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Winter's Ending

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When they hit the landing pad, Clint tumbled off Tony's back and lay on the floor, panting and clawing at the concrete, for a full thirty seconds while the machinery disassembled Tony's suit and vanished the pieces. The door into the common area slid open just as Tony reached over and offered Clint a hand up off the ground. “Come on, don't be a pussy.”

Fuck you, Stark,” Clint replied, letting Tony drag him to his feet and then staggering as he struggled to find his balance. “I don't ever want to do that again. Ever. Next time, just leave me in Kabul to die.”

Natasha crossed the patio, reaching for his other arm, and helped keep him steady. With Tony's help, she guided his shaky steps into the common room, and they maneuvered him onto a couch. He managed to shrug his quiver off and it fell to the floor with a clatter, but he was more careful with his bow, unwinding it from around his arm and handing it off to Sam, who laid it on the table.

Steve brought a glass of water from the kitchen just as Clint did a double-take, realizing who had taken his bow. “Who the hell are you?”

Sam grinned. “Sam Wilson,” he said.

Clint,” Steve said, nudging his shoulder with the hand holding the water glass, “this is my friend Sam. He calls himself Falcon. Sam, Clint Barton, a.k.a. Hawkeye.”

I figured, when he handed me that giant-ass bow,” Sam replied, grinning. “How was the flight, Hawkeye?”

Sucked balls,” Clint replied shortly, managing to get a couple good gulps of water before he had to put the glass down because his hands were shaking so badly. “Pro tip: Tony Stark ever offers to fly you anywhere, demand to see the airplane first.”

Sam laughed. “Can't say I'd have the same reaction,” he replied. “I'm a flyer myself.”

Oh, God,” Clint moaned. “There's two of them. Nat. Help.”

Natasha laughed, dropping onto the sofa next to him and leaning her head on his shoulder. “Just take deep breaths; it'll pass.”

Clint leaned his own head against Natasha's for a few minutes. Darcy brought him a sandwich and ruffled his hair affectionately. When his hands had stopped shaking - or at least, slowed down enough that he could hold the sandwich without dropping it - he took a huge bite and groaned softly. “Oh, honey ham and mustard, Darcy, you're my favorite. Thank you.” Then he nudged Natasha with his elbow. “You wanna tell me what I missed?”

Ah,” Natasha said. “Well.”

Tony waved a hand. “I've heard the story already. Sam, you've lived it. Wanna bring that wing-pack down to the workshop? I should have the materials on hand to repair it.”

Seriously? Hell, yeah.” Sam dove for the pack and shouldered it quickly, following Tony out the door as the engineer began peppering him with questions about how well the pack worked and whether anything about it could be better. Darcy finished rattling around in the kitchen and moved to Steve's side, tiptoeing to press a kiss to his cheek. “I'm gonna run down to the lab and check on Bruce and Jane and Thor,” she told him. “Shout if you guys need anything.”

He wrapped his arms around her and squeezed her tight for a long moment, then gave her a gentle kiss to the temple. “I will,” he said. After she left the room, he dragged one of the armchairs so that it was across the coffee table from Clint and Natasha, then kicked his shoes off and put his sock feet up on the table. “So,” he said, “the thing about SHIELD.”

Steve and Natasha took it in turns to tell Clint everything - absolutely everything, including the fact that Fury wasn't really dead. His eyes got bigger and bigger as they wended their way through the story, and when they had JARVIS pull up some of the available video - the gunfight on the street when Steve had seen the face of the Winter Soldier, the news footage of them being taken into custody by SHIELD/HYDRA, and more news footage of those horrible helicarriers falling into the Potomac - he went pale and more than a little green.

When they reached the end of the story, Clint sat back on the couch and found that his hands were shaking again. “Jesus Christ,” he managed to choke out after a few minutes. “Jesus Christ .”

I know,” Steve said, his voice wry. “Believe me. I was there, and I have to keep double checking to make sure it actually happened.”

We spoke for you,” Natasha said then. “And I know you hate it when people do that, but we had to move quickly, and I thought in this situation that you would probably be okay with what was said.” She asked JARVIS to display the video of Pepper's news conference.

Clint watched the whole thing, from beginning to end, twice. Then he nodded. “Yeah,” he said, soft but firm. “You wanna declare war on HYDRA, you sign my name to it. Damn right.” He nodded once, firmly, then sighed, shaking his head sadly. “You know,” he continued, his voice dropping to a murmur, “it's almost enough to make me glad Phil isn't here to see this. SHIELD was his life, you know?” He looked up at Steve. “It was like how you meet some guys in the Army, not the officers, but the career grunts. The ones that know three chevrons is the best they're ever gonna have, but that's okay, because they gave their life to the service and that was their choice. That was how Phil was about SHIELD.”

Steve nodded. “I know what you mean,” he said.

They sat in silence for a long few minutes before Clint sat forward, pinning Steve with his gaze. “So, what's the plan?”

“I don't have one yet,” Steve admitted. “I just got out of the hospital this morning, and we drove all day to get here, and...” He paused, scrubbing at his face with one hand. “Frankly, I feel like I'm shutting down. After everything that's happened...” he rested his elbows on his knees and stared down at his hands for a few moments. “I gave up my life to end HYDRA,” he said softly. “And finding out that it was all for nothing? Well. I thought nothing could be worse than that. Then I looked up at the man who was trying to kill me and I realized it was my brother.”

Clint bit his lip, considering. Steve had been doing that a lot recently - not that he talked about Bucky a lot, because Steve was still an old-school guy who kept his feelings pretty close to his chest. But when he did mention Bucky, he didn't call the other man his best friend; he called him his brother. Clint knew a thing or two about brothers and betrayal, and he was worried. “Steve,” he said carefully, “I know how you feel about him. I'd have to be pretty blind and stupid not to. But... what will you do if he doesn't remember you?”

“He didn't remember me a few days ago,” Steve pointed out. “He had no idea who I was. But he also had no idea who he was.”

“And... okay, I'm not stupid enough to say if, because I know damn good and well that you're going to find him if it takes you the rest of your life or a deal with a Crossroads Demon. Which I don't recommend, by the way; those never end well.” Clint waved off the slightly confused look on Steve's face and reminded himself to save the Supernatural references for someone who would appreciate them. “My point is, when you - when we - find him, what are you gonna do if he still doesn't remember you? Not even if he tries to kill you again, because maybe he does and maybe he doesn't. But if you look into his eyes and he genuinely has no idea who you are, then what?”

“Then, if he'll let me, I'll remind him,” Steve said. His voice was soft, but his tone was resolute. “It's all I can do. I can't make him remember; I wouldn't even know how to try to do that. But if he'll let me... I have to try.”

Clint thought about that for a minute, his eyes studying Steve's face. Finally he nodded. “Yeah,” he said softly. “I get that. I'd do the same thing with my brother, if Barney would let me. But you can't force it.” He clenched his hands on his knees and took a long, slow breath. “Okay. In my official capacity as team sniper, I would like to officially state that I am exhausted and I want some sleep. And Cap, no offense, but you look like hell, bro. You need to get some sleep, too.”

Steve nodded. “Maybe later.”

Clint stood, rounding the coffee table and laying a firm hand on Steve's shoulder. “Hey. I know. You want to sit here and think and brood about it and make plans and get out there and find him. You want it so bad it's a physical itch like bugs under your skin. I get that. But you're not gonna do him or you or anybody else any good if you're not on top of your game. You got gut-shot two days ago and fell out of a fuckin' helicarrier into the Potomac. I bet if I looked at your stomach right now it'd still be all fresh and pink like a baby's ass. Get some sleep.”

Steve glanced at Natasha, who nodded. “All right,” he said softly. “I will.” He stood. “Probably we all should. There's a lot of work ahead of us, and not just in this search.” He raised his eyes toward the ceiling. “JARVIS, could you please let Darcy know I'm going to be in my apartment when she's done in the lab?”

“Certainly,” JARVIS replied.

“Thank you.” He looked over at Clint and Natasha. “And thank you - both of you.”

“Anytime, Cap,” Clint replied, giving him an easy grin. Natasha just smiled. Steve pushed himself off the couch and wearily made his way down the hall to his apartment.

When Darcy came in a couple of hours later, Steve was sitting on a stool in front of his easel, working on the portrait of Bucky. He'd pronounced himself “almost satisfied” with it after a month of work just before Fury had called him to D.C. In the three months since, Darcy had become very familiar with the penciled-in face of James Barnes, since she was in and out of Steve's apartment twice a week to water his plants in addition to being there with him during his rare visits home.

She moved to stand behind Steve, resting her hands on his shoulders and watching as he worked. The changes he was making were subtle, but Darcy could see exactly what he was doing and understood. The portrait-Bucky had been clean-shaven; Steve had added a heavy stubble that was well on its way to being a full beard. The portrait-Bucky had short hair; Steve had added the suggestion of longer, unkempt locks. The portrait-Bucky's expression had held the casual, cheerful arrogance of youth; through the addition of subtle lines and shades, Steve had altered that expression. The eyes now looked almost blank, and...

“He looks confused,” Darcy said softly. “Like he's not sure what's going on, but he thinks it's not quite right.”

Steve nodded. “It's that look,” he explained. “He got it twice. Once when I called him by name on the street, and again on the helicarrier. It's... It's what makes me think maybe I can get through to him. Whatever they did to him, to his mind, I don't think it's seamless. I think it can be... fixed.”

Darcy nodded. “He doesn't look evil. He looks... lost.”

“Yeah.” Steve nodded. “They've hurt him, Darce. Whatever they did to him, they hurt him pretty bad.”

She stroked the hair at the nape of his neck. “Then when we get him back,” she murmured, pressing her lips to his temple, “we'll have to make sure we treat him really nice, to make up for it.”

He looked up at her, his vision going blurry as his eyes swam with tears. “This isn't going to be easy,” he warned her. “I... I'm probably going to be really obsessed about this. And I'll probably be gone a lot, tracking down leads, and it's not gonna be safe for you because HYDRA is everywhere.”

“I wouldn't be safe anyway,” Darcy pointed out. “The second Thor fell out of the sky in New Mexico, I got a target painted on me. HYDRA, A.I.M., anybody who might be interested in portal tech. Do you know what Tony gave me on my first day here?” She pointed at her upper arm. “A tracking implant. In case I'm ever abducted. Pepper and Jane have them, too. As for being obsessed? Hell, I would be, too. And I'll do everything I can to help with the search. Okay?”

“Okay.” He rested his head on her shoulder, his breath shuddering in his chest. “God, I love you.”

She kissed the top of his head, holding him close. “Love you, too,” she whispered.

***

The shelter offered breakfast, and he took it. Everyone formed up a line and took a thick, beige plastic tray. As they passed the people behind the counter, those people filled the trays up with quick, efficient scoops of their spoons. When he left the line, his tray held a healthy scoop of bright yellow scrambled eggs, several thick brown sausage links, a pasty-looking white biscuit (burned dark brown on the bottom), and a container of orange juice. He took the first empty seat he came to, tucking his backpack under the table between his feet, and applied himself to the food with a nearly mindless focus that did not break until every bite and crumb had been devoured.

He couldn't remember eating, not before the sandwich yesterday, though he supposed he must have been fed at some point. What did he eat? He wondered about it for a moment, but no memories came to him, so he shrugged the thought away. Following the examples of others, he stood up, shrugged his backpack on, carried his tray to a window in the wall and handed it off to someone. Then he left the shelter. It wouldn't do to stay in one place for too long. His keepers were probably still in disarray, but once they got their feet back on the ground - and they would -

(cut off one head, two more will take its place)

they would come looking for him. He did not intend to be found.

He headed west on Constitution, keeping his pace down to an easy stroll, his hands in his jacket pockets, his head down with the brim of his hat over his eyes. He wasn't wearing the splint any more; when he woke, he'd known the break was healed, and he had tucked both the plastic piece and the bandage into his bag before going to breakfast. It was better that way; a man with an injured arm would draw more attention than a man simply going about his business.

He turned a few times, doubling back out of habit to throw off any possible pursuers, wandering in and out of unsecured public buildings. He bought a taco from a street vendor and sat on a bench to eat it, his eyes scanning the crowd restlessly, searching for any signs of pursuit. There seemed to be none.

When he finally reached his destination, he found the riverbank empty. The ground was clearly disturbed, and he felt certain from the tracks and signs he saw that someone had found the man in the blue suit and carried him away from the place. He was sure that whoever it was had been friendly; had he been found by his enemies, they would have killed him there, and there would have been sign.

He stood on the riverbank for a long moment, studying the wreckage. The Triskellion, mostly destroyed, loomed over the great, empty hole of the hangar bay, where two of the three ships had landed. The third - the one where he had fought with the man in the blue suit, lay where it had crashed, on the other side of the river.

He stared for a long time.

(you're my friend.

You're my mission!)

He replayed the fight over and over in his mind. He had stabbed the man once and shot him twice. The man had done nothing more than disable him. Then, when everything went to hell, he had been trapped under debris; the man had freed him. Had called him... that name. Had refused to fight him. Had dropped his shield.

(i'm not gonna fight you. you're my friend.)

The man in the blue suit wielded the shield as a weapon. But it was also his symbol. He thought about the display at the museum, the other shield that the mannequin had held, and the way the man had used it both offensively and defensively. He thought about how it had felt in his hands, and how he had known how to use it as soon as he touched it. As though he'd done it before. As though he'd practiced with it.

(here, you try it.

really?

yeah, give it a throw. it's fun.)

He blinked at the sound of a shout. Several hundred yards up the bank, two men were watching a small robot with rubberized claws that was hovering over the water. A bright blue light was flashing on the front of the robot, and the two men - one of whom seemed to be holding some kind of controller - had gotten very agitated. He moved closer to them, slow and stealthy, listening carefully.

One of the men was speaking into a comm device. “I think we've found it, Mr. Stark. The blue light's flashing like crazy and the bot's just hovering there.” He paused for a moment, listening, then gestured to the other man. “Mr. Stark says to send it down.”

The man holding the controller pressed a button, and the bot dove into the river water. After a slow count of thirty, it broke the surface again; in its rubber grip was the shield.

He felt his eyebrows draw together. This wasn't right. That shield didn't belong to those men. It belonged to the man in the blue suit.

The robot whirred its way to the riverbank and the man on the comm reached out, taking the shield from the robot. “We've got it, Mr. Stark,” he said. “It's in my hand. We'll bring it straight to you.”

The hell they would. He tightened the straps on his backpack, settled his mind and his breathing, and exploded forward out of the trees. The man with the controller went down immediately with a simple leg swipe; the second man was stupid enough to try to run away backward, cowering behind the shield he'd just stolen. In moments, that man was also on the ground, and the shield was safe.

He disappeared into the trees as quickly as he had appeared from them, finding a low spot and dropping down into it, the shield under his body. He watched the two men stagger to their feet. The one with the controller was limping a bit; the one with the comm was wiping gravel out of his abraded palms. “Mr. Stark? There's been a complication.”

After retrieving the shield, he wandered again. This time, he stayed carefully away from people; the shield was too big to hide in his backpack, and if he was seen with it, that would immediately draw the kind of attention he had to avoid. He made his way through the trees, heading in a vaguely northerly direction through Rock Creek Park, and he thought very hard about what he should do. Eventually, he decided that he needed another bag. He couldn't leave the shield anywhere; even the best hiding place could eventually be found. He would have to keep it with him, and that meant hiding it in a bag.

But where would he get such a bag? And how could he acquire it without being seen carrying the damn shield in the first place? He sighed, frustrated with himself - and then stopped in his tracks. He could hear people talking.

He crept toward the sound of voices and discovered a group of teenagers sitting in a hollow, passing a joint around. A soft snort of amusement escaped him. Nothing to worry about. He started to melt back into the trees when he paused, his eye falling on something. One of the girls was carrying a worn out messenger bag. His eyes narrowed as he examined it, glancing down at the shield and then up at the girl with the bag. Yes , he thought. That will work.

He melted backward, scouting around carefully for a temporary hiding spot. Up a tree would do nicely, he decided, and he scrambled quickly up the trunk of a thick oak, carefully nestling the backpack and the shield securely among the branches, hidden by the leaves. He fished the cash out of his sock, peeled off a bill, and stuck the rest back in. Then he dropped to the ground.

He walked into the middle of the group of teenagers and they panicked, but he put his hands up, focused on the girl with the bag, and used the words he'd carefully worked out in his mind. “I want to buy your bag.”

She stared at him. “Wh- what?”

“Your bag,” he said. “I want to buy it.” He held out a fifty-dollar bill. “Will you take this?”

She stared at him for a second longer, and then she snatched the bag off over her head, dumping its contents unceremoniously on the ground. “Sure!”

They made the exchange quickly. “Thank you,” he said. He stepped away. Then he disappeared into the woods.

He listened to the teenagers squawk at one another about the weird homeless guy as he fitted the shield into the bag. He'd been right; it just fit. He pulled the strap over his head, settling the bag at his right hip, and then he pulled his backpack on and dropped back down to the ground. Skirting well around the fluttering teenagers, he made his way out of the park.

The blue-suited man was gone from the riverbank. That meant the best way to locate him was going to be through the Avengers Initiative. He needed to find them. He thought about the best way to do that. He walked while he thought, his hands in his pockets and his head down, the shield bumping gently against his hip.

A flash of something on a television screen caught his attention. He stopped in front of a cafe and watched through the window as a pale, red-haired woman in a business suit stood at a podium to speak. He didn't care about the woman; he cared about the caption at the bottom of the screen. Avengers' Initiative to be funded by Stark Industries, it read. Under that, in smaller letters, it said, Pepper Potts, Avengers' Tower, NYC.

New York City.

Avengers' Tower.

He had a destination. That was good. He took a look around, getting his bearings. No sense sticking around here , he thought. He started walking in a vaguely northeasterly direction.

Late that afternoon, he caught a ride with a man in a tractor-trailer who was making a dead-head run to Philadelphia. Neither of them was much interested in chatter, so they listened to outlaw country music on the radio the whole way. He thanked the man when he climbed out, and struck off on foot in the dark. He wasn't afraid. He could defend himself.

He decided not to go into the city; there would be police and other such official presences. Instead, he bought some food at the truck stop and made shift to camp near a highway overpass, far enough away from the road that he would not be seen. He lay among the grass and the wildflowers, smelling exhaust fumes and dirt and the cool spring air, and he stared up at the stars for a very long time. He had almost dozed off when he felt the nudge against his right leg. His eyes flew open, but there was no one looming above him. He raised his head to look, and found himself staring into a pair of huge brown eyes.

It was a brindle-colored boxer, not a puppy but still juvenile, growing fast enough to outstrip its food supply. It nudged against him again, snuffling at the shield bag. He sat up, flipped the bag open, and pulled out the patty melt that he had been planning on eating for breakfast. He offered half of it to the dog, which devoured the food in about two bites. Then, with a shrug, he ate the other half himself. He'd just have to buy more food in the morning.

He lay back again, pillowing his head on his backpack, and the dog curled up beside him, resting its head on his hip. He reached down with his right hand and stroked the dog's head, marveling slightly as it nudged into his touch before falling asleep right there on top of him.

He stared at the sleeping animal for a very long time. Huh , he thought.