Steve knew better than to ask Natasha about her sources.
Perhaps she did not actually know everything, but she was certainly good at pretending she did, and sometimes it was not entirely clear just how she could have come by such knowledge. However, Steve knew by now that if it was important that he knew her sources, she would tell him, and if it was not, no amount of asking would get her to reveal them anyway. He wasn't about to accuse her of being mysterious on purpose, but he trusted she at least didn't mind cultivating such a reputation.
Even so, he came awfully close to questioning her at length whan she showed up out of nowhere, complete with a new and functioning set of wings for Sam, and announced they would have to cut their search for Bucky short because there was trouble brewing in New York.
Sam had no such compunctions, trying to drill her for more details the whole way back to the city. She was somewhat tightlipped, but did tell them that said trouble was not an immediate threat, but nevertheless something that required their presence at the moment. Bucky wasn't going anywhere, she claimed, which was absolute bullshit but Steve didn't call her on it, because whatever he might have liked to think, he was starting to suspect they wouldn't find Bucky before he was ready to be found. And when he was, he would more likely seek them out than the other way around. That was an important part of the skillset of the Winter Soldier, after all.
He refused to think of Bucky as such, though.
So something was going on, except it wasn't a threat, but they had to be there anyway. It wasn't as much information as he would have liked, but it was good enough for now. Maybe the distraction would be good for him, he mused. Then they'd get back on trail with fresh eyes and maybe have more luck this time. And if whatever it was Natasha was hiding from them had something to do with HYDRA, Bucky might well show up just for that.
Of course, he hadn't counted on crossing the Brooklyn Bridge only to arrive in the middle of a literal avalanche of bouncing rubber balls the size of watermelons. Very large watermelons.
Natasha looked equally surprised at least, as much as she ever showed any emotion whatsoever. She was driving at the moment, only barely managing to dodge an incoming wave, bringing the car to a stop. "Better get out of here," she said, hand reaching into her pocket. "I'd rather not get crushed to death in a car."
Steve and Sam, agreeing with her point, got out of the car as well and followed her inside the closest building. People were seeking shelter, they noticed, waiting for someone to fix the mess. The balls battered against the walls, but so far none of them seemed to have figured out the art of breaking through a door.
"Damn it. If this is the trouble you were talking about, I'd have appreciated a little warning." Sam was strapping his wing pack on, ignoring the curious gazes of an elderly lady who had escaped the rubber avalanche as well.
"This isn't exactly what I had in mind, no." Natasha dug out her phone. Steve had already done the same, looking for news coverage. "Though I suppose this will soon lead to the revelation of my little secret."
"Is your secret going to get us all killed?" Sam's tone was almost conversational. He didn't believe she would literally be the death of them, no, but he seemed to be acknowledging the definite possibility.
"More likely? It'll be the only thing that saves us from this mess." There was a small ping, and Natasha looked back at her phone. "Falcon. Can you make it to Stark Tower?"
"Depends on whether I can find it. This isn't exactly my usual neck of the woods."
"Middle of Manhattan, big and arrogant. Has his name on the side, you can't miss it."
"Hm. I'll make it there one way or another, though making the final climb might be tricky." He nodded. "You need me to do something?"
"Yes. Rendezvous with Hawkeye there, then get him to position. We'll have reinforcements by then, but he's never going to let me hear the end of it if he misses the fun."
"Right. And how am I going to recognize the guy?"
"Blond hair, sunglasses, probably wearing black. Oh, and he'll be carrying a bow and a quiver, you can't miss him."
Sam nodded again and headed further into the building, doubtlessly planning to get a good start from the roof. Steve, meanwhile, turned towards Natasha. "Reinforcements?"
"They'll be here soon enough." She drew a couple of guns from somewhere he couldn't fathom. "Let's go and make sure nobody gets trampled until then."
There really wasn't much they could do about the balls, so they concentrated their efforts on getting civilians out of the way, as much as they could. Steve was busy leading a lady with her two children to safety, his shield braced against the constant barrage, when something flew overhead, much too fast to be Sam. Then there was a blast of blinding light, and Steve closed his eyes by reflex.
When he opened them again, he found himself looking at something that gleamed in tones of red and gold, metal shining in the sunshine. Beneath the apparition the remains of a few rubber balls sizzled on the pavement.
"Well, that's a relief. I was kind of worried that wouldn't help." Iron Man hovered in the air for a moment, then suddenly turned towards him. "All right, Cap?"
"Ah, yes." He nudged the frozen lady, who thankfully recovered quickly and ushered her children into the nearest store now that the rubber rain had stopped for a moment. "I thought you quit."
"So did I. Imagine my surprise when I realized I had built another suit. Honestly, it shocked me more than anyone, no matter what Pepper says. I must have been sleep-building again, that's the only explanation, no other way. Came pretty handy when we heard about the sudden invasion of far too many balls to handle, though."
"I, ah. Good to see you here?" He didn't expect it to come out as quite as much of a question. "We have a plan?"
"Not as such, containment's the key right now. Hulk's over there, it seems splatting them with enough force drops them. I'm supposed to keep burning them; Widow's seeking out the origin point so we can figure out what the hell's going on. You're on crowd control, which, great, you're doing pretty great there."
"Wait, Widow? You've been in contact with Natasha?"
"Well, obviously. Why'd you think she came looking for you when Pepper found out about the suit? Don't get in her way if you see her, by the way. These damn things interrupted one of her very rare days off and I don't think she'll care what kind of balls she's burning if you get in her way."
Steve was embarrassed enough by the crude comment that he actually hadn't realized the full implications of Tony's words until Iron Man had flown off. He knew who Pepper Potts was, had found out when he had searched for more information about Tony. She was the CEO of SI, possibly Tony's girlfriend, definitely one of his very few friends. The intimidating Pepper Potts with her high heels and terrifying efficiency.
How exactly was she supposed to be burning anything?
He really should have stopped asking questions, Steve decided a few blocks further, where he ran into a very beautiful and very angry redhead currently in the process of melting rubber balls left and right. Apparently mere contact with her hand was enough to cause the balls to disintegrate.
He'd have to ask about that later. For now, he had better things to worry about.
Things such as the Hulk, indeed roaming the streets, thankfully focusing more on the rubber balls than anything else. He seemed to be having fun, if that could be believed, chasing the balls and squishing them between his huge hands like a child might run after soap bubbles. It certainly seemed to take as little effort. Then there was Hawkeye, too, or at least Steve figured he was the cause of sudden explosions at random spots along one streets. Explosive arrows, he decided, that made sense. At least he hoped it did.
Eventually, though, Natasha found and disabled the device that had sent the balls moving, and the ones that hadn't been destroyed yet eventually came to a stop with no more energy running into them. The streets were a mess, and anything not shielded by walls had suffered some damage if not been crushed entirely, but other than that the damage seemed to be minimal. Steve found everyone gathering close as they watched the police carting off the would-be supervillain, and really, someone had thought this was a viable plan for world domination? Really?
"So, that was fun." Falcon flew down, carrying Hawkeye, who dropped down to the ground. "Let's do it again never."
"Oh, I don't know. It was much better than sitting around Stark's place all day." Hawkeye snorted.
"Please, Robin Hood." Tony's mask flipped open, but he was grinning. "You seem quite content to sit on your ass and abuse my home theater while flirting with my good doctor."
"Yeah, well, I don't exactly have a lot to do. In case you missed it, my primary employer collapsed in on itself, and I'm not too proud to take advantage of your hospitality. Speaking of which, I vote we get something to eat sometime soon."
"That can be arranged." Tony glanced around. "Everyone, my place? My place. We'll order take-out or something. No sense in trying to find someplace else, everyone's indoors so there's no way we'll find an empty restaurant this time, and besides I miss my home. I'd really like to remind myself that this time saving Manhattan didn't require the sacrifice of several very big and expensive windows."
"At least this time you didn't fall off a building, so I'd say that's a win." Pepper Potts was walking closer as well, fixing her hair in a neat bun. Aside from the disheveled hair, she didn't show any signs of having just been in a battle. There definitely wasn't any sign of heat boiling right under her skin, not like when Steve had seen her in action.
He definitely needed to find out what was going on.
"I'd say we take that offer," Natasha said, reaching an arm around Pepper's waist as she got close enough, and oh, that was... well. That was. "Even though I suspect that means we'll soon be subjected to Stark's rant about his latest harebrained scheme."
"You know it, beautiful." Tony threw her a grin, apparently unaffected by the sight of Natasha getting close to Pepper, even as the latter leaned in for a quick peck. "So, I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm flying. Anyone want a lift?"
Tony's harebrained scheme, it turned out, was the Avengers Initiative. A form of it, in any case. Not an enforcement team for a government organization or the World Security Council, just a group of people who were willing and able to fight the kind of threats that seemed to be popping up at an alarming frequency. People such as those gathered between the pile of pizza he had ordered, and my, wasn't that a coincidence, one could almost call it fate.
It also turned out Tony was behind Sam's new wings. Steve failed to be surprised.
He should have said no, should have refused and returned to his search for Bucky. It wasn't what he wanted, and besides, it wasn't like they needed him. It would be good for Sam, he reasoned, the man wasn't going to go back to his old peaceful life now that he had been thrust back into action, but they'd do just fine without Steve. He was done being a symbol for people he didn't know he could trust, done fighting for a cause he couldn't call his own. He had trusted SHIELD, and SHIELD had turned on him, and even if there was nobody above them calling the shots now he was reluctant to throw in his lot with people whose motivations he could not know for absolute certain.
There was Tony Stark, though, eyes bright and wild with intelligence instead of cold and contemptuous, speaking a mile a minute about his plans and ideas, and the only time the joy in his eyes dimmed even for a moment was when he watched Pepper's fingers entangle with Natasha's, but only for a moment, and then the light returned as though it had never been away. He was mad and bright and brilliant, and somewhere between seemingly countless slices of pizza Steve found himself agreeing.