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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.

Chapter Text

She takes the first watch despite Steve’s stubborn insistence. This is the first time his obsessive hovering has rubbed her the wrong way. She feels constricted. It takes her back to her days lying prone on the floor of a Hydra base deep in Siberia. Surrounded by miles of ice and snow with nothing but the harsh wind whipping outside and the noises of her teammates to keep her company. She’s never liked silence. Even when she and Pietro were waiting for Tony Stark’s bomb to kill them they had the small comforts of creaks and groans from the building crumbling around them. Not to mention the dying gasps from those not lucky enough to be trapped between the crumbling brick and mortar of an accidentally created alcove.

It was there that she memorized the rapid beating of Pietro’s heart miraculously unchanged even years into his enhancement. Steady and sure. In the quiet she can hear it, a reminder of what she’s lost at that bastard’s hands.

She softly hums a Sokovian lullaby she learned from her mother’s lips to avoid the silence and focuses as each of her teammates drifts off. Steve has been awake the longest and has been increasingly distressed since Clint’s disappearance--no his desertion. She shares in Steve’s disappointment in the situation’s turn but for other reasons. She truly believed she had him coiled tightly in their friendship and his guilt. She’s slipping in her practice and if Yelena could see her now she’d punish her for her failure.

Wanda shudders at the memory. Of those reminders that she can be hurt. Even though she won in the end leaving the cruel woman strewn in a heap staring blankly into nothingness she can still feel the scars both physical and otherwise methodically left behind. Scars that endeared her to Steve, who now sits slumped next to Barnes’ cot, so desperate to excuse his soldier that he actively willed her redemption into existence. Nevermind she has done nothing to atone for. Now with Clint gone, Steve is clutching what little resources he has left, his obsession masked by stratagem. It would be sad if it weren’t so beneficial.

Her gaze sweeps over Sam and Scott, the first to drift off into the least interesting dreams of home, hearth, and warmth. There’s so much hope there added to their mixture of belief in their leader and righteousness it makes her sick. She has better dreams to observe. Such as the soldier trapped between Captain America and a wall. His mind had been so blank to her all day that she was worried he remembered her from Hydra. Their paths had never crossed to her knowledge but that’s not to say he couldn’t have been as aware of her as she was of him.

Pietro never idolized him as she did but once Von Strucker showed them footage of The Winter Soldier beating in Howard Stark’s face as proof Tony Stark could be touched she couldn’t help but to admire the Fist of Hydra. Walking into the dilapidated building to come face to face with the Winter Soldier was a dream come true. She could scarcely keep herself contained behind the visage of fear she projected for Steve’s benefit. She can barely maintain her composure now and it’s a struggle to keep steady as she gently wades through his sleeping thoughts. Unlike most people his thoughts are orderly rather than erratic. A focus honed through years of training and single minded driveness.

He dreams of Stark dressed in one of his obscenely expensive suits in some government building. Chaos surrounds them when they meet and she scoffs gently, then quiets, she doesn’t wish for him to wake. Excitement pools in her belly when Stark tries to meet the soldier in battle.

Their fight is brief, obviously. How Stark could ever hope to measure up to the Winter Soldier is beyond her. The billionaire pales in comparison. It is proven when the gun in the soldier’s hand goes off and Stark is on the ground bleeding profusely. She searches momentarily for the bits of skull and that genius brain of his that must be scattered on the floor. With glee she spots his brown eyes widen in realization as his mouth moves to form words that won’t come. He will not survive this. Barnes stares down at Stark tears in his eyes as his fingers flex on the gun.

“Just had to get three for three, huh?” Stark’s voice is soft but still mocking.

“Mission complete,” the Soldier replies just as softly. It’s beautiful. She wishes she could have been there. To have the privilege to witness the soldier work first hand. To sit by Stark and be the last thing he saw, a reminder of his legacy. To be sure that death took. The thought makes her lips curl up in excitement. She laments that it is but a dream, as lovely as it is. Or is it? Without delving deeper she can’t be sure. There’s the tell tale signs of dreamlike haze that surrounds them. Thicker than a fog it covers every surface and sets the lighting off in a blue-ish hue. Memories are usually brighter depending on the person but for Bucky the rules are different. His mind has been tampered with so much she’s unsure which is which.

With a sharp snap she’s pushed back to the dingy room and the light snores of three men.

Her eyes open to Barnes’ electric blue gaze. At first she thinks it’s curiosity. She had tempered her use of her powers enough that slipping into their minds was a harmless easy slide. She made sure there was no pain learning early on that the more painless it was for her targets the longer she could stay.

He’s crouched before her, jaw working quietly. It doesn’t escape her how quickly he moved and how silently. Steve still sleeps five feet away and hasn’t acknowledged his absence. She should be afraid but she isn’t. She meets his gaze head on and offers him a small smile the way Yelena taught her. He’s still a man after all. She drops her eyes after ten seconds to give the appearance of vulnerability and is pleased by his sharp intake of breath. It occurs to her then that they are at the edge of a cliff. Tomorrow will bring irrevocable change and she may not get another chance.

She can hear Pietro telling her to have courage in her thoughts and steels herself, unwilling to let girlish glee derail her now. She wets her lips and nervously fixes her hair all the will enduring the heat of his eyes on her.

“I’m sorry,” she begins, though she can’t be sorry for this, not really. It sounds nice though. It sets people at ease. Natasha taught her that. What luck she had had learning from not one but two Black Widows!

“Sometimes I can’t help it,” she whispers. The soldier grimaces in what she hopes is understanding. She pushes forward, intrepid as ever. His breathing has since evened out. He’s finally settling in her presence. She always knew he would eventually. He tips his head to the side curiously, looking more relaxed than she’s ever seen him. It leaves her filled with warmth and content.

“But not tonight?”

“No,” she boldly admits the secret between them hoping to draw him closer, “not tonight.”

His jaw works hard at her admission but he stays still eyes never leaving hers. He’s never looked more beautiful not even standing over the last remaining Stark. It’s more clear to her than ever that this could be the start of something powerful.

She used to think that she needed him to help her kill Stark. When he was lost she had to reevaluate and yet again when she lost her twin to Ultron leaving her feeling like she had been cleaved in two. Vision had been her next solution. It was easy to keep him close as a mentor and friend. If she could have just one or both no one could hope to touch her ever again. She smiles softly always keeping appearances.

“You saw…” The Soldier says quietly. She just barely keeps herself together enough to incline her head slightly and is careful to stay calm. The last thing she needs is him thinking she’s had a negative reaction to his dreams when that couldn’t be further from the truth. She shifts and reaches out slowly with her hand and brushes the tips of her fingers across the knuckles of the metal fist resting against his knee. She’s sure he must be able to hear her heart beating excitedly almost ready to pound right out of her chest. He doesn’t jerk away from her nor does he flinch. His posture remains relaxed though a bit hunched now as she slides her hand from his hand up his metal arm, wondering briefly if he can even feel the sensation, sweeping up to squeeze at his shoulder reassuringly.

She does not expect the tears to form in his eyes at her kindness but she’ll take them all the same. Every reaction is an advantage to exploit. She inches forward ever mindful that he could snap her in two at any second. Even with her enhancements she’s still human. Her bones can still break especially under super soldier hands. She’s sure at this point that he’s clocked this as well and is the only reason why she’s been allowed closer. With surprisingly still fingers she pulls him to her in a sort of embrace with his head resting gently on her shoulder and her arms encircling his chest. He lets out a quiet sob amongst the soft snores and settling groans of the warehouse and she smiles in triumph. Not even Steve has gotten this far. Her mind whirls with the possibilities.

“It was just a dream,” she consoles hoping to provoke him. She is not disappointed when his silence stretches for but a moment of hesitation before he speaks again.

“N-no, it wasn’t,” he says. Elation fills her from head to toe but still she must confirm. Her hand deftly strokes down his back.

“What?”

“I killed Stark. Oh, God, I killed them all,” he says and another sob escapes into her shoulder. His body trembles against hers but all she can do is release a long held breath of relief.

“Thank you, thank you,” she says resolutely. “You don’t know how much it means to me to hear you say that.”

“I-I don’t-”

“It’s all I have wished for since I was a child,” her voice takes on a fervor she can no longer hide. He begins to jerk back but holds tight to him.

“Shh. It’s alright. I know the others won’t understand,” she says providing him much needed comfort. It’s true, for all that the others understood about Stark, they couldn’t possibly understand what it was to relieve the world of such filth. He jerks back a second time more strongly and like a reflex her magic leapt from her skin and slid around them covering them both and locking in place around their backs. She continues to rub against his back shushing his increasingly panicked sounds. She’s running out of time to make him understand. She’s on his side here.

“What was it like?” She asks nearly feverish with need. “Did he at least have the courtesy to beg for his life? Did he really cry? I wish I could have been there with you but I’m still so thankful. You have to know that. I would have done it myself if I could have gotten close enough. I thought I would you know? After I joined them I hoped that I would get a chance but he was clever. Never stayed near me long enough for me to give him more than a few nightmares. Never allowed himself to be left alone with me. But you did it. I’m so grateful it was you. I read the report from your mission. I know you were meant to have three targets but only got two and the recovered serum for your trouble. So I’m glad it was you. One last completed mission.”

She grunts when he tears away from her scooting back until his back hits the opposite wall with a loud enough thud that Steve shoots straight up into a crouch his hand hovering over his shield. His eyes scan the room and Wanda schools her face into something frightened.

“Wanda? Bucky?”

“It’s okay Steve,” Wanda says sweetly. “I think Bucky just had a nightmare that’s all.”

Steve drops his guard instantly and goes to his best friend, crouching down in front of him and crowding into his space. Over Steve’s shoulder Wanda can see Bucky’s wide eyes shift towards her then skittishly away never fully giving Steve his attention. The tightness is back in his limbs and even when Steve gets him to come back to the cot Bucky sits upright eyes not on her but keeping track of her location.

Steve crosses over to her next crouching next to her and wrapping a thickly muscled arm around her shoulders. She supposes it’s a gesture meant to reassure but his grasp is just a hair too tight, his words a tad too desperate as he tries to make excuses for his tortured friend. Captain America the bastion of American goodness and righteousness, always calm in the face of certain danger and reserved when meeting conflict head on looks harried. Wanda wasn’t even aware that exhaustion could affect the man but here he was with bags beneath his eyes and a haggard expression on his face even as he struggled to stay vigilant. More than that. He looked, young. As young as she was at least in body. He truly was nothing more than a boy with a flag painted on his back as she had read in the earliest report on him from The Red Skull himself, rest his soul.

With only hours to sunrise she eases down onto the open cot by the Soldier’s side aware of how the man keeps his back firmly pressed against the wall and his red rimmed eyes on her at all times. With a soft apologetic look Wanda closes her eyes. This close she can hear the racing of his heart. He doesn’t sleep again.

Wanda laments the loss.

In the morning they rise and Steve looks so much worse Sam badgers him into getting at least a few hours sleep as they prepare. The Soldier resumes his stoic staring at the wall while Scott makes a run for food and to check on a car for them to get around in. It would be easier and less suspicious than a group of their size and obvious descriptions walking about. Plus Steve estimated that the airport was more than 64 kilometers away.

“I can’t believe he left his bow,” Sam says, handling the aforementioned equipment. Wanda sighs herself and shoves up from her spot on the floor.

“Well, I imagine he was in a hurry,” she tells him. She’s still more than a little bitter that Clint slipped away from them so easily.

“C’mon Wanda. I’m sure he had his reasons,” Sam says. He sets the bow back down and wraps her in a tight hug. What these men never remembered was that she already had a brother. He died. She had no need for another. She waits patiently for him to drop his arms and shrugs.

“I just hope they haven’t hurt him,” she says tearfully and with that Sam is hugging her again buying into her worry without hesitation. This was the easy part, Yelena once told her. Keeping them invested only takes minor maintenance. It’s rather like sharpening a knife or rather tightening a screw. Once they’re done she stretches and crosses to the window careful to still keep herself hidden but still allowing herself to soak up the warmth of the sun on this beautiful day.

The start of a new world without Tony Stark in it.

Chapter Text

Pepper doesn't have a suit. She's never really wanted one until today. Not until she watches Rhodey fly off to fight their battle for them and itches for one of her own. Not until she’s left behind to watch Tony fight for his life.

 

Her fingers curl into her palms and uncurl just as quickly to avoid drawing her own blood. She repeats as necessary while Dr. Helen Cho studies the data the coffin...no..the cradle provides. It's not a coffin, it’s not. But it reminds her of one. It’s sleek and silver altered, as Dr. Cho explained earlier, from it’s former more open model for the application of Extremis. Now there’s a cover that hissed when it slid shut over Tony’s face hours ago. It’s meant to keep the patient in a sterile environment for the duration of the treatment and she’s been staring at it for what feels like hours hoping for some sign of progress. She’d picked up plenty of knowledge through the years of working alongside Tony but delving this deep in biotechnology has her lost. It’s not her first time. She doesn’t like it.

 

Pepper eases down onto the stiff couch in a lab she's never actually spent time. It's a small research division dedicated to bioengineering but Tony had still requested that a small workspace be set aside for him and so she had set to work getting it ready. And then he never came. Afghanistan had happened and so much after that. It wasn't a surprise. But the workshop sat relatively empty and waiting. She’s actually thankful it has. It made things easier when Dr Cho showed up with a truckload of equipment.

 

Still, everything here is almost sterile in its cleanliness. No errant metal components litter the work stations. No smudges of grease permanently dug into every crevice. FRIDAY has never even been installed much less JARVIS.

 

It leaves her feeling off kilter. The space is very familiar but cold.  Worst of all there's no chatter. Dr. Cho came with a handful of assistants for transport and installation but has long since dismissed them to maintain the privacy Tony’s situation commands. Only Dr. Cho remains sliding between the display on the cradle and the several holo screens hovering beside her. She has already explained that she's monitoring Tony’s progress through the hours it will take for Extremis to cycle through his body. The cradle is meant to help stabilize the effects and provide a gentler treatment than AIM’s version. She'll need to stay glued to his side in case she needs to make adjustments on the fly.

 

Helen is quiet aside from the odd murmur here or there and the concept is alien to Pepper. It's the space, she knows, that causes this irrational aggravation to bubble up. There's an urge to turn on some music loud enough that the glass doors vibrate but Pepper remains stationary. Even with the sound it would all somehow seem less here in this lab meant to host a frenetic genius. There’s too much room and not enough. No bots puttering around with toxic smoothies or fire extinguishers at the ready. She can’t even begin to imagine Jim climbing beneath the continuously in repair Roadster Tony kept over the years for him. So she doesn’t.

 

Her fingers coil around the sleek sides of her own personal tablet Tony lovingly built himself. It's the one thing Friday is connected to here and she can't even contact her for fear of distracting her during a firefight. Or worse distracting Jim. She can't quite get the look in his eyes out of her thoughts. It's easier to think about than the way Tony looked when he brought him in.

 

Pepper sucks in a breath because she can see it clearly as if they’re both in front of her with Jim’s hollowed out expression and the horrifying amount of blood covering Tony’s face. She'd never seen them like this. Even during Afghanistan she only saw the aftermath. The bruising anger that Jim fostered when he realized there had to be a leak somewhere because there was no way the terrorists knew exactly when and where to hit. Jim’s wounds had already been bandaged up and healing when he made it back to her and Tony...well she knew that the end result was much better than what he had to start with. It was a miracle he hadn’t subcombed to infection. Thankfully they had all emerged from their encounter with Vanko and Hammer relatively unscathed but Killian is the only situation that comes close to this for her. The hours spent not knowing if Tony was alive or lying somewhere at the bottom of the ocean were nearly enough to break her. No to mention his brief trip into space. She was usually somewhere else and aided mercifully by other pressing matters to keep herself occupied.

 

She tries to pass the time by coordinating with their PR department on controlling the narrative. The video of Jim carrying Tony out and flying away is everywhere along with city traffic footage of the Captain's chase through Bucharest and the collapse of the tunnel and the aftermath.  There’s no putting a lid on that though she has better luck when she reminds Everett Ross with how close they are to their next military contract negotiations. It does the trick and he signs the gag order without much fuss. She’s had her phone set to “Do Not Disturb” ever since. She’s never done that before. The silence is as freeing as it is terrifying. Every second she instinctually reaches for her phone and stops short. Her secretary knows how to tow the line until she resurfaces. She knows she doesn’t have long.

 

The threat of legal action is enough to keep one Ross at bay but the other is less likely. It’s never stopped him before. Tony used to remind her when they met with Thaddeus Ross annually over experimental equipment and weapons contracts that Tony always refused. She’s not sure how much longer she can keep him at bay. He’s aware that there’s been an injury but in the dark about the specifics. She could tell him. She’s very tempted to do so. She could give him what he needs to bring the Avenger’s house crashing down around them. If only she could get Tony’s disappointed face out of her thoughts long enough to do it.

 

She rests her head in her hands now sitting on that far too stiff couch comforted by the odd murmur of Dr. Cho shuffling around.

 

Rhodes bringing them in will do no good if they have to immediately redirect and rescue the bastards from Thaddeus Ross in the next breath. And Tony would want to. The idiot. That damned forgiving fool and his lack of self preservation. He’d wake up from all of this barely clinging to life and beg them to save the Avengers knowing that both of them would be content to let them rot.

 

“Pepper!” Dr. Cho sounds hesitant. Pepper drags her gaze from the tablet in her lap and notices that the doctor is right next to her on one knee trying to catch her attention for what must have been some time. Pepper shakes her head and musters up a grim smile. How had Jim done this? In an active war zone no less? She musters up an expression that must resemble some kind of calm because the doctor continues.  

 

“We’re almost through. I need to discuss some of these results with you. Do you think we can get Colonel Rhodes on the phone?”

 

“Unfortunately, he’ll be unavailable until his mission is complete. Until then I’m Tony’s sole power of attorney,” Pepper says mechanically. Helen nods. “What are we looking at?”

 

Slowly, ever so slowly, Pepper draws in a deep breath. It fills her lungs and puffs out her chest in a show of strength and confidence she’s not sure she has the ability to fake for much longer. Her hopeful smile feels brittle.

 

“Everything is coming along nicely. The modifications done to the extremis virus have healed and strengthened Tony's damaged cells and bones. As far as the gunshot wound...we were lucky. The bullet seemed to have entered the frontal lobe and went clean through the frontal lobe and as explained earlier there was an exit wound. The track the bullet made appears to be completely repaired. There was minor swelling at the time we administered Extremis but all of my data is indicating that the swelling has gone down.”

 

Pepper lets out a relieved sigh and is mortified when she breathes deeply again only to find that It’s not enough air. Helen rubs her back as she continues to try and those deep breaths are accompanied by sobs and tears that streak across her makeup. She’s a mess. She always is when it comes to them. There’s something like hope creeping up on her that she instinctively, viciously stomps down in favor of caution. Of the worst possible scenario because she doesn’t know how to not prepare for it. It’s become her only means of defense against this over the years. When Jim is on duty and can’t respond to a check in or Tony is shot clear out of the sky by some enterprising villain. She retreats into that place where she allows herself to brace for it.
Because Pepper Potts can’t afford to fall apart when it does. Because when either of them are down it’s her turn to fight.

 

Helen still looks hesitant and it occurs to her that this isn’t all good news. She’s been expecting as much for hours. She’s still hopeful when she asks, unable to help herself.

 

“He’ll live?”

 

“It’s not a question of whether he’ll live anymore,” Helen says through a tight grimace that sends Pepper’s heart plummeting down.  She looks away towards the cradle worry all over her face.

 

“This version of Extremis is designed for something as catastrophic as this, yes, but there’s so much we don’t know about the human brain. It’s impossible to know what exactly Extremis puts back together. Tony could just as well wake up without any complications. Or he could not wake up at all. I have those numbers if you would like?” Helen offers.

 

Pepper shakes her head. She’s not ready to lose him. A sharp pain radiates from her palm where her nails have just started to break the skin. She needs Jim. God she needs Jim. She needs and wants but no one is coming. She inhales sharply and bit by bit yanks herself back together until she can hold the tablet in her hands without shaking. She tucks the device under her arm and snatches up her purse on the way to the small, in Tony’s relative terms, bathroom. She hesitates on this side of the door all of her strength seemingly used up in one action. The door holds her up even as she sags against it fingers still curled into her palms tight enough to draw blood.

 

Pepper’s thankful for the pain. It’s sharp enough to focus her. It acts as a reminder. That she still has a job to do. That people are depending on her. Tony and Jim and everyone in her employ. That failure isn’t an option. Her breathing begins to slow and she shakes her head to clear it unsure of when she’d truly begun to panic. When she can she deposits her bag and tablet on the counter and faces herself in the mirror for the first time in 24 hours. She looks like shit and she knows it. Make-up smeared beneath her eyes, skin pale, wide red rimmed eyes. She looks scared and she hates it. There’s no room for fear here. She can brace for the worst all she wants but she knows better than to ever let anyone see it.

 

Tony likes to believe that he taught her that. Sometimes she lets him. Between the three of them Jim knows the truth just as well as she does.

 

It takes a sharp twist of the knob to get the cold water running. Without missing a beat she shoves her hands into the sink and lets the ice cold water wash over her skin. It jolts her more than the pain did. Makes her feel more awake. Once her fingers are cold enough she sets to work erasing the damage by first bringing them to her eyes. It takes 10 minutes to see any improvement but she’s sure she’s clear eyed when she moves on to washing away the days make up and dirt from her face. She feels refreshed when she does. More capable. It’s like working with a fresh canvas. The pads of her fingers ghost reverently across each name as she unpacks several tubes and palettes from her bag.

 

Everything becomes easier when she feels that first swipe of foundation across her cheekbones. It’s even more soothing as she slips across her jaw with the sponge, liquid easing the way across freckles often lovingly kissed. She draws across her face and blends firmly as muscle memory takes over. Her boys call it “putting on her war paint and Pepper’s never confirmed or denied it but at least here she can admit it to herself while she’s applying blush and dabbing concealer over any obvious lines. She loses herself in brushing eyeshadow over her eyelids. Disappears into the slick slide of lipstick until there’s nothing left but Virginia Potts in front of her.

 

She doesn’t know how long she stands there until she reaches into her bag and finds her phone. Her eyes slip shut when she grasps the tiny device. Her finger hovers over the menu screen. Overwhelmed would have been an understatement to describe the sheer volumes of phone calls she had been bombarded with. That was when she had hope this would blow over. That Tony wouldn’t be in as bad a shape as Jim had described. She admits to herself that that ship has long since sailed and switches off the setting with a few taps and within seconds her phone begins a shrill ring that sets her heart to racing.

 

She’s always found comfort in her work. She hopes it doesn’t fail her. It can’t.

Chapter Text

He thinks warmth should equal safety but it doesn’t. Not here. Not now.

Something isn’t right.

It hasn’t been right since God knows when. Longer than James can remember. Before, it was like an itch at the back of his mind rooting it’s way to way to the forefront when there was only supposed to be the comfort of stark blank space.

He tries to emulate this headspace right up until the witch takes to the skies with Sam engulfed in red swirls. She hasn’t tried to speak with him since the early hours of the day and he thanks God for small mercies. He wasn’t aware before but now he is. His dreams hadn’t been entirely comforting but they had been his. Private. The only place where he could try to atone and imagine just for a second that he deserved forgiveness for the damage his own hands have wrought.

He might not have even known she was there last night if not for the sudden euphoria that had spread through him when Stark hit the floor and didn’t get back up. It was when he gleefully started searching for pieces of skull and brain matter on the ground that he began trying to fight her influence. It was like running into a solid wall over and over. He’d back away to find another surface and then another closer than before. Red walls boxing him in trapping him where she could reach.

He supposed she wasn’t used to her victims fighting back though. With how Hydra liked to do things it wasn’t hard to imagine that most of them didn’t know what hit them until it was too late and they were lost in shock and fear and whatever else she could inspire. So even as she tried to keep him he pushed and shoved and clawed until those red walls crumbled.

She had merely been an observer in his mind and he can still feel her like an ever resistant residue covering even the recesses of his mind. When he thinks of Stark everything is bathed in shimmering red and not just the blood, every surface from the floors to the high vaulted ceilings. And when he pulls the trigger instead of guilt he feels elation and that makes him sick for a multitude of reasons. He hears her voice shamelessly asking him how it felt to rid the world of the Stark legacy. As if he should be proud. Heat blooms from his chest through the rest of him. It feels wrong and wonderful in turns just begging him to embrace it. He refuses and it’s painful. A reminder that it would be easier to give in and let the warmth seep into him right down to his bones until there’s no carving her out. He can’t be sure if she meant to but it’s there at every errant musing of her motives. It’s an attempt to wear him down with little pulses of happiness whenever she crosses his thoughts.

He avoids it by staying awake and alert.

He’s been trained to operate on 90 minutes of sleep a day in a pinch. So, he’s fully lucid enough to shake away all that red and remind himself of the truth about the Starks. That when The Winter Soldier returned to his handlers he needed a whole new team because the rampage he’d went on after left none alive. That they had to put him on ice for five years after that as a precaution.

How did it feel to murder Tony Stark? Like the worst ending to his story. The one he’d been avoiding by staying far the fuck away from everyone else. He’d been trying. Thinking he could eek out some sort of life. Even if it were only spent putting the bits of his memory back together piece by piece.

He was foolish to think he could enjoy that luxury. That he deserved to after everything.

These things are not for him. They never were. No matter what Steve believes. He’s unable to put much faith in that anyway. It’s a pity. There’s some part of him, he thinks it might be from before the fall so it must be Bucky, that yearns to follow Steve. To believe in his words. It feels desperate and worn but it’s him all the same. It’s a fragment that’s been shut up inside for so long the voice rasps in his head from disuse. The voice is warm but quiet in the face of the Winter Soldier’s growling warnings growing ever louder like a klaxon alarm filling up his head. They don’t like each other much. He can see why. He doesn’t really like them either but they’re stuck together for better or worse. Before all of this they had been his only companions, each doing what they could to piece his past together.

They’ve been with him since the beginning. When he woke up in the hands of Hydra and they began their erasure of who he was and followed up with molding him into their weapon. He hasn’t told Steve. Mostly because every time he’s tried the Soldier starts screaming. It’s sharp and shrill and enough to leave him on the ground trying to figure out why he can’t breathe.

James shifts around until he sits opposite Steve in the back of the van they’re using for transport. There are no windows back here considering their faces are the ones probably plastered everywhere. He hasn’t really been paying attention. Too consumed with replaying the awful feeling of pulling the trigger on the child of one of his friends. He remembers Howard. He remembers cracking his skull against the steel door of his car. He remembers his wife’s soft pleas. It’s impossible to forget. It’s just that now he also remembers Howard’s solid laugh and mischievous grin. He remembers his content smile when handing off improved weaponry to the Howlies. He can remember him trying to drink Bucky under the table and failing.

It makes everything worse. Worse than any other kill because he doesn’t just go back to sleep after. He knows and now he can’t forget. He can’t forget that he felt good after. Because nearly a century ago he was programed to feel satisfied after a mission was completed. That after every kill he would feel the same sensation of fulfilment normal people felt when they ate something particularly delicious. As if he had accomplished something. When Tony Stark dropped to the ground blood already seeping from the back of his head he was riding a high not unlike what Maximoff projected but deeper, resonating from his core.

He felt like vomiting the moment he snapped out of it. He was glad when Steve didn’t ask. He was sure he’d be upset if he told him. That this would finally be the moment where Steve Rogers saw him for what he was.

Why didn’t he ask?

He had to know.

They all had to know by now.

How could they not?

If The Winter Soldier put his hands on Stark the man was dead no matter what the reports said.

That’s all there was to it. He was every bit the monster they said he was. No amount of time away would change that. He had tried to explain to Steve. Tried so many times to tell him that Bucky was dead. He died when he fell and he wasn’t coming back. In reality he had died the day he went off to war, forever changed the first time a bullet whizzed past his head and embedded itself in the soft squishy chest of a man not one year younger than he was. The first night he spent sleeping amongst the dying and injured it was irrefutable. Bucky Barnes wasn’t coming back home to Brooklyn whole and perhaps not at all. Whatever was left was destroyed under Hydra’s expert care. That was what they did. They created monsters and unleashed them onto the world.

Wanda had that air about her. This was fact no matter what that pulse tried to get him to believe. It was masked in kindness and wrapped in youthful innocence. In the gentle way she looked after Clint and Sam. He hadn’t been able to put a finger on it until he looked into her eyes after she invaded his dreams. That patented Hydra cruelty that marked the lifers from the blind followers. He wondered how she had sharpened it. Or rather on whom. How had it escaped everyone that she had honed these skills on the backs of innocents just like he had? No one joined Hydra just to join. There were no wallflowers. There were no pencil pushers. Everyone right down to the most innocuous looking accountant is willing and has taken a life for the cause. Many more of them didn’t have to be brainwashed to do it.

Had she ever practiced on him? Had he seen her there? He can’t be sure. His time spent out of cryo before missions are all mashed together in one big convoluted mess. They whirl around each other not matching up to specific dates and times. Not that he was ever able to keep track of them anyway. More like specific years. Decades closer than that. He was more likely to notice that he had been asleep for 10 years than vague stretches of time when they used him more frequently.

He couldn’t recall a time when they could have crossed paths. He knew the faces of the other Winter Soldiers but never hers. It could be that they were kept separate or that he was on assignment. She was young and would have only met him in the last decade. He was used often then after his hiatus.

Either way she’s not to be trusted. More than that. She’s a threat. To him. To Steve. To anyone that pisses her off. He’s heard Steve say that she can’t control her powers as well as she would like and he wants to tell him it’s a lie.

He wants to tell him. Just like with Stark. Like with many things. The urge to tell Steve is strong. Is this friendship? He doesn’t know. He knows the meaning of the word but he can scarcely reconcile the pleasant feeling the definition implies with the caution churning in his gut. Up until now his instincts have told him to trust the blonde man before him. Now he’s not so sure. It leaves him feeling off kilter even more than when the day began. It’s something he’s unused to.

He’s stuck between strongly wanting to trust and someone screaming at him not to. It weighs on him and has kept him quiet for most of their time together. Maybe Barton had the right idea. He didn’t know the man. Barely spoke to him in the 8 hours they had spent together. He’s run those hours over and over again to try and figure out when the man decided to leave. Was there something he had missed? Some clue that tipped the archer off that he needed to escape? Where had he even gone?

If he were smart he would have gone to the other side. Back to Natalia. Steve keeps talking about Tony as if he’s running things from some command center. He’s not. He’s dead. Without all of the other variables his analysis is limited but from what he does know it’s clear Steve’s plan won’t work. Especially with Stark out of commission. The others seem to think that would be a good thing, even going as far as to squabble over who got to throw the first punch, but it’s not. It’s going to be a bloodbath. The other side is aware that they won’t come quietly. And unfortunately there were deaths in that stairwell of his old safehouse and Stark can’t be the only casualty from when the Winter Soldier escaped custody. At the moment he had only focused on getting out and disappearing again. All of his hard work and carefully laid plans washed away in less than 10 minutes.

What was a handful of lives in comparison to hundreds if someone from Hydra caught up with him again? That was what coming back with Steve meant. That Hydra knew where to find him when they were ready to move again. Just because their last mass murder scheme failed didn’t mean they weren’t already prepping a dozen more. So he ran.

And he would again.

He can’t let them gain control of him. He can’t bring Tony Stark back. Can’t bring any of them back. There’s nothing he can do to change the past. But until he can find someone who can safely put him on ice again he can keep himself away from them. He’ll have to go remote. Further away from civilization than before. He notices Steve’s eyes on him when he’s about halfway through his list of possibilities.

He’s been avoiding this. They both have. Ever since he first tried to tell Steve the truth about him. Since Steve refused to hear it. He’s never been a coward though. At least that he can remember. So without another second of hesitation he lifts his eyes and meets Steve head on.

It’s like being lost at sea, his eyes are so blue besides a tiny hint of green maring the perfection. There’s an openness there among the sadness. He’s not sure if Steve means for it to engulf him so but it does. The emotion comes off the other man in waves. There’s something else underneath that reads as downright cold. It doesn’t seem to belong there in Steve’s eyes. For once his voices are quiet. Neither offer an opinion on one Steve Rogers. It fills him with malaise. They’ve never been in agreement before. It feels impossible but here he is alone with the man the Soldier refuses to trust and Bucky wanted them to run to and they’re both silent leaving him to decide. He decides they’re both assholes for doing so and is dismayed to hear nothing from them in return. He truly is alone.

“It’ll all be over soon,” Steve says and reaches out to squeeze James’ knee. His hand is warm through the gloves. He can feel his anxious heartbeat thrumming beneath the longer he holds on. The rhythm is strong and erratic. For a man who looks so assured he’s awfully afraid.

“Does it need to happen at all?” James asks. Steve’s brow furrows in concern. They go over a bump and Scott calls back to them.

“Sorry!”

James finds that once he’s started looking he can’t stop. He knows what he remembers of Steven Grant Rogers. They’re Bucky’s memories really. Not his. But he remembers. A small boy always spoiling for a fight. He remembers Bucky’s mother telling him that he was one fist fight away from death’s door if the sickness didn’t get him first.

He’s trouble, she used to tell him when they were nothing but boys.

When trouble was something they couldn’t really afford in the face of living one paycheck from homelessness and a unmarked grave. James thinks she wanted him to stay a boy a little longer but being friends with Steve Rogers meant facing the uncomfortable futility of mortality even at age seven. His memories tell him she gave up on that fight the day Sarah Rogers died and Steve showed up on their doorstep looking pitiful and lost. It’s curious to him. If she knew what had happened to her son would she have fought just a bit harder to separate them? Or could she always see her son following Steve Rogers straight into hell? That’s where they had all ended up in the end. Sometimes James thinks he’s still there.

He shifts apprehensively and his hair sweeps across his shoulders in a curtain of dark brown. Steve tilts his head to the side in confusion as if he can’t even begin to comprehend why Bucky might not want this. To go to war again. Bucky isn’t speaking to him right now but James still experiences the roll of unease. If not for their own sake then for Steve.

“I don’t know if I’m worth all this Steve,” James says as plainly as possible, leaving no room for misinterpretation. If he can just get him to see how wrong this is. How much even he doesn’t want this. Just maybe Steve will come in quietly and James can go free.

“What do you mean, Buck?” Steve asks, his voice going quiet and his features soft. He’s staring back so intently James has to look away. Trouble is, there’s not much more to focus on and he has to see him to know the truth. So with a heavy feeling in his gut he drags his gaze back to meet Steve’s.

“You don’t know...the things I’ve done,” James begins. Steve shakes his head vehemently, eyes going wide.

“I know, Buck, I know.”

“You can’t possibly know Steve. I have over 20 confirmed kills. That’s just what I’ve been able to piece together over the last year! 20 lives I’ve taken.”

“Jesus, Bucky I read the files!” Steve shouts looking aghast. Finally, James thinks. Finally he’s beginning to see that this isn’t necessary. That perhaps Bucky should be locked away as far away from human beings as possible. That he can’t even trust himself and so why should anyone else?

“So you understand.”

“I understand,” Steve says with a heavy sigh and conviction ringing through every word, “ that it wasn’t your fault.”

James wants to bang his head against the walls until he punches clean through.

“I still did it, Steve!”

“It was Hydra! Not you. Leave the blame where it belongs!”

“I killed Howard.” James says. The words come out harshly through gritted teeth. He’s ashamed to use his old friend after what he’s done but it’s painfully clear that this needs to be made personal for Steve to get it. He’s disappointed after all of the rosy memories Bucky conjured up in his defense that Steve needs him to do this at all. Where is the Steve Rogers that fights for justice for all? Where’s the man that grew from the boy who hated bullies?

“I don’t care!” Steve shouts back. James blinks at him. He can’t do anything else but stare at the man Bucky touted as pure goodness.

“Steve…”

“It wasn’t you!” Steve hisses. “It wasn’t. Stop trying to convince me otherwise because I’m not buying it. You’re my friend, Buck. You’re...you’re more than that. Please don’t make me.”

“Jesus, Stevie,” James whispers, unwilling to fight Bucky on this one if he needs to speak. The young soldier muscles his way forward.

“Do the others know? Do they know who they’re laying their lives down for?” Bucky asks, his voice goes no higher than a whisper. In his memories the young man is boisterous and full of life. Now everything sets him off from raised voices to the sound of a book falling from a shelf. He runs too easily and it grates on the Soldiers nerves. James understands though. If he had seen the things Bucky has he would run too. He just doesn’t often have the choice to do so. Steve’s jaw works so hard James thinks he might break it. Not that it would matter.

“Stevie, please,” Bucky tries again and with a shake of his head Steve confirms his fears.

“If I told you right now that I don’t want anyone else’s blood on my hands. That I would rather turn myself in than fight...would you let me? ”

Steve’s gaze hardens to an implacable glare. The kindness Bucky knew swallowed up by defiance.

“I can’t let you do that. I won’t. You know this is the right thing to do. No one else can get to those soldiers before we do. And when we do and we apprehend Zemo they’ll have no choice but to help you. The right way. I won’t have them treat you like some mindless killer. I won’t stand for it,” Steve says.

“You don’t deserve that. I don’t care what Tony and the others think!”

“Don’t I get to decide what I deserve? Don’t the others get to know what they’re really fighting for? What they might die for?”

“It won’t come to that!” Steve vehemently shouts .

Bucky fades then as quickly as he’d come forward and before the Soldier can wrest control of this mess and make things any worse than they are James gets there first. The van comes to a stop. Scott opens the back door and Steve shakes his head.

“You guys okay?” Scott asks eyebrows raised at what must be very visible tension on both of their faces.

“We’re okay. Till the end of the line, right Buck?” Steve asks looking dead at him with such hopefulness a little part inside of James just cracks and falls apart.
“Yeah, Stevie, till the end of the line,” James says softly. Steve smiles at him blindingly bright and climbs out of the van and steps out into the deserted parking garage.

James follows.

Wanda and Sam swoop into the garage and come to stand beside a suited up Scott. Steve is going over the plan and confirming that the QuinJet has arrived. He listens but just barely as Sam tells them the jet has landed across the airport forcing them to cross over a wide open swath of runway to get to it with several jumbo jets in between. There’s not much cover and to move through the airport will take time they don’t have. So they’ll get as close to the QuinJet as possible and Steve, Bucky, and Wanda will make a stand while Scott and Sam make their way over to the Jet. Steve hopes his group will be enough of a distraction. James can’t help but to feel it’s foolish.

He keeps himself grounded by telling himself it’s almost over. They get into position and wait.

It’s almost over. He feels relieved at each reminder.

He’ll have to get close to complete his goal.

Twin booms startle Scott but Steve and Sam and Wanda share a knowing look. It’s time.

They walk openly across the tarmac to draw them out. At least that part works. Two suits of armor land about 20 feet away. One is red and gold and the other is a gun-metal gray. Each sports a cold metal mask. He suspects one of them is empty.

Natalia drops from the wing of a jet with ease her limber frame as lethal as he remembers it being. She stalks forward with eyes only for Steve. There’s rage coiled tightly in every movement of her body. James doesn’t envy him.

The man that had approached him before on the rooftop, dressed in what he could only describe as an actual cat suit stepped from behind one of the plane’s giant wheels. Now he was a surprise. His gait was no longer so eager as it was before or aggressive.

On the other side of Steve, because James was careful to keep his distance even now, Wanda sucks in a sharp breath as a man or rather being floats down to join the other side dressed in green and gold. His cape flutters around him when he lands and his gaze is impassive as it sweeps over them. Wanda steps out immediately heading for him forcing Steve and, by default, James to follow.

“Viz?” Wanda says hesitantly and there’s that breathy hint of innocence there that makes James cringe. He’s at least pleased to note that there’s no sight of Clint Barton anywhere. That’s one less element to consider.

“Vision?”

He comes to a stop beside Steve who has his hand on Wanda’s shoulder squeezing gently in comfort as the being named Vision continues to ignore her. Her face goes red without the use of her powers.

“VIZ!” She shouts drawing his cold gaze to her. She steps back just behind Steve when the being now doesn’t look away content to stare until she averts her gaze. Seemingly shell shocked she switches her focus to the War Machine armor. It’s probably for the best.

“It’s over Steve,” Natalia says. Next to her the gun-metal gray suit’s faceplate slides away revealing a stern dark skinned man with a stormy expression on his face. James is taken aback by how angry he looks. More than Natasha he looks like a man on a hairline trigger. Just waiting to be set off. The Soldier offers up a name.

Colonel James Rhodes, War Machine pilot, United State Air Force. Close associate of Tony Stark. Ah, so that was what it was. James wished he could convey to him how sorry he was but he wasn’t sure it would be welcome. The more he drank in James Rhodes, his posture, the rhythmic clenching of his hands, the laser like focus he had on him and Steve, he was absolutely sure it wouldn’t be.

Love was weird like that. Or so Bucky had told him.

“With all due respect, Natasha, I don’t think you know what you’re talking about,” Steve says then glances at the red and gold suit.

“Tony, glad to see you’re okay. You need to let us go,” Steve says to the suit. James feels hysterical laughter building from within. He really doesn’t know. He’s really that willfully ignorant.

“Tony isn’t here,” Colonel Rhodes says.

“Oh what, he was too busy?” Steve asks seeming to brighten up at his absence. Rhodes’ glare hardens. Natasha looks like she’s about to burst into movement. “Has he given up this pointless assault on our rights?”

“You need to come in Steve,” Natalia tries again glancing between the two men rapidly. She can sense it. He can tell. That’s one good thing Hydra taught them. They both know when a situation is about to go pear shaped.

“He’s not here because your buddy murdered him in cold blood,” Rhodes growls. To his surprise, Steve doesn’t miss a beat before plowing forward.

“You know that wasn’t his fault,” Steve growls back defiant and bull headed to the very end. James feels the bottom drop out of his stomach. Did he know?

“Like hell,” Rhodes says his weapons charging.

“We have the entire airport surrounded. There’s no way out Steve,” Natalia says. “You’re coming with us.”

“You don’t understand. We have to--”

“Get to Siberia?” Natalia says. “We already know about the soldiers and Zemo. We’re investigating.”

“We don’t have time for this! Don’t you see? This is just more red tape designed to keep us from doing what’s right!” Steve shouts. He’s clearly watching his plan fall apart. If they don’t go to Siberia then his precious Bucky doesn’t save the world and supposedly prove he’s redeemed. If the others go he’s no longer a hero.

“I don’t think you know what that is anymore,” Natalia says, clearly through with this conversation.

“And you do?” Steve snarls. A burst of red flares from Wanda making everyone jump.

“Wanda?” Steve reaches out to shake her shoulder and grunts when her power snaps forward and shoves him back.

“You,” her voice has settled into a deep growl as she addresses Rhodes who looks like he couldn’t gives less than a single solitary fuck about her temper tantrum. James decides that in another life he could have gotten along with this man. In a world where he didn’t kill his friend in cold blood that was.

Her magic shoots from her hands straight for Rhodes’ uncovered face. The man drops to his knees immediately, face twisted in pain drawing in sharp pained breaths. His team forms up around him. Natalia has her weapons drawn, two electrified batons readied to do damage.

“Let him go!” Natalia shouts.

“Move now,” Steve signals Scott and Sam over the comms just as James hears Natalia say just as clearly, “Wasp, go.”

His attention is drawn back to the witch though. Her fingers flexing delicately as she dug through the mind of her victim.

Her eyes go wide as the red recedes slowly slipping back inside her. Rhodes slumps to the side and catches himself with one arm.

“No...no…No!” Wanda's voice is shaky with hysteria that sends a cold shiver down his spine. “You son of a bitch!”

“He’s alive,” she whispers brokenly and then all hell breaks loose.

Chapter Text

Chapter 9

“Before, Extremis would have created a sort of cocoon around the test subjects--if they lived beyond the initial stage--that worked to insulate and keep them alive during the process. From the research Tony recovered from Dr. Hansen’s servers we were able to discern that this process was very taxing on the body and traumatic, more likely to result in death than full body rehabilitation. As I’m sure you remember it was it’s own form of torture. The cradle mitigates that and creates a less painful experience for the intended subject. Our hope was to make the process as streamlined as possible. If successful the possibilities are endless. Obviously, we can’t know for sure until Tony wakes up. Our latest tests were inconclusive as far as comfort for the more substantial doses. Then of course, there is the overall stability of the subjects post procedure.”

“Earlier you said, with the injury to his brain we may see some kind of memory loss?” Pepper asks cautiously holding fast to the hope that Tony would survive this entact.

Helen’s brows knit together in a sort of sad little frown that belies her professional demeanor. She worries like the rest of them and she’s clearly far past the clinical professionalism she should be projecting. It warms Pepper to see and reminds her that he’s in good hands. He’s not just a test subject to her.

“It’s still far too early to tell. The nanobots in the serum work in harmony to prep the body for the change by identifying the areas in need of rehabilitation providing a sort of roadmap for the virus to begin making repairs and enhancements. In theory everything that Tony is should be restored and enhanced accordingly. That is if everything goes according to plan. There still could be trauma for all we’re aware of right now. To be honest, I’m not sure if it wouldn’t be kinder for him to remember nothing at all.”

It catches Pepper right between her shoulder blades, shoving her down, down. She doesn’t know either. Would Tony be happier or better off if this were a blank slate for him? She’s known him for a little over a decade and she can’t shy away from the fact that the good years are outnumbered greatly by the bad. She has to believe he’d prefer to know. To at least remember them.

“Boss Lady, there’s an emergency situation in progress!” FRIDAY’s voice comes loudly over the speakers of her tablet resting on the couch.

Panic threatens to overtake her at each step. She can’t help but to think in a constant string of what ifs. She imagines Jim injured or dead. Her whole world now up in flames. With the tablet now in her hands she hates to ask but she does.

“We have a hostile force enroute to the building I estimate contact will be made within 30 minutes. Security has been notified and a second team dispatched from the JCTTF will be arriving in less than 10 minutes. I have also taken the liberty of dispatching several of Boss’ suits to your location two from the Stark Satellite and will make landfall in 25 minutes. The rest will arrive in 1 hour.”

“What about Jim?” Pepper asks surprised by the firmness of her voice despite the tightness in her chest.

“Colonel Rhodes is currently unavailable,” FRIDAY answers vaguely. She wants to ask what the hell that means. What happened at the airport? If they’re about to be under attack and Jim won’t be coming...he’d be here if he could. He’d fight tooth and nail. He damn near got himself court martialled when Tony was taken in Afghanistan. So, there was no way he’d not be here unless...unless. She can’t think about that now. No matter how much it fills her with terror just waiting to claw its way out.

“Boss Lady!” FRIDAY’s voice is like thunder in her ears. It rolls over her. Covers up the cracks in her walls and fills them with steel.

“Talk to me, FRIDAY.” The words flow out of her easy as pie. As if she’s just asked for their stock points on a regular Monday afternoon. She can’t allow herself cave to her fears. There’s no room for her panic here. Tony doesn’t have anyone else at the moment and neither does she.

“You’re my eyes and ears out there. We don’t have anything hooked up here except for the cradle,” Pepper says. “I need you to tell me what’s going on.”

“I’m in contact with Vision. He’s engaged Ms. Maximoff,” FRIDAY reports. “As far as either of us can tell she is unaware of the exact location of Stark: Berlin. Vision thinks so long as he keeps her engaged it will give you enough time to relocate if possible.”

Pepper glances to Dr. Cho and the other woman shakes her head.

“We’d have to disconnect the cradle from the main power. The reactor is the only thing with enough juice to keep the cradle going. Severing the connection before the cycle is complete could cause irreversible damage. It’s basically rewiring Tony’s entire body. It could leave him basically brain dead or paralyzed or worse.”

“Alright, FRIDAY,” Pepper says breathing through the sudden bout of lightheadedness as Dr. Cho ducks back behind her screens to continue monitoring Tony’s vitals.

“I need options.”

-----

He can’t breathe.

Every second spent trying to inhale is like a new brand of failure. He’s struggling to right himself anyway because even though he can see the shock all over her face giving way to a rising rage he knows she won’t be down for long. Because she’s seen. He couldn’t keep her from it and the entire bottom has dropped out of his world.

Tony. Pepper. Oh God, he couldn’t do it. No matter how hard he tried he was laughably out maneuvered by the witch. He’d never really believed in magic before. Not even when he first met her and saw the red swirl from her fingertips in full force. He always rationalized it away with science. Neuro-electric interface was all it was. A unique ability to read brain patterns. Now he had science to hide behind. It was unmistakably real.

It felt like claws digging through his thoughts shifting and separating all that he knew. Ripping apart his meager defenses until she found what he was hiding. Every memory and secret no matter how intimate or sacred laid bare for her to pick over like a buzzard in the desert. She had been looking for information on Vision. He’d thought that he could divert her attention but once she glimpsed him jamming a needle into Tony’s leg she knew to dig deeper. It felt like being pulled apart layer by layer until she had the confirmation she was seeking.

He has to get up. God he has to get up. Why can’t he stand?! It’s like there’s a disconnect from the rest of his body. His mind is screaming but his limbs won’t comply. He manages to force his eyes open and it’s like his senses come back online all at once. Everything is loud. Natasha is yelling out commands he can scarcely understand and is crouched beside him. There’s something warm on his other side. Another body. He’s running through the likely possibilities when light glints off the silver of a metal hand hovering over his chest. He means to jerk away but can’t. He’s trapped next to the Winter Soldier and it’s more than enough to have his blood freezing in his veins. The last 24 hours is more than enough to prove that he’s more than just a ghost story.

James Barnes crouches next to him on one knee. His metal hand covers the reactor and holds him down. Not that Rhodey thinks he could go anywhere right now. Hate is something he’s not become intimately acquainted with or so he thought. The few occurrences early in his life pale in comparison to the urge he has to wrap his hands around Bucky Barnes’ neck and squeeze. It surprises him. He hadn’t even felt this when Tony was kidnapped in Afghanistan or when they faced off against Whiplash. It’s not even that he thinks he really could. He’s heard that the man received a bastardized version of the same serum that made Captain America. The fact is irrelevant. His thoughts are too full of Tony lying on the floor bleeding and the feel of his limp body in his arms. Of how terrified he must have been thinking that this was finally it. Of Pepper virtually alone back at the Berlin headquarters with what amounts to a heat seeking missile coming right towards her.

“I think he’ll feel better out of the suit!” Barnes says to someone. “You can’t do anything for him. I’ll get him out.”

Who ever it is leaves without replying, a mere shift in the air following their dash forward. Rhodey can’t see beyond Barnes to get an idea of what’s happening but he can hear the clang of vibranium against vibranium.

“Colonel,” Barnes says with all the firmness of a soldier in combat but draws his attention all the same.

“How do I get you out of here?” Barnes asks.

His hands skim along Rhodey’s ribs as he does so, clearly not up for waiting. It irritates Rhodey when he finds one quicker than he thought he would. Right under the plating of his right shoulder is a latch that sends the chest and arm plating cascading open in a series of audible clicks. He inhales deeply at the sudden freedom and can’t seem to stop pulling in lungfuls of air. Where everything had felt so tight and heavy before there seems to be a jumpstart to the openness. A thrumming tingle that runs from his spine to his feet like a current running along a wire.

“It wears off. She did the same thing to me,” Barnes says, his expression open and empathetic.

“I don’t know if she knows about the side effects or if she just doesn’t care. Hell, maybe nobody else survived to tell the tale. I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.”

“Where is she?” Rhodey demands. He’s flush with fear, alternating between finishing the fight and abandoning the field to get to his family. The muscles in his neck strain from his attempts to gain a better look at the battlefield. Clangs of metal and grunts surround him. Barnes’ face clouds over reaffirming his growing horror. There’s a sonic boom in the distance that sounds soft under the thunder of his blood rushing to his head and the fight around them. He knows it by heart.

“Not here,” Barnes answers him grimly.

The tingle along his limbs intensifies to full blown shocks of energy bursting along his fingers and toes. His next thought is to curl them and the minute wiggle feels more like a burst of action. He’s careful not to show the the relief that threatens to overtake him nor the manic glee he experiences when he sees the red and gold rocket speeding right for them.

 

“You shot, Tony,” Rhodey says, wanting him to know that this isn’t a place to seek forgiveness. What had a lifetime of turning the other cheek really afforded him? Even if it was. Even if he could be the kind man his mother raised him to be he’s not sure he has any forgiveness left to spare.

Barnes’ mouth twists at the rejection his jaw working as he continues to search for the emergency latches. The rocket booms behind them and Barnes turns on instinct.

Rhodey huffs indignantly and curls his toes just right enough to trigger the internal mechanism, a failsafe installed post Mandarin should he need to escape with the suit powered down.The bottom part of his suit slides open in time for him to heave himself to the side, out of the confines of the heavy armor. He doesn’t have to look to know that the rocket has overshot Barnes and taken him by surprise by unfolding into one of the Marks Tony had spent countless hours perfecting. He doesn’t get the chance to identify it once he’s on his knees, hands braced on the surprisingly cool tarmac, and it doesn’t matter. What matters is the shiver that spreads through him at the feel of metal sliding across his skin all shifting plates and whirring servos. When he stands the motion is more smooth and graceful than any metal suit has any right to be. Or rather than he has any right to be moments after Maximoff’s attack. He thanks whoever might be listening to his prayers for the adrenaline surging through his veins.

“Colonel Rhodes!” FRIDAY’s voice is panicked enough as it is. He takes a deep breath before responding. The fight isn’t over.

“The Vision has engaged the Witch two miles from the Boss’ location. I have several suits inbound. She will not get close. Not again. Ms. Potts wished for me to relay a message.”

“Give it to me,” Rhodey says unable to even begin to parse through his emotional state. He locks it down. Tony and Pepper are safe for now. He’s confident that Vision won’t make the same mistake twice. Her irish lilt switches briefly to Pepper’s smooth timbre tempered by an underlying quake of unease. She’s scared out of her mind and holding on by the skin of her teeth but he comprehends her message loud and clear.

“Will, do, baby girl. Keep them safe.”

“At all costs,” she replies.

He shifts as Barnes does, his intent clear, and before the man can finish raising his hands Rhodey slams his titanium alloy covered fist into his jaw and revels in the sound. It shouldn’t bring relief but it does. So much so that when the super soldier moves with the flow of his fall and rolls to the side Rhodey doesn’t hesitate to meet him there with a strike aimed for his chest. The blow sends the other man skidding back. Barnes deflects the next attack just barely gripping Rhodey’s fist and shoving it to the side in time to get his metal arm up to block the next one. It’s staggeringly obvious that he’s strong but in the moment it’s lost on Rhodey. He’s got over 500 lbs of armor surrounding him that he knows can crush a tank and enough firepower to level several buildings and he refuses to pull his punches. The next one catches Barnes high on his cheek and sends him crashing to the ground. Rhodey is on him in a second raining down blows left and right so far gone that he misses the whistle in the air that heralds a certain shield coming his way.

The thing would have damn near decapitated him had Barnes not jammed his foot into the armor’s thigh and dropped him from a crouch to hovering directly over him with his hands shooting out to brace himself. The vibranium disk flies right over his shoulders and embeds itself into some distant groaning machinery. Rhodey’s blood sings along with the echoing hum.

Cap’s enraged yell is all the warning he gets before 225 pounds of super soldier slams into his side and topples him over. He engages the thrusters in order to roll into a crouch but he’s already too slow. There’s a marked difference here between their builds and strength. It answers many questions he’s had about long days spent in training with a man he thought he knew.

Captain America wastes no time in going directly for his throat.

“Steve, stop!” Barnes bellows from the side. He wears a mask of blood that leaves Rhodes entirely unsympathetic. His words do stun him momentarily, leaving him open to a hit to the face that knocks him back. From above Rhodes can see Sam toss Cap his shield.

“Bucky, run!” The good Captain shouts. He goes right for the reactor, meaty fingers digging in despite Rhodes charging the unibeam up at FRIDAY’s insistence. Armored fingers clasp around the other man’s wrist to no effect. The whine builds louder and louder until the light of the reactor is almost blinding. He’s never been in a suit that could do this but he’s seen it used. With War Machine there’s so much resting on the power from the reactor that the unibeam wasn’t needed nor recommended in the hands of the military. He can already feel pent up energy thrumming in the chest plate,the vibrations dance across his skin and reverberate in his bones.

Stopping isn’t in the cards for him. To stop would be to surrender. To surrender would keep him here unnecessarily. It’s something he can’t allow. So he fires.

The energy leaves him in a rush and he’s left with just the coolness of the suit pressing against his sweat drenched undersuit. He’s panting with the effort of keeping himself upright. Adrenaline can only carry him so far and he has to admit that the assault from Maximoff was more than a little taxing along with the still lingering effects. He blinks against the crowding exhaustion and glares at the empty space before him.

Not to far away Captain America lies in a a heap right where Barnes must have tackled him because the other man is there too, sprawled across the pavement. They’re mostly unharmed save for the damage already done to Barnes’s face. Steve is already getting up same as his psychotic pal and he’s prepared to take them both on. He has to be. There’s no other choice here. None that leads him to Tony and Pepper that is.

“Stand down, Colonel,” Rogers commands. He draws himself up taller than before, proud and unwaveringly in the right. “This isn’t worth your life.”

“Like hell,” Rhodes growls through the suit’s speakers. Rogers darts quickly to the side at the same time Barnes does in a move meant to keep him off kilter. It’s an effort to force him to choose a target and divide his attention enough for the other to attack. Perhaps if he weren’t without nearly two decades of experience under his belt. Maybe if he still had a shred of empathy left.

“Friday, let’s try those high beams,” he orders.

“On your command,” FRIDAY replies coldly. The glint of metal off to his right startles him into action. He drops into a crouch and brings his hands up to fire right into Barnes’s knees but the man is already diving. Rhodey braces for the impact but it doesn’t come, not the way he expects.

The other man launches himself over the back of the suit and the resulting collision is a sickening crack of bone and flesh and metal. Rhodey has to twist to see that Barnes has landed on his feet on the opposite side of a downed and confused Rogers. For a moment Rhodey in shares in Captain America’s confusion.

“Buck?” He says so quietly Rhodey barely picks it up.

“High Beams primed,” FRIDAY reminds him. He itches to give the command but there’s something about the way Barnes just simply shakes his head.

“No one else is dyin’ today Stevie,” Barnes says, blood still dripping from a place where the armor cut right down to the bone of his right cheek. He looks weary and just a touch desperate. When Rhodey gets around to blinking to be sure he’s not hallucinating he picks up on the pleading look in his eyes and the betrayal in Rogers’s.

“Don’t do this, Buck. You don’t owe them anything. We can still get out of this. Just you and me. Like we always said. To the end of the line.”

“He ain’t gonna stop. He’s got good reason not to. And I’m not gonna let you kill for me.”

“This is it Rogers,” Rhodey tells him, drawing his attention back to the armor. He watches the Captain’s lips curl into a vicious looking sneer. He raises his chin and unsurprisingly sets himself more firmly between Bucky and the armor.

“I can do this all day Colonel,” he answers with his chest puffed out and Shield ready. He’s not prepared when Barnes comes at him from behind but still has the reflexes to block his metal fist with his shield. He has to twist and turn to do it but it leaves him vulnerable to Rhodey’s repulsor shot to his knee. The beam burns straight through the reinforced kevlar and goes straight to the skin. He can’t smell it and he’s thankful for that the resulting burn mark is enough of a sight as it is. He doesn’t do more than grunt out his pain as he struggles to shift to his good leg and right himself. Tony always did say that his legs were his weak point. They converge on him without hesitation then. He doesn’t quite trust Barnes but he trusts the weariness crowding his every move.

Barnes wants this to be over, same as him. It’s not enough. It never could be but it’ll have to do.

They’re not quite in sync. How could they be? They’ve never met before today. It is easier now that they’re seamingly on the same page. They use the same strategy Cap had intended. Keep him off balance just enough for the the other to sweep in. It doesn’t take much to wear him down he’s too distracted by the fact that his friend is the one throwing the punches. He misses an opportunity to block Bucky’s wide swing and his metal fist catches him clear on the jaw and sends him pivoting in Rhodey’s direction. He dials up the power on the repulsors and fires for the meat of Rogers uninjured thigh but it’s Barnes that lands the final blow to his jaw that sends him down and out. He swears he hears bones snap. He’s sure of it once he has a second to breathe after the other man doesn’t get back up.

Barnes looks down at the fallen Captain mournfully and drops to his knees to check him over feeling along his skull and coming along obviously satisfied. With a heavy sigh he rocks back on his heels and raises his hands in the air.

“It’s done.”

Rhodey startles at the sound of Natasha beside him. She looks worse for wear and Rhodey wonders at that considering her opponents but has to put money on her taking on Cap when she first entered the fray. She’s bruised along her collar bone and there’s an impressive looking shiner growing around her left eye and stretching down towards her chin. All things considered she looks mostly fine and as stoic as ever.

She stalks forward and pulls a pair of high powered cuffs seemingly out of nowhere. He’d seen her with them earlier but for the life of him he can’t imagine where she even stored them. They lock around a flesh and metal wrist one after the other with electronic clicks. She has another pair for Rogers ready when she glances at him.

“Colonel,” FRIDAY’s solemn voice comes through the comms. He’s airborne without a second thought.

“Take me there, Baby Girl,” he says without really needing to then adds belatedly, “I need a sitrep.”