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Winter's Ending

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“Hey, Cap, can you swing down to the workshop for a minute?”

Steve blinked as Tony's voice filtered through the intercom in his kitchen at a quarter to eight in the morning. Whatever it was, it must be important. “Sure,” he said. “Let me grab some pants and I'll be right there.”

Darcy was still asleep when he finished dressing in jeans and a blue-and-white striped rugby shirt, so he left her a note. Then he trotted downstairs, pulling his shoes on at the front door, and headed out and down to Tony's workshop.

There were two men in the workshop with Tony, and Tony waved at them when Steve came in. “Cap, this is Jed Baker and Randy Wentcuff. They do odd jobs for me. Everything from corporate espionage to fact-finding missions.” Both men nodded politely at Steve, and he nodded back. Tony continued. “I sent them down to D.C. with a sniffer bot. Natasha told us you lost your shield and she figured it was at the bottom of the Potomac, so I thought it'd be a good idea to go find it before one of HYDRA's people did.”

Steve nodded. “Thank you, Tony,” he said. “I was actually planning on heading back down in a couple of days; I have a general idea of where it fell, so I figured I'd just go in after it.”

Tony waved a hand. “No need. The sniffer bots can detect damn near anything just based on molecular composition; setting it for vibranium took about ten minutes and finding the shield only took, what, twenty more?”

Wentcuff nodded. “Just about. We started looking near where you were found on the riverbank, Captain, and worked a grid pattern out from there. The bot indicated the presence of vibranium, we double checked with Mr. Stark, and he said to send it down. We did, and when it came up, it had your shield.”

“Great!” Steve said. Then he looked around. “Where is it?”

“Well, you see,” Baker took up the story, “that's where things get weird.”

Steve tilted his head a bit. “Weird how?”

“I'd just taken the shield from the bot, and we were getting ready to pack it all up and hightail it out of there before someone found us - Mr. Stark having warned us that there might be trouble in that area, what with those neo-Nazi freaks and all. But like I say, I'd literally just got the shield in my hand, and this homeless guy came blasting out of the trees, knocked Wentcuff on his ass, snatched it right out of my hands, and then he was just gone with it.”

Steve blinked. “Gone?”

Wentcuff nodded. “Like he'd never been there, except there I was on my ass, and Baker on his, and the bot hovering there looking at us like it had never seen two guys do anything more stupid than let some crazy homeless fucker steal Captain America's shield.” He paused. “Pardon my French.”

“I was in the Army, Mr. Wentcuff,” Steve replied dryly. “I've heard the word fuck before. Even maybe said it once or twice, unless that'll tarnish my squeaky clean image.” He parked himself on a stool, rubbing at his chin. “You're sure it wasn't one of HYDRA's people?”

“Absolutely sure,” Baker replied. “This dude was clearly homeless. Scraggly beard, long hair, crazy eyes. I just can't understand how he got the drop on us.”

Steve's eyes narrowed. He glanced at Tony. “Can I borrow a pencil and a piece of scratch paper?”

“Sure.” Tony handed over the requested items, then watched with interest.

Steve bent over the workbench and began sketching, his pencil moving frantically across the page. When he was finished, he offered the drawing to Baker. “Your crazy homeless guy look anything like that?”

“Hey, yeah!” Wentcuff said, leaning over Baker's shoulder to look at the drawing. “He was wearing a baseball cap, but that's definitely him.”

Steve nodded, his lips pressing together as his eyes met Tony's. “Bucky,” he said simply.

Tony stared at him. “Bucky?”

Steve nodded, taking the sketch back and handing it to Tony. “That's what he looked like the last time I saw him, when we fought on the helicarrier. He's really unkempt, which would drive him nuts if he was in his right mind. Bucky was always very particular about his appearance.”

Tony nodded, looking down at the sketch. Then he laid it out on the workbench's surface. “JARVIS, scan that image and start running facial recognition on any traffic or security camera footage you can access in the D.C. Area, beginning yesterday after the time of the attack. We need to find him as quickly as we can.”

“Searching,” JARVIS replied.

“You'd think it wouldn't be too hard to locate a guy carrying Cap's shield,” Baker commented.

Steve shook his head. “He'll hide the shield. He has to know it's too noticeable; even if it wasn't my shield, a guy carrying something like that gets noticed just because it's out of the ordinary.”

Or he'll take it back to his HYDRA bosses , Tony thought but didn't say.

After Baker and Wentcuff left, Steve turned to Tony. “I need to talk to you about something,” he said. “And I want you to understand before I start that I understand how this might sound, and I don't mean to indicate that I would ever suspect you of anything, but I have to ask, for my own peace of mind.”

Tony studied Steve's face for a long moment. “JARVIS,” he said, “engage privacy mode.”

The door lock clicked, and the glass front wall of the workshop turned opaque with a soft crackling noise. “Privacy mode engaged,” JARVIS required. “All security cameras are off.”

Thank you,” Tony said. He leaned against the workbench. “What's on your mind, Steve?”

Steve sat down on the stool. “Darcy told me last night that you put a tracking device in her arm.”

Tony nodded. “I did. When she and Foster first came to the tower. They're both targets; Foster because of her work and her association with Thor, and Darcy because of her association with Foster and Thor. And now you, and the rest of us.” He paused. “Pepper has one, too,” he offered, as though it might help make things better.

Steve ran a hand through his hair, trying to work out how to say what he needed to say. “The thing is,” he said, then stopped. He stood up and paced for a minute, then tried again. “The thing is. Those carriers that SHIELD was building. With the satellites and Zola's algorithm. And now there's a bug in Darcy's arm, and you're using surveillance cameras to hunt for Bucky. And I'm...”

Tony nodded, understanding. “You're uncomfortable with the implied invasion of your privacy?” he asked.

Yeah, I think so,” Steve said. “JARVIS is one thing, but...”

Tony nodded. “I understand. And in part, I agree with you. I think there's a hell of a lot of surveillance that goes on these days that's unnecessary and intrusive. Am I above using it for my own means? No, I'm not. One of the things I've learned fighting the guys we fight against is that you use any means necessary as long as you're not selling your soul in the process. In this case, it feels to me like turning their own tools against them. And there's a line there that I won't cross; I'm not peeking inside people's houses, or their brains, the way Zola's algorithm did. I'm asking JARVIS to look at people's faces in public and tell me not what they're doing, but only if he sees one who matches Bucky's description.”

Steve nodded. He could accept that. “And Darcy?”

Tony held up a finger. “I really think that's a conversation you should be having with her. But I will say this. I gave Darcy a choice on the tracking devices. I have several types, and most of them masquerade as jewelry of some kind. She opted for the implanted one, because she thought it would help her feel safer. There are very strict parameters under which the implant gets activated, her usual movements are not tracked, and if she ever decides she wants it out, I can have it out of her in under five minutes.”

Steve chewed his lip, considering Tony's words. Finally he nodded. “I think you're right,” he said. “This is definitely something I should be talking to her about. I feel like there's a rant about paternalism and masculine posturing waiting on me if she ever finds out I said anything to you about this.”

Tony laughed. “I know there is,” he replied. “And it's super effective. You'll go from zero to emasculated before she even gets the words 'Gloria Steinem' out of her mouth.”

You've got to admit, she's got a point about some things,” Steve said easily. “Not that that means I have to like it.” He shook his head. “Sometimes I wonder how we ended up together. We're so different; we'd never work on paper.”

Maybe that's why,” Tony suggested. When Steve cocked an eyebrow at him, he continued. “On paper, Pep and I don't work either. We're both workaholics, with the added bonus of spending a lot of time on opposite coasts. Our personalities are completely different, and mine comes with added PTSD and assorted other issues, and you have to know I drive her up a wall at least three times a day. On a good day. There have been times, Stevie-boy, when I have thought to myself that if I had to hear her say my name one more time in that tone that lets me know just how disappointed she is in me, I'd cheerfully hand myself over to HYDRA.” He paused, then shook his head. “But then there are times when everything's quiet, and she looks at me, and I just...” He swallowed and looked away. “I don't know what I'd do if she ever decided I wasn't worth the trouble any more.”

Steve reached out and squeezed Tony's shoulder warmly. “I know exactly what you mean,” he said simply.

That afternoon, while JARVIS continued to run facial recognition scans through all of the public video feeds he could access in the D.C. Area, the team gathered in the main common room to discuss the situation. Darcy had spent the morning giving Thor a crash course in HYDRA, and he was as anxious as the rest of the team to develop some kind of plan of action.

Unfortunately, no one really had any idea what to do.

They opened the brief by introducing Sam to everyone - he'd already met about half the team, but this was more formal. Sam explained his skill set, with some input from Tony about the wingsuit and its capabilities. When Natasha commented easily that the team could always use more air support, though, he actually looked startled. “Wait, is this me actually joining the Avengers?” he asked. “I thought I was just coming in as backup on the Bucky thing.”

This is us formally inviting you to join,” Steve replied. “Like Natasha said, we can always use more air support. And you've more than proved yourself in battle. We want you, if you'll have us.”

There are pretty awesome perks,” Tony added, a slight but obvious wheedle in his tone. “You get an apartment here and access to all the fun stuff.”

Of course, there's drawbacks,” Clint added, settling back in his chair. “Thor, Steve, Nat, and Bruce are all superpowered. That comes with super healing and all kinds of other fun perks. Tony's got a suit of armor. You've got... wings.”

Sam bristled. “Yeah? Well, what have you got?”

Clint leaned forward. “That's my point. When those aliens came out of the sky, I'm the one that got compromised, and I'm the one that spent three weeks afterward limping everywhere I went and wheezing through cracked ribs. These assholes?” He waved a hand. “Tony had some bruises, but everybody else was up and at 'em by the third day . My point is, Sam, you gotta weigh the pros and the cons. Yeah, there's some pretty awesome pros, but for non-amped normals like me and you, there's some pretty heavy cons that come with it.”

Sam leaned back, rubbing at his chin and studying Clint's face. “You got a point,” he admitted. “But man, I can't just... sit back and do nothing. Not knowing this stuff's going on right under my nose like that. It's like Edmund Burke said. 'All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.' And I may not be amped, but I can't just sit around and do nothing.”

Bruce smiled. “Welcome to the team.”

After that, not much got accomplished. HYDRA hadn't actually done anything yet - they appeared to still be extremely disorganized. But Tony was able to present some interesting information that gave the team hope. “There appears to be some coordinated resistance from within SHIELD itself,” he said. “I've been doing some digging. Most of my lines in got severed when the Triskellion burned, but I had some on the main helicarrier - the one that's still in the air - and I've had bots doing all the data-mining I could since Natasha called with the news. SHIELD had more facilities than just that one; there's a Hub somewhere that seems to be their main back-end location, but it's classified level 10 and I haven't located it yet. Wherever it is, there was apparently a hell of an uprising there. They reported quite a lot of casualties, but in the end - according to the data, anyway - apparently HYDRA lost.”

He paused. “What's really interesting,” he said, “is what I found on the security footage.” He looked around the table at them. “Before I show you this, I want to address the obvious questions that are going to be the first ones out of everyone's mouth. No, this is not a joke. No, it's not a trick. This footage is authentic. It came off the servers this morning, and I've only been sitting on it because I wanted everyone together before I dropped this tactical nuke.”

Natasha growled. “For the love of God, Stark, just spit it out.”

Tony said, “JARVIS, would you please play that footage from earlier?”

The holoscreen on the wall lit up, and everyone except Sam came out of their seats, staring in shock at the clear video footage of a very much alive Phil Coulson, in the Hub, fighting against HYDRA agents in hand-to-hand combat.

***

The dog was still there when the creeping fingers of dawn began to slide across the sky. It wagged its tail at him when he sat up and scrubbed at his face with his right hand. He looked down at it. Huh , he thought again. Then he rubbed at the dog's head. It seemed to like that, so he did it again. The dog panted, and then whined, nosing at the shield bag. There was no more food in the bag, though.

He stood up, brushing grass and dirt off his clothes, and started walking back toward the truck stop where he'd been left off the previous night. The dog followed.

The parking lot was busy this morning, so he skirted its edge, mindful that the dog could be hurt. There was a sign on the restaurant door that said NO PETS, so he pushed the dog back when he opened the door, leaving it outside. He went up to the counter and slid onto a stool, studying the menu. The sheer number of options was terrifying. He stared at the words on the menu until they all blurred together in his head, a whirlwind of choices that he wasn't prepared for.

And then, quite suddenly, there was a waitress standing in front of him with an impatient expression on her face. He realized that she must have been standing there for at least a few moments, and he had not responded. He said, “I'm sorry.”

Her face shifted from annoyance to a busy tiredness. “No worries,” she said. “What can I get for you?”

I, um.” He looked down at the menu again, swallowing hard. Helplessly he pointed at one of the pictures - a thick cheeseburger with french fries. “That, please,” he said.

Anything to drink?”

That, he knew. “Coffee.”

She nodded. “Do you want to eat here, or take it to go?”

He looked around at the restaurant, which was getting crowded. “To go,” he said finally. She nodded and started to walk away when he caught a glimpse of something out of the corner of his eye. Through the window, he could see the dog. It was sitting nearby, watching the door. Waiting for him. His hand went out, almost on autopilot, catching her attention again. She raised an eyebrow, and he said, “Actually. Two sandwiches. Please.” She raised the other eyebrow, but didn't ask; she just nodded, turned, and shouted his food at the short-order cook.

He turned in his seat, watching the dog while he waited for his food. The dog had lain down in the grass at the edge of the parking lot, and was watching the door, patiently waiting. For him. He wasn't sure how he felt about that, so he decided not to think about it. He turned back to watch the short-order cook making his hamburgers. They were assembled quickly, thick with brown meat, bright green lettuce, purple-edged onions, brilliant red tomatoes. The french fries came out of the grease and they were perfectly golden, lying around the hamburgers in their boxes. Duller green pickle spears went in next, and the boxes were closed, stacked, stuck into a plastic bag.


The waitress brought them to him, along with a large styrofoam cup full of coffee. He handed her a twenty-dollar bill. She offered him change, but he waved it off, taking his food in his hands. “Thank you,” he said to her. Then he turned and left the restaurant.

The dog came trotting up to him as soon as he came outside, almost like it knew him. He felt his lips stretch a little bit in something that might have been a smile. The dog nosed at the bag in his hand, whuffing and panting and wagging its tail, and he crossed the parking lot again, heading to a wide open area where buses and RVs parked. There was a picnic table near the air machine, and nobody was sitting at it. He claimed it and opened up the boxes of food. He took the vegetables off the dog's hamburger and transferred half of the dog's french fries into his own box. Then he put the dog's box on the ground and they both ate greedily.

When they had both finished, he picked up the boxes and put them back in the plastic bag. Then he drank his coffee, enjoying the chance to simply sit there, stroking the dog's head. When the coffee was finished, he carried all the trash to the trash can. Then he started across the parking lot once more, heading for the highway.

He was almost there when a small blue pickup truck pulled off in front of him. The man driving it was very large, bald, with black skin. He leaned out of the open window and said, “Need a lift?”

Yes.”

Where you headed?”

New York.”

The man jerked a thumb at the bed of the truck. “Dog rides in the back,” he said.

He lowered the truck's tail gate and pointed. The dog jumped up, turned around several times, and then lay down. He closed the bed of the truck, then walked around and climbed into the cab. “Thank you,” he said.

No problem, man. Seen you sitting over there feeding your dog and I thought you looked like a man who could use a hand getting someplace.” The man pulled his truck back out and onto the highway. “You goin' into the city itself?”

He nodded. “Avengers' Tower,” he said simply.

The driver laughed. “Tony Stark's huge dick,” he said, laughing at his own joke. “Lucky for you, man, I'm heading damn near right past there. I'm heading into Harlem, myself.”

He worried, for a moment. This man was jovial, cheerful, talkative. Would he have to talk back? He'd managed well enough with the waitress, but this was much more than just ordering breakfast. Talking was still very hard. Fortunately, it turned out that this was not the case; the cheerful man kept up a steady stream of monologue - his family, his work, his children, his neighbors, those damn kids that hung out down on the corner rapping all the time - and required little more than occasional affirmative noises to indicate that he still had an audience.

A little over two hours later, the blue truck pulled onto a side street in Harlem and the driver cut the engine. “You know where you're headed from here?” he asked. “How to get there, I mean.”

There was a moment of thought before he replied, “No.”

The driver grinned. “Go three blocks that direction,” he said, pointing. “Then turn right on Madison. It's way down past Central Park, but by the time you get to the top of the park, you'll be able to see it. Hell, you can't hardly miss it. Gigantic monument to Tony Stark's ego, with a huge-ass A on the side of it.”

He nodded, unbuckling his seat belt and climbing out of the truck's cab. The dog whined at him until he lowered the tailgate to let it scramble out. He turned back to the man who'd brought him all this way. “Thank you,” he said. He was surprised at how many times he'd said those two words over the last three days, and how much he meant them. They were starting to roll off his tongue very easily.

The bald man smiled at him. “You're welcome,” he said. “Good luck to you, man.”

He nodded, then he turned and headed toward Madison Avenue. The dog trotted along at his side, the shield bumped gently at his hip. The city buzzed with life around him. People crowded the sidewalks; cars filled the streets. Nobody noticed him, which he liked a lot. He turned right on Madison, as instructed, and blinked at the sight.

He wouldn't have to wait until he reached the park; he could see Avengers' Tower from there. It wasn't the tallest building around, but it was pretty close, and the distinctive A on the side of the building was unmistakable. He nodded to himself, put his head down, and walked.

Near midafternoon, he got lunch from a food truck in the shadow of Avengers' Tower. He and the dog retreated to a nearby park to eat, and he managed to relax enough, in the bright sunshine and with the dog lying beside him, to doze off for about half an hour. Though he didn't sleep deeply - that would be incredibly stupid - he felt refreshed when he opened his eyes, and he scratched the dog's head as he sat there, staring up at the tower.

He wondered if the man in the blue suit was inside. He wondered if the man in the blue suit would come out. He wondered

(bucky?

who the hell is bucky?)

if he went inside and asked for him, if he showed someone the shield, if they would get the man for him and make him come. He sat there until night fell, wondering. As the sun faded out of the sky, he got up and started looking for a safe place to spend the night.

Ironically enough, he found what he was looking for at the foot of the tower itself: a maintenance alcove of some kind, set a few steps down, with a door that had been left ajar by some careless worker. He slipped in and the dog followed him, and the two of them curled up together, his back against the door. With the dog's head on his hip and the sound of machinery running above him, he slept.

When he woke the next morning, he and the dog slipped back out again, moving carefully to avoid detection. He bought them both breakfast from a food truck, and he wandered slowly around the foot of the tower, studying it carefully.

There was no way the man in the blue suit would come out the front door; it was swarming with people, and some of them had cameras and microphones. One side of the building, where he had slept, had no outside access at all. The entrance at the back of the building let into a parking garage; there would undoubtedly be movement there, but it wouldn't help him. The fourth side, though, was very interesting indeed.

Like the maintenance hatch where he'd slept the previous night, this door was set down into the ground and looked unassuming. But there was something about it that said, to his practiced eye, that it got used. He wandered up the block a little ways, looking for someplace to sit; he found the mouth of an alley and made himself an unassuming lump on the ground. The dog flopped down next to him, clearly unconcerned.

He watched the door.

Around midmorning, it opened. A well-built man with short blond hair came out. He was followed by a slender black man with a goatee. He recognized that man; that man had been on the helicarrier, wearing some kind of rocket pack with wings. He remembered fighting that man, kicking him off the helicarrier and into the air. He was glad to see that the man appeared unhurt. He didn't like to think about hurting people.

(you're my mission)

The two men walked away from the tower together, chatting amiably about something. Sometime later, they came back again, carrying bags and boxes of food. They went back into the tower the same way they'd come out.

If the man with the wings was there, the man with the blue suit was there also. He was certain of it.

He watched the door.

Around midafternoon, he left his spot and walked to the nearest food vendor. This time it was hot dogs, and he got two with everything for himself and two plain for the dog. He returned to the alley. He and the dog ate. He watched the door.

It was almost dark when the door opened again. This time, a small, curvy brunette woman came out. She was talking animatedly about something to someone behind her, and when the two of them reached the street level, he felt his breathing stop for just a moment.

(that man on the bridge. who was he?)

He watched the man in the blue suit - now a man in a green tee shirt and blue jeans - wrap his arm around the brunette's shoulders. She leaned into his touch, her arm coming up to wrap around his waist. The two of them started up the street. He waited for them to get almost out of sight, and then he followed, the dog at his side and the shield bumping against his hip.