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And In The Silence That Follows

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Steve was painfully, incandescently happy the day he saved Bucky Barnes.

It was hard, to remember a point in his life when he had felt such…..singular emotion. One thing, and one thing alone. Untainted. Casting out, bleaching out everything else. It was like his heart was going to shake apart in his chest.

He could feel nothing- not his scored knees from being dragged repeatedly across the deathly cold concrete floor, not his bruised shoulder blades from being smashed against the wall, not the thick, blackened blood seeping thin and constant from his nostrils, not the repulsor scorch marks over his twisted ribs.

They were silent, as they staggered outside: the cold Siberian sun shining down bright and white on their shadowed lids. The steady crunch of snow under their boots the only sound- after their eardrums had gone deaf from anguished screams and whines and fists and metal hitting metal. Then they listed suddenly to the side- adrenaline had run out and Steve’s limbs had gone weak, and Bucky tumbled over and landed butt-first in the snow.

They laughed.

Their laughter was too soft, too raspy to challenge the yawning silence of the Siberian wasteland. Yet they laughed- up and up at the sky, and Steve thought of the memory of Bucky’s hand too far for him to reach and slipping into the abyss, and felt no pain. It was like a man with a chronic illness had woken up one day to find his eyes unclouded, the fever gone, the thrice-damned pain banished as if it had never been there in the first place. It felt wonderful.

He felt his shoulders loosen, releasing the guilt of seventy years out into the thin, chilly air, and he let them fall back- let them hit the ground packed with snow and let his arms, unburdened by any weapon wave back and forth. Snow angel, he thought, giddily, and the snort from Bucky not a second later set his mirth free- again……..god. God. He’d never felt so grateful in his life.

IsavedhimIsavedhimIsavedhim-

“Captain?”

The all-too familiar word, in an almost entirely unfamiliar accent caught him off-guard, and he jerked up, eyes flying open and fixating on a black figure in the surrounding white, not five hundred metres away. The Panther stood, helm off and tucked into the crook of his shoulder, shoulders pulled back straight and tight. He looked regal against the background, but somehow Steve’s addled mind kept focusing on the unimportant things, and how ice and snow didn’t look so ugly anymore.

Not twenty metres away, Bucky stiffened- and just like that, Steve’s mind was clear: muscles curling in preparatory action, right arm rising slightly in defence (and that, was the first drop of something infiltrating the purity, the faintest sense of displacement and something not being the way it used to be and….saudade).

T’Challa’s face was worn, lines upon lines drawn upon it as if hewn on stone- but there was the slightest curve to his lips at the visible reaction.

“Allow me to help.”

~

 

The happiness was still surging, strong and sure; so much that it barely registered a blip when barely forty eight hours after they’d crawled out of Siberia alive, Bucky told him that he wanted to be put back in ice.

“I’m glad for anything you choose, Buck.” He said, hand on Bucky’s smoothened, metallic stump (it was the best even T’Challa could do, with the wires charred black and burnt to a crisp as they were…). “You’ve had that right taken away from you long enough.”

It soothed something small and raw in his chest, the sight of Bucky’s exhausted lips pulling into a smile that somehow, remotely resembled peace. The erstwhile Soldier leaned back, the chamber clicked shut, and ice puffed over the glass.

Steve smiled, and kept smiling as T’Challa reassured him that nothing could touch Bucky in here.

Then. Then.

 

Then the quiet began.

 

~

 

He jerked awake, the satin sheets sliding against the cold night sweat that soaked his limbs, lips parted in a silent scream. Sleep mocked him gleefully, beckoning him into its mindless embrace and then shoving him out, terror ringing in his ears and hands scrabbling down his chest to feel warm skin instead of cold meta-

He winced, looked down- to see callused fingers pressing into purpled skin: there was a line of deep, vividly dark bruises congealing in a thick line, neatly bisecting his chest- darkest near the heart. His eyes clenched shut almost immediately in response, but then the nightmare images came back: Obie’s bald pate, mouth snarling and flecked with spittle, short and stubby fingers stretching towards the arc reactor except then the fingers started gleaming silver and metallic and-

“Tones?”

Tony opened his eyes and looked up, and Rhodey took a step in from the doorway, and buckled. Tony’s mind went white, and he kicked the covers off while scrabbling to clamber off the bed and reach across the expansive bedroom in time. They crashed into the doorway, and Rhodey’s pained, muted whimper as they both sank to the mahogany floor; would sear and scar itself into Tony’s memory forever.

They breathed for interminable seconds, harshly, together; one from pain and one from terror. Tony cursed himself a million times for not installing FRIDAY into the Avengers facility yet- but he had wanted to keep himself distant and vaguely there while the main training was handled by Ca-

“Tony, you’re gonna leave bruises.”

His fingertips and knuckles were white, digging into Rhodey’s shoulder in a useless attempt to attain balance when they’d crumpled to the ground. He should have realised it, loosened his grip, pulled them back. He should not have glanced down at his own bare chest, a deer’s frightened twitch- where the contusions lay stark against his skin like a brand.

Rhodey’s mouth primmed itself into a forbidding line. He noticed- of course, he noticed. “The old nightmare again?”

“Yeah.” Something breathed, using his voice. Tony let his head tilt back, fall with a clunk against the door, eyes seeing things millions of lifetimes and just a couple of weeks away.

“I thought I’d left that particular one behind.”

 

~

 

“You should pick that up.”

Steve lifted his eyes, from where he’d been absentmindedly twisting the beer can cover’s metal thingy into freakish shapes, and directed an unimpressed look at Sam. The phone kept buzzing half-heartedly on the table, face down on a sticky surface that had seen god knows how many spilled fluids.

Sam raised an unimpressed brow back- Steve resented him for it, because he’d never been able to pull that particular trick. Not like he’d ever say that out loud though. It was so sneakily satisfying to let Sam think that Steve was better than him at (mostly) everything.

“You should.”

“And you should shut your gob.” Steve threw back, and hailed the bartender for another beer. They were both in dark sunglasses and baseball caps, naturally- well, Steve had been, and Sam had forewent the cap, and Steve had plopped one on his head with Sam grumbling all the way about Steve apparently buying out Target’s entire stock (he wouldn’t be entirely wrong).

There was an almost ominous silence in response to that, and Steve felt almost obliged to provide a reason (and resented Sam all the more for it), “It’s Sharon.”

“So?”

“So I’m a fugitive from justice,” Steve had to reduce his register to a whisper, but it was still rather irate for all of that, “-and she’s working for the government, and the two of us having any kind of contact could lead to suspicion falling on her and massive consequences.”

“Right.”

“That’s……all you have to say?” Steve probably should count his blessings, but Sam was being suspiciously quiet, and knowing him, it wouldn’t last long. Better sooner than later. “You’re okay with it?”

“I…..look Cap.” Sam heaved a massive, dramatic sigh and Steve’s eyes rolled before he could even begin on whatever tangent he was going to start now. “You know I got your back. You do. And when you go around kissing leggy blondes….I’m all for it. But you gotta admit, this thing with Sharon Carter is a little….”

The warmth rose to Steve’s cheeks before he was even fully conscious of it, and his tone was perhaps a little too defensive for complete truth. “A little what?”

Sam stared at him point blank, as if refusing to believe his…..moronic-ness, or some other new-fangled word for thick in the head. “It’s a little weird.”

“It’s not weird.”

“It’s weird.”

“It’s not weird.”

“It’s a little weird.”

“Its not- “ Steve darted a quick glance around for eavesdroppers, and proceeded to furiously whisper, “-weird, alright? And besides, it isn’t even happening.” The phone stopped buzzing. He folded his arms across his chest. “So there.”

Sam sighed heavily again. “Whatever you say.” Then a quick glance, down at his wrist where his watch was strapped; the third time this evening.

The irritation, the teasing, vanished as quick as if they hadn’t even been there. His tone was sober, “Somewhere you gotta be?”

“Nah.” Sam waved the question off carelessly, but his thumb fidgeted with the base of the beer can. Steve proceeded to array his features into what his friends called the ‘Captain-America-slash-Concerned-Dad’ look (well, only one person ever called it that, but Tony wasn’t arou-); and Sam breathed out a soft puff of amusement in response.

“It’s nothing. Well.” The thumb fidgeted further. The teasing tone was draining slow, but steady, from his voice. “Me and the guys, from the old unit. We used to get together, once a year, same day, drink to the guys that didn’t make it- Riley, couple of others. Grab a drink, reminisce…..you know what I mean?”

“I…yeah.” Steve’s throat was a little tight. He tried to clear it, but it didn’t quite work. “Today’s the day?”

“Yeah. 22nd Feb. Anniversary of our most successful mission. Maximum number of rescues, no casualties.” Sam smiled- it flicked in and out of existence just as quickly. “Thought it was dead depressing to do it on one of the guys’ death days, or Memorial day…y’know.”

“Of course.” It was like the affirmative words were falling out, one after the other, tripping out from Steve’s tongue- but they didn’t mean anything. “I’m…I’m sorry Sam.”

 “It’s fine, Cap.” Sam had always called him Cap more than Steve, more than almost anyone else, but now that he didn’t have the shield anymore, the nickname jarred somehow (or at least that’s what he thought the reason was). And it jarred even more now, with Sam’s eyes clouded over with memory, and the life and friends that he was being kept away from.

“You must miss your….. routine.” God, what a bonehead thing to say.

Sam shrugged loosely. “Can’t lie. I’d just renovated the kitchen at the DC ‘partment, even though I spent most of the week in the Facility. Mrs. Harris from the bakery two blocks over was nice. Always gave me free apple-and-rhubarb muffins.”

“No blueberry?” Steve asked, almost on reflex.

Sam stopped, with a strange look directed at Steve that he couldn’t parse. “No.” Then he shook his head a little, and continued. “Anyway….I guess it’s the VA I miss the most. Some of the folks there had been coming along really well.”

They’d do well without you too. Steve wanted to say, but couldn’t, because one ear couldn’t be exchanged for another- and Sam was more than a ear. He was the most empathetic person Steve had ever known, with a staggering touch for healing. It was almost cruel to keep him away from helping people.

So of course, what he ended up saying was an astoundingly unhelpful- “Maybe we can stick it out together for the night?”

“Now now, Cap. You were the one harping on how ‘it isn’t safe to have everyone under one roof’.” Sam pushed the empty can away, and stretched his arms over his head in languorous preparation. “Don’t go backsies on your own words now.”

“Right.” Sam’s words were as buoyant as ever. There was still something churning in Steve’s gut though, deep and unsettling- like once it started, it wasn’t stopping easily.

Sam appeared oblivious to that though. Or maybe he was pretending. He was kind like that, sometimes. “Besides, not like I’ve missed any kid birthdays lately.”

“Kid….” Steve began, then winced halfway. The churning deepened. “Clint missed one of the kids’ birthdays?”

“Lila.” Sam voiced, quiet and considerate. Another lightning-in-a-bottle smile. “Hey, we all make our sacrifices. Don’t beat yourself over the head for it.”

“Right.” Steve said, again. He almost wished for an actual drink rather than an empty can- it always looked so…..peaceful maybe wasn’t the word, but something like it, when a hero stared into the bottom of a drink in the pictures. Like he had found all the answers. “He should go back to the farm.”

There was an almost untenable pause at the end of that, like Sam knew what he wanted to say and didn’t know whether to say it. “Tony knows about the farm.”

“Tony wouldn’t.” Yeah, a drink would definitely be nice. Now it was less like churning, and more like cold lead was settling somewhere deep in his gut.

Another pause. Steve looked up, and Sam’s steady gaze looking back made him feel…..small, somehow. “To tell you the truth, Steve, I don’t know what any of us would or wouldn’t do anymore.”

He opened his mouth to- he didn’t know what really, but a half-spoken word from somewhere else sparked his attention. Maybe if the conversation topic had been different, he wouldn’t have caught it; but under the circumstances, the almost inaudible drone from the screen atop the bar pricked his eardrums unerringly-

“-ny Stark met with the Chinese foreign minister to ease out some final wrinkles with the Accords, in a step that rang out assurance for all Asian powers that were concerned about ‘superheroes’ being too Western-centric-“

Steve looked up. Tony looked……he had a three-piece suit on, a recent look he’d picked up that he was now sporting everywhere(from his father, from his father, so that people would take him more se-) and perfectly groomed hair, and was walking through the throng of reporters alone. He had ‘fired’ Happy after that Extremis mishap, and Pepper was…..right, they weren’t. He had resources though. Surely he could employ someone to keep the media at a distance, stop them from clambering all over him, shoving mikes into his face. But Tony Stark didn’t even need that. He could project an aura that made you want to keep a ten-feet distance, fling out fast-flying jabs that would insult your dressing sense and your mental faculties and your purpose in life (but never family, because Tony would never be so crude) before you could blink thrice.

He wasn’t, though. He was walking, alone, while the world screamed in his face.

“He should have an Avenger with him.” Steve murmured, too quiet to be heard.

Evidently not. For Sam smiled next to him, lips twisted, voice filled with a queer, bitter compunction. “Which one? The android or the cripple?”

The air….punched out of Steve’s lungs; his chest contracting rapidly and throat drying with a tightness that felt like someone had actually dealt him a blow in the gut. He blinked rapidly, swallowing again and again, but it was like breathing had quit on him and air was refusing to cooperate- he turned, but Sam was already sliding out of the seat and smiling, with that same caustic shame, “Catch ya later, Cap.”

He walked away, and Steve kept staring at his back, as if in remote pleading for him to stay and explain- but Steve knew, and he did not know, and he knew, but didn’t get- and he looked back up at that small screen where he was seeing Tony Stark’s face for the first time since he’d brought the shield down on the reactor and seen Tony’s face snarling in rage and hurt and….and what? What?

Steve had left the shield. He’d given Tony the Avengers. That’s what he’d written in the letter. Hadn’t he? Hadn’t he?

Which one? The android or the cripple?

Tony’s impassive features provided no answer.

 

~

 

“It isn’t safe.” T’Challa repeated, slow and measured.

“I…I know.” Steve tried, and failed, to peer over the Wakandan king’s shoulder to the doorway behind, which…what? Led to hallways and corridors and ten staircases which may or may not lead to the room that Bucky was being kept secure in? It was ridiculous.

He brought his eyes back towards the African royal, and was struck anew by his stature- for all his litheness in combat, the Black Panther was a tall, broad-shouldered man with impressive presence. A calming one too, at that. Bucky was safe here. He knew it. Why was he fretting so much?

“We just……we didn’t have much time together. Amid all the fighting. I miss him, I suppose.” Steve smiled a little ruefully, rubbing the back of his neck with his right hand. It was true enough, he guessed.

“Understandable enough under the circumstances.” There was a notable pause, where a name or title should have been. Steve had noticed that King T’Challa seemed cautious to avoid addressing him- maybe because of the obvious absence of the shield, and they definitely weren’t casual enough to call each other by their first names. He didn’t know what the issue with a simple Mr. Rogers was, though.

Oh god, Steve, sometimes I wish you weren’t a Captain if only so I could bless my ears with everyone calling you Mr Rogers- Bruce, come here and explain sharing humiliating surnames with Saturday morning children show hosts to Steve-“

 “However, I must dissuade you from coming here again.” T’Challa continued and Steve blinked- for all of that commanding presence, his thought had still drifted away somehow- and blinked again, for the man was sounding impeccably serious. Grim, almost. “You can be tracked here. For all that Wakanda can assert its own sovereignty, I will still be hard-pressed to deny the world powers should they become suspicious and start sniffing around. Bombing charges dropped or not, your friend is still the Winter Soldier.”

“Of course, I understand comple- I’m sorry, charges dropped?” Steve was all aboard on the train of placation, but those words were too grabbing not to demand further elaboration.

T’Challa inclined his head, just a couple of degrees. “You know how I dropped Zemo off at the mercy of the international authorities. I’ve been meeting with Everett Ross myself every couple of weeks, following up on speedy indictment and punishment.”

“So he confessed to the UN bombing in Vienna?”

“Yes. But the ramblings of a trauma survivor matter little against video evidence, prior record and the assumptions of the horde.” T’Challa barely moved as he spoke, clearly a man not given to gestures or fidgeting. “I am to understand that there was some new physical evidence brought to light.”

New physical evidence brought to light. Tony’s face in the flickering light of the Siberian bunker, drawn tight with apprehension as he explained what he had found, how the international police and media had been duped. His half-hearted quip to Bucky to lower the gun, that there had been a ‘truce’, that he’d made a mistake.

“He had the charges dropped.” Steve said, numbly.

“There are still over twenty seven counts of murder alone on the Soldier, all almost certainly confirmed. This doesn’t really change much for your friend.” T’Challa spoke, something almost like caution tinging his tone.

Doesn’t it? Steve wanted to ask, mind still blaring static. Depends on which friend you’re referring to. And then, again, like a player struck on a broken record. He had the charges dropped.

But..

“So was I.”

“But to answer your question….” But the pronoun was too unspecific. The Panther couldn’t know who was being referred to. And yet there was something so sharp about him, almost shrewd- “He did.”

The murder counts still stood. Howard and Maria’s…….oh god, the images still made the bile rebel and rise in his throat. But the crime that Bucky had specifically, physically not committed…..Tony had them dropped. Of course he did.

The body of lead that had been sinking in his gut for the past…..days? Weeks? – sagged several inches further. When had it gotten so cold in here?

 

A beep inaudible to all but superhuman ears had the king glancing down at his wrist cuff- that perhaps wasn’t just an ordinary wrist cuff after all, Steve should have learned by now that deceptive technology could be cloaked anywhere and in anything, if from no one else but T- no, no, bad topic. Redirect.

“I am sorry, but I must excuse myself. A rather urgent matter has come up, and I must fly out of Wakanda immediately.” For all of said urgency, T’Challa was as still and stoic as stone. “Forgive my poor hospitality, I and the Wakandan people would love to avail ourselves of the opportunity to entertain you better at a later date.”

“No your highness, thank you. You have been very kind.” And then, perhaps because he was getting a little restless. “Is it a matter for the Panther?”

T’Challa paused, the black eyes surveying and scrutinising Steve to his very soul, it felt like. “Of a kind. I’m actually heading out to meet the very topic of our just concluded conversation.”

That….didn’t make much sense. Unless…..and it was a bad topic, but the word scraped out all the same, “..Tony?”

“Yes.” But there was no elaboration, and T’Challa turned away and bent his head, making flicking gestures over the cuff and Steve couldn’t keep his damn mouth shut.

“So it’s a…diplomatic thing? Trade?”

Another pause, and Steve was getting tired and frustrated with the quiet; the quiet that interrupted even when he was with other people. Maybe they didn’t mean it to be so, but it weighed down on him, like he had wronged it somehow and the quiet was asking questions and it demanded answers so it could be filled and Steve had…nothing.

Or maybe the other people did mean for the silence to weigh just so- but T’Challa just interjected with a non-committal, “I suppose.”

“But you said it might be a matter for the Panther.” Now, of a sudden, it was like he had too many words- clumsy, ill-forged ones, but they still weren’t the ones he needed. “Are you…are you going to fight with him?”

That…that flicker of an expression could almost be called a smile. “If you remember, Mr Rogers, I fought with him the last time too.”

Tony’s right, it does sound stupid.

And maybe that was easier to think, than- I asked him to call me if he needed me.

The former thought was more stupid, perhaps. But at least it wasn’t half as naïve as the latter.

“So are you an-“ Avenger, Avenger, Aven- but that was too hard to voice, and he told his tongue to change direction, but it listened to him too well. And what came out was:

“Are you his friend, now?”

 And the quiet returned, vicious and silent and ever-encompassing, punctuated by the Black Panther’s cool, detached gaze. There was no judgement, only something curiously akin to pity. No, kinder. Sympathy, maybe. Like a look Steve might give a soldier who was stuck in the very hurdles Steve had long past.

No judgement. Yet Steve found himself being judged anyway.

“I don’t think Mr. Stark much cares to make friends anymore.”

 

~

 

Queens was a dump of a place.

Tony could recall some choice, singularly brilliant rants against Queens- emitted by yours truly on better days. He could compose a soliloquy on the grand opulence of Manhattan verse the shabby…..shabbiness of Queens (see? Even his tremendously creative masterpiece of a mind was stumped when it came to describing the blandness of Queens).

Keeping all that in mind…..irony would laugh itself silly at the fact that Queens appeared to be the only place nowadays where Tony could feel some fraction of peace.

Maybe because Queens didn’t expect Tony fucking Stark to be meandering in its lanes, not strutting or demanding attention. People just hurried by on their own business, harried and tunnel-visioned. They just looked so……purposeful. Like they knew exactly where to go and what to do, even if they didn’t necessarily enjoy it.

Even if he could see value in Queens now past all the snobbery….sometimes he wasn’t quite sure if the snobbery was real, even back then. As a kid, he’d zoom past the smaller boroughs of New York, nose flattened against a limousine window- and watch the kids playing on the streets. He’d imagine being poor (and what a fucking joke was that, how condescending, a rich kid growing in the silky embrace of luxury wishing to live a little closer to the ground), imagine growing up like his father did, maybe; son to a fruit seller on the Lower East Side. Maybe then his genius would feel a bit more real to the people around him. A bit better deserved. Money and brains- what a twat indeed.

But more than that, he’d wish to be down-on-his-luck because that’s how his heroes always began. They struggled and strived, against evil and the system. No one found wealth very challenging. The rich were never particularly heroic.

But of course, that was his younger, naïve self- he flushed the dream of heroism somewhere between MIT and Stark Industries. Then Iron Man happened and……well. Maybe the naiveté was a bit more resilient than he’d thought.

It was a curious quality- naiveté. He didn’t know if he quite admired, or despised it.

(He thought he’d admired it in Steve….the naiveté of his idealism. But of course the tables turned, and he despised himself- because the only naïve fool around here was him.)

Peter, though. His age almost ensured his naivete, except for the fact that people his age nowadays were more cynical than most- and he had…ideas, about power and responsibility that made Tony feel like he wanted to hide the boy away from the world, free from taint. He’d only felt like that once before.

And yet, in the same breath, something in him, something almost monstrous- itched to tear down those ideas, show the kid how they actually worked in reality: for someone was going to do it in the future, foe or friend, and they wouldn’t be half as considerate about it.

It was a conscious, mammoth effort to pull his hand away from where it was clenched above his chest, rigid and shaking.

He knocked.

“Coming!” He heard Peter yell, and then the sound of tennis shoes pounding down a staircase. A misstep- “-motherfracking-“ and Tony could feel his lips curve up as naturally as anything, god- Peter reminded him how easy it used to be.

The door flew open, like it always did, narrowly missing Tony’s nose and cracking against the sidewall, taking some more plaster down with it. There Peter was, half-standing, half-crouched, vigorously rubbing the ankle that had presumably gotten twisted during the mishap on the way to the door. His black fringe flopped over his eyebrows as he squinted dubiously- “Mr Stark?”

And then, of a sudden, Tony felt abruptly, incredibly embarrassed- a man in his late forties standing outside a teenager’s door, seeking…..what? Comfort? Solace? Company, his mind sneered back- god, what was he even doing-

“Come in!” Peter squeaked, backing up rapidly away from the door as if Tony was a wight that would vanish at the slightest delay or provocation- except his ankle clearly wouldn’t stand for it. Balance was lost, and his arms flailed and pinwheeled around as his scrawny body tipped back, landing with an ‘oof!’- and Tony found himself staring down at a seventeen year old sitting on his butt in the foyer of his apartment, gawking right back at him

“Jesus, kid.” And just like that, the insecurity was gone- fuck, it was like the kid was magic. “You do not need to tell me how awful your high school life is.”

Peter scowled almost immediately. “Har de-har har.” And then the scowl replaced itself with a look of blind panic. “No wait, I didn’t mean that- yes, my high school life is absolutely and totally terrible, you can crack as many jokes about it as you like-“

“Excellent.” Tony cut across with brusque efficiency, proffering a hand. Peter took it and propelled himself up- a vast improvement from the first time Tony had offered a handshake and Peter had poked at it to see if his finger would pass through like that of a ghost. “We can swap stories then.”

“I doubt it.” Peter scoffed, and then his eyes widened again, “NO, I mean, I didn’t mean to mean you didn’t mean it, it’s just that you’re Tony Stark and it’s a little, okay only completely, entirely, impossible to imagine you having a terrible social life.”

“It would seem so, wouldn’t it?” Tony shut the door behind them, patting his sense of responsibility in the back a little while he did it. Robbers were a great problem in Queens, he’d heard. Though it would be the epitome of bad luck if a burglar chose Spiderman’s apartment of all the shitholes in the place…..a couple of broken bones at the very least, and a great deal of humiliation. The kid liked playing around with his food, a little. As long as the morsels were appropriately-sized, Tony had absolutely zilch problems with it. He was even a little proud.

“Except……I entered high school when I was eight.” Peter goggled a little at this, opening and closing his mouth, choosing to respond a little frustratedly with- “But you still- I mean you can- people still-“ A throwing up of the hands, as if to say ‘fuck words anyway’, “How do you make people like you?”

And then, the magic ended, the trick was complete, the delusion gone. The smile that had been sitting so naturally upon his lips twisted- hell, it was unnatural, and it fled just as quick as it had arrived; and Tony stopped trying to pretend that every inch of his skin wasn’t aching, that his eyelids weren’t dry and stretched thin, that his back didn’t hurt and breathing wasn’t hard, that Vision wasn’t cooped up in the kitchen at ‘home’ making one after the other paprika-filled dish for an absent Wanda, that Rhodey wasn’t striving to keep the pain out of his voice every time he spoke, that Pepper wasn’t gone, that he wasn’t spending his days appeasing and gratifying assclowns that didn’t have the faintest idea about heroics for a group of heroes that didn’t care enough to stay- that being a fun and supportive….fucking pseudo-dad to Peter was going to change anything about how his relationship with Howard had ended.

Slaughtered, his mind whispered. Cut mercilessly short. I wasn’t a kid anymore, he was less awkward around me, we could have…..could have started understanding each other better, done better-

“You know what, Pete.” His voice was a rasp, and he didn’t even care anymore. “You tell me when you figure that one out.”

The clock in the dining hall ticked, what sounded like rats scrabbled in the walls. Peter’s voice was noticeably more timid when he voiced, “New doodads?”

A second more, to let himself hurt- and then Tony pulled that unnatural smile right back where it belonged. “New doodads.”

 

 

“You know.” Peter began, a little apprehensively, after all the tech-flailing and idea-exchanging and science-rambling was done. There was an expansive hand gesture, probably in the direction of said ‘doodads’ scattered across his study desk- “Most…..um, adults. Would be pretty pissed that I was doing this.  Instead of. You know.”

“Encouraging you?” Tony arched a brow from his seat on the rolling chair, legs extended. He straightened with an accompanying chair creak- there had been several, very ominous creaks already emitted in the last half hour. “I don’t quite put much stock in the way things ‘should be’. Which seems a little counterintuitive for a futurist- but that’s the way things are. It’s my job to distinguish between utopias and futures that can actually, feasibly exist. It’s the only way to achieve anything in the world.”

He swivelled around to face Peter directly, who was standing across the room, by the window sill. “I know your type, Peter. I know your aunt could tie your hands and legs, put you in a room with boarded windows, and forbid you to ever wear the costume again. But wear it you will. Each and every single time.” Tony smiled, a bit grittier, a bit more real. “It’s in your blood.”

“So I don’t waste time forbidding you to do things you’re clearly born to do- and won’t stop doing, even if you break every. single. bone. in your body. I know your type.” Peter looked straight back at him, sincere and honest and true, not denying a single word, and Tony tried to not let his throat clog. “So I make things for you. Armour, better shooters. Hell, a sexier mask. I keep you safe, in the best, most practical way I know how, because you’re too stubborn to listen to better.”

“Yeah, maybe I shouldn’t have dragged you to Germany. Maybe that was-“ A hiss of air released between closed teeth, he’d promised that he’d never fool himself again, “Cut that, that was definitely irresponsible of me. But I trusted you to make your own choices, and you’re almost as strong as the fucking Hulk, and I trusted you’d keep your distance as I’d asked, and I thought-“ that it was a scrimmage, that it wouldn’t come to this, that Cap would never choose to endanger lives over surrendering, that he’d sign and we’d go back and no one would get hurt, and he’d scold me for bringing an almost-minor to a battlefield, that we were among friends-

A released breath. “Never mind what I thought.”

 

“I appreciate it, Mr Stark.” Tony looked up, lost as he was among his ever-expanding mire of regrets, and saw the boy’s eyes practically shining with determination. It was…..it was a little awe-inspiring, really. “I can’t tell you how much, trust me. I…..your trust means the world to me and I swear I’ll never break-“

“Hold on, kid.” Tony stopped him right there, scrappy heart muscle under bruised skin twisting nastily under his rib-cage. “Let’s hold off on the sap and the tearful promises, alright?”

“Of course, of course.” Peter started nodding vociferously. But it was almost an impossibility stopping that train once it started going. “I still can’t believe I got to see the Avengers up close though. The Black Widow- god, how does she move like that? And Hawkeye was like miles away when his arrow cut my web, and Scarlet Witch and magic and Captain freaking America-

Another nasty twist. “And Iron Man. Can’t forget about Iron Man.”

“-and the way that dude grew so big, that totally violates the law of conservation of mass by the way- and god, Mr Stark. Can’t we meet in the Avengers facility the next time?” Archimedes almighty, those wheedling eyes. The joy and the excitement when Peter babbled, it made denying him incredibly difficult. “I mean, your world and mine, it’s just……it’s just so small, you know?”  

“I don’t know, kid.” He relinquished the chair with one last flourish, and a single fatal creak, walking over to stand next to Peter before the window. Outside, Queens bustled- in its crowded, closeted, comforting way. “I rather like your world.”

And there was something quiet and childish and wheedling about the next words too, though not spoken out loud.

I don’t want to go back to mine.

“B-but meeting your heroes! Its like, I barely got to talk to-“

“Sometimes your heroes aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.” And…damn. There it was. The little contemptuous, angry voice made of concentrated hurt. And he’d been doing so well too.

A pause. Then- “I dunno, Mr Stark.” Peter said, and something about that tone made Tony’s restless eyes dart away from Queens and towards the boy that was looking back at him steadily. “Mine have turned out pretty great so far.”

That….that was. It took several seconds for his genius brain to compute, for his body to stop freaking out that it was breathlessness, his chest drawing tight- in a good way.

“Tony.” He managed, after several more seconds. “Call me Tony.”

“I dunno.” Peter said again, face scrunching up like he was just another teenager that hadn’t just completely blindsided Tony fucking Stark. “You’re pretty old.”

“And you’re a pre-pubescent arachnid.” Tony said, or something else idiotic along those lines because there was laughter after that- laughter and banter and smiles- real ones- and lots, and lots of messing around with doodads.

 

~

 

 The quiet was louder here. Maybe because it was a wildlife sanctuary. But it had been getting louder for a long time, now.

Clint was…..scraping something off his arrows. The natural assumption would be that he was sharpening them- except his arrows were pre-customised and pre-designed and all other sorts of pre’s, with poison caps and electricity and heaven knows what else at the pointier end…..so sharpening them was kind of impossible and useless.

Wanda was upstream- there was a stream, or a brook, or one of those synonyms chattering past the nearby rocks; the faint gurgling sound was the only thing that broke the silence amidst the repetitive scratch-scratch of Clint’s motions- and Steve was intensely grateful to that.

Because this wasn’t entirely a comfortable silence. Heck, it shouldn’t have been a silence at all; Clint should have been snarking and tossing out ridiculous jokes for Wanda to mock, leaving Steve to fill in the gaps with dry comments interspersed with concerned questions. But here Clint crouched by the stream with a very, very obvious shadow under his eyes, Wanda was out of sight and Steve…..couldn’t quite bring himself to ask how they were doing.

Clint had been adamant about taking Wanda along with him after the condition in which they’d recovered her from…..custody, and Steve couldn’t have been happier about it. She’d obviously latched on to Clint as a brother-figure after Pietro, someone to seek guidance from; and anyone who saw Clint with his kids would be a knucklehead to think he deserved any less. But Clint could also be…..wilful at times, and the way his drawn face was dipping in and out of light and shadow as he unendingly scraped at his weapons…it didn’t bode well.

“Alright then, Cap.” And there it was, that nickname again. It was almost mindboggling to see the number of places and times it popped up when Steve actually paid mind to it. But Clint was the focus here- his plain, non-nonsense, outright exhausted voice. “Out with it.”

His beginning words were slow, almost cautious, “I want to ask how you’re doing.” …but hell, he’d never been one for cowardice, and he wouldn’t start now. “But I’m getting the feeling that I’m gonna get punched in the face if I tried.”

A short, sharp sound of amusement. Clint’s arm flexed as he drew back to pull another arrow out of the quiver, laying on the flat rock he was propping a foot on- all motions deliberate and economic. “I wanna tell you you’re not- but guarantees count for horseshit these days.”

And Steve’s shoulders pulled back a little at that because- well, there was obviously something wrong, but he hadn’t actually believed Clint was going to hit him. It could be a joke. It started as a joke. But Clint was one of those perennial jokesters that could flip to deadly serious in the blink of an eye- smiling and unamused.

“Alright then.” He drew a breath in, straightened his back. “Tell me.”

There was a break there- a second of quiet that almost weighed heavier than anything Steve had been struggling with for the past few months: undercut sharply when Clint dropped the instruments in his hand with a clatter; light, piercing eyes that unerringly found their mark each and every time fixating on Steve’s face.

Before he could do more than twitch though, Clint had already begun- sharp yet resigned. “What do you want me to say, Cap? I miss my wife. I miss my kids.” The eyes swivelled away, tracing some unseen path through the undergrowth. His lips curled briefly to the side. “I miss my bloody best friend who’s apparently forgotten everything about trust she’s learned over the years and lapsed to vanishing without a trace.”

And…..what could Steve say to that, really? His voice was deceptively steady. “I’m… sorry, Clint.”

“No. No.” And the eyes were back again, and Clint was uncurling from his crouched position to stand, unexpectedly severe. “I chose this. That’s not what you apologise for, Captain. Any more than Stark apologises for having an ideological difference,” and his mouth twisted further in incredulous contempt- “rather than knowing that any bit of paper isn’t worth throwing his teammates in fucking jail-“

“Tony didn’t do that.” No thought preceded the words; the response was automatic, and far more assertive than Steve had been so far. It just…..it was an undeniable fact, to him. Not subject to discussion. “The General did. And just because he wasn’t behind bars, doesn’t mean he was any less of a prisoner. Besides,” And he had to soothe here, had to get more reasonable- Clint had believed he was going to be living with his family for good, being denied of that had to hurt, Steve had to understand- “I’d never have been able to spring you guys from an underwater max prison if Tony Stark really was in charge of keeping you there. Not with the resources I had.”

“So he let us go.” Clint said, flatly. “Doesn’t change the fact that we shouldn’t have been there in the first place. In fact,” And there was a step forward here, Clint’s shoulders straightening and pulling back, eyes as flashing and condemnatory as they’d ever been. “There were a great many things that happened that never should have.”

And Steve….he had a tic. He knew about it. He could never stand to be quiet when someone was in his face, issuing challenges. Even when he should have. Maybe that was one of the reasons why he and Tony couldn’t help but rub each other the wrong way, sometimes. Tony Stark could never stop challenging people, and Steve Rogers could never stop accepting every single one that came his way.

His voice was quiet, but immoveable, all traces of apology erased. “You said it yourself, Clint. You made your choice.”

“I did, Steve. We all did. And I wouldn’t have chosen differently. You told us that ‘we fight’, and we did.” Clint smiled, quick and mirthless. “But that was it, wasn’t it? We didn’t have to. Because what do I hear- after the punches have long been thrown, hits landed, words spoken, sides picked.” Another mirthless exhale, Clint shaking his head from side to side. “That Tony screwed over the Accords like he should have long ago, and flew to Siberia to help you check on the remnants of the Winter Soldier program. That he had to find out on his own. Everyone did. That while they’d been begging us to stand down, you could have talked to them?” Clint bit into his lower lip and released a scoffing laugh, eyes bright. “And this from the man who wouldn’t stop harping about his teammates keeping secrets from him during Sokovia.”

“You…did you know?”

Steve shook off the memory, heart thundering in his coiled up chest. Clint’s words were like a roar, building up in his ears, ringing in his drums, drowning out all other sounds. The quiet had never been louder. “I…he.” His tongue felt thick, and flubbery in his dried up mouth. “He wouldn’t have listened.”

“Would it have killed you to fucking try?” Clint’s tone melded seamlessly with his words, flat and furious. “Couldn’t the fighting have come after the talking? Hey, and speaking of things that can kill you.” A humourless snort. “We didn’t have to blow up billions of public property. I didn’t have to fight against a woman I would have bled out dry to keep safe. Wanda didn’t have to fight the only person she’s formed a real connection with after Pietro. Scott didn’t have to put his life with his daughter on the line for his hero. Rhodes didn’t have to snap his spine.”

“But you had to save your friend, didn’t you.” And Clint looked at him, again, and Steve couldn’t look away- and there it was, all the acrimony. All the disappointment. “Everything else was secondary. Everything.”

It was hard, to remember a point in his life when he had felt such…..singular emotion. One thing, and one thing alone. Untainted. Casting out, bleaching out everything else.

Steve couldn’t speak.

“Sometime during that battle, the fight stopped being about freedom and the Avengers’ ability to save the world when it needed them, and became about protecting Bucky Barnes instead. And while I’d never back down from saving a man’s life, Captain.” Clint’s eyes flashed, from things brighter than emotion. “We damn well should have had the right to make that choice for ourselves.”

 

A beat.

 And then Clint’s anger seemed to drain- his shoulders falling down and tone curiously listless. “I’m a simple guy, Steve. I don’t do large, philosophical debates. People point, I shoot. That’s how it’s always been.” A careless kick, and a stone skipped from the ground to land with a quiet plop in the middle of the stream. “But as a guy who’s never been good at anything but killing- lemme tell you this. Wars can come to us, and we can fight to end them.”

“Isn’t that why we fight? So we can end the fight and go home?”

“But nothing’s ever worth starting one. Nothing at all.”

 

~

 

Steve was painfully, incandescently happy the day he saved Bucky Barnes.

But he was starting to think that maybe that wasn’t the only important thing that happened that day.


~