Laura Barton’s fury.

“Still waiting for an answer,” Sam said, watching Steve.

He sighed. “Both, I guess.” He ran a hand through his hair. “We have a long way to go, Tony and I, but I’m hopeful that we’ve started the process.”

“This isn’t a tactical mission, Steve,” Sam said. “You’re dealing with the fallout of betraying your friends. No amount of planning is going to account for the cost of your actions.”

Steve flinched. “He said that he’s prepared to try to be friends again.”

“Tony Stark doesn’t say things he doesn’t mean,” Natasha said. “Not to the people who are important to him.”

“God,” Steve groaned, dropping his face into his arms as he rested them on the table. “Even Bucky is better at living in this time than I am and he’s basically been a zombie for seventy plus years!”

“You actually used the word zombie correctly in a sentence,” Sam laughed. “I’m proud of you, Cap.”

“I’m not that guy anymore,” Steve said, lifting his head again. “I don’t really like who he grew up to be.”

“You are Captain America,” Natasha said. “With or without the shield, it is who you are, why the serum worked on you and failed with everyone else.”

“I said something like that to Tony,” Steve admitted. “I said that no matter if he was in the armor or nor, he was still Iron Man.”

“Sometimes you aren’t completely stupid,” Natasha told him with a smirk. She got up and kissed his cheek. “You need to get your head together, Steve. If Thor is scared for what is coming, then I’m afraid too.”

Sam clasped his shoulder. “Get some sleep, man. The world is always a little clearer after some rest.”

Steve nodded his gratitude. “Thanks for everything, both of you.”

“I am still pretty pissed about Siberia,” Sam said. “Not gonna lie, man, that shit was wrong. I sent Tony to you as a friend. You fucked up.”

Steve rubbed his eyes. “I really did.” He didn’t watch them leave, choosing instead to wander back to the open doors that led to the garden.

“Can I speak to you about something, Captain?” Vision asked. He’d been so focused on Tony and then Sam and Natasha that he’d completely forgotten that Vision was there.

He began to turn around but stopped when Vision stepped up to his shoulder. “I’m sorry,” Steve said. “That wasn’t a conversation you were meant to hear.”

“And yet I did,” Vision said. “I have found that humans often act in ways that betray their deepest subconscious.”

Steve sighed. “We’ve made a mess of things, Vision,” he said.

“You and Tony certainly could learn to communicate better,” Vision agreed.

Steve glanced at him, but he was staring out at the garden too. ‘It wasn’t just the two of us,” he said.

“You and Tony are, for want of a better expression, the parents of this group of mighty heroes,” Vision said. “It has always been your responsibility to hold us together. That you lied to each other is why the center did not hold.” It was slightly amazing that he could convey that much censure with absolutely zero inflection in his voice.

“We didn’t lie,” Steve argued.

“Not telling the truth is a lie, is it not?” Vision asked.

There was no answer to that question that presented either him or Tony in a positive light. “We made mistakes,” he said finally.

“Yes.” And that was all.

Steve waited but the silence got to him. “I did what I thought was best,” he said.

“You publically fought against your friends, resulting in grievous bodily harm to many of them. You lied to and abandoned someone you care deeply for to, quite possibly, die in a frozen wasteland,” Vision said. “And you still believe that was the best course of action?”

Steve swallowed hard. “Have you had this conversation with Tony?” he asked.

“I have,” Vision said.

“What did he say?”

Vision turned that merciless gaze to him then. “I would not betray my friend’s confidence to you just as I would not betray yours to him.”

Steve felt like he was about five years old again and being told off by his ma. “I’m sorry,” he said. “That was very rude.”

“And most unlike you, Captain,” Vision said. “Many of your actions since discovering that your old friend was alive have been counter to the person I have come to know.”

“Bucky is someone who knew me when I was a scrawny kid with asthma who never backed down from a fight.” Steve wanted Vision to understand. “He loved me before I became Captain American, not because I did.”

“You believe that this is why Tony, Natasha, James, Bruce and the others care for you?” Vision asked. “Why Agent Barton, Airman Wilson and Ms. Maximoff followed your lead? Because of the way you look?”

Put like that it just sounded stupid. Because it was stupid. Bucky wasn’t his only friend, his only family. The people in this house were all part of his heart and he’d managed to break several of them.

“I should probably have a chat with Bruce and Rhodes,” he said after a while. “Before I tackle Tony again.”

Vision inclined his head. There was the vaguest suggestion of a smile on his face. “I believe that would be an excellent place to start,” he agreed.

Steve held out his hand. “Thank you,” he said, waiting until Vision took his hand. “You made me face some hard truths tonight. Some that I’ve been denying for a while.”

“I am merely an observer of human nature, Captain,” Vision demurred. “I find it increasingly difficult to forgive emotional stupidity.”

Steve snorted a laugh. “Well, you’re not wrong,” he said, heading towards the doors leading to the rest of the house. “Good night, Vision.”

“Good night,” Vision replied, turning back to the stars and the night blooms. “And, Steve?”

Steve turned, surprised and thrilled to hear him use his name. “Yeah?”

Vision kept facing outside, silvered by moonlight. “Tony is very special to me. He is the closest thing to a father that I have. I will be most upset if you hurt him again.”

Steve gulped. That was a shovel talk if he’d ever heard one. “I can’t promise that it won’t happen again, but I do promise that I will try my very best not to. It’s taken me a while, but I’ve realized that he’s pretty much the most important person in my life.”

“That is acceptable,” Vision murmured, a clear dismissal.

Steve took himself to bed, a little terrified but also a little more encouraged.

~~~~

Tony was pretending to sleep. Well, he was actually trying to sleep but as usual his brain was running in circles. Of all the things he’d expected to happen today, making sort-of friends with Steve’s semi-amnesiac assassin war buddy wasn’t one of them.

The schematics for the arm he was already planning on building for Barnes were in his head and he was itching to scoot to his new workshop and play around for a while.

However, he’d learned through several uncomfortable staring contests and one remarkably humiliating fire-man carry, that Vision watched him like a hawk and if he believed it was time for Tony to sleep, then Tony would sleep.

He reached for his tablet.

“Nuh-uh, boss,” F.R.I.D.A.Y. tutted. “You know the rules.”

He scowled in the general direction of the camera. “I can’t sleep,” he told her.

“Count sheep,” she suggested, the lilt of Irish in her voice singing with laughter.

“I need to make dumber AIs,” Tony grumbled.

“You’ve been awake for almost forty-eight hours, boss, you should really close your eyes.” F.R.I.D.A.Y. was a darling but closing his eyes had him seeing the shield flashing down against the arc reactor again and again. It wasn’t exactly conducive to sleep.

“Did you record the conversation in the dining room, my gal?” he asked.

“Of course I did, boss.” She sounded almost offended. “You know that I intend on keeping my eyes on that crew.”

“Don’t do anything stupid, okay?” he told her. “Don’t mess with the water or the power. Don’t try to hijack their electronics.” He rubbed his eyes, they felt scratchy and sore. “No sabotage, am I clear?”

“They don’t deserve your kindness, boss.” She hadn’t forgiven Steve and the others for leaving.

“We’re trying to make a fresh start,” he said. “We won’t get far if you create more problems.” She was still so young.

“I won’t cause trouble,” she promised. “I wouldn’t want to make things harder for you.”

“Thanks, Fri,” he said. “You’re a peach.” He yawned, the emotion of the day finally catching up to him. “Think I’m about ready to sleep now.”

“Good night, boss,” she said, a slight preen in her tone.

“G’night,” he slurred, slumber pulling at his limbs. He hoped the dreams would remain at bay tonight.

Chapter Text

Steve slept without dreaming for the first time since he’d left Tony on a cold bunker floor in Siberia. Perhaps it was because Tony was within reach and very much alive. Perhaps it was because his rag-tag family was together again. Perhaps it was because he knew he was safe.

Whatever the reason, he woke at five in the morning feeling more at home in his skin than he had for more than a year.

“Good morning, Captain Rogers. It is five am and you are in your room at Stark Mansion.” Without prompting, F.R.I.D.A.Y. continued the ritual that J.A.R.V.I.S. had begun when he was still in Stark Tower.

“Thanks, F.R.I.D.A.Y.,” Steve said. “Is anyone else awake?”

There was a brief pause and Steve knew that it was because she was debating on whether to tell him or not. “Dr. Banner is in the communal kitchen,” she said eventually. “He puts the coffee on for the boss, and has tea before his day starts.”

“Can you please help guide me to the kitchen?” He’d learned early on not to be rude to or ignore the AI who ran everything in the place he lived. Besides, he’d come to think of both J.A.R.V.I.S. and F.R.I.D.A.Y. as people in their own right.

‘If you leave your suite, turn left and follow the blue wall,” F.R.I.D.A.Y said. “Boss made sure the kitchen was the center of the house.”

It made something clench in Steve’s chest to know that Tony had made the kitchen such an important part of this home. It had been the informal gathering place for all of them back in the tower. The new base had never quite felt like a home, the way this place, after less than a day, did.

He obeyed F.R.I.D.A.Y.’s instructions, following the wall until he saw the gleam of a light. He turned into the kitchen, relishing for a moment the sight of Bruce Banner hunched over a cup of tea, hair messy and sleepy-eyed. “Good morning,” he greeted.

Bruce lifted his gaze to Steve. “The coffee pot is over there and mugs are in the cupboard above it,” he said. “F.R.I.D.A.Y. mentioned that you were on your way.”

“I thought that perhaps we should talk,” Steve said, grabbing the first mug he could reach. The smirk that crossed Bruce’s face briefly had him looking down. “Unicorn Princess,” he read. “Who does this belong to?”

The smirk became a smile. “Tony, who else?” He motioned for Steve to sit. “So, talk.” His gaze was very steady on Steve.

“I’d like to ask a few questions, if I may?” Steve waited for Bruce’s nod. “Why did you leave?”

“Because I was afraid I’d hurt more people,” Bruce said. “My turn. Why did you run?”

Steve cradled the coffee mug between his hands. “I was afraid too,” he admitted. “For Bucky, for Wanda, for me.” He met Bruce’s gaze. “For all of us.” He took a sip. “Why didn’t you tell Natasha what you were going to do?”

“Why didn’t you tell Tony?” Bruce countered. Steve could see that something fundamental had changed inside him. That he could now control the Hulk, without fear for anyone’s safety, had made an astonishing difference to him.

“He would have thought I was choosing Bucky over hi…, the team.” Steve stumbled a little but he doubted that Bruce missed it.

“She would have wanted to come with me,” Bruce said after a moment of looking down at his tea. “And I wouldn’t have had the strength to say no.”

“You should have let her make that decision herself,” Steve said.

“Perhaps,” Bruce acceded. “And you should have talked to Tony about your fears.”

“I did.”

“No, you really didn’t.” Tony’s voice had them both looking up, startled. “You told me that I was making a mistake. You swore that you’d never allow yourself to be used again. You almost killed me in Siberia without once asking me if I had a plan.” His dark eyes were somber and made Steve feel about two feet tall. “When have I ever not had a plan, Rogers?”

“Bucky…” Steve began, but he sounded weak, even to his own ears.

“Stop using him as the excuse for betraying me!” Tony snapped. Then he flushed. “Us. For betraying us.”

And there it was. The moment. The chance. The question was whether he had the guts to take it. “I’m sorry.” He put his cup down and stood, walking over to Tony. The tiny twitch back that Tony made as Steve came towards him felt like a knife to his heart. “I’m sorry I didn’t trust you. I’m sorry I didn’t listen. I’m sorry I left. I’m sorry I hurt you.”

“You didn’t.” Tony folded his arms across his chest. “I have been perfectly fine without you.”

“Tony.” Bruce’s tone was chiding. “That attitude isn’t going to help.”

Tony’s eyes flashed at Bruce. “He left me to freeze to death in a fucking bunker in Siberia so that he could run away with his childhood boyfriend!” He was practically shouting at the end of the sentence.

Steve stared at him. “Bucky’s not my boyfriend, Tony. He’s my brother.”

Tony glared at him and Steve tried not to notice how adorable the embarrassed flush on his cheeks was. “Semantics,” he said, swallowing hard.

“No,” Steve said slowly. “Not semantics. The truth. Bucky isn’t, and has never been, my boyfriend.” He watched Tony’s face closely. “I’ve never wanted him to be my boyfriend.” He took a deep breath. “I wanted you.”

~~~~

Tony was sure that he was hearing things. Had Steve Rogers, Captain Tightass himself, just come out and told him that he wanted to be Tony’s boyfriend?

He wiggled a finger in his ear. “I beg your pardon?”

Steve was suddenly right there, in his bubble, all earnest eyes and stupid face. “I should have said something before. I don’t expect you to believe me now.”

“Uh,” Tony said, brain dribbling out of the ear he’d just cleared.

“I’m leaving before this gets awkward,” Bruce said, standing and skirting around them. He stopped at the doorway, looking back at them. “More awkward,” he amended with a little smirk.

Despite his heated cheeks, Tony took a moment to appreciate that his friend felt comfortable enough in his skin now to just relax and tease. “You’re going straight to Pepper, aren’t you?” he asked.

Bruce tipped his teacup in their direction. “Sharing scoop with your newest BFF is what one has to do.” He left before Tony could snark a reply.

“Tony.” Oh. Right. Steve. There.

“You can’t just waltz back into my…our lives and assume that everything is going to be peachy keen.” He gave a mental flinch. Peachy keen? What the fuck was wrong with him?

Steve nodded, his shoulders drooping. “I know. I understand. I just….” He met Tony’s gaze. “We never took our moment. I never spoke out and then it was too late.”

“You’re not involved with Barnes?” Tony asked, his brain still stuck on the thought because Steve had just walked away from everything for the guy.

“Other than him being my Rhodey to your Tony, no.” A tiny smile crossed Steve’s mouth. ‘And I think both Bucky and Jim would not be happy about that comparison.”

Tony snorted a laugh before he could stop himself. He’d forgotten just how much of a dick Captain America could be. “Yeah,” he agreed. “Rhodey would kick your ass if he heard you.”

There was a silence then, a pause like the world held its breath. “Did you mean it?” It slipped out before he could hold the words back. Things were making sense for the first time. It wasn’t just anger he’d been feeling, it was desertion of a loved one.

“I don’t say things I don’t mean.” Steve watched him, eyes steady and sure on Tony’s face.

“You like women,” Tony pointed out.

“I like people,” Steve corrected. “The skin they are in doesn’t matter.”

The bitch of it was that he was being completely sincere. Steve had seen humanity as a whole and wanted to fix it. Instead, thanks to Tony, they’d almost broken it beyond compare.

“What do you want from me?” Tony asked Steve then. He was starting to fidget under that penetrating gaze.

“I want it all,” Steve said. He lifted his hand, cupped Tony’s cheek. “I want the team, I want my friend healed, I want the world to be safe. But most of all, even if I don’t get any of those other things, I’ll be okay if I get the chance to be with you.”

Tony stared up at him, every thought flying straight out of his head. “I’m not easy,” he rasped, trying to ignore that warm palm against his skin.

“Easy is boring,” Steve said. “And, I know you, Tony.”

“Pepper knows me too,” Tony said. “She couldn’t handle it.”

“Pepper isn’t used to risking her life on a daily basis. I am. Plus, I can watch your back. I did it for years.” He rubbed his thumb carefully across Tony’s cheekbone. “I’d like to be given the chance to do that again.”

“Until you leave,” Tony said, stepping back and away from the temptation in front of him. “Because you will. They always leave.”

Steve’s eyes went icy. “I don’t make promises I can’t keep,” he said, those ridiculous shoulders squaring up once more. “You know me better than that, Tony.”

The panic was a runaway train in Tony’s chest. “I thought I knew you,” he admitted. “But then James Buchanan Barnes came back into your life and it was like the Steve Rogers I’d come to know wasn’t real.”

“Dammit, Tony, I can’t keep apologizing!” It was a frustrated growl that burst from Steve and Tony’s eyes went wide. “I’ve said sorry, I’ve said I was wrong, I’ve promised to try to do better. What the fuck do you want from me?”

“Language,” Tony reprimanded, almost without thought.

Steve glared at him. “You drive me fucking crazy!”

Tony felt his own anger bubble up. “Well, ex-fucking-cuse me for not trusting the asshole who almost killed me the last time I saw him!”

“If that’s the way you feel then this is never going to work!” Steve threw up his hands and spun away from Tony.

The panic became a tidal wave racing through Tony’s body. Steve was giving up. Steve was leaving. Steve was….

“Tony, breathe, god, please breathe.” Steve’s voice broke through the terror that was shaking Tony apart. He realized that he’d slid to the floor and had curled up into a ball, trying to hide from the fear blanketing him like an impenetrable fog.

“Go away,” he croaked, beyond humiliated.

“What part of me saying that I’m not going anywhere did you not understand?” Steve pulled Tony up into a hug. “I won’t make that mistake ever again.”

~~~~

Steve held Tony in his arms, relishing the chance to be close to him. Tony had never been the most affectionate of the team, but Steve had missed those odd little aborted pats and touches that Tony handed out absently. He hadn’t realized how precious they were until he didn’t have them anymore.

Tony didn’t make another sound, just turned his face into the warm skin of Steve’s neck, chest heaving as he struggled to regain control.

Steve wondered for about the millionth time how he could have thrown this away.

“Stevie?” Bucky’s voice had him looking up. “You okay?”

Tony pushed his hot face harder against Steve’s skin. Steve’s arms tightened. “I’m okay, Buck. We’re okay.”

Bucky nodded, his gaze considering as he stared down at Tony. “When the fear gets too much, I try to find a way to release it,” he said, apropos of nothing.

Steve waited. Bucky seldom spoke without having something important to say. It had been one of the biggest changes in his friend. That smart-assed, quick-speaking flirtatious guy was gone forever. In his place was a man who thought before he spoke. Who measured his words like a perfumier.

“Like what?” Tony’s muffled question surprised Steve.

“Hitting things, shooting guns, fucking people,” Bucky said. Steve gaped at him as he shrugged. “Nothing stops the panic better than a real distraction.”

“Huh,” Tony said, mouth damp on Steve’s collarbone. “That actually makes sense.” He lifted his head and met Steve’s eyes. “This bears testing.”

And he kissed him.