"Christ, what a mess," said Tony, dropping down onto the couch next to Pepper and handing her a whiskey. "We've confirmed what Sitwell said, by the way," he said to Natasha. "Bruce was on the HYDRA list."
Natasha sat back and swirled her drink, noting absently that it was funny how she no longer had any problem thinking of Jasper Sitwell as a traitor. Maybe that was one advantage of having had to rehash the tale ad nauseam at the hearings for the last couple of weeks - as well as dealing with all the other revelations about who was rotten at SHIELD.
"Bruce, Stephen Strange, Reed Richards - a lot of people," said Pepper. "Came within seconds of getting them, too."
Bruce nodded grimly, fingers tight around his glass. Pepper gave him a worried glance.
"And using tech I gave them, the bastards," Tony muttered. He shook his head and took a sip of his drink. "I'm a little insulted that I wasn't on it too, to be honest. And I still can't quite believe Sitwell was rotten. Though finding out about my best friend in the Senate was a pleasant surprise." He gave Natasha a wry grin. "So. You've given the finger to the powers that be, you've destroyed a pretty serious amount of property, and SHIELD is in shambles." He glanced around at the gathered group. "I'd say the Avengers Initiative as we know it is done for. What now?"
"Don't think there's a big change for you two," said Clint, perched on the arm of Natasha's chair and nodding at Tony and Bruce. "Not like SHIELD was your permanent gig. It's me, Natasha and Steve who are screwed on the careers front."
"You know Maria Hill's already taken us up on the offer of a job at SI," Pepper pointed out. "The rest of you can certainly—"
"Clint and I will be fine," said Natasha. It wasn't like they were hard up for cash, after all. And they had HYDRA rats to help Fury track down, and an agency to help build back, if such a thing was possible. All sorts of things to do. "We'll let you know if we need your help."
"Cap?" asked Tony. "Any solid plans for the future yet? Or is the plan still to go after Barnes, like Natasha said?"
"That's still the plan," said Steve.
"You and flyboy here?" Tony asked, glancing at Sam, who nodded.
Natasha pursed her lips. “I told you that you might not want to unravel that thread.”
"I have to."
Tony exchanged a glance with Bruce, then leaned forward. "Listen, Rogers," he began, then paused. "Steve, I... I get that you have an overdeveloped sense of duty and all, but I think there might be bigger problems going on right now than trying to track down one old friend who--"
"I have to,” Steve said through a clenched jaw. He put his untasted drink on the coffee table beside him.
Tony frowned, then turned to Sam. "Can't you talk sense into him?"
Sam shook his head. "Probably not. Haven't tried real hard."
“Steve, there are a few things you need to think about,” Natasha said. “Your friend probably doesn't have a command structure right now. That could be devastating - and dangerous for somebody like him."
"Doesn't that mean that he needs to be found, before he does any harm?"
"He's already done plenty of harm, Steve," Clint said bluntly.
"More harm, I mean."
"Are you really the best person to track him down though?" asked Clint. "And take him in? He's your friend. That's gonna affect how you think of him. It already has."
"The other possibility is that he may be harmless," said Natasha. Steve narrowed his eyes at her and she had the distinct impression that he thought she was full of shit and was too polite to say so. "Without somebody to give him orders, he could just be wandering around."
"And you know what else is going on right now with SHIELD, and how serious it is," said Clint. "We could use your help."
"Either way, the authorities will be looking for him,” Bruce pointed out. "It's not like you're the only one who's gonna want to find him."
"You know, HYDRA may be looking for him too," said Tony. "Whoever's left of them—if they haven't found him already. He's a weapon, and they lost a lot of them recently."
"I've thought of that.” Steve stood up, nervous energy radiating off of him.
Natasha winced in sympathy. Not that she really thought any of them had a chance talking him out of going after the Winter Soldier, but they had to make the effort—an effort that couldn't be easy for Steve to listen to.
"Getting between HYDRA and what they want hasn't done wonders for your health so far," Tony continued. "Don't get me wrong, we're all glad you did it - especially Bruce and all the other targets on that list—but... for one guy?"
Steve faced them all squarely, and Natasha could see the stubbornness that was such an integral part of him stiffening his spine. “You're telling me Bucky may be very harmful because he's disoriented, and it'll be dangerous for me to try to find him because I'm too involved. Or he may be harmless and there's no need to waste time trying to find him. Or the remnants of HYDRA will be trying to get him, which makes it even more dangerous for me to get him."
There were general nods all around.
"All of which are reasons why I have to go," said Steve flatly. "If he's a loose cannon, somebody needs to find him, and I don't want it to be people who want to just... put him down. If he's disoriented and harmless, it's even more important that he be found by someone who gives a damn whether he lives or dies." Steve swallowed. "And if HYDRA's looking for him, we have to get him first."
"You keep saying 'we' but you mean 'me,'" said Tony grimly. "I just don't think you're the best choice to do this. You're too close, you still see him as your good buddy. He's not that any more."
"I don't think we know what he is any more," said Steve quietly.
Clint spoke up. "If he's on autopilot and there's nothing left of who he used to be, I can tell you one thing. The man he was would want you to put him down before he hurts anybody else."
Natasha swallowed and reached over to entwine her fingers with Clint's.
Clint squeezed her fingers gently, but didn't meet her gaze. “Living with what he did will be hell. You sure you wanna wish that on him?"
Steve took a deep breath.
"He's not wrong about that, Steve," Sam said. "Even if you get him back, even if you can contain him, it may not be possible for him to ever be who he used to be."
"Did you read the file on him?" Natasha asked Sam.
Sam nodded. "We both did. Bucky was tortured. His mind was wiped. He was used as a weapon." He gazed at Steve, his eyes full of compassion. "You don't just walk back from that, Steve. He's not gonna be the good buddy you knew."
Steve's Adam's apple bobbed. "I know." He shook his head. "I can't - I know what was done to him. And I know he may not be able to recover. But I can't... I can't leave him that way."
"How close were you, before?" asked Tony. Steve's eyebrows went up. "Yeah, I know what the Smithsonian says, but I also know how PR works. Were you really friends?"
“He was my best friend,” he said stiffly.
"Not one of those 'we just happened to grow up together, never could stand the guy, but it's good for the Cap image' things?"
Steve scowled. "No. Why would you think—"
Tony held up his hands. "Hey, I've seen what spin doctors can do when you give them free rein. And you were both gone and ripe for becoming the stuff of patriotic legend."
"He was my best friend," Steve repeated firmly. "And he deserves better than to be hunted down like a rabid dog.”
"If he was your best friend, you want what's best for him," said Clint. "You want to protect him, right? Well, the best way to protect him may mean letting other people find him. Wilson's right. That kind of trauma... your pal may not be able to survive it, even if you can save his life. Someone who's not you might just want to put him down, and that might be the best thing for him."
"I can't accept that."
"I know exactly what I'm talking about, dude," Clint said, his voice grim. "Do you know how many lives I was responsible for?"
“I… I know—"
"Some days I'm still not sure Nat made the right call with me, Steve," he said, and Natasha wondered if the rest of them could hear the pain behind those words. "And it's been a couple years."
"I'm sure she made the right call. And I wanna make that call for Bucky." Steve swallowed. "He was a hero. He deserves... everything. He deserves anything I can give him."
Clint blew out his breath and looked at Sam. "Have you even tried to talk him out of this?"
Sam chuckled. "Nope. I know better."
Natasha let go of Clint's hand and sat back, giving up. Well, it had been a long shot anyway. "All right. It's your decision. You're going to do what you think is right, no matter what."
"Pretty much," Steve said, giving her a small smile.
"It's what people admire about you," she said, and smiled back at him.
There was a small pause.
"You know, on the plus side, this'll make the fangirls wet themselves, if they ever find out,” Tony said with a smirk.
Clint snorted. Bruce rolled his eyes.
"The what?” Steve asked.
"The fangirls," said Tony. "There's a slightly disturbed sector of society that's pretty obsessed with you—with all of us, really."
Steve rolled his eyes. "Celebrity culture. Right."
"Well, a bunch of your personal fangirls are pretty obsessed with your past. You and Bucky, your best friend. All sorts of theories that your friendship was... closer than anybody knew.”
Steve blinked, confused. “Closer?”
"You know, more than brotherly? The love that dared not speak its name?" Steve's face went blank and Tony snickered. "You should really patent that look of ‘Your Century Baffles Me’.” He leaned forward. "They think you were having sex," he said clearly and slowly. "As in, with each other."
Steve stared at him.
"Oh, relax, Cap, it's just for fun—“ Tony began, and Pepper put a hand on his, cutting him off.
“Tony, now isn’t the time,” she said impatiently. “Steve, they don't mean anything by it.”
“Yeah, no,” said Tony. “It’s just... subversion of traditional masculine archetypes or something. Hell, there are a lot of fangirls who think we're doing the deed."
Pepper elbowed him and Steve's mouth dropped open. Natasha suppressed a snicker.
Tony rolled his eyes. "Wow, I think he just got paler. I'm gonna take the opportunity to feel insulted. It might be a good idea not to tell anyone how shocked and appalled you are at their modern lack of morals; most of them just think you're hot, and wanna think about you with another hot guy. It's not a big deal.”
Steve sat back down unsteadily.
"Are you all right?" asked Clint, hiding a bit of a smirk.
"They talk about this for fun? They think it's... sexy?"
"It's just a joke, Cap."
"Come on, it's not an insult—" Tony began, rolling his eyes.
"It's not an insult," Steve interrupted, his voice tight. "But it's not a joke, either."
"Are you all right?" Natasha said, feeling a slight pang of alarm at Steve's ashen face.
Steve met her gaze and she sat up slightly, uneasy. His eyes were wide and haunted, and she exchanged a puzzled glance with Sam.
"Do you know what happened to soldiers in my time when they were... together, like that?" Steve asked, his voice hushed.
"They were kicked out?" said Clint. "Steve, nobody really thinks—“
"It was called a blue discharge," said Steve. "It went on your permanent record; everyone knew what it meant. You could never hold your head up again; you were a pervert, couldn't say you'd been in the army, couldn't say..." he trailed off. Natasha's brows drew together. No, hang on, he couldn't mean... "We were together. Me and Bucky," Steve said, and the room went absolutely still.
Sam finally broke the silence. "Um." He cleared his throat. "You mean..."
"For ten years, since we were kids. And when the army found out, they didn't think it was cute or sexy or fun to talk about. They—“ he swallowed, putting a hand on his eyes.
"Steve," Natasha whispered, shock swiftly giving way to a sick feeling in her stomach. God, outed in the US Army, during the War - Steve's jaw worked for a moment, and then he went on.
"He - we were arrested, and they put him in handcuffs, fucking handcuffs," said Steve, and his voice was hoarse. Tony looked horrified now, and Clint's eyes were wide with disbelief. "Handcuffs, for loving me. It wasn't cute. It wasn’t—“ his voice broke.
"Steve," Natasha repeated, and had no idea what else to say, and Clint's hand stole into hers again. Jesus Christ. She squeezed his fingers, appalled, watching Steve's tightly controlled body language, his pain almost palpable around him.
Bruce shook his head, his own features paler. "I... we had no idea. I'm so sorry."
Steve shook his head again. "It - it's not, it's not funny. It's not. You have no idea." He lowered his hands and stared at the floor, lips pressed together.
"How did - wait, how come none of this is anywhere?" asked Clint. "SHIELD has records of everything about you. How did we not know this?"
"We all agreed to never tell anyone," said Steve dully. "I tried to resign, but Colonel Phillips, he said they couldn't afford to let me - and he forced the Commandos to keep it quiet. Me and Bucky had to promise to never - and the men, they..." suddenly Steve swallowed and his eyes filled with tears. "We - we had to stay away from each other, like we hadn't tried over and over and over again--" he blinked rapidly. "We had to - we'd tried so fucking hard, before, to..." He took a deep, shaking breath.
Even when I had nothing, I had Bucky, he'd said, Natasha recalled. Damn it. She'd thought he meant childhood friendship, brotherhood - she'd never suspected anything like this.
"You'd tried to stay apart?" asked Pepper. "Why?"
Steve gave a short shaky laugh. "I loved him," he said, his voice soft. "I loved him too much to just let him be gossiped about, or beaten up, or looked down on. Or have him be single all his life. He deserved - he deserved everything I couldn't give him. A family, respect--" he cleared his throat. "And after the men knew, at first it was everything I'd ever been afraid of. But then... then after a while Bucky started to talk about maybe not hiding any more. Actually staying together, after the War. And then... then he was gone." He swallowed and a tear spilled over. He wiped it away impatiently. "I have to find him. I have to try to help him."
"Of course you do," said Bruce. "What can we do?"
"You're gonna need a place to bring him, after you find him," said Clint. "You can't let SHIELD get their hands on him - or the Armed Forces, if they keep taking over all SHIELD operations."
Natasha shuddered. "They'll want to extract every piece of information they can from him. And that's assuming it's SHIELD or the Armed Forces in charge and not HYDRA."
"Bring him here," said Tony, and Pepper nodded, and Natasha noted her own eyes were a little red. "We can set up something, some kind of secure facility in the Tower. Nobody but us will know he's here."
"He's probably gonna need massive amounts of therapy," said Sam. "Stark, you got people you trust? Like, really good shrinks?"
"We have a few, on staff," said Pepper. "I'll go over their files myself and find some we can trust."
"I have some contacts too," said Natasha. "Some people who can help deprogram. I'll look over his file, see what we might need. A lot of what he does is unreal; he's probably had a combination of chemical, implants, conditioning..." she frowned, her mind racing. What would be left of the man Steve had known and loved? How would Steve, still so pure and moral despite everything he'd seen, deal with what they'd find? How would--
No. Time for that after they found Barnes.
"Do you mind if I read over his file too?" asked Bruce.
Steve stared at them all. "What... what are you talking about?" He wiped his eyes impatiently. "Why are you..."
"We're going to help," said Clint.
"But - why?"
Tony and Pepper blinked at him, confused.
"Why wouldn't we?"
"You were all telling me why I should leave this to somebody else—”
"Steve. Dude." Tony leaned toward him. "Listen, it's a little different thean thinking you're going to go self-sacrificing for some guy you knew out of a sense of obligation or whatever. I thought he was just... you know, your army buddy. Who's a little brainwashed-assassiny right now, and you were maybe doing some guilt trip where you think it's your fault one of your men was left behind or, something army, I dunno." He paused. "This is different. This is... this is your childhood sweetheart we're talking about." Steve's eyes widened and his mouth silently repeated childhood sweetheart. "Your other half, and all that. I know if it was Pepper..." he trailed off, glancing at Pepper, his gaze softening momentarily. "I wouldn't stop until I found her and she was OK. You won't either."
Steve crossed his arms. ”What about ‘we've got bigger responsibilities?'"
"We do," Natasha agreed. "And we're going to do something about them. But you won't be able to help us until he's all right, so we might as well help you, so you can join us as soon as possible."
Steve stood up again and glanced around at the group. He opened his mouth, then closed it and ran a nervous hand through his hair.
Sam spoke up. "Steve... are you all right?"
Steve shrugged helplessly and paused, seeming to reach for words. "Uh... disoriented," he finally said, his voice low. "I - I know things aren't the same now. But." He swallowed and glanced over the group again. "This is so different. People finding out and offering more help, not less, because we're - because we were together."
"Well, welcome to the 21st century then," said Tony dismissively. "A lot's changed. Hopefully you can find him and get him un-assassined and you can live happily ever after. Might even be able to make an honest man out of him; New York's got gay marriage now, in case you didn't get that memo."
Steve's mouth fell open. "I - that's not, I'm not looking for him because of - he doesn't even know me." He paused. "He almost killed me. Twice."
"There's something there," said Natasha. "He remembered something. He knew you enough to pull you out of the water."
Steve nodded doubtfully.
"All right." Sam put down his drink and stood up, approaching Steve and clapping him on the shoulder. "What are we waiting for? Let's get to work, and figure out how to find your guy."