Leaving New York was strange; it felt like Steve had just gotten home, even though it wasn't really home anymore, and now he was leaving again. He was relieved when Tony gave them all phones before they scattered. It made sense for them to split up, but it didn't mean they shouldn't stay in touch. There was a part of him that wanted someone to keep in touch with.
The only one he couldn't communicate with was Thor, who'd promised to return if and when they could rebuild the conduit between Asgard and Earth. Apparently using the cube for transport was only for emergencies, which was fine with Steve. He didn't particularly like the idea of using it for anything, but at least it was out of SHIELD's hands now.
It took Steve an embarrassingly long time to figure out how to text, and even longer to get anywhere close to proficiency at it. Texting seemed to be Natasha's preferred method of communication, though, so he kept at it. She wouldn't say where she was or what she was doing, just that she was working on something. Apparently that something eventually turned into an official operation, but what it involved remained her secret. When he asked Clint about it, Clint said he didn't know any more than Steve did.
Bruce went back to India for a while. He'd answer the phone and talk to Steve, but he never really said much, and he never called Steve. It didn't bother Steve. He liked Bruce okay, but they didn't have much in common, unlike Bruce and Tony. Steve was unsurprised when Bruce ended up back in New York after three weeks. He said he couldn't resist Tony's labs, but Steve figured hanging out with Tony was as much a part of it as anything. Tony and Bruce both struck him as the kind of guys who could use more friends, so it was good they were hanging around together.
Tony was Tony. He was a good guy. He was a genius. He was, as Clint had said, generous to a fault. He was also a lot to deal with. It was probably good for both of them that they limited their contact to a few short conversations a week.
Steve would occasionally talk to Pepper or Phil, who he considered ancillary members of the team, whether or not they knew it. Phil was still a little awkward on the phone with him, which Steve appreciated better now that he knew more about Phil's reputation at SHIELD. Pepper had a lot going on, but every time he talked to her, he felt like he got her full attention. It was flattering and a little nerve-wracking for Steve, who still felt like a fool talking to beautiful women. Natasha was somehow an exception to that; he hadn't quite figured out why.
At the beginning he called Clint more often than anyone else because he was concerned about him and Phil. The others all struck him as needing nothing from anyone other than basic friendliness, just a check-in now and again, but Phil was still in the hospital, and Clint had been through the worst kind of hell Steve could imagine. As the days went on, Steve found himself looking forward to his conversations with Clint, which were becoming less about the minutiae of Phil's recovery or good-natured banter about baseball, and more about what was really going on in their lives.
It was surprisingly easy to talk to Clint. That Clint was just a voice in his ear and not someone who could see Steve's face probably helped, but Steve thought it was mostly that they seemed to understand each other, to trust each other, on some instinctive level. When he'd first met Clint, Steve had said he reminded him of Bucky, and it was true, to an extent. Clint was a sniper, he was sarcastic, he was on Steve's team; the parallels were obvious. As he got to know Clint better, over the weeks he spent going from one gravesite to another, he realized he himself had as much or more in common with Clint than Bucky.
When Steve had called Clint from England, he'd done it because Clint seemed like the kind of guy who wouldn't press him for details, but would understand why Steve might want to hear a friendly voice. Clint spoke to him about Phil's recovery, gave him the latest baseball scores, and listened as Steve told him how different London seemed without barrage balloons, blackout curtains, and rationing. Steve felt a little better after their conversation, a little more able to deal with meeting Peggy's granddaughter. She looked so much like Peggy he kept expecting her to pick up a gun and shoot at him.
He called again the next night because he couldn't sleep. Clint snorted and said he wasn't the only one, although he didn't elaborate, just told Steve he and Phil had decided to move into Stark's tower after Phil was released. Steve called after visiting Falsworth's grave and told Clint he wanted to paint the countryside; he didn't think he'd ever seen so much green. If his voice caught when he said it, Clint didn't respond to that directly. Instead, Clint told Steve he'd been born in Iowa and described the corn fields in late summer. "That's the green I'll never forget," he said quietly. "Sometimes I wish I could, though."
When he called from Denier's grave in France, Steve couldn't seem to say much of anything, but Clint didn't press him to speak. Instead, Clint told him a story about one of his early ops as a SHIELD asset, the target a terrorist ring in Paris, and how Coulson had saved the lives of Clint and three civilians. "It's when I realized I was in love with him," Clint said, matter-of-fact and sincere, "right then, when he took out that asshole with a baguette he'd 'borrowed' from one of the civilians." The image of Phil disarming a terrorist with a loaf of bread had been enough to put a smile on Steve's face.
By the time he climbed onto that railway bridge in the Alps, Steve called Clint without a shred of thought or hesitation, knowing Clint's was the only living voice he wanted in his ear at that moment. Even if neither one of them said a word.
Steve hit the road back on a Sunday morning, heading south towards L.A. and then east into the glare of the early morning sun. He took the more northerly route of the two that JARVIS recommended because it would take him through Iowa. He made good time, but it was a big country. By the time he got to Iowa, Clint was gone on a mission; Steve had to settle for sketching the countryside and writing him an email. Steve hoped he'd be home by the time Steve got to New York; he didn't realize exactly how much he'd come to rely on their daily conversations until he had to go a few days without them.
"Have you heard from him?" he asked Phil when he stopped at a rest area to enjoy the late afternoon sun on the cornfields. Phil was back at his office at SHIELD, but his voice was the same as it had been from his hospital bed, calm and in control.
"I got a text to let me know he got there okay," Phil answered. "He'll text again when the op's over."
"How are you doing? With him being gone, I mean," Steve said, because even if Phil's voice was calm and cool, it had to be rough having Clint out of the country and out of contact like that.
There was a pause that Steve pictured as the time required for Phil to willfully set aside the Agent Coulson certainty and allow himself to be open with Steve. "It's hard," he said quietly. "It's never easy, but this time, after everything that happened, I can't help worrying. I really miss him."
Steve treated Phil's trust with the respect it deserved and avoided any platitudes. "Clint's extremely good at what he does," he said instead. "I know he'll do everything he can to complete the mission and come home safely."
Phil snorted. "He's the best at what he does," he said, "but he also has a disconcerting tendency to neglect his personal safety. You might want to remember that once you start working with him regularly. He especially likes falling off buildings."
"Thanks for the heads-up," Steve said. "I'll be sure to keep an eye out."
"See that you do," Phil said dryly. "Where are you? He'll want a report when he checks in."
"I'm in Iowa," Steve said. "Sitting at a picnic table at a rest stop, looking out at a bunch of cornfields and trying to imagine Clint growing up here."
"I think it's safe to say he left as soon as he could," Phil said.
"Sounded like he needed to," Steve said carefully.
"He did," Phil said, his voice thoughtful. "You know, Clint doesn't tell many people about his past. I was surprised when he said he'd talked to you about Barney. As far as I know, besides you, the only people he's done that with are me and Natasha."
"He said something once…I wasn't sure, but I thought maybe that's how it was," Steve said after a moment. "I know it's strange; we haven't known each other very long, but he's probably the closest friend I have. I value his friendship very highly, Phil. I'd never do anything to jeopardize it."
"I know you wouldn't," Phil said. "And for what it's worth, I'm pleased he told you."
"So am I," Steve answered. They talked for a few more minutes, and then Phil had to hang up to deal with something. That night Phil texted him to tell him Clint was on his way home. Steve smiled when he read the message and sent a text for Clint to read when he got there.
Two days later, Steve pulled up to his apartment in Brooklyn in the late afternoon.
"Yeah, I just want to pick up a few things here before I head over to the tower," he said into his phone. "I'll be over there soon."
"You'll probably beat us," Clint answered. "I've got a meeting with Sitwell and Hill to plan our next op, and Phil's in with Fury again. Tony and Bruce will be there, and probably Pepper."
"It'll be good to see everyone," Steve said as he walked up the steps. He even meant it, mostly. It was just that he'd spent most of the last few months on his own, and the year before that in the war. He wasn't sure he knew how to deal with anything else.
Clint ignored what he said and responded to what he didn't. "Tell them you need to take a shower, get settled, before you head up to the penthouse," he said. "You know, wash the dust of America off. Give yourself a chance to get used to the Tony Stark way of life again."
"I don't think I ever got used to it in the first place," Steve said, chuckling. "That's good advice, Clint. Thanks."
"No problem. We'll be your reinforcements once we get there. See you soon, Steve."
"See you soon." Steve thumbed the phone off and opened the door of his apartment. Steve guessed a lot of people wouldn't think it was anything special, just a studio apartment in Brooklyn, with nothing on the walls except a few sketches. He'd only been living in it a couple of weeks before the Chitauri invasion. It was the first place he'd ever had all to himself, so it was special to him. Even if he'd have given anything to go back to the hole in the wall he'd shared with Bucky, if only Bucky were there.
But there wasn't really anything holding him to it. He took the sketches off the walls and packed them and his journals in his saddlebags, leaving room for a framed photo of Bucky in his dress uniform and a few snapshots of the Commandos. The rest could wait for the movers Tony had promised. He doubted he had enough for more than a few boxes, mostly for books and some art supplies he'd picked up. He'd have to ask JARVIS for advice on how to donate the furniture to some family that needed it. Steve took one last look around, and then he walked out the door, locking it behind him.
JARVIS provided him directions to the parking garage underneath the tower, right to a spot labeled with his name. There were several gates he had to go through, or buttons to push, or times he had to say his name. JARVIS made him make up a six digit number and advised him sternly to not use his birthdate. He didn't tell JARVIS he used Bucky's instead, but he figured the computer probably guessed. It wasn't like anyone else would, though.
When the elevator opened on his floor--his floor, an entire floor of a sky-scraper all for him; it was ridiculous--he had to punch Bucky's birthdate into the keypad to get the door of his new apartment to open. He hesitated before he walked in. Tony had told him with great enthusiasm and absolutely no details that he was going to just love his new place. Then he'd quickly added that if there was anything he didn't like, he could always change it. Steve was very afraid the whole thing was going to be stars and stripes.
He walked through the door and dropped his bags at his feet, staring. "Holy cow," he murmured, turning around and trying to take it all in.
There were no flags; there was no white, no blue, no stars or stripes. The palette was autumnal: deep browns, cranberry, evergreen, and touches of pumpkin and deep yellow; it might have seemed dark if it weren't for the sunlight streaming in through the windows that framed the entire apartment. The floors were maple where they weren't covered by thick rugs. The floor plan was open, with a living room containing a large, comfortable looking leather sofa and a fireplace. There was an enormous television, which wasn't surprising, but there were also tall bookcases filled with books: art, history, novels, even some comic books. There was a record player and a few shelves of records.
The kitchen appeared warm and inviting, right down to the cookie jar shaped like an apple on the counter that he could swear was a twin to the one Bucky's mom had had. When he got closer, he could see a coffee machine like the one in the penthouse, with a set of instructions on the counter next to it. The dishes in the glass-fronted cabinets looked like hand-thrown pottery, not the fine china he'd feared.
He walked past the kitchen and around to the right and found a dining area with a sturdy looking maple table and enough chairs for the entire team plus a few guests. There was an extra gloss on the table top. He touched it curiously, and a set of buttons appeared that indicated the entire table could be used as a touchscreen like the one they'd used in the SHIELD conference room. Pretty handy.
He turned around and went past the living area in the other direction, but he had to stop short when he saw what was over there.
It was an art studio. There were shelves full of paper stock, watercolors, brushes, pencils, oils, pastels, and other supplies. There were three easels of different sizes, and a group of blank canvases stacked nearby. The windows faced southeast. There was a second fireplace at the far end, and another sofa.
Never mind the rest of the apartment; Steve would have been happy just living there. He had to pull himself away to see the rest of the place.
The bedroom was just as inviting as the rest of it, even with a bed that was nearly the size of his old apartment. The closet, which was even bigger than the bed, had a special section for his suits and his shield, but they weren't encased in glass like they had been on the carrier. Steve liked that they were just hanging there like they belonged. He took a minute to run his fingers along the edge of his shield; he'd hated having to leave it behind. There were other clothes hanging in the closet as well; he recognized Pepper's taste and reminded himself to thank her.
It was all way too much; it must have cost a fortune. But that was Tony. Steve took a deep breath and let it out. This was Tony's way of letting him in, of making him and the rest of the team part of his life and work. He'd obviously taken great care to make it a place where Steve would feel comfortable. And Steve did feel comfortable; he couldn't deny it. He could be happy living here.
"JARVIS?" he said.
"Would you let Tony know I'll be upstairs as soon as I've showered and changed? And tell him…" he trailed off, wanting to get this right.
"Yes?" JARVIS said expectantly.
"Tell him the apartment's perfect. Tell him thank you."
"I'll do that," JARVIS said. Steve thought he almost sounded pleased. "Is there anything else you require?"
"No, I'm fine," he said, sitting on the bed to take his shoes and socks off.
"Welcome home, Steve."
He intended to take a quick shower, but after weeks on the road, sleeping at cheap motels, the allure of multiple shower heads, all high enough that he didn't have to duck, and plentiful hot water was difficult to resist. By the time he got out and dried himself off, he was thinking that maybe it made him a little soft, but he could definitely get used to this.
Pepper greeted him when he stepped off the elevator into the penthouse, which had been completely repaired. "Steve, welcome back," she said, putting her hands on his forearms and leaning in to kiss his cheek. She was dressed in shorts and a casual shirt, her feet in flip-flops, but she looked perfectly put together. "Have you settled in okay downstairs?"
"Yeah, thanks," he said, still feeling a little tongue-tied around her. "The apartment's great; I really like it."
"I'm glad to hear it. Tony and Bruce are in the lab; I'll let them know you're here and I'm sure they'll be right up," she said, typing something on one of the counters. Apparently they all had touch screens; it made Steve wonder how you were supposed to do any cooking. Then again, this was Tony and Pepper's place, and he didn't think either one of them were the type to cook. Besides, there was a big kitchen a few floors down.
"Have you talked to Clint or Phil?" she asked after she finished typing.
"I talked to Clint earlier. He said they both had meetings and would be here as soon as they could."
"Hopefully Clint will keep Phil from staying too late," she said absently, looking at something on the countertop.
"Is everything all right?" he asked.
"Yes, of course, forgive me," she said, turning back towards him. "Just checking the Google alerts on Stark Industries. It's a bad habit."
"The company's doing well?" he asked to be polite.
"Very well. It turns out arc reactor power and Avengers Tower are good for business." She smiled at Tony and Bruce as they entered the room.
"Avengers Tower?" he asked, because that was new. He'd noticed Stark hadn't bothered replacing the rest of his name when he'd repaired the top floors of the building.
"You like the new name, Capsicle?" Tony asked, smirking.
"I think I do," Steve said, walking over to him and putting his hand on Tony's shoulder. "And, listen, Tony, the apartment--"
"Yeah, JARVIS said you liked it, but in the interest of honesty I have to tell you it was a group effort," Tony said quickly. "Pepper did most of the decorating."
"Thank you, Pepper," Steve said. "It's lovely. And thank you for, you know, the clothes."
"You're welcome; let me know if any of them don't fit right," Pepper said. "Bruce picked out most of the books, and Phil was responsible for the record collection. He insisted on LPs; he says CDs just don't sound the same."
"Thank you, Bruce," Steve said.
"You're welcome," Bruce said, and gave him a quick hug. "Welcome back, Steve."
Steve returned the hug, feeling a little awkward, but also very welcomed. "I'll thank Phil when he gets here," he said, pulling back. "And the art studio, I don't know how to thank you all for that. It's terrific."
"That was Clint's idea," Pepper said. "He said you like to draw, that you went to art school before the war."
"Just a few classes here and there, when we could afford it," Steve said, his ears warming. "I'm really not good enough to need a studio."
"Bullshit," Tony said firmly. When Steve stared at him, flummoxed, he added, "My dad kept every drawing you ever gave him; he framed most of them and put them in his office. They're really good, Steve. Besides, after you've saved the world a time or two, you deserve a few perks. It's a rule."
Steve laughed. "Well, if you put it that way," he said. "I wouldn't want to break any rules."
"Good; it's settled, then," Tony said. "Come on, Cap, give us a hug," he added, throwing his arms open and grinning at Steve.
Steve went ahead and did just that. "Tony," he said as they embraced, "thank you. For everything."
"You're welcome, and could you let go now, because your super muscles are crushing the breath out of me," Tony said.
"Besides, it's my turn," a familiar voice said from behind him. "Don't worry, Steve, I'm far too manly to be crushed by your super muscles."
"Clint, hi!" Steve said, a little embarrassed by the eagerness in his voice. "Jeez, it's good to see you." Clint looked much better than the last time Steve had seen him. He was tan, his body language relaxed and open, and he had a big smile on his face.
The embrace between the two of them was different than the casual hugs he'd shared with Bruce and Tony. It was a little tighter, and it lasted longer. It was genuine and heartfelt, and Steve thought that another reason he was grateful for this new century was that it was easier for men to do this now, to show actual affection for each other. It felt really good to hug Clint. Based on the way Clint was hanging on, he figured Clint felt the same.
"Welcome back, Steve," Clint said eventually, letting go.
"You too," Steve said. "I hear you're responsible for my favorite room in my new place."
"You like the studio?" Clint asked, his smile getting even brighter.
"It's amazing, Clint," Steve said. "Thank you so much."
"Barton, not that we're not all glad to see you, but where's your better half?" Tony said.
"Stuck in a meeting with Fury, last I heard," Clint said, shaking his head. "He promised me he'd be here as soon as he could."
"He's been meeting with Fury a lot lately, hasn't he?" Bruce asked. "You know what that's about?"
"Yes, he has, and no, I don't," Clint said. His phone buzzed. "That'll be Phil," he said, pulling it out of his pocket. "Hey, you on your way? Good. Yeah, see you soon."
"I'm going to suggest we move down to the kitchen," Bruce said. "I've got a few things to finish up down there before we can eat."
"You could have just used the kitchen up here," Tony said.
"I really couldn't," Bruce said; it sounded like an old argument to Steve. "About all you can do in the penthouse is make coffee and heat up leftovers."
"It's always worked for me," Tony said, shrugging.
"No, it really hasn't," Pepper said fondly, putting her arm through his as they got on the elevator.
Phil came in while Steve was helping Pepper set the table. "Hello, everyone," he said in a mild voice. It was the same thing he'd said that night on the carrier, but everything else was different. He was wearing a perfectly tailored suit with perfect confidence, and he looked to be in perfect health. When he came over to Steve, he greeted him with a firm handshake and a calm, "Welcome back, Steve."
"Thanks, Phil," Steve said, and stepped aside so that Phil could move on to Clint.
"Hi," Phil said, touching Clint's face. "Sorry it took so long."
"I'd ask you not to make a habit of it, but I know that's a lost cause," Clint said, taking Phil's hand in his and interlacing their fingers. "Come on, Bruce is making goulash."
Steve wondered what Bucky would have made of this new century, of the men and women that made up his new team. He still thought of Bucky when he saw Phil and Clint together, but it didn't hurt as much as it had before. He guessed that was some sort of progress.
Dinner was delicious, the conversation was lively, and by the end of it Steve felt a little closer to his team. He also felt an increasing need for some peace and quiet. Pepper was the one who picked up on it; she put her hand on his arm over dessert and said, "Steve, you must be tired from your trip. Why don't you head upstairs?"
"Yeah, I think I'm about ready to go, too," Clint said. "Gotta make sure Phil gets his rest; he's had a busy week."
The look Phil gave Clint was full of exasperated affection. Tony rolled his eyes and said, "Yeah, sure, rest. You two go do that; I'll just be glad I designed this place with excellent soundproofing."
"Tony!" Steve exclaimed, his cheeks flushing.
"What?" Tony said, smirking at him.
"Just ignore him, Steve," Phil said.
"Yeah, he hates that," Clint said agreeably.
"Okay, well, good night, everyone," Steve said, waving awkwardly. "Bruce, thanks again for dinner; it was delicious."
"Any time, Cap," Bruce said, and then the three of them escaped into the elevator.
Clint and Phil looked like they were having some sort of telepathic conversation as they went up. When the doors opened, Phil pushed the hold button and Clint said, "Hey, I wouldn't mind seeing those sketches you told me about, the ones you did of Iowa."
"Now?" Steve asked hesitantly. "I don't want to interrupt your time with Phil."
"Nah, it's fine," Clint said. "I won't stay long. I just thought we might want to hang for a while, just the two of us."
"Sure," Steve said, smiling. "I'd like that. If it's okay with you, Phil," he added.
"I've got some work to catch up on," Phil said. "I'll get more of it done if you can keep this one out of my hair. Take your time."
Steve wasn't entirely sure he should believe him, given the way he was looking at Clint. But Clint just leaned in, kissed Phil softly, and said, "Don't work too hard, babe."
"I won't," Phil said. "I'll see you later. Good night, Steve."
"Good night," Steve answered.
Steve hadn't realized that Phil and Clint's floor was directly below the penthouse, and his two floors below that, until now. "Who's in between us?" he asked Clint as the door opened on his floor.
"Natasha, if she ever gets home," Clint said as Steve punched his code and let them in. "Kitchen's below you, which you know, and then Thor and Bruce--Tony had those floors reinforced; that's why they're below the kitchen instead of with the rest of us."
"That makes sense, I guess," Steve said. "I'd offer you something to drink, but I don't actually know if I have anything to offer."
"Let's see," Clint said, walking into the kitchen and opening the fridge. "Looks pretty well stocked to me. Okay if I grab one of these microbrews? You want one?"
"Sure," Steve said, staring at the inside of the refrigerator, which was completely full. "I don't even know what half of that is," he said, gesturing at the various drinks and condiments he could see. There were drawers as well, filled with produce, cheese, meats, and eggs. He knew he ate more than the average person, but he wasn't sure he could get through all that food in a month.
"Just ask JARVIS; he'll tell you," Clint said, grinning. "Tony had no idea what you'd like, so I think he just kinda went nuts and got you a little of everything. Oh, that's kombucha; I'd stay away from that if I were you. It's this fermented tea shit, and it is seriously disgusting."
"Good to know," Steve said, looking at the container dubiously. He glanced through the cupboards and saw they were just as full. What his mother would have given for even a small percentage of this bounty back in the Depression, he thought. Maybe he could take some of it over to a soup kitchen. Did they still have soup kitchens in the 21st century? They must. He'd ask JARVIS about that, too.
"Come on, I promised to show you my drawings of Iowa," Steve said, because he couldn't be thinking about that sort of thing when he had a guest. "Have a seat; I'll get my sketchbook."
He got Clint settled on the sofa and went into the bedroom to dig his sketchbook out of his bag. He thought for a moment, then grabbed the other sketches as well.
"Here we go," he said, flipping through the sketchbook to get to the right page. "I was just at a rest stop for lunch that day, but there were cornfields nearby." He handed the book to Clint, feeling nervous. He'd never really showed his sketches to anyone other than Bucky, and sometimes Peggy.
"Wow," Clint said softly. "Steve, Tony wasn't kidding--this is really good."
"You really think so?" Steve asked, blushing.
"Yeah, I do," Clint said. "Do you mind?" he asked, closing the sketchbook but putting his finger on the cover to flip it back so he could see the first page.
"No, go ahead," Steve said.
Steve had bought a new sketchbook in London, just for the trip, so the first few pages were the city, the English countryside, and Peggy's gravestone. Clint paused when he got to the drawing of Peggy's granddaughter, looking at Steve. "That's Margaret," he said. "She's named after her grandmother, although she doesn't use the nickname. I couldn't believe how much she looks like Peggy."
Clint nodded thoughtfully, and turned the page. "This is Peggy, then?" he asked. Steve nodded. "She was really beautiful."
Clint slowly flipped through the rest of the sketches, pausing now and again for Steve to identify what or who was in a particular drawing. When he got to the end, he had a puzzled look on his face.
"There aren't any of Bucky, not in that book," Steve said before he could ask. "I wasn't…I couldn't. It was too much, with everything. But I have a few here." He handed Clint the loose sketches he'd taken from his apartment in Brooklyn. "I could never get the shape of his mouth quite right," he said, frowning.
He hadn't even tried in most of the drawings, focusing on the parts he felt like he could do justice: Bucky's shoulders, his hands, the slope of his neck. There was one of Bucky sleeping on his stomach, a sheet loosely draped over his lower half, his head turned away, that made Steve ache every time he looked at it. The two sketches of Bucky's face were so completely unable to capture his essence that Steve was reluctant for Clint to even see them, but Clint seemed to study them with as much care as he did the others.
"Don't take this the wrong way or anything, but holy shit, Steve. Bucky was really fucking hot," Clint said at last, handing the sketches back with an appreciative smile.
Steve laughed, pleased. "Yeah, he was."
They talked for another few minutes, and then Clint went upstairs to Phil, leaving Steve alone. He wasn't sure what to do with himself, so he wandered around the apartment again, looking at everything. He had to ask JARVIS how to run the record player, which was a lot more complicated than he'd thought it would be, but eventually he had Billie Holiday sounding like she was singing right there in his living room while he sat on the sofa and paged through art books. He switched out the record a few times before he went to bed. Phil had good taste in music.
That was Friday night, so he had the weekend to settle in before he had to report to Fury at SHIELD on Monday. Bruce made waffles on Saturday, and Tony invited everyone to a movie marathon and pizza that afternoon and evening. Steve made an effort to get familiar with all the common areas of the tower, visiting Bruce and Tony in their labs and taking Pepper up on her offer of a tour of her office. He spent Sunday afternoon in his studio, listening to jazz and trying out some of his new supplies, then had dinner with everyone again Sunday night. By the time he woke up early Monday, he was beginning to feel at home.
Two things happened on Monday. The first occurred while he was eating breakfast in the downstairs kitchen with Clint, Bruce, and Pepper. Clint sat upright, staring out the windows, so Steve turned around, only to see what had previously been a sunny, bright day turn into a sudden, violent thunderstorm.
"You thinking what I'm thinking?" Clint asked, grinning.
"What are you thinking?" Pepper asked, looking confused.
Before Steve could answer, there was a large boom. The lights flickered for a second, and JARVIS calmly announced, "Thor Odinson has arrived on the roof," sounding as if it were an every day occurrence.
"Please let him in, JARVIS," Pepper said, and the four of them hurried into the elevator and up to the penthouse.
Tony was already there. He was in his bathrobe, and Thor was hugging him. He released Tony when he saw the rest of them. "My friends, I have returned!" he announced, hugging each of them in turn. "It is good to see you all again!"
"Good to see you, too," Steve said. He didn't think he'd gotten so many hugs from so many people in such a short time before in his entire life.
"Welcome back; I've got a floor set aside for you, and by the way, does this mean you've re-established the Einstein-Rosen bridge?" Tony said, rapid-fire as always.
"We have indeed rebuilt the Bifrost," Thor said. "I will be able to travel between our realms much more easily now, to see you and Jane whenever I wish it. I believe she is in this city?"
"I think she's based at SHIELD now," Bruce said. "Darcy's working there, too, and so is Selvig."
"That is wondrous news," Thor said. "But where is Agent Coulson? Has he not yet recovered? If need be, I'll take him to Asgard to be seen by our healers."
"He's fine," Clint said quickly. "JARVIS, is Phil still here, or has he left for work already?"
"Agent Coulson is on his way to the penthouse," JARVIS replied. Right on cue, the elevator opened and Phil stepped out in his suit.
"Son of Coul!" Thor said happily, pulling him into a hug. "You look well, my friend."
"So do you," Phil said once Thor released him. "How are things in Asgard?"
"Asgard is as it ever was," Thor said, the smile dropping off his face. "Only the particulars change. You need not worry; my brother remains imprisoned, without the use of his magic."
"Good," Clint muttered, and Steve had to agree with him, even though Thor winced when he heard it.
"We need to debrief you," Phil said, straightening his tie. "You can come with me to headquarters."
"As long as I can see Jane first," Thor said. "I do not want her sent off to another part of the world again."
"Of course," Phil said. "Clint, Steve, I'll see you later." And with that they were gone again. Steve went back downstairs and finished his breakfast, watching the sky clear up again outside.
It was when he was getting dressed that the second thing happened. "Sir, Director Fury is on the line for you," JARVIS said.
"Put him through," Steve said, buttoning his shirt. It must be about Thor, he thought. "Director, if you need me to come in early--"
"That's not what I'm calling about, Cap," Fury interrupted. "I need you and your team to suit up. There's a situation at the Stock Exchange."
"A situation, sir?" Steve asked, taking his shirt back off and grabbing his Stark phone to text the team.
"Some group of would-be terrorists has taken over the building, and they're threatening to blow it up unless you surrender to them," Fury said. "According to our techs, they've also gotten some sort of worm into the trading system that could potentially destabilize the entire world economy."
"They've asked for me in particular?" Steve said, frowning. "How did they even know I was back?"
"I'm guessing it was the paparazzi photos of you on your morning run yesterday," Fury said dryly. "Get yourself, Banner, and Barton over there in one of Stark's birds. Sitwell and Thor will meet you there. I'm going to assume Stark can get there on his own."
"Yes, sir," Steve said, working on a plan. If it bore a certain resemblance to a plan from the past, well, why mess with what works?
Sitwell didn't like the plan, but Clint thought it was great, and so did Tony and Thor. Bruce just sighed and put on the special trousers Tony had developed, holding them up with his hand as he got into the helicopter.
Whatever Sitwell thought didn't matter, because the plan worked. Tony did his computer thing again while they were setting everything up. Steve didn't know what, exactly, he was doing, but he trusted Tony to disable the worm, whatever that was. Steve walked slowly up to the Exchange and let them take him into custody, getting a good overview of the situation and buying Tony the time he needed. When Tony signaled he was ready to come through the roof, the Hulk burst through the front of the building and Thor came through an upper window. Clint stayed up high and picked off bad guys as they came running out, reporting to the rest of them on everything he saw.
It wasn't until Steve was rounding up the ringleaders that he looked closely at the small insignia on their collars. "What the hell?" he said, just as the woman in front of him grinned at him, bit a poisoned tooth, said, "Hail Hydra!" and promptly died.
"I hate it when they do that," Sitwell said from behind him. "Gag everyone you take in," he said into his radio, shaking his head in disgust. "Nice job, Captain," he added, nodding at Steve.
Steve stood there in shock until Tony came up and asked if he was okay. "Yeah, I'm fine," he said, crossing his arms over his chest. "Thanks, Tony."
When he got into the briefing room, he walked up to Fury and said, "That was a Hydra operation," trying to keep his voice from shaking.
Fury nodded. "Did you think they all went away when you crashed that plane, Cap? A cult of personality like that doesn't cease to exist just because its leader disappears."
"Hydra's been increasingly active over the past few months," Phil said. "We suspect it's due to the re-emergence of Captain America."
"That makes sense, I suppose," Steve said slowly, unhappy about the implications. "Who's in charge these days?"
"We're not completely sure," Phil said. "It may be a Russian oligarch named Alexander Lukin."
"The head of Kronas?" Tony asked, frowning. "I've met the guy. Never suspected him of heading an international terrorist ring." He shook his head, looking unhappy, and Steve made a mental note to talk to him later and find out what was bothering him.
The team spent most of the afternoon in briefings. By the end of it, Steve felt like he had a decent grasp of the current status of Hydra, Ten Rings, al Qaeda, and various other groups SHIELD was monitoring. They scheduled another meeting for the following day for Thor to bring them up to speed on what was going on in Asgard, Jotunheim, and the other realms.
"I would never say life was easy during the war, but it certainly felt simpler," Steve said to Clint over beers that night. "We worried about Hydra and the Nazis, and that was pretty much it."
"What about the Japanese, the Russians, and the Chinese?" Clint said, tipping his bottle at Steve. "The prejudice and racism? The way you had to hide your relationship with Bucky?"
"Okay, so maybe it wasn't all that simple," Steve conceded.
"I think the word you're looking for is 'familiar,'" Clint said with a wry grin. "You'll get there, Steve. Just give it some time. Look at everything you've gotten comfortable with already. Phil didn't believe you knew how to text until I showed him."
"Really?" Steve asked. "I'll have to give him a hard time about that."
"That's why I told you," Clint said, smirking. "Just do me a favor and let me watch, okay? I love it when he gets all flustered around you. It's really cute."
"No problem," Steve said, laughing.
After Clint went back upstairs, Steve searched out Tony in his lab. "What's up, Cap?" Tony asked, looking up from where he was welding…something.
"Just thought I'd stop by," Steve said.
"Yeah, right," Tony snorted. "Because you and I, we're best buddies; we hang out all the time."
"We hang out," Steve protested. "We hung out this weekend."
"The whole team hung out this weekend," Tony said. "This is different. This is you coming to see me in my lab. Alone."
"Have you got a problem with that?" Steve asked. "Should I not be invading your fortress of solitude?"
"Do not tell me you know about the Fortress of Solitude," Tony said, narrowing his eyes. "That didn't make its first appearance until 1949."
"In Superman, maybe," Steve said, propping his hip on the table and crossing his arms. "It showed up in Doc Savage before that, though. Besides, I watched the movie from 1978 the other night. It was on American Movie Classics."
"You do know that I have almost every movie ever made, in super-high-def, unedited, with no commercials," Tony said, waving his hands. "I know you know, because I told you myself. Stop with that basic cable shit. Just tell JARVIS what you want to watch and he'll set it up for you."
"Didn't know what I wanted to watch until I started watching it," Steve said, shrugging. "I don't mind the commercials. They kind of help. You know, with assimilating to the new century and all that jazz."
"Only you would find eHarmony commercials educational," Tony said, sighing dramatically. "Out with it, Steve. Why are you here?"
"Okay, if you really want to know, I thought you looked upset when you said you'd met Alexander Lukin," Steve answered. "I was wondering if he was a friend of yours, if it made you sad to think he might be involved with something unsavory."
"Unsavory, that's a good one," Tony said, chuckling humorlessly. "No, it's not that. It's more that… Do you know what happened with me, why I built the suit?"
Steve shook his head.
"Yeah, you're probably the only one in the world who doesn't," Tony muttered. "Short version: the guy who practically raised me after my father died, who helped me run the company, which incidentally was all about weapons manufacturing at the time, paid to have me killed. When that didn't work, he tried to kill me himself, so I wouldn't interfere with his plans to sell weapons to whoever could pay. He was involved with a terrorist group called Ten Rings; I believe you've been briefed on them."
Steve nodded, keeping his face impassive.
"After that," Tony continued, gesturing, "another few people I knew got on the 'let's kill Tony Stark' bandwagon. Frankly, between personal experience and actually being alive in this century, I'm more surprised when someone I've met turns out not to be connected with a group like Hydra or Ten Rings. At least Lukin hasn't tried to kill me yet."
"I'm sorry," Steve said.
"What the hell are you sorry for?" Tony asked, sounding honestly bewildered.
"That all those things happened to you," Steve said.
Tony looked at him. "Don't do that," he said coldly. "Don't you dare fucking pity me, Rogers."
"That's not pity, Stark," Steve said, exasperated. "It's a guy trying to express his sadness that a friend of his went through something horrible. Empathy, not pity. You might want to learn the difference."
"So we're friends now? I guess that makes sense, since we're hanging out," Tony said, making what Steve had learned were called "air quotes".
"You can't invite a team of people to live in your fortress of solitude and not gain some friends, Tony," Steve said. "That's kind of the way it works. I promise none of us will try to kill you. Well, Phil might if you keep bugging him about top secret SHIELD operations, but the rest of us will have your back."
"Yeah, don't even pretend that Barton wouldn't pick Coulson's side in any battle," Tony said, leaning back in his chair. "His side, his front, his back. His backside. You know he'd pick that. Have you seen the way he watches Coulson walk out of the room?"
Steve smiled. If Tony was making jokes again, they were probably okay. "He does pay awful close attention," Steve agreed. "Not that you can really blame him."
"The agent does fill out his suits very nicely," Tony said, cupping his hands suggestively, and Steve chuckled. "Better not let Clint know you've noticed his husband's caboose, Steve-o, or Hydra will be the least of your problems," he went on, and Steve laughed out loud.
"I won't tell Pepper if you won't tell Clint," Steve said, grinning.
"Oh-ho, I see what you did there, Captain," Tony said, but he was finally smiling. "You got a deal. Now scram; I've got work to do."
"Sure. See you at breakfast?"
"Probably," Tony said, already intent on his work. "Bye now."
"Good night, Tony," Steve said, and went up to his apartment.
The next few weeks were busy with more briefings and a lot of training. Steve sparred with Thor and Clint, shot on the range with Clint, and spent time with Bruce and Tony in their labs. He came up with a couple of training simulations with JARVIS and Phil's help. Clint went on another mission for SHIELD, and the rest of them worried and tried to keep Phil occupied.
When Clint came back a week later, the two of them made a brief visit to the penthouse, where everyone was watching episodes of Star Trek. Tony had declared them an important piece of history that Steve must experience. Phil and Clint disappeared after about ten minutes.
"You see that, Cap?" Tony said when Clint and Phil reappeared in the kitchen thirty-six hours later. They were sitting side by side, drinking coffee and eating breakfast. Clint kept stealing eggs from Phil's plate, and every time he did it, Phil's eyes crinkled up at the corners. "Just look at those two. Have you ever seen anything so disgustingly adorable?" Clint gave Tony the finger without looking at him. It happened so frequently that Steve barely noticed anymore.
"Do I see two people who look very happy? Yes, I do see that," Steve said, grinning at Tony. "It reminds me of how you and Pepper looked the other morning. You should try sleeping on the same schedule as your girlfriend more often."
"Yeah, Tony, you should sleep with Pepper more often," Clint said cheerily. Phil laughed, pretending to wipe his mouth on his napkin.
"Soundproofing," Tony muttered, turning his back on the table and walking away. "Thank God for soundproofing."
Phil worked late the next few nights, so Steve and Clint had dinner together, once with Tony, Bruce, Thor, and Pepper, once in Steve's apartment, and once in a restaurant. Clint was worried about Phil and about Natasha; he was convinced there was something major coming down the pike, but he said Phil couldn't tell him anything yet. It had been months since any of them had seen Natasha. Clint said that she'd been on assignments that long before, but Steve knew Clint missed having her around, and he thought Phil did as well.
That Friday they got word from Fury that there would be a team briefing on Monday morning. Clint thought it was connected to Natasha, but admitted he had no proof.
When Phil got home that night, he invited Steve to join them for dinner on Saturday. Steve wasn't anywhere near as good at reading Phil's poker face as Clint was, but he could tell Phil was concerned about something. Steve picked up a bottle of wine and some beer that JARVIS recommended when he was at the market on Saturday and brought them upstairs that evening, wondering if there was anything more to the invitation than a simple dinner with friends.
Clint and Phil's apartment had a similar layout to his, although there was an office instead of an art studio, and everything was in soothing shades of blue and green that reminded him of the ocean. He and Clint sat at the counter and talked to Phil while he put together some pasta and a salad. They kept the conversation light, but Steve caught Clint glancing at Phil with his brow furrowed a few times.
The low-key conversation continued through dinner, but once they'd finished their dessert, Phil stood up and gestured for them to follow him out to the living room with their coffee cups, telling JARVIS to engage privacy mode. When he sat down on the sofa, he had a serious look on his face, and Clint's expression had changed to a worried one.
"What's wrong?" Steve asked, putting his coffee on the table.
"I made Clint a promise a few weeks ago," Phil said. Clint breathed in sharply, frowning. "There's something going on that I think you need to know about, Steve. The rest of the team will find out about it on Monday, at Fury's briefing, but I think it's best you get a head's up."
"Okay," Steve said, nodding attentively. "What is it?"
"It's about what Natasha's been up to," Phil said. "She's on her way back; she'll be at the briefing." Steve could tell from Clint's expression that he hadn't known.
"So what has she been doing all this time?" Clint asked.
"She's been looking for intel on the Winter Soldier," Phil said, looking at Clint. The name didn't mean anything to Steve, but Clint leaned forward, surprised.
"The Winter Soldier?" Clint asked. "I thought that was just a legend. Are you telling me there's really a Russian assassin out there with a metal arm who's been kept on ice off and on for the last, what, sixty years?"
"It appears so," Phil said. "Except, according to Natasha, he's an American the Russians captured during the second world war and brainwashed. She says she met him when she was seventeen; he was one of the operatives who trained her."
"He's an American?" Steve asked, leaning forward. "What else does she know?
Phil took a breath and met Steve's eyes. He looked very serious. "Steve, I hope you'll forgive me not telling you this until now. I only found out about it a few weeks ago, and I wanted to wait to tell you until we were sure. It's not a hundred percent yet, but I didn't think it was fair to wait any longer."
"Tell me what?" Steve asked, wishing Phil would get on with it.
"Natasha spent about six months with the Winter Soldier," Phil said. "They were…intimate. Apparently the Red Room didn't usually let him out of suspension for that amount of time, because his memories would start to resurface, and they were worried his conditioning would break down. But they wanted Tasha trained by their best. She spent long enough with him that she learned his name. She called him Yasha."
Steve shook his head impatiently. "That doesn't mean anything to me, Phil," he said tensely. "What was his name?"
Clint put his hand on Steve's arm. His face was pale as he said, "It means James. Yasha is James, right?" Steve should have gotten it then, should have realized why Clint was looking at him like that, but he didn't.
Phil nodded. "Natasha said that sometimes he would talk in his sleep. He'd say his name, rank, and serial number, like he was a prisoner. She doesn't remember the serial number, but the name was Sergeant James Barnes."
Steve literally couldn't breathe for a moment. It felt like the asthma attacks he used to have, the ones Bucky--Bucky--would help him through, a warm hand on his back, a beloved voice telling him breathe, pal; come on, breathe. His vision narrowed to his hands, clenched tightly into fists on his thighs. He forced himself to inhale, to exhale, and to do it again, until he could lift his head.
"Did she find him?" he asked hoarsely. "Did she find Bucky, Phil?"
"No," Phil said gently. "She's been looking for two months, and so far she's mostly hit dead ends. But her latest report indicated she's got a new lead she's hopeful might pan out." He paused, watching Steve carefully. "Steve, I have to warn you, even if we find him, even if we manage, by some great stroke of luck, to bring in an assassin no one has even caught a glimpse of in sixty years, there's no guarantee he'll ever be anything but the Winter Soldier. If we do find him, and that's a big if, it's more likely we'll end up having to take him out."
Steve shook his head in denial, but Clint was the one who spoke. "We've brought people back before, Phil."
"I do know, and believe me, I'm not saying we shouldn't try," Phil said. "But this is different from what happened with Tasha, or with you and Selvig. Tasha said they'd reprogram him after every mission. There might not be anything of Bucky left, if he's even still alive."
"If he's…" Steve said, and swallowed. He needed to focus, to look at it as a mission. "If he's alive, God, if he's out there, we have to find him. We have to bring him back. We can worry about the rest of it later. We have to find him."
"We're working on it," Phil said. "We'll keep trying, Steve, I can promise you that." That he couldn't promise anything else was very clear.
"Thank you," Steve said. "For telling me now, I mean. I…I appreciate hearing about it like this instead of from Fury on Monday."
"It's the least I could do," Phil said. "I wish I had more information, but I don't know anything about Tasha's newest lead."
"Steve," Clint said softly, his hand on Steve's shoulder.
Steve turned to look at him. The compassion in Clint's eyes nearly broke him, because it brought home just how much Clint understood. Steve shook his head, pinching his nose. "Where's a dirty sidewalk when you need one?" he muttered, knowing Clint would get it.
Clint snorted. "Yeah, you said it, buddy. Seriously, though, if there's anything--"
"I know," Steve interrupted. "Thanks. I think I'll head downstairs now, if it's okay with you. I could use some time alone."
"Of course," Phil said, looking between the two of them.
"Sure," Clint said, and the three of them stood. Clint pulled him into a quick embrace, murmuring, "Any time you need to talk," before letting him go.
Steve made it to his door, but when he tried to punch in Bucky's birthdate, his hands wouldn't stop shaking. "JARVIS, I can't," he said.
"Overriding lock; voiceprint match accepted," JARVIS said, and the door opened for him.
"Are you all right, Steve?" JARVIS asked as he stumbled through the door. "Do you require medical assistance?"
"No," Steve said, shaking his head. "I'm fine, JARVIS. Just a little thrown, I guess you'd say. I got some news, and it's a lot to deal with. I'll be fine."
He went into the studio and looked at the piece he'd been working on, a full-color version of the sketch he'd shown Clint of Bucky sleeping. He tried to imagine that form with a metal arm, and he just couldn't do it. He didn't even know which arm Bucky had lost.
"JARVIS," he said.
"Do you have any files on the Winter Soldier?"
"There are thousands of hits for the Winter Soldier, but I wouldn't call any of them reliable," JARVIS said smoothly. "There is some encrypted information in the SHIELD databases, but I would be required to notify Mr. Stark if you accessed it."
"No, don't tell Tony," Steve said. "Does any of the stuff on Google mention which arm is metal?"
"The majority indicate that the Soldier's left arm has been replaced by a metal prosthesis at the shoulder," JARVIS said. "Again, I cannot verify the accuracy of that information."
Steve nodded absently. "Thanks, JARVIS."
He didn't sleep that night. He had JARVIS put on some movies, but the love stories made him think of Bucky, the action movies made him think of Bucky, the one about the killer cyborg made him think of Bucky. He asked JARVIS if there was anything about people with artificial limbs and eventually settled on a television series from the seventies about an astronaut with bionic limbs that gave him super-powers.
He still thought about Bucky, but he distracted himself by imagining what Tony and Bruce would say about what even Steve could tell was a silly premise. The hero was named Steve, which made it even more ridiculous. Tony would give him a hard time for watching it, probably, or else would say it was a classic and be sad he'd watched it alone.
Steve might have stayed in his apartment all day, watching that stupid show, if Clint hadn't shown up and dragged him to breakfast (at a diner, not with the team; Steve didn't ask what he'd told everyone, just was grateful they were all leaving him alone). After breakfast, Clint settled onto the sofa next to him and watched five episodes, his quiet presence saying more than any words could. Phil showed up after that and made them sandwiches in Steve's kitchen before joining them on the sofa for another five episodes. Clint kept up a running commentary, his low voice soothing, and Phil added an occasional dry aside.
Phil made Steve skip the one where Jaime Sommers died, telling him they'd done a "retcon," whatever that meant, so that she could have her own series. Clint called for pizza at some point, which they ate on the sofa while watching more of the show. Steve surprised himself by laughing at some of Clint's comments, and he could see Clint and Phil relaxing when he did. By the time they'd finished a quart of ice cream, Steve was yawning and felt like he might actually be able to sleep.
"You want me to stay?" Clint offered. "I'd be fine on the couch."
"No, that's okay," Steve said, patting him on the arm. "I think I'll be fine. Thanks, guys."
"Any time, buddy," Clint said. "Call if you need anything."
"See you in the morning, Steve," Phil said, and then they left. He fell asleep on the sofa to the sounds of Steve Austin running in slow motion, and he dreamt of Bucky's metal arm stretched out, his hand reaching as Bucky fell once again.
He never found out what Phil had told everyone (especially Tony) to make them leave him alone that weekend, but the first time he saw the rest of the team was when they gathered in the conference room at SHIELD Monday morning. Clint sat next to him, Phil on his other side, and he gave each of them a grateful look as they waited.
Natasha came in first, with Fury and Hill right behind her. She nodded to everyone, but there was no time to greet her before Fury stepped up to the front of the room and addressed them all.
The beginning of the briefing was mostly information he'd heard from Phil the other night, but there were pictures of the Winter Soldier's targets, maps marked with kills, graphs indicating when they thought he'd been active and when he'd been in some sort of cryonic suspension. Steve paid careful attention, but he couldn't help noticing that Tony was barely looking up from his tablet, and he kept saying things to Bruce under his breath. Clint kicked him in the shin once, but Tony ignored him, and Thor was starting to look a little distracted as well.
Steve had been in enough briefings with the team by this point to know it didn't mean Tony was missing anything; in fact, usually Clint was acting just as distracted as Thor and Bruce, and they both always came out of meetings with all the key information. But this was different, this briefing was about Bucky, even if no one had said his name yet, and after Clint had kicked Tony in the shin again without getting him to look up, Steve lost whatever control he'd been hanging onto and burst out with, "Would it kill you to pay attention, Tony?" When everyone stared at him, he said, "This is important. You all need to pay close attention, because this is really important, okay?"
He must have made some sort of impression on Tony, because instead of spitting out some fact from the briefing in the most sarcastic tone he possessed, Tony instead sat up, leaning forward, and nodded, his expression serious. "Okay, Cap," he said.
"Agent Coulson, when this is over we're going to have a talk about operational security," Fury said, and Phil inclined his chin calmly. "For now, I'm going to turn things over to Agent Romanoff, who has some critical information about the Winter Soldier that will surprise at least some of you, I hope." Despite his words, Fury didn't look like he was angry at Phil.
Steve clenched his fists and forced himself to sit still as Natasha gave a dispassionate overview of the Red Room's horrific training methods. When she described meeting the Winter Soldier, meeting him and following her masters' directive to have sex with him, she was careful not to gaze too long at Steve, a kindness he appreciated. Her voice barely caught when she told them all the name the Soldier used to say in his sleep; Steve didn't think he would have heard it if he hadn't been listening so closely.
There was silence in the room for a long moment, and then Bruce quietly said, "Holy shit. Steve, are you okay?"
"Yeah, thanks, Bruce," Steve said. "I'll be better once we find him, though."
After a predictable discussion about whether or not they'd be able to bring Bucky in at all, Natasha finally got to the heart of it: the new lead she had. She'd been able to verify the sale (the sale, God) of the Winter Soldier from a General Karpov to Hydra, and some solid intel linking Lukin to both. There were a few grainy surveillance photos of Lukin in the Ukraine with someone whose build matched Bucky's, although his face was turned away from the camera.
"I'm heading back to Russia next week," Natasha said. "I'll be using the Natalie Rushman identity; I have an interview with Kronas that should set me up as Lukin's PA. If he's got Barnes, I'll find out."
"Natasha," Steve said slowly, forcing himself to look her in the eye. "How much of him is left, do you think? What are the chances of bringing him back?"
"I don't know," she said, her brow furrowing a little. "The last time I saw him was more than ten years ago, and even then, I'm not sure how much of his memory was recoverable. I think part of him remembered you, though."
"You do?" Steve said, his heart aching with hope.
"It wasn't just his own name he'd say when he was dreaming," she said. "Sometimes he said 'Steve.' It's not much, I know, but it's something."
It's everything, Steve thought, but all he said was, "Thank you."
That night, he went up to Natasha's apartment to talk to her privately. When she opened the door and invited him in, she didn't look surprised to see him. She made a pot of tea and brought out some Russian cakes to go with it, and they sat on the sofa.
Steve picked at the cake, then took a sip of tea, unsure how to start talking.
"I'm sorry I couldn't tell you earlier, Steve," Natasha said after a moment.
"I understand," Steve said, staring at his tea cup. "You needed to find out if he was even alive, right?"
She nodded. "That, and SHIELD wanted to keep it quiet for as long as possible."
"Do you know for sure?" he asked her, his chest tight.
"That he's alive?" she asked, her brow furrowing slightly.
"That it's Bucky," he said, shaking his head. "Have you…have you seen pictures? I brought these," he went on, fumbling with his sketchbook. He handed her the loose sketches and a snapshot from their days with the Commandos.
She took them, but she didn't look at them right away. "I wouldn't have gone after him if I hadn't been sure," she said. "I had JARVIS search for images. That's when I knew."
"Oh," Steve said; he should have realized.
Natasha bent her head and looked at the sketches. She traced her finger lightly over one of the images; Steve couldn't tell which one from where he was sitting. "These are very good, Steve," she said. Her face was blank, but her finger remained on the paper.
"Thanks," he said, wondering if she was looking at the one of Bucky sleeping. He'd almost left that one downstairs, but he'd told himself not to be such a chicken. He knew Bucky liked girls, and Natasha was beautiful.
He took a convulsive swallow of his tea, then coughed. It was really hot.
"Are you all right?" Natasha asked.
He nodded. "Did you love him?" he blurted out.
She looked at him, and he thought he saw compassion in her expression before she controlled it again. "No," she said. "We were…I suppose you'd say we were comrades in arms. We cared for each other, but it wasn't love."
"But you…" Steve said, flushing and moving his hands, unable to complete the sentence.
"We fucked," Natasha said bluntly. "That was good; it scratched an itch for both of us. It didn't mean anything more than that."
"Okay," Steve said, making himself nod. "But I want you to know, when we get him back," because it was when, not if, "if he wants to be with you, I'll understand. I just want him back safely. If he's happy with you, if he remembers you but not me, I'll understand. If he loves you, I'll understand." Maybe if he said it out loud like that, he'd actually believe it.
"He never loved me," Natasha said firmly. She took a delicate nibble of her cake; Steve thought it might be a way to buy herself some time and distance.
"There was no love, Steve," she said eventually; the compassion was in her voice now. "The man I knew in Russia wasn't capable of that emotion. Our masters made sure of it. You have to prepare yourself for the very real possibility that they removed that capacity permanently."
"I don't believe that," Steve said, shaking his head. "I can't believe that. I won't."
"Very well," Natasha said, sitting back. Her face was a mask again.
"If there's anything you can do to get to him, I want you to do it," he said after another awkward silence. "It doesn't matter what it is."
"Are you asking me to seduce him?" she asked, arching an eyebrow.
"If you think it'll help, yes," Steve said, forcing the words out. "Whatever it takes to get him back. We'll worry about the rest of it later." He looked up and met her eyes.
"All right," she said slowly, nodding. "I doubt I'll need that particular skill-set this time out, but I appreciate your leaving it to me to decide." She handed the sketches back to him, and he realized the conversation was over and fled back to his apartment.
From that point on, all of Steve's energy was focused on Operation Spring--an apt name, he thought; he hoped they could wrap it up by the time it was actually spring again. The operation didn't keep him from doing his job on those occasions when the Avengers were needed, but outside that, his thoughts were full of the Winter Soldier, of Bucky, of how they were going to bring him home. He spent time with Bruce, Tony, and Dr. Selvig, meeting with SHIELD scientists to go over all the ways they'd discovered to break through to brainwashed agents. He met regularly with Phil, Agent Hill, and Agent Sitwell to discuss tactics. He spent time on the range with Clint, and he sparred with everyone.
And he waited for the rare updates Natasha was able to send. Two months went by before she was able to confirm that Lukin had Bucky, although she was unable to actually speak with him. Then it was back to waiting.
Everyone but Natasha was there for Thanksgiving; Bruce did most of the cooking, but Steve, Phil, Jane, and Pepper all helped. It was the first Thanksgiving since he'd been thawed. His last Thanksgiving had been canned beans and sausages warmed over a fire somewhere in Greece with the Commandos. This one felt more like the last one he'd had at before his mother died, when she and Bucky's mom had combined their resources and gotten them a scrawny turkey. The food was several orders of magnitude different, but the family feeling was inescapable, and Steve couldn't help wondering if Bucky even knew what day it was.
After they ate, they watched football, and then they ate again. Clint and Phil sat on the sofa, arm in arm; Pepper and Tony did the same, and so did Thor and Jane. Steve caught Darcy and Bruce looking at the couples wistfully; he was sure he'd had the same expression on his face more than once.
He was sparring with one of Tony's new robots the week before Christmas when a call came in from Clint. He said something about meeting for lunch at the Tower, but Steve could tell there was more to it, something he couldn't say while at SHIELD. Steve got cleaned up and waited until Clint appeared at his door. His brow was deeply furrowed, and his shoulders were hunched.
"What's wrong?" Steve asked, ushering him inside. "Is it Nat? Has something happened? Is it Bucky?"
"No," Clint said, shaking his head. "JARVIS, we don't need privacy mode, exactly, but I need you to keep what I'm going to tell Steve confidential, okay?"
"Of course, Agent Barton," JARVIS said smoothly. "Is there something I can help you with?"
"I don't know," Clint said. "Maybe."
"Clint, what's going on?" Steve asked, trying to mask his impatience.
"It's not about Bucky or Nat, although I wish she were here," Clint said. "It's about Phil. He's fine," he added when Steve opened his mouth, alarmed. "But they're trying to force him into early retirement."
"Retirement?" Steve asked, frowning. "Why would they want that?" He'd been around SHIELD enough to know that everything Clint had told him about Phil that night on the helicarrier was true. He hadn't met a single agent who didn't view him with respect and at least a little awe.
"Fuckers," Clint said, which didn't answer Steve's question. "You know how he can't get medical clearance to go back to active duty?"
Steve nodded. The team had been working with Hill or Sitwell when they were in the field instead of Phil for that reason. He liked them just fine, but he knew Clint really missed having Phil there.
"It's total bullshit," Clint continued. "I mean, who the fuck cares about him possibly being at higher risk for developing some heart condition at some point in the future? He doesn't actually have a heart condition; he's fine."
"He does have scar tissue on his heart and his lung," Steve said carefully, because he knew it was a very sore subject for Clint. "I'm sure they're just being cautious."
"He's passed every physical test they've put him through, and he's the best agent SHIELD has ever seen, but, sure, he's got scar tissue on his heart, so stick him in an office and let him fill out paperwork," Clint said bitterly. "At least they were letting him plan operations. Only now they've taken Darcy away and assigned her to Sitwell. They promoted him, did you hear?"
Steve nodded; he'd congratulated Sitwell in the hallway the day before. "I didn't know about Darcy, though."
"Just happened yesterday," Clint said. "Sitwell's reporting directly to Fury now, instead of to Phil."
"So they promoted Sitwell and gave him Darcy as an assistant, and Phil can't get medical clearance to work as a field agent," Steve said. "I'm not sure how that means they're trying to force him into retirement. I know Fury and Hill, and Sitwell, too, really value Phil's abilities to plan and strategize. I can't believe they'd want to lose that."
"They don't," Clint said, and Steve pinched his nose in frustration. "It's the Council," Clint explained. Steve leaned back against the counter, nodding for him to go on.
"The Council wants him to retire. They've been looking for a scapegoat for the Chitauri invasion, and they figure Phil's the best they can get. They wanted to use me, but they can't, not with me working with the Avengers; I'm too famous these days." Clint grimaced at that. Steve knew Clint would take the fall for Phil if he could; he still felt guilty over what had happened when Loki had him. "They won't tell anyone I was compromised. Phil, though, he was my handler, so they can push the blame off on him, and the public won't give a fuck because they don't know anything about him. Besides, Phil was on record from the start that he was against the phase two weapons. They've had it out for him ever since."
"Do you know this all for sure?" Steve asked. If it was true, it was unconscionable.
Clint nodded grimly. "Fury admitted it to Phil this morning. He's trying to protect Phil, has been ever since everything went down, but he's not sure how much longer he's gonna be able to. The Council's been threatening to replace him ever since he let us take Loki and the Tesseract out of SHIELD. And you know Phil; he'll fall on his sword to protect Fury."
"Damn it," Steve said heavily. "He would, wouldn't he." Just as Clint would fall on his to protect Phil.
"We can't let him, Steve," Clint said, putting his hand on Steve's arm. "Never mind how much Phil would hate being retired, we need him. The Avengers are as much his baby as anyone's, and you know that as much as Tony likes to give him shit, he's the only one Tony will listen to. He's the only one Tony respects."
"Yeah, I know," Steve said, thinking hard. "And that's why I think we need to bring Tony in on this."
"Tony'll just offer Phil a job with Stark Industries," Clint said, shaking his head. "Phil would never accept that. One, he'd see it as charity, and two, he'd never work for Tony."
"Maybe Tony could put some pressure on the Council," Steve said. "JARVIS, does Tony know anyone on the World Security Council?"
"It's possible, but since the membership of the Council is secret, I have no way of knowing," JARVIS said. "That's information Mr. Stark has never been able to find. However, I do have a suggestion."
"Go ahead," Steve said, looking at Clint for confirmation.
"Agent Barton, Agent Romanoff, and Agent Coulson all work for SHIELD, but the Avengers as a team are a separate entity," JARVIS said. "Director Fury and Agent Coulson set it up that way deliberately; they didn't want the Council to have control. In effect, all of you have been working as independent contractors. Right now the funding for the Avengers is funneled through SHIELD, although much of it originates with Mr. Stark. I believe Agent Coulson could be employed by the Avengers themselves, rather than by SHIELD or Stark Enterprises."
"You really think that could work?" Clint asked, sounding equally hopeful and skeptical.
"I believe it's possible, yes," JARVIS answered. "I concur with Captain Rogers that it would be wise to involve Mr. Stark, and probably Ms. Potts as well. The rest of the team could be notified after the four of you had ironed out a plan."
"Are Tony and Pepper here?" Steve asked.
"Yes, sir," JARVIS answered. "Would you like me to ask them to join you?"
"What do you think, Clint?" Steve said, because he wasn't going to go ahead with anything without Clint's agreement.
"Yeah, go ahead and ask them," Clint said. He looked a little calmer, more settled. He hadn't said so, but Steve figured he'd been planning on quitting the Avengers and coming forward with what had happened with Loki. Steve wouldn't let that happen, but he wouldn't let the Council force Phil out, either. If JARVIS' idea didn't work, they'd just have to come up with something else.
Tony and Pepper listened closely, taking notes on their tablets as Clint, Steve, and JARVIS explained the situation and JARVIS' proposed solution. Then Tony, Pepper, and JARVIS started talking about 501-C3 versus LLC and other jargon Steve and Clint couldn't really follow. They called a team meeting that night, conferencing Natasha in through some extra special encryption Tony came up with. Everyone agreed to go ahead with it.
They met with Phil the next morning. He was dubious at first, but once he realized the implications, he dug in and put his strategic talents toward making it all air-tight. By that afternoon, they had it all planned out and ready to execute. On Christmas morning, Tony presented them all with t-shirts, business cards, and other paraphernalia with the new logo.
A week later they held a press conference announcing the formation of a new non-profit organization, the Avengers Initiative, funded largely through the Stark Foundation in cooperation with SHIELD. Steve was appointed Executive Director. Phil was the chairman of the board of directors, which was comprised of Phil, Pepper, Colonel Rhodes, Sitwell, Hill, Jane Foster, Darcy, and JARVIS (although only on an unofficial capacity, since the laws regulating non-profit organizations didn't allow for artificial intelligences).
Phil was named the official SHIELD liaison to the Avengers, and the Council had no choice but to accept it. Fury assigned Darcy to Phil again, and they all settled into the new status quo. The next time they assembled, they had Phil's calm voice on their comms instead of Sitwell or Hill, and Steve finally got what Clint had been telling him, because the team worked better than ever.
A few weeks passed. The day after they took out yet another Hydra cell without learning anything useful, Phil called a meeting and announced that Natasha had finally made contact with Bucky.
"I'm afraid the news isn't encouraging," he said, his eyes on Steve. "He recognized her, but he claimed not to remember anything before his capture. When she offered to help him escape, he threatened to tell Lukin. She managed to convince him it was just a test, so her cover is still intact, but she's not sure when she'll have a chance to talk to him again."
"Couldn't she get him out of there on her own?" Bruce asked. "Whether he's willing or not?"
"The Winter Soldier trained Natasha," Phil said, shaking his head. "He's taller, stronger, and has more experience than she does, and we're not sure what advanced weaponry he might have in his artificial arm. It's unlikely Tasha could overpower him. Unless she gets an opportunity to sedate him, she'll need his cooperation to get him away from Lukin."
"What about…" Pepper said, then hesitated, looking at Steve. Her brow was furrowed, and he had a pretty good idea what she was thinking.
"What is it, Pepper?" he asked.
"If he remembers Agent Romanoff, could she use that?" Pepper asked. "They were involved, from what I understand. I'm sorry, Steve," she added, looking at him apologetically.
Steve shrugged, his shoulders tight. "If Natasha seducing Bucky is what it takes to bring him back, I don't have a problem with it," he said. "She knows that."
"All right," Pepper said. "Phil, when can we expect to hear from Natasha again?"
"She'll check in next week, earlier if there are any new developments," Phil answered smoothly.
Natasha met with Bucky a few more times in the following weeks, but she didn't report making any progress. The rest of the team took down another Hydra cell, stopped a Ten Rings operation in Dayton from taking control of Wright Patterson Air Force Base, and captured a scientist trying to produce telekinetics by spiking Miami's water supply with some sort of mutagen. At least it was warm in Miami; it made a nice break from the ice and snow in New York.
Valentine's Day was a lot bigger deal than it had been in the forties, it seemed to Steve. Maybe it was just that he knew so many happy couples; even Darcy was dating someone these days, a junior agent at SHIELD named Greg. Steve spent the evening hanging out with Bruce in his lab, Steve missing Bucky and Bruce no doubt missing his girl, Betty. He'd gone to see her once the previous summer, but apparently she was dating someone else now. He didn't like to talk about it, and no one pressed him to.
Steve knew he should be grateful that Bucky was out there, breathing and sleeping (possibly with Natasha, a thought he pushed away as quickly as he could) and alive, but it had been months, and he was tired of waiting. Every time he had Bruce's pancakes, he'd think about how Bucky would have loaded them up with butter and syrup. When they watched a movie, he wondered if Bucky had seen it. When Clint came downstairs to hang out with him, he wondered if the two men he considered his closest living family would ever meet.
On February 16, Natasha contacted Phil with a code phrase indicating she'd left Russia with Bucky. Clint gave Steve a hug, Pepper and Darcy both kissed him, and Tony broke out the champagne. Twelve hours later, Natasha called and said Bucky had gotten away from her, and all the hope and joy Steve had been feeling was gone again.
Since Bucky was in the wind, there was no more need for Natasha to maintain her cover with Lukin. She arrived in New York on the 18th, bruised and battered from what must have been one hell of a fight, and the team went to work trying to locate Bucky. Again.
That night, Natasha knocked on his door. He invited her in, as nervous to talk to her as he'd been that night before she left. He made her some tea and put some cookies on a plate.
She winced a little when she sipped her tea; her mouth was pretty banged up. "Are you okay?" he asked. "I can get you some ice, or if you'd rather have something else?"
"It's fine," she said, shaking her head. "Thank you." She nibbled at one of the cookies.
Steve took one of the cookies to have something to do with his hands and his mouth. He wasn't sure how to ask what he needed to ask without sounding like a jack-ass.
Fortunately, Natasha spoke first. "I'm sorry," she said. "He played me; I should have seen it. I'm sorry I couldn't bring him in."
"It's okay," Steve said, because he figured she needed to hear it. "We'll find him again."
She didn't respond to that; Steve hadn't really expected her to. Instead, she inclined her chin slightly and said, "I want you to know that nothing happened between us. I talked to him, that's all."
"Looks to me like you did more than talk," Steve said wryly, gesturing at her bruises. "But I know what you mean, and I appreciate your telling me."
She actually smiled at that; she had a lovely smile. "I gave as good as I got," she said. "I almost had him."
"You know, Clint's been telling me for months that there's a lot you could teach me," Steve said, smiling back at her. "As soon as you're up to it, of course."
"Give me a couple days and I'm all yours," Natasha said, arching an eyebrow.
"It's a date," Steve answered.
Steve spent a lot of what little free time he had in the gym, whether it was sparring with Natasha or just hitting something until he was exhausted enough to sleep. He made a point of eating meals with the team--with his friends, because that's what they were at this point. He knew they were worried about him, and they'd be more worried if he didn't. He hung out with Clint whenever he could; if the rest of them were friends, Clint was family. Despite everything he did to exhaust his body and brain, his sleep was fractured by nightmares every night, and his days were full of the fear that they'd never find Bucky again, or they'd find him too late.
They held a press conference a year to the day after they discovered Steve in the ice. It seemed a strange anniversary to commemorate, but both Phil and Pepper said it was a good idea, so Steve went along with it. All of the Avengers were there except Natasha, who was still going out on the occasional undercover op for SHIELD. It was the first time for Bruce, who'd finally agreed to appear in public, and the first time they all showed up in civilian garb instead of their uniforms. Phil, Pepper, and the rest of the board were there as well, sitting off to the side of the stage.
Steve had had plenty of practice dealing with the press, both before and after his long sleep, but he was not at his best that day. He hadn't slept at all the night before, and he resented the time this dog and pony show was taking from their real work. He managed okay with the mostly softball questions he was asked, then turned things over to Tony, who soon had the reporters eating out of his hand, as usual.
It was when they got to Clint that the dog and pony show turned into a full three ring media circus. A reporter from People introduced herself and said, "Hawkeye, is that a wedding ring you're wearing?"
Clint's eyes went wide. He looked briefly at Phil, who gave him a small smile, and then at Steve. Steve shrugged--it was up to Clint; he'd back him either way. Clint's chin dropped in acknowledgement; the whole thing took less than a second. Then Clint squared his shoulders and said, "Yes, it is."
"I don't believe we've seen you wearing that before, have we? Is it new?" the reporter asked, smiling at him.
"I wear a shooting glove when I'm working," Clint explained. "You can't see the ring if I’m wearing it, and I leave it off if I know we're going in hot. Don't want to lose it."
"I guess your wife wouldn't appreciate you losing it on the job," the reporter said, and some of the audience laughed. Steve saw Clint frown in response and knew what was coming. When he glanced over at Phil, he could see Phil knew, too, and he didn't seem to mind. "How long have you been married?"
"Three years this summer," Clint said brusquely, his fingers tight on his mug of coffee.
"How does your wife feel about you being in the Avengers?" the reporter asked. "It can't be easy seeing you going off to risk your life like that."
"I don't know how a wife would feel, but if you want to ask my husband how he feels about it, he's right over there," Clint said, pointing at Phil. There were audible gasps from the audience. "You might just as well ask me how I felt when Loki nearly killed him last year. We both signed up to risk our lives when we signed on with SHIELD."
The room broke into pandemonium, reporters shouting over each other, fighting to ask the next question. Steve looked at Phil, raising an eyebrow, and Phil calmly stood and climbed the steps onto the stage. Bruce gave up his seat so that Phil could sit down next to Clint, who took his hand and smiled at him apologetically.
Once the initial scrum was over and the reporters had gotten the basic information, Steve was ready to shut the whole press conference down and call it a day. But Tony took over again, speaking eloquently about how the Avengers were a team, and as a team, they supported Phil and Clint's marriage wholeheartedly. Bruce chimed in in agreement, and Thor announced that there were no prejudices against same-sex unions in Asgard.
"You're from a simpler time, Captain Rogers," a reporter from the Wall Street Journal said. "Is it uncomfortable for you to work with gay men?"
Steve bit back what he really wanted to say, clenching his fists under the table. It wouldn't do for Captain America to swear in front of all these cameras. "No, I'm not uncomfortable at all," he said. He could hear some of the anger he was feeling in his voice, but he didn't care. "When Clint told me he and Phil were married, it was the first time I realized gay marriage was legal here. I thought it was the best news I'd heard since I woke up, and it made me proud to be from the state of New York."
"You're telling me that you, Captain Rogers, you who were confirmed as a Catholic in 1930, aren't offended by the acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle in this day and age?" another reporter asked incredulously; Steve thought he was from Fox News.
It was the final straw on what had been a very long day. "Offended?" Steve snapped. "That would be pretty damned hypocritical of me, considering I'm gay myself."
The pandemonium from before was nothing compared to what broke out then. Steve was concerned that some of the reporters might get hurt, the way they were shoving at each other to get closer to the podium. "One at a time, please," Steve said through the microphone, but they barely seemed to hear him over the questions they were shouting. He turned to Tony for help.
Tony smirked at him and climbed on top of the table, unclipping his microphone from his tie and tapping on it with his finger. "Ladies and gentlemen of the press," he said loudly. "If we can't find some decorum in the next few seconds, this press conference will be over before Captain Rogers can give a follow-up statement." When the crowd quieted, he nodded at Steve graciously and sat down again.
"Thank you, Tony," Steve said, and faced the crowd with determination. A reporter shouted out a question about Peggy, so Steve clarified that Peggy had been a dear friend, someone who'd known and understood when he told her he was involved with another man in his unit. "That man, Sergeant James Barnes, fell in battle in 1944. I like to imagine that some part of him is still out there, loving me, knowing how much I will always love him," he said, hoping that somewhere out there, Bucky would hear his words and return to him. "The rest of the Avengers know his name; they've known who Bucky was to me for as long as they've known me, and they accept it with the same empathy and friendship as they accept Clint's marriage to Phil, or Tony's past as a playboy, or Bruce's ability to turn into the Hulk. We're a team, but we're also friends. Thank you, that's all I have." He looked at the rest of the team, and they stood and walked off the stage as a group.
The first thing Steve did after they got backstage was apologize. "I don't know what I was thinking," he said, his head down. "I wasn't thinking at all, is the thing."
"You were rightly incensed by that mewling idiot's question," Thor said loyally. "It would have tested anyone's resolve, Captain."
"The guy was a dick," Tony said. "I've said far worse to the press with far less provocation, Steve; I'm sure Pepper can spin it all so it works out in our favor."
"I don't know about that, Tony," Pepper said, her brow furrowed. "Don't get me wrong, I'm not upset at what you said, or what you said, Clint," she said, nodding at him. "But it'll get us a lot of attention, both positive and negative. People are going to react strongly to the idea that there are three gay men in the Avengers, including the leadership on both the operational and strategic sides."
"I'm bisexual," Clint said, frowning. "I get that the public won't see the distinction, though."
"No, you're right, Clint; I'm sorry," Pepper said. "We'll make sure that's clear in any information we release from here on out."
"Speaking of strategy, did you have anything in particular in mind when you brought up Bucky?" Phil asked, looking at Steve speculatively.
"I was just hoping that he would hear about it," Steve said. "It's probably a pipe dream, but I thought it might bring him home."
"If he hears about it, it's just as likely he'll see it as reason to come after you," Natasha pointed out. She'd been waiting for them backstage. "Remember, it was when I tried to talk to him about you that he attacked me."
"If he does come after me, we'll get an opportunity to grab him," Steve said. "That's worth taking a chance."
"I agree," Phil said. "That's why I think you should let Pepper arrange for some additional media appearances, Steve. Clint, if you're up for it, you could stand to do some interviews as well, with Steve or on your own. I know publicity isn't your favorite thing, but the more we get the word out, the more likely it is that Barnes will hear of it and react."
"You sure that's a good idea, Phil?" Bruce asked doubtfully. "From what Natasha tells me, the Winter Soldier's got the training to get the drop on us."
"It's definitely a risk," Phil answered. "As Tasha said, he reacted with volatility when she brought Steve up. But none of the leads we've gotten over the past two months have gone anywhere. I think it's time to try something a little riskier."
"Then let's do it," Steve said firmly. "Pepper, let me know when and where, and I'll be there."
"I might be willing to do a few interviews with Steve," Clint said. "It depends on what they are. Phil, you know if I'm there they're going to ask about you."
Phil nodded. "I've always preferred staying in the background, but my current role is more public than it used to be, albeit less so than yours and Tasha's. It might serve us well if I make a few select appearances with my husband. Pepper, let's meet tomorrow and discuss our best options."
"I'll have a list ready," Pepper said. "I'm thinking the talk shows and some local print, maybe the Times or The New Yorker to start. Clint, we'll talk about how much you're willing to get involved. I've already heard from Vanity Fair, but I think we'll give them a pass."
"You know she doesn't even work there anymore," Tony said to Pepper, who frowned at him. "On second thought, never mind; forget Vanity Fair."
Steve decided not to ask; he found that often worked best with Tony and Pepper.
He thought he'd been busy before, and he thought he'd understood publicity tours, but he was wrong on both counts. The first thing Pepper did was help him set up a charity, one they decided was geared towards marriage equality, supporting LGBTQ veterans, and international outreach. That way he'd have something to talk about besides his sexuality, and they could do some good work as well. It meant he had to do a lot of research, because people were going to expect that he knew about things like LGBTQ rights, including what all the initials meant. He still wasn't sure he understood it all, but he did his best.
Steve went on The Rachel Maddow Show the night after the press conference, Tony's recommendation for his first interview. She made him feel comfortable in a way that few other interviewers ever had. It wasn't that she asked him easy questions, but she asked him thoughtful ones. She understood when he fumbled through some of the answers, and she was easy to talk to. After the show wrapped, she sent in the first official outside donation to the Bucky Barnes Memorial Fund, and many of her viewers followed suit.
They did the major talk shows next, Clint and Phil alongside him on what Tony called the Gay Avengers Tour. Someone picked it up on Twitter, and soon that was what everyone was calling them. Steve supposed they could have found something a lot worse. Steve, Clint, and Phil traveled to Los Angeles on a Stark Enterprises jet (Tony insisted), fortunately during a week when there wasn't a need for the entire team. Tony, Thor, and Bruce had to handle an incident in Boston, but they did, in fact, handle it. Natasha was back in Europe trying to nail down some leads.
Steve flew back to New York so he could sit for interviews with a bunch of newspapers, magazines, and other news networks while Phil and Clint went up to Oregon for a vacation, the first they'd taken since their honeymoon. Clint said they'd never actually been to Portland and figured it was time to rectify that. He called Steve every night, just like Steve had called Clint the previous year.
Weeks went by. They had no leads other than a few anonymous messages on the internet that they followed up on without finding anything useful, traveling to South America, Canada, and Japan to do so. Steve continued to make public appearances, worked on the goals of the Fund with Pepper, answered his fan-mail, and analyzed his hate-mail with JARVIS' help.
That was new, getting hate-mail. He tried to tell himself that every letter from someone who said it helped knowing Captain America was gay was worth ten letters saying he would burn in hell, and he mostly believed it, but it didn't make reading the hate-mail any easier. Tony told him to just let JARVIS do the analysis, but Steve couldn't help wondering if there might be a clue somewhere that JARVIS would miss. If the Winter Soldier was really coming after him, Steve had to be on the lookout for any possible communication.
A few more emails or anonymous texts came in, and the team went to Perth, to Beijing, to Brussels, but none of it panned out. The anniversary of the battle with the Chitauri came and went. Then they got word that Hydra was active in southern Germany, and there was a rumor they'd recaptured the Soldier. Two days later there was another anonymous text sent to the Fund's office, and the team headed to Bayreuth.
"You know it's probably a trap," Natasha said on the plane. "If it's anything at all, I mean."
"I know," Steve said wearily. "There's even an opera house. What is it with German opera houses, anyway?" He'd heard a lot about Bayreuth during the war; the Nazis had loved the town, and Hydra had had a presence there before Schmidt decided he didn't need Hitler anymore. It was supposed to be a nice place these days, but the idea of going there put a sour taste in Steve's mouth.
"There's not much going on in Bayreuth besides opera," Phil said thoughtfully. "I've always preferred Mozart and Puccini to Wagner, though."
"The Ring Cycle offends me," Thor said, frowning. "That is not how it happened. And the music is boring. Your Mozart is superior indeed, Son of Coul, but I am not familiar with this Puccini you speak of."
Clint and Steve looked at each other in barely disguised panic; who knew how long Phil and Thor would go on about opera if they didn't do something to stop it. "So, how do you think the Yankees are going to do in the playoffs this year?" Clint asked loudly.
Steve said something about pitching, as desperate as Clint to get the topic of conversation changed.
When they arrived in Bayreuth, Steve got another text, this time to his personal cell phone, which worried the rest of the team. He was to meet someone--the message didn't specify who--at the university, near a building dedicated to a brother and sister who'd been part of a student-run resistance movement. They'd been killed, of course; the Nazis had been very effective at squashing any resistance. Steve wasn't sure if he should take the meeting place as a good omen or a poor one.
They prepared as well as they could, just as they had in Beijing, Brussels, and Perth. Clint went up high, Natasha stayed down low, Tony got in his suit, Thor had his hammer, and Bruce was wearing what Tony called his stretchy pants of rage. Steve wanted to go into the op in his civilian clothes, or maybe his army uniform, but Phil overruled him. So he suited up and grabbed his shield, although he kept the cowl off. If it really was Bucky, he wanted him to be able to see Steve's face.
They'd evacuated the university on some pretext Steve hadn't really paid attention to. That wasn't like him, but they'd been looking for Bucky for more than six months, and more than a year had elapsed for Steve since Bucky fell. His body was as alert and strong as ever, but Steve was tired of the grind, of waiting and hoping and having his hopes dashed time and again. If Bucky had really died, maybe he'd have made it past some of the grief by this point, he thought guiltily.
It was a beautiful summer day. The sun was shining brightly, but there was enough of a breeze blowing to keep it from getting too hot. Phil was checking in with everyone on comms, his voice as calm as it always was, when Clint said, "I've got someone at my three, top of the science building."
"Describe him," Phil said.
"Can't get a clear visual, sir," Clint said. "I think he's wearing smart fabric; he's blending in with the roof. I caught a reflection of something metal; could be the Soldier's arm, or maybe a rifle. I'm moving in for a closer look."
"My sensors are picking something up, but Hawkeye's right about the smart fabric," Tony said. "It's blocking the infrared and visual spectrum both. Relaying the location to you now, Coulson."
"Pick up Natasha and get ready to bring her to the target's location," Phil said smoothly. "Captain, prepare to take cover."
"Negative, sir," Steve said. "If he wanted to shoot me, he would have done it already."
"I wouldn't be so sure about that, Cap," Clint said, sounding a little breathless. Knowing Clint, he was probably hanging halfway off the building. "I caught a glimpse of something that looked an awful lot like a rifle barrel, maybe a Heckler & Koch. He was still moving, getting into position, but I think he's ready now."
"Take cover, Captain," Phil said. "That's an order."
Before Steve could argue with him, a shot whistled past his left ear. He ducked under his shield instinctively; a half second later, the shield stopped another shot. "I've got him," Tony said. "Couldn't fool my sensors for long."
Steve ran for the science building, then ran up the stairs, listening in as Tony, Bruce, Thor, and Natasha worked together to subdue the mysterious man on the roof. By the time he got to the door, he could hear the man yelling at them--he could hear Bucky, because he'd recognize that voice anywhere, even if it was yelling in Russian. He burst through the door, then stopped, his heart in his throat.
The hood of his jacket had been pulled back, exposing his face. It was Bucky's face, although he looked a few years older than the last time Steve had seen him. His hair was a little longer, but his mouth was the same, the freckle on his forehead, the cleft in his chin. His eyes were cold and hard and full of anger, and there was a cut on his left cheek that was bleeding sluggishly.
"Bucky," Steve said helplessly, his voice breaking. "My God, Bucky."
"That's not my name," Bucky snarled.
"It is," Steve insisted, moving closer. "You're Bucky Barnes. I know you might not remember, but you will, Bucky, I promise."
"Stop calling me that," Bucky snapped. "That's not my fucking name." He struggled against the bonds that held his arms behind his back, and the jacket he was wearing slipped off his left shoulder, baring the metal that had replaced his arm. The arm's contours were perfect, just covered in silver instead of skin. There was a red star painted over the deltoid muscle.
"Take it easy, James," Natasha said. "You can trust these people. They're trying to help you. They helped me."
Bucky said something in Russian; it sounded just as angry as everything else he'd said. He struggled some more, and the cut on his cheek started bleeding harder. Before he'd realized what he was doing, Steve was standing directly in front of him, reaching out to gently touch his cheek. Bucky's eyes went wide; for a split second he looked terrified. Then his expression turned cold once more, and he spat in Steve's face.
Steve backed off, wiping his face, and watched Bucky as the quinjet descended to the roof and they loaded up for the trip back to New York. It took hours to get home; Steve watched Bucky the entire time, hoping for some sign of recognition, but Bucky turned away and refused to look at him or anyone else. Steve studied the line of his neck. His hair. The way he was sitting, his hands bound behind him but his spine still curved forward protectively. The tight set of his shoulders, one metal, one flesh.
Bucky was alive, and they'd finally found him. He'd remember Steve eventually, remember who he was. He had to.