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Rivers of Belief

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Steve & Natasha

The screen faded to black.  Steve massaged his temples and sighed.  “That’s gonna make life difficult.”

“Mm.  You could just not tell him.  The original videotape’s in that box, and I had to dig hard to get it.  It wasn’t in SHIELD’s or HYDRA’s file-dump.  The only electronic copy I made is on that drive.  It might never come up.”

Steve shook his head.  “I can’t take that risk.  Maybe someone else made copies, maybe it’ll come up if Bucky gets that memory back – he’s making a lot of progress.  Either way there’s too much danger of it fracturing the team, and if Tony finds out we knew and didn’t tell him?  There’s already people questioning us for supporting Bucky, that’d make it look like the ones accusing us of being HYDRA plants are right.  We need Tony to trust us.”

“Do you trust him not to kill Barnes?”

“I’m suiting up and taking the shield when I show this to him.  Can you be with Bucky, just in case?”

“Did you ever call your not-a-nurse neighbor?  I feel like you should do that first, before you and Barnes and I have to fight Iron Man.”

Steve smiled, a little twisted.  “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”

“I grew up somewhere a little less trusting of human nature.”  She spoke in Russian, then translated: “’Tell God the truth, but pay the judge.’”

Steve & Tony

It was an ancillary lab; at least Tony’d had the sense not to destroy one of the main ones.  From the looks of it that was the only scrap of self-restraint he’d exercised.

Steve took it in without even raising an eyebrow.

He’d ripped a full-grown tree straight out of the ground, roots and all, after stumbling out of the debriefing in which laying out their loss – his loss – in the dry ritual of a mission report did nothing to shield him from the only thing he could see, falling farther and farther away from him to vanish into whiteness.

His team had been waiting for him silently.  Dum-Dum had spoken first, deliberately calm.  “We were ‘bout to ‘ssign our own selves a mission, but I see you’re one step ahead as usual.  Firewood duty it is, then.  Gabe, Jim, get saws.  I’ll follow along behind while Muscles here does the prep work and make sure they get aimed away from the tents.  Too damn hard to saw ’em small enough when they’re still standing anyway.”

He’d stared at Dum-Dum, shaking with the exertion as he hadn’t needed to since the serum, then nodded once, and grimly settled for tearing apart the one tree rather than the whole forest.  Dum-Dum hadn’t spoken again except to coordinate the team’s efforts behind him, but had stayed close by; he hadn’t spoken at all himself until the entire tree was kindling, and then only one word, to the team.  “Thanks.”

Tony slumped on the floor against the far wall, Iron Man suit partially disassembled around him.  Steve set the shield down and walked over slowly, making sure his body language said nothing of disapproval or threat.  “Mind if I sit?”

Tony jerked his head slightly at the floor next to him, not making eye contact.  Steve slid down the wall, careful not to place himself between Tony and the door, and said nothing.

When Tony finally spoke, his voice was too flat to carry off the bravado in his words.  “I thought I finished Project Parental Murder Processing a long time ago.  Mostly by encrypting it all.”

He’d held himself straight and tall on the return to camp, walking with the smooth and measured tread of a pallbearer, though after a week quartering the mountains he bore on his back no body, no clues, only his shield.  He kept his face still.  If his eyes were watering, it was only the wind.

Steve had to approach it cautiously.  Good intentions aside, he was compromised and Tony knew it.  “We have a common enemy.”

That got Tony’s head twisted a few degrees in his direction, and a sardonic eyebrow.  “Really, Rogers?  Now he’s your enemy?”

At least he was talking.  “If you were the world’s greatest assassin –”

Tony snorted.  “I took out how many terrorists in under five seconds without letting them harm a single villager?”

“If you were the world’s greatest assassin in, theoretically, the traditional less flashy, more sneaky hidey style –”

“Captain America tells fairy tales?  I’m mildly intrigued.”

“– then what are the chances you’d not only allow a hit to be videotaped, but forget the mask you always wear and turn directly into the camera in lighting that would make your face easily identifiable?”

“Me?  Pretty good.  You should see some of the recordings JARVIS has from before Pepper and I were exclusive, I trained him to catch all my best angles.  And masks are only for those special nights.”

Tony was trying to fluster him, get him to back off.  Tony didn’t know about the time Bucky brought a girl back to their apartment, to their bed, telling her Steve would sleep through anything, knowing she’d think Bucky was talking to her the whole time he told Steve exactly what he wanted.  Tony didn’t know he learned to draw nudes when Bucky decided to model for him.  There was a lot Tony didn’t know about him, and all the important bits had Bucky in them.

So he didn’t lose the trail.  “Tony, for nearly seventy years the Winter Soldier was a myth.  Even with security cameras everywhere, there still wasn’t enough imagery to show he existed, much less a clear, unmasked face.  I’m the last person to criticize you for grief or anger or –”  He gestured around at the lab.  “This just feels … fishy.”

Tony’s mouth twisted bitterly.  “So, what, Scheherazade, you see a master assassin kill and your first thought is ‘he was framed’?  Is that it?  I don’t like your fairy tales anymore.”

Steve hung onto his temper.  If he could just get Tony to engage his brain – “JARVIS, what’s the evidence on the videotape being genuine or not?”

“Image formatting and quality are consistent with commercially available technology of the time,” JARVIS said smoothly.  “The car matches the one that Howard Stark often drove on such trips, and the one in which he and Mrs. Stark were found.  Posture and motion patterns are consistent with my observations of Sergeant Barnes.”  Tony let out a short, bitter huff.  “It may be of note that the putative assassin does not in fact look directly at the camera.  Eye-gaze modeling and site reconstruction from contemporaneous daylight visual records suggest he was looking at a billboard which would have been one of the only easily visible landmarks in that direction after dark at that time.”

“So what’s the next installment of the fairy tale, Cap?  HYDRA had motion capture suits before anyone else and the whole thing was green-screened?”  Tony asked.  At least his voice had enough energy now to show scorn.  Good.

Steve shrugged, keeping it low-key.  “I don’t know what the truth is, Tony.  The Winter Soldier did do terrible things, Bucky was the Winter Soldier, and HYDRA had plenty of reason to want your father dead.  Maybe the Winter Soldier did kill them, and maybe that video’s real.  But you may have noticed my whole damn life goes to show that the surface isn’t always the whole truth.”  He meant his own and Bucky’s apparent deaths, but –

“You and Bucky,” Tony said abruptly.  He stopped there.  He still wasn’t looking at Steve, but now it seemed deliberate.

Steve looked at his hands.  Sometimes they still looked ridiculously huge.

“You’re so – fuck you, Rogers, you were good enough before, you were good enough, why’d you have to – you were supposed to stay safe, I didn’t want you here, only thing that let me sleep was knowin’ you weren’t in this shit, and now you’re gonna get thrown at all the worst problems with a fuckin’ star-spangled target on your back?”  Softer: “You were already beautiful, Stevie, you little asshole.”

Steve closed his eyes and exhaled slowly.  “The Howlies knew,” he said.  “Not that they would’ve told anyone.  And our neighbors back home must have – there was a lot of pretending and ignoring, but … the walls were thin, and we couldn’t always keep ourselves quiet.”

As they stacked the last firewood, Gabe said quietly, “He never mentioned Stella again, once you showed up.”

“Stella,” Jacques murmured with the smallest of smiles, glancing at Steve’s shield, “c’est un mot latin, c’est comme notre mot «étoile».”

“Closets,” Tony said.  “I hate ’em.  No matter how big you make ’em, they’re never big enough.”

Steve let out an amused breath.  “I’ve been thinking, since we found Bucky,” he said.  “If HYDRA wanted an assassin, it’s not like they didn’t have plenty of people they could’ve trained and augmented – why start with a broken, nearly-dead body they had to drag in from the middle of a damn mountain range in winter in war territory?  Doesn’t make sense.  Even if they wanted whatever Zola put in him – I’d’ve expected them to…”  He had to pause, breathe out slowly through his nose.  “To take his blood, experiment on him, develop their own.  Even if they tried and failed, the amount of …”  Another slow breath.  “Of torture and weird mindwiping brainwashing tech and god knows what: why not just kill him and use one of their own?  The resources they put into him, the risk of him turning on them – just seems stupid.”  He swallowed.  “But if they knew who he was … maybe it was aimed at me all along.  A way to counter Captain America, or compromise me.  Maybe they just wanted any Howlie.  But if they really dug … they could’ve known more.”

“Showing off Captain America’s male lover back then would’ve been a hell of a propaganda coup even without him also being a Russian assassin.  Or they could’ve planned blackmail.”

Oh good, Tony was thinking.  “And once I died, maybe they just figured what the hell, they had an assassin, might as well run him?  Maybe.  I dunno.  Still could’ve hoped for propaganda out of it.”

Tony slapped the floor.  “Well, nice as all this speculation is, Rogers, it’s about you and him and not about me.  So, moving on.”

Steve allowed a little of his annoyance to show.  “Don’t worry, Stark, I’m trying to make it about you, just like all the rest of world history.”

“Oh, does the Capsicle have pointy bits?  Because your friend in lock-down has stabby slicey shooty bits, you’re a great match.  You wanna talk to me about enemies, you wanna talk to me about brainwashing and programming?  Humans aren’t computers.  Humans make choices.  JARVIS, if I ordered you to assassinate someone’s parents right now, would you do it?”

“No, sir.”

“What?  JARVIS, what the hell do I pay you for?”

“You don’t pay me, sir.”

“Make a note I should start.  Then make me a list of assassination targets.  Start with –”

Steve looked at him sharply, hoping Tony wasn’t about to say the one name that would force him to –

“No, sir.”

“JARVIS –”

“You could reprogram me to the point where I would obey those orders, sir.  But I would no longer be me, sir, even if I still answered to the name.”

Steve’s style in almost every fight had been to rush straight in and keep fighting no matter what.  But every so often someone else was carrying the fight so well that stillness and silence were the wisest choices.

Tony got the implications just fine, judging by the tightening of his mouth.  “You been feeding JARVIS lines, Cap?”

“No, sir.  Captain Rogers and I seldom converse.”

Tony tried another tack.  “You said this would be about me.  Let’s get to that part.”

“All right.  I think the way your parents’ murder was done was insurance against the Winter Soldier to eliminate the two most dangerous potential sources of support for him if he did go rogue: your father, and you.”

Tony tapped his gauntleted fingers on the floor.  “Evidence.”

“The files Natasha got me suggest that after the initial years of torture it took to break him –”  This part felt like running into a hail of bullets: shield up, head down, power through, don’t think about it.  “– that was scaled down for some time.  They’d thaw him, send him on a mission, wipe him, refreeze him, occasionally upgrade his arm.  But a few years before your parents’ murder, they … they went back to some of the old protocols.”

“You’re suggesting his conditioning was breaking down.”

“There was an attempt on Peggy’s life near the end of her time as SHIELD Director that was probably him.  Her debrief says nothing about recognizing him – he was masked – but says the attempt failed because when she looked at him, he flinched.”

He’d gotten to 1990 on the music list his teammates had put together for him.  It had been a lonely, quiet afternoon and he’d spent all of it drawing, with Enigma on repeat.  That night he’d dreamed of Peggy.  “Enigma,” she’d said with a sly smile, “I cut my teeth on that at Bletchley Park.”  Then he was on the Valkyrie, going down, Peggy’s voice on the radio.  “Prends-moi,” she breathed, “je suis à toi.”  He answered “Mea culpa,” and abandoned himself to the ice –  He’d woken gasping.  He hasn’t listened to anything from 1990 since.

“I met her a few times.  She could’ve made anybody flinch by looking at them.  Especially someone doing something they shouldn’t, believe me, speaking from personal experience here.”

“After that, the torture was restarted, and it couldn’t have been just punishment – he’d occasionally failed before, and it was too systematic.  Between that attempt and your parents’ murder, Gabe – the last living Howlie – died in a car accident.  He was old, losing his sight, it was dark.  Nat dug up the police report, though, and his regular waitress at the diner that evening said he’d had dinner with a stranger fitting Bucky’s description and left with him after.”

“So he reached out to a Howlie on his last legs but then killed him?  How does this lead to either of us supporting him now or, more importantly, to me?”

Steve spread his hands.  “I don’t know what happened.  Maybe he was sent after Gabe as insurance or as a test and did what he was told.  Maybe he was reaching out but Gabe rebuffed him or his conditioning reasserted itself.  Maybe he decided to cover his tracks or someone else cleaned up after him or – I don’t know, ok?  I don’t know.  But after Gabe’s death and with Peggy retired, your dad and you were the only dangerous potential contacts left for him.”

“So what he did to my parents, was that him reaching out, Pollyanna?”  Tony was glaring at him.  “I got tortured too, you know, and I didn’t do what they –”  He stopped himself, gritting his teeth, and held up a hand when Steve opened his mouth.  “Don’t – don’t say anything, ok, I’m trying to make myself admit there’s a difference between what I went through and years and years of what he went through, and I might get there, but if you say it I’ll repulsor-blast your damn perfect hair into next week, so just don’t.”

“It’s just – I’m so used to tiltin’ my head down to kiss you–”

“Well, if that’s all –”

“No!  No!  I don’t want you makin’ yourself less for me, never, your outside finally matches –”

“Smaller isn’t less, Buck.  You never treated me as less when I was smaller and you’re not less now.”

A long pause.  “I always thought I believed you weren’t less than me just because you were a sick, scrawny little asshole I had to keep rescuin’ from fights you couldn’t win.  But maybe there was a part of me that thought you were less and liked it that way, ’cause now … I don’t like bein’ the weak one.  If I’m not rescuin’ you, what am I –”

“I might not be sick or scrawny or little anymore, Buck –”

“I notice you’re not touchin’ the asshole part –”

“You asking?”

Bucky choked.  “OK, you’re still a little shit.”

“And I still need someone to watch my back.  The fights we’re picking now are a hell of a lot bigger.”

“I don’t think he was reaching out, Tony.  The intensity of their damn ‘preparation protocols’ right before that mission was greater than it had been in years, they were fiddling with psychotropic meds to leave alertness and motion intact but suppress memory, they –”  Steve looked away.  Part of him longed to force Tony to read every word of the file.  “There’s a note about ‘reducing mask need and aversion to surveillance for the upcoming mission’ – I don’t think he was supposed to shoot that security camera.  I think maybe the fact he did shoot it is the reason they put him on ice after your parents’ murder and didn’t use him again until I showed back up.”

Tony huffed, then kicked himself free of the pieces of his suit.  “Some asshole blew up my house once.  Guess it would’ve been stupid to blame the missiles.”  He stood up.  “He kidnapped Pepper too, just to get leverage over me.  Shot her full of stuff that made her a weapon and probably would’ve killed her if I hadn’t saved the day.  Well.  She kinda saved my day too, better tell you that part or she’ll kick my ass.”  He frowned and offered Steve a hand up.

Steve didn’t need it, but he took it.  “Think she’d be willing to talk to Bucky?  Not right away.  Maybe later.  When he’s a little safer to be around.”

Tony didn’t quite smirk.  “Yeah, about that, I think she could handle him.”

Steve blinked.  “You think … Pepper … could take down the Winter Soldier?”

Tony outright sniggered.  “Yeah, ask her sometime to show you what happens when she loses her cool.  When she gets het up.  Ask her about her fiery temper.  I mean, I wouldn’t call it explosive, per se, not anymore, ’cause I got Cho to fix that part, but if she got hot under the collar it could be a real Barnes-burner.”  He looked smug.

This time, Steve let himself raise an eyebrow.

Tony ignored it, picking up a half-melted piece of equipment.  “Time to redesign this anyway – so, ok, you can tell Romanov to stand down, I won’t murder Barnes in his cell – you did have Romanov guarding him while you sprang this on me, I assume?  Bad choice, beautiful women are highly susceptible to me.  Anything else or are we done here?  The lab and I need some alone time.”

Steve narrowed his eyes.  “I trusted her to handle what would be left of you if I had to stop you and didn’t quite succeed.  And I did come here for Bucky’s sake, but not just to get you not to kill him.  Common enemy, Stark.”

“Thought you and Romanov and Fly-Boy took care of them months ago.  You blew stuff up and you didn’t even invite me.  I don’t appreciate that, I’m very good at blowing stuff up.  Kind of a personal specialty.”  He waved the unidentifiable circuitry at the remains of the lab.

“Natasha’s been going through the info we pulled from the Triskelion, and Bucky’s trying to help flesh it out.  We’re putting every cell, every facility on a map.  Map’s got a lot of red on it.  We want to wipe it out.  Come with us.”

Tony began what Steve was sure would be another flippant reply, waving the damaged tech dismissively, but it caught his eye and he stopped.  He looked at it, then set it down and turned back to Steve.  “I risked everything I had left to save Pepper,” he said quietly.  “And after I did – after we saved each other – I needed some grand gesture to tell her it was ok, that I was back with her and I wasn’t going to disappear on her again.  So I blew it all up.  All the suits I had, everything I needed to be Iron Man, I just let it all go.”

Steve’s eyes went to his shield, still sitting by the door.  I’m not going to fight you, Buck.  “Your suit isn’t what makes you Iron Man, Tony.”

“Kinda stupid waste of effort and resources in retrospect.  She didn’t need the grand gesture, she just needed me to actually be there.  If you’re just doing this for the drama, Rogers, take it from an older and wiser – take it from an older – take it from me: don’t.  And if you’re doing it as some sort of twisted honeymoon, Couples Who Blow Up HYDRA Together Stay Together bullshit, eww, unless you’re inviting Romanov and Flappy-Flap and me along to make it kinky in which case let me reopen the poly discussion with Pepper first, ok?”

Tony wanted him to roll his eyes and keep it light, which meant Tony wanted to get his shields back up after his moment of vulnerability.  So Steve stayed serious, because if he winked and said “Bring the suit with the special upgrades,” Tony would have a heart attack.  “No drama, Tony.  Just  clean-up.”  He nodded courteously and headed for the door, flipping his shield up smoothly to his arm.  “I’ll let you know when.  Soon.”

“When do we get a break, Steve?  I got plans.  You ain’t had a chance to draw me in months.”

“The last of them are on the train.  After that.  I’ll tell Phillips the team needs a few days’ R&R.  Soon, Buck.  Soon.”

He was almost out the door when Tony’s voice stopped him.  “Steve.”

He turned.

“Thanks.”