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Winter's Ending

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It took a long time for him to realize that he was in pain. One reason for that was that it was a small pain, on the scale of pain that he was accustomed to, and he was used to brushing off minor injuries in order to complete missions.

But even after he realized he was in pain, it took him another hour to understand that he needed to do something about it. And it took him another hour after that to work out what he should do. He'd never had to make decisions like this before; he'd always just completed his mission, and then reported back. If he had any damage, they repaired him and put him away. But he wasn't reporting back this time. Not this time.

His mission was to kill the man in the blue suit,

(the man on the bridge, who was he?)

the man with the shield, but he had failed in that mission. Had, in fact, gone outside the parameters of that mission to actively prevent the man from dying.

(“You know me.”

No, I don't!”)

The man in the blue suit had a name. It hurt to think about that name, hurt in a way that he didn't understand, couldn't identify. He forced himself not to think about it. He focused on his arm. He needed to do something about his arm before it healed wrong. He needed... he needed... His eyes darted back and forth, taking in the sparse greenery of the riverside park around him as he thought, his mind racing. He needed a doctor.

He knew he couldn't go to a hospital; official places reported things and too many people had seen him. But there were always back-alley places you could go if you needed medical attention and didn't want to attract any other kind of attention. It wouldn't be difficult to find such a place. Only, he needed to do something about the damn metal arm.

He made his way down the riverbank, staying in the trees, until he found a triage point where emergency workers were setting up. Within twenty minutes, someone stripped off a jacket and left it unattended. He made it his, shrugging it on quickly and sticking the metal hand into his pocket. He weaved through the crowd of workers, looking busy and purposeful. He snagged a hat that had fallen on the ground and popped it onto his head. Then he vanished between two ambulances.

Forty minutes later, he was standing in a run-down but clean waiting room, facing a tiny, white-haired black woman with half-moon spectacles perched on her nose. “You're soaking wet,” she commented.

“Fell in the river,” he said simply.

“Uh-huh,” she replied. She shook her head, clucking her tongue. “Crazy people, doing crazy things. What's this from? No, wait, don't tell me. I know what it was from.”

His eyes darted to the elderly television set, playing the news coverage on mute, and back to her face. But she wasn't looking at his face or the television; she was looking at his right arm.

“This came from bungee jumping, didn't it?” she said, carefully removing his glove and setting it aside. “You're some kind of crazy thrill-seeker and you, what, bounced back too hard and hit your arm on the side of the bridge?”

He couldn't help it; he laughed. It was a rusty sound, and it surprised the hell out of him - he hadn't even known he could laugh. But he did.

“Need you out of your shirt,” she said. “Can't set the bone through all this leather.” She tugged gently on the left sleeve of the jacket.

He swallowed hard, set his jaw, and shrugged out of the jacket. The doctor had to help him with the leather armor; already snug when it was dry, getting out of it wet and one-handed was nearly impossible. As it was, he had to bite down on several colorful curses that wanted to escape. Finally it was done. He leaned back in his chair for a moment, breathing deeply, while she pulled up a low table and gently rested his arm on it. He watched her eyes; she glanced briefly at the metal, then returned her focus to the broken arm without a word.

Her first touch of his skin was feather-light, and her fingers, even as she pressed here and there to feel the injury, were the gentlest human contact he'd had since... ever. There was no one he could think of who'd ever touched him with the kind of real care and concern he could feel as she searched out the edges of the break, and he felt his brow furrowing as he watched her.

Finally, she looked up at him. “I'd feel better about this if I could get some X-rays, but I ain't got a machine, so I'm gonna do the best I can for you. Okay?” He nodded, and she continued. “The other thing I ain't got is access to any kind of strong pain meds.”

“I don't need them,” he said simply.

She studied his face for a moment, her eyes boring into his, and she shook her head. “No, I suppose you don't, do you? Crazy bungee-jumping adrenaline junkie.”

His lips twitched upward at that, the expression feeling strange on his face. She laid both her hands on top of his right hand. “You want something to bite down on?”

He shook his head, feeling sweat beading up near his hairline. “Just do it,” he told her.

“All right. On three.” She settled her hands, one near his elbow, the other gripping his hand. “One. Two.” She pulled. He clenched his jaw, his head falling back, his neck cording and stretching as he kept the shout of pain behind his teeth. The only sound that escaped was a fast hiss of breath as he felt the broken edges of the bone realign.

It was almost like the click of two pieces coming together inside his brain. “That's it, that's it,” he gasped.

She stopped pulling immediately. “Are you sure?”

He nodded. “I can feel it,” he told her.

Her fingers, gentle, ran down his arm again, examining the break, feeling for anything out of place. “I think you're right,” she told him softly. “Just hold still and let me splint it.” She left the room, and he could hear her rummaging through a closet in the hallway. His left hand went instinctively to his lower back, where there was still a gun tucked into his waistband. It dropped away, though, when she came back in carrying nothing more than a piece of shaped plastic, a roll of Ace bandage, and a folded-up sling. She maneuvered his arm against the splint and wrapped it carefully, then helped him back on with his shirt. “That leather ain't gonna go back on over that splint,” she told him. “You got something to carry it in?”

He blinked. “No, I... I don't have anything.”

“Hmm.” She helped him on with the sling, adjusting it carefully until it was comfortable, and then she sat down and stared into his face. “Son, let's talk.”

His heart thumped. “That's probably not a good idea.”

She pointed a finger at him. “Let me explain something to you, Mr. Bungee Jumping Adrenaline Rush. I did not get to be where I am in life without knowing a few things, and I do not run this clinic where it is without knowing a few more. Now, I ain't got to turn around and look at that TV screen up there to know what's what when a white man with a big fancy metal arm comes walkin' into my clinic hurt on a day like today. Do you understand me, what I'm saying to you?”

He blinked at her. “Not really,” he admitted.

“Look,” she said, her voice softening, “I know you're in trouble. I knew that when you walked in. Most days, don't nobody come through that door that ain't in some kind of trouble. That's what I'm here for, you understand? I help out folks in trouble. That's what I do. I took an oath, see, when I graduated from medical school. And it was all about not doing harm, which most folks know. But there's another part to that oath about doing the most good, and that's what I try to do here.”

He considered those words carefully. Then he nodded, waiting for her to get to the point.

“What I'm trying to say, son, is that I want to help you.”

He shook his head. “You can't,” he said. He watched her face. She looked... disappointed? And in that moment he made another decision. He wasn't going to kill this woman. It was perhaps the second real decision he'd made on his own in living memory, but he was pleased with it. He turned it over in his mind several times, and it felt right. It felt good to decide not to kill her. He stood up. “I have to go.”

He dug into his pocket and pulled out a wad of money. He wasn't sure how much was there. He pushed it all at her. She took the roll, peeled off a fifty, and handed the rest back to him. “That'll cover the supplies,” she told him, her voice gentle. “That's all I need.”

He stared at her for a minute. “But - ”

“No.” She shook her head. “You don't have to give me money to keep me quiet, son. That's my job. Ain't nobody gonna know nothing about you being here except me and you. Okay?”

He nodded. He tucked the money back into his pocket. He looked at her for a minute. Then he said, “Do you...” He paused, reconsidering the words, and then he said, “What is your name?”

("Bucky. You've known me your whole life. Your name is James Buchanan Barnes.”

Shut up!”)

“Evelyn,” she replied. “Dr. Evelyn Jackson.” She reached for something on the desk, handed him a business card. He glanced at it; it was printed with her name, the clinic's name, and a set of telephone numbers. “Son, if you decide you want some help after all, you call me. All right? I'll be here.”

He nodded, tucking the card away. Then he collected his armor. She dug into a drawer and pulled out a plastic shopping bag. He rolled the leather up and tucked it into the bag. Then he said, “Evelyn.”

She looked up at him and waited for him to find words he couldn't remember ever saying to anyone.

“Thank you.”

She patted his left shoulder. “You take care, Bungee Jumping Man.”

He left quickly.

***

When Steve opened his eyes in the hospital, Sam was sitting beside the bed and Marvin Gaye was playing quietly in the background. He liked the sound of it. “On your left,” he rasped, and Sam smiled gently.

They were silent for a moment before Sam spoke. “That's some girl you got,” he said simply.

Steve's eyes had begun to flutter closed again; at this, he opened them wide. “What?”

“Your girl,” Sam repeated. “Darcy.” He gave Steve a concerned glance. “You didn't hit your head or something, did you?”

“No, I just... how did you know about Darcy?”

“Natasha called me,” Darcy's voice entered the conversation. She pulled the hospital room's door closed behind herself. “Something about my boyfriend and his World War Two BFF blowing up SHIELD.”

“Oh, God, Darce,” Steve managed, then coughed. “Did she - ”

“She told us,” Darcy assured him, shutting the music off and coming around to sit down on the other side of the bed. She filled a glass of water from a pitcher and brought it to his lips, helping him hold it when his hand shook. “She told us everything. Tony's spent the last few days going through the cybersecurity with a fine-toothed comb, and Pepper's ripping through personnel like some kind of avenging angel. It's kind of terrifying to watch.” She put the drained glass down on the table and took his hand, her fingers stroking the skin. “When I get back, apparently there's a new job waiting for me, but I'm under strict orders not to come back until you're with me.”

Steve grimaced. “Darcy, I... Doll, I don't know when I'm gonna be coming back. Did...” He paused, wetting his lips. “Did she tell you about Bucky?”

“Everything she knows, which isn't much. But she said you'd probably want to go after him, if there was even the least chance that he survived.”

“He survived,” Steve said. “I know he did.”

Darcy nodded. “Of course he did,” she said simply. “So you're going after him, which, again, of course. But Steve.” She touched his nose, making sure she had his undivided attention. “Don't you think you should go about this in a smart way, rather than going off half-cocked?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, work smarter, not harder. Use the resources you have. You're going to need people behind you.”

He closed his eyes in frustration. “SHIELD is gone, Darcy. We burned it to the ground. So what team am I supposed to have behind me? There's nobody left I can trust.”

Her voice was a little on the cold side when she spoke again. “Nobody?”

“That's not what I meant,” he backtracked, his eyes flying open to meet the hurt look in hers. “Darcy, I didn't mean you.”

“Oh, so you meant me,” Sam said from the other side of the bed.

“Of course I didn't mean you,” Steve tried.

“Oh, okay,” Darcy spoke over him. “So you meant Natasha. And Clint. And Bruce and Tony and Pepper and Jane and Thor.”

“You know damn well I didn't mean them!” Steve exclaimed.

“Then what team did you think I meant?” Darcy asked, tugging on his fingers to ground him again. “You're an Avenger, idiot. You always have a team.”

“The Avengers Initiative was a SHIELD project - ”

“Not any more.” Sam pulled his phone out of his pocket, tapped at the screen for a moment, and then handed the device to Steve. There was a video paused on the screen, and Steve tapped the “play” icon.

A digital banner across the bottom of the screen read Avengers' Independence Day. Pepper stood on a podium, with Tony on one side of her in the suit and Thor on the other, in full regalia. She was in the middle of speaking. “The news that SHIELD has been infiltrated by HYDRA was a shock and a blow to all of us. Tony Stark's father, Howard, helped to found SHIELD in the years after World War II, and learning that his father's legacy to this country has become so corrupted has forced Mr. Stark to make a number of painful but necessary decisions.

“As of this moment, the Avengers Initiative wishes to declare its complete and total disassociation from and independence of any government - including the United States government - and any government agency. The Avengers - the Black Widow, Captain America, Hawkeye, the Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, and Thor - and their respective alternate identities are now and will forever remain independent agents after the example of the X-Men and the Fantastic Four.”

She paused for dramatic effect, staring straight into the camera. “Furthermore, the Avengers Initiative wishes to state firmly and for the record that we consider HYDRA to be our enemy, and the enemy of all mankind, and that we are committed to rooting out and destroying that enemy wherever it goes, wherever it hides, however it tries to mask itself. If anyone within the sound of my voice is a supporter of HYDRA, then know this. You are our enemy. And we will come for you.” With that, she stepped away from the podium.

The video ended, and Steve looked up at Sam and Darcy in shock. “Did she just... declare war on HYDRA?”

Darcy nodded. Sam said, “Pretty sure that's exactly what she did.”

Steve's head fell back against his pillow. “Holy shit.”

Darcy giggled.

***

It began that night on the talking-head news channels. Rachel Maddow devoted a full half-hour to coverage of the helicarrier crashes and the footage of Captain America on his knees on a D.C. street with a gun to his head. “Where is he now?” she asked the cameras, her face worried. “Pepper Potts - and, by extension, the Avengers Initiative - spoke for him today in New York, but Cap himself has not been seen since he was taken into custody by a SWAT-style team of unidentified thugs in Washington on the day before this tragedy occurred.” She paused, staring earnestly into the television cameras. “Captain Rogers, if you're watching this, please let us know. The people of America are worried about you. If anyone has any information about the Captain's whereabouts, please contact us.” She rattled off her email contact information, and then the show went to commercial.

Darcy snorted softly from the end of Steve's bed. Her sock-clad toes, up on the end of his mattress, twitched in an odd sync with her fingers as she worked at knitting something that Steve couldn't yet identify. Might be a hat, he thought idly. He flipped the channel.

Bill O'Reilly had a photo of the burning Triskellion on his screen. “And where were the Avengers?” he was asking. “Earth's Mightiest Heroes couldn't seem to be bothered to make an appearance, to stop this obvious terrorist attack? And now we're finding out that Captain America may have even been taken into custody!

“Change the channel,” Sam said. “That guy seriously makes me wanna smack somebody.”

Steve grunted and changed the channel. Anderson Cooper looked very serious beside the footage of Steve on his knees in the street. “- and Captain America seems to be missing in action. Has he been arrested, or is he being detained? No one seems to have any answers. We contacted the Avengers Initiative for comment, but they stated that they were unable to provide any new information at this time.”

Steve changed the channel again. “Oh,” he said. “Ferris Bueller's Day Off.”

“Sounds perfect,” Darcy murmured.

“God, they need some Pay-Per-View up in here or something,” Sam griped.

By the next day, Steve's gut wound had all but vanished. He declared himself well enough to leave, and when he held his ground even against Darcy's second-most-disapproving expression, she nodded and said “Okay.” She helped him on with his hoodie - his abdomen was still a little sore - and he slapped a ball cap onto his head and tugged the hood up over it. Sam passed him a pair of sunglasses and a nurse led them through the hospital and out a back service entrance, where a dark blue SUV waited for them. Darcy got behind the wheel and Sam helped Steve into the back seat - the better to avoid being seen - before taking the front seat beside her.

“Is there anything you need from your place here?” Darcy asked.

Steve shook his head. “No. Everything I could possibly need is either already in New York or right here.” He met her eyes in the rearview mirror and gave her a tired smile.

She smiled back, clearly not buying it, but nodded. “Okay,” she said. Then she glanced over at Sam. “Anything you need before we go?”

He shook his head. “I got everything I need in the back already. Including my wings. I'm kinda hoping maybe I can get your buddy Stark to have a look at 'em while we're there.”

“Give him half a chance and he'll rebuild them out of titanium and add on turbo boosters,” Steve assured his friend.

“Sweet,” Sam replied, grinning.

“Okay,” Darcy said, putting the car into gear. “Since everybody has everything they need, we're going.”

A little over five hours later, they emerged from the Lincoln Tunnel into midtown traffic, and Steve felt himself breathe freely for the first time in what felt like years. He hadn't realized, during his brief stay in D.C., how much he had missed the city of his birth. He and Darcy had even been tentatively discussing the possibility that she might start looking for work in the city. She'd been considering putting feelers out with some of her poli-sci contacts from Culver when he and Natasha had been sent out after the Lemurian Star. He leaned forward, pleased to note that the soreness in his gut had mostly abated. “Hey, um. You didn't put out any of those feelers we talked about yet, did you?”

She shook her head. “Didn't have time; Tony blew up another machine the same morning we talked, and then I had to help Jane get ready for a conference. I had it on the list for...” She paused, then gave a soft laugh. “For today, actually.”

He nodded, gripping her shoulder warmly. “Don't,” he said simply.

“No place like home, yeah?” Sam murmured as Steve sat back again.

Steve made a soft sound of agreement. Darcy turned on Madison Avenue and he felt himself relax even more as the great, sweeping bulk of the redesigned and renamed Avengers Tower soared up into view. “Home,” he whispered. “Finally.”

There was press outside the building; unsurprising, between his own disappearance and Pepper's press conference. Fortunately, there were two parking areas, and one of them was completely secured. Darcy drove up to the main parking entrance and Steve ducked behind her seat when she rolled her window down to show the gate guard her ID. The guard raised the bar and let her past with a quick nod, and she rolled the window back up as she went in. Then she drove to a particular parking space that was marked reserved for Tony. She idled in the slot, pulled out her cell phone, and dialed JARVIS.

When the AI answered, Darcy gave him her security code, and the cement floor beneath them retracted on its hydraulic base, lowering the SUV down into the subterranean garage where the Avengers' personal vehicles were stored. As soon as JARVIS said to, she backed the SUV off the pad, and they all watched as the slab of concrete rose again, fitting itself seamlessly into the surface above. Then Darcy parked the SUV and killed the engine. “Well,” she said, giving Sam a raised eyebrow. “We're here.”

Steve sighed softly. “Thank God.”