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The Way It Ends

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The gun goes off before he can get his hand up in time to block the shot. Simple as that. He just wasn't fast enough. Before Tony can even hit the floor Barnes is off without a care for the man he just have fatally wounded. He’s left him in a slumped bloody mess on the ground, fingers flexing, reaching for the wound and still failing miserably. Even with the low grade of Extremis working in his blood stream Tony knows it's not enough. Just enough to buy him time until help comes but it's obvious that it's a long way off. Everyone has gone after Barnes and the fight takes them further away and closer towards the exit. From the sounds of it they are just as successful as he was. His eyes are jumping wildly from place to place trying to see even though the blood has begun to slip downward and across his forehead, making a solid path towards his brows. He can see the puddle next to him has grown too big in the haze of red from his glasses. There’s a metallic voice in his head, tinny and worried.

“Boss….boss…I’ve alerted…Boss!” Friday’s tone is increasingly panicked and she sounds like she’s screaming.

His poor girl. He can’t even comfort her. His own voice is caught in his throat. All he can do is groan as the pain presses down on him in waves. The floor feels warm beneath him and he thinks it’s nice. Nice to have a rest after the 24 hours he’s had. Nice to have a rest at all since he hasn’t slept in days. It could be more comfortable. He’d ask Friday to have some pillows delivered if he could but he can’t. He’s moved on to soft whimpers now and anyway she’s still screaming at him. Telling him someone is on the way and to stay calm. He wishes he could tell her that he is calm. He should be panicking like any normal human being would panic. But he isn’t and he thinks that’s about right. This is all old hat for him and FRIDAY should know that. JARVIS would know.

He can hear glass shattering somewhere and the metallic clomp of his suit walking across the floor. He’d left the briefcase at the hotel as a sign of good faith to Steve. So he could prove that he came in peace. That worked out well. Steve was still gone. Sam was gone. Natasha was gone.

The floor was nice though. He had to thank Barnes for that at least. A dry chuckle wedges in his chest and it hurts to even think about coughing it up. There’s no one to hear him anyway and he thinks that’s good. He never wanted to go old in his bed anyway. He hated to disappoint Pepper and Rhodey like that. Lord knows they’d tried. Tried to keep him safe. Tried to keep him sane. Tried to keep his feet on the ground. They thought he deserved a peaceful death despite everything he was. They’d talked about it one night, long after Stane and the Iron Monger and Iron Man had changed everything. After Rhodey had wrapped his arms around him while they were surrounded by burning hot sands and reminded him of home and that he had a whole lot more to live for than he thought.

It was the morbid sort of talk that you only got to after far too many bottles of Macallan. It had been a rough week and they figured they all deserved it. Tony dug all the way to the back of his collection for the one marked 1926 and opened the bottle eagerly to the surprise of Pepper who knew exactly how much it cost. Rhodey’s eyes bugged out for at least five minutes when he found out and nearly choked on smooth liquor he’d just sipped. He cursed and asked Tony what the occasion was and Tony replied that he was happy. No one commented on why that was occasion enough. They toasted to it and drank and drank until they were on the floor sprawled out on soft Persian rugs with Rhodey’s head nuzzling Tony’s stomach and Pepper’s hand in Tony’s hair. Tony’s fingers brushed lightly across Rhodey’s forehead and twirled the end of Pepper’s long ponytail in circles.

Tony told them how he thought he’d die in that cave and had wondered if it would have served him right. The Merchant of Death wounded by his own weapons and finished off by the greed of men who desperately wanted more. He supposed it would have. Many people would have rejoiced at his death not caring that it meant nothing in the long run. For all his wealth and power and genius he wished he could tell him he was just one piece in a very elaborate puzzle. His death would mean nothing to the never-ending war machine. The world’s governments would just move on to another manufacturer. His death wouldn’t matter because there would always be another war. No one would mourn him. Just his unique ability to create killing machines.

Rhodey had pressed a kiss to his stomach and Pepper’s fingers stilled in his hair. Neither said anything but the feeling was there. They would miss him. For that he was grateful. At least there was someone.

He can feel the light touch of fingers across his skin. They’re delicate but firm as they press and slip across blood. And then yelling. So much yelling. He’s tired of it. He always has been. It takes him back to his parents and words shouted so loudly he could hear them in almost any room in the mansion. He thinks of how he used to find places to hide when he was small. Places he could easily slip into like closets with many boxes he could hide behind that would muffle the sound. His tiny body squished against the boxes in uncomfortable positions for hours until he was sure the storm had passed and it was safe to wander out and find Jarvis or Ana.

He’s read a lot about how this goes. All theories of course in the soft sciences he’s come to loathe. There’s no light. Just darkness as he closes his eyes against the blurs of people who have clearly found him. It’s become a lot harder to think straight. His mind alternates between awareness and the horror of what’s happening to him and the warm memory of sitting on the counter next to Ana while she baked, trying in vain to steal a taste of batter. He remembers the warmth of sitting, pressed shoulder to hips, next to his mother as she taught him note by note how to play from his heart. Of Jarvis teaching him to swim when they went upstate. Of Howard looking pensively over his earliest blueprints on blue construction paper, blue because he so badly wanted to emulate his father’s important work, just before he started in on what Tony had done wrong. It was always that look just before that he had hoped was one of pride. He hopes he’ll finally get to ask him soon.

Chapter Text

Natasha sits covered in blood, not for the first or last time in her life, while the EMT’s work. For the life of her she can’t look anywhere but up. Not at FRIDAY standing sentry over the small three person team come to save a life and not at the life that’s barely holding on. She has to repeat the words over and over at 25-second intervals in order to keep calm. She’s not quite sure why yet. This isn’t the first teammate she’s lost.

“He’s not dead. He’s alive.”

She repeats it no louder than a whisper. She isn’t of any use to the two men working desperately over Tony Stark’s prone form. There are many injured outside, some trampled in all of the panicked rush to get to safety and that makes it hard to get in. But Natasha was able to sneak these two through a side entrance without much effort.

She didn’t know what she would find but thought she ought to have known better for FRIDAY to sound as terrified as she did. The AI sounded like a frightened child. The quiver in her synthetic voice paused her in her continued pursuit. At the time she crushed her own heart rendering fear down to do what had to be done. FRIDAY said Tony needed emergency medical attention and Stark had more than enough protection on him to where Natasha wasn’t as concerned as she should have been.

She could stand and help with the stretcher herself but that involved looking at the bo—at Tony.

“He’s not dead. He’s alive.”

She reminds herself again pathetically. The great Black Widow reduced to hysterics over a teammate she honestly hadn’t meant to care for. Funny how that worked out. Decades of work in the Red Room minimizing her humanity all for nothing.

“Ms. Romanov!” The voice is sharp as if they have been calling her for far too long. Her eyes snap directly to the blue eyes of the EMT crouched before her, narrowly avoiding Tony’s face behind him. He winces when she holds his gaze unable to look anywhere else.

“No,” she says when his lips part to speak. He grimaces and with a small shake to his head tells her all she needs to know. She had hoped and that was her mistake.

“Even if we got him out and to a hospital…”

He’s not dead. He’s alive.
There’s the heavy clank of metal touching down close by not too long after. Natasha closes her eyes briefly and inhales shortly to try and stave off the scent of death to no avail. She tries to shake herself. She’s been trained for this more than a lifetime over. What to do when a fellow agent falls in combat. She’s been trained to compartmentalize all of this. To shove it into places she can’t reach until there’s time to deal with it. There’s a reason why she can’t and she can’t quite put her finger on it. Slowly she begins to rise using the wall for support. Why does she feel so weak?

“Do what you need to do,” she says and that’s it.

They’re packing up their things by the time the heavy clank of footsteps passes FRIDAY’s perimeter. She knows that it’s War Machine and begins to steel herself. She turns again to avoid Tony when she stands to face her teammate. Rhodey’s faceplate is up but he only has eyes for the crumpled form on the ground. He looks broken in a way she never imagined. The long lines on his face show deeply as tears slip down. His mouth is set in a firm line as he moves forward.

“Rhodes,” she says trying to project as much calm as possible. She’s already pulling herself back together bit by bit because there’s nothing left to do. They still have a job to do. And it’s even more imperative that they get the Winter Soldier away from any more civilians. She turns her head when Rhodey doesn’t even break stride when she speaks and gently cradles Tony in his arms. There are no more tears just a tender look on his face.

“FRIDAY, notify Pepper that this is a code red situation. We’ll need her access code along with mine to get what we need.”

“Understood,” FRIDAY’s voice comes through the suit with a heaviness Natasha didn’t think she was capable of. She presses herself back against the wall as Rhodes comes closer. For the second time she has to look at Tony’s body otherwise fine except for the bleeding hole in his head and shattered glasses embedded into his skin. His face is a mask of blood but his expression is oddly peaceful and devoid of those worry lines she’s come so used to seeing as one of his defining features.

Rhodey cradles him like he’s something precious even in a suit that could crush him further. It answers many of her questions about them and brings up more than a few she hadn’t previously considered. It’s not the time to voice them now. Rhodey approaches her slowly. There’s rage and grief etched across him. She can almost feel it when he looks at her. The urge to flinch is very strong.

“You were nearby when it happened,” he says brooking no argument. She nodded. She wasn’t too far away and that made it easier to find him after her own encounter with the Winter Soldier.

“Do you know…who?” Rhodey asks. She hesitates. She’s angry too she realizes. She wants to tell him, needs to even, and the words are on the tip of her tongue to begin soothing his quiet rage back into a more controllable anger. It’s right there but she can’t find it in her to pluck those strings and get him back to a more tenable state. They’re so far beyond that now. The words that do come out she’s unsure if she’ll regret. So far she’s had regrets the whole day. What’s one more? Even if it starts a war?

“James Barnes.”

Rhodey simply nods in understanding and takes off. FRIDAY goes with him in the Iron Man armor. She can already see the red and gold suit maneuvering protectively around Rhodey and her creator. When Ross asks later Natasha tells him she’s unsure what Rhodes was planning at the time. Deep down she hopes it works.

Chapter Text

Rhodey touches down on the roof of the Stark Industries headquarters in Berlin near silently and FRIDAY is right behind him. The sound of the Iron Man armor would be comforting if Tony weren’t dying in his arms right now.

“FRIDAY administer emergency protocol Extremis,” Rhodes says softly. Tony had mandated that the small vial of Extremis was only to be used in the most dire situations but only if he or someone with a priority code authorized it. Rhodey had argued that the benefits of getting the shot in a life-threatening situation more than outweighed the possibilities of the wrong hands getting a hold of the formula but Tony had disagreed.

“Stubborn bastard,” Rhodey murmurs into Tony’s soft, wet hair.

“Priority Authorization code needed,” FRIDAY challenges back. Rhodey’s heart goes out to her.

More than with JARVIS, because he had taken on a life of his own long before Tony introduced them, FRIDAY seemed to really see Tony as her Father. JARVIS taught him that AI’s were capable of human emotion and FRIDAY solidified it with her own grief stricken voice. It must be awful to not be able to save her father’s life on her own.

“Priority Authorization, J. Rhodes dash Alpha dash 1981.”

“Authorization accepted,” FRIDAY responds and in an instant Rhodes has a small syringe in his hand primed and ready. Rhodes hands Tony to FRIDAY as gently as he can almost unwilling to let go. It seems like every time he does something happens to his lover and at this point he’s nearly lost him one too many times. But he knows that if Tony is safe with anyone it’s FRIDAY. He knows this even though his stomach lurches with the absence. Once the genius is secured he jams the needle in Tony’s leg and presses the plunger. FRIDAY has to tighten her grip when the body in her arms jerks against her at the intrusion. Rhodey knows just as well as anybody how much Extremis burns.

---
Rhodey leaves Tony in the care of Helen Cho and Pepper Potts. The latter presses a light kiss to his forehead on tiptoes and when a look of fury passes between them he knows exactly what the statuesque redhead is asking him to do.

Pepper doesn’t usually condone violence. It’s not really her style but retribution is. With Tony laid out on the soft and sterile bedding of the cradle and Dr. Cho working furiously with her techs to get everything hooked up and ready before Tony’s heart stops beating he’s not sure if she cares. He kisses her back hoping to convey his need to do this. That burning desire to take care of them while she takes care of Tony. It’s boiling low in his belly right there where Afghanistan and the fiasco with the Mandarin had festered. The same need to tear limb from limb anyone who had tried to hurt his friend. It sparked when he first saw that scrawny 15 year old hazy and drunk being pulled into a bedroom full of quite a few upperclassmen at a party. And it had never quite stopped. Dulled over the years when Tony grew to handle himself so well that Rhodey proudly stepped back but raced forward with any and every death threat or kidnapping attempt. 

His mother used to get an amused twinkle in her eye when she mentioned his protectiveness to him and soon when it included Pepper as well. She seemed to always know. So did Pepper when they first crossed paths right up to and including when she became theirs too.

He leaves with FRIDAY before he can be tempted to stay. There’s not a lot of time left and it’s no longer up to FRIDAY whether her Boss lives or dies. When she asks to join him he can’t deny her. Rogers and his team have been sighted around Germany and seem to be headed to Leipzig. They’ll need all the help they can get.

 

----

Natasha is waiting for them on the roof. Vision floats down to join them. He seems conflicted which is an unusual look for him. He notifies them that Wanda was broken out of the compound the night before by Hawkeye and that there’s a hole the size of an SUV that burrows deep beneath the earth in the building where she put him. She’s dedicated to Steve’s cause and Vision just seems lost as if unable to comprehend the betrayal. It’s the first time he’s experiencing this emotion and Rhodey can’t blame him for coming up short. He also can't help but feel sorry for him if not for anything but how similar that look of hurt seems. He's seen it on Tony's face enough to have it burned into his memory. 

At the first mention of Steve Rhodey wonders if he knows that Tony nearly lost his life today. He wonders if Captain America cares that his oldest friend almost killed another.

“Is Mr. Stark-,” Vision starts to ask.

“We can’t worry about him right now,” Natasha interrupts all business. Rhodey glares at her but she holds fast to her position all of her previous emotions locked away somewhere. 

“We’re more than a man short and we’re going up against a few surprises,” she explains. She hands him a file on Scott Lang that has his eyebrows rising at the idea of a man who can shrink to the size of a molecule. Hawkeye, Falcon, and Scarlet Witch have joined Steve and Barnes without much provocation. He hopes he won’t have to kill them to get to Barnes. Tony wouldn’t take it well.

“Lucky for us,” Natasha continues, “I have a few of my own.”

“What’s the plan?” Rhodey asks trying to keep his mind on the task at present. He flips through the file in his hands and Natasha stops him when he gets to the section listing Lang’s known associates.

“Yeah, I don’t think this is going to work,” Rhodey says slowly. “Pyms and Starks don’t mix. It seems to be a generational thing now.”

He remembered coming over to one too many moments of Howard bitching about Hank Pym. He never heard what started the conflict and assumed it was more of a competitor’s rivalry. Then of course there was the first meeting between Tony and Hank Pym when the younger man took over Stark Industries that had been an unmitigated disaster. With Pym refusing to shake Tony’s hand and Tony calling him an old stooge without an ounce of creativity to squeeze between two fingers there was no hope of a clean slate between the companies.

“I’m not talking about Pym,” Natasha says, flipping past his picture to one of a young woman with a sharp expression on her face, hair cut into a severe looking bob. Her smile seems cheerful enough once you get past the predatory gleam.

“Alright,” Rhodey sighs. From what he’s reading it seems like she’ll be enough to put Lang on notice at the very least. “What else you got?”

Natasha just smiles.

Chapter Text

The voice is faint. At first Clint thinks it’s because she knows how easily super soldier ears can overhear a conversation but she repeats his name just as lowly and there’s something in his gut that clenches.

He’s heard that voice before. In a Hungarian city it called out to him under piles of bloody rubble. It was wet then and no more than a wheeze but the pain was just as real as it is right now.

He excuses himself to speak to Laura and the kids so apologetically that no one bats an eye from where they’re crowded around the maps Cap has strewn across several tables. Least of all Barnes who has been staring into space from his little cot on the floor, eyes wide and unseeing. He’s been like that for hours and Wanda has offered to help him with a swirl of red along her fingertips that Cap put a stop to immediately. Barnes had reacted anyway, jerking away so hard he slammed into the wall behind him creating a Barnes-sized imprint in the cheap plaster. They don’t know what’s been done to him Steve says after, to console the girl.

'Ain’t that the truth?' Clint thinks, thankful that Wanda can’t actually read his thoughts. He's even more thankful that they tested it several times.

He swings himself up and out the little window at the end of the hall of the warehouse they’re squatting in and makes his way to the roof. Once there he takes a position further down and across the building because even though he’s sure Cap can’t hear him he’s more than positive he doesn’t want the man to hear him. A quick scan of the nearby buildings tells him he’s alone at least for now.

“Natasha?” Clint says quietly.

She has a lot of nerve calling him after siding with Stark and the governments of the world over them, her team. After all, the whole point of the Avengers going private after Shield fell was to prevent exactly what the Accords pushed for now. Or at least from what Steve has told him about them. Allowing a panel of representatives to choose their missions and tell them where to go was no different than some guy in a suit or rather a leather duster deciding who got to go where to help whom.

There were tons of goodwill missions the team had gone on to help with disaster relief where enhanced or exceptionally skilled humans made or broke the relief efforts. They could go where normal humans couldn’t and would do things they weren’t equipped to do. Why shouldn’t they get special exceptions for that? Why should they be persecuted for that?

Natasha’s next breath is deep and ragged and it piques his worry something terrible. One of the things Steve had warned them about was the clause requiring them to retire or sign and while Natasha signed he worried about her proximity to old Thunderbolt Ross and how much her unique physiology would be of interest to him. While Natasha could kill him with her pinky finger he wasn’t so sure about the power he commanded now. The Hulk could kill him in seconds and he had tormented Bruce for how many years? How Tony and Natasha of all people could work with him…especially after Bruce’s warnings about him he just doesn’t know.

“Clint,” Natasha says and he’s just about out of patience when her next words hit him like a hammer.

“I know you’re with them,” she says in a rush.

“What’s this about Natasha?” Clint asks. “Are you—“

“And I know you think you’re doing the right thing. You’d have to be for you to leave Laura and the kids again.”

And there it is again. The little hitch in her breath as if she’s been crying and he would know being the only person left alive that’s seen her tear up and live to tell absolutely no one about it.

“Jesus, Nat. Are you—“ He stops short loathing the need to ask. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” she says sharply as if annoyed and he realizes he’s interrupted her again. He should at least to hear her out. He owes her that much and more. More than he owes Cap by a mile so he stays quiet enough for her to get it out.

“You won’t hear about it for another 48 hours at least. They’re trying to keep it quiet even here but you deserve to know. Tony is…gone.”

“What?” He shouts. His legs feel weak so he perches on an old HVAC unit and just sinks into the surface. Even then he doesn’t feel like he’s on solid ground. He has to have her repeat it.

“Dead unofficially. Officially he’s been severely wounded after an encounter with The Winter Soldier,” she says and her voice sounds stronger, angry. Like she wants to break something, maybe Barnes himself.

A wave of sickness washes over him at the idea of the man sitting a few floors below him. Steve says he was triggered while in the JTC’s custody by a man posing as a therapist and didn’t remember the attack but it seems clear now that he does. He’s been staring into the same spot for hours at a time barely responding when even Steve talks to him to gain his input. When he does speak it’s in a clear monotone voice only in response to a question asked. Clint recalls doing the same thing when sorting through his memories of being under Loki’s control. Trying desperately to remember when he fought or even worse when he had been too tired to put up more than a feeble attempt.

“How?” Clint fights to swallow back the lump that’s formed in his throat and keep his voice neutral. Everything seems to have taken a left turn off of a cliff. He can’t quite wrap his mind around Tony not being alive. Can’t quite fathom the silence that will follow. It’s unimaginable and that’s saying something for how long he’s been in this business. They’ve all talked about it once or twice during brief moments of downtime. How for each of the Avengers it was just a matter of time really. How much many of them had made their peace with that and how the few that didn’t fought down their fear.

“I don’t understand,” Clint says lamely. “Steve said he was triggered but they managed to make it out of there with next to no casualties.”

“Try eleven,” Natasha replies and he can tell she’s reining it in. It’s just how her emotions work.

“Eleven dead?” Clint can’t quite believe it. Steve couldn’t possibly know. They’ve been cut off from the media…. but he was there. And Sam and Barnes. Sam and Steve would have seen at least the aftermath. But even then they might not have checked? Maybe there wasn’t time to check the bodies. He’s rationalizing he knows and Natasha knows it too.

“There’s surveillance video of him when he first comes onto the scene after Barnes was triggered. He checked several of the bodies. So either he’s aware or he’s incompetent. We both know which one is correct,” Natasha replies.

“This is Steve we’re talking about!”

“Yes. This is Steve and I’ve never seen him put civilians in danger like this before but he’s doing it. With impunity. The longer you’re out there the bigger this thing gets. You need to come in, Clint.”

“A little late for that don’t you think?” Clint tries for humor but Natasha stays stubbornly silent on the other end. “Even if Barnes killed Stark he was triggered. They have to know that. It wasn’t his fault.”

He repeats the first words Steve said to them when they arrived at the safe house and they feel wrong. It’s become like a mantra as they’ve progressed throughout the day and Clint couldn’t put his finger on what was making him more and more twitchy but this seems as good a place as any. Any time Sam mentioned the attack, or Wanda and Scott, the words would shoot out of Steve’s mouth firing on any presumption that Barnes had done anything wrong.

As if the mere thought were questionable on principle.

Clint can sympathize considering the way Loki had put him under. The way he could feel himself doing the things he was doing and screaming beneath those shimmering blue walls. Answering questions he didn’t want to answer, giving up precious intel on fellow Shield operatives without a fight, killing them as easily as he breathed. He can recollect every arrow fired, every neck snapped, the slick feel of sinking his knife into the backs of men and women who had once depended on him. It’s likely that Barnes does as well or at least has some idea.

“There’s a car parked at the end of the next block on the south side of the building. It will take you directly to me. Come in now before it’s too late,” Natasha tells him.

“Nat, it’s more complicated then that,” Clint tries.

“It really isn’t Barton. And I think you know that. Right now you haven’t done any thing. Right now you’re just a man standing on top of a run down piece of shit building that happens to house three fugitives and two co-conspirators, ” he almost rears back away from the phone at her icy tone and she doesn’t stop there. Her words do have his gaze darting around, furtively seeking anyone watching from afar. They had done a sweep for cameras but turned up none when they arrived.

“Stark is dead and whether you care or not it changes things.”

“You think I don’t care?” Clint snaps aghast.

“Like I said. It’s irrelevant. Barnes shot him point blank in the head,” she says and Clint flinches hard at the imagery.

He sees Tony lying there parts of his brain splattered across the floor dressed in one of his bespoke suits or even worse in the faded jeans and t-shirts to which he’d become accustomed. He sees him like the dozens of marks Clint has left behind in his long career and just barely catches himself on the HVAC unit before he hits the ground and heaves violently. His chest and throat burn by the time he’s done and is dragging in a lungful of air desperately. Natasha seems to wait until he’s done and his scramble for oxygen is nothing more than pitiful wheezing before continuing as if she hasn’t heard him.

“Whether Steve believes it or not this is over. They will never let this go now. They have a casualty. Do you understand? A very important body to show on the six o’clock news. A martyr to rally behind. You especially know how this will go. Stark was one of the only ones advocating that we bring you all in peacefully. What do you think will happen now that he’s gone?”

“You and Rhodes—“ They had been relying on them anyway as Steve had put it to “Keep Stark in line” or in other words to keep this from getting ugly. Steve was banking on Natasha at least still caring what happens to them and had already declared that when push comes to shove Natasha knew where her loyalties lied and it wasn’t with Tony. It seems incredibly wrong now and Clint can’t tell if that’s worse. If betting on the next person to betray Tony as his body was going cold somewhere makes them the exact kind of monsters the people behind the Accords think they are.

“It’s not going to be enough,” Natasha is telling him, cutting to the quick as always and it’s in that that Clint sees the truth. He’s known it the second he picked up the phone and heard in her voice that something was terribly wrong.

“You have two hours to get in that car.”

The call disconnects and Clint lets the small device slip from his fingers onto the ground. The old warehouse settles uneasily beneath him. Just four hours ago they had arrived and he remembers quipping that all it would take is one good gust of wind to blow the whole son of a bitch down. Steve’s amused but stern “Language” rings in his ears. How long after that had Tony drawn his last breath while Steve clutched Barnes to his side vowing to keep him safe?

A part of him desperately wants to just go back downstairs and bask in the familiar sounds of Steve and Sam arguing tactics and instructing Wanda. He wants to go back to trying to get to know the new guy. He wants to try to tease some kind of positive reaction from Barnes. But his legs won’t move in that direction because there’s nothing left back there and he knows it.

Clint Barton does what he does best when he climbs down the roof slowly but surely after twenty minutes of brooding over his options. He drops easily down into the adjacent alley and slips down the street towards a black sedan that has government written all over it. The knee jerk feeling to turn back and tell Steve hoping that he doesn’t already know has him tightening his hold on the door as he slides inside. It would be easy to do so. The infamous Hawkeye against one driver would be the quickest fight in the world but there’s a voice in the back of his mind. A voice that has kept him alive over the years even more than his bow. This niggling little thing that tells him that Steve’s not going to stop. Not for Tony. Not for him. Not for anyone. Instead he closes the door and concentrates on keeping his face blank when they automatically lock behind him.

The car pulls off without the driver acknowledging him in the slightest.

There’s a brief murmur. “Contact engaged. En Route.”

Chapter Text

Natasha stands at the large bay windows that overlook the entrance to the JTTF headquarters, arms crossed, dressed in full uniform. A restless twitch to her fingers is the only thing that lets Rhodes know she’s far from okay. Otherwise she looks as she always has, deadly.

“It’s a good thing,” Everett had told him a half hour earlier with a solid pat to his shoulder. Rhodes just barely managed to keep the venom from his voice in his response.

“It better be.”

He can’t help but notice the relief in Ross’ demeanour now. In the absence of the harried barking from hours past it’s too easy to see that gleam in his eyes the brass usually gets when things are going their way.

He’s flown over 150 combat missions and sat through hundreds of briefings. He knows when his commanding officer wants to send them in and when they don't. When they know they’re sending their men out to fail. He’s seen it in the mirror before. Everett Ross’ tell is the worn pinch between his brows. The area has all but smoothed out now.

T’Challa didn't fare any better with the news. His first demand was that Clint be interrogated. His second was that they allow him five minutes in a room with him with no surveillance. Natasha has positioned herself between the young king and the door ever since. He’s not sure if she thinks she's being stealthy. He’s damn sure she doesn't care. It’s in the tightness of every muscle from her jaw down to her back. She’s as primed as he is. To attack. To protect. If he ever doubted the kind of relationship the spy twins had he can’t now.

Rhodes can’t even deny the empathy for them both welling up from within. If opening his mouth right now weren't more akin to throwing a live grenade into the room than a soothing balm he would tell her. Instead, he keeps his mouth shut and tries not to keep looking at his phone for an update from Pepper. As soon as he does there’s something like an itch that runs rampant beneath his skin urging him to check again. That’s the fear talking.

He knows. Pepper could call and tell him Tony's awake and well or even worse that he's never going to wake up again. It winds itself through him and tightens at every sound. Every faint beep is enough to send his heart racing. It’s more than enough to remind him of the first month Tony went missing in Afghanistan. Back when he practically slept on a hairline trigger because he was that unwilling to miss the call that some lead had been found. It’s all he can do right now to just breathe deeply and calm himself between hair-raising noises. He can’t lose it here. Not even with his stomach tied in knots of worry. Not even though it feels like his world is tilting off its axis. He just can’t.

Ross has been itching to bench T’Challa on the principle of him being too emotionally compromised. This makes this the third time in the last decade that Rhodey is glad he and Tony have kept their relationship under wraps. If they knew...if only...He wouldn’t be in this room if they did. And the chances that the rest of his former team would go free would be high. Just the thought of Barnes running free and doing this to someone else makes him shudder.

The door clicks open and T'Challa shoots to his feet. Natasha’s side eye is just barely noticeable as she stays rigidly facing the windows. Her open palms curl into fists and that T’Challa’s two guards take notice of. They rise too despite the futility of it all. Natasha would never have convinced Clint to come in if his safety weren't guaranteed. That much he knows as sure as he breathes.

An aide requests Natasha's presence in the hall and the Black Widow moves quickly amid T’Challa’s indignant sounds.

“Your majesty, I have been informed that you will get a chance to speak with the prisoner in due time.”

Just like that the door is shut behind Natasha, who has already barreled past, her anxiety unfurling in the speed of her movements. T’Challa eases back in his seat, eyes wide with fury but otherwise the very picture of well composed. One of his guards squeezes his shoulder. Grief is etched across his face in a look of bitterness that dissolves all too quickly into cool anger that Rhodes recognizes easily. It’s young and it’s stubborn.

Rhodes finds himself averting his eyes as the young King smoothes out his expression and arranges it into something more careful and blank despite the odd clench of his jaw and flexing fingers that won’t ever reach far enough. He’s seen the security footage of the bombing and wonders if the young man still feels gravel and steel beneath knees.

At the end of the day he figures that at the very least they’re both soldiers. Even if T’Challa is more than that at home, when they step out on the field later that’s what they’ll both be. He has to at least try.

“It’s not your fault.” Rhodes doesn’t even have to clear his throat to be heard.

T’Challa’s cool gaze snaps to meet what Rhodes hopes is a warm look. He wishes he could do more but he’s not sure he has it in him. He’s never really been good at this. Subterfuge. Tony had years of practice and Pepper was a natural. Natasha was molded into perfection. Jim Rhodes is not even close to their league. Give him numbers. Give him advanced formulas and experimental rocket propulsion or guidance systems. But God please don’t sit him down in front of one of his men with lies on his tongue. He’s never been able to do so and look them in the eye. That’s his tell and he knows it.

He’s coached fellow airmen and led men barely out of boyhood to war and in retrospect that seems easy. He had scores of men in the same uniform at his back, but now? There’s just five of them and none of this can work without all of them on the same page. He can see how they’ll fail.

His mouth dries when he catches the glares of the two women at T’Challa’s side poised to strike.

T’Challa snorts derisively.

“Me. Romanoff has already tried.”

“That’s not what this is,” Rhodes finds honesty in his own words he didn't expect. It surprises him when T’Challa gently inclines his head in such a measured movement it seems heavy. Rhodes forces himself to maintain eye contact even though it threatens to send his heart racing.

“I know what it’s like to feel like you weren’t quick enough. Like if you had moved just a fraction further it would have been you or better yet no one. To sit and run that moment back over and over until all you’ve got is the pure fact that you weren’t good enough and now someone is dead. What it’s like to run on the need to fix it for fuel. It won’t help you out there later.”

“Is this the part where you tell me you have nightmares, too, Colonel? That we all share pain? Do you dream of holding your dead father in your arms?”

“No, mine are usually bodies in a desert. And they’re not the same. How could they be?”

“Then what is your point?”

“That anger won’t help you today. It won’t even help you tomorrow. It’ll help them. The Captain and his friends need us to give them an opening when we greet them. Don’t give them one. Lock it down.”

“Such an easy solution. I wonder why I didn’t think of it myself,” T’Challa is quick to dismiss him but Rhodes can’t stop now. Not when justice for Tony is so close. He shifts focus.

“You’d be amazed at my level of bullshit tolerance.”

That achieves the shock he’d hoped for. T’Challa’s eyebrows go up and Rhodes can’t help but chuckle at how the man simultaneously looks both a decade older and younger. Like a chastised young man and a skeptical ruler all at once. Almost similar to a certain devastated seventeen year old, staring wide eyed at him as he told him he looked like shit while leaning heavily on his mother’s piano fingers resting on the keys unable to play a note.

Rhodes breathes easier when T’Challa gives him a terse nod and his guards look less like they’re about to skewer him. The tension is almost completely eased when Romanoff returns with a skittish looking Clint at her back. Everett Ross joins them and within seconds he has them set up with a call from Hope Van Dyne. From the sounds of it she’s in a car and it’s briefly confirmed she’s half an hour out.

Clint has intel for them and it can’t wait. He takes a seat on Natasha’s other side as far from Rhodes as he can get.

“Alright, Barton. Tell them what you told us,” Ross barks. Clint for the record does manage to meet T’Challa’s hard look when he speaks even though he avoids Rhodes’ like the plague.

“Steve’s endgame isn’t the airport,” Clint tells them. “He’s under the impression that there is a squad of Winter Soldiers waiting to be unleashed at a Hydra base in Siberia.”

There’s silence at the table and Rhodes just wants to laugh. Steve can't be this far gone can he?

“Where did he get this from?” T’Challa asks. He looks just as skeptical as Rhodes feels. And right about now Rhodes wonders if Captain America is aware of just how much he’s shit the bed. That inventing a monster to slay won’t save him or his buddy. Not from them.

“His name is Zemo,” Ross hands them a file to pass around. The photo doesn’t stir any familiarity in Rhodes but for the stern look the man has in his military photo. He looks decorated and proud in his Sokovian fatigues.
“He lost his family to Ultron. Anyone wanna guess what his game is here?”

No one has an answer but from the files it’s plain to see that his movements over the last 2 weeks is highly suspicious. He’s been searching for something and by the looks of things he found it.

“According to Barnes the soldiers are controlled by a set of code words similar to his. The man posing as his psychologist used them on him yesterday.”

“Did he also send you here to speak these lies in his defense?” T’Challa demands. Clint unsurprisingly sits lower in his seat while Natasha straightens and fixes T’Challa with a glare.

“Clint took a great risk by coming here today. We shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss valuable intelligence,” Natasha says firmly and Rhodes wonders if she’ll try to handle T’Challa the same as she used to handle Tony. So far she seems to have less luck. T’Challa doesn’t have the same insecurities to lean on.

“Ah yes. Let us examine his flight to safety. Must have been harrowing!” T'Challa drawls.

“I’m sorry, would you have preferred to go in blind? Or did you miss the part where Mr. Barton brought you valuable intel on your father’s real killer?” Natasha says airly. T’Challa, of course, has no choice but to take the bait. She continues to stare him down with a grin sort of satisfaction.

“Excuse me?”

“We have reason to believe that Zemo, not Barnes, was behind the bombing in Geneva,” Ross explains.

“And why wasn’t this brought to our attention sooner?”

“We’re bringing it to you now,” Natasha says calmly. “And we haven’t much time.”

That shuts T’Challa down momentarily but the damage is done. Whatever trust T’Challa had placed in them is done with a hard look swept over the entire table. Rhodes wouldn't be surprised to see Wakanda go back into isolation after this.

“And you really believe this?” Rhodes asks.

“He has no reason to lie,” Natasha interjects. As if Clint can’t defend himself. The archer remains uncharacteristically silent. There are no marks on him. Rhodes can’t imagine He’s been physically tortured since coming in from the cold as it were. Then again, as he remembers from Tony’s palladium days, Natasha hadn’t been afraid to use her psychological voodoo on teammates in the past. The real question is just what she did to break Clint.

“Sam verified the story. He was in the room when Barnes told Steve. There’s been no...ah..embellishments as far as they’re concerned,”Clint speaks up.

“So why not come in and bring this to us themselves?” Ross asks.

“Steve is...committed to keeping Barnes safe” Clint says almost hesitantly. It makes Rhodey’s blood boil just to consider. The fact that Steve had already chose. His buddy over everyone else. How the man could think there was any other end to this once he escaped custody he doesn't know.

“We can’t ignore this,” Ross says. T’Challa opens his mouth to speak but Ross rushes on. “But we can’t allow the fugitives to leave Germany either. They remain the priority for now.”

“What’s their plan, Clint?” Rhodes asks.

It forces the younger man to look up at him. He has the gall to look haunted as if he's lost something. To think he was one of the people Rhodes had trusted. One of the people Tony had trusted. Clint averts his gaze, finding something interesting to stare at on the pages in front of him, as he speaks.

“They plan to take the airport in the next 5 to 6 hours. Falcon should be arriving any minute to watch for you all to land and signal to the others to arrive. They believe you won’t risk civilians in a confrontation and will be drawn away from the Quinjet as you engage. Once you have all been incapacitated by force or otherwise they planned to commandeer the Quinjet and be on their way to intercept Zemo in Siberia.”

“That…,” Hope finally speaks up to the sound of car doors shutting and the eerily familiar clicks of stiletto heels, “is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”

Rhodey can't help but to agree.