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Light Up The Night

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The latest frost left the ground slippery and icy. Seeing his breath in the air made Bucky ache for a cigarette. He recognized that as an unhealthy coping strategy, particularly given that his logic for engaging in it was to decrease his stress. Bucky had no actual intention of going out and buying a pack but a part of him felt guilty at the mere thought of it.

Or maybe that was just guilt because after helping Steve get his mom inside after her morning appointment, Bucky had asked if it would be okay if he stepped outside for a couple of minutes. It wasn’t like he’d left Steve with anything or hadn’t been supportive over the past several weeks but, he still knew this wasn’t entirely fair of him. Steve had more than enough to deal with and he depended on Bucky – not that he’d ever say it, Bucky recognized that much at least – and here Bucky was, needing to take a couple of minutes to himself to calm down.

It wasn’t that he felt particularly not calm. It was just that he wanted a goddamn cigarette.

It had been months since his cravings got this bad. The first couple of weeks had been absolute hell but Natasha wouldn’t let him smoke inside the townhouse. In those early days and weeks of staying with her the mere thought of stepping outside set off a panic attack. So he’d fought through the misery and used the patch and tried the gum and did everything he could to keep himself sane. By the time Bucky realized that going out wasn’t as bad as he’d thought it would be he no longer had a pack in his pocket to pull from. Especially when he felt as though he wasn’t making progress anywhere else in his life, he wasn’t about to go back to old, bad habits.

After that, the cravings diminished. Sure, if someone around him was smoking, especially when he was at the bar and his urge to smoke was already high from the years of those two behaviors being paired together, he might find himself contemplating having one himself but those instances were few and far between. The longer he’d gone, the stronger his resolve had become.

Hell, aside from reminiscing on his old habits on New Year’s Eve, he’d barely thought about smoking at any length for months.

And now Bucky couldn’t seem to get those thoughts out of his head. Ever since waking up on to the news about Steve’s mom, he couldn’t stop thinking about it. Granted, the train ride back had been a blur given that he was panicked, half asleep, probably also somewhat hungover, and overall not exactly in the best state of mind. But from the moment he’d followed Steve through the hospital and into Sarah Rogers’ room, suddenly all he could think about was getting a goddamn pack of cigarettes.

Bucky thought it would fade, after that first week when the pneumonia was under control and her breathing had improved enough for her to be discharged home. After all, it didn’t entirely surprise him that after several long days where he spent at least 60% of time in the hospital that those urges would come back. Just being around the hospital, with the smell of disinfectant and sterile everything from the white walls to the floor to the metal trays everywhere brought back way too many memories of the time he’d spent there. Reflecting on those memories always felt surreal and hazy and the majority of the time when something brought them on, they were fragmented and confusing. He still couldn’t discern whether that was just the trauma talking or the actual fact that every bit of consciousness only lasted so long.

Part of it might have been that he’d been on his own for managing his anxiety and the trigger of medical environments. Given Mrs. Rogers’ condition, Bucky hadn’t been accompanied by Winter to any of those visits out of legitimate concern of raising the risk for complications, given her immune system’s compromised state. Even when her condition improved, Bucky hadn’t considered bringing Winter along and instead he’d done what he could to help himself cope until he could head back to Shield.

Over those first few days, when Bucky felt himself slipping, he pulled himself back using every technique he’d learned in therapy. He kept the worry stone in his pocket for grounding and focused on the differences between then and now, specifically looking at and touching his metal arm. His new relationship with the prosthesis helped with that. When he found himself getting sucked into one of those memories, he just had to remind himself that his left arm was there, just different, without the absence of the limb and bandages in place he’d experienced during those months in the hospital.

Plus, when he did return to Shield, he had Winter there to help pull him back from slipping into flashbacks. That helped to limit the stress for being fully responsible for himself, which became exhausting after the hours and hours of already struggling to pull himself back from falling over the edge.

He needed to support Steve and hadn’t wanted to cause Steve any additional stress. So he’d kept himself as stable as he could.

He’d been exhausted by the end of it but he had to admit that even now, fighting the urge to track down a cigarette, he was pretty proud of himself. He’d reached out to Natasha and Sam for support while Steve was in class, and he’d tried to compensate for the overall exhaustion by getting a proper amount of sleep and remembering to eat. Overall, he hadn’t gotten that bad, nowhere near where he’d been during the early days of his recovery, which was saying something after everything.

Bucky had even managed to maintain 90% his work schedule without completely falling apart. For someone who hadn’t been able to remember to eat without a reminder from others less than a year ago, this was a pretty major step.

The front door creaked open and Steve’s head poked out. “Buck? You okay?”

Bucky exhaled slowly, tried not to let himself fall into a sneaky hate spiral, and turned to Steve. “Yeah, I’m good. Sorry I was out here for a bit. You need anything?”

Steve gave him a searching look but shook his head. “Mom’s pretty well settled and is insisting I get my ass out of here and head to work. She’s got a list of phone numbers, including both of ours, a cell phone right next to her, food within reach, and her favorite show on TV. She seems to think that we’re just fretting. Plus she’s got a friend coming over in about an hour, just to check in, so I think we can go.”

Bucky heard the hesitation in Steve’s voice, just as he did each time they prepared to leave. After what had happened over New Year’s, it seemed as though Steve felt a surge of guilt each time he considered leaving his mother for any length of time. Really, Bucky couldn’t blame. Still, Steve had other things to worry about and deal with already, between classes and Shield. Bucky had worked hard to ensure that Steve still managed to sleep and eat and everything else but he had to admit that if Steve’s mom didn’t need them to stay, it would be better for Steve to have more time to catch up on the rest of the day of work, not to mention his homework, before the evening came on.

“Guess if that’s what she’s saying, I should say goodbye first.” Bucky ran his fingers nervously through his hair before remembering that he’d tied it back earlier in the day and only succeeded in yanking a portion of it out of the elastic tie.

Frustrated, he tugged it off and took one more deep breath, pretending the exhalation was a long stream of smoke rather than cold air, even though there was no false calmness of nicotine, and stepped inside. True to Steve’s words, he found Mrs. Rogers stretched out on the couch, a pillow behind her, a blanket over her legs, and a cup of tea in her hand. There were books and pages of notes – presumably the numbers Steve had mentioned – beside her and the TV was on and showing what was probably the 500th rerun of Law and Order for the day.

Despite the lack of medical equipment in there – though there were also bottles of pills covering the table – the room smelled like a hospital. Bucky couldn’t have said why but it made the hair on the back of his neck stand on end and the rest of his skin feel like there were insects crawling all over it. Clearly the past few weeks hadn’t yet desensitized himself to the trigger of anything medical related.

“Need anything before we head out, Mrs. Rogers?” he asked.

“James, for the last time, please call me Sarah, and, yes, I’m fine. You boys don’t need to worry about me. If anything comes up, I have plenty of people I can contact, including both of you.”

“I just wanted to be certain, ma’am,” he said, managing a slight smile. “We’ll be by tomorrow to check in.”

“As I keep telling Steve, you don’t need to check on me every day. You’ve been bringing me to and from appointments and keeping me company during them. That’s already more than enough. I know the two of you have work and classes. I promise that if I need anything, I will let you know.”

Bucky nodded, trying to hide how eager he was to get out of the house and back into the fresh air. Even the walk from the house to the nearest metro station seemed appealing, despite the cold air.

“As long as you promise,” he said softly. “Not sure Steve will agree to that though.”

“You’re damn right I won’t,” Steve said from behind him, and Bucky glanced back to find him standing there, with his hands on his hips. “We’ll be by tomorrow. That’s non-negotiable.”

She sighed. “If you insist but it’s not necessary, Stevie.”

“It is necessary, for me,” Steve said, stepping past Bucky to go to his mother.

Bucky felt the now-familiar awkwardness as he watched Steve take his mother’s hand. The past few weeks he’d been constantly feeling as though he were intruding on the two of them, despite the fact that he knew Steve needed and wanted his support.

“We’ll be back tomorrow,” Steve promised. “Take care of yourself and let me know if you need anything.”

Bucky stepped back to give them a few more moments of privacy – or escape, if he were to be honest with himself – and was joined a few moments later by Steve, who was tugging his jacket on in a clear sign he was ready to go. Bucky reached for his hand and offered a quick squeeze before letting Steve pull on his gloves, and tugging on his own because there was nothing more uncomfortable than having his flesh-and-blood hand freeze and the cold seep into his metal one.

He called a quick goodbye over his shoulder, along with a few well wishes, before stepping outside. Once they were down a block and his attention was on Steve and making certain he wasn’t about to need a trip to the hospital himself because of asthma kicking in, he found that the goose bumps on his arms and the bare skin of the back of his neck were more from the cold than the reminder of hospital rooms.

-~-

It was just after closing time and the shop was in absolute chaos. At least, that was how it seemed to Steve. He’d just locked the door behind his last client of the day, first checking to make sure everyone else’s clients were out as well, when he became aware of everything else happening in the shop. Steve found that after the constant worries on his mind recently, he loved every minute of the disaster his shop was apparently turning into. The last thing he wanted to do was think about his mother – and he’d checked his phone at every opportunity to make certain she hadn’t called. Thankfully, there were an abnormally high number of distractions today.

Wanda stood behind the front desk, reviewing the clients from the day, as she’d agreed to after shadowing Steve through most of his appointments since he’d gotten back around noon. She’d been doing the same for nearly a month at this point – which was beneficial, given that Darcy was pretty much horizontal with Pietro on the couch. Steve probably could have – and should have – separated them but with so much other stuff going on, that seemed to be fairly low on his level of priorities. As long as their clothes stayed on, he wasn’t about to complain too much.

Bucky sat beside Wanda, settled in the chair behind the counter, with his feet propped up on the jewelry case, despite Steve’s consistent pleas that he not do that. He was accompanied by Winter, curled up on the floor at his feet, a clear sign that Bucky was feeling as comfortable as he appeared to be. The recently added metal in Bucky’s ear glinted as he leaned back, his hands interlaced behind his head, the gesture causing his blue and purple streaked hair to fall out of the messy bun he’d tucked it into. He had a huge shit-eating grin plastered to his face as he watched Clint pace back and forth, in and out of the lobby, followed closely behind by a teenage girl with dark hair who was talking a mile a minute despite the fact that Clint wasn’t even meeting her gaze.

“Where’d you learn to shoot? Will you teach me? How long have you been doing tattoos? Can I get a tattoo? What kind of tattoo would you draw for me?”

Steve had heard most of these questions since she’d made her first appearance in the shop, from about the time she’d shown up at 3:30 PM until now, past closing. Her school uniform marked her as attending one of the private schools – he probably could have figured out which one judging by the particular pattern and color of plaid. While Steve had initially been concerned to have a clearly underage girl in the shop, given that no one was about to work on her, he figured she could stay for the time being. Especially since Clint looked utterly exasperated and was providing much needed entertainment.

Noticing Wanda’s faint look of disgust in response to the activities taking place on the couch, Steve thought of telling Pietro and Darcy that they needed to get a room – and specify that “a room” did not include his apartment or any offices – when Clint gave him a pleading look.

“Boss, please do something about her” Clint begged, and looked plaintively at the girl following behind him.

Steve took slight pity on him. “Kate? Your name’s Kate, right?”

Clint had let the name slip a few times, though that had mostly been in the context of, “Kate, not now” and “Kate, I’m busy” and “Kate, please stop.”

When Steve addressed her, the girl nodded. “That’s my name, yeah.”

“Shouldn’t you be getting home? Won’t your parents be wondering why you’re out roaming the streets until all hours of the night?”

“Because you’re so rule abiding, Rogers,” Bucky said. “Truly.”

Kate raised an eyebrow. “It’s not that late. You’re all still here, right?”

“You don’t see any clients here though,” Clint pointed out. “We all work here. That’s why we’re still around.”

She shrugged. “Whatever. Besides, my parents won’t notice or care where I am.”

“Which is why she’s a juvenile delinquent,” Clint said. “Because of her absentee parents.”

“You were doing that community service shit, too,” Kate pointed out. “I wasn’t alone in being sentenced to a few weekends at the farm.”

That explained a few things about her appearance in the shop and stalking of Clint. It also sounded like an intriguing story that Steve was more than interested in learning about. Unfortunately, Clint did not seem to be willing to engage in a story hour.

“But we’re not talking about that,” Clint said. “Because that’s beside the point. C’mon, guys. Don’t you want to head up to the apartment, Barnes? Aren’t you tired?”

“Nah, I’m good,” Bucky said with an easy grin. “Right now this is far more entertaining. Although I could go for some popcorn. Y’know, make it a dinner and a show.”

Kate looked delighted and blew Bucky a kiss. “See? Bucky’s fine with it.”

“Barnes doesn’t count,” Clint grumbled. “How do you two even know each other? She’s only been here a few hours and she’s been stalking me almost the entire time.”

“Oh, we bonded a few hours ago when I had a break from appointments. She offered to make me a flower crown, we’re best of friends now,” Bucky said.

Steve felt a rush of pride on Bucky’s behalf. Despite how far he’d come, being around new people often still made him nervous, aside from the small chat he made with clients. He typically wasn’t comfortable enough to claim friendship with someone he’d known for only a few hours.

“We just share an understanding,” Kate added. “We’re already like this.”

She proceeded to demonstrate just how close they were by crossing her fingers. Clint let out an exasperated sigh.

“You just like that she’s giving me a hard time,” he said with an eye roll. “Anyway, I’ve gotta clean up my office.”

With that, he headed back towards the third, recently renovated office, with Kate close behind. Steve was reminded of how incredibly grateful he was to have gone through with his plan to create a third office there. That meant Steve’s personal office was no longer filled with empty – or on some very unfortunate occasions, half-empty – Starbucks cups and the far too frequent unidentifiable stains. Now Steve’s office was back to being his own sanctuary, where he could leave his drawings out without worrying that he would return to find a perfect sketch or mostly filled design drenched by a latte or Frappuccino.

He moved over to the counter to check on Bucky and lightly nudged his feet off the jewelry case. “How many times do I have to tell you not to put your boots on the glass?”

“As many times as I do it,” Bucky said, obligingly lowering his feet to the floor.

Steve rewarded him with a kiss. Wanda made a face and asked, “Can we curb the public displays of affection while I’m playing the fifth wheel?”

“You could never be the fifth wheel,” Steve assured her, though he refrained from kissing Bucky for a second time. “How’re the numbers looking?”

“Looking good,” she said with a smile. ”Bucky’s pretty consistently booked. You and Clint somehow managed to get schedules that complimented one another, which means we’ve got at least one tattoo artist in the shop pretty much every hour of the day, and you’re each booked enough on your own that between that and a few hours of overlap, you guys are keeping the numbers up. Even with a couple of the mornings or afternoons that you and Bucky have taken off, things are still lining up.”

“Exactly what I was hoping you’d say,” Steve said, though he felt the slightest sense of something almost akin to unease.

Ever since he started to consider buying the shop out from Tony, there’d been a nagging sense of discomfort. He knew that he couldn’t see himself working under Tony for the rest of his life; he’d rather leave Shield and set up his own place before doing that. But the fact still remained that Stark had financed this entire operation for him and done more than anyone else would have to keep the shop afloat with all of the shit that had happened over the past few months. Even now, if Steve or Bucky were unable to work certain days because of the medical trips or needs of his mom, the shop wasn’t about to fall apart financially because Stark wouldn’t let that happen. Granted, Steve had yet to mention his mother’s condition to Stark because knowing his luck, Stark would offer to help out and Steve wasn’t about to let himself get any further indebted to him.

Which meant that Steve really didn’t have to worry about buying the shop out anytime soon. Even with the numbers coming up the way they were, he couldn’t afford to spend all of that money on buying the place. Paying off the hospital bills for his mom was going to be hard enough, even with insurance, and the medical bills were still coming in as she continued to need treatment. Any extra money he got would need to go to that because he wasn’t going to let his mother fall into debt. Not after everything she’d done for him. He also damn well wasn’t about to let Stark have the chance to help him out. He’d have to tell him eventually, probably sooner rather than later, to explain the missing hours in his and Bucky’s schedules but he wasn’t about to do it until he had no choice left.

But Steve didn’t want to think about that right now.

“Thanks,” he said quickly, though not quickly enough to avoid the others noticing how distracted he’d been for those few moments, given the look that Bucky gave him. “That’s exactly what I was hoping to hear. Nice work. If Darcy’s not careful, she might find herself out of a job.”

“What was that?” Darcy asked, finally disentangling herself from Pietro enough to join the conversation.

“I’m just saying that with Wanda working the front desk while you’re in class and taking over when you’re otherwise occupied…” Steve said with a pointed look that accidentally shifted into an amused smirk.

Truthfully, he didn’t mind. Seeing Wanda venture more and more out of her shell was worth it. He still wasn’t quite sure when or how things had changed with the twins but it must have been around New Year’s Eve. Since he’d come back a week or so later, after spending the first several days back in DC by his mother’s side, the twins seemed different. Clint had also informed Steve that they no longer required an escort to and from Shield or hide whenever a customer came in.

Pietro, of course, had immediately pointed out that they were always free to do those things, it was just that they were choosing to do that now, and Clint hadn’t had a comeback for that. Steve tried not to ask too many questions about the exact status of everything, including why the twins had requested only to be referred to as Anna and Peter when they were in the shop, unless it was after hours and the employees were the only ones left in the building. Admittedly, it was hard to keep that in mind when they used their actual names outside of work hours, but thus far there hadn’t been any major screw-ups with that.

Almost immediately, Wanda had offered to help out Darcy in terms of getting clients checked in and out, as well as scheduled. Steve had her shadow Darcy for a few days before giving her the go ahead to work on her own while Darcy was in class or on breaks. Wanda proved focused and eager and attempted to refuse when Steve offered to pay her the same amount he gave Darcy, although she’d eventually agreed. He’d also offered Pietro the same opportunity, with more time being spent on inventory and restocking, and he had agreed as well. From that point on, the twins seemed to grow more by the day and had requested that some of their pay go directly back into the shop as credit for them to add to their own body modification. There had been a lot of that for only a few weeks of work.

Within this relatively short period of time, Wanda had added a stud in her nose and additional piercings up and down the shell of her ears. She’d requested a second tattoo in the form of a set of flames done all in watercolor style encircling each wrist and forearm. Pietro, for his part, immediately opted for an eyebrow and tongue piercing and after getting the second wolf completed on his side, had requested another design on his back, this one done in a similar style to the one for the wolves, but instead it was a phoenix, placed directly between his shoulder blades.

With each new piece of body art, the twins seemed to be growing into themselves more and more and expanding in confidence, especially when combined with their opportunities for actually working in the shop. It was a pleasure to see, as far as Steve was concerned, and something that kept his mood lifted despite everything else going on.

Once again, that wasn’t what he wanted to see his thoughts turn towards. It was a lot easier to mentally review his “to do” list and continue working down it than let his thoughts go there.

“If you guys are good out here, I’ll see about finishing up in my office. Just do me a favor and don’t let Pietro and Darcy sneak up to my apartment.”

Steve didn’t wait for a response before retreating down the hall to his office. There were muffled sounds of arguing from Clint’s office but given that there were no sounds of things being thrown or broken, Steve assumed he’d be fine for the time being. He had no idea the exact story behind Kate and Clint’s meeting and maybe he was better off not knowing. Kate seemed like a decent kid, despite the fact that she and Clint apparently met while completing community service, and she provided plenty of entertainment for everyone in the shop, so he was inclined to let her stay for the time being, as long as there were no concerns of work being done on her without parental permission. He trusted that Clint wouldn’t cross that line.

He was in the process of scrubbing down everything with a second or third coat of bleach when there was a light knock on the door.

A moment later, Wanda cracked the door open enough to poke her head inside. “You need anything, boss?”

“You’ve been around Darcy too long if you’re calling me, ‘boss,’” Steve said. “I’m good though. Just cleaning up.”

Despite his words, she came inside and took a seat in his chair. Steve didn’t mind; it had been the same routine over the past few weeks. At first, he hadn’t quite known how to feel with her following him around like a duckling, asking questions about tattooing and the process of designing tattoos. He’d let her do it because it provided a nice distraction and seeing her open up more and more was a nice process to be a part of. Already, he’d become more comfortable with her presence and found himself enjoying and looking forward to her questions and overall enthusiasm.

That wasn’t all she asked about though.

“How’s your mom doing?” she asked softly, right on cue.

It wasn’t that he didn’t talk to Bucky about it, it really wasn’t. Bucky still checked in with him nightly and had accompanied Steve to the hospital in those first few days, despite how triggering being in that environment still was for him. Plus, just like earlier, he’d come with Steve to every appointment and done everything he could to help. Still, somehow it was different talking to Wanda. He kept telling himself that it wasn’t because he didn’t think Bucky could handle it; it was just that he didn’t want to burden him more than he was already burdened. He could see how much each appointment or visit drained Bucky. Even though the bad days weren’t as bad as they used to be, they still drained him. Steve didn’t want to add to that. Not when he could handle things himself.

He didn’t understand entirely why it was easier to talk to Wanda. It wasn’t as though she had any less to deal with, after all. He knew she and her brother had been on the streets and he had a good idea why – hell, he’d seen the scars on her brother’s body. But somehow it was almost easier to be open with her. Part of him felt like he was betraying Bucky but on the other hand, he recognized Bucky had his own support – he still visited Natasha several times a week and had recently been attending mindfulness groups with Sam down at the VA. Steve… Steve didn’t have those same types of options himself. He’d never really wanted them because he didn’t need to tell anyone else when he was struggling but somehow Wanda had wormed her way in there and he’d gotten comfortable enough to share with her.

“She’s doing better,” Steve said with a sigh. “The chemo’s been taking a lot out of her but she’s managed to stay out of the hospital for the past couple of weeks, so that’s something.”

“That’s good, right?” Wanda asked uncertainly.

“It is,” Steve agreed. “But…”

When he trailed off, Wanda supplied, “But you’re still worried.”

“Yeah. She’s the only family I have, you know? I don’t want to lose her.”

She nodded. “I can understand that. I don’t know what I’d do without Pietro. I mean, the same type of threat isn’t there for me with him. Not really. I can’t imagine how I’d feel if he were sick.”

“Logically I know she’s made it through this before and that she’s a fighter,” Steve said, in a way that felt to him more like he was trying to convince himself than he was trying to convince Wanda. “Still, it scares me. Makes it hard to focus on school and work. Makes me panic every time I hear my phone ring.”

“Speaking of cellphones, I have a phone now,” Wanda said after a moment. “I know we talk here but if you wanted to – or if something happened and you needed to – you could call me.”

Immediately, Steve felt himself inwardly recoil in response. The urge to insist that he was fine was almost overwhelming. Christ, what had he been thinking of talking to Wanda like this? She was barely an adult. She had more than enough of her own shit to deal with. She didn’t need his shit on top of everything else.

Yet somehow, he found himself saying, “Are you sure?” as though he were actually considering buying into this ridiculous offer.

She nodded. “I don’t mind. It’s nice to have friends.”

The words were delivered tentatively. The look in Wanda’s eyes suggested that she wasn’t certain that was exactly what they were and that she almost expected Steve to disagree and confirm that this was not their relationship.

“It is nice,” he admitted.

Her expression immediately brightened, and he knew there was no chance of him not giving into her request without hurting her feelings. Which meant there was no other choice but to nod towards the desk.

“My phone’s right there if you want to put your number into it. Plus you’re welcome to add my number to your phone, just in case. If you need to talk to someone, you could always call me.”

“Thanks,” Wanda murmured, reaching for his phone and playing with the buttons for a few moments before tugging a phone out of her pocket. “What’s your number?”

He rattled it off by rote memory, only half paying attention as he continued to finish sterilizing his equipment and making certain everything had been properly disposed of following his last appointment. He’d barely finished when there was a second knock on the door and Pietro poked his head inside.

“Hey, Wanda. Ready to head out? Darcy’s offered to treat us to coffee and sandwiches over at the shop since Jane’s working tonight.”

Wanda glanced over at Steve, her expression a bit worried, as though she weren’t certain he’d be oaky with this, but he offered her a smile and nodded.

“Yeah, go grab food. Everything’s pretty much good to go here and I’ll be kicking Clint and Kate out momentarily so that I can get a head start on some of my homework.”

He was surprised when Wanda came over and hugged him tightly, although he automatically responded in kind.

“I’ll see you tomorrow, boss,” she said, as she let him go and stepped back to head towards where her brother still stood in the doorway.

“You and Darcy need to stop calling me that,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s Steve. Just Steve.”

“Yes, sir,” she said with a grin. “Have a good night.”

He waved as the two of them headed out before sighing and acknowledging that he’d stalled long enough. He didn’t mean to, he really didn’t, but he couldn’t take the fact that Bucky kept looking at him worriedly, like he was broken or damaged or about to otherwise fall apart. Steve knew that wasn’t entirely fair, given that Bucky of all people understood what it was like for someone to look at you that way, and he knew Bucky didn’t mean to and was just concerned. Somehow though, it just set all of Steve’s nerves on edge and he had already found that it was exhausting to act convincingly as though everything were okay.

He was just straightening everything on his desk when the third knock came and Bucky stepped inside.

“Need any help?” he asked.

Steve shook his head. “Nah, I’m good. Clint and Kate still here?”

“Nope,” Bucky said, running a hand through his hair. “They headed out a couple minutes ago. I think it was Clint’s attempt at making good his escape, although Kate was following right behind.”

“He seems to be good at collecting strays. She might be his newest one.”

“Could be. Anyways, I’d wanted to ask if you wanted me to head up, start dinner while you finish up here and start on your homework.”

“You sure you’re up for that?” Steve asked.

Thankfully, Bucky didn’t seem to take offense to that. “Yeah, I’m sure. Today’s still a good day, I’m feeling fine, and unlike you I don’t have a stack of homework a mile high. How do you feel about tacos?”

“I’m always a slut for tacos,” Steve replied, offering Bucky a smile.

Bucky smirked and then crossed the room so that he could grab Steve by his shirt and tug him into a kiss. Somehow that simultaneously served to make Steve felt guiltier and happier all at once. He knew he was goddamned lucky to have Bucky there and despite all of his fears, he didn’t doubt that Bucky could handle Steve confiding all of his worries and anxieties. Something just kept getting in the way and preventing him from doing it.

Still, as he focused on Bucky’s lips pressed against his own, he found his thoughts shifting more towards the present moment and away from all of those other extraneous thoughts. There was no point on dwelling on that unless he had a plan to make some changes and he couldn’t quite stomach the idea of that yet. For now, he had Bucky here, his mom was stable, and everything was going well. He couldn’t ask for more than that.

-~-

With the beginning of the semester, the coffee shop was more crowded than it had been the last several times Darcy had taken the two of them there, with plenty of students waiting to get their evening caffeine fix. Pietro felt more than saw Wanda flinch as they entered, and he reached for her hand and squeezed reassuringly. It wasn’t as though the two of them hadn’t been out and about over the past few weeks or that this was far out of their comfort zone. Not a whole lot was out of their comfort zone these days, given the number of times they’d gone out to the clubs.

Still though, he could understand his sister’s apprehension. While nothing had happened, they both knew the threat remained and they continued to be vigilant and prepared to run at any sign there was danger in the environment. With more people around them, there was less of a chance either one would stand out but that also meant there were more people who could be potential threats that they might not notice in the midst of everyone else.

“I’ll go snag a table,” Wanda said. “You know what to get me.”

Pietro nodded and kept an eye on her as she headed for one of the tables nearer to the back of the coffee shop. Once he was certain she was safe and secure, he turned his attention back to Darcy. It felt a little strange for him to be standing here with just her. Wanda was only a few feet away and it wasn’t as though Pietro hadn’t spent time alone with Darcy before; they’d had plenty of moments in empty offices and in the bedroom of the townhouse.

Today felt different. Somehow their alone time had been decently limited, or not often purely alone since they were either at Shield, at the townhouse, or out and about with Wanda, and often Jane and Thor. He didn’t know entirely why he seemed to be fixated on this more and more these days. True, he and Darcy had been going out now for a few months and it seemed like this was the time when things could get more serious.

Well, that wasn’t all of it. This had been on his mind ever since Darcy approached him that morning and asked if he might want to spend the night with her. That should have been an exciting thing but it made him worry. For starters, it would be his first time apart from his sister in a long, long time, if ever really. There were so many things that could happen – what if Wanda were found at the townhouse? What if she were taken on the way to Shield the next morning without him there? What if she felt abandoned at the thought of him leaving for the night?

And if he did take up Darcy on her offer, what would happen then? Pietro didn’t know what to do with himself alone in a girl’s apartment. He didn’t know what she’d expect from him and whether he was ready and willing to take that step. Spending a night with someone meant something, he knew that at least, and he recognized that he didn’t know a hell of a lot about relationships overall.

Which was at least a quarter, if not half, of his entire problem. Dating had never been in the cards for him. Even for those few years in boarding school after their adoptive mother’s death, Pietro’s focus hadn’t been on dating or relationships, not when knowing that over breaks and holidays, they would have no choice but to face Talbot again. Despite the fact that his actions suggested Talbot never wanted to see them again – hence shipping them off to boarding school – he also made it very, very clear that he was never going to let them go either. Getting caught up with someone at school, having something messy like a relationship, that wasn’t going to help with anything.

Besides, he hadn’t wanted to do that to Wanda. Even now, knowing that he had her full support to be with Darcy, it was hard not to worry whether she felt abandoned by him. Her spending more time with Steve did help with that. Pietro was glad to see her making friends outside the townhouse but friends weren’t the same as a partner. He still couldn’t quite figure out how to balance his relationship with his sister with his relationship with Darcy, despite the fact that the two types of relationships were completely separate and different. On both sides, he found himself feeling guilty despite the fact that neither Darcy nor Wanda ever gave him any indication that they felt as though they were only getting half of his attention.

Darcy’s fingers brushed against his hand before interlacing with his own and offering a gentle squeeze. He glanced over and managed a smile that didn’t entirely match his emotions.

“You thought more about tonight?” she asked softly, as though she’d just read his mind and see where his thoughts had gone.

“I did,” he hedged.

She was quiet for a moment, giving him the opportunity to say more, yet Pietro remained silent. Once it was clear he wasn’t going to say anything, she followed it up with a few words that made his worries lessen the slightest bit.

“Look, I don’t expect anything to happen. I mean, obviously I would be okay if it did but I don’t have any expectations going into this. I just wanted to have you over, let you see my place, and whatever happens after that point happens. We can throw on Netflix, see what we’re in the mood to watch, and eat junk food. I’d be happy with that. I just… I’d wanted to see you outside of the shop and the townhouse. That hasn’t given us a lot of time to spend together, with just the two of us.”

None of that sounded bad, although Pietro still had a hard time wrapping his mind around the idea of it being “just the two” of them. He’d always come as part of a pair, but that couldn’t come into his relationship. He knew Darcy liked Wanda and having her around but he also was at a place where he needed to make a decision. If he wanted this relationship to work, he either had to find a way to balance his relationship with his sister and his relationship with Darcy, or he’d need to end his relationship with Darcy because that wasn’t fair to her.

Just looking in Darcy’s direction made it absolutely clear to him that ending things wasn’t the course of action he wanted to take. Granted, he didn’t have any experience in relationships but he liked her, he liked her a lot, and he wanted to see how things would develop if he let them continue. She made him laugh and she had an energy and spirit he admired.

“Plus, if you’re worried about your sister, we can walk her to the townhouse first before we head over to my apartment,” Darcy added.

With that, Pietro found the last of his valid concerns falling away. If he could see Wanda safely home, that would be one less thing to worry about, and Darcy had already taken the pressure off by telling him that she didn’t expect anything from the two of them spending the night together. Before he could consider what he was doing, he found himself nodding his agreement.

“That sounds good. Yes. I’d like that. All of that.”

Darcy’s face lit up immediately, as though she hadn’t expected him to say that, and maybe she hadn’t given his overall hesitation.

“Yeah?” she asked, and then didn’t give him a chance to respond since her fingers were hooked into the collar of his shirt and she was pulling him down into a kiss.

It was as Pietro straightened up that his gaze fell on Wanda and his blood went cold in his veins. He must have said something to Darcy, maybe even asked her to order something for him and his sister, but he wasn’t even aware of it. All he could focus on was where Wanda sat at the table, the two men standing beside her, and getting to her as soon as possible

He recognized one of them; he was the same man he’d seen hitting on his sister on New Year’s Eve. They’d seen him a few more times at the clubs and there had been a few more exchanges between him and Wanda. While Pietro had been concerned about that, he hadn’t been particularly worried. After all, it made sense that someone who spent time at the clubs would be seen multiple times and that there would be some recognition. Maybe he was being paranoid, given that DC wasn’t a huge city, but this man just happening to find his sister while they were here at a small coffee shop sent up a flag of alarm.

All of which led to him practically shoving his way over to the table, and bluntly asking, “Can I help you?”

Both of the men and Wanda looked up in response to that, Wanda looking a bit irritated, though Pietro couldn’t gauge whether that was with him or already present from her conversation with the two men.

“This is my brother Peter,” she said, shooting Pietro a look that made it clear her irritation was reserved for him and him alone. “Peter, this is Ryan, who you may remember from the club, and his cousin Murphy, who’s visiting from Boston.”

Ryan offered Pietro his hand and when he didn’t immediately take it, he was rewarded by a light nudge from Wanda. Grudgingly, he accepted the offered hand and shook it.

Even more grudgingly, he said, “It’s nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you too,” Ryan said easily, with no sign of discomfort despite Pietro’s obvious hesitation.

“Interesting how we keep running into each other,” Pietro said, before he could stop himself, and Wanda gave him another look in response to that.

“But not entirely a surprise,” Ryan said with a smile in Wanda’s direction that Pietro most decidedly did not like. “Everyone knows this is the best place to get coffee in the city. We figured we’d stop here to get our caffeine fix before heading out to the clubs this evening. Any chance we’ll see you there?”

“Not tonight,” Pietro said quickly. “We have things to do at home.”

“Homework,” Wanda added. “Lots and lots of homework.”

“You’re students?” Murphy asked and even though his tone was innocent enough, something seemed off to Pietro.

“At G.W.,” he said, the lie falling easily from his tongue.

He couldn’t see any harm in lying about that. After all, with the hundreds upon hundreds of students enrolled in classes, it wasn’t as though the lie could be discovered when the two men only had the twins’ first names and the fake ones they were using were common enough. Even if they’d somehow gotten ahold of their fake last names, Pietro had to imagine there might be an Anna or Peter Smith enrolled in some sort of class at the university.

Murphy and Ryan shot each other an undecipherable look but Ryan only said, “I can definitely understand how clubbing is out when you have homework to finish. Hopefully we’ll see you out and about again before Murphy heads home next week.”

“We’ll see,” Pietro said firmly.

“Hopefully we will,” Wanda said, a bit more gently than her brother had spoken. “Enjoy your visit to DC, Murphy.”

“I have no doubt I will,” he said. “It was a pleasure to meet you, Anna. I’ve heard a lot about you from my cousin.”

Before Pietro could follow that up with a snarl questioning exactly what Ryan had been saying about his sister, Ryan glanced over at the growing line at the counter and said, “We should probably see about hopping into that before it stretches out the door. See you around, Anna. You too, Peter.”

Pietro didn’t relax as the two men walked away. He could see Darcy shooting him a bit of a worried look, though that was cut off quickly by her finally reaching the counter and being distracted by Jane, and Pietro was more focused on Wanda anyways. He slid into the chair beside her and reached for her hand, not saying anything until he was certain he could manage to restrict his words to things that wouldn’t be suspicious or problematic.

“Did he say anything?” he finally said, because that seemed to be a reasonably appropriate thing to ask.

“No, he just said hello and introduced me to his cousin. Honestly, I think you’re being a little too paranoid, Peter. He seems like an okay guy.”

“You don’t think it’s strange that he just showed up here?”

“I think a lot of people come here to get coffee. Look at how long the line is now.” She squeezed his hand. “Relax. We’re alright.”

But nothing felt that way. He fought the urge to just cancel his plans with Darcy so that he could keep an eye on his sister. That would probably be the right thing to do but everyone could end up angry with him if he did that. Besides, he and Darcy had agreed to walk Wanda home and she’d have Clint with her in the morning so the chance of something happening wasn’t any greater than it would have been if Pietro stayed with her.

Still, he vowed to himself to keep an eye out for any further signs of Ryan or Murphy in places where they weren’t used to seeing them. The one thing Pietro had learned over the years was that there was no such thing as too paranoid.

-~-

Clint didn’t entirely know what to do with himself. He’d finally managed to shake Kate at the metro station – and offered a parting quip to ask where her family limo was and been flipped off for his efforts. Now he was back to wandering back to the townhouse on his own. He’d grown a bit more used to it over the past several weeks, once the twins started going out with Darcy after work, but it still felt strange to not have them walking beside him.

He almost found himself wishing that Kate had continued on with him during the walk. It wasn’t that she was a bad kid, despite how much he acted as though her presence grated on his nerves. It was mostly that he was still a little bitter with Detective Coulson for putting him on community service for those couple of weekends. True, it was his own fault for deciding that smoking a joint – or two or three if he were to be honest with how much he’d smoked over the series of days – after physical therapy for his arm and ankle was a good method of pain management.

He hadn’t expected Detective Coulson to give him a drug test, despite the fact that he’d been given several when he first started working undercover because of his tendency to push the limits and boundaries of what Detective Coulson was willing for him to do. He’d pointed out that on a few of those occasions he’d needed to do that sort of thing for the purpose of remaining undercover – refusing to smoke or snort something was just asking to be called out as a narc – but he’d also done it enough while not doing it for purposes of remaining undercover to raise Detective Coulson’s suspicions.

Smoking right before one of their meetings had probably been a poor life decision and Clint acknowledged that. He just hadn’t expected Detective Coulson to punish him with community service at a farm of all places. True, the fact that he’d gotten busted only served to bolster his credibility with some of the shadier elements of the city but it had also led to him getting paired up with the one juvenile in the little group of delinquents. He knew that it was because Detective Coulson trusted him and was probably moderately concerned about the daughter of one of the richest families in the city being in the middle of nowhere with limited supervision and the criminal element. It also meant that he’d somehow found himself a permanent shadow.

Clint still didn’t know exactly what Kate had done to end up there. She was pretty close-lipped about it, but as the day had continued, she’d talked his ear off on a variety of other topics, something that he’d been grateful for. Of all the community service opportunities out there, being on a farm was the last one Clint wanted to experience. The smell of hay and manure alone brought back way too many memories that he’d preferred to stay buried. So having Kate beside him, chatting to him about fuck knows what all day had been a welcome distraction.

She’d been the one to bring up archery, while they were out checking one of the fence-lines and just so happened to stumble upon a few targets set up. A short search later and they’d come up with bows and arrows. Clint hadn’t been able to help himself. While Kate chatted to him about her experiences at summer camp and the ribbons she’d won in archery competitions, he’d nocked an arrow and almost immediately everything else faded away. His breathing and the target were the only two things he’d focused on. Minutes went by before he registered that the target was filled with arrows, the healed hole in his left arm was aching the slightest bit from the weight of the bow, and Kate was standing beside him, her mouth hanging open.

He’d muttered a few words about learning how to do it when he was a kid growing up on a farm, despite the fact that that was not even remotely close to the actual story, and she’d begged and pleaded with him to give her some tips. Somehow he’d found himself spending the next hour giving Kate an archery lesson that she’d thanked him for profusely. Each weekend they’d ended up back there, they’d managed to sneak away for a while to practice again. Since that point he hadn’t been able to shake her.

Today was the first day she’d shown up at the shop though. Clint didn’t entirely mind, despite his protests, because she wasn’t bad to have along. Plus, he got the sense things weren’t exactly great for her at home. Still, her constant questions did become tiring at some point, especially the more she asked him if he would be willing to continue teaching her and he kept pointing out that he didn’t have a place to train her.

Which was an outright lie. He still had his gear and he could easily find a place for the two of them to practice. While Kate didn’t seem to be going away anytime soon, Clint knew he needed to keep her at a distance. Especially with everything else going on. He had his ear to the ground and the word on the street as far as he could read it suggested that the entire city remained a ticking time bomb. There were too many branches of different mobs within the city limits and they had all been there for too long. Old tensions were starting arise and new ones were developing.

Something was going to explode. It was only a matter of time.

Still, Clint was almost whistling as he approached the townhouse. It was nearly the weekend, which meant two days free of classes even though he planned to pick up a couple of shifts at Shield during that time. He’d finally completed everything for the courses he’d taken incompletes on the previous semester and he was almost caught up with the homework for the courses he was currently taking. Sure, at some point some sort of shit was going to go down but that wasn’t now. He was damn well determined to enjoy things while he could.

His first sign that his good mood might be fading came as he was fitting his key into the lock. Before he could attempt to turn the key, the door opened, nearly yanking his hand along with it. The keys were yanked from his grasp and clattered to the floor inside.

The second sign came as his gaze fell on the person who’d opened the door. Natasha’s expression was closed off but the look in her eyes pretty much screamed murder, to the point where Clint almost took a step back and half-considered whether it would be worth it to run. He tried to think back onto the events of the past few days, especially the last 24 hours, to see if there was anything he might have done to make her look at him in this way. Nothing came to mind, but obviously something had made her angry.

“Uh, hi,” he said, hoping that might lead to some sort of clue as to what was going on.

“Hello, Clint,” she said coldly. “Is there something you want to tell me?”

He wracked his brain for an answer but nothing was immediately coming. He’d told her about the whole pot smoking thing and gotten a second lecture from her while his ears were still ringing from the sermon about responsibility Detective Coulson had already given him.

“Uh, no?” he tried, to see if that would work.

“Really.” She drew out the word for longer than he would have thought possible. “Nothing at all?”

Clint shook his head. “Nothing.”

She sighed heavily, almost dramatically, and then stepped back. “Then you should come inside. It seems we have a visitor.”

A horrible idea took shape inside his mind. That was the third sign that something was very, very wrong. If they had a visitor and Natasha was asking him if there were something he’d meant to tell her… that left only one option.

She confirmed it. “It’s your brother. Barney.”

All Clint could manage in response to that was far too much of a confession for his role in this mess.

“Oh shit.”

Chapter Text

Natasha was utterly and completely furious to a degree she hadn’t been in a long, long time. Ever since the doorbell rang, shortly after she’d gotten back from her last afternoon class, and she found the red-headed figure that had too many similarities to Clint to not be related to him standing there – including various cuts and bruises across his face - she’d been slowly and methodically plotting how exactly she would murder Clint.

Though she’d noted the similarity in their appearance, she’d raised her eyebrows, and asked, “Can I help you?”

In an almost identical manner to a gesture she’d seen Clint do on multiple occasions, he’d run a hand through his hair and awkwardly said, “Hey there. Is Clint around by any chance?”

She’d just continued staring him down. “And you are…?”

“Barney. His brother. He gave me this address a couple of months back.”

Natasha had strongly considered whether a homicide in this case would be appropriate, and quickly decided that it would. If Barney was telling the truth, Clint had hidden this from her for a considerable length of time. He’d placed her and most certainly the twins in potential jeopardy through this action, particularly through not telling them before his brother could show up. Granted, Natasha had no reason to trust that Barney’s words were true but she had to admit that this seemed likely to be something Clint would have done, given his impulsive nature. There weren’t many other reasons she could come up with for how Barney would have gotten the address.

She’d kept her expression contained, determined not to let any of these thoughts show. “Did he? What a surprise. He’s still at work right now.”

“I can come back later,” Barney had said quickly.

The option was admittedly tempting but not one she was willing to take. If Barney were to be around when Clint and the twins came back, she wanted to get a better sense of him and who he was before potentially placing them in danger.

“You can wait for him. I don’t mind. It shouldn’t be too much longer.” She’d offered him her hand. “I’m Natasha. This is my house.”

“Barney,” he’d offered as he shook her hand. “But I guess I said that already. Are you sure you don’t mind?”

“Of course.” She’d stepped back to let him inside. “It’ll be a surprise. Come on in. We can wait for him in the living room.”

She’d had just enough time to get him inside, deflect his endless thanks, offer him a drink, and get some of the barest details from Barney’s own mouth about who he was before the sound of the key in the lock alerted her to Clint’s arrival. By that point, she’d answered the question of her relationship to Clint, gotten more of a sense of some of the dysfunctional elements of Clint and Barney’s relationship, and learned nothing of value about who Barney actually was as a person, save for the fact that he sounded fairly self-deprecating while discussing himself. Yet another thing he apparently had in common with his brother.

Clint’s initial responses left a lot to be desired. After letting him stammer all over himself, she informed him as calmly as she could that his brother was there.

He’d started with, “Oh shit” and quickly progressed to, “Oh fuck. I’m so sorry, Nat. I’d meant to tell you.”

“I’m sure you did,” she said coldly. “After all, you had a month to tell me. Why didn’t you say anything?” She lowered her voice. “What if the twins had been here?”

Clint’s expression fell. “I know. Shit, fuck, Nat, I know. I guess I’d… I guess I’d hoped that this wouldn’t happen. I’m so sorry.”

“Get in here.” She stepped back enough for Clint to slink his way inside. “I know,” she added, acknowledging his last words as she closed the door behind him to prevent him from attempting to make a grand escape. “Your brother’s waiting for you. He’s in the living room.”

There was no point in asking if he knew when the twins would be arriving; over the past few weeks, they often didn’t return until later in the evening, since they didn’t have early classes to worry about or homework to complete. Hopefully by the time they did come in, Barney would be long gone and she wouldn’t need to navigate that entire situation. If not, she planned to stay close enough to the door that she could intercept them.

Clint reluctantly made his way towards the living room and Natasha followed close behind. Barney raised his head when he came in and for a moment the two stared at one another, both looking equally uncomfortable with this unexpected family reunion.

“So, I, uh, I guess you followed through on the address I gave you,” Clint said unnecessarily.

Barney nodded. “Yeah. I hope that was okay.”

“Yeah, yeah, of course it was. I wouldn’t have given you the address if it weren’t okay.”

“It just didn’t seem that your girlfriend was too thrilled with me showing up,” Barney pointed out.

Natasha missed Clint’s response. In an effort to not say or do anything she might later regret, she moved past the living room and into the kitchen, where she grabbed two cups of coffee. She’d only been out of the room for a minute or two at most but when she returned, Clint remained standing. There didn’t seem to have been many more words exchanged between the two of them.

She handed each of them a cup of coffee. “Should I leave you two alone?”

Clint hesitated, then nodded. “Yeah, thanks, Nat.”

“Don’t mention it,” she said, unable to keep herself from giving each of them a searching look before stepping out.

She didn’t go far, just into the hallway where she remained close enough to eavesdrop on anything said, if Clint managed to actually say anything, which seemed debatable. Maybe it wasn’t okay to listen into your boyfriend’s conversation with his estranged brother but when your boyfriend potentially brought more danger than usual into your already dangerous house, Natasha damn well wanted to know what was going on.

There were a few moments of silence before Clint finally spoke. “What kind of trouble are you in?”

Barney laughed in response. “What makes you think I’m in trouble, bro? Everything’s fine with me.”

“Jesus, Barney, you look like hell and you finally took me up on my offer. Obviously something’s going on with you.”

“Maybe I just wanted to see you,” Barney said unconvincingly.

Clint’s voice took an edge. “I don’t buy it. I know you better than that. What’s going on?”

Barney he sighed heavily. “Look, everything’s gone to shit for me in New York. I needed to get out of there. I just need a place to lie low until I can get back on my feet.”

Natasha frowned in response to that, a frown that faded the slightest bit as she felt a familiar black ball of fur rubbing against her ankles. She crouched down, carefully and silently, to pet him and brought a finger to her lips to encourage Koschei to remain silent, despite the futility of that gesture.

Clint exhaled slowly, enough that it was more of an answering sigh to his brother’s own. “Look, Barney, this isn’t my place. If it were, then maybe but I can’t be the one to offer it to you.”

There was another beat of silence before Barney said, “Yeah, it’s cool. I get it. It’s Natasha’s place. No worries. Thanks, Clint.”

Natasha heard the wood creak under his feet as he stood and moved towards the hallway where she stood. She backtracked towards the kitchen, catching sight of Clint following after his brother as she looped around.

She hesitated before following after them a few steps behind just in time to hear Clint say, “Wait. Wait, alright, what kinda trouble are you in, Barney? How bad is it?”

Barney stilled with his hand on the door. “It’s okay, Clint. It’s not your problem.”

Everything told her to just let Barney leave, but something about Clint’s expression made her reflect on just how much he’d blame himself if something were to happen to his brother and he hadn’t done anything to help.

She stepped forward. “Tell Clint what’s going on before he decides to come up with an even worse idea than giving you my address. Trust me, your brother can come up with hundreds of worse ideas without even trying.”

“I don’t want to get into the specifics,” Barney said quickly. “The less either of you know, the better. I just need a place to lay low while certain people forget they want to kill me. That’s all. But I can handle it myself.”

Natasha couldn’t help but shoot Clint an exasperated look in response to that. “Of all the things the two of you had to have in common…”

Clint narrowed his eyes at her and Barney tilted his head. Before he could ask a follow-up question, she cut him off. “Would a motel somewhere nearby be enough?”

Barney didn’t say anything, perhaps because he was still questioning Natasha’s last comment, but then he said, “Yeah, I mean anywhere… anywhere would be something.”

“Clint, your thoughts?” she asked.

“If Barney agrees, a motel should work.” Then, to Barney specifically, he said, “I can spot you some money if you need it and if you need anything else, I’ll be around.”

Natasha couldn’t help but add, “Calling ahead of time would be preferable, for the record.”

“Yeah, and keep me updated. You have my number,” Clint said.

Barney ran a hand through his hair once more. “Actually, I… I, uh, I don’t. The phone number you gave me before doesn’t work.”

Natasha wasn’t about to comment on the fact that it had been a prepaid cell phone that she was pretty certain Clint had destroyed somewhere along the line. In an attempt to cover for him, she asked, “You break your phone again, Clint?”

“Something like that,” Clint said, before rattling off his usual number to Barney. “There. You can use that one. It’ll work.”

Barney tugged a battered phone out of his pocket and put it into there. Then, he reached for the door in a clear sign that he was ready to go.

“It was nice to meet you, Barney,” Natasha said softly.

“Yeah, it was nice to meet you too. I’m sure I’ll see you around.”

Clint tugged a handful of crumpled bills out of his wallet and then shoved them into his brother’s hand. With that, Barney pulled the door open after wrestling with the locks for a few moments, and stepped outside. Clint took the time to lock the door behind him, apparently trying to stall for a few more moments before having to face Natasha’s wrath. She waited patiently for him to turn back towards her before she spoke again, her voice quiet and filled with danger.

“Wow, so he’s also got people wanting to kill him. Is this a family trait?”

Clint buried his face in his hands. “A family trait? Not so much, I don’t think. A brotherly trait, at least.”

“Hopefully it’s not another branch of the mob. That’s the last thing we need.”

Clint exhaled raggedly. “I know I fucked up bad, Nat. I already know that. I don’t need you to read me the riot act or anything.”

“No, that’s exactly what you need,” she snapped. “You could have told me sooner so that we could have prepared for this. We need to tell the twins as well, just in case he comes back.”

“I’ll tell ‘em. It’s my fault, it’s my job.”

“You’re damn right it is,” Natasha said shortly, leaving Clint standing there and heading back to the kitchen.

She focused her attention on preparing dinner, anything that would keep her away from Clint for the time being, until she felt calmer. The absolute jeopardy he’d placed everyone in this household in alone infuriated her. She knew he had a history of making poor life decisions; she’d witnessed enough of them to be aware of this fact, but to have him make such reckless choices that directly impacted other people in the house was over the line for her.

Natasha was almost relieved when the door opened and Wanda came through the kitchen with a quick hello before retreating to the living room where Clint sat in front of the TV.

Clearly Clint’s expression or the overall icy temperature of the house clued Wanda into the fact that something was off, given that her first question upon reaching Clint was, “What happened? Do I need to ask Pietro to come back?”

“No, nothin’ like that,” Clint quickly replied. “Where is your brother though?”

“Let’s just say that he’s spending the night at Darcy’s and leave it at that, shall we?” Wanda said. Clint only had the chance to mutter, “Oh” in a progressively more understanding tone before Wanda followed up with a repetition of, “So, what happened?”

Natasha filed away the information regarding Pietro and let her mind drift as Clint replied to that question, informing Wanda of his brother’s arrival at the townhouse and speaking to his trustworthiness, or lack thereof. She didn’t fully find herself listening in until Clint said, “Look, my brother isn’t… he isn’t an awful person exactly. I mean, I don’t think he’d do anything to put you or Pietro in danger… but I guess I don’t know. You should be safe, at least in terms of him finding out about you. He said he’d call before he comes over again. I’m sorry. I never meant to put you and your brother into this position. Not with everything else going on.”

“I know you didn’t,” Wanda assured him. “I get it. I mean, it’s still your brother. Besides, I trust you. I know you’ll make sure nothing happens. Also, it’s not like we answer the door when we’re here alone and your brother doesn’t have a key... so I don’t see why this would be a problem.”

Thank God for small favors. Natasha thought to herself. Clint giving his brother a key to the townhouse would have been the only thing that could have possibly made this situation worse. While she was glad to see Wanda handling the news calmly, she couldn’t curb the fear that Wanda’s positive spin on everything might be unwarranted. After all, she didn’t know how much trouble Barney was in. There were already enough threats out there between the situation with the twins and Clint’s own run-ins with the Russians. If Barney brought his own set of problems to their door, she had no idea what types of consequences could occur.

Clint’s response to Wanda at least provided a modicum of understanding of the repercussions for this situation and ownership of responsibility for his actions. “I make bad decisions when it comes to my brother and usually… usually it only affects me, so I guess I didn’t think before acting this time around. It was fucked up of me - ” You’re damn right it is, Natasha agreed silently “ – and it was not okay. I’ll do anything and everything to make sure nothing bad happens to you or your brother. I promise.”

“I trust you, Clint,” Wanda said softly. “You’ve been keeping us safe for months. Both you and Natasha. I know neither one of you will let anything happen.”

“That’s way more than I deserve,” Clint said.

Natasha couldn’t help but agree.

Still, there was nothing to be done now. Clint knew he’d screwed up, he’d done the damage control that he could, and they’d both be more vigilant over the next several weeks until certain the danger – if any – had passed. Then again, Natasha wasn’t angry with him for giving his brother the address but for not telling her – or the twins – over this entire time. She could understand the impulse to make the same sorts of decisions he had in the past but not telling her was inexcusable.

She didn’t stop Clint from heading towards the stairs and disappearing into his bedroom while Wanda settled down on the couch with Lucky and Koschei to watch TV. Clint could stand to spend a couple of hours ruminating on what he’d done. She wasn’t about to try to get him out of a self-deprecating spiral that he’d brought on himself. Not until he fully registered her reason for being angry.

He’d have a lot of work to do to gain her trust again. Natasha tried not to dwell on the fact that a few months ago she’d been in a similar position after he’d brought up the possibility of ending their relationship following the attempted hit on him. Since then, her level of trust had been built up close to where it had been previously. Now she felt as though they’d taken another step back.

Clint could fix it though. He’d done it before, he could do it again, and hopefully he’d learn from this particular fuck up. He could start by spending a few hours thinking about what he’d done.

And maybe also spending the next few nights on the couch.

-~-

The absolute last thing Darcy wanted to do when her alarm went off was move. She flailed helplessly in the direction of the sound, only to recall she’d strategically placed her alarm clock on the other side of the room to get herself out of bed in the morning because it was that much harder to hit the snooze button if she were already up. Something was different about this morning than many other mornings but it took the sound of someone groaning beside her to remember exactly the specifics of those differences.

The arm curled around her waist and body pressed against her own was a good clue, as was the chest she’d apparently decided to use as her own personal pillow. The events of the past evening came back to her slowly. Judging by her bare skin and the warmth of Pietro’s own, they had both lost their clothes at some point. Naturally, seeing as she didn’t know many ways to engage in the types of activities they’d been doing while having clothes on.

Reluctantly, Darcy disentangled herself from Pietro – who grumbled all the more and complained in response – and shivered as the comparatively colder air in the room hit her skin. She made her way across the room to shut off the alarm, hugging her arms around her body to hold onto any warmth left, though she forgot all about her discomfort when she turned back towards the bed.

The futon in her studio apartment barely fit her at best and definitely hadn’t been designed for the purpose of having two people share it. Pietro lay tangled in the sheets and blankets, his white hair contrasting sharply with the dark fabric of the pillowcases. Those tangled blankets and sheets didn’t quite cover his entire body – particularly his upper body, where she must have dislodged the blanket when she moved. She could easily make out the black markings covering his torsos in the shape of two wolves, not quite covering up the scar tissue spanning his skin beneath.

She’d asked him about those tattoos the previous evening, while running her fingers over the ink. She’d made a comment about how the sharp and sleek design suited him and he’d responded by telling her that there was more to it than that. He’d explained that it was based on a story he’d heard at some point in his life – he believed earlier on, since he couldn’t remember a time those words weren’t going through his head – about a Native American telling his son – or grandson, apparently the story changed depending on the telling – about how there was a battle between two wolves going on inside everyone.

His exact words, as he told the story, had been, “The idea is that everyone has these two wolves, one light, one dark. The light one is fueled by more positive things, like peace and hope, the dark one is fueled by anger and greed, and how much you feed either one of ‘em determines which one wins. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot, how you can’t control the things that happen to you but you can decide how you’re going to respond… and which one of those wolves you want to feed.”

She’d responded by telling him that, first of all, that was an intense story to be thinking about that often, and secondly that she found the tattoos fitting him all the more after learning that piece of what the designs meant to him. She’d followed the words up by tracing the designs with her lips and tongue and one thing led to another, and another, and there they were the next morning. Every step of the way, she’d checked in with him, to make certain he continued to feel comfortable and could provide any and all consent.

“Liking the view?” Pietro lightly questioned, and Darcy realized she’d been staring at him for the past several seconds without saying anything.

“Naturally,” she said.

His lips curved into a smirk in response to that and she felt relieved when she recognized that he looked – and was acting – like himself. Despite the fact that he’d told her he was willing and comfortable, there had been a part of her that wondered if things might become weird the next day. After all, she’d been his first, which was one of many confessions from him the previous night – or early morning, she wasn’t quite certain. That was bound to raise the potential to make the next morning awkward.

Or maybe Darcy had spoken too soon, given that she had no idea what to say now. There was always the option to return to the futon and attempt to wrap herself with Pietro. That was tempting, given the fact that the temperatures in the room had decreased to near artic levels. On the other hand, the alarm signified that she needed to get – or stay - out of bed and off to Shield or at least make her way towards a place with coffee.

Her inner debate was cut off when Pietro questioned, “You coming back to bed?”

“As much as I’d love to, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to convince myself to leave again. I’m not sure the boss man would be thrilled with that.”

Thankfully Pietro didn’t seem bothered by that in the slightest. If anything, his brows furrowed.

“Good point. I’d wanted to be there when Wanda arrived with Clint.”

And there came the awkwardness and, dare she admit to, jealousy? They’d gone almost 12 hours, with some of those involving sleeping, without any discussion of his sister. It was weird enough to realize that the twins still shared the same bed. On some level, she’d known that from the beginning – it wasn’t as though there were many places for the twins to sleep at the townhouse – but the longer it went on, the more uncomfortable she found herself with it.

It wasn’t that she wondered or worried that the twins were doing anything that crossed the line. That wasn’t it at all. It was more that after a few months of dating Pietro, she still felt like she was the odd one out in this relationship. The twins were ridiculously close and she was the one who didn’t quite fit in with them. The last night proved that Pietro was just as invested in their relationship as she was; obviously things wouldn’t have gone the way they did if he didn’t feel that way, but hearing him mention his sister almost first thing in the morning was a bit of a mood breaker.

Darcy tried not to show any of that. “Good. Then we’ve got a game plan. Jane’s probably not working this morning since she had the shift last night but we can still swing by for coffee and food. I’d offer something from here but there’s not a whole lot in the fridge.”

“I’m all for hitting up the coffee shop,” he said. “Unless we had time for a more proper breakfast.”

Now that, that was definitely tempting. Given the current time and the time she would be expected at work, she’d be running late if she did that but at this point she figured it would be worth it. After all, Steve wasn’t about to fire her, despite his occasional threats to replace her with Wanda – and wasn’t that just an added uncomfortable thought to have bouncing through her head. Going out to breakfast would mean having additional time to spend with Pietro before juggling work and school.

Maybe even enough time to think back on how nice the previous evening had been. There had been pizza and movies – she still couldn’t believe Pietro had never seen Clue until then – before the activities started. For a few hours she’d been able to pretend that everything was normal.

Then again, maybe normal was overrated.

“Fuck it,” she said with a grin. “I know a couple of hole-in-the-wall diners. Let’s do it.”

-~-

Getting across campus when you were Tony Stark was simultaneously simple and difficult. Naturally, plenty of students recognized him and approached him for his autograph or selfies or some combination of both. He allowed a few of the requests before looking to Pepper to clear the path for him. While he could have requested a full crew to follow him on this venture, he’d kept it simple with one photographer and no reporters. There would be enough press conferences in his future.

This was something he should have done years ago. One of his earliest projects had been to finance a scholarship for up and coming, talented students majoring in a science related field and suffering from financial hardship. The recipient of this award had been a young kid, barely 14 if Tony could remember, who was entering college at the age most other kids would enter high school. He’d forgotten all about him, although he might have posed for a picture with him at the time, until Jane mentioned that one of the youngest graduate students to enter G.W. University had just started to work in her lab. Granted, Tony had a lot of questions about what a nuclear physicist was doing hanging out in a lab with an astrophysicist but he didn’t feel the need to ask too many questions at this time. After all, somehow a poli-sci major had ended up as Jane’s assistant for a period of time. Not exactly what he would have expected from such a fine institution of higher learning.

The crowd thinned a bit once Tony made his way into the building and he followed the directions Jane had given him for finding their lab. He gave a courtesy knock on the door before stepping inside, where he saw Jane typing into a computer, accompanied by Thor and two others who Tony had never seen before. Both had dark hair and were younger than most graduate students, which was not unexpected in the case of the young man studying a series of numbers on a whiteboard but a bit more so in the case of the woman in the midst of scribbling out the equation. Just seeing Bruce was enough to remind Tony that they had in fact met before because even hidden behind those wire-rimmed glasses, Tony recognized those eyes.

Maybe that was a stupid thing to recognize since then and now the kid he’d met at the time of the handing off the scholarship had dark hair and equally dark eyes, nothing out of the ordinary. But some part of Tony hadn’t forgotten the weary and wary look in them that he could still catch now or the fact that he could also remember how it felt when the kid’s shoulders hunched down when he’d put his arm around him for the picture, as though he’d thought Tony meant to hurt him. Granted, the man standing here now had shoulders that were straight and back and everything in his body language suggested that in this lab, doing this work, he was in his element.

“Dr. Bruce Banner?” Tony questioned as he stepped forward.

The young man’s shoulders dropped the slightly as he reluctantly turned away from the board. He gave Tony a searching look before saying, “Not yet. I mean, yes, that’s my name but I don’t have my degree, so I’m pretty sure I can’t be classified as a doctor.”

“A degree is just a technicality.” Tony offered him his hand. “I’m Tony Stark.”

“Yes, I remember,” Bruce replied, and Tony noted his clear discomfort as he shook his hand. “Even if your scholarship hadn’t helped me get through college, it would be hard not to recognize you.”

“I’m touched.” Tony looked rather pointedly from Bruce to the woman standing behind him, then repeated the gesture until Bruce seemed to get the point.

“Um, Mr. Stark,” Bruce said, the words forming a bit awkwardly. “This is Betty Ross. My partner.”

“Lab partner,” she clarified, as she stepped forward to shake Tony’s hand with much more confidence that what he’d seen from Bruce. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Stark.”

“The feeling is most decidedly mutual,” he assured her, and caught Pepper pointedly clearing her throat when Tony held onto Betty’s hand just a little bit too long. “Betty Ross. Why does that name sound familiar?”

“You might know my father, General Ross.”

“That’s right,” Tony said, snapping his fingers – and saw Bruce flinch the slightest bit at the sharp, unexpected sound. “I think I had a contract or two through him over the years.”

“I have absolutely no doubt you did. My father often has made questionable choices when it comes to research for the military,” Betty said curtly. “No aspersions being cast on you, of course.”

“Of course not,” Tony said, matching her tone, though in truth he was finding himself liking her more and more by the moment. There was nothing quite like having someone willing to speak their mind to him. Bruce, however, was looking progressively more uncomfortable as the conversation went on.

“Well, it’s been charming to meet you and to see you again, Bruce,” Tony said, making the determination that it was time to end this visit, seeing as there were places he needed to go and things to be done. Not to mention that he was pretty sure if he spent any longer here, Bruce might legitimately crawl out of his skin and that would be messy and unpleasant and not anything Tony wanted to deal with right now, thank you very much. “I’d just wanted to stop by, see how things were going, and get a new mental picture of you, Bruce, since the one I have is pretty outdated.”

“It was a pleasure to see you again, Mr. Stark,” Bruce said politely.

Tony quickly cut him off because he wasn’t having any of this overly deferential bullshit. “It’s just Tony. Calling me ‘Mr. Stark’ still makes me think of my father and that’s not a path I want to go down.”

Bruce’s brow furrowed and there was the slightest tilt to his head as he studied Tony. “Alright, Tony. I appreciate you stopping by.”

Tony slipped his hand into his pocket and came out a moment later with a small business card. Without missing a beat, he flipped it over, extended his hand to Pepper who continued to be the world’s best mind reader and handed him a pen, and quickly scribbled on the back before handing it to Bruce.

“The front’s how you can get ahold of me at work by calling or just showing up. I’ll make sure JARVIS knows you’re on the list if you want to come by and practice with any of the toys I’ve got over there. They’ve got a great set-up here but there are just some things even a fine institution like this can’t come by. If you’re interested, come on by at any time. I can promise I’m probably not sleeping. If you’re thinking that a work call or visit isn’t of interest, that’s where the number on the back comes in. That’s my personal cell phone. Not many other people have it. But if you’ve ever got a question or, hell, just want to chat one of these days, you can feel free to call me there.”

Bruce examined the card more thoroughly than Tony would have thought was warranted and then slowly nodded and tucked the card into his pocket. “Thank you, Mr. St - I mean, Tony.”

“I’d say don’t mention it but please do and as thanks stop calling me by my father’s name. You’re going to give me a complex.”

He turned on his heel before either Bruce or Betty could reply. Pepper gave him an uncertain look before glancing towards the cameraman with them, and Tony almost imperceptibly shook his head. Yeah, the publicity would be great and he could probably use it, although after a whole winter break of not ending up as one of the top stories on the news or splashed all over a tabloid, his reputation needed a bit less repair than it usually did by this time in the year. Furthermore, the publicity wouldn’t be worth putting Bruce through the discomfort. Tony wasn’t quite sure what was going on with him – though he definitely had several working hypotheses – but there was no doubt in his mind that their relationship wasn’t going to improve if Tony used him to start up a media frenzy.

The most surprising thing as he headed to the door was the look Jane gave him. In part, he was surprised that Jane even noticed his presence since she seemed so intent on whatever project she was working on. In his limited experience with her, that typically signified she wasn’t noticing much of anything until she finished. But he actually got the sense that she’d listened to the entire conversation, and the only meaning he was able to get from the rather dark look she was giving him was an overall sense warning him to tread lightly.

He would have been offended if there wasn’t a part of him that thought she was actually right. While he hadn’t been able to help himself from issuing that invitation to Bruce and providing him with the information necessary to follow up if he were interested, there was definitely something about Bruce that already warned Tony to be careful, without needing Jane’s expression to guide him. Tony didn’t exactly have a good track record taking care of the people he cared about, after all. If anything, he had a history of fucking those things up.

And judging from what he’d seen today and all those years ago, the last thing Bruce needed was someone taking him down in burning flames.

-~-

It had been a good day.

Steve didn’t entirely feel comfortable labeling it as such, seeing as that just seemed to be tempting fate. But he’d woken up to Bucky making breakfast for them, which was a relief for a number of reasons since that meant Bucky had started off with a good day. There was something to be said for having breakfast delivered in bed. Then things got a little dicey since Darcy was a little bit late to work, though she had texted Steve to give him a heads up. It wasn’t much of a problem because Wanda had arrived with Clint, who was dragging ass more than usual but had an extra cup of something sweet and caffeinated from Starbucks to hand off to Bucky. Wanda immediately jumped in to pick up the slack. Steve asked limited questions regarding Pietro’s whereabouts, seeing as he was reasonably certain nothing was going on with the kid since Wanda didn’t seem worried, although there was definitely something going on with Clint. He definitely let things go once he found out that Pietro had stayed over with Darcy the previous evening. Suddenly Darcy’s late arrival made perfect sense.

His early morning appointments went smoothly. By the first time he’d been done with his first one, Darcy and Pietro were there and one didn’t need to be psychic to recognize what had gone down between them the previous evening. Steve had checked in on Bucky, who was between appointments, before heading off to back-to-back classes. With everything running smoothly at the shop for once, despite the state Clint was in, he hadn’t even worried about that. A series of text messages between him and his mom helped to reassure him that everything was fine there.

Despite that, he’d stopped by her house before heading back to Shield and received a ridiculously long lecture for checking in on her when there was no need. She’d insisted on having him return to work immediately, told him to not worry about her, and that if there were any concerns, she would be more than willing to call him and let him know. Admittedly reluctantly, he’d accepted that and headed back to the shop in just enough time to have a short break before his last appointment of the day.

He’d spent that break in Bucky’s office, where he’d been pleased to discover Bucky didn’t currently have an appointment. The two of them had been rather distracted by the time Darcy came in to mention that each of their respective clients had arrived. Steve would have been embarrassed if it weren’t for the fact that he’d watched Darcy and Pietro engage in more frequent public displays of affection than anything he and Bucky ever did.

Now the day was over. Clint, who’d been pretty much only monosyllabic all day, left with the twins, while Darcy headed off for an evening class. Steve caught a brief discussion of a plan for her and Pietro meet up once her class ended. Clearly the twins’ freedom was expanding by the day, since Clint hadn’t seemed to have any problem with this plan, although it was plausible that he hadn’t noticed seeing as he seemed lost in his own thoughts. With the shop closed up, Steve and Bucky retreated to the apartment for what felt like the first quiet evening in awhile.

It wasn’t that they hadn’t had any down time over the past few weeks; they certainly had. But between bouncing back and forth between work and class and hospital visits or doctor’s appointments for his mother, Steve rarely had energy by the time they headed upstairs for the night. He’d noticed Bucky dragging as well and checked in with him every so often, just to make certain that he was managing, although Bucky almost always insisted that he was fine.

Tonight, though, tonight was different. Bucky cranked up some ridiculously upbeat music that must have been put on a mix by Darcy because there was no other explanation for why Bucky would have owned anything that sounded like that. Cooking turned into a two-person activity, with Steve using his size to his advantage and ducking under and around Bucky, until Bucky shooed him away to finish up his assignments for the next day.

By the time the food was done and on the table, he’d finished the last of his work and Bucky had fed Winter, who was curled up on his dog bed for the time being, always a positive sign since that meant that Bucky was feeling relaxed. Steve tracked down a nearly hidden unopened bottle of wine for the two of them to share along with their meal and Bucky revealed that while Steve had been finishing his homework, he’d set some brownies to bake for dessert in the meantime. A few glasses of wine apiece later and the bottle finished, Steve got some creative ideas for better uses of the whipped cream and chocolate syrup they were putting on the brownies. Bucky readily agreed and abandoned the whipped cream melting on the still warm brownies for alternate activities.

Bucky was sucking a path along Steve’s collarbone when the knocking started. Steve dug his fingers into the ridge of Bucky’s hips when Bucky tensed and drew back a few inches. He half-considered refusing to let him go to answer the door and instead pretend that neither of them were home. A moment later, as the pleasant haze lifted thanks to Bucky raising his head and ceasing the playful nibbles and licks against his skin, Steve realized that anyone knocking on the apartment door must have had keys to the shop, or broken in, although he doubted someone had broken in just to knock on the door.

This theory was confirmed when Darcy’s familiar – and slightly panicked – voice came through the door. “Boss? Robocop? You guys in?”

Bucky’s brow furrowed and he exchanged a worried look with Steve before scrambling to his feet and heading for the door. He clearly considered this an emergency, given that he didn’t even tug on his shirt first. For as comfortable as he’d gotten over the past several months, there were still few people that he wasn’t comfortable with seeing him completely shirtless, and he kept strict boundaries in place. Right now though, he was breaking one of those unspoken rules.

He opened the door and Darcy stepped inside. The fact that she didn’t even comment on the fact that Bucky and Steve were both shirtless or joke about the various bite marks and bruises marking their skin spoke volumes. Something was very, very wrong.

Almost in unison, Bucky asked, “What’s up, Darcy?” and Steve inquired, “Hey, what’s going on?”

“Hey, guys, sorry for interrupting,” Darcy said, clasping and unclasping her hands. “I was supposed to meet up with Pietro tonight. Thing is, he never showed. I called his cell but he’s not answering and he’s 30 minutes late. I wasn’t sure if I should call the townhouse. I wouldn’t want to worry anyone unnecessarily…”

“I think that’s a good first step,” Bucky said. “Maybe something happened there that would explain why he’s late and if not… if not, at least the others would know and we could figure out a game plan.”

Steve nodded his agreement and reached for his shirt. As he tugged it over his head, he stifled a sigh. It was clear that the period of relative calm had come to an end.

-~-

The atmosphere in the shop was easily the tensest it had been in a long, long time. Darcy sat on the couch, her head lowered over her phone, dialing and redialing Pietro’s number as though something might change. Bucky had already called Natasha’s landline to check in and see whether Piero might have still been there. As he’d already suspected, Pietro wasn’t. He’d spoken with a worried Wanda and Sam, who said that they’d be heading to Shield shortly. Sam also mentioned that Natasha had offered to stay at the townhouse in case Pietro returned but that Clint was out. He’d offered to give him a call before driving over with Wanda, to see if he had any news either.

While Bucky manned the telephone, Steve had focused on Darcy, getting her a cup of coffee and offering what reassurances he could to her. For his part, Bucky felt at a loss for what to do once he hung up the phone. There was little point in wandering the streets but if Pietro were in trouble – which seemed increasingly likely – he didn’t want to be sitting around, doing nothing. What the nature of that trouble might be was a mystery to him but given how anxious the usually unflappable Darcy looked, there was clearly more to this situation than Bucky or Steve had been briefed on.

He was spared from speculating further when there was a knock on the front door. He automatically checked before unlocking and opening it to let Sam and Wanda step inside. Sam’s expression was grave and Wanda twisted her rings around her fingers anxiously.

“Any word?” she asked hopefully and Bucky reluctantly shook his head.

Her face fell and she slumped onto the couch beside Darcy. Darcy wrapped her arm around Wanda’s shoulders and the two began whispering to one another. Trying to discern the nature of their conversation felt intrusive and was far too difficult, which meant that Bucky turned to Sam, who sighed heavily.

“I haven’t heard back from Clint,” he said. “But Natasha called. She said that she might have a lead – and, for the record, I have no idea what that means at all – and said that she’ll check in soon. She promised that she’s staying put at the townhouse, just in case Pietro comes back there.”

“Awesome.” Bucky groaned. “So, for now, we wait?”

“I mean, the first rule of being lost is staying put. Obviously we’re not the ones who are missing but it makes sense for us to stay in those key places, like the townhouse and the shop.”

“But that’s if you’re lost in the woods or something,” Bucky pointed out. “This feels more like a situation where we would need to patrol, send out a team to look for him.”

“And what good would that do if we have no idea where to look?” Sam asked, raising an eyebrow. “I mean, sure, we could have a few of us wandering the streets but that’s not going to help anyone. It’s late, it’s the city, and that sounds to me like we’d be asking for trouble more than anything else. Hopefully Natasha will come back with her ‘lead’ and we can follow up on it then.”

That was when Bucky heard something banging out near the back door that led out to the alley. His first thought was that it might be a stray cat making a mess of the dumpster but the noise was too rhythmic and was coming increasingly more desperate and pronounced. Bucky exchanged a look with Sam and then with Steve, who’d knelt down beside Wanda, and then ran down the hall towards the back door. For an instant, he hesitated, listening to his gut impulse and questioning whether it might be a trap of some sort but then, despite the fact that his skin was crawling and there was a strong sense of something being hardcore not okay, he opened the door.

Clint stumbled inside, a bloody body in his arms. His lips moved but Bucky didn’t hear anything. All he could see was that Pietro was absolutely soaked in blood – it covered his face and stained his shirt – and immediately autopilot kicked into full effect. He slammed the door shut behind the two of them and wasn’t aware that he’d yelled for Sam to help until Sam appeared beside him, steering Clint into the nearest office and issuing orders.

Bucky wasn’t aware of what, if anything, Sam said to the others. As Clint carefully placed Pietro on the floor, Bucky focused entirely on the orders Sam was issuing to him and responded automatically – applying pressure to the wound on Pietro’s stomach, a wound that he now recognized as a gunshot – as Sam grabbed one of the medical kits around the shop and started to triage as best he could. Bucky caught sight of Wanda’s horrified face as she dropped down beside her brother and scrambled for Pietro’s hand. Her lips moved, forming Pietro’s name, but he couldn’t hear a sound, despite the fact that he could still register Sam’s voice barking orders at him and Pietro’s strained, stilted, rasping breaths.

Then the world faded in and out and things became hazy. One moment he was in the shop with his hands locked over the wound on Pietro’s stomach, packing it tight with gauze and covering it with duct tape, the next in the desert of Iraq, trying to hold in a soldier’s entrails while bullets struck the ground nearby and the man screamed and there was nothing but explosions and the smell of burned flesh and copper and gunpowder.

Then he was back in the shop with Sam’s controlled voice insisting that someone, anyone call 911 because he didn’t have the medical supplies or training to keep Pietro alive and now Bucky could hear because he caught Wanda snarling through her tears that it wasn’t possible to send Pietro to the hospital because someone, Talbot, would find them and catch them if they did that. Sam responded to that by questioning if Wanda preferred her brother dead and Bucky couldn’t stand to see Wanda’s expression break even more, so he looked down and saw that Pietro eyes were wild and pained and terrified.

“Tony.” A new voice, Steve’s, cut through the static in Bucky’s head. “Tony can help.”

“Then call him!” Sam snapped and resumed giving orders to Bucky.

Everyone else faded away once more, except for Sam’s voice. The room shifted in and out again – one moment, he was telling Pietro to hold on, just hold on, kid – and then in the next, the body in front of him was cold and still and covered in a military uniform and Sam was telling him to let go, that they had to leave, that there was nothing more they could do for him.

Then everything became confusing and disjointed. There were figures who looked somewhat like EMTs but not quite – although Bucky couldn’t quite discern where the difference came in - who pulled Pietro away from him and loaded him onto a stretcher. Sam’s voice was telling Bucky to let go, just as he had in Iraq, and Bucky couldn’t seem to make himself respond until two sets of arms dragged him back. For a moment, there were comforting hands on his shoulders and someone told him to breathe. He heard his own voice say, “I’m fine, I’m okay” but didn’t remember speaking.

The others crowded around the stretcher and Bucky caught Sam relaying Pietro’s vitals to the EMT, Steve asking where they were taking him, and Darcy and Wanda staying as close to Pietro as the EMTs would allow. Clint remained kneeling on the floor, his t-shirt – and why the hell was he only wearing a t-shirt in the middle of winter? - covered in streaks of blood, gore from where Pietro had been laying seeping into the knees of his jeans. Somewhere in the midst of observing the scene, the audio cut out once again, as though someone hit the mute button on his brain, and his peripheral vision cut in and out until all he could see clearly was the image directly in front of him.

He blinked once, twice, and then looked down at his blood-covered hands. It occurred to him that he should find water, to wash them, and that meant finding a sink.

He must have turned too quickly. That was the only explanation he could come up with for why his vision cut out entirely at that point. Bucky considered trying to speak and then his mind shut off entirely and he considered nothing at all.

Chapter Text

Steve watched with an edge of suspiciousness as the paramedics wheeled Pietro into a waiting ambulance – well, more of a van than an ambulance. Tony had sworn they were legitimate and trustworthy. Given that the alternative was to allow a kid to bleed to death in Shield or to place him in a dangerous situation by bringing him to the hospital, there weren’t exactly many options. Despite the small vehicle, there was apparently room for both Darcy and Wanda, and they climbed inside without hesitation. Steve made note of the license plate and any markings on the vehicle, regardless of the fact that he’d already cross-referenced everything with the information Stark had provided and it all checked out. He couldn’t help it though. He had to do something, now that the outcome of this situation was now out of his – and all of their – hands.

Steve took a deep breath as he locked the door and stepped back inside when he heard Clint curse, followed by Sam sharply saying Bucky’s name. Upon running back to the office, he found Clint struggling to lower Bucky to the floor, awkwardly pillowing Bucky’s head against his knees. Sam knelt beside the two of them and Steve felt his heart sink even further in his chest. Clint’s face was nearly white and he gritted his teeth. Sam’s fingers moved to Bucky’s right wrist to check his pulse and Steve realized that calm, steady Sam’s hands were shaking.

Even Sam’s voice sounded ragged and unsteady as he spoke. “C’mon, Buck. C’mon, you’re okay, you’re safe, just hold it together a little longer.” By the time he finished speaking, Steve wasn’t certain whether he was talking to Bucky or himself.

“Is he okay?” Steve asked.

Sam glanced over his shoulder at him. For an instant, his eyes were wide and panicked but then he swallowed hard and took several slow, deep breaths.

“Yeah, I think so,” he said, turning back to Bucky.

For an instant, Sam stiffened and his breath caught in his throat, his eyes unfocused. He rested his hand on Bucky’s left shoulder, almost as though he didn’t believe he was feeling the metal. When Sam’s eyes closed a moment later, Steve reached for his shoulder, afraid that he was about to go in the same direction as Bucky. But Sam’s eyes immediately fluttered open in response to Steve’s touch and he exhaled raggedly.

“His pulse is steady,” Sam said, his voice more clinical. “A little faster than I’d like but I don’t think he’s in any danger. If anything, I’m thinking he got severely triggered by everything that just happened and shut down.”

Steve reached for Bucky’s hand, flinching when he saw the blood streaking his own arms, as well as on Bucky’s skin, and on the ground surrounding them. His heart lurched painfully in his chest as the reality of the situation sunk in. Pietro had been shot and might be dying, Steve’s entire shop was now a crime scene, and Bucky wasn’t even conscious or responsive.

Not to mention that Sam’s eyes were glazed over, his gaze distant, and Clint stared blankly at the floor in front of him in a way that suggested he wasn’t seeing much of anything either. As far as Steve could gather, he was the only one remotely functional.

Still, he tried to address Clint to get some information on the events of this evening and, hell, to check in and see how the guy was doing because he looked like shit.

Steve started by saying his name, waiting to see if Clint would respond, and when he blinked and glanced up at him, Steve asked, “Are you okay?” Clint’s only response to that was to nod and Steve stifled the urge to sigh. “What happened? Where did you find him?”

“It’s a long story,” Clint said quietly. “I’m just glad I did.”

Steve couldn’t determine whether to follow up with another question, when just forcing out those words seemed to have drained the last of Clint’s energy, but a moment later that was the last thing on his mind.

The bell over the front door chimed. Someone had just entered the shop.

Steve jumped to his feet immediately, scanning the area for the nearest item that could be used as a weapon. All he could come up with was to the lid to the trashcan. It wasn’t much but it was something he could defend himself with, if nothing else. He doubted it would hold up against a bullet but it wasn’t as though he had a readily available flak jacket or anything like that.

“Steve?”

It wasn’t just hearing his name but the familiar voice that made Steve drop his guard as he stepped out into the lobby. Tony stood, just a short ways inside of the building, and then froze when he saw Steve standing there, his gaze shifting to the blood smeared on Steve’s clothes and skin. Before Steve could even say anything, Tony gestured for him to take a step back, and he somewhat reluctantly lowered the trashcan lid to the ground.

“Jesus Christ, Steve, what the fuck are you thinking? Don’t come out here looking like that. There’s no point in getting more blood all over this place.”

As always, Tony had a knack for making Steve bristle, although he found himself responding to the words and stepped back towards the hallway and the office where he’d left the others. He hated to admit it but there was some logic to Tony’s words. Still, that didn’t mean that Steve had to like Tony taking charge of this entire situation. Just because he’d helped them out, at least theoretically, by sending the paramedics to save Pietro didn’t mean he ran the show.

Dealing with Tony was the last thing Steve wanted to do at the moment. He just turned on his heel and went back into the office where the others were. If Tony chose to follow, that was his choice to make. Steve had more things to worry about. The scene hadn’t changed too much in the few moments he’d been gone. Clint remained kneeling on the floor, Bucky sprawled out against him, with Sam by their side but this time, this time Bucky’s eyes were open. Granted, he seemed to be as focused and functional as the others in the room, which was to say not at all, but it was a step in the right direction. Steve moved slowly, carefully and knelt down beside Bucky to reach for his hand.

“Hey, Buck,” he said softly. “It’s me. How’re you feeling?”

It took several repetitions of those sentences before Bucky blinked and his fingers tightened around Steve’s hand. It was only a few moments after that when Bucky murmured Steve’s name, letting him know that he was back, or at least as close as back as Steve could hope for. He felt guilty at pulling Bucky back, when there were triggers all around them and Bucky wasn’t particularly stable to begin with, but the fact that Bucky responded was also a relief. While Steve trusted Sam’s assessment of Bucky’s condition, he hadn’t known for certain what was going on and whether he needed to be more concerned about him.

The sound of Bucky’s voice also seemed to trigger something in Sam, who raised his head and surveyed the area around them. His eyes seemed more focused as he took everything in. Steve had the suspicion that he was gearing up to start giving orders when Tony just so happened to catch up with them or, at the least, no longer be rendered speechless by the site of all of the blood. Steve considered the fact that he’d found his voice again to be decidedly unfortunate, particularly with his first words.

“Alright. First things first, I need you all out of those clothes. Not in an inappropriate way, in a “we need to burn that shit” sort of way. I’ll grab some towels or something for you to stand on. Hopefully all of you can fit into Barnes’ clothes, since I’m sure he has some spares upstairs since he basically lives here, and Steve’s clothes aren’t going to fit anyone else. We’ll get you all cleaned up and then get you out of here while I take care of this mess.”

Stress bristled. “You can’t kick me out of my own place, Tony.”

“For starters, yes I can, this entire shop and the apartment above technically belong to me. You rent it, but I own it.”

Steve opened his mouth to retort but Tony kept on going.

“Secondly, right now this place is a crime scene. If the events of tonight need to be kept hush-hush, like you’ve indicated to me that they do, then I need to fix that. If whoever those assholes are out there – and, yes, I have my suspicions from what I know of Talbot. If they know that the kid ended up here tonight, you can bet that you’ll be having visitors and if this place hasn’t been taken care of, you’re going to have a lot of questions to answer, as am I.”

Steve wanted to find something in all of that to argue about, and was reasonably certain he could, but one glance at Bucky made him relent. Bucky’s face was pale and drawn and no one else in the room looked particularly better, which meant that as much as Steve wanted to argue with Tony, he had to admit this wasn’t the time for that.

“Alright,” he said. “Where are you sending us?”

“I thought that was obvious,” Tony said, raising an eyebrow. “I’m sending you after Pietro. You guys will meet up with Darcy and Wanda at the clinic he’s at and whatever you do at that point is up to you. If you want to go crash at Red’s townhouse, I won’t stand in your way. I can assure you that if you want to stay near the kid, there will be accommodations for you.”

“What type of place did you send him to?” Clint asked, giving the first sign that he’d actually been following the conversation.

“A nice discrete place where I have on retainer just in case I need medical care and I don’t want a public scandal as a result of it. Trust me, no one there will say anything to anyone. They’ll take care of him and they’ll make sure the rest of you are taken care of as well.”

“Then what are we waiting for?” Sam questioned, pushing himself to his feet and only looking somewhat unsteady.

He offered a hand to Bucky, who reluctantly withdrew his hand from Steve and accepted Sam’s help to stumble to his feet. The fact that Bucky remained standing was a positive and Steve quickly scrambled up to help him as well. He was grateful that Tony disappeared for the moment; not having him there made him feel less on edge, and he took the moment to focus entirely on Bucky.

He kept his movements slow and steady, giving Bucky ample time to see what he was doing and respond accordingly. He gently brushed his fingers against Bucky’s cheek. Bucky didn’t flinch or lean into the touch, which was about on par with what Steve expected, and he did his best to remind himself that things could be worse. Bucky was standing. He was conscious. He wasn’t entirely unresponsive. All of those were positive steps compared to what could have been happening.

By the time Steve was certain Bucky was functional, Sam had already shrugged off his own shirt and was tugging off his pants. Clint was doing the same, although substantially more slowly. The moment Clint’s shirt came off, Steve saw the odd position of his right shoulder and the bruises on his chest and stomach.

Sam spoke first, as he quickly moved closer and rested a hand on Clint’s uninjured arm. “Holy shit, what the hell happened to you, Clint?”

“Nothing I’m ready to talk about yet,” Clint replied. “It’s not as bad as it looks.”

“It looks pretty bad, Clint,” Bucky said quietly, breaking his silence. “You need that shoulder to be fixed, if nothing else.”

“I can do that,” Sam offered.

Clint nodded. Steve stifled the urge to tell Sam to wait, that Clint needed to be evaluated by a doctor, because as far as he could gauge, there wasn’t the time for that. Sam knew how to handle medical concerns; hell, he’d been a medic, which meant he could handle popping a dislocated shoulder back in place.

“I’m gonna need you to focus on breathing, since the more you tense up, the more difficult this is going to be for me and painful for you,” Sam said, gently running his fingers over Clint’s shoulder to examine it.

Clint’s lips twisted in bitter amusement. “This isn’t my first rodeo, Sam, or the first dislocated shoulder I’ve had. I know how it goes. Just do it.”

Steve lowered his gaze under the guise of shrugging off his clothes in order to give them the closest thing to privacy he could manage under the conditions; he wasn’t exactly fond of having eyes on him when an injury was being tended to. It helped that he also needed to keep an eye on Bucky to make sure he remained steady on his feet as he shed his own shirt and jeans. Steve could still hear the soft, soothing cadence of Sam’s voice, followed by a sharp inhalation, almost a gasp that had barely been held back, and then Sam more clearly say, “You alright, Clint?” and when Clint gave some sort of affirmative gesture, “We really should get that arm looked at. You carried Pietro after being injured and caught Bucky when he fell. There could be further damage that we can’t see without scans.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Clint mumbled. “We’ll deal with it later. Right now, I just want to see how Pietro’s doing and make sure Darcy and Wanda are safe.”

“Which we can do the moment you guys go upstairs and get cleaned up,” Tony chimed in. “No one is getting in my limo with blood still on them. Hop in the shower, rinse off, get dressed, and then we’ll see about getting you guys out of here.”

“Yes, sir,” Steve said, the slightest bit sarcastically, which he regretted almost immediately given the entire situation. “C’mon, Buck.”

He let Bucky lead the way upstairs, staying close behind him every step of the way with his hand gently resting on his lower back to guide him and ensure that he didn’t fall down the stairs. But Bucky remained steady, almost on autopilot, until the door opened to the apartment and Winter immediately moved forward. Then, his expression broke the slightest bit and he dropped to his knees, though in a much more controlled fashion than how he’d gone down earlier.

“Hey, Winter,” he murmured, and Steve didn’t make any attempt to dissuade him from sinking his fingers into the dog’s fur.

Instead, since he recognized that Bucky was being taken care of by his dog for the moment, he turned his attention onto Sam and Clint, who were slowly making their way up the stairs. Sam seemed more functional now than he had earlier, focused entirely on Clint and ensuring that he remained upright and kept moving. Clint, for his part, was moving more slowly and gingerly than he had been earlier.

Steve’s immediate response to the two of them reaching the top of the stairs was to offer, “I’m pretty sure I have some painkillers left over from when I broke my fingers. You want one, Clint?”

“I’m not saying no to free drugs,” Clint responded.

“They’re in the medicine cabinet. Help yourself to as many as you need.”

“Without overdoing it,” Sam added. “You know the healthy amount of drugs to take.”

“Yeah, yeah, I do,” Clint agreed, as he disappeared into the bathroom.

Steve caught Sam’s hesitation when the bathroom door started to close and softly said, “You can join him, you know. Get cleaned up and everything too. Probably better if you do. We don’t need him passing out in there or something like that.”

Sam’s expression relaxed. “Thanks, Steve. I appreciate it.”

Bucky, who hadn’t seemed to be following the conversation at all, suddenly added, “And you’re welcome to any of the Xanax I have in there. Seems to me you could use it.”

Sam frowned and Steve half-expected him argue against that but instead he said, “Thanks, Buck. I’ll pop one or two and then bring them out to you.”

For the moment, Steve stayed near Bucky, watching him closely to see what was happening. Thankfully Bucky’s focus appeared to be entirely on Winter. As the seconds continued to tick by, a bit of the tension left Bucky’s shoulders and the look in his eyes cleared. While his gaze remained haunted and not quite all there, Bucky seemed less lost in the past and more in the here and now. Steve gave Bucky his space for the moment, to let Winter do his job.

That was around the time Steve realized his own hands were shaking and his heart was pounding into his throat. He’d thought he was perfectly calm – or at least as calm as one could be after something like this happened – but now, as the adrenaline faded, it became apparent that he wasn’t doing as well as he’d thought. Thankfully his thoughts didn’t have a chance to drift too far in that direction seeing as Sam stepped out of the bathroom, a bottle of pills in hand, and passed them off to Bucky, who murmured his thanks.

By the time Sam headed back into the bathroom and Bucky popped two pills and swallowed them dry, Steve could hear the sound of the water going in the shower. He carefully took a seat beside Bucky, making certain that neither one of them had blood anywhere that might end up on the floor or any furniture. He could see the exact moment when the Xanax took effect, as the rest of Bucky’s muscles unclenched and he visibly relaxed.

Steve didn’t say anything. As far as he could tell, there wasn’t really a point to speaking. It was pretty clear from Bucky’s body language that he wasn’t up for talking and it wasn’t as though Steve had the words to think of something to say anyway. Instead, he just sat there, lightly threading his fingers through Bucky’s hair, trying not to think about the blood swirling down the shower drain, or Tony standing amidst the mess downstairs, or the look in both Sam’s and Bucky’s eyes while they tried to save Pietro, or the condition that Clint was in, or the fact that he didn’t know if Pietro was alive or dead at this point.

He had no control over any of those things and from what he could gather, for the still unanswered questions, there would be an answer soon enough.

Steve just hoped it wouldn’t be bad news.

-~-

Despite the fact that the majority of the people present were in some state of altered consciousness, the tension in the room was palpable.

Bucky lay, stretched out on a couch on the other side of the room, his head pillowed in Steve’s lap, Winter lying by his side. Natasha had checked on him briefly when she’d arrived, just enough to be glad that he was drugged for the time being. The look in his eyes was far from comforting and he’d barely been speaking, although she hoped that might have had more to do with the drugs in his system. At some point, in-between all of the restless waiting, Steve had managed to coax him into lying down. Somewhere in the midst of that, he’d fallen into the closest thing to sleep that anyone could manage in this type of environment, given the circumstances.

Still, she was glad that he had Steve because she did not have it in her to be taking care of Bucky in addition to Sam and Clint. When Sam had called her to tell her the details as to what had happened and where to meet them, she’d managed to pry out enough details to gather that no one was okay and Clint had been injured. Upon entering the waiting room – though room was a bit of a misnomer, this was more of a private suite, like the small rooms that waiting rooms kept to either keep potentially contagious patients away from others or to give waiting, worried families somewhere quiet to wait for what might be bad news – she’d found everyone sitting in chairs, shoulders hunched, eyes locked on the floor.

Upon discovering that Steve had Bucky well in hand, she’d turned her full attention onto Clint and Sam. Clint’s eyes were glassy, a fairly visible sign of someone who was drugged trying not to look as out of it as they felt, but he insisted that he was fine each and every time she asked – and in the process, repeated himself more often than any sober person ever would have. Not that she minded. Judging by what Sam had told her, he’d needed the medication to remain functional, especially since he didn’t seem willing to consider having a doctor medically evaluate him at this point.

If she didn’t know Sam as well as she did – and perhaps if she hadn’t spent as much time with Bucky – she wouldn’t have been able to tell how off he was. It wasn’t just the shakiness in his hands or voice, since that seemed to apply to everyone in the room at this point. But it was other things that she picked up. His constant scanning of the room, his inability to stay still even once everyone else had settled down and was resting in some capacity, and his overall restlessness. None of this was common for him. He always exuded a zen-like quality that was now completely absent.

But when she gently questioned it, he shut her down, and after the third time, she just focused the majority of her attention on Clint. The drugs were enough to keep him from being overly skittish around her, though they’d barely spoken since the arrival of his brother. For the time being there was no reason to not let bygones be bygones. He’d been punished enough for that mistake. While she still had no idea exactly what had happened tonight, save for being aware that Clint had found Pietro and at some point had been injured, she could tell that he wasn’t coping well.

It had taken awhile but she’d finally convinced him to get some rest himself, particularly given that they had no idea when further news would come out regarding Pietro’s condition. All they knew for the moment was that he was still alive and in surgery. Natasha spent her time stroking Clint’s hair and lightly running her fingers along the back of his neck until he gave in and stopped fighting unconsciousness. For the time being, he wasn’t talking and she wasn’t pushing him, particularly not with the others around. She’d ask once they were back at the townhouse, when it was just the two of them and Sam, and when he was in a better place physically and emotionally. For now, she was grateful that he was resting, despite the occasional restlessness, either due to pain and discomfort, or simply the situation as a whole.

Wanda sat off to the side, knees hugged to her chest, rocking back and forth slightly. Just as she’d done with the others, Natasha had done what she could to check on her, but after Wanda’s response of, “Not now” Natasha hadn’t pressed any further. Darcy, who sat beside Wanda, close enough to touch but not actually touching, had offered a quick, “I’m fine” when Natasha turned her attention to her, and Natasha had seen no reason to push either one to say more at this time.

She hadn’t spoken much to Steve, but while he seemed to be holding it together more than the others, there were definitely cracks. In some ways, she supposed, that placed them in a similar position. From what she knew of Steve, he wasn’t about to show his emotions anymore than she would in these circumstances. Especially not with Bucky already struggling, though it did mildly surprise her that he was keeping the mask up despite the fact that Bucky slept quietly.

Sam hadn’t been able to sit still for more than a few moments since her arrival, alternating between pacing and stepping outside – he said to get some air – and even the few times he did sit, she saw his eyes darting in every direction, taking in all the details, looking for potential threats, as his body all but vibrated with nervous energy. She didn’t force him to stay put but would rest a hand on his shoulder or lightly rub the back of his neck whenever he sat close enough for her to reach him, just to remind him that she was there.

Finally, after all of the movement, Sam slumped onto the couch beside her, and she hoped against hope that it would be for more than a minute or two this time. She could see the exhaustion in the slump of his shoulders, in the deep lines in his forehead, and the look of defeat in his eyes. A few moments before he’d stopped this time, he’d paused long enough to check on how Bucky was doing.

Now, as he took his seat beside her, he turned his attention to Clint and asked, “How is he? Is his breathing normal? Does his skin feel right – not hot or clammy?” and so on and so forth, just like he’d asked Steve about Bucky.

She answered as simply as she could. “He’s asleep and he has been for at least 15 minutes. His breathing was a little fast while he was awake, now it’s slowed down and it’s pretty even. His skin temperature is fine, as far as I can tell.” Before Sam could follow up with another question, she asked, “What about you?”

She was relieved to see him take a moment to consider the question without responding automatically.

“I’m not okay,” he admitted, after a long moment where he visibly struggled to find the words. “What happened definitely brought a lot of stuff up for me. Stuff I thought I’d mostly processed and gotten over but obviously haven’t, not entirely.”

“Sam, anyone going through the type of situation you did tonight would be struggling. For you, having already been through similar situations, it’s no wonder that you’re having a difficult time. It’s not a matter of taking a step back.”

“I know, I know,” he muttered, in a way that did not suggest to her that he was hearing anything she said. “Anyways, for the time being, I can handle it. Probably won’t be sleeping any time soon. I’m more concerned right now with Bucky, Clint, and Pietro.” He lowered his voice before adding, “I hope that the kid is still alive.”

Though he spoke quietly, Wanda jerked her head up and stared at Sam for a long moment before snapping, “He’s not dead. I’d know if he was dead.”

Then she quietly repeated, “I’d know” and Darcy wrapped her arm around Wanda’s shoulders.

Sam replied with a gentle, “I’m sorry, Wanda.”

Clint stirred in response to Wanda’s voice. Natasha all but held her breath, hoping he’d settle and fall right back to sleep, but a moment later his eyes blinked open and he blearily looked up at her.

“Go back to sleep,” she murmured, smoothing back his hair.

Clint’s expression shifted to a sleepy, confused frown. “Pietro…?”

“No word yet,” Sam added. “Just get some rest, Clint. We’ll wake you up when we hear something.”

He gently ran a hand over Clint’s shoulder and Natasha both felt and saw Clint flinch the slightest bit.

“Sorry,” Sam said gently. “I was just checking on how it was doing.”

“It’s okay,” Clint said groggily. “Do what you need to do, man.”

Clint’s jaw tightened as Sam slowly examined his shoulder, and Natasha wasn’t the only one to catch that. The examination only lasted for a few moments before Sam withdrew his hand.

“You need another pill?” Sam asked

“Nah,” Clint said dismissively. “It’s not that bad. Nothing I can’t handle.”

“I’m not asking if you can handle it. I’m asking if you’re in pain.”

Clint’s expression suggested he would continue to be argumentative but he didn’t have the chance to, since there was a knock on the door, followed by it swinging open. Before the doctor stepped inside, an actual doctor this time rather than the nurse who’d brought the previous several updates, Wanda was already on her feet and halfway to the door, Darcy a stride or two behind. Clint scrambled his way into a sitting position, barely even grimacing as he moved, his gaze fixed on the doorway. Across the room, Bucky startled awake. Natasha watched him, noticing how Steve calmly and gently helped Bucky to focus, reminded him of where he was and what had happened, and kept him steady. Then she focused her full attention on the doctor’s face as she stepped into the room, noting every signal or sign as to what the message might be. She felt herself relax as she got a read on the woman’s emotional state and hoped against hope that her instincts were correct.

“He made it through surgery.”

Natasha knew there was more coming but that didn’t seem to matter to anyone else for the time being. Wanda rocked back on her heels and all but gasped in relief. Darcy seemed torn between reaching out to Wanda, trying to steady her, and still caught in the midst of processing that news herself. Sam murmured, “Oh, thank God” and Clint echoed that sentiment.

Natasha exhaled slowly; one immediate emergency down and plenty more repercussions to follow.

-~-

Everything was too white and sterile. The beeping of the machines set Wanda’s nerves on edge. It wasn’t that she’d never sat at her brother’s bedside while he recovered; she’d done that way too many times while growing up, but never in an actual medical setting, never in a place like this and never when she’d come this close to losing him. She’d never seen him that close to the edge, bleeding out and frantic, and she could still feel the twist in her heart during those moments she’d been convinced she might lose him. Regardless of what she’d said to the others, there had been a part of her that was afraid he was gone and that she hadn’t known. It wasn’t until she actually saw him – even the doctor’s words weren’t enough to provide full reassurance – that the pain in her chest decreased to a manageable level.

The doctor had informed her that the surgery was successful but that her brother wouldn’t be going anywhere until his injuries had healed and there were no signs of infection. She’d also been informed that his injuries were more extensive than the gunshot wound, some of which had included trauma to his ribs and other internal injuries that made the surgery more difficult, in addition to assorted bruises and cuts all over his face, culminating in a broken cheekbone.

While this was the last place she wanted to be, she understood that it was more important for her brother to recover properly, rather than bringing him somewhere that didn’t set her nerves on edge but couldn’t provide the necessary medical care. That said, despite how kind the staff had been here and the brief assurances she’d been given by Tony through the others, she also wasn’t about to go anywhere and leave her brother completely alone. While the others seemed to trust that this place wasn’t dangerous, she feared that if she were to leave her brother vulnerable, he could potentially be handed right over to Talbot.

For the time being, he slept quietly, though he had been awake – at least briefly – when she’d first come in. Enough to register her presence and murmur her name, as well as Darcy’s, though the words came out in a pained rasp, and she’d quickly told him not to speak. He’d fallen asleep shortly after she came in and she’d been more panicked than it probably warranted, which was when the doctor had explained that it was unsurprising and normal, due to the amount of anesthesia still in his system, the meds he was on, and the overall trauma and blood loss he’d experienced.

The others had allowed her and Darcy their privacy and Wanda was grateful for that. There was a part of her that would have preferred to be entirely alone with her brother, but Darcy had a right to be there too. While Darcy and Pietro had only known each other a short time, the two of them were dating, and it was understandable after everything she’d seen and everything that had happened that she wouldn’t want to leave him alone either.

Besides, if she went to the logical side of things, it was probably a good thing that Darcy was there, too. While she and Pietro might be wanted and hunted, Darcy wasn’t, and while anyone horrible enough to work for her father and be willing to shoot her brother probably wouldn’t care about something like that and might even harm Darcy if necessary, somehow it made Wanda feel a little better, a little safer.

Instead of dwelling on that, she focused on the sensation of her brother’s hand in her own, of the warmth of his skin, of each slow, even breath he took in. All the signs that he was still alive and the two of them hadn’t been separated.

Wanda didn’t know what she would have done if he hadn’t made it through the surgery, if she’d been left alone. The idea of following him definitely would have been there because she didn’t want to be on her own. Eventually, of course. Not right away.

Not until she’d ripped apart every person who had a hand in her brother’s death.

No, not his death. She had to keep reminding herself of that. He wasn't dead. He wasn't going to be dead.

And there was no point in letting her thoughts turn in that direction. For the time being, Pietro was safe. If the doctor was right – and she’d better be right – he would heal. He would survive, just as he always had, as they always had.

And before he healed and was back out on the street and in danger, she would need to prepare and plan if she had any hope of preventing this from happening again. Perhaps the others would not want them to return to their life of wandering the streets and helping out at Shield and they would be told, once again, that they had lost their freedom. At this time, she did not know how to feel about that prospect. Everything in her said that it would be safer to hide, to stay in the townhouse, to not tempt fate. But underneath that fear, there was anger. She was reasonably certain that when the shock lifted, the anger would be more powerful than the fear. She and her brother hadn’t carved out this new life just to have it ripped away from them by the same man who’d created the situation to begin with.

Regardless of whether they retreated or refused to accept those limitations on their freedom once again, she knew there were steps to be taken and probably to be taken now before she lost her nerve. While her brother recovered, there were things she could do to ensure that the two of them were not unprepared the next time. There were things she could do to make sure that she could protect him. She had no doubt that he wouldn’t agree with her choice, which meant that acting now while he slept, while he healed, was the best choice she could make.

“I’ll be right back,” she murmured, regardless of the fact that he couldn’t hear her, squeezing her brother’s hand and pressing a kiss to the back of it. Then, to Darcy, she asked, “You willing to stay with him?”

“Of course,” Darcy assured her. “I’m not going anywhere. You okay?”

Wanda shook her head. “Okay definitely isn’t the word. But don’t worry. I’m just going to talk to Clint.”

Still, she paused when she reached the doorway, glancing back at where her brother lay in the bed. Darcy held his hand – the one Wanda hadn’t been attached to from the moment she came back – and spoke softly to him, her voice low enough that Wanda couldn’t catch what she was saying. That in and of itself was a shock, given how vocal Darcy typically was at all times. The jealousy that sometimes flared up when Wanda saw the two of them together was now nonexistent. If anything, she was grateful to know that her brother wouldn’t be alone while she tracked down Clint.

She didn’t know quite what changed when she stepped out the room but suddenly her breath caught in her chest and she stumbled back against the wall, trying to convince her lungs to work. It was so stupid to react this way now. Pietro had made it through the hardest part already. That was all that mattered. She shouldn’t be panicking.

But that wasn’t all of it. She knew that this was just the beginning. The warning that all of them had been waiting for. She still didn’t know exactly what had happened with Pietro this evening but she had enough information to know that the people Talbot had sent after them were closing in.

The idea of being taken back to him scared her more than the thought of dying. Being back with Talbot would be a fate worse than death.

Several deep breaths later and Wanda felt steady enough to carefully compose her expression and step out into the waiting room, where she found Natasha sitting beside Bucky and Steve, her mouth pressed into a tight line and something haunted and dark in her eyes. Clint and Sam sat near the door and both immediately glanced up when she came in. Apparently her attempts to look more composed weren’t enough, given that they both looked alarmed and Clint’s face paled.

“Is he…?” he asked uncertainly, unable to finish the sentence.

“No,” she said quickly. “He’s… he’s as fine as he’s going to be. That’s not what this is about.” She took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. “I want you to teach me how to shoot.”

Both Sam and Clint looked taken aback but her resolution remained the same. She wasn’t going to take no for an answer.

“Wanda, now probably isn’t the time to be thinking about this…” Sam cautioned, and she immediately cut him off.

“Now is exactly the time to be thinking about this. I know you know how to fire a gun. You were in the military. You could teach me. I’m pretty sure Clint could too. Hell, I’m sure Bucky could but he’d be the last person I’d ask since I don’t know if it would be good for him to do that.”

“Wanda,” Clint started, then stopped himself and took a moment before beginning again. “This isn’t a good idea. You don’t want to be in that position.”

“You really don’t,” Sam added. “It’s not like the movies, Wanda. This is real. This is taking a life and it weighs on you.”

“I never said I wanted to kill anyone,” she said firmly. “I will if I have to and I will if I ever find the person responsible for shooting my brother. What I want is to be able to protect us. What I want is to make sure nothing like this ever happens again.”

The two of them exchanged a look and she could see their resolve slipping.

“Please,” she said softly. “I’m only asking to learn. Nothing more, nothing less.”

Sam exhaled slowly. “I’m not going to agree now. But I’ll consider it after I’ve gotten some sleep.”

Clint nodded his agreement and Wanda tried to curb her frustration. If this was the best they could offer, then it was what she would take.

Besides, if she had to, she would find someone else to teach her.

-~-

“Are you feeling up to talking now?”

The question registered, at least faintly, but Clint’s primary focus was on the fact that he was back in the townhouse for the first time since he’d found out Pietro was missing. Everything felt weird, which might have been the meds leaving his system, the general exhaustion, or the entire situation. There was a surreal quality to be sitting here now, when Pietro was still at the hospital with Wanda and Darcy. The townhouse crew offered to stay with them but in the end, the decision had been made for the three of them to return home. Natasha called Tony specifically to ensure that the twins and Darcy would be safe and whatever he said had convinced her, since she’d agreed to head home with Clint and Sam.

Now, settled on the couch with Natasha on one side and Sam on the other, Clint felt somewhat safe and calm for the first time in hours. He couldn’t entirely understand why the two of them kept flanking him like that, as though he was the one who needed support when they’d all been through hell, but for the moment he wasn’t complaining. Walking was almost possible and at this point sitting up wasn’t going much better. It was a lot easier to lean into Sam and watch Natasha knock back a glass of vodka. Being the only un-medicated person, she was the only one to have the luxury of drinking.

He tried to focus back in one the question. Natasha’s voice was gentle but Clint had no idea what to do with a loaded question like that. Was he feeling up for it? Would he ever be feeling up for it? Would a refusal to answer be acceptable? Would it be acceptable but make him feel too guilty? That was the point where Clint tried to shut his mind off. He was way too tired to be thinking like this. At the last glance he’d caught, back when they stumbled through the front door of the townhouse, the clock read 4:30, maybe 5:30, he couldn’t honestly remember at this time. His body ached with every breath and drained wasn’t even the word to describe how he felt. It was more like his energy bar was completely empty.

He could always say no. He could say not now, that he needed to rest first. He could do all of that but the one silver lining in the midst of this entire fucking disaster was Natasha talking to him again and no longer giving him the silent treatment he’d been getting since Barney made his unexpected-but-semi-expected appearance. The last thing he wanted to do now was disappoint Natasha.

“You don’t have to,” Natasha said, stroking his hair.

He realized he’d been silent for way too long and her words sealed his decision.

“I can’t say much,” he hedged. “I went to get some intel. It didn’t go well, which I guess you figured out already, although it definitely went better than it should’ve gone. It’s not every day you walk right into a place where people want to kill you. Aside from beating the crap out of me, they were willing to listen. They were pretty curious as to why I cared about the twins and why I’d come back seeing as they sent a guy with a gun after me the last time. So I mixed truth and lie and said that I knew all about Talbot’s reward for the twins. Said I was hoping to re-ingratiate myself by bringing the kids to them so they could bring them to Talbot and get the reward. Said I might have had some leads and I’d almost been close enough to catch up with the twins earlier but I lost track of one of ‘em. Asked if they had any idea where he might’ve gone.”

Natasha stared at him with undisguised horror, a rarity from her. “So, you’re telling me that you walked right into the grasp of the people who want to kill you and then lied to their faces?”

“Yeah. I realized it was extra stupid after the fact because of how visible my presence is with the twins. It sounds like they’d never gotten close enough to them before to see me with the two of them, thankfully. Guess I’ll just have to be more careful in the future when I’m out with them. If I’m out with them.”

“I don’t exactly foresee them being back out at Shield any time soon,” Sam pointed out. “What happened tonight changes everything.”

Natasha nodded her agreement. “Did they already have Pietro? I’m guessing not or else you’d be dead. I still can’t believe you put yourself in that kind of danger, Clint.”

“I didn’t see another choice,” he mumbled. “They didn’t have him. They just said that they’d heard that the Irish might have gotten lucky and that they might consider not killing me if I tracked him down and got him back for them to give to Talbot.”

“And since you failed to deliver, that target is right back on you,” Natasha said.

“Most likely yeah,” he acknowledged. “But the info was worth it. It helped me track him down. The kid’s resourceful, I’ve got to give him that. I don’t know what happened, we didn’t really have the chance to chat. But he’d gotten away from the Irish somehow. I found him a few blocks away, bleeding out and all, carried him back to the shop, and you know everything from that point onward.”

He stopped there. It was hard enough to think about the relief followed by raw, coursing terror that went through him when he found Pietro, thinking for a moment that he’d acted quickly enough and everything was okay, and then realizing how wrong he’d been. There’d been a few moments where he wasn’t certain his shoulder would be able to handle the kid’s weight and an even briefer moment when he wondered if he might be destroying his shoulder permanently if he did this. Then he decided that he didn’t care and just focused on getting Pietro to Shield because he didn’t know what else to do.

He startled when Natasha’s hand closed around his own and followed that up by murmuring a few words of comfort. His body relaxed the somewhat in response to the contact, and the last of the tension leave his body as Sam’s arm gently wrapped around his waist.

“It’s late,” Natasha murmured, her lips brushing against his throat as she spoke. “Let’s get everyone properly medicated and to bed. How does that sound?”

Sam immediately tensed up beside him. “Yeah, about that, I should probably get back to my place.”

“What are you talking about?” Clint blurted out. “It’s almost dawn, you’re exhausted, and there’s already been one shooting tonight. Just stay here with us.”

“Yeah, uh, about that,” Sam said, shifting his weight away from Clint although he didn’t entirely pull away. “I just don’t think it’s a good idea for me to stay here. Not after what happened tonight.”

“What are you talking about?” Clint asked, glancing at Natasha who seemed to be getting this situation more than he was, given the look of dawning comprehension.

“Sam,” Natasha said gently. “Look, I get it. You must have been triggered pretty badly by what you saw. I’ve seen James after he’s been triggered. You’re worried about what’s going to happen when you sleep.”

“If I sleep,” Sam quietly said. “But, yeah, you’re right. I know you guys haven’t really seen me like that before. I can get bad. Like, really, really bad. Nightmares doesn’t even cover it. I can get agitated and even violent. I don’t want to hurt either one of you. I mean, hell, Clint’s already all banged up.”

With that, he tried to pull away fully. Clint moved as quickly as he could to catch his arm before he stood up.

“Sam,” he said softly. “Please stay. We can handle it. We want to handle it. You should be here with us. Let us take care of you. I’m not worried about you hurting me.”

“I’m not either,” Natasha added, slowly and carefully shifting closer and reaching out to brush her fingers along Sam’s shoulder. “If you recall, I dealt with James and his nightmares for months. I shared his bed during that time. He woke up swinging more than once. I know what to do. Clint’s right. You shouldn’t be alone tonight, Sam. We want to take care of you.”

Sam’s resolve crumbled. “Alright. I’ll stay.”

“Good,” Natasha said, lightly squeezing Sam’s shoulder before pulling back. “In that case, how about the two of you get dressed – or undressed, as the case may be – and I’ll see about getting some painkillers for you, Clint, and some benzos for you, Sam.”

“Just make sure you’re not up all night yourself, Nat,” Clint pointed out.

She raised an eyebrow. “You mean all day, don’t you? It’s pretty much dawn.” Then she kissed his forehead. “Don’t worry about me. I can take care of myself.”

“We can take care of you too,” Sam said softly. “Just like you take care of us.”

With that, he rose to his feet and offered Clint his hand. Clint accepted automatically, grateful for Sam’s presence when he felt himself stumble and almost fall, and didn’t argue when Sam kept an arm around him as he led the way up the stairs. Clint’s body protested each and every step and he did his best to ignore it. The pain wasn’t going away and if he was standing, that meant he was able to function. At least well enough to make it up the stairs and to bed.

He didn’t have enough energy to get dressed or to protest when Sam helped him out of Bucky’s clothes that hung on him all wrong and into the pajamas he’d left on the floor that previous morning. He tried to return the favor to Sam but he must have grimaced at some point because Sam told him just to settle down on the bed and rest. It was possible that he might have drifted off, at least briefly, because he jerked back to the present by Natasha, who had two Vicodin pills waiting for him. After taking them, he found himself drifting once more.

Somehow, Clint was aware enough to shift off to the side, despite Sam’s protests, and he caught himself insisting that Sam should sleep in the middle. His words sounded like they were coming from far away but they were his and they were enough, given that after a few moments of protest Sam settled down in the center of the bed. The tangle of limbs was warm and comforting and maybe it was that, maybe it was the drugs, but he found himself already losing touch with the present once again.

In the back of his mind it occurred to Clint that there were pieces he hadn’t shared with Natasha or Sam, things he’d probably pay for at a later date, but that was something to worry about then and not now.

Chapter Text

Steve really should have just left the volume on his cellphone on; that way he would have had at least a few seconds warning. Such as it was, he was too busy keeping an eye on Bucky in the waiting room that he didn’t even glance at the phone’s screen before answering.

“Hey there, Rogers. Thought you’d like to know your shop is officially clean. You’re welcome.”

Steve managed not to sigh. He kept his voice low so as not to wake Bucky. “Thanks, Tony. That’s one problem dealt with. What do I owe you?”

“It’s on me. I also got your place taken care of, too. Figured I’d get everything in one go.”

Steve gritted his teeth. It was difficult not to just let loose, to say that his place was supposed to be off-limits to anyone except him or Bucky. But he knew that it had been necessary to get rid of the last of the evidence. Perhaps that was why all he said was, “Didn’t realize you’d be covering my place, too. Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it. It looks good,” Tony said quickly. “Especially now that I fixed everything. You’re still welcome, by the way.”

Steve pinched the bridge of his nose. “I already said thanks. Twice. Alright, so great. Good. Things are pretty much the same here.”

“I know. I’m supposed to be notified about any change. Speaking of which, you’re gonna have to open in the morning, even if you don’t sleep. Best not to have a change in schedule.”

“Tony, come on,” Steve mildly snapped. Beside him, Bucky shifted and groaned. Steve gently ran his fingers through his hair to settle him, and turned away as he lowered his voice. “I’ll be the only one there. Bucky and Clint are in no shape to work, and Wanda and Darcy are only going to leave Pietro if you physically drag them from the room. And depending on how the rest of this shit evening goes, I’m not going to be up for more than admin duty. I’ve worked through health issues before, but there is a limit when it comes to inking a design. I’m not gonna risk screwing that up.”

“Whoa, settle down there,” Tony said, his tone annoyingly placating. “You didn’t even let me finish. Look, I’ve already cancelled all the appointments for tomorrow-“

“You did what?” Steve asked, his tone turning dangerous.

“You would’ve had to do it anyway! And when were you gonna do it? 5 AM when you finally got home, or 6 AM when you finally stopped worrying enough about Barnes to pick up the phone?”

“Okay, fine, you’re right,” Steve said grudgingly.

“I know I am. Anyway, you need to be at the shop so it looks like nothing happened there. If it’s closed suddenly, that could be suspicious in case anyone comes sniffing around if they’ve caught the kid’s scent. Second, if someone shady does come by, sees it’s open, and comes in to scope the place out, I want their face caught on camera.”

“…okay, that does make some degree of sense,” Steve said. “But those cameras would’ve caught everything that happened yesterday.”

Tony scoffed. “Rogers, you should know me better than that. I’ve already dealt with that. You’ve got nothing to worry about.”

Steve exhaled slowly. “Still seems a bit risky.”

“Cause that’s never stopped you before.”

“Tony - “

“I wouldn’t be telling you to do this if I thought you were in danger or that you couldn’t handle it,” Tony said in a quieter tone.

That caught Steve off-guard. He was quiet for a few moments. “Okay, yeah, I’ve got this covered.”

“Good. Right. So, you do that and keep me updated,” Tony said, speaking quickly once more. “I’ve got a car waiting in the lot for whenever any of you want a ride home.”

“Night, Tony. And thanks again.”

“Don’t mention it.” There was a click, and the call ended.

Steve leaned his head back against the chair and closed his eyes as he pocketed his phone. He glanced over at Bucky. He’d curled up on some of the chairs and seemed to still be sleeping. His right arm hung down to the floor, where his hand rested on Winter’s paw. The dog seemed calm, which reassured Steve about Bucky’s condition, at least for the moment.

Across the room, Natasha sat between Sam and Clint, and had an arm around each of them. She’d settled there after Wanda and Darcy had been allowed back to see Pietro. Both Sam and Clint had their eyes closed, but Steve wasn’t sure that they were sleeping.

Natasha met his gaze and inclined her head towards Bucky. Steve shook his head and ran his fingers through Bucky’s hair. Bucky stirred somewhat, but didn’t wake up.

And that was how things went until somewhere in the early hours of the morning, once it was clear that Pietro’s condition wasn’t likely to change in either direction and the others were already staying, Natasha managed to convince Steve to take Tony’s limo – which was still waiting outside for them – and bring Bucky back to the apartment to sleep. Steve had no desire to argue, given that Bucky’s skin was pale, and despite the fact that he looked completely drained, Bucky also seemed too wired to sleep again. Being in the medical setting wasn’t helping with anything at that point, given how triggered Bucky had already been. There were also enough signs – the squinting in response to the fluorescent light, rubbing his temples – to recognize that he was fighting off a headache.

With enough medication pumped into Bucky’s system, Steve had gotten him to sleep within the hour after they got back. Unfortunately though, there was just enough time between Steve finally getting Bucky to relax enough to fall asleep, then getting ready for bed himself, when Bucky woke up screaming in the throes of one of the worst nightmares Steve had ever witnessed. Steve nearly ended up with a black eye while attempting to calm Bucky down, as Bucky struggled and lashed out. Calming him down from that took another hour – and another Xanax – and somewhere in the nearly dawn hours of the morning Steve finally managed to sleep.

As a result, the worst sound Steve could have heard that morning was the sound of his alarm. Beside him, Bucky groaned and Steve took that as his motivation for moving enough to shut off the alarm and then very seriously contemplated whether he could just tell Tony to fuck himself and go back to sleep. Hell, he didn’t even need to tell Tony first, it’s not as though Tony would know if he stayed in bed all day. Though knowing Tony, he’d probably stop by, just to check up.

And now, for better or worse, he was awake after only a couple of hours of sleep. The moment he slid fully out of bed – after reaching over for his glasses so that he could actually see what he was doing - Bucky made a quiet, miserable sound and shifted restlessly, as though he were looking for where Steve’s warmth had gone. Steve hesitated, contemplating whether it would be in everyone’s best interest if he just stayed in bed for the time being, but Winter hopped up on the bed to claim Steve’s place. The dog had done the same when Bucky woke up fighting and struggling from his nightmare, though it had been a lot more crowded since Steve was still in the bed that time, and Steve was reasonably certain that Winter’s presence was the main thing that had gotten Bucky back to sleep in the end. This time, thankfully, Bucky settled down as Winter curled up against his side. Steve paused long enough to tuck the blankets more securely around Bucky, doing his best not to disturb Winter or distract him from doing his job.

Seeing Bucky settle down so easily was a relief. At least Steve’s early awakening hadn’t disrupted him too much. It was evident that he needed the rest and, thankfully, Steve noticed Bucky always slept better when the sun was up, something he hadn’t had much of a chance to do recently between work and everything going on with Steve’s mom. Hopefully that would mean he’d sleep for a few more hours to make up for the restless or awake hours he’d had over the past evening.

Steve pressed a tentative kiss on Bucky’s forehead and then dragged his feet into the bathroom, splashing some ice cold water on his face in the hopes of waking up properly. For just an instant, he caught his reflection in the mirror and stiffened. His face was far too pale and there were dark circles beneath his eyes, but otherwise, there were no signs of what he’d seen the previous night.

Everything else happened on rote memory, as he brushed his teeth, ran a comb through his hair in the hopes of making it that less messy than it currently was, and then made his way out into the bedroom to track down a pair of jeans and t-shirt. Paying much more attention than that to his attire wasn’t happening; all he cared about at this point was that he had clothes on.

The shop was empty, of course, but the overall silence and stillness felt strange as he made his way down the stairs. While there were plenty of mornings when Steve was the first one there, either because Darcy had a morning class or she arrived late, he was far more accustomed to her music playing and her moving around. Now each footstep echoed on the floor. The silence surrounding the creaks and groans of each step under his weight was far too loud.

He doubted that was all of the reason for his unease – after the events of the previous evening it wasn’t shocking that returning to the scene of the crime, so to speak, would make him feel that way – but it definitely contributed to it. Nothing felt right. Darcy wasn’t at the front desk, nor was Wanda, since they were both with Pietro, and Clint was wherever he’d ended up last night while Bucky remained upstairs in bed.

By far the strangest thing was the fact that as he walked around the shop, scanning the area around the front counter and then wandering back to the offices and stopping to survey the room where they’d brought Pietro the previous evening, nothing looked out of the ordinary. The front jewelry cases were there, locked up as always, and the floor was cleaned to a shine. There were no blood stains and overall, everything was in it’s place, aside from whatever the cleaning crews had moved around, though Steve was hard pressed to identify anything specifically misplaced.

It wasn’t surprising that the front area looked untouched. Once he moved towards the back of the shop, the hallway and the offices, his uneasiness grew. Everything looked far too clean, unnaturally so, and staring at the same spot that had been covered in blood the previous evening caused the hair on the back of Steve’s neck to stand up. He didn’t realize how long he had been staring at the same spot until he glanced at his wrist, as though the watch were still there – which was one of the many things he’d forgotten – but then shifted his gaze to the wall and the clock there.

The clock clued him into the fact that several minutes had gone by with him just standing there. Staring at the floor wasn’t getting him anywhere. The blood was gone, the floor was clean, and this wasn’t helping him at all in terms of functioning. With that, he turned on his heel, determinedly walking back out towards the front with the intention of setting up the store for business hours. He paused long enough in his office to do a quick, cursory check of the surveillance footage from the previous evening, which he found to have been wiped as Tony promised – though knowing Tony he might have kept a back-up somewhere – and then shifted his attention and focus entirely on opening up the shop.

He flipped on the front desk’s computer and turned the sign in the window to open. True to Tony’s word, all of the clients on the schedule for the day had been cancelled and rescheduled for later in the week. Steve pulled out a post-it note and jotted down a reminder to stay in contact with Clint over the next few days. The last thing he needed was to leave clients on the schedule, only for Clint to be unable to make it in. At least with Bucky, that was a situation Steve could monitor throughout the week and reschedule or cancel as needed, which was going to be a fun extra role to juggle since he wasn’t exactly anticipating Darcy returning anytime soon, at least not until Pietro was more stable.

Given the lack of appointments on the schedule for the day, he wasn’t certain how much traffic would be coming in and out of the shop. They always had a handful of walk-ins, either for immediate appointments or to set up a future appointment, but that rarely amounted to large numbers of people off the schedule coming through the door. He hated to think about the impact it would have on the finances for the month, but that wasn’t his primary concern right now. Trying to keep everyone functional was his only concern. If the finances took a hit that would probably mean the end of his hopes and dreams of buying out Stark’s share anytime soon. At this point, that was the least of his worries.

Still, in some ways he supposed it was good to be up and relatively focused – although if there was ever a day he needed a caffeine fix, it was this day. He couldn’t help wondering if his heart could handle the jolt from a cup of coffee. He looked hopefully at the coffee pot; empty for the first time he could remember since Darcy started working there. There wasn’t even the film of old, leftover coffee, which must have meant that Darcy cleaned it before she’d headed out the previous evening.

He contemplated the possibility of making some weak coffee, and balanced that with the image of dying of a heart attack. That probably wouldn’t help anything, seeing as Tony was sure whoever hurt Pietro might show up. While Steve felt reasonably certain that anyone involved in this mess wouldn’t be stupid enough to return to the scene of the crime, Tony thought they might, and if it happened, it would be information. At this point, information was definitely power. Granted, as far as Steve could tell, there was plenty of information he wasn’t privy to yet but anything he could add to the existing knowledge base would be helpful.

How his life had gone from running a small tattoo shop in DC to dealing with the type of shadiness that led to a kid being shot still made no sense to him. A few months ago, his biggest concerns were failing exams and wondering how to cope with his feelings for the new piercist. Since then, those worries had multiplied in ways he’d never expected. He’d thought the worst possible scenarios had already happened, between being jumped outside the shop to the mess with Bucky to the resurgence of his mother’s cancer, but he’d never imagined in his wildest dreams that the next step would be Pietro being shot and almost bleeding out in Shield.

The shop was too quiet, aside from the ticking of the clock on the wall and the faint sounds of pedestrian and automobile traffic from the outside. Although he could hear the sound of tires on the pavement, footsteps on the sidewalk, and indistinct conversations from the people who walked by, Steve felt far removed from everything else. How was he supposed to go back to class as though nothing had ever happened? How was he supposed to keep working, without thinking of Pietro’s blood staining the floor?

He reached for his cell phone, where he customarily kept it in his pocket, and he drew back a moment later, empty handed. Of course, he’d left it upstairs in his half-asleep haze. That was just the way things were going this morning. He could always go back up to the apartment to track it down but the last thing he wanted to do at this point was wake Bucky up when he was resting. Not after everything else.

Not that he had anyone he could call anyways.

He mentally reviewed the contents of his cell phone address book, just in case he was missing something and there would be someone to call, a reason to make a call. Bucky was already upstairs, so there was no need to call him. Clint, Sam, and Natasha already had enough going on. Like hell he would call Wanda, given the state she was in after what happened to her brother. About the only option he could come up with was Tony, who was absolutely the last person Steve wanted to speak to at the moment.

Granted, he probably should offer a more sincere thanks at some point for the fact that Tony was able to direct them to safe place where Pietro could get the medical care he needed and remain safe, as well as the fact that he’d made the shop into much less of a crime scene. On the other hand, he really didn’t want to be any more indebted than he already was to Tony. Thanking him would only strengthen that debt.

That was Steve’s justification for not calling him. At least not yet.

He exhaled slowly. Dwelling on all of this wasn’t getting him anywhere. While the majority of his school supplies were upstairs, a few of his class notebooks and sketchbooks, as well as his work sketchbook with current in-progress designs, were in his office. He could definitely start there and see about getting caught up on work. At least then he’d feel productive.

And, if nothing else, it would give him something to focus on other than the flashes of memory, of the blood stained floor and long hours spent in the waiting room the previous evening.

-~-

Coming back to consciousness felt more akin to swimming out of a deep hole in the ocean floor than waking up. It involved darkness and the sensation that his lungs would explode as he clawed his way towards the light drifting through the murky water above. Memory came back in convoluted bits and pieces – blood on his hands, the smell of antiseptic in the sterile waiting room, the sensation of Steve’s fingers combing through his hair, Pietro’s white rimmed eyes, the feeling of Winter’s rough tongue against the palm of his hand – and the air rushed back into his lungs with a gasp.

It took him a moment to realize that the last one was less of a memory – or maybe also a memory – and more actual fact. While his thoughts remained hazy and clouded, his heart practically hammered out of his chest and his breath came in ragged gasps, though the reason for the intense feelings of doom weren’t completely clear. The rest of his body seemed limp and disconnected and yet for some reason his pulse had skyrocketed. But Winter was there with him, lapping at the fingers of Bucky’s right hand while Bucky’s left hand sunk into his fur; that helped to steady things.

“Good boy,” he murmured, barely connecting with the fact that he’d spoken.

The act of speaking though, that helped too, as did keeping his focus on the sensation of Winter licking his hand, of the sheets beneath his body, and then on his breathing, reminding himself of the techniques he’d learned in therapy and thinking “relax” to himself each time he exhaled. Bit by bit, his heart rate decreased to a manageable level. He felt less panicked at that point, though he still couldn’t quite figure out what had led to him feeling panicked to begin with, aside from the events of the past 24 hours.

Or at least the fragmented pieces he could remember. As far as he could gather, if it weren’t for Steve and Winter, he would have been in considerably worse shape. From what could put together, aside from the ones he didn’t want to think about because those involved blood and torn flesh and the uneven breathing of a person in danger of dying, he remembered Winter lying beside him in the waiting room, of Steve keeping him calm and relaxed enough that he must have slept because there were too many blank places, too, to the point where he’d just woken up in bed with limited recollection of how he even ended up back at the apartment. Then again, his ability to distinguish between time lost dissociating, time lost while blacking out, and time lost due to sleeping wasn’t exactly the greatest.

But now he was awake and being awake meant movement. Bucky took things one step at a time, carefully rolling onto his side – and steadying himself with a few deep breaths when the dizziness hit - and surveying the contents of the nightstand as soon as his eyes agreed to properly focus. There were two cell phones, both his and Steve’s, which made him nervous since Steve wasn’t anywhere in sight and his phone being there meant that Bucky had no way to contact him. Then there were a few bottles of pills and a glass of water. For as anxious and disconnected from his body as he felt, he couldn’t remember the last time he took any of the meds and the last thing he needed was to accidentally overdose.

Steve had pulled the blackout curtains closed so judging the time wasn’t the easiest, although Bucky could see the glowing outline of light around the edges that indicated it was somewhere in the late morning or early afternoon given how late the sun rose and how early it set these days. His body wasn’t giving him many clues either since while his stomach felt hollow, he didn’t feel particularly hungry, though typically speaking when he’d had episodes like this, things like hunger were often one of the first thing to go. It could have been half a day since he last ate or a matter of hours.

Truth be told, he’d never experienced an episode quite like this, so there wasn’t a whole lot of basis for comparison. There had been times when he’d been horrifically triggered before, when he’d gone into a flashback, where he’d dissociated and had no idea where he was or who he was, but the events of the previous evening were something different. It wasn’t only that they’d reminded him of past events he’d experienced but that they’d solidified in his memory as new events, new traumas as he supposed Dr. Jones would classify them. Except that last night felt different, felt worse in some ways, because it wasn’t expected. On deployment, in combat, he expected this kind of shit to occur. People got shot, blown up, died, and that was all part of the job description. Last night had been unpredictable, random, and not in line with anything he would have expected to happen or anything he could have prepared for.

Dwelling on that was more than he could handle for the moment. If he needed to process that more in therapy, he’d do it. Going down that hole was not something he was willing to do on his own, not when he already felt like it wouldn’t take much to fracture himself further. He reached for his phone, more to check the time – 11:11, wasn’t he supposed to make a wish? – but became distracted when he found several messages from Natasha, checking in on him. Responding to them would have taken more energy than he had, so he left them alone for the time being and carefully pushed himself into a sitting position before swinging his legs over the side of the bed.

While his body kept responding automatically, he couldn’t shake the unease stemming from how disconnected he still felt. Getting to his feet took effort, as did slowly dragging himself into the kitchen and to the freezer, but once he shifted around the meals and meat until he could find and remove the frozen object inside, his muscles relaxed – a double bonus, given that he could now actually feel the change in tension in his body and that his body was relaxing were both beneficial. He kept the ice cold orange in his hand, squeezing it until he could feel the chill seeping into his hand and moving up his forearm.

While that hadn’t been a trick he’d needed to pull on in months, he’d kept himself prepped just in case an emergency arose. Dr. Jones recommended it at the beginning of treatment for the times when Bucky felt super disconnected from his body, as though he were a puppet on strings just going through the motions, which most of the time escalated to him dissociating completely and losing hours at a time. While all of his other grounding techniques had been enough recently, drastic times were definitely calling for drastic measures. The intensity of the sensory experiences usually was enough to pull him back and keep him in the present. Just as he’d hoped, it worked this time, leaving him feeling more solidly in his own skin, rather than like a passenger going along for the ride in his body.

From there, making decisions came a bit more easily to him. The fact that Steve didn’t have his phone on him set Bucky on edge; finding him was the first order of business. If he were lucky, Steve would be downstairs in the shop. If he weren’t lucky, Bucky supposed he’d call the others and see if anyone knew where Steve was and just try to keep himself calm until he found him. He had a feeling that second option would be a whole lot more difficult and he wasn’t entirely sure who he could contact if he needed support but he figured he’d cross that bridge if he came to it.

Bucky had a vague memory of Steve mentioning that the shop would be closed – or, at the least, that appointments were cancelled - but he still made an attempt to make himself look presentable, which basically amounted to pulling on a pair of jeans and a hooded sweatshirt, tugging his hair into a messy semblance of a bun, and slipping on sneakers. He couldn’t do much for the pallor of his skin or dark circles beneath his eyes but given that the chances of running into an actual customer were slim, he didn’t allow himself to dwell on that for more than a few moments.

Winter stayed by Bucky’s side as he finished getting himself in order and on the way to the door. Bucky hesitated for a moment before encouraging Winter to head down the stairs with him. Right now he needed anything that would keep him stable and together. Given how close he felt to slipping away entirely, mentally speaking, he didn’t want to be away from his service dog. He definitely wasn’t in any shape to be pulling himself back if he checked out. That required more energy than he had, since as far as he could tell, his battery was running on empty. Winter could help with that, could pull him back, if that became necessary.

The lights were on downstairs, bright enough that he flinched and found himself squinting. He contemplated whether it would be worth it to return to the apartment and grab a pair of sunglasses but determined he didn’t have the energy for that. Better to make it all of the way downstairs to see if he could track down Steve before retreating to the darkened apartment. The migraine he was pretty sure he’d kept at bay since last night was hovering right there, just waiting for him to drop his guard enough for it to come on full force. He felt pretty certain it hadn’t hit yet because he didn’t have the lingering ache or hungover feeling that always seemed to come along with the morning after a migraine.

He’d pay sooner or later. For the time being, he just hoped it would be later.

“Bucky.”

He’d barely entered the lobby when Steve spoke, and he flinched badly enough that he was certain Steve couldn’t have missed it from where he was sitting, perched behind the counter, a pencil in his hand, sketchbook open in front of him. Winter automatically leaned against his leg, tongue flicking out against Bucky’s palm, and that steadied Bucky’s heart rate. Steve didn’t comment and Bucky didn’t offer anything, as he made his way over and leaned against the counter as though it would keep him upright. He kept his gaze focused, his attention limited to the smallest portion of the lobby possible, because he had no doubt if he saw any more of the shop than that, he’d lose whatever limited control he had over himself at this point.

It took him a few moments to find his voice but Steve didn’t press him or seem to have a problem with the fact that the only thing he managed to say was, “Hey there.”

“Hey yourself,” Steve returned. “It’s good to see you up and about. How’re you feeling?”

“The most equivalent statement is ‘like I got hit by a truck,’” Bucky said, attempting a faint chuckle that sounded forced even to his ears. “But I’m up and about, at least for now. We’ll see how long that lasts. What’s going on down here?”

“Not much,” Steve said with a sigh. “I don’t know if you remember from last night but Tony insisted I open up the shop today. He insisted that it would be important, in case someone involved in what happened last night decided to drop in. Personally, I think that idea is nonsense but for some reason I agreed.”

“Any update from the others?”

Nothing in Steve’s expression suggested that he’d received any sort of bad news about Pietro but Bucky couldn’t help but worry. He knew full well how quickly the condition could change even after a person was stabilized with the type of injuries Pietro had suffered. There’d been plenty of guys he’d seen injured, stabilized, med-vacced out, and each time he’d assumed they would survive, only to find out that they had gotten an infection or other complication and died days later.

“My phone’s upstairs, so I haven’t seen or heard anything,” Steve replied.

Bucky’s gaze shifted towards the hallway and back towards the offices without his permission, almost as though it were a compulsion, and his heart rate accelerated once again. The smell of antiseptic – no, just bleach, but it was close enough – burned his nose and he felt his throat constrict to the point of choking. He forced himself to look down at his feet, where Winter stood pressed against his legs, and took in several deep breaths once again as though that would help.

“When was the last time I was medicated?” he managed to ask.

Steve didn’t push any boundaries but Bucky could feel his presence there and that helped, as did the fact that Steve waited on touching him until he had permission.

“About six hours ago, so you shouldn’t be in danger if you want to take something now. You want me to get it?”

“Nah, I can get it and I could also grab your cell phone - ” Bucky said, then stopped when the front door opened and a man stepped inside.

Bucky felt the hair rise on the back of his neck almost immediately. While he didn’t trust his instincts quite as much as he did while he was deployed – especially at the beginning when he’d sensed danger everywhere, it was hard to figure out when there was an actual reason to be on edge – but now, especially with his anxiety at a more manageable level than it had been several months ago, he was reasonably certain that he felt this way because something wasn’t right.

He shifted his attention back down to Winter, looking for any sign that his service dog might be sharing his discomfort. Winter’s ears were pricked and from everything Bucky could see, he was focused on the man who’d just come through the door but his hackles weren’t raised. True, Bucky wasn’t certain that Winter’s training would allow for him to express that type of distrust but dogs were supposed to be able to sense potential threats around them. It didn’t help that Bucky was feeling edgy already. That was reason enough for Winter to be alert and hyper-focused on the man now walking over to the counter.

The man himself didn’t look out of place for entering a tattoo shop. He was dressed casually, in a pair of well-worn jeans with holes in the knees, and a dark peacoat. The neckline of the jacket didn’t quite cover what appeared to be some sort of black Celtic knotwork tattoo and he sported a double eyebrow piercing over his right eye. Still, something about him rubbed Bucky completely the wrong way.

Steve either didn’t feel the same level of discomfort or was hiding it, seeing as he flipped his sketchbook shut and got to his feet. “Welcome to Shield. What can we do for you today?”

“Hey,” the guy said, his tone friendly. “I was just stopping in to see who was around. I’ve heard a lot about this place and was thinking of getting some work done.”

“Sure. What’re you looking to have done?”

“I was looking to add some more ink, maybe a new piercing. I’d heard something about one of the tattoo artists here… I think his name was Clint?”

Bucky caught it, just the slightest oddity with his phrasing of the question, almost as though the question were staged.

Steve, who didn’t seem to find anything odd, nodded. “You’d heard right. He’s one of our tattoo artists. Were you looking to schedule with him?”

“Yeah, I was wanting to get a piece done on my back. It’s a pretty big one, so I’m guessing I’ll need an appointment just to discuss my idea for the design. What days is he usually in?”

The urge to say something, to tell the guy to fuck off, to warn Steve from answering that question, was all but overwhelming. Bucky wasn’t certain why he was holding himself back. There was still that part of him that didn’t quite trust himself and his instincts. After all, Steve wasn’t seeing anything wrong. What if Bucky were just on edge because of the events of the previous evening? It wouldn’t be surprising if he were. What if this was all paranoia and expressing it scared off a potential customer?

Instead of saying anything directly, while Steve rattled off the days and hours Clint usually worked, while providing an overview of the reasons for their scattered schedules, Bucky slid up his sleeves and carefully rested his arms on the counter. It wasn’t anything overt, just a reminder, an indication of what this guy would be dealing with if he was fucking with them. He caught the guy’s gaze shift to the light reflecting off his metal arm and there was the slightest hint of unease in his eyes. Half of Bucky felt that was a guilty verdict right there, the other half recognized that he had just threatened a man, indirectly of course, and that fear or even just mere discomfort at the sight of his arm was an understandable reaction.

Winter pressed himself against Bucky’s leg and Bucky took that as a sign to keep his mouth shut as the guy – apparently not too shaken up by Bucky’s actions to shoot the shit with Steve – finally settled on an appointment the following week. He identified himself as Cyril, which meant nothing in and of itself to Bucky, and thanked Steve for his help. Bucky was just starting to accept that this might have been one of the many cases where he was overly paranoid for no good reason when Cyril was heading out to leave and asked one final question.

“Why is the shop so empty today? You mentioned that usually Clint’s in at this time and I’m a little surprised not to see any customers around since it seems like you all are pretty popular and it’s hard to get an appointment in here.”

Steve tensed but he kept his voice remarkably calm. “I’m a pretty chill boss and I love to take care of my employees. He’d probably hate me for telling you this but Clint’s got a big test tomorrow in math and while he’s a damn good artist, he sucks at that class. He asked if he could take the day off and I gave it to him. Plus it’s one of those times in the semester or year when a lot of people seem to be calling out, either because of upcoming midterms or the seasonal flu, so I’m guessing that’s what led to a couple of our appointments cancelling. It’s not all of ‘em though. If you hung around long enough, you’d see us running around. You just came at a quiet time today.”

Cyril nodded. “I figured it was something like that. I’m guessing it’s hard to balance school and work and life all at the same time, huh?”

Bucky found his voice enough to inquire, “So you’re not a student at G.W. or AU or anything like that?”

With a laugh, Cyril said, “No, not me. I was never into the whole academic type of thing. I’m actually not even from around here. Just down for a few weeks visiting my brother.”

While he couldn’t quite figure out why, something about that information felt important to Bucky. He filed it away for future knowledge, hoping that he would be able to remember it later on. If nothing else, he had no doubt that Steve would. Maybe together they could figure out why that information felt like something to follow up on.

Not now though. Bucky wasn’t in any shape to attempt an interrogation and there was a part of him that remained afraid he was wrong about Cyril. This could be just a normal guy, looking to get a tattoo, with no ulterior motives. The last thing Bucky needed was a second assault charge after the events with Rumlow and while he had no intention of going after this guy – just as he’d had nothing pre-planned those months back when he snapped – he still felt too off and detached and frankly unstable to trust himself not to do something he’d later regret if he didn’t keep himself contained and silent and wait.

Cyril had made an appointment. Now all Bucky could hope was that for better or worse, he would follow up on it. Hopefully by then, Bucky would have had the chance to talk to Steve and maybe Clint and the others and see if they could put the pieces together into a puzzle that actually made some sense. Right now it was too hard to think clearly and Bucky was reasonably certain there was information that the others had that would help everything to make more sense.

“Where are you visiting from?” Steve asked curiously.

“Boston,” came the response, at which point Cyril slipped his hand into his pocket, pulled out his phone, and glanced at the screen. “There’s my brother now, actually. I didn’t realize I’d been in here for so long. I’ll see you guys next week.”

Bucky said nothing as Cyril walked towards the door, although he was doing his best to repeat to himself that he hadn’t heard the phone vibrate or make any sort of sound indicating that a message had come through. Maybe if he repeated these pieces of information enough times, he’d be able to remember it for later. That possibility seemed a bit unlikely, given that he was struggling to focus on the present moment, let alone form new memories, but it was the only thing he could hold onto.

Once the door closed behind Cyril, there was a beat of silence before Steve grimly said, “I’d thought Tony was being paranoid but I’m starting to think he was right. I’m glad we got all of that on candid camera.”

-~-

Coffee always fixed everything, except when you had managed to piss of probably multiple branches of the mob and watched a kid nearly die in your arms the previous evening. Combine those events with hours spent nursing your own injuries in a hospital waiting room and then having your morning spent alternating between drugged sleep and calming down your boyfriend who’s having trauma-induced nightmares and it was no wonder that coffee wasn’t making a dent in Clint doing anything beyond staring blankly into the dark liquid still filling half of his cup.

He took a sip, grimacing at the lack of sugar or creamer, something he apparently hadn’t noticed until this exact moment despite the fact that he’d drained a significant portion of the cup in a matter of gulps. A glance at the fridge reminded him that finding the creamer meant moving and that meant energy and that was something he was lacking until he properly caffeinated himself; definitely a catch-22 that he couldn’t quite figure out yet. What did a person do when they needed coffee for energy to get the creamer but the coffee was disgusting without the creamer?

Despite the fact that moving continued to be an effort, staying inside was slowly and steadily making him stir crazy already. That was a pretty amazing feat, given that he’d barely been awake for half an hour, if that, and already all he wanted to do was something. Something that made him feel like he was doing more than just sitting on his ass. Something that made him feel as though maybe, just maybe he could help the twins. The specifics hadn’t been figured out yet but it was clear that doing nothing wasn’t an option.

Except that he didn’t have another option. Natasha and Sam weren’t about to let him out of their sight, he knew that much, and already there weren’t all that many places he could go. After his spectacular failure the previous evening – at least in terms of the mission he promised to accomplish, given that his personal mission could have gone much, much worse – there was no doubt in his mind that he’d need to be watching his back every step of the way, which was going to make coming into work or going to class an interesting experience, though not a drastically different experience than the one he’d had since an attempt was made on his life last semester.

Not to mention that he was currently dwelling on Wanda’s question to him the previous evening. While he hadn’t given her an answer, nor had Sam, back then, he knew he would need to consider the question once her brother was healed enough that she was willing to leave his side for any length of time. Part of him hoped she would reconsider what she’d asked, another part of him prayed for the exact opposite. While he didn’t want Wanda running off to take revenge on the people who hurt her brother – which made him a hypocrite because he would do that himself in a heartbeat if the opportunity presented itself – he also wondered if teaching both of the twins how to use a gun would be not only necessary but maybe even a good thing. How might things have been different the previous night if Pietro had been able to defend himself? Would that have helped him to escape unharmed or would he have been shot to kill, despite the cost of that action?

Those questions were more than his mind could handle with a continued distinct lack of proper caffeination, so he shifted tracks.

Clint contemplated the choices currently available to him. He could attempt to try out some of his contacts, but that would likely be disastrous. He could also update Coulson on everything that had happened, which was exactly what he should do because Coulson needed that information. That would be the first step, though Clint had no idea what the outcome of that action might be. It wasn’t as if Coulson could get directly involved, at least Clint doubted he could, but maybe there were things he was missing. Clint wasn’t an actual detective but Coulson was and he had knowledge of the ins and outs of the legal system and what to do when a potential mob war was brewing.

An idea, a ridiculous, probably reckless, and not very well thought out idea kept crossing his mind. Nothing fully formed, which worried him the most, given that it wasn’t as though things had gone positively when he’d made choices like this in the past. But there was one number in his phone, one person he could contact, and he’d either find more help than he ever expected, or he’d find himself utterly and completely betrayed by this person. Again. With no way of knowing until he actually took that step and saw what happened.

But none of that was going to happen until he had his first cup of coffee. And second. And maybe also a third. Or until he drank an entire pot of coffee, whichever one of those options came first. Until his thoughts cleared enough for him to make sure he was actually stopping and thinking and weighing the pros and cons instead of jumping straight into things recklessly because he was still too fucked up from the previous evening.

From upstairs, there were the sounds of footsteps, following by water rushing through the pipes as the shower was turned on. Now that, that made things the slightest bit more difficult because that meant that if Natasha and Sam were otherwise occupied, he could have the time to make these decisions on his own without them noticing. That of course became a bit more problematic when he remembered that his cell phone was in his pants pocket and those pants were on the floor in the bedroom. At least that was where he thought they were, although things from last night were still pretty confused in his mind and the exact details weren’t coming readily.

His inner debate as to how to proceed stilled as he caught the sound of someone heading down the stairs. A moment later Sam came into view and immediately Clint’s thoughts were far from whether or not he should make that certain call and find out what the outcome would be. Because Sam’s jaw was tight, his entire face lined with worry, and if Clint didn’t know better, he might just think with the unevenness to Sam’s breath that he was verging on a panic attack instead of just out of breath from running down the stairs.

On second thought, the former seemed more likely.

“Hey, Sam, what’s up?” Clint asked cautiously. Then, when Sam didn’t seem capable of forming words quite yet, offered up the helpful feedback, “Just, uh, just take in some nice, calm, deep breaths.”

Trying to explain to the person who provided therapy to others as a current profession and still took classes to further his education and training in the field what he should do to calm himself down felt ridiculous but Sam seemed to need a reminder of how to handle anxiety. Clint tried to remember the times he’d heard Natasha calm Bucky down in the past, the types of things she’d say, and wished he could have finished at least one cup of coffee first because remembering things and focusing enough to act on those memories was more than he could handle.

“You know how to breathe,” he started, quite helpfully. “Just breath in, nice and deep, and then exhale – uh, exhale through your mouth, and do it for, like, the count of ten or something like that? Just slowly.”

Despite the fact that he felt as though he were making no sense and being the most unhelpful boyfriend ever, Sam followed his instructions, which was encouraging enough for Clint to try it a few more times until Sam’s breathing evened out and he no longer appeared to be in danger of asphyxiating or something like that.

“Sorry,” Sam said.

His voice shook and that threw Clint off. While he’d seen the state Sam had been in the previous night, there had been a part of him that expected to see the normal, calm, collected Sam that he was used to this morning – or afternoon, as the case were. Logically, that didn’t entirely make sense because they’d all seen some shit the previous night and no one was okay but Clint had figured that after sleep and everything else, Sam would pull himself together, if not in actuality, than enough to appear that way even if he weren’t feeling that way internally.

“It’s okay,” Clint said, wishing he sounded less uncertain than he felt. “What’s going on?”

“Everything?” Sam shrugged one shoulder helplessly. “I woke up and realized that I didn’t show up at work this morning. Didn’t even realize it until I reached for my phone and saw it was dead. I’ve got a class tonight, I have no idea how I’m going to attend that, and honestly I’m not even sure when or how I’m going to go back to work anytime soon. How can I be there, helping people process their own shit when I can’t handle mine? I don’t trust right now that I won’t get triggered the second they start talking about the things they’ve seen and events they’ve been through.”

Clint had no idea how to begin to navigate this situation. It wasn’t so much about how to handle trauma and shit happening and all of that. He’d been through that enough himself over the years and dealt with it in a variety of unhelpful and unhealthy ways. It was more on the side of being an actual adult, like Sam was, and how that changed things. In his world, the worst thing that could happen was taking an incomplete for the semester, going out on medical leave, which was bad and not good but something he could navigate without feeling his life completely crumble. In Sam’s case, he was talking about clients he worked with, who relied on him. While Sam might have been able to consider a medical leave of absence from his graduate program, based one everything Clint had heard over the past couple of months that wouldn’t just mean delaying things by a semester but potentially by a full year, given how frequently certain classes were offered.

“Alright, you’re jumping pretty far ahead,” Clint said slowly. “For starters, this is only the first day after all of this shit happened. You don’t know how you’re going to be feeling once you’ve had some time to recover from all of this. Everything is raw and fresh and we’re all fucked up. I’m not saying that it’ll magically disappear or whatever but the way you’re feeling now probably won’t be how you’re feeling by the end of the week. We’ve only got another day or two before the weekend, right? Couldn’t you tell work and school that you had a family emergency? Hell, if you need the documentation to prove it or whatever, I’m sure Stark could get that shit for you.”

Sam opened his mouth but before he could respond, Clint interjected again. “Look, I know you’re gearing up to tell me why each and every one of those options doesn’t make sense or doesn’t work for you but please just think about it for a couple of minutes. I get it. You have responsibilities. Where you are in life is pretty fucking different from where I am and I know I don’t understand what it’s like for you. You also probably feel like this is a major step back for you. But it’s not and your first responsibility is to yourself. I hate to say it, man, and I know you’ve heard it before, but you’re not going to be good to anyone else if you haven’t taken care of yourself first.”

Sam’s jaw tightened all the more. “Clint, you don’t understand.” At which point he paused, took a deep breath similar to the ones Clint had just been coaching him through, and very, very reluctantly said, “Or maybe you do. I don’t know. You’re right. I’m not in any shape to be trying to figure all of this out right now. I’ve already missed work, I can’t change that. All I can do is contact my supervisor, apologize profusely, and try to explain what happened without specifying exactly what happened because I can’t disclose anything regarding Pietro’s identity. As much as I wouldn’t want to ask Stark for anything, I guess you’re right and that’s an option I can always take if I need to.”

Clint relaxed the slightly. At least he knew what to do from here. Sam wasn’t fighting him on this, which was more than he could ask for. That still meant that the things he had to worry about for the time being were increasing, since he’d need to keep an eye on Sam and make sure he was finding ways to cope with that, while also making sure he was coping, while also ensuring that the twins were safe and Pietro was healing and in the midst of that he’d need to evade the mob.

His earlier thoughts regarding making that call were back in full force but he shoved them aside and offered Sam a tired grin.

“So, how about we get your phone charged, those calls made, any necessary emails sent, and then, assuming we don’t need to run out anywhere, we flop on the couch, throw on a movie, and continue with that resting we tried to start when we got back this morning. We’ll revisit all of this stuff tomorrow.”

Hopefully the calls he would need to make could wait that long, though if he were to take the same advice he was giving to Sam, he probably shouldn’t be making any decisions right now either. Especially not when this decision was remarkably similar to previous ones he’d made in the past that had ended disastrously.

Although that was just the story of his life.

-~-

Darcy Lewis wasn’t an angry person or someone who wished violence on others. She had a taser that she’d never had reason to use but still carried because she was smart enough to recognize that wandering around DC alone wasn’t always safe and wanted to be prepared in case something happened. She might have also accidentally pepper sprayed one of her friends on one occasion when that friend tried to scare her around Halloween one year, which she considered to be his own fault for jumping out at her from the dark wearing a mask.

She thought about potential threats enough to be mindful of the things she did and places she went, to consider whether walking in certain areas at certain times of the day was a good life decision, but she didn’t let that fear run her life. She remained conscientious and alert, which was just an appropriate thing to do when you lived in a city, and yet in a lot of ways, she’d never seen how bad things could get. Sure, Darcy watched the news. Over the past couple of months there had been enough fucked up shit going on with her friends for her to get a taste of that, what with Clint getting shot in the arm at the library and the level of threat with the twins, but in the end she’d never seen exactly what could happen.

She’d never seen someone she cared about almost die.

Throughout the night, Darcy had stayed right beside the bed in the surprisingly comfortable hospital chairs. From the few times she’d accompanied friends to the hospital for a variety of reasons ranging from tech accidents in the theater to alcohol poisoning, the one thing she’d never been able to forget was how the chairs required her to contort herself into awkward positions for the slightest bit of comfort. These chairs were padded, and not with the cheap plastic bullshit at most other hospitals, and large enough that it wasn’t hard to make herself comfortable.

She’d offered to take sleeping shifts with Wanda, so that one of them was always awake in case Pietro woke up. Wanda refused, stating she wasn’t tired, and sometime in the early morning hours, Darcy tugged two chairs together and curled up to catch snatches of sleep here and there. One of the nurses stopped by to offer her a pillow and blanket and while both of those were closer to what she expected from hospitals, in terms of the pillow being covered in something more plastic than fabric and the blanket being stiff and scratchy, it was better than nothing. She wasn’t quite certain whether or not she’d actually fallen asleep at any point during that time because she definitely didn’t feel rested but she was pretty certain she hadn’t been fully awake because when Wanda told her that Pietro had woken up once again, she didn’t remember hearing him talk to his sister.

Since she returned to full alertness, she’d resumed her previous position at Pietro’s side. The nurses – sometimes with familiar faces, sometimes new ones, with no name tags although the white board in the room had been updated with a list of the names of the rotating medical staff - had come in and out several times, to check his vitals, examine the bandages, and a few times take some blood out of hands and arms that were already coated in bruises from previous needle pricks, that latter of which made no immediate sense to Darcy but she figured it might have had something to do with the potential risk for infection that had been mentioned. It frightened her to see Pietro not respond at all to the needle pricking his arm or hand, although everyone continued to remind her and Wanda that there were reasons Pietro continued to sleep, including the injuries and his current level of medication.

Darcy didn’t understand why hospitals were always so white, with patterned tiles on the floor, and this one was no exception. Weren’t there more soothing colors? Pastels, for instance, that might relax people rather than making them feel like they were in a hospital? Sure, nothing would change the fact that they were actually in a hospital, but at least the atmosphere could be a little more comfortable. There weren’t any pictures either, paintings or photographs, that again might make things feel less like one was in a hospital. Nothing would take away the pervasive smell of antiseptic and bleach but at least some homey decorations would make a difference for the patients. Who wanted to wake up in a white, sterile room when they could wake up in a sterile place that felt like home?

To keep herself entertained, she’d tugged out her cell phone – relieved that she’d tucked the charger in her bag before heading out to meet Pietro the previous day because entertaining herself between work and classes had nearly drained the battery – and alternated between sending off emails to her professors, explaining that a family tragedy was responsible for her absence, and playing Angry Birds because it gave her something else to focus on while Pietro remained asleep, while Wanda continued to barely provide syllables in response to any questions Darcy asked of her. Darcy didn’t want to press but after a night of not sleeping and the tension of sitting in a hospital room, she needed something to keep her mind off of everything else.

She’d nearly beaten the level when the door – heavy and industrial - swung open and the creak itself or maybe the fact that Wanda flinched hard enough to nearly throw herself off of the chair startled her, leading to her fingers slipping; not that she cared when she saw who had arrived. She activated the lock screen, placing her phone back on the nightstand – if that was what it was called when you were in the hospital, speaking of the need for homey decorations – and turned her full attention to the familiar figure holding a balloon and a ridiculously large stuffed animal.

Darcy couldn’t keep herself from asking, “Really?” as he put the stuff down on the nightstand beside her phone.

“Don’t look at me,” Tony quickly said. “All of this is from Pepper.”

“You told Pepper what happened?” Wanda asked, a chill entering her voice.

“Not the specific details, obviously,” Tony said, unperturbed as usual. “Just that he wasn’t feeling all that great and I was coming to check in on him, like the philanthropist I am. How is he doing, by the way?”

“Why do you ask questions you already have answers to?” Wanda responded, crossing her arms over her chest.

Darcy wasn’t quite expecting that reaction. Although she hadn’t seen Tony interact with the twins all that often, Wanda never seemed outright suspicious of him when he came to Shield. She’d obviously trusted him enough the previous night to accept him as a person who could get her brother proper medical care without placing him in danger. On the other hand, after the events of the previous evening, Darcy had to admit that she didn’t particularly feel like trusting anyone right now and she had much more reason to let her guard down than either of the twins did.

“Touché,” Tony said calmly. “You’re right, I did already chat with the current doctor and nurses on shift. I was figuring though that you might know some details that they didn’t since they aren’t in here every minute of every day.”

Wanda stared him down, long enough that Darcy wasn’t certain she was going to say anything and was starting to contemplate whether she should jump in with some information of her own. Before she could, Wanda sighed and responded to the question.

“They say he’s doing well, given everything, but you know that already. He’s been sleeping on and off but he can talk and he knows who we are, and for the moment I care more about that than the fact that he seems to have a hard time remembering where he is or what happened to him.”

“So, you still don’t know what happened?” Tony asked, and this time there was nothing casual in his tone, no sign that this was perhaps the question he’d really been asking the first time.

“No specific details, no,” Wanda said. “But when he does, if I think they’re important enough to share with you, then I will.”

Tony raised an eyebrow but Darcy knew enough about him to catch that he was impressed to a degree, if also maybe a bit irritated.

“I wasn’t aware I’d done anything to make you not trust me,” he said

“Let’s just say that I’m still split in the middle about you,” Wanda replied. “I remember how you were when we used to see you at galas and other functions and I don’t recall liking you much back then. Still, you’ve done a lot for me and my brother over the past several months and that does count for something.”

“Fair enough, I suppose. Then I guess now is a good time to let you know that I do have some ideas about where the two of you can go from here if you don’t want to end up locked up in that townhouse again.”

Wanda bristled. “We’re not running away. Not again. We’re staying here. We’re standing our ground. We’re not letting him chase us out of here.”

“Do you think your brother would agree with that?” Tony asked. “After all, he was the one who got shot.”

“Maybe you should ask me yourself,” a weak, strained voice chimed in.

Darcy immediately turned her attention to the bed, where she found Pietro’s eyes cracked open. Wanda immediately reached for his hand and his gaze shifted away from Darcy to her. There came the usual spark of jealousy that Darcy found herself able to curb a bit more quickly than usual. These circumstances certainly helped with that automatic tendency.

“Alright then, I’ll ask you myself,” Tony agreed.

Before Pietro had a moment to respond, Wanda quickly interjected, “Now is not the time, Tony. My brother will need to stay here regardless. Once we have the option of leaving, we can decide where we will go from there.”

Darcy didn’t voice all of the thoughts that came to her mind immediately. If they did decided to leave, where would they go? Would she be able to come along? Would she want to come along, on the run, with two fugitives? She’d only known Pietro for a matter of months. Was he worth leaving everything behind for?

Pietro said something then, something Darcy couldn’t quite grasp because he seemed to struggle to force each word out and it was barely above a raspy whimper. Then he swallowed hard – and Darcy wished she could give him a sip of water given that his throat was still raw from the intubation for the surgery but the doctors weren’t allowing that quite yet – and repeated more strongly, “I’m not running.”

“Now isn’t the time to be making that kind of a decision,” Tony said. “Your sister’s right about that. Once you’re healed, we’ll talk about where to go and what to do from there.”

“See, this is why I don’t trust you,” Wanda snapped. “The second things aren’t going your way, you change your tactics and act as though that’s how you’ve always viewed things. My brother and I don’t need you. We made it on our own for years. We can make it on our own again.”

Tony’s expression darkened in response to that but his voice was calm and even as he said, “Like I said, now’s not the time for us to be talking about this. I came here to check on you both, see how you were doing, and let you know that I was here if you needed anything. And now I’ve done that. So I’m gone.”

Wanda crossed her arms over her chest and simply watched as Tony headed for the door. Pietro’s focus remained on his sister and Darcy could gauge that he was taking his cues from her for the time being, since he didn’t say anything either. All of that left Darcy in a tricky position. It wasn’t as though she and Tony were particularly close. Aside from work related nonsense and the occasional party where the two of them ran into each other, she and Tony had limited contact on a daily basis.

Still, he was the reason Pietro was still breathing and if there was the possibility that he could protect the twins from something else happening in the future, Darcy wanted to take it. If the twins weren’t willing to accept offers for future help, she needed to do what she could to bridge that gap. While she wasn’t about to pressure either one of them to make a choice they didn’t want to make, she also didn’t want to foreclose on any potential options.

She gently rested her hand on Pietro’s shoulder and murmured, “I’ll be right back.”

The fact that his eyes barely shifted from his sister to her hurt, but Darcy refused to dwell on it. Once Pietro had healed and this entire mess was less catastrophic, the two of them could work on their relationship as needed. For now, her focus was on what she could do to help them and that meant chasing Tony down before he left the building.

“Tony, wait,” she called, as she stepped into the hallway.

Tony was only a few paces ahead, his phone pressed to his ear, and as she approached him, he raised a hand to indicate he needed silence for the moment.

“He did, huh? Good to know. I’ll download the footage, see what I can find out about him, and I’ll either stop by or give you a call later. Yeah. Yeah, I know. Just stay safe, Rogers.” He hung up, slipping his phone back into his pocket, and then turned his full attention to Darcy. “What’s up? Here to advocate for your boytoy?”

“I’m here to remind you that neither one of them knows what they’re saying right now,” she said, straightening her shoulders. “Don’t give up on them, okay? If you’d seen what happened last night, you’d get it. It was awful and terrifying and I’ve never seen anything like that and I hope I never see anything like that again. You haven’t even given them 24 hours before you’re asking them to make a choice. All I’m asking is that you give them a bit more time before you decide that they’re not worth your time and energy anymore.”

“You’re jumping to a lot of conclusions about me,” Tony said, raising an eyebrow. “I haven’t given up on anyone, Darcy. Trust me when I say that you’ll know when I’ve given up and it doesn’t happen easily.” His gaze flickered towards the room where they’d left Pietro. “Stay with him, keep me updated, and let me know when would be a good time for me to come back and chat with them. Only one of my plans for them involves them leaving the city. When they’re in a better place to consider all of the possibilities, we can chat about the other options. You all know how to contact me.”

Tony offered her a half-grin that looked more pained and bitter than anything else and then turned on his heel and headed down the hallway. Darcy pressed her back against the wall. The thought of going back into the room felt exhausting – and that made her feel guilty since she should be staying with Pietro after everything that had happened, after everything that could still happen – and a part of her didn’t care because she was certain that Pietro wouldn’t even notice that she was gone. On the other hand, she’d never forgive herself if Pietro’s condition worsened and she wasn’t there.

Instead of going back, she sifted through her phone, looking at the text messages, some of which she hadn’t responded to because she’d gotten to them during the mess that had been the previous evening. Jane, in particular, had sent a couple since Darcy had mentioned stopping by the previous night and obviously hadn’t in the midst of everything else. She considered responding now, then recognized she had nothing to say, and abandoned the plan for the time being.

Darcy had no idea how to keep these two parts of her life separate but also together. She’d thought that she’d built a bridge over the gap, with spending more time out and about with the twins, letting them meet her other friends. She’d assumed that things would continue that way. Now there was this part of her life where there was danger and blood and the potential for death and she had no idea how she was going to go back to class, listen to lectures, and pretend that everything else was normal. How could she sit there and listen to her professors talk or sit in front of her computer writing essays when her boyfriend had just had a bullet rip through his stomach and she’d sat there and watched two of her friends try desperately to save his life?

None of those were questions she had answers for at this point. She took a deep breath, exhaled raggedly, and then took another and another until she felt her breathing evening out to a proper degree. The twins were struggling enough already; someone had to be able to remain calm in the midst of all of this.

When she reached the room, Darcy peaked through the crack in the door where she’d left it ajar after heading out. Pietro’s eyes were still open, officially making this the longest length of time he’d been awake that she’d seen – or heard of – this far. Wanda remained by his side, one hand holding securely onto his, while the other smoothed her brother’s hair back. Her lips were moving, as were his, but their voices were so low that it was impossible to hear what they were saying.

For the time being, the fact that Pietro was alive was enough for her. That was the only thing that mattered. She would deal with everything else later, review the responses to the emails she’d sent, and find something to tell her best friend. As messed up as things were right now, Darcy wasn’t going anywhere.

Chapter Text

Clint hated lying to the people he cared about but what he hated the most was how easy it was for him. His entire life there had been things he’d had to hide, whether it was trying to cover up the shit happening at home so that his teachers wouldn’t know, whether it was pretending that he was old enough to be on the street or in a bar, or whether it was the months of playing the role of a normal college student when he was doing all sorts of shady stuff on the side.

Even now, when he tried to be more honest with the people who already knew details about his life, he slipped. He’d done that with the details on his conversation with Barney way back before the holidays, he did it with the details of the night Pietro had gotten shot, and now he was doing it again because that was just the kind of thing that he did. When he couldn’t determine whether he was taking the right course of action or when he didn’t want anyone else to get sucked into his mess, he kept his mouth shut and justified his actions to himself. Problem was that it always seemed to bite him in the ass sooner or later.

The fact that he’d had to wait a few days for this to happen had been hard enough. It had given him way too much time to think and weigh the potential benefits and consequences. But there hadn’t been another choice. Between trying to explain his absences to his professors, visiting Pietro to make sure he was still breathing and to see how he was healing, and taking care of Sam and Natasha – mostly Sam, if the truth were to be told - there hadn’t been time for anything else. Sam had managed to resume classes after about 24 hours and requested off from work for the rest of the week. Natasha also worked with him to help him find a local psychologist – not hard to find in DC - and have an urgent appointment before the week’s end.

Which was where the two of them were right now. Clint felt guilty about not being there to support Sam, but Sam had Natasha and she was pretty accustomed to acting as the emotional support for anyone going through therapy after her months of helping Bucky. Clint had used the excuse of having classes – which he did; he’d just skipped them like he had all week – in order to sneak away. Classes and work hadn’t really been in the cards. While he’d felt bad for calling out on Shield several days in a row, he’d justified it with the excuse of not having full range of motion in his shoulder and not wanting to cause any problems.

The ongoing deception with Natasha and Sam made him all the more guilty but he wasn’t ready to share this with them, not yet. He’d been lucky that they hadn’t yet asked him any follow-up questions regarding what had happened that night with Pietro. There was plenty he’d left out and he was back to deciding that the less Natasha and Sam knew, the better. Everyone was already too far in already and Clint wasn’t willing to let one more person get hurt on his watch.

Still, he hesitated before knocking on the door. The recent trading of text messages had been one thing; this was something else. This could mess up everything or fix everything and the only thing that made Clint think it might go in the direction of the latter option was out of a probably misplaced sense of trust. That exact same trust had gotten him into trouble multiple times before because that was what he did. He trusted people he shouldn’t trust and was then shocked when they stabbed him in the back.

More appropriately, he trusted the same person he shouldn’t trust multiple times and never seemed to learn his lesson and wondered why there was a knife jammed into his spine yet again. But that’s what you did when it was family, wasn’t it?

Before he could talk himself out of it, he knocked on the door. A few moments later there were the sound of footsteps moving closer. For half a second, he contemplated running, knowing that this was his last chance to get the hell out of there before going through with this, but his feet remained solidly in place. He’d already made the decision, now it was just a matter of going through with it. Besides, before he could run, the door cracked open and his brother’s tousled red hair came into view.

“Hey, uh, it’s me,” Clint said – obviously it was him, who else would it be? - running a hand nervously through his hair.

“Yeah, I figured as much,” Barney said, opening the door fully and stepping back. “Last I checked, you didn’t have an identical twin. Come on in.”

Clint stepped inside and leaned against the wall closest to the door, looking awkwardly around at his brother’s meager belongings, some still in the open suitcase on the floor, others spread about on the bed and furniture. Everything looked unnervingly familiar, bringing to mind thoughts of their room while they were growing up, where neither one of them was ever particularly good at keeping things neat and orderly. The room was even reminiscent of their childhood home, with the dents in the furniture, worn bedding covering a lumpy mattress, and the dresser with the crack in the fake wood paneling. Granted, the main difference was that he didn’t know what had made all of those dents and cracks in here. These didn’t hold the same history the ones in their childhood room.

“So, what’s up?” Barney said, when Clint failed to form words for longer than appropriate. “You said some stuff has been going on?”

“Yeah. Lots of stuff has been going on. I’m not even entirely sure where to start. I guess it would make the most sense to start where things come in for me. Still though, it’s a long story. I mean, I’m involved in some shady stuff but it’s different this time. It’s for better reasons than the usual ones.”

“I feel like I’ve heard that before, Clint,” Barney said mildly.

Barney took a seat on the edge of the bed and picked up a beer from the nightstand, despite the fact that it was barely afternoon. Granted, when Barney nodded towards the small room fridge in a clear offer for Clint to take a drink of his own, he didn’t argue and just grabbed one of the cans. It might have barely been noon but he wasn’t about to get all preachy about drinking too early on a weekday The type of conversation the two were having probably required some alcohol to manage.

“And you’ve heard me say that it’s different before but this time it really is.” Clint took a sip of beer. “I know, I know, that’s not the first time I’ve said that. But it’s true. I’ve gone straight and narrow. I’m even working with a cop.”

“Yeah, that sounds good,” Barney said, with an edge of sarcasm. “Because cops have never done anything fucked up before and they’ve always helped us out when we needed it. It especially doesn’t sound fucked up that you’re telling me you’re in over your head again.”

“I’m always in over my head,” Clint murmured. “You should know that about me by now. I legit don’t think that my handler expected things to get quite this bad for me. I was just supposed to be paying attention to the drug trade but then there was some mob related bullshit and one thing led to another and then another and it’s gotten worse lately.”

He debated whether or not to say anything further. As much as he wanted to trust Barney, there was something inside of him that made him wary to openly discuss things about the twins. He could start with his own shit, then move into that once he had some assurance that his brother wasn’t about to double-cross him again. At least if he only focused on himself, if his brother fucked him over, he was the only one who’d get hurt.

Clint could live with that.

“I don’t know if you already have your ear to the ground here,” he started, then paused as he tried to figure out how to say this. “But right now there’s a lot of activity in the streets. I’m guessing you’ve heard some shit already, although I’m not gonna say too, too much if you haven’t. Let’s just say that anything you’ve heard about, I’ve probably been in the middle of a lot of it.”

“How about we just cut to the chase here,” Barney said. “What’re you asking for from me?”

“You’re going to be in town for awhile, right?” Clint waited until his brother nodded to continue. “Alright then. You’ve always had a knack of getting info and that’s all I’m asking from you. Just give me a heads up about what’s going on. If you can warn before something goes down, great, because I’ve got some friends who are in trouble right now and I don’t want anything to happen to them.”

“Just so I’m clear on this, you’re asking for me to find out information that might concern some friends and also might be about you. Then you’re asking me to warn you before something happens if I possibly can?” Barney confirmed.

“That’s about the long and the short of it,” Clint agreed. “At least for now. Look… these friends… I feel for ‘em. They’re in a similar situation to the one we were in growing up except in their case, the stakes are a hell of a lot higher.”

Barney nodded slowly and took a long gulp of beer. “And you trust me to do that?”

Clint considered how best to respond to the question. On the one hand, he trusted that his brother would come through with some information since he wasn’t asking for that much. Then again, the fact that he wasn’t sharing everything with his brother clearly indicated that he didn’t trust him entirely.

“I do,” he settled on after a moment. After all, Barney wasn’t asking him about the stuff he wasn’t asking him about but the stuff he was, and he obviously trusted Barney enough to share those details with him. “It’s just information I’m asking for. I’m not asking you to put your neck on the line, just give me whatever you hear. You can call or text me when you have something and I’ll come right on over. Alright?”

Barney nodded once more. “Alright. I can do that. Anything else?”

“Nothing else.” Clint finished his beer in one long gulp. “Just stay in touch and, uh, let me know if you need anything.”

Clint offered his brother a half-smile and headed for the door. He was grateful that the trip to see him hadn’t taken as long as he’d feared it might. Now at least he wouldn’t have to worry about explaining his longer absence to Sam and Natasha. By the time he got back, it would make sense that he’d just returned from class. They wouldn’t have any reason to question why he was out.

Now it was just a matter of hoping that he’d made the right choice.

-~-

“Hey, Bucky.” A beat. “Bucky?” Another. “Can you hear me?”

Fingers snapped in front of his face, far too close to be comforting, and his heart lurched at the same time he leapt to his feet and shoved himself back, stumbling over something behind him and falling back against the wall.

A voice immediately encouraged him to calm down as Bucky tried to focus his attention back on the room he was in and what was happening. A dark haired girl stood about a foot in front of him, looking unnerved and maybe a little worried. He struggled to remind himself of her name – Wanda? no, she was too young to be Wanda – and managed after a few awkward moments to connect the dots.

“Sorry about that, Kate,” he said quickly, running a hand through his hair as though that would allow him to stall for time. “I guess I was a little lost in thought.”

That was one word for it, at the least. Completely dissociated and detached from everything was another but he wasn’t about to admit that to a kid he barely even knew.

“Yeah, I noticed. I said your name about ten times and you didn’t respond. You must’ve been thinking about something pretty hard.”

Or nothing, as the case were, but again that wasn’t information to share. Swallowing hard nearly led to choking and didn’t ease the knot in his throat but he did that once, twice, until he was able to figure out what to say. He also took the time to straighten the chair he’d all but fallen over and returned to his seat at his desk

“You know, sometimes you just find yourself daydreaming,” he finally said, because that was a normal thing that most people did and if he were lucky, she wouldn’t ask for further information.

Luck was on his side, given that she started with, “What were you daydreaming about?” and then wrinkled her nose and said, “Wait, no, never mind, I probably don’t want to know the answer to that, do I?”

“Probably not,” he said with a forced chuckle. “Anyways, what’s up, kid?”

Kate shrugged and took a step back, crossing her arms over her chest and looking around his office. His office, that was right. Bucky was in there because he’d been at work all day and not only there but actually working and he’d just sat down for a minute since the shop was closed. A glance at the clock indicated that it was about 15 minutes past closing time. Bucky couldn’t quite account for what he’d been doing during that time, though that also could have been because he just wasn’t looking at the clock and tracking how much time passed from moment to moment.

“Clint’s still out, I guess,” she finally said. “I’m not ready to head home and Steve was doing boring stuff with the finances, so I figured I’d come back and harass you.”

“Harass away.”

Given the state he was in, he couldn’t quite decide whether spending time with her would help to take his mind off of everything or whether he’d just end up all the more drained of energy. Remaining functional throughout the work day was hard enough as it was – this was only his second day back since everything happened – and he’d ended up passing out on the couch around the same time he got upstairs the previous evening.

“It’s not harassment when you’re cool with it,” she pointed out. “Which makes you a lot less fun to harass than Clint.”

“Hmm, good point. I could try to act offended. Would that help?”

“Nah, I’d know it wasn’t genuine,” Kate replied, with a grin.

“You sure about that? I’m a pretty good actor.”

And wasn’t that the truth? Bucky wouldn’t have made it through the past two days back at work if he weren’t damn good at acting. Hell, Kate wouldn’t be talking to him right now if he weren’t being pretty convincing in this act. If she had any idea that he was this close to unraveling, he doubted she’d be in his office, joking with him and instead probably looking at him like a ticking time bomb.

“I’m sure,” she insisted. “I know all about good acting. Theoretically. I’ve taken plenty of classes over the years, and everything else my parents wanted to make sure I was well versed in. Plus any day spent with my family requires acting if you want the dinners to be civil.”

That was something Bucky didn’t quite know what to do with. It was clear that there were some things going on with Kate’s family – nothing abusive from what he’d gathered in their few conversations, which he supposed really amounted to nothing because who would disclose that kind of information early on? – and that was her reason for visiting the shop as often as she could. He probably should have offered Kate a safe place to talk but that would mean having to be there for her and he doubted he could do that effectively.

He didn’t realize he’d been quite for too long until Kate exhaled slowly and said, “There I go halting conversations in their tracks. No worries, Barnes. You don’t need to fix my whole screwed up life. I’m not asking for that.”

And just like that Bucky found himself asking, “What’s going on, Kate?”

“Like I said, it’s nothing to worry about. The usual poor little rich girl sort of thing. Nothing you could fix and nothing you need to worry about. I guess I’m just feeling sorry for myself, is all, and that means that I’d rather not talk about it because I don’t sit around feeling sorry for myself ever. How about you tell me about you?”

Now there was a topic he definitely did not want to discuss, especially not with a kid who was evidently deflecting from her own issues. Still, talking was better at keeping him focused, so from that standpoint it was definitely a positive.

“Not much to say about me that you don’t already know. I’m a vet. I’ve got a metal arm and I shove metal through people’s bodies as a living. I’m dating Steve. That’s really about all there is to me.”

“Is it? Nothing else I should know about? No awesome super secrets? What about super powers?”

“Nothing all that awesome that I know about,” he said with a semi-forced grin. “I mean, I guess my metal arm’s a little stronger than most people’s arms. But I’m not Clint with an amazing archery ability or anything like that and despite Natasha’s best efforts, I’m not a dancer like her.”

“Natasha tried to get you into dancing?” Kate asked, sounding intrigued. “Like, what kind of dancing?”

“Nat does ballet, has since she was a kid,” Bucky said, finding it easier to slip into this topic. “She never tried to get me to do that, thank God. But she taught me enough about dancing that I could probably handle being an escort to a debutante ball.”

Kate made a face. “Ugh, don’t even mention that sort of thing. That’s far too close in my future.”

“Then strike that comment from the record.” He made a half-hearted attempt to look at his calendar for the next day, only to abandon it when flipping the page and taking in the hours he’d blocked off to work made his eyes refuse to focus. “Alright, kid, as fun as it’s been…”

“I know, I know,” she sighed. “I’ll be heading out.” She took a step towards the door, hesitated, and glanced back at him. “You want me to let Steve know you’re done in here? It’s just… you’re looking a little pale.”

Now it was Bucky’s turn to sigh. “Sure, Kate, if that’ll ease your mind. I’m fine, just tired.”

“Yeah, well, take care of yourself, alright?” Instead of turning to the door, she crossed the distance between them and pressed a kiss to his cheek. “See you tomorrow, Barnes.”

Once the door closed behind her, Bucky used his right arm to pillow his head against the desk and closed his eyes. The appointments throughout the day were exhausting but at least he’d had something to focus on. Now without that, he found that his battery was close enough to empty that it made it hard to focus for more than a few seconds at a time. It had been stupid to leave Winter upstairs after lunch. For some reason he’d decided managing alone proved he could handle things and he’d felt so sick of being dependent on everyone else for his stability.

All in all, he was a mess and as much as he tried to hide it, he was failing.

With effort, he convinced himself to raise his head, scan the room to see if there was anything glaringly not done yet. Bucky tried, he really did, looking around to see whether everything needing to be sterilized was being sterilized and whether there was anything he needed to toss out or stow. Nothing stood out to him and the mere thought of trying to think any harder about things made his head pound. The best option seemed to be to stumble to his feet. Anything else could wait until tomorrow morning. The important thing now was to make it upstairs while he still could.

Steve met him in the hallway, shooting him a worried look that Bucky brushed off, just as he did Steve’s offered help to make it upstairs. Focusing on one foot after the other worked well enough to keep him moving. Just like he’d learned in physics, an object in motion stayed in motion, or something like that, which meant that if he kept walking, he’d reach his destination. At least that was what he thought it meant. He probably should have remembered those laws a bit better given that the science classes were always his favorites.

Bucky left the door to the apartment open, certain Steve would close it once he came up, and went straight to collapse on the couch. Moving to the bed probably would have made more sense but that felt like giving up to him. At least on the couch, he could pretend he wasn’t abandoning any and all attempts at functioning for the night. A few seconds – or maybe minutes – passed before a cold, wet nose pressed against his hand. He automatically went to scratch Winter behind the ears and murmur, “Good dog.”

Perhaps the most frustrating part was not being able to determine his level of functioning. Was he about to get a migraine? Maybe. Probably. That seemed likely just based on how much strain he’d put his body through. He hadn’t yet gotten hit with one of the awful, crippling and blinding ones. Somehow he’d managed to hold that off over the past several days and just suffered through more constant minor ones.

What about dissociating again? That also seemed a strong possibility and he hadn’t been able to hold that off over the past few days. Everything was still too raw, too fresh, and too close to the surface and he didn’t have the coping resources to handle those thoughts and memories. He remembered being taught that dissociation was a coping mechanism, albeit an ineffective one in the long term, but he hated the fact that he kept falling back into those patterns.

He still didn’t know what to do. Maybe it made the most sense to schedule an appointment with Dr. Jones but then he had to navigate how to talk about everything with Pietro without disclosing all of those details, and he had a feeling that regardless his psychologist would be pretty disturbed by the thought of a kid getting shot. He could always lie, omit, all of that good stuff but that just made him feel dishonest. The one thing he knew was important when forging a therapeutic relationship was to be up front about stuff. After all, Dr. Jones probably wouldn’t be able to do too much to help if Bucky didn’t give him all of the gory details. In his experience, most trauma processing meant actually talking about the trauma.

But he needed something. He couldn’t keep going on like this, trying to pretend to be normal and functional and a productive member of society. Just being back at work for two days had shown him that the energy required to complete his responsibilities while trying to hide how he was actually feeling was burning him out and fast. Sure, it distracted him but that wasn’t worth the hell he was putting himself through, mentally and physically.

He tried, he really did, to not view it as a failure. Clint hadn’t been back yet and no one – meaning Steve – had a problem with that. Therefore Bucky wasn’t the only one struggling. Therefore he wasn’t a failure. Except for the fact that Clint also had some physical injuries. Sure, Bucky had his migraines but he hadn’t even had one of those in the past couple of days. He couldn’t use that as a justification for why he couldn’t work.

No, this was all mental strain. That much was evident. He kept reminding himself of the things he’d learned in therapy, of the importance of taking care of himself, of recognizing when he needed to take a step back to focus on himself instead of pushing himself harder. At one time, he’d been okay with that, or at least more okay than he was now. He’d recognized that sometimes if he had a rough therapy session or when he pushed his super rigid boundaries out the slightest bit by going out to a new shop or restaurant, or even if he walked in an unfamiliar part of the city, he’d take it easier afterwards. He wouldn’t fault himself if he weren’t up for going out to the bar that night or if he needed to take a nap.

And, hell, even Steve had agreed to Bucky’s original limitations when Bucky acknowledged some of the difficulties he faced. Steve was the one who told Bucky he could sleep upstairs or rest upstairs if he was having a rough day, mentally or physically speaking.

Maybe if he reminded himself of that enough times, he’d believe that it was okay to take a few “mental health days.” Maybe if he believed it, he’d actually take care of himself properly.

Or maybe he’d just force himself to keep functioning until physically or mentally something gave out. If he were lucky, it wouldn’t be anything worse than a migraine. If he weren’t… well, suffice to say he wasn’t exactly looking forward to the possibility of ending up inpatient again.

Maybe the only saving grace at this point was that he didn’t think that would happen. No matter how bad things got, even if he ended up nearing the point of a complete breakdown, he doubted he’d get to the point of wanting to hurt himself again. He was exhausted and drained in every way that could imply but he knew this was temporary and all linked back to the events with Pietro. At some point, the nightmares would decrease and he wouldn’t feel on edge to the point of paranoia constantly. When that changed, he’d have more energy to cope with the events of daily life. It was only a matter of time.

A hand rested on his shoulder and the world slowed. Bucky’s heart lurched, his metal hand curled into a fist as he prepared to defend himself, and then, perhaps most unnervingly, he felt himself all but slip out of his skin. Then it was as though he was watching from a distance, as Steve tried to get his attention and Bucky geared up to lash out at him.

He didn’t know how to stop himself.

Then he felt a pressure on his legs. That yanked him back to his body full force. Somehow he managed to change the direction of the blow he’d prepared for Steve – to unclench his fist and instead bury his fingers in Winter’s fur as his dog leaned against his lower body. Despite that, the fear in Steve’s eyes was like a punch to the gut, and he recoiled, almost falling back.

“Holy shit,” Steve breathed. “Bucky…”

“I’m sorry,” Bucky said immediately. “I didn’t… I’m sorry. I just… I wasn’t focused… and it startled me. You startled me.”

There came the shame, boiling in his stomach. He’d worked so hard to get better control over himself and he’d just nearly struck his boyfriend for the crime of startling him. How fucked up could he be?

“It’s okay,” Steve said, just as quickly. “I should’ve given you more warning than that. I know you’ve been on edge since everything happened.”

He had his opening, right there, all the opening he needed. It wouldn’t take more than admitting to Steve that he needed some time off, time to collect himself, and it would be done. Steve was understanding, far more than Bucky deserved. All he needed to do was be honest with him.

But the words jammed in his throat when he tried to say them. By the time he’d swallowed enough times for the words to come out, Steve had already straightened up and taken a step back. For some reason, that translated in Bucky’s mind to the conversation being over and the moment being gone.

Now it seemed too awkward to say what he’d been thinking and instead he settled on awkwardly asking, “So, I’m guessing Kate’s gone and the shop’s closed up for the night?”

Steve nodded and then, in a clear attempt to steer the topic in another direction, asked, “You hungry?”

The last thing Bucky wanted was food. His stomach remained in knots, despite the fact that the immediate moment had ended and not as disastrously as it could have ended. Still, eating was normal and he was trying to pretend that he was normal, right? That meant trying to eat dinner, if nothing else.

“I could try,” he said, rather than lie through his teeth.

“You mind one of those frozen pizzas? I’m not sure we’ve got much else in the fridge.”

Bucky tried not to consider the fact that Steve seemed far too eager to move away from him under the guise of going into the kitchen. Not that Bucky could blame him after what had just happened.

“That’s fine,” he said, a beat later than was probably warranted or expected. “Like I said, I’ll see what I can do to eat something.”

“You can rest until then,” Steve offered. “I don’t mind handling it.” A few beats of silence passed as there was the sound of the freezer door opening and closing, the ripping of cardboard, the crinkling of a wrapper being removed, and then the beeping of the oven as Steve set the temperature. Then Steve spoke again. “You know, if you need a few days off, you can take ‘em, Buck.”

One moment his heart was still trying to beat its way out through his throat, the next it felt like he’d been stabbed right in the center of the chest, which meant his heart hadn’t gone anywhere. Almost at the same time, his eyes were suddenly filming over and blinking too fast meant being in danger of crying and this was all just ridiculous. Hadn’t he just wanted to ask Steve if he could take a few days off? Hadn’t he just been thinking about that? Now Steve had made everything easy for him. He didn’t have to take the initiative and act and somehow that was completely and utterly worse.

Now he knew Steve had seen the cracks appearing all along, especially just now when Bucky had almost fucking punched him. The worst part was it wasn’t as though that hadn’t happened before. There had been more than a few nightmares where upon waking up, Bucky had been struggling to defend himself, but those were nightmares; that wasn’t in the daytime when he was awake and aware. Now he knew Steve was worried about him and didn’t think he could handle things.

All the more frustrating was the fact that he fully knew he wasn’t being rational. These would be thoughts that Dr. Jones would label as unhelpful in a heartbeat and if Bucky just took the goddamn time to stop himself and think about where he was letting his mind go, he would probably be able to find a more balanced perspective.

But that took energy and energy was one thing he was severely lacking at this point.

“Maybe I should,” he finally said, and the stabbing pain in his chest only intensified.

Bucky tried to focus on the positive side of that. If he weren’t working, he could schedule an appointment with Dr. Jones for whatever time he had an opening for an emergency session. Maybe talking through everything that had been going on, while omitting some of the details about the others, would help enough for him to relearn or gain new coping strategies. Then he wouldn’t be this exhausted. Then he could handle all of this stuff.

Instead of letting his mind go there, he shifted his attention to Winter. Focusing on the sight and texture of his dog’s fur, of the sound of him breathing and the rise and fall of his sides with each breath. That helped steady him, although plenty of thoughts were still coming unbidden. So he repeated to himself that he wasn’t falling back into bad habits, he wasn’t losing ground, and he wasn’t a complete and utter failure.

Maybe he could get himself to a point where he actually believed those words.

His phone vibrated at that moment and he welcomed the distraction, despite the fact that he startled enough for his heart rate to jump into overdrive once again. He was damn lucky he hadn’t had a full on heart attack yet given how easily startled he’d been over the past several days. He tugged his phone out of pocket and pulled up his texts when he saw he had a message from Natasha.

This was a welcome distraction, as far as he was concerned. Probably one more thing for him to deal with and something he’d be regretting getting involved in soon enough but at least it would take him away from the shame of needing time off, of almost hitting Steve, of being a goddamn disaster.

“Hey, Steve?” he said, glancing up and waiting until Steve peeked his head in from the kitchen. “Nat’s wondering if we could come over in the next hour or so. Said that she and Clint want to talk to us about everything.”

-~-

Sam’s entire life seemed to follow the “one step forward two steps back” routine. At least that was how it had been since he’d gotten back from his last deployment. Somehow, he’d managed to balance getting the treatment he needed to handle everything he’d seen and done, while also supporting Bucky through his hospitalizations, surgeries, and recovery.

During his own treatment, he’d been constantly commended for his willingness to practice techniques outside of session, to complete his homework, and to attend weekly appointments regardless of the rest of the bullshit going on in his life. He’d thought that meant something, that he was progressing and processing everything. Especially when he’d completed his requirements to become a peer support specialist and worked more on the other side of the desk, when he was the one helping others. The Masters program fit right in with that and he supposed, if he were to be honest with himself, that he’d believed he’d been cured.

All of which made him feel ridiculously stupid now. Between his own treatment, supporting Bucky, and helping others, the one thing he knew about trauma was that nothing changed those experiences. They stayed with you and while things always had the potential to get better or easier or symptoms would come less frequently, they never disappeared, which meant you were never cured.

Somehow though, despite all of the knowledge he had to back up his experiences, he didn’t seem to stop feeling disappointed in himself. He’d done a little better after the tough part of the last semester, when life and work had been kicking his ass, and seeking out treatment of his own had helped. A few appointments and he’d felt better, which of course he’d taken to mean that he was back to where he’d been before, but now, after all of the recent events, he felt back almost to square one.

The most frustrating part of it was seeing himself fall back into old habits. To find his sleep interrupted because he wasn’t able to settle down at night and when he did sleep, it was light sleep, designed to last a short amount of time and for him to be easily awakened in case he needed to be responding to a threat. Unfortunately that also meant that when sharing a bed with two partners, it was pretty easy to wake up multiple times throughout the night between tossing and turning from them, one of the two getting out of bed, or other things like that. It also meant that when he did actually manage to fall into a slightly deeper sleep – usually because he’d popped a sleeping pill when really desperate or taken Benadryl or Nyquil when less desperate – the nightmares got him. It was a lose-lose situation.

Despite his limited sleep, he’d done a pretty damn good job at remaining functional. Aside from the initial lost time, he’d been back to work and school and doing a pretty damn good job given everything else going on. For that, at least, he was able to give himself some credit and recognize that it hadn’t been easy for him to do continue functioning, but he had and based on the responses he’d gotten from the groups he ran and his supervisors, he’d been doing a pretty damn good job at helping others even when he wasn’t doing the best at helping himself.

All of that aside, he somehow had a feeling that the conversation they were abut to have wasn’t exactly going to be a pleasant one or do anything good for him. Truth be told though, he was less worried about himself, since he already knew most of the details that Clint and Natasha had been discussing sharing with Bucky and Steve, and much more worried about how Bucky was going to handle hearing all of that. He hadn’t seen that much of Barnes over the past few days, given that Clint hadn’t been back to Shield yet, but from the bits and pieces he’d gotten from text and from talking to Natasha – who had spoken to Bucky – it was pretty clear Bucky wasn’t doing much better than Sam was, in terms of coping with everything.

These were the times when Sam had to wonder about the choices he’d made in his life. There was a part of him, a very small part granted, that wished he’d never gotten himself involved in this mess – or, more specifically, that he’d never gotten as involved as he had with Natasha and Clint. Between each of their respective connections with the mob and then having the twins staying in the townhouse and how that impacted things, it had definitely made his life much, much more complicated than he’d ever expected when transitioning into the civilian world.

On the other hand, he was certain he was right where he needed to be. He had plenty of skills that would be beneficial if things continued to escalate. After seeing Pietro with a bullet wound, he figured it was good that they had a medic around. Even beyond that particular skillset, if things continued to escalate – as seemed to be likely – he’d be able to protect the people he cared about.

Or at least he hoped he would be.

When the doorbell rang, he left Clint sprawled out on the couch, using Natasha as a pillow. Sam checked first to ascertain whether it was Bucky and Steve – which it was, of course, he was getting paranoid at this point – and unlocked the door to let them inside. He tried not to worry about the dark circles beneath Bucky’s eyes and the fact that he looked like he would rather be anywhere but at the townhouse. He also tried not to notice that there was a gap, albeit a relatively small one, between Bucky and Steve in a way that spoke volumes. Thankfully, Bucky had Winter right by his other side, one hand resting on the dog’s head.

Still, Bucky forced a smile as he stepped inside. “Hey, Sam. How’s it going?”

“About as well as it can be,” Sam said. “How about the two of you?”

Bucky and Steve exchanged a fairly tense look and then Steve said, “Ditto to what you said. It’s been a rough couple of days.”

“Well, we have alcohol and all sorts of other stuff out and ready. This is the kind of conversation that might require some of that and, as always, you can crash here if you need to.”

“I’m not sure alcohol is what I need right now,” Bucky admitted. “I’ve been having a hard enough time functioning already.”

“I might be interested in some alcohol though,” Steve said. “Not much, low tolerance and all, but after everything…”

He left that statement hanging and Sam didn’t bother to question it. No one who’d been there that night was coping well, Steve obviously included, and he wasn’t about to highlight that anymore than Steve just did.

“Nat’s drinking vodka, naturally, but we’ve also got beer,” Sam offered. “I can grab you one if you want.” Steve nodded his agreement. “Natasha and Clint are in the living room right now. I’ll meet you guys there with the refreshments. Want me to grab you a soda, Barnes?”

“Yeah, I think I can manage that,” Bucky said with a half-grin. “We’ll meet you in the living room, I guess.”

Sam took his time in the kitchen, popping off the tops of three bottles of beer and struggling to balance all of that and a can of coke between his two hands. He passed them around, then, upon seeing that Natasha’s double shot of vodka was already gone, took the glass from her and went to refill it.

He also took the opportunity to knock back a shot of it himself and immediately felt disgusted with himself. He wasn’t the sort of person who used alcohol to cope, at least not usually, not anymore. That was one of the many bad habits he seemed to be falling back into. Granted, he gave himself limited credit for not going back to the days when he’d drink to take the edge off at night and until he fell asleep. The Nyquil and Benadryl as of late had been a step in the right direction from what he used to do.

When he returned, he found everyone more or less comfortably settled. Steve and Bucky sat on the beanbag chair, perfect for keeping Bucky close to Winter, who was sprawled out on the floor. Clint had already knocked back his entire beer – and in anticipation of this, Sam had grabbed another one in addition to refilling Natasha’s drink - and Steve had taken in a significant amount of his own.

“Somehow I’m getting a bad feeling about all of this,” Bucky said. “But I guess I should have expected that, huh?”

Sam looked to Natasha and then to Clint, to see which one of them – if either – were intending on speaking first. He could always try to describe the situation but he didn’t know for certain just how much Natasha and Sam planned on disclosing to Bucky and Steve at this point. While he had no doubt that informing them of further details related to the twins would be necessary, he wasn’t quite as certain that they needed to know the details of Natasha and Clint’s own dealings with the mob.

Natasha drained the double shot of vodka in a long gulp. “I wanted the two of you to come over because there are things about the twins we never shared with you. In light of the recent events, it seemed like it was time you both knew a little bit more.” When Bucky and Steve only looked at her attentively, she continued after a moment of silence. “I’m guessing the two of you are aware that the twins’ relationship with their adoptive father was… not good.”

“No shit, Nat,” Steve said. “I saw the scars. I knew they were homeless. Most kids don’t end up on the street when they have a loving, supportive family.”

“It’s more than that,” she said bluntly. “You probably figured some of it out, given the secrecy we had when bringing the twins to and from Shield. There are a lot of bad people looking for them, sent by their father. People who have connections to a variety of dangerous organizations.”

“What are we talking about here?” Bucky cut in. “Like, gangs, things like that?”

“Various branches of the mob,” Clint said. “Multiple branches from what I’ve heard.”

Before Bucky or Steve had a chance to question why Clint would have heard that type of information, Sam added, “That’s what happened with Pietro.”

“What do you mean, ‘That’s what happened with Pietro’?” Steve asked.

“He got grabbed by the Irish,” Clint said. “I don’t have all of the details about what went down, since it all happened before I found him. But they were planning on giving him back to his father. They’re also the ones that shot him, which I wasn’t expecting since the word on the street is that the money Talbot’s offering for their ‘safe’ return is pretty substantial.”

“Why does Talbot want them back so badly?” Steve asked, looking shocked.

“Because he’s a sick fuck who wants what he wants when he wants it and throws a fit when someone defies him,” Sam said darkly.

“The problem is, he’s put out such a high reward that everyone wants it.” Clint paused long enough to drain half of his beer. “Therefore, all of those different mob branches, from the Irish to the Russian to fuck knows what else, who’ve come in from Boston and New York and all kinds of places, are gunning for the kids.”

“Sam, Nat,” Bucky started. “Clint, I mean… this isn’t something for us to be handling. This is something for the police or someone with much higher authority to act than what we have.”

“There’s a problem right there,” Clint said darkly. “You think these branches haven’t infiltrated the police department? You think that going straight to the police wouldn’t cause more problems than what we’re already dealing with?”

“I hate to say it, Clint, but that sounds kinda paranoid to me,” Bucky said. “And, seriously, that’s saying something when I’m the one talking here.”

Sam looked to Clint and raised an eyebrow and Clint sighed heavily and drained the rest of his bottle before giving Sam a plaintive look that clearly meant he wanted another one. Sam didn’t argue and instead went back to the kitchen, grateful that he could still hear the discussion from in there.

“It’s not paranoia when you know it,” Clint responded. “I’ve been working as a narc for awhile now. I’ve shared the information I have with my handler in the police force and he’s the only one I trust at this point. There are some people in there who would help out in capturing the twins. No one’s exactly said that directly but there were definitely people there the night they got brought into the police station, before they came to the townhouse, who got in a fuckton of trouble for letting them slip away.”

When Sam returned, he saw Steve’s brow furrowed as he reflected on something and a moment later he said, “You said that you found Pietro after he got away from the Irish but you were also injured when you came to Shield. What happened to you?”

“Oh, that was the Russians,” Clint said easily, then murmured thanks to Sam as he handed over the bottle of beer. “That’s a long story that you guys really don’t need to know about right now. Probably the less you know the better. Like I said, I’ve been working with the cops and sometimes that leads to getting in way too deep with the Russian mob. You know how it goes.”

“I really don’t,” Bucky said bluntly. “Seriously, guys, what the fuck? This isn’t the kind of stuff you should be dealing with.”

“Maybe not, but that’s what’s happening,” Natasha said directly. “If there was anyone else who could handle this, I’d be contacting them but from everything I can figure out, there isn’t. We’ve talked to the only individuals in the police that we trust. Now we’re on our own.”

“Why haven’t you talked to your father about this?” Bucky asked, the full weight of his gaze on Natasha. “I mean, shit, Nat, given his position, couldn’t he help you?”

Natasha hesitated at that and Sam wondered what her response was going to be. That hadn’t been something he or Clint openly asked her about over the past few days but it was a question that had been on at least Sam’s mind. He didn’t know exactly what her father could do but someone as high up as him in rank had to be able to do something.

“It’s exactly because of his position that I can’t tell him,” Natasha said, after a long moment. “If he knew what was going on and the danger I was in, he’d act and he’d use whatever resources he had at his disposal to make certain I was safe. That would lead to him being in all kinds of trouble if anyone found out because he can’t exactly be using his power for personal reasons, even if those reasons to involve branches of the mob. It’s not as though the personal connection wouldn’t be found out either. I can bet that someone would make sure the powers that be knew my own involvement and if nothing else, that would be enough for an investigation. It could ruin my father’s career and I’m not about to do that to him.”

Steve and Bucky both looked displeased by Natasha’s response. Sam couldn’t blame either one of them. Hell, he’d hadn’t exactly had the best reaction when Natasha and Clint first started telling him about all of this.

“This is getting more complicated by the moment,” Steve said, his tone grim. “We had a visitor a couple of days back, the morning after Pietro got shot. He wanted to schedule with Clint. Said his name was Cyril. That’s sounding pretty Irish to me and with that timing, I’ve gotta to wonder if he’s got some ulterior motives for scheduling that appointment.”

“Good,” Clint said, his expression darkening. “Let him schedule with me. I’d love to see the bastard face-to-face.”

“You’re not shooting or otherwise harming him in my shop,” Steve snapped. “That’s not happening here. You want to have him come in the hopes of getting some intel off of him, that’s fine, but I am not having my shop turned into a crime scene. Again.”

“Fair enough,” Clint replied. “I can control myself. I’m more interested in finding out what he knows and what he’s coming into the shop for. Anything I can find out to keep the twins safer is something I’m willing to do.”

Steve grudgingly said, “I guess that makes sense. Tony’s also following up on the footage I got when Cyril came into the shop. He told me earlier he’d be getting back to me in the next couple of days. I’ll do everything I can to make sure we know everything we can before the date of the appointment. Forewarned is forearmed and all of that, right?”

There were a few moments of silence while everyone who still had an alcoholic drink in their hand indulged – and those who had finished their latest drinks went for a refill – and Sam sat silently. There was nothing he could add to the conversation at this point. He wasn’t involved as deeply as Natasha and Clint were or, hell, at this point even as much as Bucky and Steve were seeing as everything seemed to be going down inside of Shield. He was just there to try and pick up the pieces when things fell apart.

Bucky finally broke the uneasy silence to ask, “What about the twins? I mean, if – I mean when – Pietro’s healed, where will they go? It seems like having them come back to the townhouse will be putting everyone in danger but I’m also guessing they don’t have anywhere else to go.”

“Tony might have something,” Steve pointed out. “I mean, he already found the hospital for Pietro. I’m guessing there are more things like that he can pull out if necessary.”

Clint looked quite unhappy with that thought as he returned to his seat, another beer in hand. Sam stifled the urge to comment on just how much he’d drank over the past couple of hours, especially since he knew Clint had been popping Vicodin on and off since incurring his injuries at the hands of the Russians.

“We’ll figure that out when Pietro’s been cleared to leave the hospital,” Natasha said smoothly. “For now, I think it’s best not to plan too, too far ahead.”

Steve and Bucky exchanged a look at that. Sam figured that at least the two of them seemed to be more on the same page than they had been when they’d arrived. If nothing else, they were acting as more of a team now.

“Alright, so, I guess I’ll let you know when Tony gets back to me about Cyril,” Steve said. “Otherwise, we’ll keep going as though nothing ever happened.”

Except that something had happened and more would happen, Sam was certain of it. It wasn’t as though he could argue against Steve’s words though. There was nothing else to be done at this point except keep moving forward. Whatever would happen would happen and Sam just hoped there wouldn’t be too much damage left in the aftermath.

-~-

Tony Stark was never frazzled. That just didn’t come with the job territory. Sometimes he was a prick and a dick – and, yes, those had two different meanings despite both being terms for a certain part of male anatomy – and other times he was a fuck up but he just didn’t do the whole frazzled thing. When things got to a level that was beyond his ability to handle, he defaulted to drunk. That prevented him from getting frazzled more often than not.

This time though, he was frazzled. There was no choice except to own up and admit it. Who could see the aftermath of a kid being shot without being a little on edge or overwhelmed? Who could be running background checks on sketchy individuals and finding out about mob connections and wondering just how deep this entire messed up situation went? He wouldn’t be human without having some sort of reaction to this entire mess.

Unfortunately, this time his stress showed because Pepper continued to be far too attentive and supportive and intent on keeping him remarkably sober. While he’d manage to sneak a few shots on the night all of this started when he finally got back in the early morning hours after making sure his shop was clean and secure, he’d been caught in the act and read the riot act when Pepper came to wake him up way too early because he had a meeting, and discovered that he was in that awful stage between still drunk and hung-over.

In retrospect, taking 5 back-to-back shots of vodka to chase down an Ambien hadn’t been the brightest idea but it had gotten him to sleep – and could have killed him, which Pepper had no problem reminding him of multiple times as though he hadn’t heard her the first time – and she’d cancelled his meetings for the day and blamed it on a stomach bug. When Tony had explained the full situation to her, she’d been a bit more sympathetic, although she continued to berate him for his potentially disastrous and deadly choices.

Pepper hadn’t been quite as sympathetic when he did another round of shots following his visit to see Pietro in the hospital. That might, in retrospect, have been a less than strategic choice. After all, he hadn’t been quite as bad off then, as he had been after seeing the blood and guts component. He’d also been working through the footage Steve had gotten him from the visitor to the shop earlier that day to see if he could run facial recognition software and get a positive ID. He’d watched the pieces falling together and that in and of itself made him feel sick and desperately in need of something alcoholic.

After that, his stash of liquor had been removed and safeguarded, which he insisted was unnecessary because he had at least a few weeks of sobriety under his belt, at least until all of this started, and could be trusted to handle himself despite his recent fuck ups, but Pepper wasn’t listening to reason and truth be told, he didn’t exactly have a valid argument for why he needed to have unlimited access to the liquor cabinet if he truthfully didn’t intend to be drinking. The lack of alcohol hadn’t done much to improve his mood or make it easier to sleep, although at the least she hadn’t taken his stash of sleep medications or tranquilizers. He was working hard to ensure that she didn’t feel the need to even notice the fact that he was on them because he was taking them as prescribed.

When Pepper wasn’t around to supervise, JARVIS took it upon himself to call Rhodey on Tony’s behalf two or three times, which made Tony reconsider the fact that he had programmed his operating system to make its own decisions and act independently of Tony’s control. On the other hand, calling Rhodey was helpful when it worked. Tony had someone to talk to for a few hours and then going out for drinks in a bar setting rather than drinking alone in his lab. Somehow that never ended disastrously, despite Pepper’s insistence that he remain sober, because Rhodey managed to more or less moderate Tony’s intake when they were out together. However, the calls to Rhodey were much less helpful when he only reached voicemail.

It was reaching the voicemail for the fourth time in a matter of hours that made Tony decide he needed to be anywhere other than alone in his lab. There wasn’t exactly a fully formed plan in his mind when he hopped into the car – a drive with music blasting in and of itself seemed like a positive step. An even better option was to hit up a bar alone since he didn’t have Rhodey to go with and hope he didn’t drink enough to do something stupid that Pepper would inevitably find out about - but after pulling out onto the street and making a few turns, he knew exactly where he was heading. Thankfully, this was an option less likely to infuriate Pepper when or if she found out about it in the morning.

The chances of actually finding who he was hoping to find at this hour were about 50-50 – well, no, probably closer to 70-30 because he was talking about grad students in the midst of various projects. The one thing he knew about grad students from his years of being one of them was that they were never out of the lab for any length of time and that sleep was for the weak and uncaffeinated. While he wasn’t sure showing up unannounced, in the less than calm, cool, and collected state he was in was the best life decision, it was the only decision he could come to at this point.

Tony parked as close as he could to the building, in a highly illegal parking spot that he doubted anyone else would need at this hour. The fact that it took him less than two minutes to bypass the card swipe security on the building didn’t speak highly for the school’s ability to keep things – students and equipment alike – safe. Perhaps that explained the shooting in the library those months back. Tony made a mental note to inform the university of their lapses in security before someone much less ethical than him figured it out and created a disastrous situation by breaking into the labs.

The building was quiet at this hour, with no classes being held and very few, if any, students still around. His footsteps sounded far too loud, echoing down the halls. He did his best not to think about that for any length of time and fought the urge to look over his shoulder. There was no reason for him to be paranoid. As far as he knew, there was no one trying to come after him. Just because a kid – Pietro, he had to keep reminding himself that this wasn’t just some kid, this was a kid he knew – had been shot, just because Clint had gotten himself shot not too long ago, didn’t mean Tony was in any danger. No one knew of his involvement and he had plans to keep it that way. No one knew the type of information he’d uncovered based on the security footage from Shield.

From down the hall, Tony could see that the lights in the lab were on and once he reached the door, there was clear movement inside. Standing in front of the door, he weighed his options. He could knock, which would likely startle whoever was in there and could cause some problems if any of the four figures in there were doing something super scientific and important – or working with something that could cause a disastrous situation if dropped - or he could open the door, which was likely to have the same effect.

He settled on knocking, which surprisingly did not seem to startle anyone, at least as far as Tony could see through the frosted glass. Certainly, there were no sounds of surprise or distress. He eased the door open and stepped inside, to find two familiar faces and two people he had never seen before. When he’d seen that there were four people in the room, he’d assumed that like last time, he’d find Bruce, Betty, and Jane – accompanied as always by Thor – working in there. But this time there were two others, a man and a woman – more of a boy and a girl, to be honest, since neither one of them looked old enough to be graduate students. Not that Bruce or Betty looked particularly old themselves, if he were to be honest. He really wasn’t in a position to judge though. After all, Tony hadn’t looked old enough to be a grad student when he was working on his degree, mostly because he hadn’t been.

“Hello, Mr. Sta - ” Bruce caught himself, barely. “I mean, Tony.”

“Hey there,” Tony replied, his gaze still on the other two. “Are you guys multiplying in here? Is it a cloning study or something? There seem to be more of you every time I visit.”

“Oh, that’s FitzSimmons,” Betty said, barely glancing up from the calculations she was working on.

“Which is FitzSimmons?” Tony inquired, looking back and forth between the other two to get a clue for what was going on here. “Are they both FitzSimmons? They don’t look like they’re related.”

“We’re not,” the man replied, and Tony caught what he was pretty certain was a Scottish accent.

“He’s Fitz,” the woman supplied, gesturing towards her companion, and that was interesting because she had a decidedly British accent.

“And that’s Simmons,” the one named Fitz added.

“That is endearing and creepy all at the same time,” Tony said, before turning his attention back to Bruce. “Should I be calling you two RossBanner? BannerRoss? I can keep going all night if necessary.”

“Definitely not necessary,” Betty assured him. “We are separate entities.”

“And they’re not?” Tony inquired, nodding towards the duo known as FitzSimmons. “I don’t see them being connected like Siamese twins.”

“We’re not,” Fitz said.

“At all,” Simmons added. “We just have a long history and we came up through school together.”

“Which explains why you seem to be finishing one another’s sentences. Okay. That all sounds fascinating but I’m not particularly interested in a life history tonight,” Tony responded. “I am interested in what the two of you are working on over there though. What are your backgrounds?”

“She’s bio-chemistry, I’m mostly in tech,” Fitz said, not even looking up from his work.

“I have so many questions about what the two of you are doing up here where the astrophysicist and nuclear physicist work but I’m beyond the point of asking questions about what the hell goes on in this lab. I mean, seriously, this is either the start to a really bad joke or a potential catastrophe. Or both. Just think about it. Two nuclear physicists, an astrophysicist, a bio-chemist, and a guy who’s into tech walk into a bar…”

“Thankfully we’re only sharing our space with them for this week,” Bruce chimed in, though he quickly added, “Not that we haven’t enjoyed having them around. It’s made the lab a bit more interesting. They’re here for an upcoming presentation, not for the long term.”

“An upcoming presentation, huh? Maybe I’ll have to stop by to find out exactly what the two of you are working on,” Tony mused. “If I’m not able to get the time off to attend, though…”

Tony patted his pockets to see if he could track down one of his cards. Naturally, since he wasn’t heading out for a meeting, he hadn’t brought them along with him. He didn’t typically keep his cards in anything other than his business attire. Thankfully, he did keep a few in his wallet, which he found with relative ease. He sifted one out to hand off in the general direction of the two of them. A nearby table ended up being the best place to leave it, since they were both busy look at samples of something or another and moving around the lab table in a ridiculously synchronized fashion.

“Just in case, and since I’m not asking a whole lot of questions now, I’m going to leave this here. Feel free to get in touch one day. I can always use some new blood working for Stark Enterprises.”

Tony wasn’t entirely certain they’d heard him since they didn’t respond, although he attributed to the fact that clearly growing up in places other than America because that was the only explanation for why they wouldn’t be leaping at the opportunity to get involved with him and his company. That was the last detail he focused on that before heading over to where Bruce and Betty stood.

Bruce seemed less standoffish this time, which was nice to see. His shoulders weren’t hunched and he looked relaxed, or at least as relaxed as he ever seemed to look based on Tony’s limited interactions with him. What was interesting was that over the few moments before Bruce and Betty realized that Tony returned his attention to them, the two of them were working together almost as seamlessly as FitzSimmons. Despite the protestations the last time he’d met with them regarding their relationship status, he had to wonder if there was more going on with them.

Bruce glanced up as Tony approached. “Not that I’m not happy to see you, but what brings you out here this late in the evening?”

Now that was tricky. While he should have anticipated that question, it wasn’t as though he had a good answer. He had decided to head to the lab pretty much spur of the moment but he couldn’t say something like that. That would beg more questions… too many more questions.

But what could he say? Something simple, that would make sense and wouldn’t have anyone questioning him.

“My schedule tends to be all over the place and I just got a few moments to myself,” was the story he went with. “I told you that I was invested in your education and development, so I figured now was as good a time as any to stop by and see how things were going over here.”

That sounded a whole hell of a lot better than admitting that he had a head that was far too full of thoughts and that if he had stayed by himself all night, there was little chance of him successfully making it through the evening without tracking down a bottle of alcohol. Pepper might have hidden his supply but she sure as hell couldn’t keep him away from all of the shops in the area. It also meant not having to admit that he was in the process of involving himself in some seriously shady shit, even more shady that the usual stuff he found himself caught up in.

Bruce just nodded. “I would guess that a man with all of your obligations wouldn’t have much time for little visits like this.”

The statement was just close enough to self-deprecating that Tony wished there were a way he could challenge it without acknowledging that his visit was about more than just checking in on Bruce’s progress. He honestly liked Bruce, from the few interactions he’d had with him. His only reason for hesitating in building a friendship was out of the fear of having Bruce caught up in everything – mob and otherwise – currently surrounding Tony.

“Hey, none of that,” he said. “I just told you that I’m invested in you and your progress.”

“Or at least how his development and progress might benefit you and your company?” Betty questioned sweetly.

“Betty…” Bruce said.

“No, no, it’s fine,” Tony quickly replied. “I gathered during our last meeting that she isn’t exactly fond of me. I’m not taking offense here. I know there are plenty of people I’ve alienated over the years and even more that my father managed to alienate. It’s just passed on down the line.”

He met Betty’s gaze unwaveringly as he added, “And it’s also clear to me that she’s saying these things because she’s worried about you and wants to protect you and maybe she’s right to do that.”

Tony had to admit that this night, of all nights, wasn’t when he needed to be reminded of the potential harm that could come to Bruce through their friendship. He’d been worried of that the first time they’d met– or second time, really, he couldn’t keep them straight at this point. He was worried about it now, especially in light of the recent events in his life. Tony caused enough of a wave of destruction on his best of days. Now people around him were getting shot and almost bleeding out in the shop he owned.

His reaction seemed to have placated Betty, who gave him something that was almost a smile and nodded in response to his words.

“Which I appreciate but she doesn’t need to do that,” Bruce said, glancing over at her. “When push comes to shove, I can protect myself, and I don’t get the feeling that you mean me any harm, Tony.”

“I never do,” was the only response Tony could give to that. “Anyway. I’m here to check in, so here’s me checking in. How’re classes going? Everyone treating you well here?”

“Everyone’s treating me fine,” Bruce replied. “Classes are going well, as is working in the lab. I’m in my second semester as acting as the TA for several undergraduate courses, particularly for the lab component, and there’s been some talk of moving me into a teaching position next year, although I’m not entirely sure I can handle the stress.”

“You don’t handle stress well. That’s good to know. I’ll definitely keep that in mind if you ever come to my lab.”

Bruce gave Tony an uncertain look and Tony realized that his words might have had an accidental mocking quality to them.

“I’m the kind of person who likes to work with a lot of loud music going and plenty of other distractions. I just figured that if you came by and stress was an issue, I could keep things quieter and limit the distractions for you. Especially if you’re coming by to get away from here where it isn’t so quiet and there are more distractions.”

“Thanks, I appreciate that,” Bruce said after a long moment that he spent carefully studying Tony’s face, presumably for any sign that Tony was still mocking him. “But I get by here pretty well for the most part. It gets a little chaotic every so often but it’s not too bad. Definitely not enough to cause the kind of stress that I’m worried about from teaching.”

Tony made a mental note to do everything he could to ensure that if Bruce did not want to take that position in teaching, there would be others available for him. He’d done his research enough to know that Bruce was on a full-ride in terms of tuition but that didn’t mean his living situation and basic necessities like food would be covered. It wasn’t surprising he needed to take on other GSA and TA type positions in order to have the money for those types of things.

“Just know that the offer stands and that if you need anything, I’m just a phone call away.”

As much as Tony didn’t want to go back to his empty place and try to curb the impulse to do something self-destructive, it was clear that he was nearing the point of wearing out his welcome. Given that he’d already made the decision at least once or twice to distance himself from Bruce’s life unless Bruce made the choice to seek him out, it would seem that he was having trouble maintaining that choice when push came to shove.

“I know I interrupted your work and I don’t want to keep you away from that too long. I’m not so far removed from school myself that I don’t remember what it’s like to have a late night in the lab and be living on coffee and Red Bull and no sleep the next day.”

Bruce chuckled at that. “In my case, I don’t even have the caffeine to fall back on. With the stress concern I mentioned earlier, let’s just say that my heart can’t handle it without bad things happening.”

Tony made another mental note to fall back on that. Getting medical information wasn’t exactly easy – or ethical or legal – but if there was something medically going on with Bruce, he wanted to know. Actually trying to breach confidentiality would be his last resort – he’d ask Bruce more about that in the future first and see if he could get the answers that way – but if he couldn’t, he wanted to know what was going on one way or another.

Tonight, however, definitely wasn’t the night to be asking.

“In that case, it seems all the more important for me to let you two get back to work,” he said, stepping back to the door. “It was nice to see you again, Bruce. Good luck with this semester and let me know if you need anything. It was also good to see you again, Betty, and to meet FitzSimmons over there.”

The collective entity on the other side of the room barely nodded in response, to the point where Tony was reasonably certain they hadn’t even heard what he’d said. Betty, on the other hand, waved goodbye, though Tony had to admit that she seemed a bit relieved that he was heading out. Bruce said his goodbye as well, with what was almost a genuine smile coming from him. Tony took that moment to head out.

Now the only question became where he’d go from this point. Going back to his office seemed like a recipe for disaster. Going home didn’t seem much better. Half of the time his office and home were the exact same thing, to be honest, and the lines between them were blurred more often than not given how many nights he spent at the office and the fact that one of his labs was in his home.

If he took a sleeping pill, he supposed he’d fall asleep sooner or later. That would prevent him thinking too much about other stuff. At the moment, that seemed to be the best decision he could make.

Tony could deal with everything else tomorrow.

-~-

He made the call late that night, once things were quiet and he’d had the time to collect himself. He would have, should have, could have made the call immediately after he saw Clint. Then he wouldn’t have had the hours and hours of weighing the pros and cons and giving himself the chance to consider the ramifications of his actions.

He just didn’t see any other choice. It wasn’t as though he was doing anything drastic, not really. Clint had already gotten himself into this mess. He was just being given the opportunity to get himself out of his own mess. They’d both made their choices already. It was much better for one of them to be able to make it out then having them both fall.

The phone rang once, twice, three times. He contemplated whether it would make more sense just to hang up. Clearly he was being given a way out of going through with this, wasn’t he? But if he hung up now, he’d have to explain why he’d called in the first place. That would be more difficult than going through with it now.

Before he could determine whether or not to hang up, the other end of the phone was picked up and a familiar voice inquired, “Any updates for us, Barton?”

He exhaled slowly. “I saw my brother today. He’s learning to trust me. Give me a little more time and I’m sure he’ll tell me everything I need to know.”

Chapter Text

“You’re looking better today, James,” Dr. Jones said.

Bucky fought the urge to laugh, having no doubt that it would be borderline hysterical. Dr. Jones was right, to a degree. Bucky had been in a particularly bad place when he’d dragged himself in for a session the previous week. Unsurprisingly, that session had primarily focused on the recent events with Pietro while also not to disclosing too much. It was stupid, since Dr. Jones couldn’t disclose any information Bucky shared with him that didn’t involve Bucky intending to kill himself or someone else – and that definitely wasn’t the case – or anything involving abuse. Pietro was an adult, so that couldn’t happen either. Still, sharing everything made him uneasy, so Bucky had been as vague as he thought he could get away with.

The rest of that session had focused on alternating between Dr. Jones working on grounding techniques with him and Bucky sharing his fears about potentially hurting Steve after nearly taking a swing at him. Dr. Jones had reinforced the fact that Bucky had been able to stop himself before attacking Steve. While Bucky was unable to move beyond the fear that if Winter hadn’t been there with him then he would have gone through with it, it helped to hear that his own doctor didn’t consider him to be a risk to Steve.

So, in light of all of that, Bucky did have to admit that he was doing better today than he had been. It was just that better still wasn’t that great. Sleep was still hard to come by and he was the most on edge he’d been in longer than he could remember. Plus the migraine he’d been fighting off since that night with Pietro had decided to hit the previous day. The several hours of drugged unconsciousness hadn’t done much to replenish the energy he’d lost. While he had showered and shaved and gone through all of those others activities to take care of himself, that had just exhausted him more and while he might have looked more put together as a result, he definitely wasn’t.

“In some ways yes, in others not so much,” he finally settled on as his answer. “It’s the morning after a migraine, I’m supposed to be back on the clock with an appointment today and I’m not sure I can even handle doing one piercing job. I feel like all of this is a major one step forward, two steps back thing. I’d been doing so well – I’d been working and not completely destroying a relationship and I was managing it – and now… now I’m just one step away from breaking.”

“What would breaking look like?” Dr. Jones inquired.

Bucky tried so hard not to assume what his doctor might have been getting at – would breaking look like another suicide attempt, for instance? Yet that was the only place his mind would go. Of course that was what his doctor was worried about because that made him a liability. So that thought, that belief in what his doctor was implying, was what he responded to.

“It definitely wouldn’t look like overdosing on another bottle of pills,” Bucky all but snapped. “I’m not that far gone yet.”

“I figured as much,” Dr. Jones said calmly. “I had no thoughts it might look like that but it sounds as though you were wondering if that was my reason for asking that question.”

All at once, Bucky felt ridiculously ashamed for snapping. “Sorry, doc,” he said, forcing the words out. “Seems I’m a little overly sensitive today. I know you don’t think that way, I don’t know why I reacted like that. Anyways, to answer your question, I’m not entirely sure what it would look like. Maybe going back to the way things were a couple of months back when my life was spent staying in the townhouse and going to these appointments and everything made me anxious and I had panic attacks every day and dissociated most days too. I guess that’s what it would look like. I mean, hell, I’m not even working a regular schedule, so that’s already a pretty major step back. Feels super fucked up seeing as the only other time I wasn’t working, I wanted to work but wasn’t allowed to.”

“What I hear you saying is that you feel as though this is worse than when your license was under investigation?” Dr. Jones inquired.

Bucky knew he’d trapped himself.

“Obviously not,” he said, with a sigh. “That was a mess in its own right and I wouldn’t want to go back there. But somehow not being allowed to work – although it was because of my actions and what I’d done – doesn’t feel quite as awful as being allowed to work but feeling too unstable to be working like usual.”

“James, as we talked about last time, I think it’s important to keep in mind that it’s not as though you’re quitting your job. Think of this more as taking a short-term reduced schedule in order to focus on working on yourself so that when you come back to work full-time, you’ll be in a better place. It’s not that you’re unstable or incapable of working. As of right now, you’ve agreed with Steve to take the past few days off and slowly increase your workload over the next two weeks or so. That’s not an incredibly long time. Once those two weeks are up, you’ll reevaluate whether you feel ready to go back to work full-time. Just based on how things seem from the last time we met, only a few days ago, to this time, I’m pretty sure you’ll be feeling well enough to increase your workload, even if it’s still less than the schedule you worked when you were full-time. Regardless, it sounds like you’ll be supported in whichever choice you make.”

“I shouldn’t have to take time off to begin with though,” Bucky snapped. “And before you remind me that using the word ‘should’ and other words like it doesn’t do anything helpful for me, I already know that.”

“What does it mean to you that you have to take time off?” Dr. Jones asked, as calm and collected as always despite Bucky’s inability to control his temper.

“You already know what it means. You know what everything always comes down to. That I’m broken and damaged. That I’m not going to get better.”

“James, we’ve worked a lot on those thoughts over the past year,” Dr. Jones said. “I know you know how to challenge that, to find the evidence both for and against it. You’ve already given me information for that belief. What are some things that discount it though?”

In all his times in therapy with Dr. Jones, Bucky wasn’t certain he’d ever been truly angry with his psychologist. Frustrated, maybe, particularly when he was being challenged to do things that brought up anxiety; disappointed and angry in himself at times, definitely. But he’d never wanted to scream or to grab the little sand garden that always sat on the desk, just in reach, and throw it at the wall.

His expression must have given something away because Dr. Jones quickly backtracked. “I can tell that something I said made you angry. What’s going through your mind right now?”

“That I don’t feel like you’re listening to me,” Bucky said, not even needing to pause to think about the answer. “That I’m telling you how I feel and why I hate myself and how this feels like such a huge fucking step backwards and you’re trying to get me to tell you how that’s not true, how my thoughts aren’t completely balanced and accurate, or whatever, and I know you’re probably right and I have no doubt that thinking this way probably isn’t doing me any favors but I just… I don’t have another place to talk about how I feel and what I’m thinking. I can’t talk to Steve or Nat or Sam because most of them have their own shit going on right now or it would just make them feel bad to hear how much I’m beating myself up and I don’t want to put that burden on them. I just… I just want to be heard, I guess, and I’m not feeling heard right now.”

“I apologize,” Dr. Jones said, surprising Bucky, who hadn’t expected a psychologist to apologize. “You’re right. I jumped straight into challenging your thoughts, rather than acknowledging the thoughts themselves and how they’re affecting you. I think my reason for that is a personal one, in that I don’t like hearing you say those types of things about yourself when that doesn’t match up with the man I see sitting in front of me.”

“How do you see me?” Bucky asked quietly, and could see immediately that he’d thrown his psychologist off by asking the question.

“I see you as strong and determined,” he said after a moment. “I see you as someone who encounters challenges that most people couldn’t imagine, and you encounter them on a daily basis and keep moving forward despite all of that. I see someone with a lot of courage, to be able to do the things you do.”

And right there, Bucky’s anger faded. It wasn’t that he agreed with Dr. Jones – definitely not in the slightest, although maybe, just maybe, there was a tiny sliver of something – it was that he could tell his psychologist was being sincere. Even if Bucky didn’t see any of that in himself, Dr. Jones saw it in him and for the time being, that was something. He wasn’t sure he could see himself any differently at this point, even with attempting to challenge his thoughts, but someone whose opinion he valued didn’t see him that way. Maybe he could get to a point where he wasn’t quite as stuck in his own thoughts.

He exhaled slowly, shakily, and then attempted a small smile. “That means a lot to me, Dr. Jones. So… what were you saying about trying to challenge those thoughts?”

-~-

There were few things Pietro hated more than not being able to move and at least half of those were things that would directly or indirectly lead to him being unable to move. Things like, y’know, getting shot or having his bones broken. Now, as his body recovered, he found himself in an infuriating position where he was functional enough to be fully aware of every mind-numbing second he spent in the hospital bed but not functional enough to be anywhere else.

The more time he had for the heavy-duty drugs to leave his system, the more memories resurfaced. The first few days in the hospital had been awful in their own right – disorienting, confusing, and painful - with him never being awake for more than a few minutes at a time. He could remember trying to talk with Wanda and Darcy, to have them suggest watching a movie or something like that, and to agree and then have no memory of any part of the film. Worse than that, he’d slip into unconsciousness and wake up somewhere in the middle of the movie, with no memory of what they were even watching or conception of how long he’d been out.

But now, that didn’t happen. When he was lucky, the next hit of morphine or Dilaudid or whatever the hell they were giving him, took the edge off of the raw ache in his stomach and made him feel less hollow and poorly pieced together, all at the same time. It didn’t disconnect him from his emotions though. The first time a recollection from that night hit him, he was still too fucked up from the trauma and surgery and everything else to have much of a response. The second time an image of that night flashed into his mind, his heart rate spiked on the monitors, scaring the hell out of Wanda and Darcy and, hell, Pietro himself. He’d been gasping and choking for breath for minutes before the doctor or one of the nurses added some sort of sedative into his cocktail of meds. That made things just floaty enough to decrease those physiological responses.

It didn’t stop the boredom or flashes of memory. It made it so that when they hit, he didn’t completely lose his shit or put his body through more hell than it was already going through. It helped as the pieces of the events of that night formed a relatively solid picture. Or maybe that wasn’t the right description. Because he still had no idea exactly what had happened, just fragments that he thought were more or less in chronological order.

He remembered walking down the street, his breath ghosting in the cold air, eager to meet up with Darcy. Then things became confusing and jumbled and he tasted iron in his mouth as he fought to get up from the ground – which he couldn’t understand because he’d been on his feet just a few moments before – and then tried to protect his head and ribs from the kicks and blows that were raining down on him. When he tried to reach out, to grab one of his attackers, a booted foot smashed down on his hand.

Then he was in a chair and someone was wrapping ropes around his wrists. In the back of his mind, he remembered tricks he’d learned way back when Talbot used to restrain him, and tensed all of his muscles. He waited for as long as he could before relaxing the muscles and feeling the rope loosen, not much, but enough that he was pretty sure he could slip free if he had enough time to work his hands loose. Time must have passed, that was all he could gather, since then there was no one around him – although he could still hear them talking quietly to one another, which meant they weren’t far. He took the opportunity to maneuver his wrists through the loosened restraints. He could feel the friction burning into his skin but didn’t let that stop him.

“Is it worth it to call Talbot now, before we have the girl?” one of the men asked.

The other replied, “We should wait. The boy’s not going anywhere and having him might be the perfect way to reel her in.”

Then the words faded away and he could no longer feel the rope around his wrists. Pietro stumbled upright, on legs that felt barely strong enough to keep him upright and moving. Despite that, he ran, pushing forward even when one leg buckled and he felt his knee hit the pavement as he nearly went down. There were yells and shouts from behind him, some in a language he wasn’t quite familiar with.

Then he stumbled again, almost going down, and somewhere in the midst of that, he stopped thinking and instead started reacting. Amidst the sound of yelling and screaming, he heard a sound he’d previously only heard in the movies – the click that came along with the safety on a gun being removed – and instead of every logical option he’d had plenty of time to think about in the hospital afterwards, like running forward or trying a zigzag pattern in the hopes of not being hit, he turned back to face them.

He didn’t remember the gun going off, just feeling like he’d been punched in the stomach, except this was worse than any hit he’d ever taken because none of those blows ever ripped through skin and muscle and maybe organs. He couldn’t bring in air, he couldn’t think, and yet his body had absolutely no problem going completely onto autopilot and spinning back around, trying to run despite the pain.

And that was where the memory fell apart again. One moment he was running, the next his legs collapsed completely beneath him and despite his mind screaming at him to keep moving, he couldn’t react. Then his mind stopped screaming at him and went silent and still and calm and he found that he no longer cared about running because it made perfect sense to lay there. Some time must have passed; there was no other option, because the next thing he remembered, someone was carrying him. Then, impossibly, he was in Shield, with Sam and Bucky trying to piece his stomach together while Wanda sat beside him. He could remember the sensation of his heart beating unevenly before it lurched in his chest and he wondered, as the world became hazier and hazier, whether this would be the last time he ever saw his sister.

The increased beeping of the heart monitor brought him back to the present again, before he realized he’d even slipped entirely back into the memory, as did Wanda rather frantically saying his name.

“I’m okay,” he managed to choke out. “I’m fine.”

He didn’t have the chance to say much more. A moment later, there was a nurse beside him, injecting something into his IV before he could protest, and he could feel it slipping through his veins, cold and heavy - or maybe that was his body getting heavy – and then it seemed strange that his heart had been pounding in his chest because now it was slowing down, his muscles were unwinding, and he felt completely calm.

Wanda glared at the nurse and snapped, “He said he was fine.”

Before the nurse could respond, he murmured, “Wanda, it’s okay.” When she gave him a look, he managed to twist his lips in what he hoped was a smile. “Really. It helped.”

“As long as you’re sure,” Wanda said, eyeing the nurse warily.

“I am.”

The nurse quickly determined that her presence in the room wasn’t helping anything, particularly as Wanda moved closer to her brother, the look in her eyes protective – and wasn’t that an interesting change from how things usually were between the two of them; not that she had never been protective of him, as she had been on multiple times when Talbot hurt him, but it always seemed he was the one protecting her – and smoothed his hair back.

“I’m okay, Wanda,” he repeated softly, once the nurse had stepped out. “I’m sorry. I just got lost in thought. Bad thoughts.”

“Thoughts about that night,” she said, and it wasn’t a question. He nodded and she sighed. “You want to talk about it?”

“Definitely not,” he said and there was an odd twitch in his muscles along with that, something that might have been a shudder if he hadn’t been drugged. “Trust me, Wanda, that’s not going to help either one of us.”

She frowned in response to that. “Maybe I could help.”

“The only thing I could imagine helping would be everything that happened that night being erased from my memory. But I think for now I’d rather just talk about anything else. Like how much longer I’m gonna be stuck in this fucking place.”

Wanda exhaled raggedly. “It’ll be a few more days at least. The doctor says there’s still concerns of potential infection, so they want to keep an eye on you until that risk is gone.”

Pietro reached for her hand, squeezing it, before he asked, “And then? Where will we go?”

“I’ve talked to Clint and Natasha. Both of them are willing to have us back in the townhouse. I don’t know how much freedom we’d be getting though or how much we’d want and I don’t know how to navigate that.”

“I know. They’ve already been through enough because of us. I don’t want to put them in danger.”

“But they’ve also offered to help,” Wanda gently countered. “And then there’s Tony…”

“But you don’t trust him.”

Wanda sighed and leaned back in her chair, looking anywhere but at him. “I don’t but I also think it might be worth finding out more about what he was offering. Technically he didn’t say that we’d have to leave town. I was the one who made that leap.”

“So we ask him. Make him tell us what it was that he was offering. Then…”

He trailed off, frowning as his thoughts muddled again. For all of his periods of lucidity, it didn’t seem to take much to throw him off.

“Then we can decide,” Wanda murmured. “We’ll look at all of our options and figure out which one is best.”

Pietro lapsed into silence at that point. The problem with quiet was that it was hard for him to focus. It didn’t take long before he found himself on the verge of drifting again. He tightened his grip on Wanda’s hand, in the hopes of keeping himself as focused as he could be with the drugs in his system. Thinking was too hard, so he settled on saying the first thing that came into his mind.

“I don’t know what to do about Darcy.”

The look Wanda gave him was almost pitying. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, shit, Wanda, I just got shot. If I stay with Darcy…” He trailed off once more, though this time it had nothing to do with hazy thoughts.

“If you stay with Darcy, she might get hurt,” Wanda finished. “You’ve known that all along, Pietro. We’d been lucky so far that nothing like this had happened but we always knew it was a possibility. That didn’t stop you then.”

“But now…” he stopped, then started. “I mean, I knew there was something up with those Irish guys.”

At that, Wanda froze. “What did you say?”

The blood in Pietro’s veins felt almost as cold as it had when the doctors dosed him with the latest batch of meds, although this time it was all over, not just in his arm. “I said the Irish. They were the ones who jumped me. I… I hadn’t said that before?”

“No, Pietro, you hadn’t,” Wanda said, a definite edge to her voice. “It was them? Ryan and his cousin?”

At that, he hesitated. “I don’t remember seeing Ryan or his cousin there but I didn’t get a clear look at anyone, at least not from what I can remember. Still, you have to admit it’s suspicious as fuck, Wanda.”

“It is but that doesn’t necessarily mean it means that,” she said slowly. “But I’ll keep that in mind if I hear anything from Ryan.”

“Have you?” he asked sharply.

“No, I haven’t. Which either speaks to his innocence or guilt, I’m not quite sure which one. I mean, I don’t want to be paranoid, but…”

There was an awful knotting sensation in his stomach, uncomfortably close to where the bullet ripped through his skin. While the logical part of his mind tried to attribute that to the emotions he was feeling, the less rational part informed him that he must have been dying, his wound tearing open or something equally as horrific. He glanced down, tugging the sheets back the slightest bit, and thankfully seeing no blood seeping through the front of the hospital gown.

So it wasn’t his injuries getting worse. It was just fear; the fear of something like this happening to his sister, of something worse. Particularly now that he wasn’t able to protect her and wouldn’t be for as long as he was in the hospital bed. While he’d been horrified when he realized that he hadn’t told her about the people who had kidnapped him, he also hadn’t considered what she might do with that piece of information.

“Be careful, Wanda,” he finally said, when he realized he’d been far too quiet. “Don’t take matters into your own hands. Not now. Not until we know more. It’s not worth it.”

“It will always be worth it for you,” Wanda said, her voice hard. “But no, if you’re wondering if I’m thinking of doing something stupid right now, I’m not. I would at least want to be prepared before taking a step like that.” Her expression softened the slightest bit and she leaned in to kiss his forehead. “I’m not going to leave you, Pietro.”

“Don’t make promises you can’t keep,” he said quietly. “I can’t promise that any more than you can.”

“And you shouldn’t talk like that! If I say I’m not leaving you, I mean it.”

Pietro held back on everything he wanted to say in response to that. After his experiences, including the most recent one, of nearly dying, he wasn’t prepared to make a promise that he might not be able to keep. That if his sister had ever come as close as he had to that edge, she might understand that sometimes promises like that could not be kept.

Instead he just squeezed her hand and murmured, “Alright” because that was easier than discussing the matter any further.

“This probably isn’t the best time to be saying this but I’m actually going to be going out with Clint and Sam for awhile this morning,” Wanda said.

Immediately, his blood ran cold. Wanda hadn’t left his side for any length of time since he’d woken up in the hospital. The thought of having her out of his sight left him terrified. There were too many things that could happen if he wasn’t there to protect her, not that he was any state to be protecting her now.

“It’s only going to be for a few hours,” she promised. “And they’re not going to leave me alone. We can trust them to keep us safe.”

He didn’t bother to comment that while she was gone and he was alone here, something could always happen. Despite the fact that everyone promised he would be safe, he didn’t know that for certain and he wasn’t in any shape to be able to protect himself either.

Almost as though she had read his mind and every unspoken statement he’d held back, she said, “Don’t worry. I’m not going anywhere until Darcy gets back.”

He tried, he really did, so very hard to not feel resentful over the fact that he was almost being treated like a child, passed back and forth between them.

“That’s kind of you,” he said, not bothering to hide the sarcasm that entered his voice.

“Don’t be like that. I’m sorry, Pietro, but I have to do this. I’ll be with the others and I can promise they won’t let anything happen to me.”

“Just like they didn’t let anything happen to me?” he asked sharply.

“That’s not fair! They weren’t with you the night this happened. You’d asked to go alone. If it weren’t for Clint finding you…”

She swallowed hard rather than finish that sentence and he tried hard not to drown in guilt.

“You’re right,” he said reluctantly. “Just be careful. I mean it.”

“I will be. You don’t have to worry so much, Pietro. I’m doing this to protect you. To protect us.”

“That doesn’t make me any less nervous.”

Before he could follow that up before asking where she was planning on even going, Darcy walked into the room. His heart dropped – or at least it felt like it did, although there was no change from the rhythm on the monitor - which wasn’t fair at all. Darcy had been nothing but supportive and willing to overlook all of the fucked up shit going on in his life. It was just hard to have her here now when he wasn’t sure what would happen next. Despite his insistence that he wasn’t about to go anywhere and he was done with running, the fact remained that having her with him was dangerous, maybe even a liability if he were to utterly selfish. She could be caught in the crossfire just as easily as everyone else.

“Hey, Silver Blaze,” she greeted him, placing what appeared to be a small pizza box on the bedside table. “I wasn’t sure if the doctors were letting you expand your diet at all but I was hoping they might be willing to let you nibble on a piece of pizza, if nothing else.”

“I’m still pretty much on fluids,” he said, making a face, although grateful for the distraction. “But supposedly there’s no ruptures or tears in my intestines, so that’s a positive, I guess.”

“That’s something,” she agreed. “I can hold onto the pizza until that’s part of your approved diet.”

Wanda pressed a final kiss to his forehead and murmured, “I’ll be back soon and I have my phone on me. You can always call if you need anything.”

When she went to pull away, he tightened his grip on her hand. “Be careful and I’ll see you soon.”

“You know I will,” she promised. Then she turned her attention to Darcy. “Don’t let him do anything stupid while I’m gone.”

“I’ll try but no promises,” Darcy said. “Have fun.”

With that, she was gone, leaving him alone with Darcy and with no idea what to say. Darcy settled down in the chair Wanda had just abandoned and stretched out.

“How’re you feeling?” she asked, when Pietro didn’t offer any of his own commentary.

That wasn’t exactly an easy question to answer these days, so he went with the first response that popped into his head.

“Heavily medicated, so it could be worse. Mostly just ready to be out of here. Walking the length of the hallway a couple of times a day isn’t my idea of freedom.”

“Any word on when we might get a jail break?”

“Nothing definite. I’m managing fluids. They’re keeping the IV for now because there were some signs of infection, enough that they wanted to pop some heavy-duty antibiotics into me. But I’ve been eating – if you can call drinking broth and other clear liquids eating. The nurses keep swearing that everything’s going well so I’m just hoping they’re right at this point.”

“And when you’re discharged… have you thought any more about where you’re going to go?” she asked.

He wanted to avert his gaze and half-hoped Darcy would, to spare him the trouble of making that decision. Naturally though, that was the last thing she was about to do. Her eyes remained locked on his and he didn’t have it in him to ensure he controlled his facial expressions. He couldn’t quite determine his own emotions but she must have seen something she didn’t like because her expression darkened and a moment later she slowly exhaled and nodded.

“Alright. So, what aren’t you telling me? I can see something’s on your mind. Is it about going somewhere else? Leaving the city?”

He shook his head. “No. I don’t think we’re going to leave. But I’m not sure what’s going to happen if we stay.”

“You mean you don’t know what’s going to happen between us if you stay.”

He couldn’t deny it and so after a long moment, he simply nodded. “It’s not that I don’t like you,” he tried to explain.

Before he could manage more than that, she cut him off. “I know that, Pietro. It’s that you’re afraid of something happening to me. I figured as much. So… do I get a say in any of this or will this be a decision that you make and I have to live with? Cause I’d kinda like to be involved in this process.”

That wasn’t quite what he’d expected. He knew Darcy enough to doubt that an emotional display would occur as a result of his words. She was far too together for that. Still, he hadn’t anticipated that question or what his answer might be.

“You get a say in it,” he said after a long moment. “Or at least I think you do. I’m not entirely sure. But you’re right. This is a decision that impacts you as well as me.”

“I have a suggestion, in that case,” she said, her tone conversational and easy, as though they were discussing something as simple as what they wanted for dinner. “You said you’re not planning on leaving the city. So, in that case, it says to me that you don’t need to be making this decision quite yet. Because I can promise I’m not keeping my distance until you’re at least out of the hospital. So once you’re out, then and only then will we discuss where things are between us. Fair deal?”

“Fair deal,” he agreed, only a bit grudgingly.

A strange feeling, one he thought might have been the after effects of his latest dose of medicine, although that made no sense, came over him. An unclenching of the muscles, as though a stone had been lifted from off his chest. A feeling almost like relief.

“Good,” Darcy said cheerfully. “In that case, what do you want to do to pass the time? Watch a movie? Read a book? Play on the DS I brought for you?”

“Let’s start with that one,” he said, grateful to have an activity to focus his attention on.

“I figured you’d say that,” Darcy said, pulling it out of her purse. “I’ve got plenty of options for games whenever you get bored.”

Somehow hearing her say that made that prior feeling of relief disappear. Despite the fact that the two of them had only known each other for a relatively short period of time, she knew him and she knew him well. That wasn’t something he’d ever expected to find.

Instead of saying anything, he offered her a smile that for all he knew looked more like a grimace. “Thanks, Darcy.”

Maybe things were on the verge of ending but he wasn’t about to let that decrease his enjoyment of the immediate moment. Especially when there wasn’t a whole lot to enjoy given his current condition.

-~-

Returning to the townhouse was strange after days of not being there. Somehow it simultaneously felt like coming home and arriving somewhere completely new, like one of the abandoned buildings she and her brother used to stay in. A place that was home but only for a temporary period of time. Maybe that was just her knowing that her entire life here was temporary, not permanent, the way it had started to feel to her. Not knowing whether she and her brother would return once he was released from the hospital, it didn’t feel safe to think of it as home. Because when you thought of a home, when you allowed yourself to feel safe, it could be taken away from you, just like that. There was no use in getting attached to something you were bound to lose eventually.

“You wanna sit on the couch while I make something to eat?” Sam offered. “Toss on a movie or something like that?”

She nodded automatically, going through the motions of grabbing the remote, sitting down, and flipping through the channels until she found something that looked halfway interesting, not that she could have identified what she was watching or what the plot might have been. But having something on the TV would make Sam worry less. He was already worried enough about Clint, who they’d just dropped off, and what might be happening over at Shield right at this moment.

Her head remained filled with the terms Sam had explained to her while they were at the shooting range earlier. Words like muzzle, clip, grip, firing pin, and the different between the front sight and the rear sight. He’d insisted on having her disassemble and reassemble the gun several times, naming all of the parts as she did so, to demonstrate an understanding of how the weapon worked. Once she’d finished with that, he finally let her hold the gun – the Glock, she reminded herself, trying to use all of the words and titles and terms she’d learned – insisting that she needed to get used to the weight before he’d even teach her how to aim and shoot.

By that time, she’d already felt sick. Granted, the shooting range hadn’t quite fit the image she’d in her head of what the inside of one would look like. She’d imagined a dimly lit, basement-level room with multiple rows with targets at the end. Which had been basically what she’d found once they made it to the range but the building itself looked more like a mansion or a country club, although that seemed in line with the developments they passed around it. She hadn’t known quite where she was, except that they’d driven far enough that they were no longer in DC.

Things had made a bit more sense when Clint mentioned on the drive over that Tony Stark – and wasn’t Wanda sick of him being involved in every part of her life? – had set up this location for them, bought it out for the day, and ensured that the only people working the desk were the ones he trusted. The first several minutes spent there involved Wanda trying to comprehend how much money a person could possibility spend on luxury accommodations at a shooting range. The furniture, with the richly textured cloth and plush seating, definitely cost more than she could imagine – and that was saying something, given the house she’d grown up in. There appeared to be a bar, with bottles reflected back in the mirror behind her, and a full restaurant in there as well. Somehow the mixture of alcohol and guns seemed a poor decision. She hoped that during usual business hours no one was allowed to drink before going to the range.

She’d almost expected that the range itself would have floors made of diamonds and targets made of gold. In actuality, the range was the only place that looked like what she’d expected, with floors of cement that curved upwards in the back – Sam explained that was a requirement of all shooting ranges, although she didn’t quite understand his explanation of the reason why. There were reinforced stations with some type of material like bulletproof glass to prevent anyone from being accidentally injured. From the moment Sam opened the case he’d been carrying, Wanda’s chest had tightened, making it hard to breathe, a bit of a problem since in addition to Sam’s lesson, Clint kept explaining that breathing was an important part of learning how to fire a gun. The moment she caught sight of the gun inside the case, all she’d been able to imagine was a bullet from a gun just like this one tearing through her brother’s flesh, ripping through muscle and internal organs.

By the time she’d handled the gun several times and taken several deep breaths to keep herself calm, she’d been able to remind herself that she had to follow through with her plan. Giving up and panicking wasn’t a possibility. She needed to do this for her brother’s sake and her own. She’d thought she was okay, after so many times of lining up the shot and listening to Sam and Clint’s instructions, until they finally allowed her to pull the trigger. She didn’t know if it was the ear protection Clint and Sam insisted she wear, blocking out all noise while also protecting her hearing. Maybe that just heightened everything, but the moment she pulled the trigger for the first time, she’d nearly thrown up.

Still, she’d swallowed it back and kept going until the muscles in her hands and arms ached. Then she’d disappeared into the bathroom to throw up. Being the lone female in the group meant she was left alone, although she could tell by Sam and Clint’s expressions when she returned that they had no doubt of what had just happened.

But none of that mattered. She’d learned how to shoot. Despite his reservations about her using a gun, Sam had promised to bring her back to the range to help her continue to practice and learn.

Then maybe she and Pietro wouldn’t have to leave. If she could keep them safe, they might be able to stay. She still regretted the fact that already everyone in the townhouse – not to mention at Shield – had been dragged into this mess but if she were able to protect herself, her brother, and everyone else in the townhouse if necessary, she wouldn’t have to worry quite as much about the effects on the others.

And then, at least, if they did decide to leave, it would be their choice. Leaving if it was their choice wasn’t quite as bad as leaving because she felt as though there was no other option.

The smell of something burning brought her out of her thoughts and sent her heart hammering in her chest. Where there was smoke, there were flames and that meant danger and death. Immediately, she leapt to her feet, running to the kitchen where she found Sam tossing a fire-covered pan into the sink. Moving on autopilot, she turned on the water before looking back to the stove, ensuring that there were no other potential threats there.

She found nothing, so it must have been the smoke because suddenly she couldn’t seem to force any air into her lungs and her vision seemed wavy. If the smoke was that bad, that meant she had to make it to the nearest window or door. But before that, she needed to find Pietro. She couldn’t leave him in here. She hadn’t last time and she wouldn’t this time. Maybe this time, no one else would get hurt. After all, there was no reason for someone to go back for them if they were already outside.

Not that their mother had known that they were safe. Not that –

Her thoughts derailed when a hand closed on her shoulder and Sam’s familiar voice said her name. She blinked several times, realizing that it wasn’t the smoke that was impeding her vision but the fact that she wasn’t breathing properly. Sam’s voice was calm and reassuring. When she finally managed to take in a deep breath, there was still too much smoke in the kitchen. It burned her throat until she coughed.

“Easy, kid,” Sam murmured, glancing once more at the sink where the flames had subsided and then at the open kitchen window. “C’mon, it’s a bit of a mess in here. Let’s go into the living room, huh?”

She nodded, unsure of whether trying to speak would lead to her inhaling more smoke, and followed him into the other room, blessedly free of smoke. Sam’s dark eyes studied her worriedly as he gently guided her onto the couch. She tensed, prepared for his inevitable questions about what had just happened with her.

Instead, he exhaled raggedly. “I’m sorry about that. I got lost in thought, just wasn’t paying attention to what was going on.”

“It’s okay,” she said, finding it easier to speak now that the air was clear and she wasn’t answering questions about herself. “What were you thinking about?”

“What else? Clint and his stupid plan to see those Irish bastards. It’s happening right now and for all I know, he’s in danger and I’m not there. I’m just so sick and tired of the people I care about being hurt and me being unable to do anything to stop it.”

“You could go over there now,” she offered, a bit hesitantly, because staying in the townhouse alone meant more time away from her brother. But she had no reason to think he wasn’t safe, given that he had Darcy with him.

Sam frowned but she could see that he liked the sound of that idea. “Are you sure? I don’t want to leave you alone.”

“I’ll be fine. You don’t have to worry about me.”

“Somehow I don’t think that’s possible.” Sam chewed on his lower lip for a moment before nodding. “Alright. I’ll have my phone on me. Give me a call if you need anything. That is… if you’re sure you’re alright now.”

His gaze was so intense that it made her feel scrutinized, as though he could see everything she wasn’t saying. It was the kind of gaze that made her know exactly where the belief started that those in the mental health field could read minds. She felt as though that was exactly what he was doing in this moment, that he could see right through to the images of firefighters fighting the flames while she and her brother huddled together on the nearby grass, of the paramedics wheeling out the covered body, and of Talbot’s ice cold fury when he found out what had happened and who had been responsible for the start of the fire.

“I’m a little shaken up but I can handle it,” she said after a beat, aiming for an answer that was in the middle ground, not quite the truth but also not quite a lie. “Look, you know I have your number and I promise I’ll call if anything comes up. Otherwise, I’m mostly planning on heating up something in the microwave…” - which was a lie because she was pretty sure if she tried to eat she’d get sick again - “… and continuing to watch TV.”

He squeezed her shoulder before stepping back. “Alright. I’m holding you to your promise.”

It wasn’t until the door shut and locked behind him that Wanda felt as though she could fully breathe again. Then, after checking that all of the flames were out in the kitchen and closing the window and making sure it was secure, she headed upstairs, into the room she and her brother shared. The bedding was tangled, barely having been tugged back into a semblance of order before they’d left the morning everything changed for them.

She tugged the blankets into place as she slid beneath them, curling up and wrapping them around her body. She shifted onto her brother’s side of the bed, smelling the mint and eucalyptus scent of his shampoo still there. If she closed her eyes, she could almost imagine that he was there, right beside her, and all of those events hadn’t actually happened.

Except that they had and nothing could ever change that.

-~-

If Clint heard “I don’t think this is a good idea” from Sam, Natasha, or Bucky one more time, he was going to lose his shit.

It wasn’t that he didn’t get it. Of course he got it. They were worried about something happening to him, probably with damn good reason for that after everything else. Seriously, he got that this was a stupid decision to make but what else could he do? The Irish were coming after him – either they’d heard through the word on the street that he’d been involved that night or they’d seen him – but they also had information he needed. If they wanted to fuck with him, he might as well let it happen on his home turf at the shop, rather than in a back alley brawl, and see what information he could get out of them before they kicked his ass.

The atmosphere in the shop would have been tense all morning, except for the fact that Clint hadn’t shown up until later after spending the morning with Wanda and Sam at the shooting range. Everyone there was slammed with appointments when he’d arrived - save for Bucky who was only doing an appointment a day and otherwise was mostly running the front desk in Darcy’s absence. Clint tried to catch up with the work he’d missed by taking Wanda out that morning in an effort to distract himself.

Still, despite how busy everyone had been, Steve had made certain that he would be around at the time of the appointment, rather than at class, and arranged for both himself and Bucky to not have anyone scheduled at that time, just in case. Clint honestly wasn’t thrilled with Bucky’s presence given the state he’d been in the past few weeks or days or whatever it had been at this point, although his eyes were less shadowed and the tension in his jaw wasn’t quite as pronounced.

When the bell above the door chimed, it sounded like a warning. The two men who stepped inside immediately set all of Clint’s internal warning signs off in a way reserved for crooks or cops, depending on exactly which one of those might cause him more damage in the moment. He’d studied them intently, just in case it might have been someone he had seen before but there was nothing familiar about either of the men, aside from the whole thing where he’d already seen one of the guys on the security footage Steve shared with him. That he could handle; he wasn’t quite certain what he would have done if it were someone he recognized from the street, especially if it had been someone he’d tangled with before.

While he recognized one of them, Cyril, the one the appointment was for, the dark-haired man with him looked similar enough that Clint had to assume they were siblings of some sort, maybe even twins. The thing that set off some alarm bells in Clint’s head – moreso than the ones already going off – was the identical Celtic knot-work on the side of their necks. Maybe it was irrational but seeing the two of them with matching tattoos just reinforced his theories as to their particular affiliation.

He forced himself to breathe normally, calmly, in and out, and fixed a grin on his face, praying it did not look as fake as it felt. “Hey there. You must be Cyril and Cyril’s friend.”

“I’m Aiden, his brother,” his companion offered. “I hope it’s alright that I came along for moral support.”

“Of course,” Clint said easily. “Although I wasn’t expecting the need for moral support seeing as this is just a consult. Nothing requiring being supportive unless sketching out ideas causes you some distress.”

“It’s more of a family tradition,” Cyril explained. “We’ve gotten the majority of our ink together so I asked him to come along today. You’re still cool with that?”

“Definitely,” Clint said. “Who am I to challenge a family tradition?”

Clint expected his nose to grow in response to that lie, as he definitely wasn’t okay with that in the slightest. This wasn’t a simple consult to discuss a back piece. This was going to be some sort of shakedown. He just hoped he could play the game well enough that it didn’t end disastrously.

“We can hold off on the paperwork until after we discuss the design,” he suggested. “That way you can finish it when you go to put down the deposit.”

He looked to Bucky and Steve, both who gave him almost imperceptible nods that he might have missed if he wasn’t looking for them. They were ready, which meant the only thing left to do was to walk the two visitors back to the office. As he walked back, he attempted to manage some small talk.

“So, I’d meant to ask. Steve mentioned you were only here visiting and that you’re looking for a rather large back piece to be completed. That might take a couple of sessions. Is that going to work for the length of your visit? Since I know Steve told you that I’m a student and all of that, so I’m not always working here. It can sometimes be a little hard scheduling multiple appointments.”

“We don’t have an end date exactly,” Cyril responded, matching Clint’s conversational tone perfectly. “But I’m guessing I’ll be here long enough for you to finish up the work.”

“No end date, huh?” Clint inquired. “Must be nice to not have to worry about getting back from a visit. No job that’s gonna wonder where you ran off to or want you back at a certain point? Are you just independently wealthy?”

“Not exactly. I’m self-employed,” came the response, which, again, only increased Clint’s belief that his theories were correct and this was going to very potentially end disastrously.

Clint opened the door to his office, gesturing for each of them to take a seat before he kicked the door shut behind him. Neither one of them took a seat in the two chairs he’d pulled up in front of his desk. He debated whether he should continue to play it cool and take his own seat, particularly when that would mean he’d be the furthest one away from the door and the two of them would be blocking his exit. He’d never had an issue with the position of the desk before – it wasn’t as though he frequently was concerned about a client assaulting him – but now it seemed like a deathtrap.

Clint walked over to the desk and reached for his sketchbook. Arming himself with a pencil wasn’t much but it was better than nothing. You could do a lot of damage with a pencil or pen if you knew where to use it and he did. You could also do plenty of damage with the slightly uncoiled metal spring on sketchbook if you were the type of person who regularly thought about ways of hurting others.

Cyril and his brother continued to wander around the office, as though they were inspecting his equipment. He gave them a few moments before breaking the uneasy silence.

“Alright, uh, what exactly are you looking for in a design? You wanting something similar to the work I can already see on you, something celebrating your Irish heritage, or were you thinking of something completely different?”

Cyril looked over at Aiden and said something in a language Clint had to assume was Gaelic because what the fuck else would the Irishmen be speaking? He didn’t recognize it either, not that he was great with identifying languages but he had some familiarity with Spanish and French from high school and college classes, not to mention Russian and now Romani after his time spent with Natasha and the twins. From the basis of his admittedly shit hearing, it didn’t line up with any of those.

Aiden responded in kind and Clint tightened his fingers around the pencil.

“We are not here to speak about a tattoo,” Cyril finally said. “We are here to talk about the boy.”

Clint all but had his vision go red in response to that – these were the ones who’d hurt Pietro, who’d almost killed him, they had to be - but he did his best to keep his breathing calm, steady, and play dumb. Thankfully that had always been one of his talents.

“What boy? I’ve gotta say, I’m a little confused about what’s going on here right now.”

“You’re lying,” Cyril said bluntly. “We know you took him.”

“Again, I don’t know what you’re talking about. What boy? Why the hell would I abduct a kid?”

The two exchanged another look and switched away from English once again. Clint stared at the distance between himself and the door. Both of them were closer than he was but if they weren’t ready for him to suddenly bolt, maybe he’d get there first.

Not that he was about to bolt because fuck that. These two had something to do with what happened to Pietro. He wasn’t going anywhere.

Then everything exploded into movement. Cyril and Aiden came at him, crossing the room in a matter of strides and making him hesitate for just a moment, just an instant, as he considered which one of them was the greater threat. It wasn’t easy to determine since they were the same height, same weight, and neither one looked necessarily stronger or more dangerous than the other.

The hesitation cost him. The moment he swung the pencil at Aiden’s eye, Cyril caught his wrist, and when he pivoted, intending to drive the heel of his hand into Cyril’s nose, Aiden caught his other wrist.

His shoulder muscles immediately protested with waves of agonizing pain the moment Cyril twisted his arm and applied pressure until his fingers released their grip on the pencil and it fell too the ground. Aiden was equally as rough with his left arm but the muscles of that shoulder didn’t scream and lock up and threaten to tear in a way that made his knees weaken and his vision fill with black spots.

“What the fuck?” he choked out.

“Shut up,” Aiden said shortly. “Now, you can do this the easy way or the hard way.”

He could practically see the crossroads in his mind. It would have been so easy to keep playing dumb and insist that he had no idea what they were talking about, to threaten them with calling for Steve to alert the police.

A flash of memory, of the rasping of Pietro’s labored breaths, of the blood staining everything from Pietro’s clothes, to the floor, to Clint’s own hands, hit and hit hard, weakening his knees as much as the physical pain.

“Fuck you, I’m not telling you shit,” were the words that ended up leaving his lips and he didn’t regret them, even when Aiden landed a hard punch to his unprotected ribs. “You think that’s gonna make me talk? No. Fuck you both. You can threaten me and hurt me and for all I fucking care you can kill me but I’m pretty sure if you do the last one, you’re gonna be fucked because Steve’s going to call the cops, so unless you want to kill everyone here, that’s not a good option.”

“You seem to think we wouldn’t be willing to hurt someone else if necessary,” Cyril said in a tone that was far too conversational, as though they were discussing something simple and unnecessary rather than matters of life and death. “We just want information.”

“Then you guys are dumber than you look,” Clint snarled.

“I’d drop the act and fast if I were you. Once we have the chance to go elsewhere and have a bit more privacy, you’ll be wishing you had,” Aiden said, with none of the conversational nature of Cyril’s response.

“And how do you expect to get me out of here? Huh? I’m not going to come along quietly.” He gritted his teeth, forcing back a cry of pain when another blow hit his already sore ribs. “Seriously, you’re willing to turn a kid over to an abusive asshole just for some money? That’s so fucked up.”

There was a far too meaningful look shared between the siblings. Clint tried to figure out exactly where his plan went off book. He had expected this type of situation to unfold and yet he was completely unprepared. He wasn’t playing them anymore, not now when he was having to worry about what might happen to everyone else in the shop, furthermore with what could happen to him. In another minute, they were going to pull out a gun or a knife or something else to hurt him badly with and he couldn’t do a goddamned thing because he wasn’t going to put Bucky or Steve in jeopardy.

Then the door to the office flew open, crashing against the wall. Clint saw both Cyril and Aiden tense and turn their attention to the door – for an instant, Cyril’s free hand went towards his pocket and Clint’s heart jumped into his throat. But then a metal hand closed around Cyril’s arm, yanking him away from Clint. His grip on Clint didn’t quite loosen enough. For an instant the muscles protested the increased tension all the more before being followed by the sickening sensation of his bone yanking free from the socket for the second time in a matter of weeks.

Clint knew shoulders weren’t meant to dislocate so easily. Given that, it made sense to consider the fact that at some point one of the parts that usually held his shoulder together must have been damaged or torn. Which was so much easier to think about than the fact that his legs felt like they couldn’t support his weight and for a piece of his body that no longer felt connected to him, his shoulder was causing a surprising amount of pain.

Cyril, meanwhile, backed off immediately, his eyes fixed on Bucky’s metal arm, or more appropriately the hand now closed in a fist. Aiden had stepped back as well, leaving Clint standing alone, holding his right arm protectively to his chest and trying to breathe through the pain.

“Give me one reason not to beat the shit out of you,” Bucky snarled, his voice low and dangerous in a way Clint had only heard once before.

This time had nothing on the time they’d found Steve in the alley and he’d seen Bucky ready to tear anyone apart who might have been responsible for Steve’s condition. This was even different from when he’d walked in and found Bucky attempting to murder Rumlow because by then Bucky was more wounded animal than predator. This time though, Clint could see it wouldn’t take much to allow the rage to take over.

“Because you don’t want an assault charge,” Cyril said, his tone placating for a man who’d been threatening Clint less than a minute ago.

“You want to charge him, you’ll be looking at a counter charge from our end,” Steve said, his voice startling Clint who managed to raise his head enough to see Steve standing in the doorway. “From what I can see, this wouldn’t be a matter of assault but a matter of defense by one of my employees. Speaking of which, you just hurt one of my tattoo artists. A man I need to be able to work and someone who I value quite a bit, both as his boss and as a friend. I don’t take kindly to people hurting those I care about.”

“You injured him,” Aiden argued, looking accusingly at Bucky. “I saw the whole thing. You were the one who caused my brother to hurt him.”

“Great argument from the person who was threatening him,” Steve snapped before Bucky could respond himself. “You know what, fuck it, I’m calling the cops.”

That was not the direction Clint wanted this entire fucked up situation take. If the cops were called on Aiden and Cyril, Clint had no evidence as to their involvement with the whole Pietro situation.

“That’s not necessary,” he interrupted. “It was just a misunderstanding. Right, guys?”

Both Steve and Bucky shot him incredulous looks that he studiously ignored. As much as Clint wanted to see Aiden and Cyril – or, as he preferred to categorize them, these two assholes – brought to justice, now wasn’t the time. He didn’t have enough dirt on them to justify the potential of adding pissing off the Irish mob moreso than he already had to his growing list of enemies and problems. Better to play the game and attack when he actually had ammunition, so to speak.

Cyril and Aiden exchanged a look. Then Aiden said, “Right. It was just a misunderstanding.”

“Bullshit, you’re just gonna let them get away with this?” Steve said. “They fucked up your arm! You think they’re going to stop there?”

“Steve,” Clint said, his voice tense. “Leave it. I know what I’m doing.”

Steve was quiet for several seconds, his eyes narrowed. He curled his hands into fists, but only stepped away from the door. “You two have ten seconds to get the fuck out of my shop.”

Bucky and Steve exchanged a look as Cyril and Aiden walked towards the doorway. Some sort of telepathic communication must have taken place because Bucky followed the duo out while Steve remained in the doorway, watching from a distance. Clint, meanwhile, turned his attention to his injured arm, trying to remember all of the methods he’d been taught to pop a dislocated shoulder back into place without assistance.

“Are you okay?” Steve asked, finally moving away from the door and over to where Clint leaned against his desk. “Stupid question. It’s your shoulder again, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, how could you tell?” Clint snarked back.

“Shit. Alright. Uh. I don’t know how to fix that,” Steve admitted. “Should I call someone? Take you to the ER?”

“I don’t have the fucking money to go to the ER again,” Clint said. “I can probably get it back in myself. It’ll just take me a minute. Or two.” When Steve didn’t look away he added, “At least it would take that long if I weren’t getting stared at.”

Steve turned his back towards him at that. Clint tried to remember the tips his brother taught him well over a decade ago to pop limbs back into place. The ones for basics, like a dislocated thumb, came back quickly enough. The shoulder came a bit more slowly, with plenty of reminders regarding the risks associated with trying to relocate a shoulder without proper medical support. At least he’d had Sam there last time, who had medic training.

After a few half-hearted attempts to contort his arm in ways he felt fairly certain were meant to pop a shoulder back into place and plenty of sounds of pain as a result, he finally abandoned it.

“I can’t do it myself,” he said grudgingly.

“Then what do you want me to do?” Steve asked, turning back towards him. “You said the hospital is out. What about urgent care or something like that?”

“Or I could just make a sling or something and wait until I see Sam. I don’t think that’s waiting too long to get this fixed.”

The thought of being poked and prodded in a medical setting was up there with the least of the things he was willing to do at the moment. After all, it wasn’t that bad. He could live with a dislocated shoulder for a couple of hours. That wasn’t going to kill him.

Steve gave him a slightly annoyed look but didn’t argue. Good thing for him, seeing as Clint had plenty of examples of Steve’s own lack of self-care and he had no reason not to throw all of that directly into Steve’s face if necessary.

At that moment, Clint heard a familiar voice in the hallway – and maybe he’d been hurt a lot worse than he thought he’d been, seeing as he must have been hallucinating – because right before there came a light knock on the doorframe, he heard Sam’s voice in the hallway.

“Speak of the devil,” Steve said lightly, as Sam stepped into Clint’s office, giving him a rather dark, unhappy look.

“I’d ask what happened but Barnes clued me into some of it and I’m pretty sure I can fill in the rest. I thought you said this wouldn’t be dangerous, Clint.”

“I didn’t think it would be,” Clint returned, trying to keep his tone light and almost jovial. “Glad that you’re here though.”

“If you’re asking me to fix your shoulder, that’s not happening,” Sam said firmly. “We’re taking you to urgent care and don’t you dare give me shit about money. Your shoulder’s fucked up, Clint. I should’ve made sure you got that examined properly before now.”

“You know the doc there’s just gonna pop it back into place,” Clint argued. “It’s not gonna be a fix. Hell, I doubt they’ll even do scans.”

“Maybe, maybe not, but I’m not comfortable trying to reset it myself. You’re going with me or you’re being left with it like that.”

Seeing that there was no chance of Sam budging in his position, Clint finally sighed and said, “Fine. Alright. Let’s get this over with then.” He offered Steve a half-grin. “Sorry for making a mess of everything yet again.”

Steve shook his head. “Just take care of yourself and keep me updated on how you’re doing. I’ll cancel your clients for tomorrow and you can let me know when to put you back on the schedule.”

With Sam’s help, Clint managed to get one sleeve of his jacket on before giving up on the second one and simply draping it over his injured shoulder, hoping that would be enough to keep him warm once he stepped outside. He tried to focus on the immediate problem, which was explaining to a medical provider how exactly he injured his shoulder to begin with, rather than how he was letting Steve down or what implications there might be for Steve and Bucky getting involved in that situation today.

Hopefully it wouldn’t amount to anything. After all, it wasn’t as though they’d given any signs that they were involved with Clint outside of work.

But, then again, everything that was going on seemed to involve the shop and that was exactly where they were. Guilty by proximity and all of that.

For now, he was more interested in trying to avoid the lecture he was inevitably going to get from Sam once they stepped outside.

-~-

More than once over the course of several hours, Steve found his jaw aching and had to systematically convince his mouth to unclench and his teeth to cease grinding whenever his thoughts had time to wander. He’d had a few appointments in the afternoon and evening to concentrate on, which he was grateful for, but each time he walked a client out and saw Bucky sitting at the front desk, looking far too alert and prepared for action, he found his anger returning three-fold. When he finally had a chance to glance at his phone and discovered a text from Clint, simply stating, Got my shoulder fixed but I’m gonna be out for the rest of the week. Sorry, boss, his anger intensified.

When an unexpected text message arrived, simply stating, See you at closing, Rogers, with the name Tony Stark attached, anger wasn’t even the word for how he felt. Obviously Tony found something out, either far too late because the search was too difficult, far too late because he’d put it off for too long, or far too late because he’d found the information out sooner and just never gave Steve any of it until it was too late. It had been days since he’d shared the footage from the shop with Tony. Given that Tony was coming by now, he’d obviously found something out. If it turned out he’d known for a while, Steve wasn’t sure he’d be able to keep from punching him in the face.

About half an hour before closing time, with no clients – or surprise visits from Kate – occupying the building, Steve sent Bucky upstairs. It was fairly evident that the situation with the Irish sent his adrenaline skyrocketing and that gave him the energy to act in the way he did. By the end of the day, Steve could tell that he was pretty much collapsing on his feet. The fact that he didn’t even argue when Steve told him he was welcome to head upstairs spoke volumes. The last thing Steve needed was for Bucky to either fall apart physically or to lose his shit with Tony once he arrived.

Steve promised to finish up downstairs, handling everything Darcy typically handled, and it wasn’t until Bucky’s footsteps disappeared upstairs and he heard the apartment door open and shut that he realized he’d neglected to mention that Tony was coming by. He considered going upstairs or texting Bucky, just to let him know. He didn’t want to be accused of hiding anything. By the time he’d convinced himself to pick up his cell phone, the bell above the door jingled and Tony stepped inside.

The look on Steve’s face must have highlighted each and every emotion he was feeling in the moment, given that Tony nearly stepped back right outside. Steve couldn’t quite gauge Tony’s own emotional state, seeing as he had sunglasses on despite the fact that it was pretty much dark outside. He didn’t leave though, just hesitated for an instant before stepping the rest of the way inside and letting the door shut behind him. He pushed his sunglasses onto his head and gave Steve a searching look.

“Alright, what happened this time?”

“I’ll tell you what happened,” Steve said, trying to control his voice because the last thing Bucky needed to hear were raised voices from downstairs. “Two Irish guys showed up today, attacked Clint in his own office, and sent him off to urgent care to get patched up.”

“Shit,” Tony snapped. “Shit, I didn’t realize the appointment was scheduled for so soon.”

“I told you more than once,” Steve pointed out, trying to feign something as close to calmness as he could manage. “I’m guessing you got some of that information back. Let me guess… they’re with the Irish mob?”

“They’re with the Irish mob,” Tony confirmed. “I’ve got names, records, shit like that.”

“That’s great, Tony. That’s really, really great. That’s something we definitely could have used just a few hours earlier because maybe if we’d had some sort of clarification, we could’ve prepared better. You promised me you’d have that information before the scheduled appointment.”

Tony blatantly ignored the last part. “Yeah? How exactly would you have prepared yourselves? Would you have informed them that you knew who they were and who they worked for? Would you have put yourself even more in their crosshairs? I’m sorry that Clint got hurt but if I’d gotten back to you, it wouldn’t have changed anything except probably made things worse.”

“Oh yeah, great. So now you’re telling me that you purposely didn’t tell me the information you swore to me you’d have in time? That it wasn’t just you fucking up and forgetting to tell me because you were drunk or too busy or something else?” Tony’s expression hardened but Steve kept going. “I mean, you don’t seem too surprised by all of this. It took me until a week ago to find out that there was mob involvement and everything else. I mean, Jesus Chris, how much do you know that you haven’t told me? How long have you known?”

“To answer your first question, I know a fair amount. As for the second, I’ve known pretty much since I found out the twins were staying at Natasha’s place. Now, if you’re asking how long since I knew things could escalate like this, that’s only been since the kid got shot.”

“So a few weeks,” Steve asked, receiving his confirmation when Tony nodded. “And why didn’t you tell us then?”

“Because I didn’t know for certain. Alright? There were always whispers that Talbot was caught up in shady shit but I didn’t have any proof that he was actually involved with any of the branches of the mob. I know the Irish cased the store that one time but I figured they were just looking for evidence that the kid had been there that night. I knew they were coming back for the appointment with Clint but I didn’t think they’d be stupid enough to assault him in the store. Maybe threaten him – and I was hoping maybe we could catch something else on candid camera that would help incriminate them – but trust me when I say that the reason I didn’t tell you before now was because I thought the more you knew, the deeper you’d be in. That was me trying to keep you out of it as much as possible.”

All at once, Steve felt impossibly tired. The argument with Tony just kept going in circles, with Tony saying the same thing over and over again. It was clear that nothing Steve said would make any difference.

“You know, you’re a hard man to trust, Stark.” Then, turning away and heading towards the stairs - because there was no reason to talk any further - he said over his shoulder, “If you’ve got any files, leave ‘em in my office and I’ll look at them tomorrow. Otherwise, feel free to lock up. Goodnight, Tony.”

He didn’t look behind once as he headed up the stairs, though he felt Tony’s gaze on his back the entire time.

Chapter Text

Everything felt off to Jane. Maybe that was because of the lab. It used to be more of an exclusive club, but now was continually filled – seemingly on a rolling basis – by students in a variety of disciplines. Thankfully, the only consistent additions thus far were Bruce and Betty. He was quiet and mostly kept to himself. Aside from murmured conversations between him and Betty, there weren’t many extra distractions from that side of the room. Definitely a step up from when they’d been joined by FitzSimmons, who were incredibly chatty between themselves, although they didn’t directly pull Jane away from her work.

So maybe it wasn’t the lab throwing her off. Sure, the feeling lifted sometimes in other places, like when she taught class, but it crept back in when she sat at home grading tests. It crept in during the long hours at the lab when she went through mechanical data entry. Nights like tonight, where she might as well have been alone in the lab, despite the fact that Bruce worked quietly on the other side of the room.

No, it had nothing to do with the lab. It had everything to do with Darcy. Jane hadn’t been this way before things with Darcy got weirder than usual.

The weirdest part had been how things came out. Jane had noticed a shift a few weeks ago. Suddenly Darcy went almost entirely off-grid, and when she came back on, it was evident something was very, very wrong. She’d been twitchy, quiet, all sorts of things that were just not Darcy. While Darcy’s enthusiasm often felt exhausting to those around her, the change was so dramatic that it was less of a relief, more concerning.

When Jane finally got her alone, Darcy spent her time hedging and insisting everything was fine, before – not then, of course, but a day or two later – admitting that there had been an “accident” and her boyfriend was in the hospital. She’d talked around the “accident” enough that Jane realized afterwards she had no idea what had actually happened or why exactly he wasn’t at a local hospital where Jane and Thor could visit him.

None of this entire situation made sense. Especially not from Darcy, who on her best of days was open to a fault. There were times when Jane had inadvertently learned things about Darcy’s personal life, particularly her sexual history, that she’d never wanted to know. Being close-lipped wasn’t Darcy’s style. Yet all of that had changed when Darcy got into the relationship. Suddenly she’d pulled back, gone quiet.

Seeing Darcy and her boyfriend together had been reassuring for Jane, who’d been worried that there was something bad, something harmful in the relationship. She’d been reasonably convinced that Darcy wouldn’t remain in a relationship where she was being mistreated in any way – the girl had a taser for a reason – but the dramatic shift in her personality caused more questions than answers. It was clear that something was off. People didn’t just have “accidents” and go into hiding. Especially given that Jane didn’t think Darcy was lying about there having been an accident. This “accident’ wasn’t Darcy’s attempt to hide a bad breakup. All of which, in some ways, made it more confusing and worrisome.

A crash from the other side of the room yanked Jane back to the lab. Bruce crouched on the floor, picking up the instruments he must have knocked off the table – thankfully nothing that raised any concerns over potential lab contamination or other catastrophe. There came another clatter as his shaking hands prevented him from picking up the materials.

Jane abandoned her data entry and went over to him. On closer examination, Bruce looked like hell. His face was pale, his eyes sunken and almost bruised looking due to what she had to assume was lack of sleep, just given her own experiences and need for under eye concealer over the years. His shaking hands must have been linked to recent coffee or energy drink consumption. She remembered him mentioning that he didn’t respond well to caffeine.

“Sor… Sorry,” he managed to get out. “I… I….”

When it became evident he wasn’t going to be able to form words, Jane gently said, “It’s okay. We’ve all been there. Grad school takes its toll on you.”

She reached for the materials he’d knocked to the floor and helped gather them back into place on the table. By the time she returned her full attention onto Bruce, her thoughts were less, “This is normal” and more “Do I need to get this boy immediate medical attention?” Bruce’s body shook, almost violently, and his eyes were wide and panicked. Something on his wrist beeped incessantly in a way that probably meant it was tracking his heart rate. The sound definitely wasn’t a good sign.

Still, she kept her voice calm. “Bruce, I’m a little worried about you. What did you drink? Or did you take something?”

Unfortunately, he wouldn’t have been the first grad student to go the route of speed or coke.

He shook his head. “No. I… I don’t do that. I drank… I drank a Monster.”

“Alright, that’s good. That’s definitely good for me to know. You said you don’t respond well to caffeine. Is it something medical? Something with your heart? Your blood pressure? Do I need to call an ambulance for you?”

Bruce shook his head in response, almost wildly. Jane debated whether to take a slightly lesser step and settle on calling public safety and letting them make the determination of whether an ambulance was needed. Before she could take those thoughts any further, the door to the lab opened and Betty, dressed in what appeared to be evening wear, hurried inside. She immediately shifted into a run when she saw Bruce and Jane on the floor. She knelt down beside Bruce, her fingers immediately going to his wrist.

She didn’t bother to look at Jane as she sharply asked, “What happened?”

“He drank an entire energy drink,” Jane said. “Should I call an ambulance? He said no but I don’t want him to have a heart attack or something like that.”

“No, no, he doesn’t need that,” Betty said distractedly, removing her fingers from Bruce’s wrist. “Easy, Bruce. Just take it easy. Breathe nice and slow. That’s it. That’s good.”

As she spoke, she slipped her hand into Bruce’s pocket, in a gesture that was uncomfortably intimate, and pulled out a bottle of prescription medications, from which she shook out one of the small, white tabs. She placed it into Bruce’s hand, which she then lifted to his lips, encouraging him to swallow it down. Jane watched as Bruce’s breathing slowed and became more even. Betty remained crouched beside him, one hand cupping his cheek, keeping his eyes focused on hers. The beeping from his wrist shifted, becoming less frequent.

Jane finally looked away when Betty leaned forward and pressed her forehead against Bruce’s, continuing to murmur quietly to him. Since she clearly had everything well in hand, Jane retreated back to her desk, keeping an eye on the other two but giving them their space. Once Bruce’s breathing evened out fully, Betty picked up the last of the instruments he’d dropped and replaced them on the table. She then carefully helped Bruce to his feet, steadying him as he straightened up, before guiding him to the door.

“No, Betty, I can’t,” he protested. “I have too much to do.”

“The only thing you’re doing tonight is sleeping,” she said firmly. “You know you can’t do this to yourself. Running yourself ragged is doing no one any good.”

“But I have deadlines. I can’t - ”

“You can. Your well-being is more important than any deadlines.” Her voice dropped as they neared the door but Jane caught her saying, “I’m sorry I went out to dinner with my father. I shouldn’t have left you alone.”

“It’s not your fault,” Bruce said quietly, though the rest of his words vanished as the door closed behind him.

Once again, Jane found herself left in silence; uncomfortable silence, after everything that had just happened in front of her. She felt incredibly tired all of a sudden, likely due to how busy she’d been. A glance at the clock revealed it was nearing 10. Probably time to head out and take the same recommendations Betty had made to Bruce. Nothing productive would be completed otherwise. The chance for errors would increase and there was nothing so urgent that pulling an all-nighter would be worth it.

Except… except that she really didn’t want to return to her empty apartment. Thor’s parents were back in town, which meant he was with the family for the next several days, and that left her with an empty apartment and emptier bed. As far as she could remember, there wasn’t even something to eat in the fridge.

But that wasn’t a reason to stay in the lab all night. Reluctantly, she gathered her books and papers into her bag, slung it over her shoulder, and made sure the lab’s doors were locked securely behind her. With no one there, she needed to ensure the materials and research were all secured, something she frequently had not needed to worry about since she was rarely the last person to leave.

As she walked out the back door, she realized her car wasn’t alone in the parking lot. A figure perched on the hood of the vehicle next to hers. She approached warily, although once she could gather that the model was some sort of sports car, she’d put the pieces together as to who was sitting up there. Particularly when she saw the bottle of what she felt reasonably certain was filled with alcohol in his hand.

“Hello, Mr. Stark,” she said, keeping her tone as polite as possible.

“Hey,” he returned. “It’s Jane, right?”

Given the number of times she’d interacted with him, both recently, as well as over the years, she couldn’t help but feel insulted. “It is. Is everything alright?”

“Oh yeah,” he spat out, his tone bitter. “Everything’s going great. Hell, everything’s fucking peachy.”

Jane felt the beginnings of a headache pounding in her temples and tried to curb the frustration building up inside of her. The last thing she needed this evening was to babysit an intoxicated Tony Stark.

“Is there anyone I can call?” She wondered if she might be able to pass this situation off to someone else, someone more skilled and knowledgeable in dealing with Tony.

“Nah,” he said dismissively. “I just came by. Thought I might say hi to Bruce or somethin’ like that. Guess that wasn’t the best idea, given everything tonight.”

“Bruce went home for the evening. Is there anything I can do?”

Tony’s expression fell and he took a long gulp from the bottle. Jane caught sight of the label at that point, recognizing the brand of whiskey.

Tony continued on as though he hadn’t even heard her question. “No, that’s fine. Just another indication that I shouldn’t have come here. Thanks for letting me know.” He hopped down off of the hood of the car, swaying slightly “I’ll be heading out now.”

Jane weighed her pros and cons. It was Tony’s life, Tony’s ass on the line if he fucked up and got busted for drunk driving. But she was also here, witnessing his level of intoxication. There was no way he wasn’t over the legal limit at this point. That meant it was on her to intervene.

“Mr. Stark, I don’t think you should be driving.”

“No worries, I’m fine,” he said, and by that point she could easily hear him slurring his words.

Jane took a deep breath, debating whether she should step back and just let him do what he was going to or intervene. Getting a DUI was the least of what she worried about.

Then, in one smooth movement, she yanked the keys from his hand and leapt back as he drunkenly grabbed for them with a startled, “Hey, give those back!”

She danced a step back. “Not happening. Either you let me drive your car, you’re getting in mine, or you’re walking wherever you need to go.”

He scowled at her and straightened, his eyes sizing her up. She stared right back at him, tensed and ready to move out of the way if he went after the keys again. Then his shoulders slumped and he stepped back towards the car.

“Fine. Whatever. Fuck it. Fuck it all. Let’s get out of here.”

She popped the locks from a distance and waited for him to get into the passenger’s side of the car before she slipped into the driver’s seat. It was immediately evident that she wasn’t ready to drive this type of car – there were buttons and panels for things that were probably only Tony’s creation – but at least her previous time spent doing field work had taught her how to drive a stick shift. Instead of contemplating all of the other panels and buttons, she focused on the controls she knew well and ignored the others for the time being.

“Where am I taking you?” she asked, as she pulled out of the parking space..

Tony rattled off an address and she slowed the car down, enough that she could look over at him, confusion clearly written all over her face. He was still steadily gulping at the bottle in a way that made her increasingly concerned about his level of cognitive ability, as did the fact that she knew the address he’d just given her wasn’t one that corresponded to any of his buildings, at least not any that she knew of.

“Are you sure?” she finally asked, when he didn’t seem willing to provide any information himself.

He nodded. “Yeah, I’m fucking sure.” Then he slumped back in the seat.

She exhaled slowly, weighing the pros and cons of following the drunken directions and then shrugged. If that was where Tony wanted to go, she’d take him there. She was already babysitting him and that was more than enough of a job for her to manage without complicating everything.

With that, she pulled out of the parking lot and in the direction of wherever the hell Tony was taking them.

-~-

Sam ignored the tense silence that had developed on the way to and from bringing Clint to urgent care, letting it remain after bringing him back to the townhouse and depositing his medicated self on the couch. He’d accepted Wanda’s offer to stay near Clint, in case he needed anything, and taken the opportunity to disappear upstairs for a few hours under the excuse of coursework. Focusing on his latest report kept him from thinking too much to the point where he actually startled when there was a light knock on the door to the master bedroom.

“Come in,” he said, pushing himself away from his laptop. His vision had gotten blurry after hours of looking through online articles and typing page after page.

The door opened and Natasha stepped in, though she came no further. “Dinner just arrived. I’m guessing you didn’t hear the doorbell?”

He shook his head. “Nothing. I guess I was really in the zone. You ordered takeout?”

“Chinese. I didn’t have it in me to cook after bringing Wanda back to the hospital to stay with her brother.”

“Shit, I hadn’t even thought about that.” Sam swallowed hard against the guilt crawling its way up his throat. “I wasn’t thinking about much after bringing Clint back to the townhouse.”

“Understandable,” Natasha said quietly, icily. “Clint did manage to catch me up to speed. I can’t say that I’m feeling particularly pleased myself.” She paused, as though giving him the space to say something else, and when he remained silent, said, “You willing to come down or should I bring you a plate up here?”

“As tempting as an offer as that is,” he said – and, yes, the thought of not having to engage in any of this bullshit was incredibly appealing – but he continued with, “I’ll come down. I’m not sure I’ll stay for the night though.”

“Fair enough. Trust me when I say that there’s a part of me that wishes I could do the same.”

“You could always tell Clint to fuck off,” Sam pointed out. “Doesn’t he still have a dorm on campus?”

“Possibly. But I’m not sure I could be cruel enough to send his broken self back onto campus. Given his recent string of bad decisions, I’m not exactly hopeful for his continued survival and well-being if I do that.” She exhaled slowly. “Besides, it’s not as though he did this latest poor decision without our knowledge. We both knew what was going on. We just didn’t know for certain it would end like this.”

From downstairs, Clint called out, “Hey, you two. The food’s getting cold.”

Natasha and Sam exchanged a look before Natasha said, “We’ll be down in one minute” and then nodded to Sam before stepping out of the room.

Sam took his few moments alone to take as many calming deep breaths as he thought would keep him from losing his shit once he got downstairs. That barely worked enough to take the edge off. Determining this was the best he was going to get at this point, he closed his laptop, stowed it in his bag, and slung the bag over his shoulder before heading down.

He found Natasha and Clint at the kitchen table, boxes of takeout spread all over the surface. Clint struggled to maneuver some sweet and sour chicken from the container with only one hand. Given that Natasha appeared to be busy over at the bar, making drinks for hopefully only just Sam and herself since that Clint was on painkillers, Sam took pity on him and helped. Clint flinched the slightest bit when Sam moved close to him, and Sam tried to think back onto the things he’d said or done while they were in the car to and from the urgent care center that might have triggered that response from Clint.

Sam gratefully accepted the drink Natasha placed in front of him, draining the majority of it in one gulp before turning his attention to the food. Given the short amount of time it took for him to feel the warmth of the alcohol seeping into his muscles, it occurred to him that he hadn’t eaten in quite a few hours. It probably hadn’t been the most brilliant choice to drink on an empty stomach, particularly when he planned to return to his apartment that evening. If he needed to, he could always walk to the metro and abandon his car at the townhouse for the time being. That wouldn’t bite him in the ass until he needed to make it to the VA in the morning.

He distanced himself from the small-talk going on between Natasha and Clint - not mentioning the incident at the shop, of course, but instead focusing on classes and upcoming assignments. The two of them spoke as though Clint’s arm weren’t in a sling, as though all of the events of the past several weeks had never happened. As though Clint wasn’t in imminent danger.

Everything slowed. Sam watched, almost from a distance, as he drew his arm back and then swung it forward, releasing the glass in his hand at the same moment. The sound of it hitting the wall made an unexpectedly loud crash.

In the silence that followed he swore he could hear each individual shard of glass hitting the kitchen floor. By the time Natasha and Clint shifted their horrified gazes from the wall to him, he was already on his feet.

“How the fuck can you be acting as though everything is okay?” he spat out. “Clint’s got multiple branches of the mob after him. A kid who’s barely grown just got shot and almost died. None of this is normal! None of this is okay! How can you both be sitting here, eating dinner, as though nothing is happening?”

Clint still seemed shocked into speechlessness. Natasha said Sam’s name, but it was too late. He went for hall closet, where his jacket hung, and then headed straight for the door. He needed to leave his car here – between his anger and the alcohol in his system, he didn’t trust himself to drive at this point. He would have to return for it in the morning and that would inevitably make him late for work but at this point he couldn’t bring himself to care.

Natasha ran after him. Sam paused long enough to turn back towards her and snarl over his shoulder, “I’m not standing back and watching the two of you get yourselves killed. Fuck that.”

With that, he made his way out the door, slamming it behind him.

-~-

The blood coated the white tiles, coated his throat with a thick, metallic taste, as though breathing in the molecules in the air was enough to infect him. He fought the urge to cough, to choke, to spit it out, knowing it would do no good. He turned, trying to avoid looking at the blood while at the same time looking for a potential exit. That did no good because the blood was all around him. There was nowhere to go where it wouldn’t cover his shoes. Not stepping in the blood felt incredibly important. Something bad would inevitably happen if he did. But he couldn’t remain there, trapped. He had to get out.

But there was a door in the wall, across from him, with only the stained tiles preventing him from reaching it. So he ran, as though that could prevent any blood infecting him even more. He kept his eyes locked straight ahead, pushing door after door open in his hurry, refusing to look at the floors of each room he ran through. But the doors kept coming. No matter how many he ran through, everything was the same, making him increasingly frantic, each ragged breath burning in his throat.

Then, as he passed through another door, slamming it against the wall in his hurry to get it open, he saw a glass door up ahead, through which he could see a darkened parking lot. That meant fresh air and a way to escape. That meant freedom.

But then there were the shriek of tires losing traction on pavement and sounds of screaming. It drowned out everything else. Through it all, someone said his name over and over again. Then he became aware, came back, to the sensation of his heart slamming into his ribcage, his head pounding, and his mouth tasting something like dead road kill.

The room swam into focus gradually, a familiar face hanging above him, and slowly the pieces fell back into place. Beneath him, the worn leather of the couch stuck to patches of bare skin. The voice – apparently belonging to the person leaning over him – kept saying his name. Tony struggled to find words through the gasping breaths shaking his body.

“Alright, it’s alright, Tony,” the voice said. “You just had a nightmare. That’s all.”

That fit the final piece together. Tony groaned, dropped his head back against the pillow.

“Shit, I’m sorry, Rhodey,” he muttered.

Apologizing to Rhodey felt automatic at this point and never made it hard for him to form the words, unlike with everyone else. Especially now, with the rest of the evening coming back to him. When he could remember Jane dropping him off pretty much on Rhodey’s doorstep. Of him being unable to stand upright. Of spending the next hour or maybe it was hours – the memory kept cutting in and out, interspersed with lost time – throwing up in the bathroom while Rhodey kept him upright.

Rhodey leaned back and exhaled slowly. “Jesus Christ, Tony, you need to stop scaring me like this.”

“Yeah, well, I guess that’s just something else to apologize for,” Tony said automatically, swallowing hard as his stomach lurched. The thought of dry heaving was not appealing in the slightest.

Rhodey fixed him with a less frantic look, but still one of concern. “It’s been awhile since I last saw you this bad off. You up for talking yet or do you need some time?”

“Some time. Some water. Something that’ll help soak up the alcohol in my system,” Tony said, because it seemed to be the best way to deflect further questions.

Rhodey studied him for a few seconds. “Fair enough. You going to be alright if I step out for a couple of minutes, while I find a hangover cure for you? I just got back a few days ago and there’s not a lot in the fridge; definitely nothing in here that will help.”

Tony felt a flicker of relief. “Yeah, I’ll be fine, Rhodey.”

Just in case Rhodey might try to argue, he signaled the end of the conversation by closing his eyes. He listened as Rhodey’s footsteps moved away, up the stairs before moving around above him for a matter of minutes and then returning down again. Then the front door opened and closed. It wasn’t until stillness filled the house that he opened his eyes again.

Slowly, he took inventory of himself. He kicked the light blanket Rhodey must have placed over him completely off. He remained dressed in the clothes he’d been wearing the previous evening, except for the fact that now they were coated with what looked like dirt and some stains he believed might be alcohol and/or vomit. He could feel the weight of his wallet in his back pocket and he automatically checked his front pocket for his cell and came up empty-handed.

Despite the fact that his head felt as though it were filled with rocks, he lifted it up to scan the room. His shoes sat beside the couch. Thankfully, his cellphone was right in front of him on the table, the stone coffee table that looked utterly, disgustingly stereotypical with the coffee books covering it. Not so thankfully, one touch lit up the phone with a notification of multiple unanswered messages.

Drunk text messaging, definitely one of Tony’s favorite things in life. He reluctantly opened up the icon on his phone – grateful at least that all of the messages appeared to have been given to him in text form rather than frantic phone calls.

The first message was from Steve and simply said, “Not now, Stark.” Scrolling up, Tony found that he’d sent several messages, less and less coherently, of apology to Steve. As the spelling mistakes increased, so did the pleas for Steve to respond.

Wonderful. Just what Tony wanted. Then again, with Steve maybe he could just ignore it and eventually it would go away.

Not so much with the second set of messages he reviewed. Those messages contained multiple ones from Pepper, saying things like, “Tony, I’m really worried about you. Tony, please call me. Tony, what’s going on? Tony, do I need to call the police or file a missing persons report? Tony, are you okay?”

Scrolling up, he discovered several messages he’d clearly sent to her at some point. Messages like, “I’m sorry, Pepper, I’m so sorry.” “You deserve so much better.” “I don’t know why you bother with me.” And other such self-deprecating and, in retrospect quite alarming statements. Great. Just more damage control for him to manage once he managed to sit up without falling over or throwing up.

He used his remaining time alone to try to figure out what other aspects of last night might also require reparations. He recalled running into Jane in the parking lot, just as his buzz fully settled in, and her telling him Bruce had already left. On the plus side, at least he hadn’t placed additional stress on Bruce. Although now that he reflected on those next few moments, he had plenty of apologies for Jane. There had been a fair amount of angry words to her when she took his keys away, and even more when she’d coaxed him into the car and presumably took him here.

He’d need to make amends for that; maybe by getting her some new, shiny equipment to do science with. Or maybe through taking away some or all of her loan debt, assuming she hadn’t had her way paid because she was a science genius and all of that. He owed her that much for everything she’d done. He’d cheated death plenty of times while driving drunk. It had gotten him a few DUIs over the years but he’d never crashed, which just made him feel invulnerable.

Obviously that was a sign of how fucked up he was. Normal people didn’t choose to stare Death in the eyes and spit in its face. Not when their parents died in a car crash and especially not when they were the only survivor of it. Definitely not when that entire crash was their fault.

Tony’s thoughts cut off there with the sound of the key turning in the lock, followed by the door opening. He pushed himself into a sitting position, closing his eyes when the room spun around him in an effort to avoid retching. He fixed his gaze on the blanket at his feet, focusing on the colors of the individual threads, rather than on the clenching in his stomach or the increased throbbing in his head.

“Should I grab the trashcan?” Rhodey inquired from the doorway.

“No,” Tony said automatically. Then the smell of the food hit him and he swallowed hard. “Well, maybe.”

That was all he managed before the retching started completely. He tried to thank Rhodey for the trashcan that magically appeared beneath him, not that he was bringing up much more than bile. Rhodey offered the helpful commentary of, “That’s right, cough it up” while rubbing Tony’s shoulder.

Tony determined that there wasn’t much more that could happen at this point to lead to him hating himself more than he already did.

When his stomach finally stepped rebelling, Tony sat back and tried to stop shivering. He kept his own gaze fixed stubbornly on the table rather than meeting Rhodey’s worried look – or at least what he presumed was a worried look because he knew Rhodey and he could feel the weight of the gaze on him.

After a few beats of silence Rhodey sighed and moved away before returning a few moments later. He placed a cup of shaved ice and syrup in front of him and said, “Start with that. We’ll go from here and see how much you can tolerate.”

Tony’s stomach indicated uncertainty with the plan as he lifted the first spoonful to his lips. It only took a bite or two for his stomach to settle. A few more and his head felt lighter and less like it might explode.

As all of that happened, the full weight of what he’d done fell on him. The only thing to do was flop back against the back of the couch with a groan. The better he felt, the more he reflected on the fact that Rhodey knew exactly what to do for him after a night of heavy drinking simply because this sort of situation had happened far too many times. Still, Rhodey was still there, for reasons Tony couldn’t quite understand.

Then there was the entire mess with Steve and Shield and Clint and the Irish and all of that. The argument with Steve was far too fresh in his mind. By this point, he couldn’t seem to get those thoughts out of his head. He hadn’t even had the excuse of not realizing that the appointment with the Irish was coming up. He’d known it was on the books and that Clint probably would have benefited from some further information, though Tony had a suspicion that Clint was coming in with plenty of preparation of his own. He didn’t seem to be unaware of what was going on, given the bits and pieces of information Tony had pieced together himself at this point. Clearly, it could have been worse if Tony had provided him with more details. Things could have escalated beyond a dislocated shoulder.

But, still, that didn’t change Steve’s anger at Tony or the fact that Tony had fucked everything up even more the previous evening by sending those text messages.

“You have any interest in talking about what the hell happened last night or should I wait until you’ve attempted food?” Rhodey asked, his voice breaking through Tony’s dark thoughts.

Tony let out a pent up breath in what turned into a long sigh. “It’s not important.”

“Tony, that’s the worst I’ve seen you in a long, long time. Whatever happened last night is definitely important.”

“Fine. I got into fight with Steve. He said some stuff, some of it true, and I guess it fucked with my head. I couldn’t shut the thoughts off, so I started drinking until they quieted. One thing led to another and I ended up here.”

There was a long moment of silence before Rhodey sighed heavily. “Damn it, Tony, why didn’t you call me first? Before you decided this was the only way out?”

“Because I didn’t want you to stop me,” Tony admitted. “I knew you would’ve and I just wanted to stop feeling. That’s all I wanted. It sorta helped for awhile.”

“Yeah, until it didn’t,” Rhodey said. “What was the fight with Steve about this time? The same shit as the last one?”

“Which one was that?” Tony asked. “The one after we slept together a couple of times and he got it into his head that it meant something more? Or all of the ones that came after that, usually about stupid petty stuff involving the shop?” When Rhodey just stared at him in response to that, Tony sighed. “Fine. No. I haven’t gone back to sleeping with him or anything like that. There’s… a situation now. Some bad people doing bad things and I fucked up. That’s the long and short of it. I thought I was doing the right thing and as always seems to happen, I fucked it up. Because that’s what I do. I fuck things up.”

Rhodey just raised an eyebrow. “Self-deprecating’s not a good color on you, Tony.”

The words stung, particularly after reading the string of messages he’d sent to Pepper, leading to a bite in his words as he replied, “Right, because you haven’t seen it before. Because you’re not the only person who gets to see this side of me.”

“Touché.” Rhodey frowned. “You said this involved some bad people doing bad things. What the hell have you gotten yourself into this time, Tony?”

“Nothing, nothing. I know better than that. I’ve learned from my previous mistakes. It’s complicated and probably something where the less you know the better. But I’m not getting in over my head or anything like that.”

“You better not be.” Rhodey paused long enough to scrutinize Tony to a degree that it left him feeling uncomfortable and vaguely sick, although that might have just been the hangover kicking back into full force and not a result of Rhodey’s next words. “It worries me that you’re being so evasive about this. Which is saying something because I’m already pretty worried without that.”

And there it was. He didn’t know how he hadn’t yet cut things off with Rhodey, given his infuriating habit of expressing things like concern or trying to keep Tony from self-destructing. Still, for some bizarre, incomprehensible reason, he’d been dealing with that from Rhodey for years. He didn’t put up with that from anyone else and could barely stomach it from Pepper. Yet, here he was again, over-sharing in the way he hated.

But not too much. He wasn’t about to make his latest mess Rhodey’s mess too.

“I’m doing that so you have plausible deniability. I don’t need to jeopardize your security clearance by sharing too much information with you. C’mon, Rhodey, I’m an asshole but not that much of an asshole. I know how much your military career means to you.”

“Tony, you’re missing the whole thing about not increasing my worry. The fact that you think that would happen makes me think you’re not being completely honest about being in over your head.”

“I’m never in over my head,” Tony replied. “I always find my way out of the mess, sooner or later. Usually later. Seriously, stop worrying, Rhodey. There’s nothing to concern yourself with. It was just a stupid fight with Steve that got under my skin. I’ve just been dealing with a lot and after so many months of forced sobriety – or at least attempted forced sobriety - from Pepper, I guess it just pushed me over that edge.”

“Uh-huh,” Rhodey said skeptically. “Which is why you mentioned bad people, bad things and all of that. I’m not buying it, Tony, but if you’re not gonna talk, obviously I can’t make you talk.”

“I mean, you probably could,” Tony pointed out. “I fully believe you have that specific skill set. But I’m glad you’re not using it on me.”

There was a beat of silence before Rhodey said, “Just promise me that if you find yourself in over your head, you’ll let me know. Okay?”

Tony hesitated for a long moment before saying, “Okay.” Then, in response to the look Rhodey shot him, insisted, “I promise. If I’m in over my head, I’ll come to you for help.”

“That’s all I can ask for.” Rhodey exhaled slowly before asking, “You up for eating, yet?”

“I’ll see how much my stomach can manage,” Tony said, because that was easier than continuing this conversation.

Rhodey reluctantly stood to grab the rest of the food, right around the time Tony’s cell phone determined that it was a good time to go off at top volume. How he’d slept through the text messages was still a mystery to him given that he nearly had a heart attack when AC/DC started to blast. Reluctantly, he glanced down at the screen to see Pepper’s picture flashing across the front.

Before he could talk himself out of it, he swiped his finger across and raised it to his ear. Hungover and still maybe drunk was definitely a better way of handling this situation than waiting until he was stone cold sober.

“Hey, Pepper. I’m still breathing. Sorry about last night.”

There was an uncomfortably long moment of silence, followed by the heaviest sigh Tony had ever heard. “Tony, if you ever do something like that to me again I will kill you. Do you understand me?”

“Heard loud and clear, boss,” he said, aiming for nonchalance.

“What the hell happened?” She didn’t give him time to respond before saying, “Never mind that for now. We’ll talk when I pick you up. Where are you?”

“I’m at Rhodey’s but you don’t need to get me,” Tony quickly replied. “I can get a ride from him or something.”

“Not happening. Give me the address and I’ll be there soon. We have a lot that we need to talk about and I need to see with my own two eyes that you’re in one piece.”

“I’m in one piece, Pepper,” he groaned. “The only problem I’ve got right now is that I’m hungover. Everything else is fine.”

“Still. Give me the address, Tony. Now.”

He considered continuing to argue with her but quickly dissuaded himself of that thought. Pepper was nothing if not thorough and determined, several of the reasons he’d hired her to begin with and kept her on for as long as he had. With that in mind, he rattled off the address to her and then promptly buried his head in his hands after hanging up.

“Should I keep the food away from you?” Rhodey asked, and Tony’s only response to that was to groan. “I’ll take that as a yes. Who was that on the phone?”

“Pepper. She’s coming over to pick me up and give me the longest lecture of my life.”

“Is she,” Rhodey said, in a way that was uncomfortably not a question. “Good. I guess this means I’ll finally get to talk to her.”

To which Tony simply groaned again. The only thing worse than the situation he was already in was the possibility of having the two of them meet one another to discuss him. Honestly, though, this situation was probably exactly what he deserved after the mess with Steve and the shop and the fiasco of last night.

Karma really was a bitch.

-~-

When it rained, it poured.

At this point, Clint should’ve just figured out that this was just how his life went. It was never only having the Russian mob pissed at him; he had to include the Irish mob as well. Knowing his luck, he’d probably have another couple of branches on his tail sooner rather than later because fuck his life. Combine that with kids getting shot and his relationship status falling apart and he was just batting a thousand.

Sam’s only communication since he left the previous night was to say that he needed more time, which left Clint feeling like an asshole for being the catalyst for messing up their relationship once again. Natasha kept reminding him that technically the last time she’d been responsible for Sam leaving but that only helped so much.

At least this time he hadn’t tried to end things with Natasha, too. Somehow none of that served to make him feel any better.

Which meant that when his cell phone went off and his brother’s name flashed on the screen, he had no high hopes. At the same time, he couldn’t stop himself from answering because maybe, just maybe, his brother had a critical piece of information that would help Clint to help the twins. Even if that meant going behind Sam and Natasha’s backs – once again – to keep them out of trouble.

“Hey, Barney. Any news?”

“The news on the street is that you’ve got the Irish on your tail, Clint,” Barney replied. “Heard you had an incident with them the other day.”

“Nothing I couldn’t handle,” Clint said, as casually as he could. “You’re not telling me anything I don’t already know seeing as I was there.”

“But did you know that they’re thinking about retaliation? Apparently you managed to piss ‘em off by doing whatever it is you did. Seems like you might be needing to watch your back moreso than usual.”

“Alright, that’s great, Barney, but still not really specific or anything I couldn’t have already figured out.” He sighed. “Anything else you might be able to tell me? Maybe something about where I could find them? Where their headquarters are? What they might be willing to trade?”

“I mean, I think you already know the answer to that, Clint. All I keep hearing is that they’re looking for the twins. Any information on the twins and they’d probably forgive any of your other indiscretions.”

“Fuck that,” Clint snarled. “I’m not sending the two of them back to that abusive piece of shit. My own life’s not worth that.”

There was a long beat of silence before Barney said, “Well. That changes things, doesn’t it?”

“You’re fucking right it does,” Clint said angrily. “After the shit we went through, you damn well better believe I’m not letting the two of them go back to that asshole. I hope that you’re not as big a fuckup and aren’t planning on selling the two of them out the way you’ve done to me in the past.”

“I’d say I didn’t deserve that, but I guess I did.” Barney said, after an uncomfortably long moment of silence. “Alright. Fair enough. You’re asking for me to redeem myself or whatever. I’ll keep my ear to the ground and see what I can do.”

“I thought that was what you were already doing,” Clint retorted. “You saying that you weren’t but now you’re more serious about it because you realize the type of situation those kids are in?”

“I’m saying that I was more concerned with you being in over your head than anything else,” Barney said sharply. “You’re my brother, Clint, and my loyalty is to you before anyone else.”

“Is it?” Clint countered. “Because the way you’ve acted before, it’s been pretty fucking clear that that loyalty of yours is only towards yourself.”

Barney exhaled raggedly. “Jesus fucking Christ, Clint. What do I need to do to show you that I’m on your side? To show you that I want to make up for all of this? When are you going to stop throwing the past in my face? I can’t do anything to change what’s already happened.”

“Then get me some info. An address. Some intel. Something I could trade with them to maybe make them hate me less. You know cons as well as I do. They know my face but you’re new to the area. You might be able to make friends in a way that I can’t because I’ve burned too many bridges already.” Clint took a short, shaky breath in the hopes of calming himself. “Then, once you have that, call me, and not a minute before.”

With that, he hung up. Immediately, his fingers itched to dial his brother’s number, to apologize, to find some way to smooth things over. On that subject of burning bridges, he really didn’t need to be doing that with Barney. Not that that particular bridge was sturdy to begin with, and it could probably get knocked down with one gust of wind.

When his phone chimed in response to a text message, Clint almost didn’t look at it, unwilling to give any more attention to the type of crap his brother was throwing at him now. But there was always the possibility of it being a piece of legit information, which was enough for him to check. What he found was actually a pleasant surprise. Just a short message from Sam saying, Hey, if you’re cool with it, I wanted to come by tonight.

Clint didn’t even ask Natasha before sending back, You know you’re always welcome here. By the time he saw the next message of, Thanks for putting up with me ☺, he’d almost convinced himself that maybe, just maybe things were looking up.

Chapter Text

Sam couldn’t determine whether his choice to come back was selfless or selfish. Hell, maybe it was somewhere in-between. Selfless, since he was willing to put all of his anger over Clint’s stupid, reckless decisions behind him. Selfish for more reasons than he could name, the least of which being how much of an asshole he’d been when he left.

That had just been the start of him unraveling. The nightmares, which had before been almost under control again - aided by Natasha and Clint’s willingness to sit up with him, grounding him and talking him down, bringing him back after each one – had resurfaced. By that first morning, he’d woken up shaken and feeling somehow that in a matter of a day he’d regressed to the early months, right after he came back home for good, where his anger got the best of him more often than not and he barely slept at night because the nightmares were so bad.

And so he’d swallowed his pride, and contacted Clint. Now here he was, awkwardly standing on the front step, feeling like he was breaking and entering if he used the key but uncomfortable just knocking as if he were a guest. Finally, after way too much hesitation, he went with the key option and unlocked the front door.

No one greeted him, which felt a little strange, but he could hear the sound of pots and pans being moved about and smell something already cooking in the kitchen.

Clint called, “Sam? If that’s you, we’re in here.”

He entered the kitchen to discover Clint standing by a cutting board covered with mostly unchopped vegetables. Natasha searched through the fridge while Lucky and Koschei both darted underfoot. Somehow, Sam almost expected that Natasha and Clint would look different now, though he couldn’t have said why. Seeing Clint standing there, his arm still in a sling made him realize that although it had felt like way too long since he’d last seen them, it had barely been any time at all.

He cleared his throat. “What would you have done if it hadn’t been me?”

“Invite whoever it was to dinner,” Clint said easily, his tone too light for comfort.

Before Sam could dwell on that, Natasha greeted him with, “Hi, Sam” and crossed the room to press a brief, almost chaste kiss to his cheek. “I thought we could save any talking until during or after dinner.” She raised her eyebrow. “As long as you think you can restrain yourself from breaking another one of my glasses.”

He winced. “I deserved that. Yeah, I can promise to keep my cool this time.”

She leaned in to kiss him again, this time on the lips. “Good. I figured as much.”

Clint offered Sam a half-grin. “We’re glad you’re here, man. Especially since I’m hoping you could lend a hand to the dicing. Not having two arms is making it go pretty slow.”

Sam jumped at the chance and agreed immediately. He moved over to the small pile of poorly chopped or completely unchopped tomatoes, onions, carrots, and avocado, and immediately accepted the knife from Clint. For a moment, just a moment, thanks to the cramped confines on the kitchen, Sam found Clint pressed against him. He could feel Clint’s lithe body through the light fabric of t-shirt, smell the familiar, comforting scent of his shampoo – and how many nights had that smell helped ground him as much as Clint’s words did? Somehow, just like that, his remaining reservations fell away because he could never imagine leaving again.

Still, he fought the urge to tug Clint closer. Then the moment passed and Clint moved away to take over stirring the pot of tomato sauce Natasha had just added some sort of spice to, and Sam couldn’t say anything because at least that activity had much less potential for the loss of fingers. A good thing since Sam wasn’t certain how well he would respond to having to take Clint to a hospital-like setting for the second time in a matter of days.

Natasha easily twisted around Clint to slide a tray of garlic bread into the oven and then moved over to the counter where a pitcher full of liquid sat. She poured three glasses and divvied out between the three of them. A Moscow Mule, given the smell of ginger beer. Natasha’s proclivity towards drinks with vodka. Sam took a sip, shooting a look at Clint when he did the same.

“You better not still be taking the painkillers.”

“This is my only painkiller.” Clint took another long sip. “I promise I’m not completely self-destructing, Sam.”

At least Clint owned up to his destructive tendencies. Sam took another gulp of the drink, nervous that his earlier promises that he wouldn’t lose his self-control again might fail once his inhibitions went down.

“How’s the shoulder anyway?” Sam asked, to take himself away from those thoughts.

“Hurts less,” Clint said. “I’ll be in a sling for a couple of more days. I ended up dragging myself to the Health Center this morning and I might be getting some referrals for MRIs or PT or something like that. The word surgery’s been thrown around but since no one’s diagnosed something official yet, I’m in denial that it’s a possibility. I guess if that’s the way it has to be, I’ll consider something around the summer break because I’m not about to screw myself over again for yet another semester. I’m still coming back from the disaster with last semester.”

“Fair enough. At least you’re taking care of yourself.”

“I’m trying to,” Clint said quietly, guiltily, and Sam felt his own guilt shift into something more akin to shame.

While Sam knew his anger towards Clint’s recklessness wasn’t irrational – although his demonstration of that anger had definitely been – to see Clint’s body language change, his eyes downcast, his shoulders slumped, made Sam feel like the biggest asshole on the planet.

“Hey,” he said, his voice a bit sharper than he’d meant it to be, but designed to catch Clint’s attention. He tried to pretend that he hadn’t also seen Clint flinch as well. “I know you are, okay? I know. I’m sorry for walking out after what happened to you and I’m ever sorrier for what I did before walking out. It kills me to see you getting hurt like this but that wasn’t fair to you. Hell, it wasn’t fair to either of you, but it especially wasn’t fair to you.”

“Nah, man, that’s not true,” Clint said quickly. “You’re the one none of this is fair to. I mean, for fuck’s sake, you just got out of the military - ”

“- a year ago, but who’s counting?” Sam interjected.

“ – and now I’ve dragged you into this whole mess,” Clint continued, barely missing a beat. “You’ve been through so much shit while you were in and since you got out and you’ve got all of these amazing goals for yourself. I’m just fucking it all up like I always do. And the worst part of it is that I know it and that makes it even worse and - ”

Sam didn’t mean to cut Clint off. He also didn’t mean to cross the kitchen in two steps or cup Clint’s face in his hands – and nearly let go when Clint all but recoiled as though he expected to be hit. For Christ’s sake, he probably did. Sam knew just enough about Clint’s upbringing to know it was bad without knowing many specifics. Now that he thought about it, he’d also most likely scared the hell out of Clint when he threw the glass the last time. But before Sam could back off, Clint reached up with his good hand to keep Sam’s in place.

Sam didn’t mean to kiss Clint but that was somehow exactly what he did.

He also definitely did not mean to follow it up with, “You’re such an idiot, Clint.”

Clint only laughed. “Yeah, I know, I get that a lot,” he said, before kissing him again.

That was where Sam somewhat lost track of time. It might have been a few seconds or nearly a minute before the oven dinged and the two of them separated. Clint’s face was flushed but for the first time in what seemed like longer than Sam could remember, his smile was completely genuine.

Natasha pointedly cleared her throat. “Now that the two of you have finished kissing and making up, any chance I could get some help bringing the food to the table?”

Sam leaned in to kiss Clint one more time before striding over to Natasha and pulling her into a kiss as well. As always, she fit against him perfectly. He knew all the more that he couldn’t leave the two of them again.

“We’re glad you’re back,” Natasha murmured, almost as though she could read his thoughts.

“I’m glad to be back,” he admitted. Then, before he could talk himself out of it, promised, “And I’m not going anywhere.”

Chapter Text

Playing double-agent eventually became draining.

Darcy wasn’t quite sure when the exhaustion started. The past few weeks, playing the role of student and secretive lover to a wanted fugitive had been Darcy’s life. She went to school, she hung out with Jane and Thor, she even occasionally went out to the club, and then she snuck off to the hospital at least once a day to check on Pietro. Somehow her work in all of her classes remained stable. No one seemed to notice there that she was distracted and unfocused – then again, despite her performance in her classes, she’d never been overly attentive – although it was pretty clear Jane had picked up the fact that something was wrong.

Thankfully, Darcy managed to otherwise navigate any questions that came her way. Misdirection had always been one of her many talents. For the time being, she managed to find answers to Jane’s questions that didn’t lead to additional ones. Yeah, on the one hand it was great that Jane worried about her – it was always nice to know that you had friends – but on the other, there was just too much she couldn’t say right now. She’d already been struggling to explain why Pietro hadn’t been around recently, without suggesting that there was anything bad going on with their relationship.

Although that may have been mostly due to the fact that she wasn’t willing to get into that discussion out of the fear that it might hold some grain of truth.

But today wasn’t the day to be worrying about what would happen once Pietro got released from the hospital – which at this point might be happening any day – and the decisions that the two of them might need to make.

Upon entering the room, Darcy nearly stopped mid-step when she caught sight of Pietro. For the first time in weeks, he was out of the hospital gown and dressed in a t-shirt and jeans. His hair, now with a solid inch of the darkened roots visible, was almost artfully tousled in a way it definitely hadn’t been in quite some time. His skin even held more color, the IV was out, and he looked almost back to normal. If it weren’t for the tension in his muscles and the evident weight loss from several weeks of barely eating and being in bed, she wouldn’t have known he’d been half-dead only a few weeks before.

Pietro’s face lit up the moment he caught sight of her. That in and of itself was surprising and a relief, since that was a drastic difference from the usual stressed out or on edge looks the past few times the two of them had been alone together in the same room. His happiness didn’t seem to be forced, which was a pleasant surprise.

She hoped this might be a sign of a positive turning point for everything.

“Hey. You didn’t tell me you’d improved this much,” she said by way of greeting, as she placed the several packages in her arms down on the nightstand. “Any chance you’ll be getting out today?”

“Not today,” he said. “Hopefully in a day or two though. They finally agreed to let me back into wearing normal clothes, so that’s a positive. Plus I’m finally eating real food again.”

Darcy stilled in response to his first words and then debated whether she wanted to follow up on that or let the day go by without saying anything that might ruin the mood. Pietro’s tone was cheerful and he looked excited about his progress. The last thing she wanted to do was bring the mood down. In the end though, she couldn’t let that statement stand without commenting. Not without getting some sort of answer to the question in her head.

“So, where will you be going once you leave here?” she asked, keeping her tone as light as possible.

“I talked with Wanda and we’ve agreed to go with Tony,” Pietro said, following a slow exhalation that made Darcy worry all the more. “He’s got what he keeps calling a ‘safe house’ nearby, outside of city limits. I’m pretty sure is just some super luxurious weekend home or something like that, but it’s better than nothing. We weren’t ready to head back to the townhouse yet. This seemed to be a good compromise as we figure out what to do next.”

That provided her with another crossroads. She could ask him further questions –what did all of this mean for their relationship? – but given Pietro’s nonverbals as a whole, she figured she’d let things go for now. He wasn’t going anywhere and that was the first important thing. Especially now, when his body language encouraged her to move closer, she wasn’t about to push the questions too far.

She still had to be careful as she slid into bed beside him, wincing the slightest bit as she realized that with the muscle and weight loss, it was easier to do that now than it would have been a few weeks ago. But she still fit against his side, her head nestled in the crook of his neck. For the first time in weeks the first scent to hit her wasn’t the smell of antiseptic but his usual cologne.

She interlaced her fingers with his own and pressed a kiss to the side of his throat. Pietro responded with a content hum that almost would have made her feel like they were back at her apartment and everything was normal if they weren’t sitting in a hospital bed, still surrounded with beeping machines.

It wasn’t the best she could have asked for but it was still better than it had been. She really wasn’t going to be asking any of those questions to herself or him when she could instead turn her attention to pretending they were a normal couple on a normal day.

No, she wouldn’t question anything yet. Not on Valentine’s Day.

-~-

For the first time in weeks, Wanda wasn’t camped out at the hospital. From everything she could gather, particularly when her brother conveyed to her that he would prefer to be able to spend Valentine’s Day alone with Darcy, his relationship was back on track. Maybe that shouldn’t have made her as happy as it did but there was something nice about the fact that at least one thing in her brother’s life was going positively. It didn’t hurt that they had taken up Tony on his offer of a place to stay.

Which meant that Wanda took the day off to spend at Shield. Recently there had been definite issues related to Shield, with the mob wandering in there and Clint getting hurt, but she trusted that the others would ensure that she remained safe during her visit. Besides, a recent update on her hair dye and style, as well as a hooded jacket provided a significant amount of cover as she hurried down the street. There was no way anyone catching sight of her would think of her as one of the twins from the news reports, not even someone who was specifically looking for her. She was as anonymous as she could have asked for.

Then again, Pietro likely thought the same thing the night he’d been shot. She’d spent the previous night at the townhouse; relieved to see that the tension she’d noticed the last time she was there had appeared to run its course. She’d spent the majority of the evening watching her friends pile together on the couch, while she snagged the chair, trying not to think of how much she wished her brother was there to watch movies along with them.

Perhaps, given recent events, walking from the townhouse to Shield probably wasn’t the best decision but none of the usual suspects had been able to take her and she refused to remain hidden once again. Especially with the gun she now carried with her.

The shop was only a few blocks away when she suddenly caught sight of something that made her stop in her tracks. A mere several feet in front of her, a figure with a shock of white hair darted into the alleyway. Before Wanda could stop herself, she followed. She barely managed to stop herself from calling her brother’s name as she hurried after the figure, only just managing to put the pieces together and remind herself that there was no reason her brother would be out of the hospital and moving that fast on the streets. Her breath caught in her throat as the other option – that this might be a trap – ran through her head and she froze midstep, her hand moving to the gun holstered just above her knee, hidden by her long coat, just in time for the figure to turn towards her.

He was smaller than Pietro by at least a few inches and younger as well, closer to 14 or 15 from what she could gather. The overall resemblance was a little disconcerting though, particularly with the hair color, but the longer she looked at him, the more she couldn’t understand how she’d mistaken him for her brother.

Her eyes darted from side to side, scoping out the area to make sure there was no one hiding there, waiting to jump her. Then she took a step back, towards the entrance of the alley, despite the fact that she saw nothing to cause alarm.

“Sorry,” she said quickly. “I thought you were someone else.”

“That’s okay, I get that a lot,” the kid said, and Wanda wondered what a teenager was doing on the streets instead of in school. “My name’s Tommy. What’s your name?”

“I’m Anna,” she said, the fake name still coming to her lips more easily than she ever would have imagined.

He tilted his head to study her. “Anna, huh?” Then his lips curved into a grin that was more of a smirk. “Interesting. That’s not what the man says. Which makes me think you look more like a Wanda.”

And with that, he turned on his heel and ran. By the time her mind finished processing those words and her feet started pounding on the pavement in pursuit of him, he’d already gotten enough of a head start to remain just out of reach. Despite his size, he was fast, faster than her, and by the time she reached the end of the alley, she could see there was no reason to try and catch up with him when that would never happen.

Instead of going back through the alley, she kept to the streets, keeping her eyes open all the more. While that kid hadn’t laid a trap directly, the last thing she needed was to be followed.

Except that probably didn’t matter. Because everyone already knew where they were. That kid had obliviously been sent after her for some reason – and why any of the branches of the mob would use a kid that young to get information made no sense to her and made her angrier at how fucked up this situation was. The last thing she wanted was to bring even more trouble down on everyone else.

She also couldn’t help wondering about what he’d said, with that reference to “the man.” There were far too few options that came up for her in response to that; one that raised the hair on the back of her neck and made her shudder outright.

Wanda all but breathed a sigh of relief when she reached Shield and stepped inside. Bucky greeted her from behind the register, his feet propped up on the display case despite Steve’s repeated requests for him not to do that. She hadn’t seen much of him over the past several weeks but from everything she could tell, he looked better than he had those few times she’d caught sight of him. If nothing else, he greeted her with a grin that faded when he took in her expression.

“Shit, what’s wrong?” He quickly swung his feet down to the floor and stood up to meet her, Winter padding along at his side. “What happened? Is it your brother?”

She shook her head. “No, my brother’s fine. I just had a weird experience on my way over. It’s funny that you mention my brother because I met a kid who looked like him. Thing is, this kid… this kid seemed to know me Said his name was Tommy.” She noticed his brows furrow in worry and quickly added, “No reason to worry about it, Barnes. He didn’t threaten me or anything. Just let me know he knew who I was.”

“That’s not nothing,” Bucky said warily. “That’s definitely something. I wish I’d known you were walking over here alone. I would’ve offered to meet you midway or something.”

“There was no need for that,” Wanda assured him.

She couldn’t bring herself to mention exactly what Tommy had said. Referencing “the man” would lead to far too many questions. Questions she wasn’t ready to answer at this point. Besides, it was probably nothing. Nothing more than she already had to worry about, at least.

She added, “I made it over here just fine. I’m just a little weirded out, that’s all. Like I said, no threats, and the kid looked barely fourteen. He didn’t pose a threat.”

Bucky’s expression darkened. “Never judge someone’s threat by their age or size. That’s one of the biggest lessons I learned while deployed.”

“That’s in a war zone,” she gently pointed out.

“Kid, I hate to say it, but that’s exactly what the streets are turning into right now. You’ve gotta be treating it the same way, as though it is a combat zone and someone could take a shot at you at any minute.” He trailed off, frowning. “Or, hell, maybe that’s the PTSD talking.”

“It could be. You didn’t see him. He didn’t seem dangerous at all. Anyway, that’s not important now. I’m here and safe and thankfully nowhere near the disgusting display of affection my brother’s probably engaging in with Darcy.”

Bucky’s expression remained wary but the hints of a grin returned. “It’s good to have you back. We missed seeing you around.”

Before she could respond, there was the jingle from the bell over the door and Wanda instinctively moved towards the hallway until she recognized the dark haired girl who stepped inside. “Oh, hi, Kate.”

Kate waved. “Hey, guys. Happy Valentine’s Day and all that jazz. Glad to see you didn’t put any sickening decorations all over the shop.”

“Nah, nothing like that,” Bucky said, with a faint grin. “Although I did try to convince Steve to do a two for one special for any pair wanting a couple’s tattoo.”

Immediately, that stopped the conversation between Bucky and Wanda in its tracks. She tried not to breathe a sigh of relief as Bucky shifted into easy conversation with Kate, ending any further discussion about things that Kate was not to know about. The last thing Wanda wanted to do at this point was to continue discussing the strange appearance of Tommy or anything to do with her brother, even if Pietro was doing better now. She preferred to let the conversation shift into routine, easy topics, as though there weren’t major problems she’d have to deal with one of these days, some sooner than later.

After all, she and Pietro still hadn’t discussed what would happen once they took Tony up on his offer and moved into the safe house. For all she knew, this might be one of her last times visiting Shield.

That thought made her sadder than she would have expected.

-~-

For the first time in longer than Bucky could remember – though it really must have been weeks, not months – his shift came to an end and he hadn’t spent the last half hour watching the clock because his level of exhaustion was too high. This time, he’d barely noticed the time ticking down to the end of the day. It had come as a shock when Steve walked out with his last client of the day and turned the “open” sign to closed.

Granted, part of that had been due to the fact that he’d had Kate and Wanda to keep him company between his own appointments. It had been great to see Wanda in the shop again, after the past few weeks of her being AWOL following the attack on her brother. Given that Kate was there, they hadn’t exactly had the opportunity to talk openly about what had been going on recently. In most ways though, Bucky considered that to be a good thing. Wanda needed a distraction and the relatively close proximity of age made Kate a good person to provide that distraction.

Kate shot Steve a pleading look as the sign flipped to closed. “That doesn’t mean I have to leave, does it?”

“Sad to say that it does, Kate,” Steve said. “It’s been good to see you though. As I keep telling you, feel free to start chatting with me about a tattoo as we get closer to your 18th birthday.”

“That’s in, like, forever,” she said, making a face. “No chance I can convince you to make one for me sooner?”

“You know the rules, kid. I’m more than happy to ink you up once you’re legal but up until then, you’re just hanging out here until closing.”

She made a face as she headed towards the front door. “Alright, I guess I’ll see you guys around. Happy Valentine’s Day, and all of that.”

“Happy Valentine’s Day,” Steve and Bucky echoed as she stepped outside.

Steve locked the door behind her before glancing questioningly at Wanda. “What about you? Where should we be taking you? Or are you crashing here for the night?”

Bucky couldn’t believe he hadn’t asked Wanda that himself. Now he regretted not realizing that the kid had limited places to go, given that Pietro and Darcy were spending the day together. He had to assume that the townhouse may have been out of bounds for the same reason. While he wanted to do everything he could to keep her safe, he hadn’t exactly been expecting to spend Valentine’s Day with a third person.

“No, I - ” Wanda started, then stopped as there came a knock on the door.

From behind the counter, Bucky could only see a blurry figure but given that Steve, who was much closer to the door, unlocked and opened it, it was someone they knew. The fact that Steve rolled his eyes as he reached for the lock clued Bucky into the figure’s identity before he stepped inside.

“Sorry I’m late,” Tony said, unwrapping the scarf from his neck in an uncomfortable indication that he might be planning on staying for more than a few minutes.

“Probably best you are,” Steve said dryly. “I’m not sure I would’ve wanted you and Kate to have a bonding session.”

Steve’s tone wasn’t quite antagonistic but it was verging on that. Not that Bucky was surprised, given that Steve’s mood regarding Tony had been decidedly dark recently. He’d shared the basics of their latest disagreement with Bucky – and Bucky thought he’d handled it well, given his previous insecurities about Steve’s relationship with Tony. Then things escalated when several text messages hit Steve’s phone in the middle of the night, startling both Steve and Bucky awake a few nights ago. To Bucky’s knowledge, Steve and Tony hadn’t spoken since then.

“Kate who?” Tony inquired, taking a seat on the couch and stretching out comfortably. “Did you adopt someone new? Or is that Barton who’s adopting everyone? Either way…” He trailed off, his expression expectant.

“Kate Bishop,” Wanda reluctantly supplied. “Also, I thought we were heading out.”

“We are.” He brushed off her concern easily. “Oh, you mean Katherine Bishop. I know her father.”

“Yes, we know you know everyone,” Steve muttered. “Is there a reason for this stretched out visit?”

Tony’s expression shifted almost imperceptibly but Bucky couldn’t quite gauge the emotion behind it. There was a strange formality as he said, “I’d hoped to speak with you.”

That was as far as he got before Steve, who was already shaking his head, cut him off. “No, not tonight.” Tony tried to protest and Steve cut him off again. “I said no, Stark. For fuck’s sake, it’s Valentine’s Day. There’s nothing so urgent it can’t wait another 24 hours.” He narrowed his eyes before adding, “After all, last time you had information, you didn’t see a problem sitting on it for days, even when it was necessary and helpful for us to know sooner.”

Tony’s back stiffened and his expression closed off entirely. “Fair enough.” He rose to his feet and glanced over at Wanda. “C’mon, kid. We need to get you back to your brother.”

Wanda made a face. “I think he’s still with Darcy.”

“Duly noted. In that case, I guess you’re with me for the evening. I hope you don’t mind if we spend a little time in the office first.” He nodded to Steve, then Bucky. “Enjoy your evening, gentlemen. Steve, I’ll see about scheduling a time when we can properly talk about shop business.”

Steve locked the door behind Wanda and Tony as they stepped outside. He stood there for several seconds. From Bucky’s angle, he couldn’t see more than Steve’s reflection in the glass. Unless Tony and Wanda had stepped right outside, he couldn’t imagine there was much more than that for Steve to see. Still, he stood there, staring for several long moments before exhaling raggedly and running a hand through his hair.

He turned back to Bucky. “Sorry about that.”

“Sorry about what?” Bucky asked, ensuring that his tone remained light and even. “I mean, that’s pretty much your usual reaction to things with Stark.”

“I know.” Steve sighed. “I don’t know why I’m apologizing. I mean, you know about our fight. You know about the text messages I got from him. I know we need to talk but I just didn’t want to do that tonight.”

“Which I appreciate. Like I said, nothing to apologize for. You did nothing wrong. Hell, he was actually on relatively good behavior. He didn’t press the issue of talking to you tonight. So, how about we put that behind us for now? He didn’t ruin our evening.”

Steve crossed the distance between them and grasped Bucky’s t-shirt in his hands, tugging him closer and leaning up to kiss him. Bucky ducked his head enough to meet Steve’s lips with his own. Letting himself go in those moments wasn’t hard anymore. His thoughts no longer went racing through his head, analyzing everything from the quality of the kiss to the stressors of the day. Instead, kisses like this – long, drawn out, and intense – quieted everything inside of his head. Kisses like this slowed the world down, or maybe just brought the world to its actual speed, and made everything calm in a way he hadn’t experienced outside of the comforting warmth of Xanax.

He barely even noticed when Steve’s hands slipped beneath his shirt and maneuvered the cloth up his body and over his head, to fall on the tile floor.

-~-

“Who is this for?”

Tony glanced up in response to Pepper’s question, glancing over as though he had no idea exactly what she was referring to. Certainly she couldn’t be referring to the rather substantial basket containing chocolate, assorted other candies, and a teddy bear, not to mention the balloons that were attached to the basket. Pepper stared at it, almost accusingly, before turning her attention to Tony, the hard look in her eyes clearly stating she expected an explanation.

When he didn’t respond, she followed up her first question with, “Tony, why does it say Pepper on the card?”

“Because that’s your name,” he said, returning his attention back to his computer and returning his attention to his latest programming project.

He hoped she didn’t notice that his usual multi-tasking wasn’t exactly happening and that despite resting his fingers on the keys, he wasn’t exactly typing in code.

“I know that, Tony,” she said, and this time she sounded a bit frustrated. “What I’m asking is why my name is on this card.”

“Because it’s for you. Obviously.” He felt his shoulders rise in what was probably a shrug. That wasn’t the best idea. Pepper wasn’t going to take him shrugging all that well even if he hadn’t meant to. “You’ve put up with a lot from me over the past couple of months and even in the last week or two. I figured I owed you.”

“So you bought me a Valentine’s Day gift.”

“I don’t know exactly what you want me to say, seeing as it’s right in front of you, so, yeah, I did?” he responded, still keeping his gaze focused on the task at hand rather than her.

There were a few, far too uncomfortable moments of silence before she exhaled slowly. “Tony, I don’t know what to do with this. A part of me wants to be angry and lecture you about little things like boundaries and how it’s inappropriate to give a Valentine’s Day gift to someone who is your employee.”

“Yeah, I know, I get it, I fucked up, I always fuck up,” Tony said before she could get another word out.

That was disgustingly self-deprecating but maybe if he took full responsibility for everything, it would cut things off here with Pepper. He’d known better than to buy her something like that, after all, she’d always been the person to discuss inappropriate relationships between him and employees before – Steve being the prime example of that. Sure, it probably hadn’t been the best decision to buy Pepper a gift but after he’d been an asshole these past few weeks, he’d needed to do something and Valentine’s Day just happened to coincide with his decision to try to make things up to her. A gift seemed as good a way to repair things as anything else did.

“Tony,” Pepper said, exhaling again, although this time it sounded more like a sigh. “You didn’t even let me finish. There were two parts to that statement. That was only the first part.”

When she didn’t immediately follow that up with anything, he pointed out, “I’m not stopping you from continuing, Pepper.”

“What I was going to say, before you went off on your self-deprecating spiral, was that the other part of me really likes the gift. Who doesn’t like to receive a present on Valentine’s Day?”

Tony finally chanced a look up, once he was certain his expression wasn’t about to betray him because he couldn’t completely gauge Pepper’s response just from her words. As per usual, she looked somewhat exasperated but also, might he dare think, pleased?

Raising an eyebrow, he simply inquired, “You sure your boyfriend’s not going to have a problem with it?”

She met his gaze almost too intently. “He might, if there were one.”

He couldn’t look away, especially not when Pepper bit her lower lip. He also couldn’t seem to help himself from pushing himself to his feet. That immediately changed everything. Suddenly her entire demeanor shifted, her shoulders straightening, her eyes going back to the stack of papers in her hand.

She cleared her throat. “Is that all, Mr. Stark?”

He didn’t even have it in him to remind her that he hated it when she called him by his father’s name. Instead, he simply sank back in his chair and turned his attention to his work – or at least the work he played at for the time being.

“That’s all, Miss Potts,” he returned, because two could play at this game, if that was how she wanted to play.

“Thank you for the gifts,” she said, managing to carry both the basket and the papers in a rather impressive display of dexterity. “And for the apology. Happy Valentine’s Day, Tony. Is there anything else you need before I leave for the night?”

He simply shook his head in response to that and kept his gaze lowered until she walked out of the room. He couldn’t help but wonder how she’d respond once she saw the bonus check included with the card in the envelope. Then again, wondering about that wasn’t going to do anything for him at this point. If she got pissed off at him, she’d be pissed off. He could live with that.

Tony let a few more minutes go by before getting to his feet, assuring himself that by that point Pepper would have left the building. She’d stayed later already than he would have expected and he figured and despite her assurance that she didn’t have a boyfriend, she just might want to leave as quickly as possible to meet up with someone on this holiday. His body protested as he straightened up and he found himself longing for just a little bit of alcohol, just a few shots of whiskey, anything that would loosen and relax the muscles in his back, all knotted up from the hours he spent leaning over his computer and workbench throughout the day and most of the night.

Never mind that the mere smell of alcohol at this point still made his stomach turn over unpleasantly after his last encounter with drinking. Or that he’d been put on notice by both Pepper and Rhodey, who had made it very clear that another bender might end with a much stronger intervention. Besides that, he had Wanda with him this evening. He wasn’t about to subject her to that.

While he typically avoided sharing his place of residence with the majority of people in his life, Wanda didn’t have anywhere else to go. Tony wasn’t about to leave her alone somewhere else. He’d briefly considered having both of them stay at what he’d only semi-jokingly been referring to as the safe house, since she’d be needing to get used to staying there with her brother, but that was a good 30 miles outside of the city, too far away for the two of them to be. Tony didn’t expect anything to happen to her brother while they were gone but he also recognized that the moment they weren’t nearby was probably also the exact moment time would be of the essence.

Come to think of it, that was probably his cue to retrieve Wanda from his “break room.” Pepper swore that he couldn’t call it then when he was the only one allowed to use it but that was what it was to him. He had plenty of amenities in the lab but the break room was equipped with couches – including one pull-out couch bed – and all the snacks and caffeine he could ever need during a long night at work. While the building was pretty much empty already at this time of the night, the break room had one of the tightest levels of security. Even if someone else was wandering around the halls, they wouldn’t be able to enter that room.

Tony ensured that everything had been properly put away. He asked JARVIS for one extra scan to ensure that in his hurry he wasn’t leaving something out that could cause significant damage or problems in his absence, as well as double-checking his security systems, and then put everything non-essential to sleep for the night. A glance at the clock showed it was much earlier than he usually went home, but Wanda probably needed proper food and rest. He wasn’t enough of a dick to make her wait any longer, especially when it wasn’t as though he had an important project to be finishing.

At least that was where Tony’s thoughts were going when suddenly JARVIS informed him, “Your friend appears to have had a nightmare. She seems distressed.”

“What?” Tony blurted out, pretty much automatically, then determined that wasn’t necessary at all because if that were true – and why would JARVIS lie to him about that? – he needed to get to her as quickly as he possibly could.

“Never mind.” He ran out of his lab and straight to the break room.

Making it through the security system took a matter of seconds. By the time the door opened, he could hear Wanda’s erratic, ragged breathing. He found her sitting on the couch, hugging her knees to her chest, and muttering something to herself over and over again. He hesitated before approaching her, starting with announcing his presence with a soft, “Hey, Wanda, it’s just me, Tony.”

When she blinked and looked up at him, he cautiously sat on the couch near her but not quite beside her.

From that distance, he could more clearly hear her words, “It’s not real, he’s not here” being repeated over and over. That easily clicked the pieces into place in his mind and he tried out saying something else to see if that might calm her.

“You’re right, you are safe and your father’s not here,” he offered up gently.

Wanda immediately shook her head and hunched her shoulders all the more. “No. Not my father.”

Tony frowned at that but quickly came up with a new hypothesis. “The man who shot your brother then. He’s also not here and you’re still safe.”

Wanda shook her head more vigorously this time and forcefully stated, “No. Not him either.”

At that, Tony found himself out of ideas but given Wanda’s willingness to respond to him, he gently inquired, “Then who, Wanda? Who are you afraid of?”

“The Baron,” she said, and her voice broke the slightest bit. “I haven’t… I haven’t dreamed of him in so long.”

“Who the fuck is the Baron?” Tony asked and immediately regretted the question when Wanda withdrew all the more.

“No one important,” she said quietly. “Nothing for you to worry about.”

“But I am worried. Obviously dreaming about him shook you up. You don’t have to tell me who he was or anything else. But also don’t tell me that it’s nothing for me to worry about because I am damn worried about both you and your brother.”

He immediately wondered whether his absolute lack of tact and ability to say the right thing to someone clearly suffering had pushed her away from him even more but a moment later she managed a faint smile and said, “Thanks, Tony.”

“Don’t mention it, kid,” he said quickly, before whatever magic words he’d managed could fade. “Now, how about we get you out of here? Grab something to eat for dinner, head back to my place, and do whatever it is that might help you relax a little?” He let a moment go by before he quickly added, “I know how that sounded but you know I didn’t mean it that way.”

“I know,” she said, and this time her smile was a little bit wider and more genuine. “That sounds nice.”

Tony offered her hand once he’d gotten to his feet. As he walked her through the building and out to the garage, he filed away the bits of information she’d provided - the name, “the Baron,” for starters – and swore that he would follow up on it, running any and all connections between that type of title and Jonathan Talbot. He hoped that this was merely a nightmare and nothing to worry about but on the off-chance it was something more, he wanted to be prepared. He refused to be caught off-guard like the last time with her brother, or through his delay in providing the information on the Irish to the others.

He wasn’t going to let someone else get hurt if there were any way he could prevent it.

Chapter Text

A continuous shrieking sound from overhead grated at Bucky’s ears and yanked him back to consciousness. His mind struggled to identify where it came from and yet despite missing that piece of information, he knew on some level that he needed to act quickly.

Bucky moved before his eyes were even open and properly focused. Standing there, blinking, he stared straight at the door as though he expected to see something coming through there. Beside him, Winter stood, his body trembling with a low continuous growling as the shrieking alarm continued.

“Why the fuck is the fire alarm going off?” Steve slurred. He rolled out of bed, stopping only briefly enough to grab his glasses and shove them onto his face.

Before Steve finished speaking, Bucky smelled the acrid smoke. He slipped - the room faded away to sand and smoke and all around were the terrible odors of burning flesh, and scorched metal.

A shooting pain in his right palm yanked him back to the present. He jerked back to reality to see the metal fingers on his left hand sunk into the skin of his right one, hard enough to leave a bruise but not break the skin. A deep breath steadied him and he managed to stay present enough to focus on the situation at hand. He put the pieces together quickly; this wasn’t a drill or a short circuit in the wiring, something was on fire. He moved towards the door and pressed his hand to the doorknob.

Already warm. Not a good sign.

Neither were the tendrils of smoke snaking under the bottom of the door.

He was dimly aware of Steve saying something, asking something, but he didn’t have the time to figure out what. He ran over to the bathroom, grabbed a towel from the rack, and moved back to the door to shove it beneath it.

At least that was his intention.

What he found as he turned away from the bathroom was the door open, Steve standing halfway through it, and smoke billowing into the apartment. That was too much fire, too much smoke. It didn’t make sense. How could a fire have started and gotten this bad this quickly without them knowing? The only fire alarm going off was the one in the apartment but he’d seen Steve go through testing the smoke detectors and checking the sprinkler system downstairs. There was no way all of those securities could have failed.

To Bucky’s horror, despite the smoke filling the doorway and the heat becoming more and more intense, Steve made a move toward stairs. Immediately, Bucky ran and wrapped his arms around Steve’s waist to drag him back into the apartment.

“No!” Steve snarled, struggling enough that Bucky nearly lost his grip when Steve’s elbow caught him in the stomach. “No, I have to get my sketchbooks! Everything’s down there! I can’t lose it!”

“Steve, it’s already gone!” Bucky kicked the door shut with one foot and nearly overbalanced as Steve continued to struggle against him. “I know it’s important to you but it’s not worth losing your life over. We need to get out of here.”

When Steve seemed willing to stay relatively put, Bucky kicked the towel into place, although it seemed a bit too late. In those few seconds the door had been opened, the smoke had already filled the room. Beside him, Steve coughed once, twice, and then seemed to be unable to stop. Given that, Bucky didn’t see going down through the front door to be an option they had at this point. Which meant that the only option left was to go through the window and to move fast.

He quickly ran through the scenarios in his head. With his metal arm, he could manage to lower himself down far enough that the risk of breaking a knee or ankle was minimal. Then Steve could follow suit and Bucky could catch him or at least try to break his fall. Potential injuries be damned. A broken bone was much better than burning to death.

The difficulty was going to be finding a way to get Winter that way. Bucky hoped against hope that the dog’s training would help him to stay calm, despite the instinctive panic he’d be experiencing. Maybe it would make more sense to lower Steve down rather than having him go last, then pass him Winter, and Bucky could lower himself down so that it wasn’t a long drop.

Steve pulled away at that point, trying to grab any and all sketchbooks he could find, as well as his laptop. Bucky hesitated but then determined that there was nothing in the apartment that he couldn’t live without.

Bucky went to the window, shoving it open and looking at the distance between the ledge and the ground. It wasn’t going to be easy or pleasant, but it was the best option they had. He looked back to Steve, his heart clenching when he saw the thicker smoke already filling the room. Steve now seemed to be unable to stop coughing.

They needed to move fast.

Bucky paused long enough to tug his boots onto his feet, wanting at least a level of protection if he was about to navigate a two-story drop. That was the only belonging of his that he grabbed. As far was he was concerned, everything else could be replaced.

“Steve, c’mere! No. No, leave that,” Bucky insisted, when Steve continued trying to sort through all of his belongings to grab anything else he didn’t want to lose. “C’mon. We need to get out of here now before the fire downstairs makes the floor up here cave in.”

“I’m not losing everything,” Steve choked out. “I’m not.”

Steve might have been intending to say more but he was caught in another coughing fit. His breathing grew more and more uneven. Bucky grabbed Steve’s arm and dragged him to the window. He fought to get Steve’s mouth covered with his shirt, just tugging it up enough that it might provide more of a barrier than it had been and then doing the same for himself.

Steve struggled against him each step of the way but Bucky didn’t relent. Situations with the high probability of death made his mind completely clear. Focusing quickly wasn’t difficult. He kept a tight hold of Steve, while testing each step to make certain that the boards wouldn’t give out beneath him.

Each breath rasped in Steve’s chest, in his lungs. That was where Bucky’s mind didn’t seem to be working quite right because there was something he should have been thinking of related to Steve’s breathing problems. That didn’t seem to be quite as important as getting out of the burning building.

Once they reached the window, while Steve was busy leaning his head out to take ragged gulps of the night air, Bucky whistled for Winter. A moment later the dog appeared, whining and nudging Bucky’s side. Now he just needed Steve to cooperate enough for Bucky to lower him down to the street. That seemed to be less of a problem now that Steve couldn’t seem to breathe properly. Hopefully Steve wouldn’t argue.

“Steve, look at me.” He waited for Steve to respond, despite the fact that looking at one another was difficult because the smoke had led to both of their eyes watering. “Here’s what we’re going to do. You’re going to hold onto my arm as tightly as you can and I’m going to lower you down as far as I can, so that you don’t have as far to drop. Then I’m going to pass Winter down to you. Alright?”

“Y-you shou… should… go… go first,” Steve argued, forcing out each of the words with effort.

“No, I need you on the ground to get Winter,” Bucky insisted, despite the fact that his reason for wanting Steve to go first only partially had anything to do with Winter. “Just hold on tight. I’ll lower you down, then I’ll pass Winter down to you.”

He was relieved that Steve didn’t ask him how he planned to get Winter down since he was still working on that part. With clear reluctance, Steve slipped his bag onto his shoulders and slid his legs out of the window. Rather than letting Steve hold onto him, after seeing Steve wipe his hands on his shirt several times, Bucky grabbed Steve’s forearm as tightly as he dared, hoping that he wouldn’t accidentally cause any harm. Then again, a broken arm or dislocated shoulder was still better than dying of smoke inhalation.

He leaned out of the window as far as he could, pushing himself as far as he felt was safe without risking the possibility of losing his balance and falling out after Steve. There were still a good 10 feet between Steve and the ground. Not optimal but also not likely to be fatal given that Steve was going down feet first.

“Ready?” he called out.

Steve nodded.

Bucky released his grip, watching as Steve dropped the rest of the way to the ground and ensuring that he hit feet first – he did, although both of his legs immediately buckled and he went down on the cement, only for a moment though, before he scrambled back up, clearly favoring his right leg.

He didn’t say anything, which worried Bucky, but he gestured in a way that Bucky guessed was meant as encouragement for Bucky to pass Winter down to him. That was going to be the tricky part, figuring out a way to safely get Winter a safe distance to where Steve could either reach him or catch him without causing either one of them injury. Bucky scanned the room as best he could through the smoke that seemed to be increasing by the moment, and then settled on the sheets. It was a tried and true tradition to attempt to lower people and who was he to mess with tradition when he had no other choice right now?

“Winter, stay,” he ordered, leaving his dog at the window.

The smoke burned his eyes all the more as he made his way back over to the bed, quickly stripped the sheets, and then wrapped them around Winter in a makeshift sling that would hopefully hold the dog’s weight and be long enough to lower him far enough down that Steve could reach.

“Winter, stay,” he repeated, as he lifted the dog up and moved him through the window.

There was an initial drop when Winter got through the window. Bucky’s breath caught in his throat as he waited to see if the bedsheets around Winter were secure enough or whether he’d slip through them and fall the rest of the way to the ground. Thankfully, they held. Bucky lowered the tied together sheets as Winter whined plaintively at being separated.

It became harder and harder to breathe in the apartment. The heat grew worse. Bucky could feel sweat breaking out all over his skin. There was a sensation of almost crisping, like he used to get when he spent far too many hours on the beach in direct sunlight. He tried not to think too hard about that as he leaned as far as he dared out the window, taking in gulps of somewhat clearer air.

Below him, Steve kept coughing. Something about his attempts to bring in air sounded wrong, as though he weren’t actually filling his lungs. When Bucky yelled down something stupid, like, “Are you okay?” Steve just gave him a thumbs up and didn’t respond, which also didn’t seem exactly right. But then Winter barked and attempted to shift around in the mass of bedding. Bucky turned his attention more to calming his dog down and continuing to lower him enough to where Steve could grab ahold of him and help him get untangled from the bedding.

Except that after Steve managed to lower Winter to the ground, he didn’t do that. He doubled over, grasping at his throat. Finally something clicked in Bucky’s mind.

Steve was asthmatic. Steve had just inhaled smoke. Steve was having an asthma attack and Steve didn’t have his inhaler or else he’d be using it.

“Steve, hang on! I’ll be right there!”

Steve managed to choke out something that was probably Bucky’s name, followed by no, but Bucky ignored it completely. After all, Steve couldn’t reach him or climb back into the apartment. While Bucky had no doubt that there was emergency personnel on the way, he wasn’t about to wait and see if it would be soon enough to get Steve breathing before something awful happened. He was still in the apartment. He could get the inhaler before he followed Steve out the window.

The smoke was even thicker and all at once, Bucky’s body seemed to be refusing to cooperate with him. Through the smoke he saw sand, heard the sounds of artillery fire. He fought the urge to duck and cover because it wasn’t real, it couldn’t be real. With his mind shifting uneasily around, he didn’t pay as much attention to his footing, which he realized the moment a board cracked under his feet and his boot-covered foot slipped through into the flames beneath. The leather around his foot heated up, his skin screaming in protest. Bucky yanked his foot back out and placed it on solid ground.

The smell of burned flesh sent his heart into overdrive and he could feel his body trying to shut down. He struggled against the instinctive urge to take a deep breath, as he’d been taught in therapy. A deep breath would only succeed in bringing in more smoke to his already aching lungs.

His leg nearly collapsed beneath him. He tried not to let his mind go in certain directions – like what it looked like when material like leather melted to skin – and forced himself to continue putting each foot in front of the other, being more mindful this time as to whether the floor could support his weight. A few more steps and he was in the bathroom, yanking the medicine cabinet open and scrabbling for the inhalers he knew were in there – the emergency one and the usual one.

He shoved each of them into his pocket, then paused long enough to dampen his t-shirt and pull it back over his nose and mouth. He took one step into the apartment before dropping to his knees and hands and crawling. The smoke was far too thick and increasing, now from the area surrounding the door and the hole Bucky had left in the floor. He remembered from somewhere – maybe his training, maybe something taught to him in childhood - that the air was always clearer closest to the ground.

Thankfully, he hadn’t lost any of his military training. Crawling on his hands and knees came second nature to him, as did do everything he could to use the clothing on him to create a barrier for his mouth, nose, and eyes in an attempt to decrease the effects of the smoke on his body. He just needed to make it to the window, where there would be clean air. Then he’d be fine, long-term effects of smoke inhalation be damned.

The floor grew less and less stable as time went on and his speed at getting back to the window was sharply diminished by his slow going. The last thing Bucky wanted was for one of his arms – particularly his one remaining one – to go through the floor and burn.

The smoke continued to scorch the inside of his throat, the heat leading him to wonder whether he would incur further burns without actually hitting any flames. Thinking that way didn’t help anything though. He needed to get out, he needed to escape and then maybe, just maybe, everything would be all right.

Or at least as close to all right as it could be when everything in your life had gone up in flames. Literally.

Finally, he reached the window and took in several, deep breaths of air. That helped to clear his head. He dazedly took in the scene beneath him. Steve knelt, gasping and choking, not even noticing Bucky’s presence in the window. Winter sat beside him, gazing up at the window and whining when he saw Bucky silhouetted there.

“Steve,” Bucky rasped.

Steve didn’t even look up. Despite the heat around him, it made Bucky feel as though the blood rushing through his veins had gone cold.

Behind Bucky, there was a crash as part of the floor fell in. Somewhere between that and registering Steve’s condition, all rational thought fled. He hooked his hands on the sides of the window and pulled himself out. The cool air wrapped around his blistering skin. That helped to clear his head enough that he could hear Steve’s rasping breaths becoming fewer and further between.

In that moment, he didn’t think. He just dropped.

He had enough time to realize that he was falling horribly wrong and there was no way the trajectory he was going would allow for anything other than a compound fracture.

His last option was to throw up his left arm in the hopes that the reinforced metal would be enough to keep his injuries from being too severe. He must have hit his head – or the shock to his body had been too much. Either way, he didn’t remember the impact. One moment he was falling, the next he was on the ground, his left shoulder feeling torn and raw and open to the point that he fought the urge to throw up – or maybe that was the head injury causing that, he wasn’t quite certain. His entire body screamed with pain.

Then Steve’s hands were on him, trying to coax him upright. He forced himself to fight through the pain. There was something that he had that Steve needed. He could hear Steve’s uneven breathing continuing, with the pauses becoming increasingly longer and the breaths in and out coming more and more infrequently. He automatically reached for his pocket, tugging an odd L-shaped object out – an inhaler, his mind registered – and he handed that to Steve.

When Steve struggled to take it and didn’t immediately bring it to his lips, Bucky responded on autopilot. He tried to use his left arm – which sent stabbing waves of pain into his shoulder, though they didn’t radiate any further down his arm and that made his throat feel like it was going to close up - then struggled with his right arm to guide the inhaler. He found the words somehow, encouraging Steve to take in a deep breath and hold it before Bucky released the dose of meds with one push of a finger. Steve inhaled deeply. He repeated the process once, twice, three times, and by the third time, Steve’s breathing came a bit easier.

That must have been when his arm – or his body – decided that it couldn’t support him. Bucky dropped back to the pavement. He felt something warm and wet – cracking his eyes open clued him into the fact that it was Winter’s tongue, apparently – against his cheek.

“Good boy,” he murmured.

The ground was blissfully cool against his skin. He would have done anything a glass of water.

His left shoulder ached with each breath and his heart rate increased with each exhalation. Something was wrong and damaged. If he didn’t know better, his left arm would be gone entirely when he looked at it. Just for proof, he turned his head to the side, as much as he could without causing himself any unnecessary pain, and instead of the flesh-and-blood arm he expected to see, he saw something made of metal. The metal seemed a bit wrong, a bit dented or something to that effect. He couldn’t quite understand why, but there was something about a window and a drop and that must have been the reason because that was the only thing that made sense.

Except for the fact that he couldn’t remember why his left arm had changed to one made of metal. It wasn’t always that way, he knew that much. Trying to understand was more than he could comprehend right now. What he could register was that Steve’s breathing was evening out a bit, shifting from the rough, uneven gasps to ones that were a bit more consistent. That was a relief because Steve was what was important. He’d needed to protect Steve and he had.

He pressed his fingers into Winter’s fur and tried to focus on that. Sirens screamed in the distance. It wouldn’t be enough to save the shop and the apartment but the important thing was that the three of them were out. They would be all right.

He just needed to keep repeating that to himself. That would be enough. It had to be.

-~-

If Steve never saw a hospital again, it wouldn’t be soon enough.

Which, of course, meant that he was spending yet another night in one, both for himself and for Bucky. His own issues hadn’t been particularly too hard to deal with – some oxygen and a nebulizer treatment had evened out his breathing and an x-ray revealed that his ankle wasn’t broken, just sprained, which meant he’d been good to go. However, Bucky had been admitted for the night and possibly – probably – longer.

Steve could vividly remember kneeling on the sidewalk, his chest and lungs aching with every breath, as Bucky lay in front of him, sprawled in a tangle of limbs on the pavement, his eyes glazed over and unfocused. While Winter nuzzled against Bucky’s side, trying to ground him, Steve had sat beside him, trying to get Bucky to talk to him, to say something. He didn’t want to panic, even if panicking was probably the appropriate response when Bucky’s left sleeve was slowly getting drenched to the point where the blood dripped down the arm onto the sidewalk.

A few hours later, the diagnoses had been laid down as what would have probably been a dislocated and badly broken arm if Bucky’s left arm had been flesh-and-blood. Instead, the metal prosthetic had attempted to detach and caused damage to the overall muscle and tissue. Steve tried not to think too much about the fact that between blood loss and shock, things could’ve gotten a whole lot worse than they did. Bucky also had some bruised ribs, second degree burns on his foot since his boots had thankfully provided some protection against the flames, and a concussion from when his head had most likely hit his left arm or simply his brain just snapped back against his skull at the moment of impact with the ground.

Unsurprisingly, Bucky had subsequently been admitted to the hospital for the night, based on the likelihood that he would need slightly less than emergency but slightly more than routine surgery on his arm. Particularly, there was a concern that if he destabilized further, there would be a bleeding risk that would require immediate and urgent medical attention.

Throughout it all, Bucky remained surprisingly calm, given everything, especially given how he had been the last time he’d been in the hospital. Last time, he’d been dissociating and panicking almost nonstop. This time, even before he’d been officially settled in his room for the night, he hadn’t even neared that point.

Maybe it was the heavy dose of Dilaudid the doctors were giving him or maybe it was just Bucky reaching an unnatural point of calmness after being completely overwhelmed. Steve guessed it was the latter, if only because Bucky sounded quite together and coherent when he talked, not drugged or generally out of it. It could have also helped that this time, unlike the previous one, Winter curled up against Bucky’s left side in the bed, mindful of his injured arm.

There had been a few objections from hospital staff regarding Winter’s presence beside Bucky when they were brought in because Bucky hadn’t exactly had time to put Winter’s service dog vest on. Plus, the paperwork identifying his dog’s status had been one of the many things destroyed that evening. Thankfully, one call from Tony had sorted everything out. After the tests had been completed and Bucky had been settled in his room, Winter was allowed to stay by his side.

The only time Steve noticed the panic enter Bucky’s eyes was when the doctors discussed the need for surgery with him. Otherwise, now that the pain was controlled and his arm stabilized in a sling that wrapped around his chest to keep it steady, he seemed to be remarkably content to just lay back, turn on the occasional movie, and let the drugs work their magic on him.

Which was the exact opposite state Steve was in. He wasn’t quite as drugged – Tylenol 3 didn’t have the same punch as Dilaudid, even when combined with the Xanax he’d taken several hours ago when he was brought in, although that had probably worn off by this point. Now he was completely awake and aware. Unlike Bucky who had been drifting in and out for the past two hours, Steve couldn’t shut off his mind.

By the time the fire truck had arrived, the rest of the ceiling from the apartment had gone down. Crouched outside on the sidewalk, he’d heard enough of the crashes and watched the flames spread through the building. While he and Bucky had been taken by ambulance before the firemen fully got to work on the building that used to contain Steve’s livelihood and his home, he’d seen enough to know that there was no chance of anything significant being saved. All he owned now was in his backpack, save of course for the belongings he’d left with his mom before he’d moved. Everything else was gone. While he might have the opportunity to re-buy them if they were covered by insurance money, replacing them wouldn’t be a full replacement, especially for things that had been gifts from his father or other people in his life.

At that moment, his phone – one of the few things he’d been able to grab before escaping the building – vibrated against his leg. With effort, he tugged it out of his pocket and glanced at the caller ID. Just as he’d thought, it was Tony, following up on the earlier call where Steve really hadn’t explained any of the fine details about what happened; just given him enough information to let him know what had gone down before Tony heard it on a police scanner. Not to mention asking him to pull the necessary strings to keep Winter with Bucky.

Steve exhaled slowly. He just wasn’t certain that he had it in him to take the call right now. On the other hand, Tony had already done more than Steve deserved asking him for tonight alone, despite the status of the last several interactions between the two of them. Besides, the doctors had made it clear that they wanted to consult with Tony regarding Bucky’s prosthetic before taking the steps to complete the surgery on him. While that wasn’t necessarily something that fell on Steve’s shoulders – he had no doubt that the surgeons were responsible for that process – Steve probably did need to talk to him at some point.

At this point, he didn’t think Tony would try to use this time to resolve their previous disagreements. Not after everything that had happened.

With a sigh, he answered and hoarsely said, “Hey, Tony. I guess it’s pretty bad, huh?”

“Holy shit, Rogers. Jesus fucking Christ, why didn’t you say more when you called? Why didn’t you tell me how bad things were? I knew that you and Barnes were still alive because of what you’d said when we were last on the phone but, seriously, when I saw the damage, I fucking panicked. I was afraid you both were still in there when the apartment collapsed, which was ridiculous since we’d talked, but I wasn’t expecting for things to be as bad as they are.”

“We weren’t inside when the roof went in,” Steve assured him. “We got out in time.”

“But you’re still at the hospital,” Tony stated more than asked. “How bad is it? You didn’t give me the full rundown of everything earlier.”

“Smoke inhalation and a sprained ankle for me.” Steve paused between the words to take a sip of water; that was the only thing that made the awful sensation of talking a bit more bearable when each word still felt like broken glass sliding across the inside of his throat. “Bucky’s got some burns and a concussion and his metal arm took some damage, so he’s been admitted to the hospital. They actually said they’d be contacting you to see if you had any idea for how to handle repairing the arm.”

“I’ll be there as soon as I finish up here,” Tony promised him.

Steve was quiet for a moment, in part because it was hard to form words still, in other part because these words were hard to say for another reason. “Tony… the shop…”

“The shop’s gone,” Tony said bluntly. “Whoever did this broke in, cut the sprinkler and smoke detector system, and then doused the floor in gasoline and threw a match in. They weren’t just looking to burn the shop down, Steve, they were looking to hurt you and Barnes. The gasoline was on the stairwell, too, designed to prevent the two of you from getting out of there, at least from that way. So I’ve been told, at least.”

Steve all but rocked back in the chair. “Are you saying they meant to kill us?”

“I’m saying that’s a strong possibility. I’m saying you were lucky as hell to make it out of there.”

While Steve hadn’t honestly thought that the fire was a matter of a loose electrical wire, given his obsessive checking on everything related to his shop, the idea that the fire had been intentionally set to cause his death was another matter entirely. He’d already put the pieces together that someone must have cut the sprinkler system and smoke detector downstairs for them not to be alerted until the fire was already spreading but this… this was something else.

“Shit,” Steve snapped. “Shit, Tony. I can’t believe this is fucking happening.”

“Agreed. Look, I’ll be at the hospital as soon as possible. I’m still at the shop now. I haven’t had the chance yet to look at the surveillance footage. There might be something on there that’ll help us, although it’s just as possible that they cut the wires on that too since they seem to have thought of everything else.”

Steve took a few deep breaths, as much as his lungs could manage at least, before taking that as his exit to escape the conversation and quickly saying, “Alright, sounds good. See you soon” before hanging up.

Maybe Tony wanted to say more, maybe he didn’t, but Steve didn’t see a point in continuing to talk. It was more than he could handle on his throat right now and he wanted to save his voice for talking to the doctors and Bucky. Still, this was one of the few times that Steve didn’t cut Tony off because he was fed up with him. The fact that Tony was at the shop and handling that side of things was something Steve was immensely grateful for. Almost as grateful as he was for the fact that Bucky had slept through Steve’s side of the conversation; for as calm as Bucky seemed at the moment, finding out about attempted murder would likely change that.

It still seemed impossible that this could have even happened. Sure, a lot of shit had gone down over the past few weeks, but Steve and Bucky weren’t responsible for that. Pietro had just ended up in the shop that night. They didn’t have anything to do with the mess the twins and the others were wrapped up in, aside from the fact that many of those involved worked at Shield, that Clint brought Pietro to Shield on the night he was shot, and, of course, the recent altercation inside the shop. Still, that didn’t seem to be enough of a reason for someone to want Steve and Bucky dead.

He figured it was possible those assholes didn’t know Bucky and Steve were the ones who lived up there. Not unless they’d watched for long enough, and maybe they had, Steve didn’t know. A few months back, it had seemed inconceivable to think of a reason for why some asshole would have jumped Steve. That had been bad enough. Now someone had actively tried to burn him to death in his own home and place of work.

Perhaps, Steve was jumping to conclusions. After all, those fuckers in the mob weren’t the only people who had stirred up trouble over the past few months. Tonight’s incident could have been related to the Rumlow and Loki situation as well, even if Steve struggled with the idea that either of them would have been willing to escalate things to arson and murder.

“Steve?” Bucky’s voice, hoarse from smoke inhalation, startled Steve from his thoughts.

Steve glanced over at him, to find his eyes open and staring right at him. “Yeah, Buck?” he replied, reaching for Bucky’s right hand, careful not to dislodge the IV.

Focusing on that meant maybe keeping the rage burning through him at bay for that much longer. The last thing he needed was to increase Bucky’s stress.

“Were you on the phone?”

Steve could have said no but that seemed wrong, given everything. The familiar uncertainty and hesitancy in regards to disclosing that Tony had called returned, not that Bucky had asked for that piece of information. It would inevitably come out. He hoped that fear was just left over from those earlier days when Bucky seemed to get super defensive in response to Tony being involved in any way in Steve’s life and not related to figuring out how to phrase things in a way that wasn’t going to act as a trigger for Bucky.

“Yeah, it was Tony,” Steve said, with a bit of a sigh. “He was calling from the shop.”

“Yeah, I got bits and pieces of it. You were saying that it was… it was arson?” Steve hesitated and Bucky added, “I heard what you said to Stark. At least I think you said it. I don’t think I dreamed it. You said something about them wanting to have killed us. So that means arson, right?”

Great. Exactly the situation Steve had hoped to avoid, even if for the moment, Bucky sounded quite lucid and calm.

“I did say that and, yes, it was arson,” Steve reluctantly confirmed. “Someone apparently poured a fuckton of gasoline throughout the shop and on the stairs.”

“Awesome. Tony have any theories as to why or is it the obvious explanation that this has something to do with all of the recent shit that went down in and around the shop?”

Bucky’s voice remained calm. Steve did his best to match that tone despite the fact that his voice shook in an effort not to express everything he was really feeling.

“I think our only theories are what we’re all already thinking,” Steve said. “That this has something to do with what happened to Pietro and our recent visitors to Shield. I guess it could have been Loki or Rumlow but that seems like a stretch to me.”

“I mean, regardless of who it was, it sounds a bit overkill to try to burn us alive but I guess anyone who’s willing to shoot a kid probably isn’t overly concerned with morality.” He shifted position and gritted his teeth. “Is Stark coming here?”

“Yeah, he’ll be here in a bit to check in and consult with the doctors about your arm,” Steve said. “Speaking of that, you need more painkillers?”

“Is it time for that yet? What’s the board say?” Bucky tilted his head to look at the scrawl on the whiteboard by his bed. “Yeah, I guess it is almost time for that.” Then, before he could go further in that direction, he cursed. “Shit. I didn’t call Nat. I can bet anything she’s heard about this mess by now. I should let her know what’s going on.”

“I could handle that,” Steve offered. “While you’re waiting for the nurse to bring you your next dose, I could give her a call and then come back to let you talk to her as well?”

“That might be good. You can let her know what’s going on probably a little more coherently than I could.”

With that, Bucky pressed the call button. Steve pushed himself to his feet, rode the ensuing head rush, and limped his way into the hallway to dial Natasha’s number, ignoring Bucky’s reminder to use his crutches. He was admittedly surprised that his phone hadn’t already been blowing up with calls and messages from Natasha, Sam, or Clint, although it was possible that Natasha had attempted to call Bucky’s phone, which was now a burned piece of plastic in the rubble as far as Steve knew.

Natasha answered on the first ring. “Steve? What happened? Where is James? Is he alright?” Then, “Of course he’s not alright. If he were alright, he’d be the one calling me. Unless this is James?”

“It’s not,” Steve said. “You were right the first time, it’s me. I’m calling from the hospital. Before you start panicking, Bucky’s alright, kind of. He’s got a couple of injuries that are keeping him here at least through the night, maybe longer, since he’ll be getting surgery.”

“What happened?” Natasha asked, in an unnaturally calm voice that sent chills up and down Steve’s spine.

“I’m guessing you might have already heard that the shop caught on fire? Bucky sort of fell out the window during our escape. It’s a much longer story than that but we can tell you all of it later. He injured his arm in the fall, his left one, and that’s the reason they’re keeping him because they want to make sure that’s stabilized. Otherwise, he’s got a couple of minor fire related injuries, bruised ribs, and a concussion from the fall.”

“I’ll be over as soon as possible,” Natasha promised, and Steve tried not to reflect too much on the fact that the room was about to get quite crowded once Tony and Natasha arrived, especially since Natasha was likely to bring Sam or Clint along as well.

“I’m sure he’ll be glad to see you,” Steve said, instead of conveying any of those thoughts. “He actually wanted me to pass the phone back to him before I hang up. You good with that?”

“I can’t lie, as much as I trust you, Steve, it would be more of a relief to hear his voice.”

“No offense taken, Nat. Give me a sec.”

Steve covered the mouth of the phone as he headed back into the room to find the nurse in there, injecting a fresh dose of Dilaudid into the IV port. Steve could see the change in Bucky’s body language within seconds. The tension around his eyes decreased, his jaw went from being clenched to relaxed, and he all but sighed in relief as the medication took effect. He murmured thanks to the nurse – Steve glanced at the board to remind himself of which nurse was on duty, and found that her name was Claire Temple - who assured him that he didn’t need to mention it, to let her know if he needed anything else and that she’d be on call until the morning, and then hooked him back up to the saline drip.

Steve nodded to her as she left – she raised an eyebrow and gave him a thinly veiled threat about being up and about after what he’d been through and her thoughts regarding the effect of that on his body, especially since he seemed to be disinclined to use the crutches the doctor had given him – and then, once she was gone, he handed the phone over to Bucky and mouthed, Nat’s on the line.

Bucky took the phone. “Hey, Nat. Yeah, it’s me, who else would it be? I know I sound like shit. The smoke did a number on my throat. Yeah, I’m okay. A little messed up but I’m handling it. No, I wouldn’t say no to visitors. I don’t know what state I’ll be in when you arrive since I haven’t exactly gotten much sleep tonight but you’re always welcome to come on by. I also don’t know when the surgery might be but I’ll keep you updated through Steve’s phone as long as it stays charged. Seriously, don’t worry. I don’t know how much Steve told you but I’m really doing as fine as I can be.”

Bucky offered Steve a slight smile as he said that. Steve tried to believe Bucky’s words. Bucky was coping, maybe because he was too in shock at the moment to do anything other than keep functioning, but either way that was the important part. If he fell apart later, they’d deal with it then, but that wasn’t now. Steve was incredibly grateful for that because he didn’t think he could handle acting as emotional support for Bucky at this point.

“Uh-huh. Yeah. Yeah, I know. I’ll see you soon, Nat. Love you.” With that, Bucky ended the call and handed the phone back to Steve. “I’d tell you she’s coming but I’m guessing you gathered as much.”

“I did. I’m guessing it might be awhile before she gets here. Is she planning on bringing Sam or Clint?”

“That’s what she said.” Bucky shifted the slightest bit in an apparent attempt to make himself more comfortable.

“Anything you need? The bed adjusted? Another pillow?”

Bucky chuckled, which immediately made him wince. “That was probably a shit idea with a busted up shoulder and ribs. I’m as fine as I’m gonna be, Steve. I can reach the controls for the bed, I’ve got the two pillows and a blanket, so I’m good to go. I was about to suggest seeing what other movies they’ve got on this little screen by the bed and put something on until one or both of us passes the fuck out. Seriously though, I should be asking you if you need anything. Like one of these pillows?”

“Now, Mr. Barnes, don’t give away your bedding,” a voice chided from the doorway. Steve twisted his body enough, despite the fact that it made his lungs ache, to see that the nurse, Claire, standing there, a pillow and a blanket in her hands. “I figured after everything you weren’t going anywhere tonight, Mr. Rogers. There’s not a whole lot I can do to make trying to sleep in these chairs any more comfortable but I figured some bedding might be a good first step.”

She handed over the coarse blanket and vinyl-covered pillow to him and he murmured, “Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it. I figured it was the least I could do. My only other recommendation would be to pull two of the chairs together and see how that works. Some people find that to be more comfortable, some people find it to be even worse. I figure at least try it out and see what your verdict is.” She offered each of them a smile. “Once again, let me know if you need anything. I’m on shift until 6. Also, don’t let me see you out and about again without your crutches… ”

With that, she disappeared through the doorway, keeping it cracked behind her to give them a modicum of privacy. Bucky fiddled with the controls on the bed, enough to tilt it back just a little bit more while also keeping himself propped a bit upright. He turned off several of the lights in the room to ensure there was enough for Steve to see by but in a clear sign that he aimed to try to get some sleep himself.

Steve knew the chances of sleeping himself were minimal. He was exhausted, bone-achingly so, but it wasn’t the sleepy kind of exhaustion. This was just a full, body-weary sense of being drained. While he had no doubt that sleep might help with that, it wasn’t the kind of exhaustion that was conducive to falling asleep, especially in these types of conditions. Besides that, Tony would be arriving sooner or later and Steve really didn’t see the point in falling asleep and then being woken up by Tony’s arrival. Especially since Steve had to make certain that Bucky wasn’t woken up, if he were sleeping by then, which meant being awake himself.

Bucky shifted through the movies, moving pretty quickly to family films when he found that the movies were broken down by category before settling on Brave. He tilted the screen enough that Steve could see from where he’d gotten himself as comfortable as he could in his bed of chairs, with the pillow tucked awkwardly behind his neck and the light, scratchy blanket over him. Steve wasn’t particularly interested in the movie but it seemed to be providing a good distraction for Bucky, who seemed focused on the plotline, at least until his eyes started to drift shut.

Then Steve was alone with his thoughts.

Sure, the movie was still playing but Steve’s attention was far from that. He didn’t particularly care about the characters or the fact that the mother had apparently been turned into a bear. None of that was important to him. He felt too restless, too keyed up after the events of the evening. The longer he sat in the hospital room, despite the fact that he knew there was nowhere else he should have been given the condition that Bucky was in – and the fact that he had nowhere else to go since his apartment had just been destroyed – it was hard to remain stationary after everything.

He tried to list out and categorize everything that had been in the apartment, from the blanket his mother had made for him on his bed, to the stupid coffee machines Darcy and Clint had brought downstairs, to his first tattoo gun, to his most recent tattoo gun, to all of the art, especially the art that he hadn’t yet had a chance to back up and was now gone forever. That also didn’t include the belongings of everyone else who worked in Shield, like the small fountain in Bucky’s room that Natasha had given him when he started to work there to help keep him relaxed, to Clint’s favorite coffee mugs, to any little things brought in by Darcy and the twins to keep around the front desk; like Darcy’s dog shaming day-to-day calendar that she insisted on keeping out where the clients could see it.

All of that was gone.

Steve had no doubt the insurance on Shield was the best of the best and would cover any itemized list Steve could come up with, but it wouldn’t be the same. Gifts from family or friends, especially those family and friends no longer living, wouldn’t have as much weight if they were rebought rather than gifted. He thankfully kept the majority of the art in the shop backed up, on the off-chance anything ever did happen to it – though his fears were much closer to something getting spilled on them, despite their protective coverings, and things like that – but there were more recent designs that he hadn’t gotten around to scanning in and he hadn’t touched the majority of Clint’s work.

Those designs could be gone forever, which technically wasn’t a complete disaster for those drawings that were now being proudly worn and had been designed specifically and only for those persons. It was more of a disaster for the more recent work both Steve and Clint had been doing, where they had been commissioned for an appointment that now might never come. If Tony did come up with some sort of way to get the shop back on its feet again, recreating the artwork would never feel like it matched up to the original – or at least that was Steve’s current interpretation of matters.

He felt stupid for even thinking like this. He should have been happy. He should have been so grateful that both he and Bucky made it out with the limited injuries they’d incurred. Stuff was stuff, even the most important belongings could be replaced in some capacity if necessary. Yes, it was a loss but he needed to take his mind off of that. Especially seeing as it was nearly dawn and he’d barely slept all night.

It was at that moment that his phone vibrated in his hand and he glanced down. A message from Tony simply said, Come into the hallway.

There was no reason to stall, especially since he was already sitting there, lost in his own thoughts. For the first time in a long time, Tony’s presence was a welcome distraction.

Bucky barely stirred in response to the faint sound of the phone. Steve took care to move as quietly as possible as he stood up and headed into the hallway; a task that was somewhat difficult, given that his ankle refused to hold his weight and he refused to use the crutches because that would’ve led to more noise. He paused in the doorway, looking back long enough to see that Bucky hadn’t moved a muscle and appeared to be resting quietly.

The light in the hallway, bright and fluorescent, was almost blinding and Steve had to blink several times before he could properly focus on Tony. Tony, whose face was almost as soot and ash covered as Bucky’s and Steve’s own had been, who looked tired and worn and nothing like his usual put together self. He hadn’t been lying on the phone. The recent events, including the shock of tonight’s fire, must have been weighing on him. Steve felt a flicker of guilt at the thought of those recent events, including their fight and him freezing Tony out. He still stood by what he’d said even if now he wondered if maybe, just maybe his actions had been harsher than was strictly fair.

Even Tony’s voice sounded rough and drained. “Hey, Steve. You look like shit.”

“You don’t look much better,” Steve said, raising an eyebrow. “Bucky’s asleep in there, so if it’s all the same to you, we’re talking out here.”

“It doesn’t sound like I have much choice in the matter,” Tony said. “That’s fine. I won’t be here too long. I just wanted to make sure that you and Barnes were more or less in one piece.”

“We are. Any word on the surveillance footage?”

“Negative.” Tony sighed. “Looks like they cut the feed, as well as everything else they could in the shop. I couldn’t get anything. I was only going through the basics though, so it’s possible that I might be able to come up with something more. These guys probably aren’t as sophisticated as I am, so there’s a lot more that I need to test out before giving up on finding something.”

“If anyone can find it, it’s you,” Steve said, his praise for the first time not being delivered grudgingly. “Thanks, Tony. I appreciate it.”

“Don’t mention it, Rogers. It’s the least I can do. I should’ve done more to protect the shop after all of the shit that went down over the past couple of months.”

“Is that regret?” Steve asked. “Because, seriously, that’s not your fault. If I’d thought something more, like a security system, were necessary, I would’ve asked you for it.”

“Please, I know you don’t ask for anything. You don’t need to deny it. When I put in the cameras, I should’ve put in additional safeguards. Maybe it wouldn’t have done anything tonight, seeing as the job they did on the rest of the shop, but it might’ve slowed them down.”

“Stop thinking of ‘what ifs,’ Tony,” Steve said with a sigh. “You can think of them all night if you want but it’s not going to change anything. What happened happened. It wasn’t your fault, so stop blaming yourself. Me and Buck got out and for now that’s all that matters. Everything else… everything else will be figured out. But not tonight because none of us are in any shape to be trying to handle that right now.”

He attempted to shift his weight the slightest bit, as standing on his worn and damaged muscles wasn’t doing him any favors, but he wasn’t quite prepared for his leg to buckle completely. Immediately Tony caught his arm, keeping him upright, and hurriedly helped him over to one of the chairs positioned throughout the hallway, probably for incidents just like this.

“For fuck’s sake, Steve, what are you doing walking around on an injured ankle?” Tony questioned, as he got him settled.

Steve must have been really fucking exhausted because there was barely the flicker of shame over needing Tony to practically carry him over to a chair.

“I didn’t want to wake Bucky up by using the crutches,” he offered as a possible, incredibly weak excuse.

Tony clearly didn’t buy it but at least he didn’t argue. There was a moment of uncomfortable silence before he said, “Shit, Steve, I just… I would’ve hated for our last interaction to have been what it was. I mean, if something had happened to you. Something worse.”

“Glad that you only worry about that now when there’s the chance I could’ve died,” Steve pointed out. “Look, there’s no use thinking that way. That didn’t happen. I’m still here.”

“Could you stop acting like I hadn’t tried to make amends? I mean, I texted you and kept asking to talk to you and you kept blowing me off.” Tony exhaled slowly, in a way that made Steve think he was biting back his words and giving himself a chance to rethink what he was about to say. When he finally did speak, all he said was, “Maybe you’re right. I don’t know. For now, I need to be consulting with a surgeon on your boyfriend’s arm. You guys got a plan for where you’re going once he’s released?”

“I’m guessing we’ve got at least another 24 hours before we need to figure that out,” Steve replied. “But Bucky figured we’d probably reclaim his old room over at Nat’s place, at least for the time being.”

“You think that’s any safer than the apartment over Shield was?” Tony challenged. “I mean, the kid and Barton both got shot and they stayed – or at least were staying – there.”

“True,” Steve agreed. “But I also have to imagine that given these recent events, Natasha’s father has done everything he can to increase security around the townhouse. I don’t know if anyone would be stupid enough to make an attempt on the daughter of someone as high-ranking as Natasha’s father.”

“Really? I would have thought that would make her a prime target. After all, maybe it wouldn’t be so surprising that an attempt would be made on her.”

“But wouldn’t that potentially draw too much attention?” Steve countered right back.

“Look, I’m just saying that you might want to move to a more secure location. That’s all.”

“And I’m guessing that means you’re offering one. One like where the twins are gonna be staying.” Steve was quiet for a moment. “We’ll take it under consideration. Give us the details and I’ll talk to Bucky about it once he’s in a better place to be making that sort of decision.”

Tony nodded. “I can live with that.” He glanced at his wrist and exhaled slowly. “Alright, well, I’m supposed to be consulting with the surgeon-on-call about your boyfriend’s arm. I’ll be back to check on you both. Before I go, is there anything you need?”

“Nothing I can think of, Tony. Thanks again, you know, for everything.”

Tony offered Steve his hand to help him back to his feet and Steve accepted without argument. Then Tony did something that threw Steve off entirely. Never in their entire history together, even when they were sleeping together, had Steve ever considered Tony to be a person who outwardly showed much affection. And yet, on this occasion, he wrapped his arms around Steve. While Steve instinctively tensed in surprise, Tony hugged him and held tightly for long enough that Steve relaxed.

Then Tony stepped back and was all business once more. “Don’t mention it, Rogers. Get some rest and I’ll see you soon.”

Steve limped back into the room to find that Bucky was thankfully still asleep. Steve did his best to settle back into his bed of chairs as quietly as he could, in the hopes of not disturbing him. His hearing out of his right ear wasn’t the best but even he didn’t miss the sound of footsteps, presumably Tony’s move to the doorway, remain there for a good thirty seconds or maybe even a minute, and then slowly walk away.

-~-

Stumbling home at the same time the sun came up always left Clint disoriented. Usually it was after a long night of partying and he returned in that in-between space of being still drunk and already hungover but some times, like tonight, the return home in those early hours was due to spending the past several hours at the hospital. He supposed he should be grateful that this time it wasn’t for him.

Natasha managed to pull enough strings to let all three of them spend a couple of hours in Bucky’s room with him, although much of the time ended up being spent in the hallways and waiting rooms because Bucky was clearly exhausted and in need of rest. Since he was the most heavily medicated one of them, he was actually able to sleep, while the rest of them passed around cups of coffee – and continually removed the cup of coffee that kept ending up in Steve’s hand - and talked indirectly about the fire at the shop and everything going on. They rotated positions to ensure that one of them was always with Bucky in case he needed anything. Finally, around the time the nurse came by to take Bucky’s vitals, the trio headed home to snag a few hours of sleep before returning to support Bucky through the surgical procedures he’d be undergoing to repair his shoulder and arm.

Clint could barely keep his eyes open as Natasha pulled into the driveway, although upon seeing that there was a car already parked there, he found himself suddenly completely and utterly awake and on alert.

Natasha seemed unconcerned. “That’s Tony’s car. I recognize the plate. Besides, I let him borrow the spare key earlier when he stopped by Bucky’s room and asked him to meet us here.”

“And you didn’t mention this to either of us?” Sam inquired, and Clint was pleased to discover that he wasn’t the only one feeling a bit left out of things and frustrated.

“I’m sorry, it wasn’t exactly first and foremost in my mind,” she said, turning off the car and stepping out.

Clint still found himself feeling uneasy as Natasha unlocked the door and the three of them stepped inside. However, that anxiety decreased when Tony called out, “We’re in the living room. Please don’t shoot or anything.”

Upon entering the living room, Clint found Wanda curled up in the armchair, her legs tucked underneath her, looking like she hadn’t slept much either and desperately needed the cup of coffee in her hand – a hand that was shaking enough that Clint wondered whether she needed a second set of hands to help her. Tony stood a bit in front of the couch and as a result it took Clint a moment to register that there was someone he couldn’t quite see sitting there behind him. Either that or Clint’s exhaustion was leading him to see four legs where there should only be two.

“There’s fresh coffee in the pot,” Tony informed them. “I thought you could use it after last night.”

“We appreciate it,” Natasha said. “Now, if you don’t mind, any chance we could discuss the matter you’d wanted us to talk about? Because I would appreciate having the opportunity to snag a few hours of sleep before we go back to the hospital.”

“We wanted to talk to you,” Tony said unnecessarily, and then stepped aside so that Clint could finally see who had been hidden behind him.

“Good to see you, old man,” Pietro greeted him with an almost smirk.

Clint couldn’t help the answering grin that formed on his lips, although he did allow himself an eye roll. “I’m only a couple of years older than you, kid, but it’s good to see you too.”

Pietro looked almost healthy and somewhat back to what Clint would consider his normal level. Someone must have touched up his hair over the past couple of days since it was back to being pure white, without the addition of the grown out inches of his natural color. The weight loss was still evident, in the sharpened bones of his face and looseness of the sweater hanging on him, but there was color in his cheeks and brightness in his eyes. Clint had to admit he’d never been more relieved to see him looking healthy.

That seemed to be all Wanda had been waiting for, given that she abandoned the cup of coffee on the nearest surface and immediately got to her feet to hurry over to brother’s side. He instinctively wrapped am around her shoulder as she curled up against him. Clint had to assume the big reveal of Pietro being out of the hospital had been Tony’s idea, since the twins appeared to have struggled with just a few moments of not being next to one another. Given that, Clint figured he could give them some time together while he went and got yet another cup of coffee.

Once everyone was settled with coffee, Sam taking the chair that Wanda had abandoned, Clint settling at his feet the moment Sam offered a massage. Sitting in the uncomfortable hospital chairs had done nothing for his recent injuries and the shot – or two – of whiskey in his coffee in addition to Sam’s fingers working their magic on his shoulder muscles was enough to ease the thoughts that had been going through his head since the moment he’d been woken up in the middle of the night to discover that Shield was gone.

Natasha remained standing, as did Tony, and for a few moments there was silence as everyone drank their coffee, the twins clung together, and Clint bit back any inappropriate sounds that would have been far too loud with no one else speaking.

“So, what are we going to do?” Tony finally said, breaking the silence. “Things have gone way too far.”

Clint caught the helpless looks that crossed everyone’s faces. Everyone, except for the twins, who shared a look.

Pietro cleared his throat. “We’ve actually been talking about that. All of this has happened since you helped us out.” He held up a hand when Clint, as well as everyone except for Tony – who appeared to already know what the twins were talking about – started to protest. “Yeah, yeah, I know that Clint already had some issues with the mob but you can’t tell me that was the reason Shield burned down. Things escalated once you started helping us. We know it. You know it. There’s no reason to pretend that it’s not happening.”

“That doesn’t mean you should leave the state,” Sam said quietly. “We don’t want to see you in more danger when you don’t have anyone to help you.”

“That’s not what we’re talking about,” Wanda said. “I mean, technically we’ve already left town because of where we’re staying with Tony - ”

“ – and for security’s sake, I’m going to keep that information of exactly where they are to myself,” Tony added.

“ – but, anyways, that’s not the point,” Wanda continued. “The reason all of this is happening is because Talbot’s doing what he’s always done. He’s keeping one story – in this case, the story of how much he cares about us and worries about us – public, while keeping all of the shady bullshit private.”

“Alright,” Clint said slowly, trying to figure out where they were going with this.

“So, we’re going public,” Pietro said defiantly. “With all of it. We’re letting everyone know about the abuse and what he’s done to get us back.”

“Within reason,” Tony cautioned. “I’m working with the two of them to create a prepared statement. We cannot, for instance, accuse him of causing the fire in Shield but we can shed light on everything we have confirmation on.”

“Are you sure?” Natasha asked, her green eyes studying the twins intently.

Wanda nodded. “We’re positive. The reason he’s gotten away with everything over the years is because people have always been too scared to confront him. If he wants to keep doing press conferences, talking about how much he misses us, how much he worries about us, then we’re doing a press conference of our own and we’re telling the world everything.”

“And I’m helping,” Tony added. “I’m also ensuring that they will be safe traveling to and from the press conference and that there is no way for anyone to tail us back to their new house. I’m working every angle to prevent anything from happening.”

“Tony, aren’t you worried about how Talbot might respond to you being involved in all of this?” Sam asked. “I mean, it’s not as though the two of you haven’t had your own issues over the years. The least of what he could do is drag your reputation through the mud and accuse you of having a hand in the disappearance of the twins, of brainwashing them or something, and that’s without considering the worse things he’s proven himself to be capable of.”

“Let him drag my reputation through the mud,” Tony said defiantly. “I’ve got more than enough evidence on him. If he wants to fight back, we’re taking him down with us.”

Clint’s eyes moved from Tony’s face, to the twins who looked grimly determined, and then to Natasha, who looked concerned but also rather pleased. He had to admit that there was a certain level of pride he held for the twins, as well as Tony, for being willing to take this step.

“Well, if that’s the choice you’re making,” Clint said slowly. “Then we’ll be right there beside you.”

Chapter Text

Over 48 hours without sleep didn’t do Tony any favors. Between being woken up by a frantic call from Steve about the fire, and then spending hours inside the shop – choking from the acrid smell, looking for anything that could be salvageable, all the while being far too keenly aware of how close Steve and Bucky had come to dying – Tony was exhausted. Never mind that whole thing where he played chaperone for the twins before returning them to the designated safe location where it had taken him quite awhile to get the twins settled down. He hadn’t thought about how they would respond to the fact that he still smelled of smoke. He hadn’t thought about much of anything, really. It took Wanda having a panic attack for him to realize that after the fire that killed their adoptive mother, they still didn’t handle those triggers particularly well.

All of that before finally reviewing all of his notes on the model for Barnes’ arm and practicing removing parts on the prototype he’d still held onto. He wasn’t about to work on a living human and run the risk of causing Steve’s boyfriend irreparable damage. Not when the guy had already been through way too much. Also, when he was trying not to completely destroy his relationship with Steve.

It had taken him the majority of the afternoon, evening, and well into the early hours of the morning before he’d felt confident enough for the trial ahead. He’d been kept up to date, from Steve, Natasha, and the surgeons, regarding the process of repairing Bucky’s shoulder and how that recovery was looking, as well as how they planned to ensure that Tony’s work on the arm wouldn’t cause any additional damage to the healing muscle and tissue.

He’d eventually given in and snagged a quick nap, just enough to reset his body’s clock and stabilize himself before he went in to what he basically felt was a surgery he was completely unqualified to be performing. Granted, no one was more qualified to be working on the arm he’d created but those models weren’t attached to living humans who would feel pain if Tony miscalculated. Tony might have been a doctor on the books – perks of having a doctorate – but he wasn’t a medical professional.

Now Tony was back wandering the halls of the hospital, hiding out from the fluorescent lighting as long as he could with the help of his sunglasses, and continually reassuring himself that too much caffeine had never interfered with his ability to work on any of his projects. Being alert was more important than anything else.

The last thing he needed was to fuck this up and reinjure Bucky’s shoulder – or worse - and make Steve hate him even more.

He nearly missed a step when he saw the red-haired woman waiting for him at the end of the hall. Worrying about Steve might not be his biggest problem. Steve might punch him in the face but Natasha would drag things out and hurt him in ways he probably couldn’t even imagine if he fucked this up.

“Tony,” she greeted with a nod.

“Natasha,” he returned, in the same tone as her. “Is Barnes ready?”

“As ready as he’s going to be.” She studied him intently and he tried to pretend that she didn’t notice the bags under his eyes and the slightest tremor in his hand. “You sure you’re ready for this?”

“I’m always ready,” he said with bravado that he didn’t quite feel.

She raised an eyebrow and said nothing as she opened the door for him. Tony pushed his sunglasses to the top of his head and squared his shoulders as he walked inside the room.

With all of the equipment around, it looked more than a surgical suite than anything else. He figured that was just the way things went in a hospital – everything had to be sterile – but it gave him the sinking feeling of being completely out of his depth. He wasn’t a surgeon, he had no medical expertise, and while he recognized that he wasn’t about to crack open Bucky’s chest and do open heart surgery, it sure as hell felt like that was the next step.

Bucky sat in a wheelchair, near what looked uncomfortably like an operating table, clad in a hospital grown, an IV still in his right arm. The gown didn’t quite hide the fairly visible bandages over his left shoulder, nor did it hide the rather extensive looking sling keeping his arm stable and in place. His hair was tied back, away from the pale skin of his face, and while the look in his eyes was haunted, he managed a small smile in response to whatever Steve had just said to him.

Steve, for his part, looked a bit less exhausted and more functional than he had the last time Tony saw him, although that wasn’t saying much. Particularly given that Steve’s anger was barely there – if Tony hadn’t been looking for it, he never would have caught that it was there, right under the surface. That didn’t fit with his personality and the situation. Sure, maybe he was holding it in because Bucky was still in the hospital and about to undergo yet another procedure, but somehow this didn’t fit with the Steve Tony knew.

Tony nodded to each of them in turn, keeping his tone light and easy. “Rogers. Barnes. I’d say good to see you but that seems kinda fucked up given the overall situation.”

“Tony,” Steve echoed, tense but civil, which Tony hoped against hope meant their issues had been resolved and/or forgotten for the time being. “I’d also say good to see you but, yeah, that doesn’t seem quite right.”

“I’m going to pass on the generic greetings and just say thanks for doing this, Stark,” Bucky murmured.

“Who better than me to do this, right?” Tony said. “I mean, given that it’s my tech and all. By my estimates, it shouldn’t take too long. Maybe half an hour at most. Give or take ten minutes on either side. My plan is to remove the lower part of the arm, right above the elbow, and then see what I can do to repair any urgent damage to the upper part. I figure I’ll take care of the non-urgent damage when I put the arm back together once you’re all finished healing. Sound good?”

“It’s not like I have much choice in the matter, is it?” Bucky asked, raising an eyebrow. “I mean, I figure if I did, someone would’ve told me by now.”

“It’s not,” a scrub-clad figure in the room agreed, one Tony hadn’t quite noticed at first.

He quickly recognized one of the doctors he’d spoken with the night of the fire regarding Bucky’s arm, potentially the one who’d ended up during the surgery the previous day for all Tony knew. Given that Bucky had gone through surgery less than 24-hours prior – or at least something close to that timeframe – he looked surprisingly functional. Still half-dead, exhausted, and moderately pained, but for someone who’d almost died in a fire and then gone through surgery, he seemed to be doing well.

“Damn, and I was so hopeful too,” Bucky quipped, though Tony caught the trembling in his jaw as he forced a grin. “So, we gonna get to it this century?”

The doctor nodded. Tony spread out his set of tools on the stainless steel tray provided to him, trying not to think too hard about the fact that usually there would be very different instruments put out there. As he prepared himself, the doctor moved to Bucky’s right side and helped him to his feet and then got him settled on the surgical table.

Tony looked up long enough to see Bucky’s breath catch in his throat as he sat on the edge of the surgical table. Tony put his head back down once Natasha and Steve both quickly stepped in to calm Bucky. The doctor carefully remove the sling and then position Bucky on the table, taking care to place his upper left arm in what looked uncomfortably like some sort of metal restraint. Though the purpose of it was obviously to keep the arm stabilized, it still sent a chill down Tony’s spine. Then the doctor tucked a blanket around Bucky’s lower body and took his place at Bucky’s right arm.

“Like we talked about, we’ll be giving you a dose of sedatives, Mr. Barnes.”

“Just call me Bucky. We don’t need formality here.”

“Bucky then,” the doctor agreed. “As we talked about before, we will not be using full anesthesia today. My goal is to avoid that at all costs, given your recent head injury and the surgery you just went through, not to mention the medications you’re already on. That said, I also want to keep you as calm as possible. I’ll start you out on a low dosage of a tranquilizer. I’ll be checking in with you throughout to see if you need more.” He glanced at Natasha and Steve, then added, “Your friends will also be here the entire time. Any questions?”

“All heard loud and clear, doc,” Bucky replied. “Now, any chance we could get those drugs going? The Dilaudid’s doing a great job on the pain but nothing for my heart rate.”

Steve reached for Bucky’s right hand, pausing about half a second to look for approval from the doctor before he went through with it. Once he’d received the confirmatory nod, he squeezed Bucky’s hand gently as the doctor injected a syringe-full of liquid into the IV. Bucky’s body almost instantaneously relaxed and immediately Tony found himself feeling a bit less of his league, though he couldn’t quite determine whether having Natasha positioned close to Bucky’s left shoulder was an added complication or somehow helpful. Given that Bucky relaxed all the more with her there, Tony had to figure it was probably a good thing in that it seemed to make him feel safer.

Still, he wasn’t exactly looking forward to being under her scrutiny as he worked.

“You ready?” Tony asked, waiting for Bucky’s affirmative response. Then he pulled over a chair and settled down. “I’m gonna do my best to talk you through this so there are no surprises. I’m also going to check in as often as I can, too but sometimes I get lost in my work. So if you need a break, I need you to tell me.” He glanced between Steve and Natasha before adding, “And if you can see that he needs a break, feel free to interrupt too.”

With everyone on board, Tony turned his full attention to the job at hand. “I’ve got a screwdriver in my hand. That’s what I’ll be using to deal with taking apart all of the little pieces that hold your arm together. Those’ll need to be taken apart in order to get the lower part of the arm off. Like I said, I’m planning to go slowly so there are no surprises.”

He didn’t bother to add that he’d pointedly chosen manual tools despite the fact that it would take longer. There were so many other tools he could have used, tools that would’ve been quicker but also led to vibrations going through the entire arm. Vibrations could easily cause additional damage to the already damaged muscle and tissue. This method would take forever – or thirty minutes, give or take ten minutes on either side - but at least he wouldn’t be responsible for doing anything to further hurt Bucky.

Bucky just murmured, “Okay.”

Tony took that as his cue to start. He turned his full attention to the task to the point where the rest of the world drifted away. He figured if there were a concern, Natasha or Steve would clue him in. From the corner of his eye, he saw Natasha smoothed back Bucky’s hair. Then he slipped back into the zone and wasn’t aware of a whole lot because he was more intent on figuring out how to carefully and quickly detach the lower part of the arm.

The next 15 minutes passed quickly, to the point where Tony almost forgot that the equipment he was working on was attached to a living person. Bucky remained quiet throughout. Given that neither Steve nor Natasha stopped him at any point, Tony had to assume that it was the good type of quiet. The doctor occasionally asked Bucky how he was doing and Bucky responded, mostly affirmatively in one word answers, although not all of those answers must have been positive ones; Tony did catch the doctor giving Bucky a bit more of the sedative. Tony all but breathed a sign of relief once the lower arm came completely off. At that point, he turned away from Bucky and carefully stowed the arm. He took a few moments to straighten up and stretch his sore muscles, wincing as his back protested each and every movement.

“You doing alright, Buck?” Steve asked.

“I’m good,” he said groggily. “That wasn’t as bad as I expected.”

“Well, we’re not quite done,” Tony added. “I’m not going to do much to the rest of your arm, since you’re still healing, but there’s some damage that I’m a little worried about leaving for however long it takes for you to heal.”

“Then let’s get to it. I figure it’s best to keep going while the drugs are still working their magic and I’m feeling calm.”

“Fair enough,” Tony said, stretching for another few moments before reaching for his tools once more.

This time, he couldn’t ignore the fact that the arm was attached to Bucky. Even while focusing specifically on the metal, he couldn’t miss the rise and fall of Bucky’s chest or catch sight of his face out of his peripheral vision. Despite doing his best to keep his focus on repairing the damaged metal, he knew something was wrong before Natasha brought it to his attention.

It was hard not to notice given that Bucky’s chest suddenly stopped moving and his breath hitched in his throat. Tony quickly stopped what he was doing and pushed his chair.

“James, listen to me,” Natasha said sharply.

There was panic in her eyes that Tony didn’t quite understand. Despite the fact that Bucky had stopped breathing, it was pretty clear he wasn’t going into cardiac arrest or anything like that. The doctor appeared concerned, but he wasn’t going for the crash cart. It took Tony a moment to realize that while Bucky wasn’t about to die, he was verging on panicking. With his arm restrained, that was something that could go badly very quickly.

Suddenly the decision to keep the arm restrained, to minimize damage while Tony worked, seemed like the worst possible decision they could have gone with. If Bucky panicked now, he’d injure his arm probably as badly as anything that could have happened if the arm had been free while Tony worked.

Bucky didn’t have any response to Natasha’s command, nor did he have any reaction to Steve squeezing his hand and repeating his name several times. The doctor reached towards the restraint to release it, but Natasha stopped him.

No one breathed for the next few moments. With no one else acting, Tony verged on releasing Bucky himself. The last thing he needed was to be responsible for whatever was about to happened next – and then Bucky’s eyes unfocused completely.

“Tony, finish the job.” Natasha practically ground the words out.

Tony didn’t even consider arguing.

This time, he was able to shut out everything else. It felt like no time had passed before he could say, “Alright, that’s all I think we need to deal with now.” Before anyone could argue, he unclasped the restraint on Bucky’s arm.

The doctor checked Bucky’s vitals once again and seemed satisfied with whatever he found. Natasha rested her hand on Bucky’s cheek, focusing his gaze on her despite the fact that he clearly wasn’t seeing anyone or anything, and started murmuring to him. Tony didn’t bother to listen, particularly when Steve jumped in on it as well. He felt more like a voyeur than anything else and preferred to get his tools together and just leave.

Still, he hesitated when Bucky tiredly asked, “Is it over? Are we done?”

“Yeah, Buck, we’re done,” Steve responded. “Ready to get you back to the room?”

Tony glanced over his shoulder to find Natasha smoothing Bucky’s hair off his pale face, enough to press a kiss to his forehead before backing off once the doctor moved over with one of those transport gurneys that hospitals seemed determined to use to move patients around. The doctor gently replaced the remains of Bucky’s metal arm in the sling and Tony flinched when he caught Bucky wince in pain. Steve kept a steady hold of Bucky’s right hand as the doctor helped Bucky sit up and swing his legs over the edge of the table.

“Let’s just go slowly,” the doctor cautioned. “These medications often make people lightheaded.”

Steve reluctantly moved away as the doctor guided Bucky to his feet for a short moment before settling him down on the gurney. The blanket was once again tucked around him, this time over his entire body, which Tony thought was probably a good thing since he could see Bucky tremble. As always, these surgical rooms weren’t quite warm but Tony didn’t think it was cold enough to bring out this reaction.

“I’ll meet you guys back at the room,” Natasha promised, as Bucky was wheeled out. “I need to have a little conversation with Tony first.”

“Uh-oh, am I in trouble?” Tony asked, trying to sort through anything he might have done to piss Natasha off. Last he’d checked, the two of them had been getting along about as well – if not better – than usual, and it wasn’t as though he’d done anything to jeopardize Bucky’s well-being while he worked on the arm.

Natasha shook her head and then sat down in the chair Tony had recently vacated. If Tony felt like a voyeur before, it was nothing compared to how he felt now.

Natasha buried her face in her hands and took several, slow, deliberate breaths, several of which hitched in her throat as though she were on the verge of crying. He considered offering a comforting hand on the shoulder but quickly determined he’d be in danger of losing that hand, so instead he just stood there, feeling useless and hoping all of this ended soon.

Natasha raised her head, straightened her shoulders, and took several deep breaths. She rose to her feet without commenting on what had just happened and headed to the door, pausing long enough to inquire, “Are you coming?” before heading into the hallway.

Tony slung his bag over her shoulder and hurried after her. “Is there some reason you want me to come along with you?”

“Because I’m expecting you to come back with us to the townhouse so that we can talk about that press conference you’re planning.”

Tony couldn’t exactly come up with an argument for that, given that the press conference was set for a few days time. Instead, he followed behind and hoped against hope that this would be his last time in a hospital for the foreseeable future. With the sunglasses off for this long, the fluorescent lights were bringing back the headache, most likely compounded by the ridiculously strong cleaner hospitals insisted on using to prevent infection. Upon reaching Bucky’s room, Natasha darted inside. Tony watched from the door. He was surprised to see Clint in there as well, although less so when he realized that Clint held Winter’s leash.

Bucky must have just been settled back into his room, given that Steve sat on the edge of the bed. As Tony watched, Steve settled down against Bucky’s right side, careful of the IV in Bucky’s arm. Bucky’s face still hadn’t gotten much color back and he looked tired and unfocused, although he summoned enough energy to order Winter onto the bed. Clint released his grip on the leash as Winter obliged and stretched out across Bucky’s legs in a way that did not look comfortable and made the bed quite crowded. Bucky didn’t seem to mind though. Besides, for all Tony knew, that was exactly what Winter was meant to be doing as a service dog.

Natasha leaned down to kiss the top of Bucky’s head, which brought a smile to his lips. “Take care of yourself, James. I’ll be back this evening to see how you’re doing. Want me to bring you anything?”

“Aside from real clothes, I’ll let you know if I need anything else,” Bucky replied. “Right now I’m just planning on sleeping for the rest of the day.”

“Get some rest,” she said softly. “And remember that you’ll be coming to the townhouse tomorrow.”

“How could I forget? I’m counting down the hours.”

Natasha smiled fondly at him before turning her attention to Steve. “Anything you want me to bring you?”

“Real food would be appreciated. The food here isn’t awful but it’s definitely not great.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” Natasha promised. “Call me if you need anything sooner.”

When Natasha straightened up and turned away from the bed, Tony saw the moment her expression shifted from the warm, comforting one she’d been offering Bucky and Steve to something harsher, darker. The rest of her body language hardened but Bucky and Steve thankfully didn’t seem to notice.

“We’ll take your car,” Natasha said, in a voice that left no room for argument.

While Tony was glad to be acknowledged again, he didn’t quite appreciate that.

“Do I get any say in what’s going on here?” he asked.

“No. We need to talk and I know that the safest place for us to talk is there.”

Tony couldn’t quite argue and thankfully he’d taken the limo today given his sleep-deprived state. That meant he could always snag a drink at the minibar if this conversation went directions he didn’t particularly want to deal with. Besides, if nothing else, he figured some whiskey would take the image of Bucky’s panicked, frightened eyes out of his mind for the time being.

-~-

The following morning, Natasha moved around Bucky’s room, straightening the pillows and smoothing the comforter down over the freshly cleaned sheets. She added a bit more of the lavender oil to the diffuser on the desk and then pulled the blackout curtains securely closed. A few deep breaths should have calmed her but she had had never been quite this angry. There had been plenty of times when something had happened to invoke a certain level of rage but this was far beyond that. This was closer to wrath it would continue burning under the surface for the foreseeable future.

Until she did something to alleviate it.

It had started from the moment she’d stepped into the hospital room that first night, to see Bucky lying asleep in the bed, his left shoulder covered in bandages and supported by a sling. The rage came when she drove past Shield and saw the damage to the shop and had no doubt – between that and everything she’d already heard from Tony and Steve - that the purpose of the fire had been murder. The wrath formed when she stayed by Bucky’s side as he went through surgery. In the hours before the surgery, she’d seen the tremble in his hand, the tension in his jaw, and the borderline terror entering his eyes. In the hours after, as Bucky slept off the anesthesia, she and Steve had alternated between sitting by his side, pacing around the room, and wandering the hospital when the quiet in the room got to be too much.

Natasha had remained by Bucky’s side throughout his various sets of surgeries after he came back from Iraq. He was different now, in several ways; he had new coping skills and resources to keep himself stable and calm. On the other hand though, he’d also been through this scenario before and she could see how much the reminders of that first time were weighing on him despite all of his newly developed and enhanced coping skills.

The final straw was when Tony got to working on the arm and Bucky completely fell apart.

Even having her and Steve by his side didn’t seem to help. She’d made the executive decision that it was just kinder to let Bucky dissociate until Tony finished. He’d already been through way too much and didn’t have the capacity to handle this as well.

Seeing Bucky’s breath hitching in his throat and then his eyes unfocus completely was it for her. That was the moment that she made a decision that she recognized was far from wise and safe but was the only thing she could consider that might make a change after everything. Clint had a hit on him, probably more than one at the rate he was going. Pietro had been shot and now he and his sister were taking dangerous steps towards ensuring their freedom.

And the same people who had caused all of the damage to other people in her life had attempted to kill someone who was not involved at all; someone who was one of the most important people in her life. It wasn’t as though no one had tried to kill other people she cared about as much – Clint would have died that night in the library if she hadn’t been there, after all – but there was a big difference there, in that Clint knew the danger he’d gotten himself into. Bucky and Steve, though, they were just both in the wrong place at the wrong time.

While she could accept things to a certain extent, she could not accept the possibility of doing nothing moving forward. She had to act and she had to do it in the only way she knew how.

But that was a plan she had not yet been able to put into play. There were parts of it that needed to wait until after the twins’ press conference in another few days. Those parts, and the specific course of action she would take, had been agreed upon by her, Tony, and Clint during their trip back to the townhouse the previous day – and shared with Sam once he’d arrived home, since he’d been unable to secure any more time off of work to join them at the hospital. But that was nothing to dwell on now. Not when she could see Stark’s limo – so kindly offered by Tony - pulling up outside of the townhouse.

She pulled her coat more securely around herself as she stepped outside to meet the figures stepping out of the idling limo. Those several days in the hospital had done neither of them any favors. With his unshaven face and long, unwashed hair, Bucky looked rough and worn, and he carried himself protectively, mindful of the remains of his left arm and any threats in the environment that might lead to further damage. It seemed to help that he had Winter on his left and Steve on his right, but she could see his relief when the two of them limped their way up the steps to the townhouse.

“Hey, Nat,” he said, offering her a small, almost genuine smile.

She leaned in to kiss his cheek and then stepped back to let him and Steve inside. “Hello, James. Hello, Steve. How are you both feeling?”

Despite the fact that Bucky seemed on the verge of crawling out of his skin while outside, he held back to let Steve step inside the townhouse first. Steve shot him a look but apparently decided that it would take less time and energy if he didn’t argue and therefore responded to Natasha’s question as he stepped inside.

“My lungs still hate me and my ankle’s killing me but it could be worse.”

Once inside, it was obvious that Steve looked as worn down and in pain as Bucky did, with his face pale and deep, dark circles beneath his eyes. It was clear he hadn’t slept much in days, just like the rest of them. From the look in his eyes, his anger was at the same level of hers, though he seemed to be doing his best to hide it.

It was also clear Steve wasn’t using his crutches. She’d need to call him out on that later.

“And you, James?” she asked, when Bucky didn’t volunteer the information himself. Not that she could blame him. It was pretty clear, as he took in slow, measured breaths, that he was more focused on grounding himself and just grateful to be off the street and inside a familiar place.

“The anesthesia’s still kicking my ass,” he admitted. “Keeping my eyes open for more than an hour at a time is pretty much the extent of my abilities. Probably isn’t helping that I’m on pretty high doses of Vicodin and Xanax. I don’t know how much longer I can stay on my feet. I even lost a little time while in the limo, although I don’t know if that was me dissociating or passing out.”

“I’d say a little bit of both,” Steve said.

“How about heading up to your room?” Natasha suggested softly. “Get some rest and I’ll check in every so often, see if you guys need anything.”

Bucky’s relief was palpable. “Thanks, Nat.” He turned to Steve and added, “You know, you don’t have to follow me if you’d rather stay down here.”

“Actually, it’s a little early for this, but I was thinking about knocking back some Nyquil and just passing out myself,” Steve said. “I can’t seem to shake this cough and I need to stay off my ankle, so I’m hoping that might help.”

Natasha supposed she should be grateful that on some level Steve was aware of what he needed to do to take care of himself. Even if he wasn’t about to drag the set of crutches around. Thankfully, she still had a set from Clint’s injury those few months back.

“There’s Nyquil in the medicine cabinet,” she said. “Get some rest, both of you. Clint and Sam are out so it should be pretty quiet upstairs.”

She hugged Bucky as tightly as she dared before he headed upstairs. He smelled of smoke and the antiseptic smell of IVs and hospital beds. His breath warmed the side of her throat and she could feel the taut muscles beneath the layers of a jacket and shirt. That kind of tension didn’t bode well for future migraines, which was unsurprising. He’d been running on exhaustion and terror for days.

“I’m coping, Nat,” he murmured. “Honest. You don’t need to be worrying like you are.”

“After what happened to the both of you, you damn well know I’m not going to stop worrying.”

She didn’t comment on the fact that Steve had shared with her that the nightmares and flashbacks had been steadily increasing over the past 24 hours. They’d started before then but something about going through Stark’s work on the arm had clearly pushed Bucky over the edge and brought on everything he’d been trying to hold back.

Instead, she kissed his cheek. “I’ll be down here if you need anything.”

She stayed long enough to watch as they headed up the stairs, just to ensure that both of them made it without losing their footing. Then she headed to the kitchen, specifically the cross between a closet and a pantry in there – and picked up the bag she’d hidden. Sifting through her equipment and preparing for her next step gave her something to focus on, something other than listening to the sounds of the floorboards creaking over her head, of the water running in the bathroom, and then of everything settling down into silence.

With the bag in hand, she settled down on the couch. While it may have been more productive for her to focus on the next due assignment or paper, she didn’t have the level of focus for that. Besides, this was important in a different way.

She reviewed the files, flipping through the papers inside, to see if there was anything she’d missed, anything else she needed to do in preparation. There were the fabricated documents in one, as well as everything she’d gathered to take that next step. Then there was the hard drive, backing up everything on the off-chance that something happened to the hard copies she had in her possession already. Naturally, there were also back-ups of her back-up.

One cursory review of everything, and she found herself on her feet again. Movement was required; she couldn’t stand to remain stationary any longer. Instead, she headed upstairs and paused outside Bucky’s room, listening at the door for any signs or sounds that something was amiss.

Hearing nothing, she carefully eased the door open and glanced inside to find Bucky sleeping soundly - thankfully undisturbed by her presence - with Steve curled up against his right side, Winter on his left, just as they had been outside. His dark hair fanned out over the sheets, contrasting to Steve’s blonde strands, where Steve’s head was pillowed on Bucky’s chest, rising with each slow, even breath Bucky took.

Her heart twisted as she looked at them, seeing how calm and quiet Bucky seemed. With the faint scent of lavender in the room and the blackout curtains drawn closed to let him sleep, it wasn’t hard to reflect back on when she used to be the one nestled against Bucky’s side. The one calming him down when he had a nightmare; combing her fingers through his hair until he finally slept.

Natasha eased the door closed and retreated back downstairs. The files remained where she had left them. She flipped through them once more before returning them to their bag and carrying that back to its hiding place. As far as she was concerned, she was as ready as she was going to be to take that step forward.

She wandered into the kitchen to review the options for dinner. She could always call for takeout – a pizza or Chinese food would probably still be better than anything Bucky had eaten while in the hospital – or she could throw together some pasta, a frozen pizza, or consider something slightly more daring, like a build your own taco night.

Natasha was looking for the ingredients for that when the screaming started from upstairs. She ran straight up the stairs, only to pause once again in front of the door and then slowly ease it open

Bucky sat in bed, hunched over, his shoulders heaving in a way that wasn’t great for his recovery, breath coming in gasps. Beside him, Steve had his hand pressed against Bucky’s cheek and spoke softly, “It’s okay, Buck. It’s me, it’s Steve. We’re at the townhouse. You’re safe. Just focus on breathing and on the sound of my voice.”

Winter rested his front paws on Bucky’s legs and lapped at his right hand. Bucky tensed, his body jerked, as though he was trying to reach out with his damaged left arm. When the sling and lack of forearm prevented the movement, he made a strangled whimpering sound that broke her heart.

She almost took a step into the room then, already going through all of the methods she had to used over the months to ground Bucky, to bring him back, to get him to breathe again and to reassure him of where he was and that he was safe.

But that wasn’t necessary. Despite his own sleeplessness and exhaustion, Steve coaxed Bucky to look at him, to meet his eyes, and to focus on his voice. His voice remained gentle but sharp and steady enough to bring Bucky back. Little by little, Bucky’s breathing changed, shifting from uneven, sobbing gasps to slower, more rhythmic breaths. The tension in his body eased and he buried his head in the crook of Steve’s neck, as Steve combed his fingers through Bucky’s hair just like Natasha used to do.

That was when she stepped back, before Steve could catch sight of her standing in the doorway. Even now, after all this time, it felt strange not being the one there, by Bucky’s side, calming him down and bringing him back. She hadn’t expected to miss playing that role for him, though she supposed it made sense after their long relationship with one another.

Besides, given everything else, he was probably safer with more distance between them. Given her own link to the mob and some of the things planned for the near future, she doubted being close to her would do him any favors. Though given that he’d already been hurt despite that, the distance might not even matter in the end.

It was clear; after everything that had happened, things were going to get a lot worse before they got better.

Chapter Text

Pietro woke up to the sound of gasping. Disoriented in the dark, unfamiliar room, he automatically wondered if it was his own breath rasping in his throat. But as he struggled to fully orient himself, the screaming – separate and distinct and frighteningly familiar - started.

He slammed his hand to the right, searching desperately for a lamp or a light switch, something, anything, to find out where he was and what was making his sister scream like that. When his fingers finally hit the button on the lamp and the light came on, he rocketed into a sitting position to find Wanda huddled in a tangle of blankets, clawing at the sheets, screaming herself hoarse. Immediately, he was on guard as he noticed that the room looked completely unfamiliar – the two of them in a king-size bed with plush sheets in a room with beautifully painted blue walls and accented with decorations of quality, all of which, despite being unfamiliar, felt too close to the type of decoration he’d seen over the years in Talbot’s house. Regardless of the situation, panicking wasn’t helpful though. He forced himself to remain calm – a few slow measured breaths helped with that - and focus on waking Wanda up.

Remaining in a sitting position took effort, as his still healing stomach muscles protested the movement. He gritted his teeth against the pain as he reached for Wanda’s shoulder.

“Wanda, it’s okay. You’re safe. I’m right here.”

As he reassured her, other things started to come back to him, such as the fact that the two of them were at one of the many houses belonging to Tony Stark, where theoretically they were completely safe. Tony had spent quite awhile going over all of the security in place and informed them at length about how even if somehow someone found them, they would be unable to get in without alerting Tony’s personal security guards through one of the many redundancies in place.

That realization gave his voice a bit more strength. “You’re safe. We’re safe. I’m right here beside you and nothing is going to hurt you while I’m here.”

He gave her shoulder a light shake and she came awake with a gasp, almost recoiling from his touch. Then, before he could feel too hurt about the initial reaction, she buried her head against his shoulder and sobbed. As always, he held her and stroked her hair until she calmed enough to talk. Pushing her never helped anything, it was better to wait until she felt ready to talk to him about the horrors she’d relived in her sleep. When he pushed, she shut down.

“I hadn’t dreamed of him in so long,” she choked out. “I don’t know why he’s coming back now. This is the second time I’ve dreamed of him in a matter of weeks.”

“Who?” Pietro asked, his head tilted in confusion.

He tried to imagine how Wanda had gone so long without dreaming of their adoptive father when he seemed to dream of that man at least two or three times a week, if not more often. Though she shattered those thoughts the moment she spoke again.

“The Baron.”

With those two words, the blood turned to ice in his veins, just as surely as if he’d been given some of those drugs the doctors pumped into him during those long weeks in the hospital. The Baron, now there was a person he thankfully hadn’t thought of in a long, long time, and thank fuck for that. For as awful as things were with Talbot, at least he was predictable. The Baron, on the other hand, radiated unpredictability. He could be kind one minute, destructive the next, with nothing to distinguish between the two. Talbot was never kind. There was never a question of that and somehow that felt easier to handle. When the Baron was in the house, things always got worse.

“Wanda, there’s been no sign of him. There are plenty of threats around us but he is not one of them. Besides, if he were somehow involved in the hunt for us, we’re in the safest place we could be right now. Tony has made sure of that.”

“But we’re going public tomorrow… or… or I guess that would be today now,” she said quietly. “What if something bad happens?”

He managed to stop himself before responding automatically; there would be nothing helpful about saying, “We know that’s a risk” or “Then let’s not go through with it.” Those options would shut Wanda down or force her hand. This needed to be her choice after everything else that had been taken away from her over and over again.

After he sifted through his potential options, he finally settled on asking, “Do you still want to go through with the press conference?”

He hoped that would go over better than making any sort of assumption that she didn’t or encouraging her to back off. He still thought the press conference was the best shot they had for actual freedom, though he recognized the possibility – maybe probability was the better word – that Talbot could – and would - retaliate.

Immediately, she nodded. “Yes. We don’t have another choice and I want the world to know that the man Talbot pretends to be is not the man he truly is.”

He relaxed the slightly. “We always have another choice but… but good. Then our decision has been made. Tony has given us a secure place here and has arranged for us to be transported from here to the press conference and then back again. I trust him to maintain our safety throughout all of this.”

“And afterwards, have you thought further about that?” Wanda asked, after a moment. “Will we stay here indefinitely? Will we leave the city?”

“I don’t know,” he admitted. “We’ve made a home here. I don’t exactly want to leave.” He smoothed her hair back. “But that’s not something we have to discuss now. Especially not in the middle of the night. Right now, at best we need to be trying to get some sleep. At worst, we need to think about the press conference. After everything is over, we can see where things are and make a decision then.”

Wanda exhaled raggedly. “Okay. You’re right.”

“I usually am,” he said with a grin that quickly faded. “Now, what would help? Want to turn on the TV? Make a midnight snack? Do some baking?”

“I think I can get back to sleep. It’s not my first night here and it’s easier with you by my side. It makes me feel more secure that nothing bad is going to happen to me while I sleep.”

“It won’t,” he promised. “I won’t let anything happen to you.”

“I won’t let anything happen to you either,” she said firmly. “Not again. Not after the last time.”

“That wasn’t your fault,” Pietro said, not for the first time and he supposed not for the last either. “You might not believe me now but I hope you will one day. You’ve always done your best to protect me before and you would have again if you were with me that night.”

He leaned over to turn off the light and she settled against his chest, head nestled in the crook of his neck. Small tremors continued coursing through her body, although those decreased as he threaded his fingers through her hair until her breathing evened out. Matching his breathing to hers helped quiet his mind, enough to still the racing thoughts about what would happen at the press conference that evening and whether that would make things worse.

As far as Pietro was concerned, this press conference would be the defining moment for their freedom.

-~-

Somewhere in the early hours of the morning, the warmth of the body beside Bucky left the bed. He wasn’t aware of shifting around but he must have become restless, given that the heat was quickly replaced by Winter curling up against his side. That was enough for his heart rate to return to normal and him to return to sleep. It wasn’t hard with the drugs still in his system. There was vague awareness of tossing and turning but as far as he could tell when he cracked his eyes open hours later, there hadn’t been yet another nightmare. Winter hadn’t woken him up – not that he remembered – and his throat wasn’t raw and sore. No nightmares could be something he might consider progress.

Despite the fact that he’d just woken up, settling down once more and falling back asleep sounded like a good idea. He had nowhere to be. It wouldn’t be hard to close his eyes and sleep through the rest of the day. But as he shifted position in the hopes of becoming more comfortable, it quickly because clear that the gnawing ache in his shoulder prevented that. With a sigh, he pushed himself up on his elbow and carefully repositioned his body against the pillows until he could reach for the bottle of pills on the nightstand. Getting the bottle open required an act of extreme dexterity with only one hand. By the time he managed to shake two of the pills out and swallow them down with a sip of water, he was breathing hard. Now he’d probably would be better off just sleeping.

And there was the problem. Regardless of how much energy he had when he woke up, it took hardly anything to drain it down to nothing.

With a groan, he closed his eyes and rested his head back against the pillow. Immediately, he felt Winter’s tongue, rough and warm, lap at the palm of his hand.

“I’m fine, boy. Stop fretting.”

He remained curled up in bed, petting Winter, until the sharp edges of the pain wore down to an afterthought and his muscles unlocked and relaxed. Then, and only then, did he carefully shift his body over until he could sit up fully and slide his legs over the side of the bed. Winter moved right beside him, making it clear that he was available for support if Bucky needed that.

Somehow, magically, Bucky made it to his feet without incident. Getting through the bedroom and then managing the trek to the bathroom down the hall took a bit more effort. Once there, he splashed cold water on his face, the temperature almost shocking against his skin, before chancing a quick glance in the mirror over the sink. The area under his eyes was dark enough that he couldn’t distinguish whether it was actually bruised or simply a sign of his overall level of exhaustion.

At the least though, his face was clean-shaven, his hair soft and more or less untangled for the first time in days. Natasha, Steve, and Sam had joined together the previous evening to help get him cleaned up, all insisting it would be therapeutic. While all of that activity had been draining, he had to admit that looking better did, in some strange way, help him feel better too. Taking the time now to brush his teeth and run a comb through his hair, removing the knots and snarls that had developed during the night, made him feel more like a put together human being.

He spent a few moments weighing the costs and benefits of changing his clothes and quickly determined that he would be better off just wandering his way downstairs and saving that energy for tracking down something edible and maybe also some coffee. Coffee counted as food, right?

Winter kept pace with him as he made his way down the steps, pausing whenever he did, and staying close enough to act as a stabilizing force on the off-chance things went poorly – not exactly an impossible scenario given his level of exhaustion and injuries. Thankfully, he made it to the kitchen without any incident.

There, he found a pot of coffee with enough for another cup or two still remaining. A glance in the fridge – where he found the remains of a cold but reasonably still fresh half of a pizza and plenty of food that would require more work to make – and he abandoned the food making venture as a whole, despite the fact that grabbing a cold piece of pizza wouldn’t be that difficult. His appetite hadn’t exactly returned and while a part of him recognized eating might just help to boost his energy, he didn’t see the point in wasting his energy to make something he’d barely eat.

With the coffee in hand, he made his way to the couch, where he promptly stretched out and curled up in the spot he seemed to have taken up residence in. Winter padded by his side before taking his place on the floor beside him. Bucky allowed his hand to rest on the dog’s head for a moment, reassuring himself that he remained right there beside him and would be there if he needed anything.

That was the end of his energy.

His gaze fell on the remote control, only a few inches away from him, and it took about two seconds to determine that he didn’t care about watching TV enough to justify the effort of moving.

Bucky meant to close his eyes for a moment or two, in the hopes of regaining his energy, but he must have fallen asleep. The next thing he knew, he had jerked awake to the sound of the front door shutting and footsteps coming towards him. No, not him, he realized hazily, but the kitchen nearby, from where there subsequently came the thump of something heavy being placed on the counter and the rustling of bags.

He must have made a noise because the next moment, there was the sound of something hitting the floor and startled cursing from a familiar voice.

“Holy shit, Barnes,” Clint said, after a rather truly impressive string of four-letter words. “Way to give a man a heart attack. I thought you were upstairs.”

“Nah.” Bucky was surprised that he could even form words when everything seemed like he was seeing and hearing from underwater. “I came down earlier. Guess I fell asleep.”

The footsteps moved out from the kitchen and a moment later Clint’s face came into view, hanging over the side of the couch.

“How’re you feeling? You need anything? Something to eat? Actual warm coffee since the shit in your cup looks congealed and gross?”

Before Clint could continue, Bucky held up his hand in the hopes of stopping the stream of questions. He was still trying to process the first question about how he was feeling and everything else after that point had just been nonsense.

After a few moments, he tentatively said, “I’m feeling numb, mostly. I don’t know if it’s the meds or I’m just still trying to detach from my body but I’m not feeling much. Underneath that numbness… I think there’s a lot there. A lot that I’m not feeling yet but will soon.”

Clint’s clearly tried to suppress a frown but it didn’t quite work. Confusion over how to proceed and how to handle Bucky was written all over his face. Bucky quickly took the burden off of him.

“I’m not feeling all of that stuff yet, so don’t freak out. But you asked how I was feeling, so I told you.”

“I mean, I guess that makes sense. You just went through hell. Still, uh, you need anything though? Like… to talk? Or to eat? Or anything?”

Bucky reached for the cup still resting beside him, completely missing Clint’s horrified expression, and took a sip before wincing as what felt like mud made its way down his throat. “Heating up this coffee would be a good first step.”

“You got it, man. I don’t know if that’ll help but we’ll see.”

While he carried the cup of coffee into the kitchen – several beeps signaled that it had been placed in the microwave - Bucky pushed himself into a sitting position and leaned back against the arm of the couch. Winter gave a low wine and Bucky reached down to pet his dog’s head, in a sign of reassurance that he was as alright as he was going to be for the moment. The half-drugged sleep haze lifted slowly and, as it did, several seemingly unrelated thoughts came to him: Natasha’s evasiveness when Steve asked her why she wouldn’t be able to come back to the townhouse between her classes; a whispered conversation between Sam and Clint in the hallway the night before; the looks that everyone who wasn’t him or Steve kept passing back and forth, over his head.

Combined with the recent arson, the situation with the twins, and everything else going on, Bucky’s heart rate skyrocketed. Winter immediately rose to his feet and put his front paws on Bucky’s legs, half-climbing into his lap. Bucky buried his face against Winter’s fur and breathed in as slowly and evenly as he could. The even pattern of Winter’s own breathing helped steady him, better than attempting to force himself to relax, which always seemed to produce the opposite effect. He tried to think back into what had set him off this time, practically hearing Dr. Jones’ voice in his head reminding him the importance of identifying cognitive or sensory triggers, but his thoughts only jumbled into fragments and, as his breathing grew ragged once again, he abandoned that venture in favor of calming himself down.

He eventually became aware of Clint’s voice saying his name, in a progressively louder and in a more concerned tone with each repetition.

“I’m fine,” he choked out. Then followed it up with, “I’m sorry” because he couldn’t seem to help apologizing for things he knew were completely out of his control.

“It’s… it’s fine,” Clint said. “You, uh, you wanna talk about it or anything?”

“Nothing to talk about,” Bucky murmured, realizing only after the fact that his words were likely muffled to the point of incomprehension due to the fact that his face was still pressed against Winter’s fur.

Reluctantly, he sat up, avoiding Clint’s gaze and instead keeping his attention on the cup of coffee in Clint’s hand.

“Winter, down,” he ordered, waiting until Winter put all four paws back on the floor and then stretched out once again, apparently reassured that Bucky was calm enough for the moment.

Bucky reached out to take the cup of coffee, and nearly dropped the cup when he touched the ceramic material and felt the heat.

“Sorry. I guess I nuked it a bit too much.” Clint steadied the cup before it could fall. “But at least it’s hot?”

“At least it’s hot.”

Bucky concentrated on bringing the cup to his lips, blowing on the liquid until it was likely to be a temperature that wouldn’t burn his tongue. His thoughts slowed to a manageable level and he realized what exactly had brought on his sudden surge of anxiety.

As casually as he could, he asked, “Hey, Clint? Where exactly did Natasha say she was going to be today? I thought she was going to be home before you.”

He was 90% certain that he didn’t imagine the look of panic that entered Clint’s eyes, even if Clint managed to hide it rather quickly.

“Barnes, she mentioned yesterday that she has a big test this afternoon. She’d be studying in the library between classes and she asked me to come back this morning to check on you, so that you wouldn’t be alone all day.”

Every successive word set Bucky’s teeth on edge, but he murmured a noncommittal, “Oh” and took another sip from the cup. He allowed a moment to pass. “Y’know, I’m thinking that some pizza might be good. You mind grabbing me a slice? You can leave it cold. It’s always better that way.”

He definitely did not imagine the look of relief on Clint’s face as he disappeared into the kitchen. Bucky used the moments he had to himself to put his thoughts into order, enough to know exactly what he wanted to say when Clint returned. He waited as Clint put the plate on the table and then, proud of his ability to string all of his thoughts together, he let Clint know exactly what was on his mind.

“I remember that conversation last night with Natasha and I know she didn’t say anything about a test. I know she didn’t give a reason for why she was going to be gone all day because Steve asked. It’s pretty fucking clear to me that there’s something going on, something that you know about, and you’re not willing to tell me. I’m not happy about it because I don’t want you or Nat or anyone else to get hurt by all of the shit that’s going on but if you’re not going to talk to me, I can’t force you to tell me what’s happening. What I’m not okay with is you fucking gaslighting me and using the fact that my memory’s worse than usual as a way to outright lie to me.”

Clint, at the very least, looked guilty. That was something, even if Bucky was still pissed as hell at him.

“Point taken. That was fucked up. I’m sorry.” At that moment, something beeped in Clint’s pocket, and he pulled out his phone before muttering a few choice curse words. “Shit. Uh, I got to go. Is there anything else I can do?”

Bucky reluctantly stopped the interrogation. “I’ve got coffee and pizza, your two food staples, if I’m remembering right. I’m fine.”

Clint flinched at the dig. He mumbled goodbye before heading out the door. Bucky settled back on the couch. Already, despite the amount of sleep he’d gotten, the exhaustion crept up on him. The emotions of the past few minutes had drained whatever energy he’d managed to regain through sleep and caffeine. With a sigh, he reached for the remote and flipped through a few channels before settling on the Food Network, reasonably certain that wouldn’t lead to any unnecessary triggers.

If nothing else, it would keep his mind away from speculation about what exactly was going on with Natasha. At least for as long as he managed to remain awake.

-~-

Clint managed to attend his morning class, turning in a paper he’d barely managed to throw together in the early morning hours, and then went straight to his scheduled meeting with Coulson after a brief stop at the townhouse to check on Bucky, a trip that he very much regretted making. He should have expected the questions from Bucky but he hadn’t been prepared and, as a result, he’d seriously fucked up.

He tried not to think about that for the moment. What he needed to think about was that he’d barely been communicating with Coulson over the past several weeks. Really, things had not been wonderful following Coulson’s disappointment with Clint’s slight marijuana relapse, and he’d been even less thrilled upon discovering the mess that had been made with the Irish as of late. But Coulson had agreed to the meeting and informed Clint that he had additional information to share with him regarding the mob and gang activity in the city.

That, perhaps, explained why the atmosphere in the office was significantly more tense than usual. Coulson’s arms were folded across his chest, his jaw tight, and while at first Clint had assumed that this was demonstration of anger towards him for recent indiscretions, it became abundantly clear that was far from the case.

“Word on the street has it that the Italians have now moved in from New Jersey,” he said without preamble.

“Fuck. How? When?”

He thought back through the past few days and whether he’d heard anything through the grapevine – or from his brother – that would have indicated there was new activity on the streets. Maybe he should have expected it sooner; if the Irish had come all the way down from Boston in pursuit of the twins, it stood to reason that the Italians would move in if the incentive were high enough.

“From everything I can tell, it’s been a few weeks but they infiltrated quickly and quietly. No one seems to have heard anything from them and given your reaction, it doesn’t seem as though you were aware of anything either.” He exhaled slowly. “Please tell me you have something for me, Barton.”

Clint weighed his options. “There have been increasingly desperate bids for the twins in the past several weeks. Some that have been kept under the radar but almost ended in disaster. Beyond that, while I have no proof of who might have been involved precisely, I was followed to work by several members of the Irish mob and threatened. A few nights ago, Shield was burned down. It’s hard for me not to think these things are connected.”

Coulson started at him for a long moment, his expression tightly controlled, revealing nothing, which as far as Clint was concerned revealed far too much. “Barton, did I push things too far with you? You’re untrained. I know you came here with a rather impressive skill set given your lack of training, but it didn’t seem to take long before you got in over your head.”

“That wasn’t your fault, sir,” Clint said quickly. “We couldn’t have anticipated what would happen with the Russians. I was only involved in the drug trade, not in the other business. The lines got blurred and I found myself in much deeper than intended. That’s on me entirely. I made several choices during that time that contributed to the... situation… between myself and the Russians. The same goes for everything with the Irish. I became involved in the situation with the twins and directly placed myself in opposition to those fuckers. I don’t regret doing. It helped keep the twins safe - or at least safer than they would have been otherwise – but none of that had anything to do with you.”

Clint tried not to consider what would happen if Coulson were aware of some of his upcoming plans, particularly the ones that were looking less and less legal than some of his previous actions – and wasn’t that saying something? Still, it wasn’t as though he was using his connections in the police department to do any of these things but given how much faith Coulson had put in him over the months despite his long history of fuck-ups, he felt guilty for keeping things from him. Then again, it wasn’t as though anyone else in the station even knew Clint’s involvement in any of this, at least as far as Clint knew, which meant if things went south again, they weren’t going to be looking at Coulson for anything.

Coulson nodded curtly. “Keep me updated on any future developments, Barton, preferably before more things happen or immediately afterwards if that cannot be avoided. I will do my best to inform you of anything else I find out.”

“Yes, sir,” Clint said quickly. “I have no problem keeping you updated on my progress and I appreciate your willingness to do the same.” He hesitated before asking, “Are you allowed to tell me whether there has been any involvement by the feds yet?”

“That is not something you can be privy to,” Coulson said, with a note of finality.

“Understood, sir. I appreciate being kept in the loop of anything you can tell me and I will let you know what else I hear. Is that all?”

“That’s all.”

Clint rose to his feet, fighting the urge to look at his watch to check the time. The last thing he needed was more questions. He wasn’t about to mention his brother’s presence in the city to Coulson or the fact that his next stop was to meet up with Barney. Hopefully, that would be more informative than this visit, although the word on the Italians was new.

Besides, it was probably better that Coulson remained unaware of everything they were planning and that meant being aware of Barney.

-~-

Natasha turned her wrist enough to glance at her watch, as though the time had changed significantly in the few minutes that had passed since she walked up the stairs outside of the metro. At that time, she had fifteen minutes to spare, more than enough time for her to walk the several blocks to the building, scope out the entrances and exits, and make her way up to the office and still be early.

There was a part of her, admittedly only a small one, that felt guilty for not mentioning the entirety of this plan to Sam or Clint. Keeping them out of the specifics left her in a precarious position if anything went poorly, although that was why she had chosen this particular location for the meeting. The chances that things would turn out badly in a large office building, where there were people who would see her enter – and she would make sure of that, whether that was checking-in with the security guard downstairs as well as the receptionists in the office building – and therefore where making her disappear would be much, much more difficult. For the same reason, she hadn’t driven; the less they had to track her by, the better things would be in the long run.

Upon entering the building, she paused for several moments to read through the names and office numbers on the list on the wall, although she knew the number of the office by heart after the repeated times of looking through the files she’d secretly borrowed from her father, who would probably murder her himself if she had any idea she had access to them, let alone if he knew what she had planned. Still, she walked over and confirmed those details with the man seated at the desk in the lobby, perfectly close to the security guard posted nearby, and then thanked him for his help. She took the stairs, unwilling to place herself in a situation where she could be penned in.

The office on the fifth floor looked like the usual ones she’d seen in some of high-rise buildings in DC. There was a small area for the receptionist out front and a handful of comfortable chairs in the waiting room. There were two doors to the back, one on either side of the receptionist’s desk. One of them was glass, while the other was metal and had a security code attached to it. None of these things were particularly out of the ordinary for offices in this area. This office, much like the others, could have been one of a hundred without anything particularly identifying about it.

She sat in the waiting room, looking through the papers she’d brought with her like this was any other meeting. The papers included a faked resume, the brochure on the internship program, and other additional pieces of information she thought might be helpful during the course of the interview. They included basic details, like the type of business that went on in this office – or at least, the type of business that supposedly went on. She’d left the other data she’d gathered, some from her father’s files and others from her own reconnaissance – bank records, transactions, little damning details like that - back at home, in a secure locked cabinet.

“Ms. Rushman?”

The hours she’d spent repeating the alias to herself paid off and she glanced up the moment the name was called. The man standing in the doorway was dressed in a suit, once again just the same as every other professional who came into the waiting room of these offices. Then again, most of these professionals didn’t have ties to the Russian mob like this man did.

Natasha rose and followed him through the glass door, relieved that this particular door did not require a security system. While she didn’t anticipate needing to escape in the middle of the day, one never did know exactly what might happen. The hallway in front of her, lined with doorways into offices, had no identifying names or plaques beside each door, nothing of her to take note of, save for how many of these doors existed, as well as the few that required additional security to get through. She mentally checked off the location of each of these particular doors, reminding herself that these could very well be where secure files were kept, among other particular assets. She noted each and every security camera, counting ten in total.

The office she was led into had full-length windows on all sides, which eased her concern to a degree. That meant no privacy for her but it also meant that they did not intend to do anything that could attract the attention. Not that there was any reason they would already have planned to cause her harm. Still, even if no one in the office would care what happened in here, the fact that the open windows on the sides could be seen by anyone in the buildings across the way left her feeling reasonably secure in her safety for the time being. She settled into the chair, keeping her gaze focused on the man sitting in front of her.

“Ms. Rushman, we were pleasantly surprised to hear that you were considering completing your internship with us,” the man said, sifting through a file folder filled with papers. “Can I ask you what drew you to this company?”

For an instant, just an instant, she hesitated. She didn’t have to simply go with the cover, she could lay everything out on the table and risk everything if that meant getting the information more quickly and effectively. That idea – the quickness, the potential of avoiding any additional potential tragedies – was exceedingly tempting, particularly as she thought back on the panicked call she’d received the night of the fire those few nights back, and how Bucky looked during those hours at the hospital and in the days that followed. Maybe, just maybe, if she played her full hand, let them know her real identity, everything else could stop here.

But that carried the potential for greater risk should it fail.

Instead, she curved her lips into a smile. “Well, as you can see, I’m completing my degree in Business Administration. Through all of the research I have done, this organization has been named one of the finest financial institutions in DC, which is a tremendous title to have given all of the competing businesses within city limits. When I discovered that there was an internship available, I simply had to apply.”

“Your qualifications are quite impressive,” he said, looking through her carefully forged transcripts, a doctored resume, and letters of reference that would hold up only thanks to the fact that she had quite a few people who owed her favors without asking questions. “You’re certainly one of our top, most competitive applicants. What makes this internship different than other ones available in the city?”

She launched directly into her carefully prepared statement. “Many of the other internships only allow for shadowing. While I understand that shadowing is critical for the learning process, I appreciate the fact that this internship would allow for me to move beyond simply shadowing and into honing my skills. In particular, I am eager for the opportunity to complete a project during my year here, under the guidance of a supervisor. After years of primarily engaging in coursework, I am excited to have a chance to make an actual impact on the world. I also feel strongly that this will elevate my opportunities for employment once I complete my degree and apply for positions in this field.”

He nodded approvingly, just as she had known he would. “Those are wonderful things to hear from you. I wonder if you have any concerns about balancing this part-time internship in addition to your coursework. Not only are you expected to engage in activities while you are on site those several days each week but you may also have to complete work at home on the evenings and weekends in order to prepare for that project. I recognize that as you start here, you are also likely taking the more advanced courses for your program. That can be a lot to balance at once.”

“That is something I thought about before I submitted my application,” she agreed. “I did not want to apply if there was a chance I could not follow through on my commitment. At this time, I feel confident that I can achieve that balance. For my first two years of college, as you can see in my transcript, I took 21 credits each semester. This semester, as well as in the following ones, I have decreased my course-load to 16 credits in order to open up my schedule for this opportunity. I do not anticipate any problems maintaining my current coursework and completing this internship. I have always been an incredibly organized person, who has balanced school and extracurricular activities, and I never make commitments or add anything to my schedule without first exploring how I will manage the extra hours of work.”

She opened her file and slid over a mock schedule, filled with classes she definitely wasn’t taking, but how was he to know that. “As you can see, I have strategically figured out how to balance my required hours here with my courses and extra-curricular activities, and to still budget time for homework and any take-home work that is required from this internship. I even included weekly self-care activities, such as the yoga class I’ve been doing for years.”

He nodded, clearly impressed with her degree of detail. “It seems that you have seriously considered what taking on this position would mean for you.” She waited for another question but clearly he had already made up his mind, given that his next words were, “All of your references spoke quite highly of you, for the record, although I am sure you are not surprised. You have clearly planned for what it would mean to complete an internship here. I have to agree that you would be quite an asset for this position. Do you have any questions for me?”

There was her opening. “A few. I know there are multiple offices that you have spread throughout DC. Would I be working from here or would I be working in one of the other offices?”

“Excellent question. You would primarily be working from here, although you might occasionally work through some of those other offices as well. We could certainly arrange for the office locations to fit with your needs, in terms of proximity to your school or home, if you are concerned about travel to any of the locations.”

“That is wonderful to hear,” she eagerly said. “I was a bit concerned about that, given that depending on my class schedule, there are days where I am closer to this office and days where I am closer to the other locations. Regardless, I would ensure that I maintained my commitments but that is useful to know. I was also wondering, because of the individual project requirement, whether there is off-site access to email or a way to bring work home in order for it to be completed.”

There he hesitated. “We prefer to keep email access strictly for the work setting, simply because of privacy and security. I cannot say right now whether that restriction may be lifted for you. What I can say is that it would probably not be lifted until you had been with us for a period of time. However, when we assign work to be complete outside of the office, it is work that can be completed without having to be on site or necessarily have access to email.”

“Oh, I certainly understand,” she said quickly. “I know that privacy and security are incredibly important and I would never want to do anything to jeopardize that. I know you mentioned that work during non-office hours is strategically chosen to allow for it to be completed without necessarily needing access to the office, I had wanted to get a better sense for whether after-hours work would ever be allowed as an intern, as well as what type of workstation I would be given. I would just want to ensure that I could complete all of the work expected of me.”

“All interns receive their own cubicle, as well as a company account, including email. There are some restrictions, once again for the sake of security and privacy, and if there are concerns with access, we encourage all interns to work with their supervisor to request access to any information required.”

“Understood completely.”

She kept her tone neutral despite the fact that she was already going through the tech she had and what she would need to access everything once she’d gained entrance through the first level of security. Already, she knew enough about their security system from the research she’d done; enough to have come up with this plan in the first place because it was clear that hacking in from outside the network would be disastrous at best.

Letting too much time pass without responding might have looked suspicious, which meant she quickly added, “I think, then, that I have asked all of the questions I had.”

“Well, Ms. Rushman, it has been a pleasure to meet with you. As I have already spoken to your references and you performed well during this interview, I would like to offer you this internship position, starting early next month once all of the necessary paperwork has been completed. I hope that my answers to your questions were to your satisfaction and that you are willing to accept this offer.”

Natasha made her voice as bubbly and excited as she could, although it wasn’t hard to fake the excitement now that her plan had moved one more step forward. “More than willing. Thank you so much. I can’t wait to start.”

He rose to his feet and she followed suit, accepting and shaking his offered hand and trading pleasantries as he walked her back out to the waiting room. A brief stop with the secretary provided her the basics to how the process would unfold over the next few weeks and after reviewing her contact information – the number to a burner cell phone, an address that led to a friend’s studio apartment in the city - she headed out of the office without glancing back, being aware without appearing overly alert as she headed down the stairs and out into the lobby. Once again, she headed for the metro, although the thought of taking a cab did cross her mind for a moment. She quickly discarded that idea: it would not provide a quick exit if needed and leave her with less control over shaking any tails that might develop. She didn’t want to leave any additional clues for them at this time.

As she headed down the steps into the metro, she tried not to think too much about the decision she had just made and the potential repercussions that might follow.

-~-

Sam’s heart pounded in his chest, up into his throat, which didn’t help his already burning throat. He slowed, although he was still nearly at a run as he made his way through the front door. One hand twisted the keys in the lock, while he turned his other hand enough to catch sight of the time on his watch. One whole minute before the press conference would start. He’d hurried his whole way home from the VA but, as always seemed to happen when he was rushing for any reason, traffic delayed his commute. He paused just long enough to ensure that the locks were flipped back into place before going straight into the living room, where he could hear the TV already blaring.

He didn’t go much further than the doorway. The tension in the room around him was thick, and it seemed more comfortable to keep his distance while still being able to clearly see the television. On the screen, the camera panned around to show how the press filled the relatively large room they were in. The stage in front of them was initially empty but a moment later, Tony Stark stepped out, dressed to the nines, with Pepper at his side. He looked unusually somber and serious as he moved up to the microphone.

“Thank you for attending this press conference on such late notice. I apologize for the lack of advanced warning but, as you’ll see, I didn’t exactly have a choice. I’m not going to say too much myself. This isn’t my night to make speeches. I feel that the two people I have with me can do the talking on their own. They requested to step forward to make a statement and I was more than willing to help them. Without further ado, I present the ‘missing’ children of Jonathan Talbot, the Maximoff twins.”

He stepped back and the twins came out through the curtain. Pietro had his arm protectively around his sister and he scanned the crowd warily, as though he expected to find an obvious threat there. Given that the crowd was already clamoring, from the moment of Stark’s statement, for them, it was unsurprising that both of them looked moderately overwhelmed. Pepper looked to Tony, who gave an almost imperceptible nod, and then stepped forward to gesture to the crowd to quiet down. As they did, Wanda looked to her brother before moving the microphone.

“Hello. My… my brother and I want to make it clear right now, for the entire world to hear, that we have no intention of returning to Jonathan Talbot. I don’t consider a man who abused the two of us for several years to be my father.” Her breath caught in her throat, her eyes flashing with visible anxiety, but she continued. “That’s why we ran away; because we were afraid for our lives and living on the street was better than waiting for him to break another bone or beat us or lock us up.”

The reporters once again started speaking over one another, throwing question after question until Pepper moved forward to speak into the microphone, “Please allow the Maximoff twins to finish their statement.”

Once the crowd quieted down, Pietro tightened his grip on his sister and then moved up to the microphone. “We do not consider that man our father. A father would not treat his children the way we were treated. A father would not hurt his children the way we were hurt. We had no other choice except to leave and even now, as legal adults, he has been trying to get us back to him, no doubt to punish us and hurt us even more, maybe even worse.”

He took a deep breath before continuing. “I do not remember if you recall the last time you saw us in public, as that was a long time ago, but if you do, you may recall the things I said about my father then. The reason you never saw us in public again after that point was because he nearly beat me to death for saying the things I did. We were given no choice but to escape because we didn’t know how much more he might be capable of. So we ran away and we’ve been on the streets ever since… or at least we were until Mr. Stark kindly found us a safe place for us to stay.”

“And we are very grateful to Mr. Stark for that,” Wanda added, pressing closer to her brother. “We just… we can’t go back. I’m afraid of what he’ll do to my brother and me. I just want him to leave us alone, to stop sending people after us.”

Pietro’s stance became more protective at that. “We want him to stop searching for us. We want to live our lives without being afraid. We’ve already been through more than anyone should have to go through. It wasn’t too long ago that one of the people Mr. Talbot sent after us, to bring us back to him, shot and almost killed me. Before we even found ourselves in this situation, we had already lost our parents. We spent years as orphans. And we were so grateful to be adopted – especially because we were adopted together, unlike other siblings who were not as fortunate and were separated – and then what we thought was going to be a new start to our lives turned into a nightmare.”

“We were never kids to him,” Wanda added. “Just show-pieces to get publicity. Possessions. That’s the only reason he’s still looking for us. Because we got away. We escaped his control. But all we want is to live in peace, without this constant threat hanging over our heads. As far as we’re concerned, Talbot can keep his money; we don’t want it. We don’t want anything to do with him. We just want to be left alone. And that’s all we have to say on the matter.”

She hugged Pietro tightly at that and Sam saw her lightly tug on his arm. Pietro nodded and kissed the top of her head before turning away with her. The press were asking all kinds of questions; in particular, Sam caught several different people ask, “Which men has your father sent after you?” as well as, “What proof do you have of all of this?”

Pepper moved through the curtains with the twins, while Tony took their spot at the microphone and said, “No questions for the Maximoff twins at this time. They have said all they are comfortable saying. Please know that Stark Enterprises is fully supporting them at this time and helping them with anything else they need. That said, they deserve their privacy. Following certain actions allegedly taken by their father, they felt it necessary to provide this statement for their own personal safety. However, this is the full extent of what they are going to say tonight and I have nothing to add. Thank you for coming out and listening. I hope you will be respectful of their wishes.”

That was followed by several seconds of the reporters continuing to ask questions before the screen shifted to the set of reporters in the newsroom, debriefing what had just been said during the press conference. With that, Natasha hit mute. In the moments that followed, there was nothing but silence. Not sure what to say himself, Sam took the opportunity to gaze around the room at the others.

On the couch, Bucky lay stretched out on his right side, head pillowed in Steve’s lap, Winter sprawled on the floor beneath him. He looked better, at least in some respects, particularly in contrast to the first time Sam saw him after he’d returned to the townhouse.

Since the group effort to help him clean up the night before, he looked less ragged and more like himself. This was the most alert Sam had seen him since he came back to the townhouse, although as far as Sam knew, that might have been because Bucky had slept all day. Deciding who would stay with Bucky throughout the day had actually been a major discussion between all of them the previous day. The discussion had ended with Bucky frustrated as he insisted that he could manage on his own if no one else was available and that a large part of why Sam and Natasha had gotten him Winter was to help him during the times when no one else was around.

Sam was pulled away from his thoughts when Clint – who was curled up on the beanbag chair, Lucky settled against him – broke the silence. “Do you think Tony will be able to protect them from the backlash?”

“This is an awfully unfortunate time to be thinking about that,” Natasha said curtly. “We’ve trusted him this far and we knew what he had planned for them at the press conference. It’s too late to change anything.”

“I just don’t like that we don’t have regular contact with them,” Clint said with a frown. “I know it’s for their own safety that none of us know where they’re staying but even the calls have been minimal because Tony keeps supplying them with new burner phones.”

“Look, the twins are safe,” Steve cut in. “There are many other things that we need to be talking about now. Like how the hell we’re going to handle this situation and the recent shit that’s happened. I mean, fucking Christ, have you all forgotten what just happened at Shield?”

“How could any of us forget that?” Sam retorted before he could stop himself, his tone harsher than intended. “We’re just trying to maintain our calm.”

“What does maintaining our calm even mean?” Bucky asked, an edge to his voice. “You think anyone’s handling this calmly? You think I’m fucking handling this calmly? I’m anything but calm. The more time that passes, the angrier I am. They just took away our home, our livelihood, and, oh yeah, tired to kill us and almost succeeded. I’m fucking furious and if I had any idea where to find the assholes who did this, I’d take ‘em out in a heartbeat.”

“This isn’t a combat zone,” Sam pointed out, despite the fact that he had trouble convincing himself to argue. Bucky wasn’t the only one who’d at least questioned taking things in that direction.

“The fuck it’s not!” Bucky shot back. “They tried to kill a kid. They tried to kill us. You fight fire with fire. Maybe if we’d done that, we wouldn’t have found ourselves nearly burning to death.”

“I agree, but the rules are different here,” Sam said. “You aren’t on a mission, Barnes. Vigilantes can’t plead self-defense. There’s a difference between legally arming yourself and being prepared in case something happens and purposely going out to find someone who wronged you with the intention of killing them.”

“Besides, I hate to point this out, but you’re also working with only one arm,” Clint added, and Bucky promptly glared at him. “What? It’s the truth.”

“Now isn’t the time to be discussing this,” Natasha said, her voice sharp and final. “The twins are safe. For the time being, we’re safe as well. I agree that we need to have some sort of plan as we continue moving forward but that plan is not waging guerrilla warfare on the streets of DC. That’s not going to help anyone.”

“I met up with Barney today,” Clint spoke up, a bit reluctantly.

Sam shot him a look that he hoped wasn’t quite a glare but probably ranged in that level. Of course, as often seemed to happen, he was the one out of the loop. Particularly since Natasha didn’t seem surprised by that announcement.

He couldn’t help the note of sarcasm that entered as his voice as he asked, “Am I even a part of this relationship, guys? Seriously?”

Admittedly, he was somewhat mollified by the fact that both Clint and Natasha looked somewhat abashed in response to that question.

Still, that didn’t stop him from saying, “Seriously, you two, fuck this shit. I’m not leaving again but you need to start cluing me into what’s going on before shit goes down. So what do I need to know to be brought up to speed?”

Clint’s gaze darted over to Bucky, who immediately bristled and questioned, “You think I can’t handle hearing this shit? Is that why nobody’s telling me anything and keeping shit from me? Is that why you outright lied to me earlier?”

“I didn’t say that you can’t handle this stuff and I already apologized for lying to you earlier,” Clint said quickly. “Look, I just didn’t want to stress you out more when you’re still recovering from almost dying, man. That’s all. But since we’re already talking about this stuff, fine. Let’s talk. Since Shield got burned down, we’ve been trying to do what we can to gather more information in the hopes of avoiding something else like that happening. I’ve spoken with my contact in the police and I also met up with my brother. He’s into some pretty shady stuff himself and he’s been trying to pass me whatever information he can. So far, I haven’t gotten any confirmation about who may have been responsible for the fire but I’m thinking that might change at any point.”

“And if you do find out, you’ll be telling us, right?” Steve nearly snarled. “I mean, you won’t just hide it from us, will you?”

Clint made the mistake of hesitating, although Sam couldn’t exactly blame him for that. The last thing he wanted was to set Steve – and probably Bucky – off on a mission of revenge.

“Seriously?” Steve followed up, when Clint didn’t respond. “That’s bullshit. That was my goddamn shop, man.”

“You didn’t even give me a chance to respond,” Clint snapped. “I agree that you’ve got every right to know who did this and how I’m hoping things will fall into place is that we can get some solid evidence so that the person – or people – responsible will get what’s coming to them.”

Natasha leaned forward. “Right now, Steve, you and James are still healing. I think it’s best that the two of you focus on that for the time being. If we’re willing to keep you in the loop, that means we need your word that you’re not going to take matters into your own hands.”

There was only silence to those words, a clear indication that neither Steve nor Bucky was willing at this point to make that commitment. Sam let a few seconds pass before deciding that he was much more interested in addressing the fact that he hadn’t eaten since this morning and less interested in seeing the outcome of this conversation. He trusted that the others would clue him into anything important. At the least, he hoped they would. He wasn’t completely sure anymore.

“While you have this discussion, I’m going to work on dinner,” he called over his shoulder as he headed into the kitchen. “Let me know if any of you want to join me in that.”

“I’ll give you a hand,” Clint quickly said, getting to his feet and hurrying after him. “You’ve been at work all day and just got in. I figure helping out is the least I can do.”

“I’m not planning on doing much, aside from tossing two frozen pizzas in the oven and putting together a salad. But, sure, I’m all for help.”

At the least, chopping up the ingredients for a salad kept his mind somewhat occupied as he waited for the oven to heat up. While Clint provided another set of hands, there wasn’t much to be done, and particularly with the help, Sam couldn’t help but be aware of the trio left in the living room. Natasha had changed the subject, as much as she could, to Steve’s classes and how Bucky’s healing was going. It was clear the previous conversation was far from over but at least no one was pushing it for the time being. With emotions this high, Sam didn’t see much of a point in attempting meaningful conversation.

What bothered him the most though was that the more his mind pulled up the image of Bucky and Steve on the couch, the more he reflected on the fire at Shield and everything that had happened with the twins and Clint over the past several months – let alone years – the more Sam realized that there was a part of him, a much bigger one that he was comfortable with, that thought there was something to Bucky’s words. While there were legal and, hell, also moral reasons not to seek out vigilante justice, the longer things went on, the more Sam recognized that the usual methods of handling this situation were unlikely to be effective.

Maybe, just maybe, there would be a need – and a time – for further action.

-~-

Tony hated to admit that in the hours preceding the press conference, he’d barely been able to stop his hands from shaking. Beyond that, he hated to admit that the only thing that ultimately kept his hands from shaking was the Xanax he’d popped 15 minutes before he had to step out and introduce the twins. But despite the circumstances, he was in his element in this type of situation. Talking in public had always come easily to him. Some might argue that was because he often had a speech ready made, repeatedly practiced, and ready to go. That didn’t account for all of the times he’d ad-libbed components or responded to the numerous questions often asked of him afterwards.

The twins had done a beautiful job preparing their own statements and staying more or less on script. Tony had been determined to have their statement remain in their own words, while also being reviewed and rehearsed before the press conference. After so many years of their voices being silence, he felt that was important, but he also wanted to ensure that he knew what they would say, to better anticipate the response from the public, as well as from Talbot.

Already, his phone and inbox – or, more specifically, the semi-public numbers and addresses that could be contacted and were manned primarily by Pepper – had already blown up with messages, questioning his relationship with the twins, whether the statement was true, what his agenda was for sharing this information, and other insulting questions that he was glad to avoid for the time being. The past few hours had mostly been spent with him fielding inquiries from Pepper on how exactly to respond to those types of questions, as well as the occasional determination on whether the question required an answer.

The rest of his time had been spent checking in with the twins and ensuring that they were coping with everything. Some of that coping may have been fueled by alcohol, which he purposely turned a blind eye to. He couldn’t fault them for turning in those directions when he’d done that so many times himself. If he couldn’t cope with this situation, then they were probably coping even less at this point. Even now, as he came down the stairs of the “safe house” as it had been deemed, he could see the two of them sprawled out in the wraparound couch, each with a glass in their hands. The liquid in Wanda’s was a bit redder, a likely sign that her drink was more thoroughly filled with cranberry juice when compared to her brother’s, which appeared to be primarily filled with vodka.

“You better not still be popping those painkillers if you’re drinking like that, kid,” Tony commented, as he entered the room.

“I’m not that stupid,” Pietro muttered. “I didn’t want to take anything that might impair my judgment or make it hard to react if anything were to happen.”

“I hate to be the one to break this to you but if you’re worried about impairing your judgment, drinking several glasses of vodka probably wasn’t the best life decision. Just thought I’d share that with you.”

Tony picked up the remote and hit the extra special button that few other remotes had, pulling up the set of surveillance cameras around the house and ignored the twins’ cries of protest as their show blinked off for the moment. As expected, there were no signs of movement around the house and nothing looked out of place.

He continued. “Besides, there are multiple levels of security here. You can always check the cameras if you’re worried and beyond that, there are enough different ways of triggering one of the many alarms that I had to create an equation to assess just how many ways there are. If something were to happen, you would have incredibly advanced warning. Enough that you could make it to the panic room, where you would be perfectly safe until help arrived. You both remember the code?”

“07052904,” both of the twins recited in unison, with Wanda making a face and adding, “It’s a lot of numbers.”

“Yes, because if there was a possibility that someone might get past the rest of my brilliant security and get inside, I thought it would be best if it wouldn’t be a code they could work out quickly through the process of elimination,” Tony said dryly. “This is designed to buy enough time for you to be rescued, remember? Not that I’m expecting that to be an issue.”

Pietro gulped at his drink for a moment before stretching out more on the couch, propping his feet on his sister’s lap. Tony gave them each a few moments to say something. When silence reigned, he determined he was the best person – if not the only person – to stop that in its tracks.

“I’m not stupid enough to ask how you two are doing, I can see enough to figure that out already,” he said. “The alcohol’s a good clue and no one would be doing alright after the shit that happened today. I’m more concerned with whether there is anything else that the two of you need right now.”

Wanda exchanged a look with her brother. “We have more than enough here.”

“Except for our friends,” Pietro muttered bitterly.

“We talked about this,” Tony said with a sigh. “I know you miss Darcy but right now we can’t have your security compromised in any way. Having another person know where you are right now isn’t a good life decision, kid. My goal is to keep the two of you safe. If that means that for a few weeks, you can’t spend time with your friends or your girlfriend, I’m hoping you’re willing to accept those restrictions. You were when you agreed to this plan in the first place.”

Pietro’s jaw tightened in response, but rather than argue, he reluctantly murmured, “I’m still in agreement.”

“Good,” Tony said, catching the note of finality in his voice. “As always, feel free to call anyone you want and you know that my number is plugged into each phone that I’ve given you. If you need anything over the next day or so, you can just call me. Otherwise, there’s food in the kitchen and plenty of entertainment available in here.”

“We know, Tony,” Wanda said, with what sounded like much less patience than usual. “You’ve walked us through all of this every evening. Just because we’re kinda not at our best doesn’t mean we’ve forgotten everything. We’ll be fine. You don’t have to worry about us. We know how to call you. We know where everything is.”

“Yeah, we’ve got each other, we’ll be fine,” Pietro added.

There really wasn’t a way for Tony to argue with that. It brought up an emotion that he didn’t quite want to name – envy, his mind whispered to him - and, to be perfectly honest, he was ready to head out for the night. He still had a million messages to field and from what he’d heard, Pepper was still at the office, handling all media responses from the earlier press conference. If nothing else, even if she were gone, he could spend the rest of the night working on one of his projects. Really, by need it should be the repairs and modifications for Barnes’ arm, but he didn’t want to touch that when his mind wasn’t entirely focused.

“Alright, then I’ll trust you on that,” he said. “Take care of yourselves, kids.”

Tony tried not to glance over his shoulder at them as he headed for the door but he couldn’t quite help himself. Wanda shifted closer to her brother, burying her face against his chest, his fingers sinking into her hair. He couldn’t quite determine whether the tremble in Wanda’s shoulders indicated tears or not. The moment his mind went in that direction, he averted his gaze and only looked ahead to the door.

If the twins wanted to insist they were fine, he wouldn’t question it, but he wasn’t about to watch them fall apart in front of him without being able to do anything.

His stomach lurched when he considered that many of those closest to him likely felt exactly the same way about him.

Chapter Text

The sound of a phone ringing – with a far too familiar ringtone attached - jerked Steve to awareness. He scrambled for it in the darkness, reaching towards the dresser – always on his left in the apartment – and stopped when his arm brushed against Bucky, who was curled up beside him.

Bucky shifted restlessly beside him, a low whine building in his throat. Steve rolled onto his side and found a strange sight, the red numbers of a clock to his right instead of his left – completely blurry thanks to the fact that he didn’t have his glasses on – blinking at him. The phone beside it flashed a name that he only deciphered thanks to the fact that there weren’t too many three letter names in his contacts list.

He hit the green phone icon and pressed the phone to his ear. “Hey, Mom. What’s going on? Is everything okay?”

On the other end of the line, he heard his mother’s breath catch in her throat. Immediately he felt his heart turn to ice in his chest. Something was wrong and he was pretty sure he was starting to put the pieces together as to what exactly that wrongness was.

“Steven Grant Rogers,” she said, enunciating each word. “Do you have any idea how worried I’ve been about you?”

“Oh shit,” he blurted out, before he could stop himself. “I mean fuck. I mean Jesus Christ. Mom, I am so, so sorry.”

“First of all, language. Second of all, why didn’t you call me and tell me what had happened? The fire happened well over a week ago. I had to find out from a friend who read about it in the paper. They said it was arson?”

“That’s what the reports are saying,” he hedged. “It happened during the night. But don’t worry. I’m fine. It was just… uh, it was just that Bucky wasn’t quite so fine. He hurt his arm and he was in the hospital for a couple of days. I guess I was just so caught up with him and making sure he was alright that… that with everything else going on I just… just didn’t…”

He helplessly tried to find the words but his mom merely filled in, “You just didn’t call. You forgot to call.”

“Yeah. That.” He sat up slowly, trying not to disturb Bucky anymore than he already had, despite the fact that Bucky was already stirring, disrupting Winter, who immediately shifted to attention given Bucky’s restlessness. “I’m so sorry.”

“You said that already. How are you doing? How is James? Where are you two staying?”

“I’m doing alright. I really am. I sprained my ankle but it’s already doing a lot better. Buck’s… Bucky’s okay too. He had a rougher time of it than I did but he’s out of the hospital and he’s recovering. We’re staying at a friend’s house, where Bucky was staying before he moved into the apartment with me.” He took a breath before guiltily asking, “How’re you doing?”

“Don’t try to change the topic, Steven,” his mom said, her voice firm. “But since you’re asking, I’m doing better.”

“I mean it, Mom. I’m sorry that it took me so long to get in touch with you. I hadn’t forgotten or anything…”

Except that he had. With everything going on with the twins and Clint and then the shop and Bucky’s recovery, he had forgotten. Not that he could forget his mom or the fact that she was going through chemo. Just that it hadn’t been the top priority.

“I know you hadn’t.” This time, her voice softened. “I am doing better. I made it through my second round of chemo and the scans are looking good. Right now, I’m much more concerned about you and James.”

“We’re honestly doing okay. I’ve been getting back to school. I’m making up the work I missed. The entire situation is super fu – I mean, messed up – but me and Bucky are recovering.”

“That is a relief.” She exhaled slowly. “I’m sorry if I woke you up.”

“It’s alright, Mom,” he said quickly. “I get it. You were worried. Besides, it was only - ” He squinted at the clock as though he might be able to make out the numbers, and then settled on guessing “ – maybe twenty minutes before my alarm?”

“Still. I won’t keep you. Just promise me that you’ll be staying in contact.”

“I will,” he promised. “We’ll also be by to visit as soon as Buck’s more mobile.”

“I’m holding you to that, Steven. I love you. Give my best to James and I’ll talk to you soon.”

“Love you, Mom,” he said, waiting long enough for her to echo the sentiment back to him before hanging up.

“Your mom?” Bucky slurred out from the other side of the bed.

Steve swallowed back another curse, having hoped against hope that maybe Bucky had just settled back down and fallen asleep. Instead, Bucky sat partially upright, propped up on his right arm and gazing over at him. Winter continued to remain alert, although he seemed to have realized that this restlessness and early awakening wasn’t something he needed to intervene on. With a sigh, Steve placed his phone back on the nightstand and settled himself back in bed beside Bucky.

“My mom. She finally heard about the fire. Shit, Buck, I didn’t even realize I hadn’t told her.”

“A lot’s been happening,” Bucky murmured, lowering himself back to the bed. “Wasn’t your fault, Steve.”

“I know,” Steve said automatically.

Except that he didn’t know that. He should’ve called his mom to tell her what had happened. He should have called to check in on her health. He should have been there with her as she continued through chemo.

There were a lot of things he should have done.

With a groan, he rolled to his side, away from Bucky, and buried his head in his hands. A moment later, Bucky’s body curled around him, his breath warm on the back of Steve’s neck. That simultaneously raised and lowered his feelings of guilt, particularly as Bucky’s lips grazed his skin. He fought the urge to tell Bucky to go back to sleep, to stop. Obviously Bucky was awake and his goal was to comfort him but Steve had never felt quite this undeserving of any of that. Especially given that it was his fault Bucky was awake. It wasn’t as though Bucky had gotten much sleep since the fire – either because of nightmares or because his pain meds had worn off – and now that he was actually able to get the sleep he needed, Steve had ruined it for him. Last night had been one of the first nights where Bucky had slept quietly.

“I’m sorry, Buck,” he murmured miserably.

“Why’re you apologizing?” Bucky mumbled. “You didn’t do anything wrong. The past couple of weeks have been a shit show.”

“Yeah, well, you shouldn’t even be awake this early. And I should’ve called my mom sooner and - ”

Bucky cut him off before he could get another word out. “Shoulda’s aren’t gonna help, Steve. You didn’t call your mom and I’m awake. Can’t change either of those. Beating yourself up isn’t gonna get you anywhere.”

Steve released a pent-up breath and shifted closer to Bucky. The urge to argue remained but he managed to swallow back those words for the time being. Still, the restlessness didn’t quite leave. After a few moments of lying there, trying to sync his breathing to Bucky’s and failing, he muttered a few choice words and sat up. There was too much that needed to be done. Tony had stopped by during one of Steve’s classes the other day – which was great, not at all embarrassing, and definitely infuriating as Steve had to compete with a group of fans for Tony’s attention. Tony had brought a pile of paperwork for Steve to sign, something about insurance claims. If Steve had to be awake this early, he might as well get some of that done or work on an upcoming paper or do the reading for his class that he hadn’t even glanced at yet.

“Steve, just come back to bed,” Bucky said with a sigh.

“I can’t. I just can’t. Look, I have way too much shit to work on. I can’t sit still. But you don’t need to be up yet. Go back to sleep.”

He hoped against hope that would be enough to convince Bucky to stay put as he grabbed his clothes and headed into the bathroom, grateful to find that he’d beat the others there this morning. His reflection in the mirror slowly steamed up as he waited for the water to get warm in the shower. It was surprisingly easy to default to his new morning routine, despite the fact that his mind refused to shut down. It still didn’t feel quite right – he’d automatically reach for the shampoo or conditioner, expecting it to be where it had been in his apartment, only to come up empty handed – but at least it didn’t require much focus on his part. While he refused to go back to sleep, he definitely wasn’t in a place where he could concentrate.

Normally, a shower was perfect for clearing his head. With the water running over him, his muscles couldn’t help but unwind. There had been so many times when he’d used that as a trick, when he’d been stuck on a paper or irritated with the shit Tony always seemed to pull on him. But this time, he found himself getting tenser and tenser, his thoughts racing. When he finally turned the water off, as the other occupants of the townhouse would need to get ready, he was most decidedly in a worse mood than the one he’d been in since his mother called.

Once dressed, he headed straight downstairs. The townhouse was usually quiet at this time, unless he’d forgotten everyone else’s schedules, which he might have given the noises downstairs. That thought set his nerves on edge as the sounds of clattering dishes and food cooking drifted from the kitchen.

Walking into the kitchen, he stopped short when he found Bucky standing at the stove - Winter at his side, leaning against his legs. Bucky muttered curses to himself as he took what looked like a bowl full of eggs out of the microwave and tried to navigate placing them on a plate covered in sausage links. On the other side of the counter, several pieces of crispy bread popped up from the toaster, startling Bucky enough that he nearly flung the pepper container he’d been shaking over the eggs.

Steve cleared his throat and Bucky immediately turned towards him, looking almost guilty. Steve didn’t quite help matters, given that the first words out of his mouth were, “I thought I told you to go back to bed.”

Bucky stiffened. “I didn’t realize I had to follow your orders”

The tension in the room rose to critical levels. If Steve didn’t choose his next words carefully, he and Bucky were about to end up exploding on one another.

It took a lot of effort to swallow back any words that dared escape his lips before he could figure out exactly what he was about to say. When he finally trusted himself to speak, he said, “You don’t. I’m sorry.”

Some of the tension lifted. Enough that Bucky sighed. “I figured that since you were already up and had a lot of shit to deal with, I’d make you breakfast. I kinda didn’t think through what only having one arm would mean for cooking but it wasn’t too hard to remember some of the tricks I used before I got my fancy prosthetic. Microwave eggs aren’t too bad.”

Steve walked over to the counter, forcing himself to refrain from being overly helpful as Bucky struggled to spoon the eggs onto a plate and add the browned toast. His own experiences had taught him more than enough about how frustrating it was to have someone offer help when you didn’t need it and the last thing he wanted to do was put that on Bucky now. If Bucky needed his help, he’d ask for it. Still, Steve’s restlessness increased as he tried to patiently wait for Bucky to finish.

He reminded himself how nice it was that he was getting to eat breakfast with his boyfriend for the first time since getting out of the hospital. While Bucky had obviously continually been woken up as a result of Steve’s alarm, he rarely made it out of bed before Steve left for the day. Now Bucky was awake and relatively focused and functional and yet Steve still couldn’t quite bring himself to feel happy and enjoy himself. Not in the midst of everything else.

Maybe he needed to suck it up and work on that.

Steve moved on autopilot, bringing the plate of food over to the kitchen table, and sat down. Bucky ran a hand over Winter’s head, as though steadying himself, before picking up his own plate and following suit. For a few moments, there was nothing but silence as the two of them took a few bites of the food. Steve had to admit that while the microwaved eggs weren’t as great as the ones made in a pan, they weren’t half-bad. The tension didn’t quite lift but it felt a little easier to navigate. The fact that Bucky was eating at all seemed to be a positive sign; he’d only picked at food since getting out of the hospital.

Winter curled up at Bucky’s feet and Bucky paused in his eating to pet him. It was clear he was still on edge, and how couldn’t he be after everything? When Steve saw him in the morning – although Bucky was usually barely coherent or focused by the time he left for class when he was still awake at all – and then again in the afternoon or evening depending on the day, Bucky seemed to be coping as best he could. But the nightmares were there when he tried to sleep. Every so often, Steve also caught the fluctuations in Bucky’s emotions. For as much as he tried to hide it, the near death experience and hospital procedures – not to mention the injuries themselves – had clearly impacted him. Steve imagined that the emotions were likely higher when Bucky was alone, if he was trying to hide things as much when Steve and the others were around.

Considering all of that left Steve feeling guiltier. While Bucky had sworn up and down that he could handle being on his own all day, the fact that he hid his feelings when the others were around left him carrying that burden all on his own, especially now that he wasn’t sleeping all day like he had been early on. Granted, Natasha and Steve had both managed to find enough gaps in their schedule to accompany him to the weekly sessions with Dr. Jones he’d resumed after the fire and from what Steve could tell, the first session he’d had the previous day had helped. But how much could those sessions help after what had just happened?

“I can feel your mind going nonstop and I’ve gotta say that it’s making me nervous,” Bucky said, finally breaking the silence. “Anything you wanna share?”

Steve groaned. “It’s all of the usual shit, nothing out of the ordinary. Thinking about the fire. Thinking about my mom. Thinking about you. Worrying about you. Wondering how you’re coping with everything. Worrying about how you’re healing. Thinking we’re goddamn lucky that things weren’t worse. Angry because things were bad enough and I shouldn’t have to be grateful that we both got out of there alive when someone tried to kill us and you got injured.”

Then the words just started coming and he couldn’t stop them. “Thinking about all of the shit that I need to get signed and ready to go so that Tony can arrange for the work to start on the repairs for the shop, about whether I need to consider Tony’s offer of setting up a temporary office, at least for myself, so that I can get the customers’ needs met. Worrying about whether I’m going to end up failing out this semester because I can’t concentrate on my classes, and the last thing I need is something else on my plate because I can’t handle everything already there.”

He finally took a breath and then another because he hadn’t said that much to Bucky since everything happened. There had been bits and pieces of that sprinkled throughout everything he did say but most of it he’d swallowed back, especially if part of it had already slipped out. Hell, he’d probably shared more with Tony over the past few weeks and that made him feel like the worst person ever, that he would talk about everything with someone he’d barely been on speaking terms with and yet not share half of it with his boyfriend.

Somewhere in the midst of Steve’s tirade, Bucky had resumed petting Winter and he must have started getting anxious since Winter now stood, leaning into Bucky’s legs. Steve gave him the time needed to respond, although he was on the verge of just apologizing by the time Bucky opened his mouth.

“Steve, I definitely can’t say that I’m okay by any stretch of the imagination but I’m… I’m managing. Some days are better than others, probably less so now than before all of this shit happened – although that’s debatable – and, yeah, the bad days are pretty bad. But I can handle it. The nightmares suck and the headaches suck and I’d really love to have two operational arms but all of this shit is stuff I’ve been dealing with for awhile now already. Some of it’s a little worse, yeah, and some of it was just starting to go dormant – or as close to that as I’ll ever get – but it’s not my first rodeo. It’s not going to make me fall apart. I won’t let it do that to me.”

“Buck, that’s… that’s…” Steve stopped because he wasn’t quite sure what he was trying to say. Before he had the chance to figure that out, there were the sounds of footsteps on the stairs, heading down towards them, and Steve determined that it made the most sense to clam up for the time being.

Clint stumbled into the kitchen, heading straight for the coffee pot – which Bucky had filled earlier – and started to go through the motions of brewing a pot himself before realizing that was unnecessary. He stared at the coffee pot for a long moment, blinking a few times, before pouring himself a cup. He turned and nearly flung the cup out of his hand when he saw the two of them sitting at the table.

“Shit, guys. Make a noise or something,” he grumbled, reaching for a paper towel to wipe up the coffee that ended up on the floor. “I didn’t think anyone else was up.” His eyes narrowed. “Is everything alright? Did something else happen?”

“Nothing else happened,” Steve said quickly. “I just got a phone call this morning. It woke both of us up but it’s nothing to worry about.”

“You say that and it somehow makes me nervous.” Clint took a long sip of his coffee before speaking again. “But if you say everything’s fine, I’m gonna trust you on that.”

“Given all of the secrets you guys have been hiding lately, I don’t think it’s entirely fair not to trust us,” Bucky pointed out. “You’ve already admitted there’s shit you haven’t been telling me in particular.”

“Touché. Well, here’s something. I’m going to be home late tonight since I’m going out with my brother.”

“Nat and Sam already aware of that?” Steve inquired.

Clint nodded. “I’m not stupid enough to hide that from them.”

“You gonna need back up?” Bucky asked and Steve shot him a look. “What? I wasn’t offering myself. I know I’m no good in a fight right now.”

“No back up necessary,” Clint said hurriedly. “My brother just has some information for me, ‘s all. I’ll give you all an update once I get back.”

Steve’s breath caught in his throat, though he couldn’t quite say exactly what about Clint’s words brought on that sudden surge of anxiety. Before he even knew what he was doing, he was on his feet and both Clint and Bucky were staring at him.

“Speaking of updates…” Steve glanced at his watch, as though incredibly concerned with the time. “I should probably see if I can still meet up with Tony before my class. I have to finish signing a couple of documents for him so that we can get the work done on the shop.”

He pressed a quick kiss to Bucky’s lips before saying goodbye to him and Clint, and barely remembered to grab his bag before heading for the front door. He made it halfway down the block before he pieced together what had led to that anxiety.

All of the others were handling the situation. The twins had gone public, Natasha and Clint had whatever the hell they were doing, and even Tony had some level of action – quite a bit, actually, ever since the press conference. On the other hand, he was just sitting around, doing nothing. He wasn’t trying to track down the people who had burned his business and home to the ground. Hell, he wasn’t even directly involved in the repairs. He just stood there while everyone around him managed the situation in whatever way they could.

He was tired of sitting back and doing nothing.

Maybe it was time to change that.

-~-

Jane couldn’t stop tapping her foot against the floor as she glanced again and again at her watch. Logically, she’d never known Darcy to arrive anywhere on time, with the exception of class – sometimes – but each minute that ticked by made her wonder if Darcy would actually show up. It wasn’t like Darcy to completely bail on her but seeing as they’d agreed to meet in person to talk about everything, Jane couldn’t help but worry that Darcy wouldn’t come through. Mostly because it hadn’t been like her friend to not tell her anything until the entire world knew. Still, she could understand, after seeing the press conference by the Maximoff twins, why Darcy had been close-lipped about everything and why there had been all sorts of secrecy.

The press conference had distracted her from the papers she was grading that night and she’d picked up her phone more times than she could count, debating whether to dial Darcy’s number, to send a text, to do something to let Darcy know that she knew. But of course Darcy would already be aware of that; if not assuming that Jane already had seen the press conference, being aware that at some point the news would trickle down to her. As much as Jane had wanted answers, it somehow felt wrong to call Darcy right after the press conference cut off the air. The situation Darcy and the twins were in was bigger than she ever could have imagined and the fallout from that press conference was more than enough for her friend to be dealing with.

Later that night, well after Jane expected to hear from anyone, she’d been woken up by a text message from Darcy just saying, Can I come by the lab tomorrow? I think we need to talk.

A few back-and-forth text messages later and noon had been confirmed as the meeting time. Now it was 12:15 and Darcy still hadn’t shown up yet. While she was consistently late, Jane somehow felt that this was more concerning. Although Darcy frequently arrived well after the meeting time, she usually sent a text message or gave some indication to Jane when she’d gotten distracted or spent longer than expected getting ready.

At the least, the lab was thankfully empty at this time. There were no visiting scientists from other schools or countries or programs this week and while Bruce had been spending late hours at the lab every night he studiously took his lunch break every single day. Granted, that didn’t seem to be his choice as much as Betty coming by at that time to ensure that he took care of himself and ate at least one meal during the day.

Jane had also been doing her best to keep an eye on Bruce. While he hadn’t had any episodes like the one she’d witnessed a few weeks back – hopefully because even with the stress of midterms he had stayed away from energy drinks – she could pick up the signs of stress easily; the dark bags under his eyes, the hunching of his shoulders, and the irritability. The irritability was the most prominent, from what she could see. Bruce had always seemed reasonably even-tempered but recently she’d seen him throw things, slam a fist down on the table, and create some truly impressive curses when an experiment failed to work as designed.

When Betty was there, she would often convince Bruce to take a walk with her at those times. When they returned, he always seemed to be back to his well-mannered, calm self. Sometimes he would apologize for any disruptions his outbursts might have caused for Jane. Jane mostly wondered about the relationship between Bruce and Betty. The two of them were obviously close but there seemed to be a wall between the two of them as well, at least in the romantic sense. It was clear just from watching their interactions that things between them obviously could have gone that way but it seemed as though something was preventing that from happening.

Not that it was any of Jane’s business.

Her thoughts on Bruce and Betty were cut off as the door opened and Darcy stepped inside. Jane was a bit surprised to find that Darcy looked, well, like Darcy. For some reason, after the recent revelations, Jane had expected things to look different, to reflect how much things had changed in her world. But there was Darcy, shrugging off her jacket to reveal the knit sweater underneath, wearing her beanie and abandoning contacts in favor of her black-framed glasses. Exactly the Darcy that Jane had always known.

“Sorry I’m late,” she said, struggling to catch her breath. “I would’ve texted but I was driving and I thought I’d rather not cause a car accident or get a ticket and traffic was stop and go, so it wasn’t like I had the chance to text when we weren’t moving.”

“That’s fine,” Jane said quickly. “Catch your breath. We’ve got awhile before Bruce comes back.”

Darcy tossed her jacket over the back of a nearby chair and then flopped down in it, pausing long enough to tug a bag of chips out of the pocket, offering them to Jane. “Want any?”

“Thanks, but I’m good,” Jane said, taking a seat of her own. There were a few moments of silence, broken only by the sound of Darcy munching on the chips, before Jane finally said, “So” and waited to see how Darcy would respond.

It took a few moments, during which time Jane could see Darcy sorting through her thoughts. “So…” she echoed. “It’s been awhile and a lot’s happened. I mean, a lot’s been happening that I couldn’t tell you and now you know why I couldn’t tell you.”

“I figured as much once I saw the press conference footage. It all started to make sense in some way. I guess you’d known all along, huh?”

“I knew bits and pieces,” Darcy said, after a few moments of thought. “I mean, Pietro hadn’t kept me in the dark. There’s a bit more that I know beyond what was said at the press conference.”

Her eyes held a challenge, as though she dared Jane to ask her those questions. The thought was tempting, in some ways, but Jane had already put the pieces together in a way that formed a semi-coherent narrative. If Darcy wanted to share, she wouldn’t stop her, but she wasn’t about to interrogate her on the subject.

“Since the press conference, I’ve been able to understand why things have seemed to different lately,” Jane carefully said. “Like the fact that you had told me that Peter – I mean, Pietro – had been in an accident. I’m guessing that was what he was referencing when he said that he’d been shot. So, I’m not all that concerned with finding out details about your boyfriend and his sister. I’m more worried about you and how you’re handling everything.” She took a deep breath before adding, “I’m also worried about whether you’re in danger.”

Darcy seemed a bit surprised by the question. “I mean, I guess I am, technically speaking. Pietro’s been worried about that all along. That’s why I still carry my taser with me.”

“What’s a taser going to do against a gun?” Jane asked quietly.

Darcy shrugged. “Probably not much. But it’s something. It’s not like I can get out of this situation at this point. It’s not like I’m going to get out of this situation, because the only way out would be to end things with Pietro. And I’m not doing that.”

“He means that much to you,” Jane said, resisting the urge to turn it into a question.

Darcy nodded. “Yeah, I mean, it’s only been a few months… but I really like him. None of this shit is his fault and despite everything that’s happened and that this is his first relationship, he’s a good boyfriend.”

Jane slowly nodded. “Alright. I can’t argue with that. It just seems like… it seems like a lot for you to be dealing with.”

Darcy made a face. “Yeah, it’s harder now. He’s in a ‘safe house’ and I barely get to see him or talk to him. I get that it’s supposed to be for his safety but it sucks. At least when he was in the hospital, I could visit him every day. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that he’s healed enough to have been discharged but I miss him.” She exhaled a long, apparently pent up breath. “I hate what happened but I am so happy that the twins went public. I hated having to hide things from you. You know I wouldn’t have done that if I had any other choice.”

Jane quickly said, “I know. Trust me, Darcy, I know. I’m sorry you were in that situation. But I’m not angry or upset that you hadn’t told me who the twins were or anything about what was happening.”

“So… we’re still good?” Darcy asked, twisting the fabric at the cuff of her sweater.

“You don’t even need to ask that. Of course we’re still good.”

Darcy looked relieved. “I thought so but I wasn’t sure.” She allowed a beat of silence before asking, “Maybe this is a stupid question but how’ve you been? I feel like we’ve barely talked at all in months.”

Jane couldn’t help but laugh in response to that. “I’ve been okay. Nothing as exciting as what’s been going on with you. My life’s basically just been filled with the usual stressors. Classes. My dissertation. Teaching and grading. Spending time with Thor.”

Darcy’s eyes sparkled. “So, things are still going well between you and Thor?”

“They are. We still spend the majority of our time at my apartment. After all of the stuff with his brother last semester – I think we covered that when it happened?”

Darcy shrugged. “I got bits and pieces, both from you and Steve.”

Jane nodded and continued, “With all of that, it’s been easier just to spend time away from his family. I’m still not his brother’s favorite person. But in terms of my relationship with Thor overall, it’s good. He’s incredibly supportive and I enjoy his company.”

“You know, I am proud of you. I never thought you would allow yourself to balance a boyfriend and grad school. Thor’s been good for you in a lot of ways.”

“I agree but I do think you’re getting off track,” Jane pointed out. “I didn’t think we were talking about me and my love life. I thought we were talking about you and yours.”

“I’ve said everything there is to say about mine,” Darcy said with a shrug. “You know what’s going on with Pietro. You know that he’s in a safe house for the time being. You know that I’m staying with him despite everything that’s been going on. That’s about all there is to it.” Before Jane could respond, she grinned and inquired, “Now, when is your dissertation defense coming up?”

Jane groaned. “No time soon. But thank you for reminding me that I have paperwork for that I need to be submitting.”

“I can promise you that on the day you defend, I’ll be there, cheering for you,” Darcy promised. “I still don’t get how that entire process goes.”

“And I hope you never need to know because it’s hellish,” Jane said with a sigh. “How about I promise not to question you on your boyfriend and you promise not to question me on my dissertation. Sound fair?”

“Sounds fair. Now, any chance I could tempt you out of the lab for lunch?”

“As long as it’s for anything but coffee. I’ve been working way too many doubles at the shop lately.” Jane locked her computer and tucked her latest data in one of the drawers. “How long do you have before you need to be back at work?”

Leaning over to secure the drawer, she didn’t catch Darcy’s expression until she straightened up but from the long silence that followed, something was wrong. When she finally did straighten up, Darcy gaped at her. Her own face must have conveyed confusion, since Darcy immediately spoke.

“You mean, you didn’t hear?” When Jane shook her head, Darcy continued. “Shit, I figured you did, especially since you were up to date on the news about the twins. Shield burned down a week or two ago. Maybe longer. It’s been awhile, even if it seems like just yesterday I was there.”

Jane was quiet for a long moment as she put the pieces together. “Darcy… everything with the twins… and then a fire at the shop? Is all of this connected?”

Darcy shrugged. “That’s way above my pay grade, such as it is right now. It actually happened before the twins went public with everything. That was part of why they did.”

“So, now we’ve got people with guns and arsonists. This is sounding seriously screwed up, Darcy. What is this mess that you’re caught up in?”

“I’m not caught up in anything. It’s just unfolding all around me.” Her expression softened. “I’m okay, Jane. I promise. If I were concerned about my safety, I would let you know. But I’m doing everything I can to keep myself safe.” Then, she grinned once again. “Right now I’m the most concerned about getting some pizza.”

Jane didn’t have the energy to argue. After all, she was quite hungry and Darcy wasn’t the easiest person to argue with on a full stomach.

She slipped her keys into her purse. “Lead the way.”

-~-

The sun didn’t take the chill out of the air but after far too many hours spent inside the lab or his studio apartment, Bruce didn’t mind his throat turning raw with ice as he breathed. It was just above freezing – maybe 35 degrees – and the cup of tea in his glove-covered hands didn’t do a whole lot but it was something. He’d known he couldn’t stay inside for another minute. While he kept thinking through his “to do” list and every item on it – not to mention wondering how there were enough hours in the day to complete everything – he also knew that there were benefits to taking breaks.

Or at least that was what Betty kept saying to him.

He took another sip of the tea, wishing it was something other than herbal because he would have given a lot for something with adequate caffeine. Well, perhaps not anything, seeing as if he were willing to accept the consequences, there was plenty of caffeine right at his fingertips given the coffee shops on campus and in the break room near the lab. Still, tea – specifically non-caffeinated or low caffeinated tea – was safer. Anything more than that would shoot his heart rate up and that wasn’t something he particularly wanted to deal with in the middle of trying to survive grad school and work commitments.

The recent text message he’d received from Tony Stark had already done enough to increase his heart rate.

He still didn’t quite know what to make of Tony. When he’d been granted the scholarship, he never imagined Tony would show any interest in him and his studies outside of whatever necessary to ensure publicity. While he respected Tony’s accomplishments in his field – or fields – of studies, he knew Tony’s reputation. Even Betty had warned him more than once, cautioning him about Tony’s interest in him.

He trusted her and her logic but at the same time he wondered if her father could have been a part of the problem, particularly given that her father was a part of many other problems in their relationship with one another. He knew that her father and the Starks had plenty of business dealings over the years – that much had been discussed the first time Tony showed up at the lab. He couldn’t help but wonder what type of relations Betty had with Tony over the years, as well as what messages she had been told over dinner conversations with her father.

On the other hand, given Betty’s relationship with her father, Bruce had to assume that anything her father told her about Tony would probably make her do the opposite. Which meant that it likely had little to do with any negative comments her father might have made over the years and more likely that they were positive comments, therefore leaving her suspicious of Tony and his motives.

Not for the first time, Bruce wished he had someone else he could talk to about all of this, rather than the two people directly involved. He wasn’t someone who had ever had much in the way of friends and while he maintained collegial relationships with his peers, enough to collaborate on projects and share notes for classes, he didn’t have anyone he could go to with this type of problem. He sometimes became frustrated with himself for the fact that now, years after he’d made it to living on his own, he still feared getting close to anyone who he might have to bring home, anyone who might find out the type of environment he lived in.

Who might find themselves in the crosshairs or start wondering about what was going on in Bruce’s life.

It was safer to keep everyone at a distance and even now, when it wouldn’t have been hard to invite someone over to watch a movie in his cramped studio apartment, he couldn’t quite bring himself to cross that invisible line. At least not when it came to anyone other than Betty. He still couldn’t quite figure out how she managed to cross that line in the first place and she’d been with him for what seemed like so long it was hard to imagine a time when they weren’t this close. But even with that, there were some other lines he wasn’t willing to cross with her.

There was a reason each time she hinted about going out to dinner – or at this point just directly asked him – he made it clear that if they did grab a bite to eat together, that was all it was. Just a bite to eat. Two friends spending time together. There needed to be boundaries in place and going out to a dinner as anything more than friends wasn’t something he was willing – or at least not ready – to do.

Then again, those boundaries hadn’t exactly worked particularly well. They protected him when it came to situations like dinner. They didn’t protect him quite so well when he and Betty were alone in his studio apartment together and the review of the data led to movie watching and she ended up half-asleep on his shoulder. Then he would just give her the couch and sleep on the floor and deflect the questions about why he didn’t set up his couch bed to share with her rather than risk a sore back and locked up neck.

But that was Betty and he felt more comfortable with her than anyone else in his life. Now he had Tony Stark’s invitation hanging over his head and he didn’t quite know what to do with it. It wasn’t as though Tony hadn’t alluded to the possibility for a visit during their first meeting – that had come through clearly enough – but somehow Bruce hadn’t prepared for the eventuality of it. He hadn’t considered exactly which choice he would make. He’d figured that eventually Tony would lose interest in him, now that the publicity was more or less gone, unless of course Tony needed to improve his image in the media.

Which might have been exactly what was going on here. With the recent accusations by the Maximoff twins and Tony orchestrating that – or at least that was what the news was saying – there were equal measures of people who thought that Tony was a figure of heavenly proportion for helping out two poor, abused children and those who thought this was all a ploy by Tony to get some media coverage and tear apart Talbot’s reputation at the expense of two vulnerable children’s lives. The articles on both made Bruce far too uncomfortable to read through, for different reasons.

Maybe, ultimately, the problem was that Bruce didn’t quite know which one of those to believe. While the focus of some of those articles on the Maximoff twins as the poor, abused children left him shaken and feeling sick, that didn’t make him lose trust in Tony. It didn’t necessarily make Bruce trust him more – but, then, trust wasn’t something that came naturally to him – but it didn’t change his view of Tony in any way. If those other articles, the ones with the spin that Tony was doing this purely for his own gain, were true… well, those left Bruce in a much, much different position.

He wasn’t going to let Tony use him as a stepping-stone. Not for that, especially.

But, at the same time, Tony had been anything but pushy with him. He’d stopped by those few times, just to chat, and there had been the occasional text message exchanged as well. Still, he hadn’t pushed any boundaries. Even his invitation was just that – an invitation. He was giving Bruce the room to back out if he wanted to.

Or maybe he was just giving Bruce the illusion of that.

Sometimes it was hard to know the difference.

He was distracted from his thoughts as a set of footsteps approached and a moment later, a figure settled down on the bench beside him. Recognition took a matter of seconds – he’d already recognized the tapping of her low heels against the walkway and now that she sat beside him, he could smell her perfume was well – and he exhaled slowly.

“Is asking how you found me a stupid question?”

“A little,” Betty said. “You’re far too predicable, Bruce. I figured if you weren’t in the lab you were probably here, getting your tea fix for the day and freezing yourself to death.”

“It’s not that cold,” he protested, despite the fact that his breath was clearly visible in the air. “Well, maybe it’s a little bit cold.”

“Stubborn,” she noted. “What’s up? Is it just school stress or did something else happen?”

He shrugged. “Tony Stark invited me over to his lab. That’s all.”

“Tony Stark invited you to his lab and that’s what has led to you freezing yourself out here?” She raised her eyebrows “Don’t get me wrong, Bruce, but that seems like a bit of an overreaction. After all, he offered you that same invitation the first time he came by.”

“But it was different,” Bruce protested, trying to pretend that there wasn’t a part of him that was grateful she wasn’t insisting that going to the lab would be a terrible decision. “It had no specifics and somehow that made it easier to hear. This invitation has specifics though. He’s invited me over for next week.”

“And you’re not sure if you want to go?” she asked, although it somehow sounded more like a statement.

“And I’m not sure I want to go,” he agreed. “I’m not sure what it would mean if I did go.”

Betty remained quiet for a long moment before saying, “Any chance you’d be willing to continue this conversation inside of a building with actual heat?”

“I could consider that. Would the lab work or are you thinking we need more privacy?”

“I was thinking that it might be worth popping into one of the private study rooms in the library,” she suggested. “Unless of course you’re fine with having this conversation in front of Jane…?”

“A study room it is,” he quickly accepted. “Lead the way.”

He followed Betty to the library, reluctantly discarding his half-finished tea in a trashcan upon seeing the reminders of “No food or drink in the library” posted on the door. Sneaking it in probably wouldn’t have been that hard but the last thing Bruce wanted was to have all eyes – or any eyes - on him for any reason. Better to abandon the cup and be grateful for the minimal amounts of caffeine already threading through his veins given that he could get himself another one later on if necessary.

Thankfully, the study rooms were unoccupied at this time and it wasn’t hard to find one and claim it as their own. Bruce initially remained standing once inside, waiting to see where Betty sat, and when she opted to sit on the table itself, chose a chair reasonably close but not directly beside her.

“So, talk to me about what’s going on,” Betty said, when Bruce failed to speak. “Stark invited you, you’re not sure if you want to go, and it’s ramping up your heart rate.” With those last words, she glanced pointedly at his wrist and he made a face.

“Obviously it’s not ramping up my heart rate that much or you’d know because this stupid thing wouldn’t stop beeping,” he pointed out. “So obviously it’s not ramping it up that much. I’m just torn on what to do. I don’t want to upset Tony by rejecting the offer. Not when he’s already been so nice to me.”

“Alright, so you don’t want to upset him but you also don’t want to go. What makes you hesitate on going?”

There, he found that it took him a few moments to find the words despite the fact that he’d just been thinking about this very subject. Being completely open and honest would mean revealing a bit more on his own history to Betty than what he already had, although probably not anything she hadn’t already pieced together on her own.

“Sometimes… sometimes I get this feeling that because of the scholarship, I’m just someone – some thing – that Tony owns. I feel like this is going to make me somehow even more… indebted to him? I don’t know if that’s exactly the word I was going for but that about sums it up. I feel like taking this invitation shortens the leash on me, if that makes any sense.”

“It makes some sense and I can see where you’re coming from.” There was a pause, before she added, “But from what I’ve seen, Tony’s always seemed pretty friendly. You know I don’t trust him but I don’t think inviting you to the lab would make you indebted in any way.”

“I know. That’s not my main concern. I’m more worried that this is some sort of publicity stunt, after everything that’s been going on in the media with him lately. I’m worried that he’s going to use me for something. I’m not even sure what. But that’s what I’m afraid of.”

“After what happened with the Maximoff twins, you’re worried he might use your own history to improve his image or something like that,” Betty said, coming uncomfortably close to reading his mind.

“Something like that. I mean, I know I have some control over how much of that he knows or finds out. It’s not as though there was much in the media that he could track down on me. I would imagine that even if he has done some sort of background check, that’s probably already happened. Which means that visiting the lab probably wouldn’t change anything if he’s known what he knows all along.”

“I would agree with that. I also don’t see how visiting the lab would require you to disclose your full history to him, if he doesn’t already know. Besides, if he’s enough of a dick to ask, then you tell him to fuck off. You don’t owe him any of that, Bruce. You don’t owe anyone that, unless you’re ready and you want to tell them.”

That hurt a bit, given that he hadn’t exactly been overly disclosing with her either, even though she knew more than pretty much anyone else. But she was right, he didn’t have to tell anyone his full history and that included his best friend. Just because he could tell her didn’t mean he had to; she’d just made that clear and he was more than willing to believe her on that.

“So, what you’re saying is that I should go,” he said slowly.

“I’m saying that ultimately it’s your choice whether or not you go,” she said, with a half-shrug. “You don’t have to do anything you’re not comfortable with. All I’m saying is that I’m uncertain of whether those concerns you’ve expressed to me are necessary. I don’t see them as things you do not have any control over. If you honestly want to visit with Stark at his lab, you’re more than welcome to. I don’t think it will mean that you’re indebted to him or that you have to tell him everything about you, so that he can use that in his next publicity campaign.”

Bruce took in her words and let a few minutes of silence pass as he sorted through them. Everything she said made sense and, once again, the fact that Betty was in support of him visiting Tony’s lab made him feel more confident that if he made that decision, it would not be the wrong one. Finally, after a few moments, he exhaled slowly and nodded.

“Alright. Then I guess my decision has been made, right? I’ll text Tony back, let him know I’m more than willing to see the lab.” He managed a smile before adding, “Who knows? Maybe I’ll get to play around with some new toys.”

“Maybe you will. You would be going to a lab that belongs to Tony Stark. He does have the best of the best equipment.” To her credit, there was only a tinge of bitterness to her voice.

“I’ll definitely take some notes and sneak any pictures I can,” he offered. “Who knows, maybe it’ll help break up the writer’s block as I move forward with my dissertation proposal.”

“Maybe it will.” Betty now was the one to exhale slowly. “Bruce, Tony isn’t the only thing I wanted to talk about. I feel like you’ve been avoiding me lately.”

There he was, caught in his own trap. Coming here with Betty may have been a mistake since now there was no option for - as she had so clearly commented on - ‘avoiding’ her. It wasn’t as though anything major had happened over the past few weeks that led to him making the decision to distance himself, more that quite a few smaller things occurred and built up and he felt that there were no other options except to spend time with her only when he had to. Midterms and everything else made that significantly easier because he could readily blame studying, paper writing, and grading as reasons for his inability to spend as much time with her as before.

“Betty, it’s…” he trailed off, trying to find the words. “I just… I’ve been…”

“Please don’t tell me that you’ve been busy,” she said quietly. “I know it’s more than that. If you can’t tell me now, then just say that. I won’t push you. I only ask that you tell me at some point. Because your friendship means a lot to me and I’d do a lot to avoid losing that.”

Bruce considered that. If he were brave, he would take the opening and start talking to Betty about everything on his mind. But he wasn’t ready to do that, not quite yet. So he took the easy way out.

“I’m not ready now. But I will be.”

He caught the sheen of disappointment in her eyes but, true to her word, she nodded. “Fair enough. I’m holding you to that.”

-~-

Somehow – and he wasn’t quite sure how – Barney’s hotel room looked worse than the first time Clint visited. Maybe that wasn’t quite as surprising in light of the fact that it had been several weeks since Barney got into town and set up shop here. But now the clothes covered the majority of the room, mixed in with various takeout containers that may or may not have been filled with food or at least bits of food.

Clearly his brother hadn’t been about to let the maid in to clean, given the assorted weaponry spaced out across the room as well.

Then again, Clint probably had no place in judging his brother for this disaster. The last time he’d seen a room that looked quite this bad, the room had been his dorm room. Like brother, apparently like brother. That was how things went.

He carefully carved a path through the mess on the floor, hoping that nothing attached itself to his shoes on the way, and then settled down on the edge of the bed. His brother sat on the other side, casually resuming cleaning a gun – a project he’d apparently abandoned in the few moments it took to let his brother into the room – and not saying a word. Clint waited as patiently as he could to see if his brother would say anything and then, finally, gave up on him.

“Why did you call me here?” he questioned.

“Did I call you?” Barney asked, his brow furrowing. “I can’t remember. For some reason, I could have sworn that you called me. Whatever. Either way, I have some stuff to tell you.”

Clint felt relief fill his body. “Yeah? What did you get? Any information on who set the fire at Shield? Anything about the twins?”

“Nothing that specific. No one’s owning up to the fire from what I can tell. At least not among the Russians. Which I guess might suggest they weren’t responsible. Word on the street, of course, supports the fact that it wasn’t accidental. But no one’s saying anything.”

“Well, shit, Barn, that’s not helpful. I need to know who did that.”

“I know you do,” Barney said easily. “Which is why I’m keeping my ear to the ground on that. I was more interested in letting you know some of the recent developments. You see, there’s some new faces on the street.”

“Yeah, I told you about one of ‘em. There was the kid Wanda ran into a few weeks back. The one named Tommy.”

“Right. I followed up on that. Seems like he came in from New Jersey. Along with the Italians.”

A beat of silence followed Barney’s words before Clint blurted out, “The Italians? Are you fucking shitting me? Because we didn’t have enough going on with the Russians and the Irish and everyone else on the streets?”

Barney shrugged. “That’s what I’ve heard. I don’t have many specifics. Just that the Italians have come in from New Jersey and it seems that Tommy came from that location as well, presumably with them.”

“Shit, so the Italians have a teenage kid running with them. Awesome.” He sighed. “Well, I guess that’s not a problem for the moment since the twins are safe.”

“Yeah, I’d been meaning to ask you if you know where they are,” Barney said, and something about his tone immediately set Clint’s nerves on edge.

He studied his brother’s expression for a long moment. “Why do you ask? What about that is important for you to know?”

Barney carefully placed the gun back on the bedspread and raised his hands in a conciliatory gesture. “Whoa, easy, Clint. I didn’t mean anything by that. I was just curious.”

Clint narrowed his eyes. “I don’t believe a word of that but here’s the answer to your question: I don’t know where they are and I’m not going to find out.”

“I’m not asking you to. I’m sorry, that was a stupid question on my part.”

Barney looked almost genuinely contrite but Clint wasn’t fooled. He crossed his arms over his chest. “Who would you be getting that information for?”

“No one,” Barney returned quickly. “Shit, Clint, you’re far too suspicious.”

“I’m suspicious because I know you, Barney. I know you’ll sell out even the people you care about if there’s a high enough bidder.”

Now it was Barney’s turn to narrow his eyes and cross his arms over his chest. “What am I going to have to do to prove myself to you? Seriously. Tell me. Because I’m sick and tired of you questioning me for everything I do or say and accusing me of things I haven’t done or am not intending on doing.”

That threw Clint a bit, although if anything, he felt heat burning on the back of his neck and his throat tightened – all signs that he was verging on losing his temper. On the one hand, his brother had a point – if Clint was going to call him untrustworthy, maybe he did need a clear distinction for what would indicate trustworthy or reparative behaviors – but on the other, this felt like just another signal of his brother manipulating him.

“I just want you to be honest and truthful. That’s all I want, Barn. I want you to show me that I can depend on you and that when push comes to shove, you’ve got my back and you’re not going to sell me out to the Russians or something like that.”

“Have I sold you out to the Russians yet?” Barney shot back. “I’ve had a couple of months where I could’ve done that. As far as I know, the only people you’ve tangled with have been the Irish and that hasn’t been on me.”

“Then, again, why does it matter to you where the twins are now?” Clint asked. “They’re safe. That’s all you need to know. The less people who have that information, the better. If you actually cared about them, you wouldn’t ask something so stupid.”

“Again, obviously I fucked up by asking and I’m sorry about that. I shouldn’t have asked that question. Can we just rewind and start over?”

Clint was quiet for a long, long moment before he murmured, “Not unless you can rewind way back to when we were kids and rewrite everything that’s happened.”

Barney echoed Clint’s silence with several moments of his own. “Fair enough. If you’ve got nothing else you want to know then I guess…”

“Then you guess it’s time for me to leave,” Clint said. “And I agree. You know how to contact me if you need to.”

“I do. I’ll let you know if I hear anything.”

Clint walked to the door to add, “And next time, if you’ve got such limited information, we don’t need to meet.”

“One, I could swear that you asked to meet this time. Two, you say that we don’t need to meet but I’d rather not disclose any of that information over the phone line. For both of our sakes. You never know who might be listening.”

Finding an argument in that was hard, if not impossible, so Clint just shrugged and said, “Good point. I’ll talk to you when I talk to you, Barn.”

Before he could open the door, Barney quietly, sadly said, “Seriously, Clint. What’s it gonna take? I can’t change what’s happened in the past. What will make you believe I just want to help and make up for everything I’ve done? Something like taking a bullet for you?”

“That would be a good start,” Clint said, his voice equally as quiet, and then, without another word, he left.

He tried not to feel as though a weight had fallen over both of them despite the fact that he could no longer see his brother as the door shut behind him.

Chapter Text

Waking up alone in the townhouse still felt strange to Bucky. How short a time it had taken for that to happen. Just a few months ago – well, closer to a year – he’d woken up by himself in this same bed more mornings than not. Nothing was different about the room; the blackout curtains still hung in the windows, his sheets and blankets felt the same against his skin, and his room continued to smell of lavender.

But back in Steve’s apartment, he’d rarely woken up alone, aside from the handful of times when his physical or mental condition prevented him from working or left him sleeping in later. More often than not though, he’d drifted back to awareness to find Steve curled up beside him. Even the times that he had woken up alone, there hadn’t been this same level of disorientation when he woke up.

Steve’s apartment had become “home” and replaced the townhouse. Now his mind couldn’t see to reverse the change. That held a certain note of irony, particularly when the apartment was gone.

At the least, it helped to still have Winter by his side when he woke up. After everything his dog had gone through he had worried, because he wasn’t in any place mentally or physically to comfort Winter, if the stress proved enough to throw his dog off his game. But Winter readily adapted to each of those transitions and continued to perform his job as effectively as he had at the beginning. Each morning, since arriving at the townhouse, Winter ensured that Bucky figured out where he was slowly and calmly, licking at Bucky’s fingers to ground him, resting his head against Bucky’s shoulder to offer comfort, doing everything he could to support him. Each morning, the pieces fell back into place just a little bit more quickly than the day before.

Now, after a few weeks, the initial disorientation remained but lifted shortly after he opened his eyes and took in the room. He still gave his body a few moments to adjust, trying to utilize all of the techniques he’d learned in therapy over the past year. More days than not, there had been a mixture of both, which felt like a triumph for him. The fact that he could even assess his status within a few moments was an improvement from those early days after being in the hospital following the fire, when he remained hazy and confused for some time and frequently fell asleep throughout the day.

Although maybe the improvement was only because he was filled with rage and refused to let even the bad days bring him down. If he let every day where his head hurt or he felt foggy prevent him from doing anything, he wasn’t going to be much use to himself or anyone else. Over the past several days, he’d spent as many hours as he could tolerate walking on the treadmill downstairs and then taking apart one of Sam’s guns to remind himself of how the weight felt in his hand, even if the Glock wasn’t his weapon of choice. Still, it was something to help improve his muscle memory, particularly in light of the fact that he was working without a second hand to steady his shot.

Overall though, today felt like a good day. He hadn’t popped a painkiller since the previous evening and despite that, the pain remained at a relatively low level. This morning, he kept to his routine, spending a couple of minutes sitting in bed, petting Winter, before making his way downstairs. A glance at the clock revealed that it was almost noon – a misstep on his part, as far as he was concerned. One of his goals had been to wake up at a reasonable time to keep himself on a schedule. Today, clearly, he’d failed. Given what he considered to be the late hour, once he’d tossed on clothes and a pair of sneakers, he bypassed breakfast by downing a glass of water, refilled his water bottle, and then headed for the basement, Winter padding at his side.

Stretching took a bit more time than it had prior to his latest injury, not to mention some creativity on his part, but he wasn’t taking any chances at this point. With only one working arm, the last thing he needed was to pull a muscle and be down any additional limbs. After the stretching, he took himself through another body scan to ensure there were no additional concerns in his physical functioning and, once confident in his abilities, he stepped onto the treadmill.

His startle response was still too high for him to put his headphones on and tune out the world with music. While he doubted anyone in the house would be stupid enough to approach him from behind, he felt uneasy having his hearing cut off by headphones. As a response, the only sound in the room came from his sneakers tapping out a pattern on the treadmill.

For the first time, he cranked up the machine to the maximum speed of a fast walk that he’d been doing for the past few days. Then, with another hit of the button, that left him with no other choice but to start running. Each step jolted through his body and into his shoulder and he held his breath for an instant – not the best running practice – as he waited to see if the pain would hit immediately afterwards. While he could certainly feel the reverberations in his shoulder, there was no increase in pain and almost immediately he found himself easing into the rhythm and focusing on nothing other than his pace.

The minutes ticked on and he chanced increasing the speed, just by another notch. It didn’t take long for his body to go on autopilot. After basic training and so many fitness tests over the years, his body remembered what to do and he focused on his pace and breathing and stopped looking at how long he’d been running. The burning in his legs was just something to push through, and he knew that he’d experience an incredible rush once on the other side of the pain and discomfort.

It wasn’t until he caught his peripheral vision starting to turn to static that he knew something was wrong. At the same moment, Winter gave a warning bark. Bucky slowed down the treadmill until it was moving slowly enough that he could stumble his way off. Once on the ground, it continued to feel as though the once solid floor was moving underneath him, the walls wavering around him, and he quickly dropped to his knees. Winter immediately moved to his side and he sunk his fingers into his dog’s fur, focusing on slowing his breathing. His heart felt like it was trying to hammer its way out of his chest and even with his eyes closed, he could still see the static in the edges of his vision in a sickening way that made him think that this was shifting into migraine territory.

Then the basement door opened and the stairs creaked under someone’s weight but looking up to see who was there wasn’t about to happen. Instead, he tried to pull up everyone’s schedules in his mind to figure out who might be home at this point but given that he couldn’t remember which day it even was, that wasn’t happening. Then, the idea that this might not be one of the other occupants of the house sent his heart rate – which had just slowed – back into overdrive.

“Barnes? What the hell happened to you?”

Well, that gave him his answer and eased his anxiety, even if it also left him more confused. Sam never came home this early, unless Bucky had been down in the basement much longer than he thought he’d been.

Coming up with an answer to that question took far too much energy, so he settled on, “Hey, Sam.”

He kept his head lowered, eyes closed, as Sam sat down beside him. He felt the sensation of a hand coming to rest on his right shoulder. The fact that Sam didn’t continue asking him questions and instead just rubbed his back, giving him something to focus on, left him incredibly grateful. Slowing his breathing helped and eventually the pounding in his ears eased up and his vision cleared at least a bit, enough that he chanced opening his eyes. He exhaled a grateful sigh. At least that change ruled out a migraine for the time being.

“You push yourself too hard?” Sam finally questioned. “For fuck’s sake, Barnes, you’re still healing.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know. But I can’t sit on my ass every day, Sam. Not after what’s happened.”

“I don’t need to tell you that you’re no use to anyone if you’ve run yourself ragged,” Sam pointed out. “We’re all fucked up over what happened and, yeah, I know it’s different for you because you were actually there. So I get wanting to get back in shape because that gives you more of a sense of control. But hurting yourself to do that isn’t going to get you where you want to go.” He allowed a beat of silence to pass before asking, “Did you even eat breakfast?”

Bucky finally raised his head enough to give Sam a half-grin. “Whoops? I guess I forgot that part.”

“And now, what exactly? You’re feeling dizzy? Light-headed? Weak? All of the above?” Sam asked with a raised eyebrow.

“All of the above,” Bucky reluctantly agreed.

Sam sighed heavily. “You’re getting a hell of a lecture from me once we get you fixed up. Think you can stand?”

“I can try.”

With Sam’s help, he slowly got to his feet, his good arm slung over Sam’s shoulder, Winter at his left side as they made their way up the stairs. Once in the kitchen, Sam deposited him at the table and went straight over to the refrigerator. Bucky focused on petting Winter’s head as his dog sat down beside him.

Sam called over his shoulder, “You feeling up to eating, right? Anything I should go light on or is a balanced breakfast something you can handle?”

“I can handle it,” Bucky said quickly, before he was even certain of whether that was a truthful response. Then, a bit more convincingly added, “Yeah, I’m good.”

Sam nodded. “Then I’ll get you some eggs and sausage.” He opened the fridge and took out the eggs, a half-eaten pack of sausage, and a carton of orange juice. “While I’m working on that, you’re going to drink at least a glass of orange juice.”

“Yes, mom.”

Bucky rolled his eyes but didn’t argue when Sam shoved the juice filled glass, as well as a water filled one, across the table to him. After a few sips of the orange juice though, he had to admit that Sam was onto something with this recommendation. Already, he could feel his head clearing. He leaned back in his chair and watched Sam move around the kitchen, pulling out various skillets and pans and getting the food started.

Silence reigned until Sam inquired, “How’re you holding up?”

Bucky shrugged his good shoulder. “I’m doing the best I can be, I guess. I’m the angriest I’ve been in a long while. I almost put my fist through a wall yesterday. The only reason I didn’t was because this is Nat’s house and I definitely fucked it up enough early on when I lived here. I figured I owed her to not cause more destruction now that she’s letting me live here again. But, yeah, I’m pissed. If I were to find the guys who did this shit, I’m pretty sure I’d be heading to prison for a long, long time.”

There was an uncomfortably long moment of silence from Sam before he said, “That wouldn’t be worth it, Buck. You know it wouldn’t. I get it. I want them gone too. I want them to suffer for what they did to you and Steve and Pietro and Clint. But I don’t want you to suffer more because of them and that’s exactly what’s gonna happen if you retaliate.”

Bucky felt his lips curve into a scowl. “But you know they’re never gonna come to justice. These types of people never do. For fuck’s sake, you remember what happened with Loki those couple of months back. We basically had a confession and we knew we couldn’t take it further legally because he’s a diplomat and he’d have immunity. It’s not like we have the evidence to get anyone convicted of the arson and attempted homicide at Shield or, hell, the evidence to get someone for Pietro’s shooting.”

“That doesn’t mean that we can’t get that stuff,” Sam argued. “I’ve said it a couple of times already, maybe not to you but to the others, and I’ll say it again: I think if we want to get revenge, the best revenge is going to be to gather that evidence. It’s not like you don’t know about recon and interrogating. Better to take that direction than to destroy your own life.”

Bucky felt his anger rising and he choked back all of the things he wanted to say - they tried to kill me, they tried to kill Steve, and when someone tries to kill you, you fucking retaliate and take them out - and instead concentrated his energy on petting Winter. For as much better as he’d gotten with managing his anger, he knew it didn’t take much to get him from angry to destructive and he didn’t think he was anywhere near stable enough to calm himself down if he fully gave into that anger now.

Sam picked up on that and gave Bucky the time and space to get himself back under control before saying, “I get it, you’re pissed about me saying that. I’m not trying to say that your anger isn’t valid or your thoughts of retaliation aren’t valid. I’m just saying that I’m worried about you. You didn’t go through all of the shit you’ve been through to end up in prison. You don’t deserve that.”

Bucky exhaled raggedly and waited until he trusted himself to say, “I’m not gonna do anything stupid. I’m not in any condition to do something impulsive. The only thing I’m worrying about right now is doing everything I can to prepare myself so that if I’m in a position where I could or should act, I’m able to do it. That’s all.”

Sam nodded in response to that, enough to let Bucky know he’d heard what he’d said, and then seemed to give up on the conversation for the time being. Bucky told himself that it must have been because he was focusing on getting the eggs and sausage, in addition to the bread that just popped out of the toaster, onto a plate to bring over to the table. He poured a cup of coffee and then brought the items over to the table.

At that point, Bucky couldn’t dwell on that much more since he cared more about getting the food off of the plate and into his body. He hadn’t realized how hungry he’d been until the first bite passed through his lips, at which point he had to convince himself to eat at a reasonable pace because he wanted to inhale everything. Sam let him eat without comment and by the time he slowed down, Bucky found that his anger had decreased substantially and he felt much more able to hold a calm, rational conversation.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad you came home when you did, but you’re never home this early,” he commented to Sam. “Is everything alright?”

“Oh yeah, everything’s fine,” Sam said, leaning back in his chair. “Today’s one of my class days, not VA days, and it turned out that my afternoon class got cancelled. I’ll need to head back for the evening one but I figured I’d stop by here in the meantime. I knew you were home alone and I figured you could use some company. You keep saying you’re okay with spending the day alone but it’s been a couple of weeks now and I thought that might be starting to mess with your head.”

“It’s not that bad,” Bucky said, after a few moments of consideration. “I’ve pretty much got a routine down at this point. Everyone who’s got more flexible schedules comes in and out throughout the day so I’m not all on my own the entire time. I know everyone tried to figure out a way to keep someone with me throughout the entire day but that hasn’t been necessary. I spent time alone back when I first moved in here, I can handle spending time in here now.”

“I just wasn’t sure if it might be more of an adjustment now than it was then. I mean, you had your months spent working, even if some of those months were inconsistent, and this is a pretty big change for you.” Sam hesitated before adding, “I just haven’t wanted you to feel as though you’ve somehow taken any steps backward. Because this isn’t on you, Barnes. You had no control over what happened.”

“That doesn’t make it less of a situation where I’ve taken a step backward though,” Bucky reluctantly acknowledged. “Yeah, I know it wasn’t in my control. But the fact remains that I’m no longer working and probably won’t be for the foreseeable future because who’s going to give a one-armed vet with PTSD and a TBI a chance to work in their shop with all of the limitations I have? I know the apartment wasn’t my place for long but it was still home. Now my arm’s all fucked up again and no matter how much the doctors reassure me that everything will be fine in the end, I can’t help but worry about the range of movement or strength I’ll end up with. I’m a fucking mess, Sam, and I get that it’s not my fault but that doesn’t entirely help.”

“I still don’t think you’re seeing things completely objectively.” Sam must have seen the flare of anger that those words provoked in Bucky’s expression since a moment later, he quickly backtracked. “Sorry. You’re not my client and I’m not your therapist. What I just said is not for me to say. That was way out of line. What do you need from me? What can I do to help?”

“Shit, Sam, you know you’ve already done more than enough.” Bucky’s anger didn’t quite abate, just decreased enough for him to trust himself to respond without losing his shit. “You’ve been beside me through it all and you’re still here now. I couldn’t ask for anything more. I worry more that I haven’t done enough to help you.” It was clear that Sam was about to argue, which meant that Bucky just plowed right ahead without giving him the chance to say anything. “But if you’re offering… I could use some self-defense practice.”

Sam shook his head before the final words passed through Bucky’s lips. “No, no, and hell no. Barnes, you are recovering. I’m not going to spar with you or take you to the shooting range or anything else. Not until you’re more healed up than you are now.”

Bucky all but ground his teeth in frustration. “But, Sam, I need all of that. I’m out of practice. I’m rusty. I’m still getting used to the changes in my balance and mobility after my injuries - ”

“Which means that training now isn’t exactly going to help given that you’re lacking half of your arm,” Sam cut in.

“ – and I need to be prepared to defend myself, especially now when I’m down to one working arm,” Bucky finished. “I’m not asking for you to put me in a situation where I could get hurt. Just give me something so that I feel prepared to defend myself when something happens.”

Sam stared at Bucky for a long, uncomfortable moment. “Alright. I’ll see what I can figure out. It’s not going to be anything intensive. It’s not going to be outright sparring. It’s going to be little stuff, like using throwing knives, stuff you can do one-handed. Otherwise, it’ll be basics. Disarming. Pressure points. Anything that’s not going to end with you being in a position where you could hurt yourself while we practice. Sound like a deal?”

Bucky extended his hand across the table. “Sounds like a deal to me.”

-~-

“So, you’ve finally invited your friend over to play.” Pepper greeted Tony as she handed him his schedule for the day. “What finally changed your mind?”

“What are you talking about?” Tony asked, spreading his hands. “My intention was always to let Bruce come over and see the lab. I offered him the invitation several weeks ago and he declined. I just asked again and this time he accepted. He’s got some decent high-tech stuff where he’s at now but nothing compared to the shit I’ve got in here. I’m interested to see how he does with some higher quality toys.”

“Mmhmm. That’s why it took you so long to offer him the invitation once more.” Pepper tucked her pen back into the top of her clipboard. “Well, I’m glad to see that he’s coming by today. Are you planning to make this a weekly event? Should I add it to your calendar?”

“Not necessary at this point,” Tony quickly said. “I’m not sure how frequent it’s going to be. That’ll partially on Bruce’s schedule. I’m certainly willing to have him come by more often but I don’t want to add any additional stress on him.”

“And you’re supposedly running a company,” Pepper pointed out, raising an eyebrow. “It seems to me that you should both be pretty busy. Especially with everything that’s been going on since you went public with the twins. Speaking of which, are you prepared for tonight?”

“I’m as prepared as I’m going to be,” Tony muttered. “I don’t know what Talbot’s playing at, requesting a televised mediated interview with me.”

“I’ve been going through any and all documentation I could find to support your case, as well as anything he could blindside you with. My guess is that rather than defend himself directly, he’ll be going after you and your reputation. That’s good, seeing as you’ve had a marvelous track record of making a fool out of yourself that I’m sure he could utilize. Thankfully, the majority of that is already public knowledge. Unless there’s something you haven’t already told me or isn’t available online, I don’t anticipate him having anything that the world doesn’t already know that he could use against you.”

“Nothing that comes to my mind. Anyways, it’s not my reputation I’m worried about,” Tony said with a shrug. “Like you said, the world already knows that I’ve been a bit – or a lot - of a fuck up. I’m more concerned with anything we might not already know involving the twins.”

“Ultimately, he can say what he wants about them, if he has evidence to back it up,” Pepper said. “There’s nothing I’ve been able to find that’s particularly notable or not already known – Pietro’s public meltdown at that gala years ago was broadcasted already and his ‘behavioral problems’ were quite well documented by the media – and I don’t anticipate that’s going to sway anyone’s opinion after the twins’ statements. That said, I’m much more concerned – as I would imagine you are – with keeping them safe and I don’t see how any conversation between you and Talbot is going to put that in jeopardy.” She paused before adding, “I’m much more worried about your safety at this point, Tony.”

Tony brushed off her concern. “Talbot’s way too smart to go after me. Especially not with something this public. He knows that he’d be the prime suspect if anything happened to me now. Which makes that the least of my concerns at this point. He’ll do what he can to drag my name through the mud, I’ll do what I can to do the same to him, and I’ll keep the focus off the twins as much as I can.”

“Tony,” Pepper cautioned. “You have to keep in mind that while there’s plenty of ways he could go after you, I haven’t been able to come up with concrete evidence against him. He’s done a good job keeping everything out of the public eye. All you really have to go on are the pieces of evidence from the twins and that’s not proof, strictly speaking.”

Tony felt his jaw hardening and eyes narrowing. Pepper must have caught that as well, given that she reminded him, “You know that I believe them. They have no reason to lie about experiencing those years of abuse and obviously they’re afraid of Talbot. My job is to be aware of every way that a public statement can be challenged or how the press might spin it. I’m just trying to prepare you for some of these different obstacles and make sure you’re aware of all of the aspects.”

“I’m hearing you loud and clear, Pepper,” Tony said dismissively. “Get the file ready for me, I’ll look over it in the car on the way to the studio for the interview. Right now, I need to get ready for our visitor.”

Right on cue, JARVIS informed him, “Mr. Banner is at the door. Shall I let him inside?”

Relieved to be done with his conversation with Pepper, Tony eagerly said, “Let him up, JARVIS. I’ll meet him at the elevator.”

Despite the recent controversy surrounding Tony, his friendship with Bruce seemed to be growing stronger and for the time being, Tony didn’t view that as a bad thing. Even with everything else going on, he hadn’t been self-destructing – hell, he’d barely touched alcohol since the night of the press conference – and spending time over in Bruce’s lab proved to be the most relaxing part of his day. The comfort increased to the point where Tony decided to push for Bruce to come and visit the lab. He was ready to see what Bruce could do with unlimited financial resources for his equipment.

Tony pushed those thoughts to the side as he made his way to meet Bruce. When the elevator door opened, Bruce’s expression was one of discomfort verging on outright anxiety but the moment his eyes fell on Tony standing there, waiting for him, that expression shifted to an uneasy smile.

“Thank you for inviting me here, Mr. St – I mean, Tony,” he corrected. “This facility is pretty amazing.”

“You haven’t seen the half of it but I’ll be taking you straight to the good stuff,” Tony said. “I’ve got a lot of gadgets.” He led the way down the hallway, trying to engage Bruce in more easy chatter. “How’ve classes been treating you?”

In retrospect, asking a grad student about classes probably wasn’t the best way to make him feel comfortable, but Bruce didn’t hesitate. “It’s been alright. We just made it through midterms, so it’s easier now than it has been the past several weeks. Between the hours of studying, writing reports, and then having to grade on top of that, it was a rough couple of weeks. I’m glad it’s behind me now.”

Tony nodded automatically. “Well, now that you’ve got a bit more downtime you’re more than welcome to spend time over here.”

“I appreciate the offer,” Bruce said, and Tony noted that his response hadn’t included a specific answer as to whether or not he would accept the offer in question. “How, uh, how’ve you been recently? It’s seemed that a lot has been happening for you.”

“You could say that. It’s nothing to worry about, pretty much on par for my daily life. Just a bit more public than usual.”

Tony couldn’t quite put his finger on it but he felt something shift between him and Bruce. After a few moments of silence, Bruce murmured, “I really appreciated what you did for those kids. I mean, I know they’re not kids now but it’s hard when kids… when people… are in that type of situation and don’t have a voice. But you spoke up for them and gave them a way to be able to speak out about what had happened to them and I was really impressed by that.”

Reading between the lines, there was a lot that Tony took from Bruce’s words. What – or at least what Tony assumed - had happened in Bruce’s past was technically none of his business and nothing for him to dig deeper on.

Which led to him simply saying, “I figure there’s a lot of stuff that goes on behind closed doors. I just wanted to give those kids a fighting chance.”

He stopped at the door to his lab, quickly tapping in the code and opening the door. “So, here’s the lab. It’s always open to you. Or sort of always open to you. Since I can’t let you come in here without me but you’re always welcome to give me a call if you ever want to come by. As long as you give me some advanced warning, I can see about rearranging my schedule. If you’re interested in working on something but I don’t currently have the tech here, just talk to me about the project and I can find a way to work some magic.”

Tony could see Bruce’s eyes widen as he took in everything. Tony allowed himself a satisfied grin before continuing. “Now, for the purpose of bills and acclaim and everything, my name’s on all of this shit but JARVIS is the one who really runs the show. He’s been with me in a variety of forms for a long time and he’s what keeps this place operational. C’mon, now, JARVIS, don’t be shy. Say hi to my new buddy Bruce.”

“Hello, Bruce.” JAVIS’ voice came through loud and clear, making Bruce jump. “It’s always nice to see Mr. Stark make new friends. It happens so infrequently.”

Tony rolled his eyes. “In retrospect, I should have made him much less sentient. He’s gotten snarky with age. Still, I haven’t junked him because he does a good job of running the place. Don’t tell him, but I’d be lost without him.”

“Bruce telling me would be unnecessary because I can hear you quite clearly, Mr. Stark,” JARVIS noted. “Should I work on creating accounts for your friend and granting him access?”

“Not yet,” Tony said, raising his hands. “You’re moving way too fast, JARVIS. We don’t even know if he’s going to come back here again. But, yes, if he says that he plans to stop by in the future, we’ll definitely want him to have everything he needs to get rolling here.” He looked to Bruce. “No pressure but what do you think so far?”

“I’m impressed by the technology here already,” Bruce said. “It’s way out of my area of expertise but from the basics I do know, I can only imagine what would be required to create a program like JARVIS.” He slowly moved around the office and paused at one of the tables, pointing at the lower half of Bucky’s prosthetic arm. “That’s one of the prosthetics you created a few years back, isn’t it? I thought you were starting to move away from the metal design?”

“I have been,” Tony confirmed. “I’ve been working towards something that’s made of a lighter material, as well as non-metallic. My goal is to create something that not only has the physical resemblance of the color and texture of human skin but can also provide sensation in the same way as skin. We’ve already been working on neural implants to allow for increased sensation but our aver arching goal is to create something that would be indistinguishable from a flesh-and-blood arm… at least for those who want it.”

“Those who want it?” Bruce echoed. “You mean some people have indicated a preference for the… is outdated an appropriate description?”

Tony nodded. “Yeah, more than you might expect. Not everyone out there wants to ‘hide’ their disability, so to speak, and so I’m trying to find methods of meeting everyone’s needs without the board coming down on me for spending too much money. Anyways, this particular prosthetic actually belongs to a friend of mine. Well, a friend of a friend. He was one of the first recipients of the prosthetic and recently he had a bit of an accident. His arm got damaged and I’ve been doing what I can to piece it back together.”

Bruce leaned in closer to examine the metallic device. “It looks like you’ve been doing more than piecing it back together.”

Tony grinned. “Yeah? What does it look like I’ve been doing?”

Bruce reached for the prosthetic, then paused and glanced at Tony. “May I?” He waited for Tony to nod before carefully turning the arm over and looking at some of the modifications Tony had been toying with. “Well, I can’t exactly figure out where you’re planning on getting the energy source from but unless I’m wrong, it looks like you’re trying to find a way to turn it into… a weapon?”

“You’re not wrong,” Tony agreed. “It’s something I’ve been toying with, although I’m going to have to get permission from that friend to keep those modifications permanent. I was just playing around for the time being.”

“Why build them directly into the arm though?” Bruce inquired. “I mean, I can’t speak for the friend you mentioned – or anyone else who might benefit from this technology – but I know I’d have some concerns if I had a prosthetic that could actively become weaponized at any moment. What is the benefit of that over having some sort of additional device that could be combined with the prosthetic with the same benefit?”

Tony blinked a few times as he considered that response. “That’s a good point. That thought had briefly crossed my mind but I suppose my thought was more on what we could add to this prosthetic since we have the ability to create internal mechanisms in a way that we probably couldn’t – or at least shouldn’t - consider with someone’s flesh-and-blood limbs. It seemed like a good opportunity to enhance the tech and offer another layer of projection but I could also see the point of view of having the tech separate so that they could be added. My only concern would be that having it separate wouldn’t necessarily help if a person were in a situation – an emergency situation, let’s say - that they hadn’t expected to be in and therefore they would not have the tech on them or close enough to utilize. But, yeah, if a person were prepared for a situation where the additional device could be useful, they could bring it along.”

“Plus having it as an addition would mean that you could still have it lock into the arm somehow, which might make it more regularly accessible. Like I said, I wasn’t sure exactly how you expected to power whatever these additions are going to do but I’m guessing you could make it work with both the prosthetic as a whole, as well as on its own.” Bruce offered a faint grin. “Besides, I’m guessing these prosthetics already give people enough trouble when they’re going through metal detectors. Wouldn’t it make it more difficult if they had some sort of armory in their prosthetic that couldn’t be taken out?”

“I honestly hadn’t thought about that,” Tony said, neglecting to add that was probably because he never flew on regular airlines due to the company jet. “See? You’re already helping me out here by giving me a new perspective. I’d definitely appreciate any tips from a fellow physicist on this or any of my work. I try to stay up on the latest research but seeing as you’re currently a grad student, I’m guessing you know more of the cutting edge stuff than I do.”

Bruce raised an eyebrow. “You often are the cutting edge, Tony. But I’ll offer what I can to help out.”

“And you’re more than welcome to use anything in here to help as you move towards your dissertation. I know you’re probably not thinking about that quite yet but I figured I’d put that offer out on the table as well.”

“Thank you,” Bruce said, almost automatically, and then immediately followed it up with, “But why? Am I some sort of pet project of yours? No offense meant but I just like to know what I’m getting into before I make any sort of agreement with anyone.”

Tony nodded. “I actually appreciate that. I’ve been double-crossed by people I trusted before, so I get the instinct. If you want, I can have my lawyer draft a written agreement if you want it in writing. Making it clear that you retain all rights to your work, things like that. That I’m not charging you any sort of fee for using my equipment. Hell, we can throw in a non-disclosure agreement if that’ll make you feel more secure.”

“That’s all wonderful but you didn’t actually answer my question,” Bruce said bluntly, crossing his arms over his chest. “Why are you doing this?”

That gave Tony pause. What were his reasons? Furthermore, what reasons would he actually be willing to share with Bruce?

“It gets lonely working in the lab by myself,” he finally settled on. “It would be nice to have someone around here some of the time to consult with, to chat about ideas with, those sorts of things. I think it would enhance both of our sets of research and our work if we could collaborate. I know you’ve already got that at school but I’ve also seen how loud that lab can get and I figured a quieter place might be helpful for you.”

Bruce stared Tony down in a rather disconcerting way and for the first time Tony found his confidence wavering. Despite all of his assurance that this would be Bruce’s choice, he couldn’t have imagined Bruce turning down the offer but that might have been a bit too cocky of him. Pepper was always telling him that he needed not to assume the direction deals would go in. Tony liked to point out that if you went into a deal with a belief everything would go according to your plan, you were much more likely to receive that outcome.

Then Bruce nodded, and Tony let out the breath he’d been holding in.

“I am going to want that agreement in writing but, yes, I would definitely be open to this arrangement.” He turned his attention back to the remains of Bucky’s prosthetic. “For now though, I’ve got some ideas on how we could improve this design and add some additional tech to it.” He paused before adding, “If that wouldn’t be stepping on your toes, of course.”

“Not at all,” Tony said, sliding off his jacket and draping it over the chair. “JARVIS, put on something rocking but keep the volume low.”

As ‘Hell’s Bells’ started playing in the background, he moved across from Bruce and waited for him to explain his idea.

-~-

Running was one of the few activities in life that gave Pietro a pure and absolute sense of freedom. He’d learned early on that he was fast and that made it easier to run away from things, from specific threats, but he’d never considered that running in and of itself could be beneficial until his gym teacher invited him to try out for the cross-country team. Somehow, parental agreement had been granted and those months spent running outside, over varied terrain, were some of the best of his life.

The hardest thing for him to adapt to was the need to pace himself. Always, it had been a matter of making it from point A to point B in the fastest time possible but now, with a longer run, he’d needed to decrease his speed in order to maintain his endurance, to figure out the best pace for going up or down hills, on uneven paths, and how to do that so that he was still the fastest one out there.

It was then, as he learned how to make these changes, that he started to notice the world around him. To pay attention to the way the breeze felt against his skin, how his chest rose and fell with every breath, how the woods smelled the morning after an evening rain. He caught the sounds of the birds calling to one another, the squirrels moving in the underbrush, and he found that despite the shit storm that was the rest of his life, in those moments when he ran through the woods, he felt the most at peace despite the pounding of his heart in his chest.

Unfortunately, this time around there weren’t any animals to hear and the ground beneath his feet didn’t sink under his weight like the earth did when he ran cross-country. Here, the soles of his shoes tapped out a consistent rhythm on the solid surface and a machine beeped to tell him that his time was almost over and the machine was slowing to let his muscles cool down. He’d barely felt himself straining or pushing through – which, he reminded himself, was exactly what was supposed to happen with this regimented exercise program – and while there had been a few of those perfect, quiet moments as he ran, those were few and far between and nothing like the peace he’d experienced before when he ran outside.

As he shifted from a brisk walk to a slower one, he reached for a towel to wipe the sweat from his face and took a sip from the water bottle. He barely felt as though he’d warmed up but his legs were already shaky. There was a reason he was only allowed to run for a certain, insulting low, amount of time and that was because regardless of how good he felt, his body wasn’t at the level to handle intensive exercise.

There was a knock on the door before it opened and Wanda came inside. “Pietro, you almost ready? The interview starts in five minutes.”

“I’m almost ready.” He stepped off the treadmill and caught her hand as she brought her fingernail to her mouth to chew on a tattered end that definitely hadn’t been there this morning. “But are you still sure we should watch it? At this rate, you won’t have any nails left.”

The two of them had been debating back and forth since Tony mentioned the interview to them a few days back. While there was the benefit in watching of finding out exactly what was said, there was the not so positive element of having to hear whatever shit Talbot would say about them, plus see his face and expression as he talked about them. Last they had spoken, the need to know had outweighed any of the negatives but seeing his sister grow more and more uneasy as the time drew near – not to mention his own anxiety, which had led to him strategically planning his exercise regiment right around the interview – the more he questioned whether this was a poor decision and they could wait for a summary from the others.

“Of course we should watch it, we already decided that we would,” Wanda firmly stated. “We need to know what Talbot says.”

“I could always watch it and tell you afterwards,” he suggested. “That way you wouldn’t have to see it or hear it live.”

“And leave you alone to deal with everything alone?” she asked, a touch of anger in her voice. “No. If we are doing this, we are doing it together. I can handle it.”

He reluctantly nodded his agreement. “Then we’re doing this.”

Pietro kept his hand closed around hers as they walked into the living room. Already, as he approached the door, the background noise shifted from the relative quiet of the gym to the sound of reporters chatting back and forth. Wanda had placed what Pietro hoped were mixed drinks on the coffee table and there was no food; probably a good thing, given that no matter how hungry he felt at the moment thanks to the calories he’d burned off, he knew eating while watching this interview was bound to make him sick.

The two of them had just enough time to get settled – him kicking off his sneakers so that he could tuck his legs underneath himself on the couch and earning him a disgusted look from Wanda – before the interview started and Tony and Jonathan Talbot were introduced. Tony looked perfectly put together in a three-piece suit, with his hair slicked back, which was a bit different than the type of attire the twins usually saw him wearing, but Pietro’s attention barely lingered on him for a moment. Aside from the interviews and television spots filled with desperate pleas they’d seen on the news those months back, right after the police had “lost” the two of them at the station, neither one of them had seen their father since the days before they ran away.

The man who sat down in the chair didn’t look exactly like the one they’d escaped from. Instead of a face twisted with rage, this man smiled as he greeted the interviewer and kept the same twist to his lips as he nodded at Tony, although that smile didn’t quite reach his eyes. Pietro’s stomach knotted as he remembered all of those other times when he’d watched his adoptive father put on a mask in front of the public eye and remove that mask the moment they were in the privacy of their home.

The interviewer – or mediator, Pietro supposed - provided some welcoming words and a brief summary of the situation before inviting Tony to speak.

Tony leaned back in his chair and offered a flippant shrug. “I’m not sure how much I have to say. I pretty much said my piece at the press conference a few weeks back. I’m much more interested in hearing why Jonathan – it’s alright if I call you Jonathan, right? – called this interview today. It came as a rather surprising request.”

That statement gave Talbot the floor and he started off by sighing heavily. “Honestly, Mr. Stark -”

“It’s Dr. Stark, actually.”

Talbot slowly raised an eyebrow in a practiced move but merely corrected, “Dr. Stark, then. I would have preferred to have this conversation in private before you held that press conference. I think it would have saved a lot of regret and perhaps some frustration for both of us.”

“I don’t regret anything I said that day,” Tony said bluntly. “I saw the scars on the twins. I’ve heard their stories. I see no reason to doubt anything they said about their history with you. The fact that they would rather be on the street than return to your home speaks volumes.”

“And that is exactly why I thought it would be important to speak about this on national television, just as you facilitated that broadcast with the twins. I thought it would be important, in light of that, for both you and the public to be informed of the actual details of this situation. This time, unlike the last, with actual evidence to support statements made.” Talbot reached for the briefcase sitting beside his chair and took out several files. “As you are aware, myself and my wife adopted Wanda and Pietro when they were quite young. They had been orphaned in Romania and we wanted to give them the opportunity to come to the United States together, rather than have them separated, as so many siblings unfortunately are during that process. As you can see here, those scars that you spoke of were already on the twins when we adopted them. Each of them received full physicals at the time and I’ve highlighted the sections including those details right in these reports.”

“That fucking liar,” Pietro snarled at the television, his hand curling around one of the glasses and lifting back to throw until Wanda covered his hand with her own and gently guided it back to the table.

Talbot handed the file over to Tony, who flipped through, and then handed it back. “I’m sorry to say this, Jonathan, but this proves nothing. Anything can be written in a document. Documents can be faked. Are there any pictures that would back this up?”

“No, unfortunately those were some of the documents we lost in the fire that claimed my wife’s life,” Talbot said, a familiar iciness entering his tone as he accepted the file back from Tony. “But I can understand your hesitation to believe me after all of the horrible stories you’ve been told by the twins. I can assure – you have my word - that nothing was doctored in this file. You are right to believe that the twins underwent significant abuse; the facts are though that none of that abuse occurred at my hands. It all happened before we ever adopted them.”

“He’s wrong,” Wanda murmured, her voice shaking the slightest bit. “Our parents never raised a hand to us. Life wasn’t good or easy but it was nothing like the life we had with him.”

Talbot pulled out a second file to pass over to Tony. “This might explain some of this discrepancy. It contains two psychological evaluations, one on each of the twins. There was certainly a psychological component to the pre-adoption evaluation that I already showed you but these are a bit more relevant, given that they were conducted when the twins were teenagers.

As Tony slowly flipped through the pages, pausing at a few of the highlighted paragraphs, Talbot continued. “As you can see, particularly with Pietro, there were some quite concerning results. A diagnosis of Conduct Disorder, several cautions made that without proper intervention he could meet criteria for Antisocial Personality Disorder by the age of 18. He was found to be manipulative and untruthful, to make up stories. Is it so surprising that with the type of upbringing he had, he would twist things in this way? That he would place all of his abuse history on me, rather than on his birth parents? I was an easy target because I was the parent that was actually there and, as you will see in that report, results of that evaluation showed significant problems with attachment.
As Tony closed the report, a closed off look on his face while Talbot finished his damning statements. “None of that was Pietro’s fault, of course. He was abused at a young age and then lost his birth parents. We all lost my wife. It was hard for us to cope and, sadly, that was when Pietro’s behavioral problems escalated. He already had this history of making up stories and lying to people in authority and I can see that it has continued even to this day. He conned you, Mr. Stark.”

“Dr. Stark,” Tony corrected one more, and this time Talbot’s jaw tightened.

“Fine then, Dr. Stark. My son conned you, plain and simple.”

The worst part was that this report was one Pietro had seen before. He never should have lost his temper the way he did during that day of testing but, then, he’d already known what would happen with the results, regardless of how he answered the psychologist’s questions. Thinking back on that day, imagining Tony’s reaction to this information, just made his anger bubble closer and closer to the surface. He exhaled slowly and lowered his hands to his side, all but sitting on them in an effort to not put his fist through the table or to throw the nearest object. His entire body shook, almost uncontrollably, and Wanda shifted closer to him but did not reach for him, as though realizing that he wasn’t in a state to be touched. Still, her presence was calming, even if the last thing he felt at this point was calmness.

He waited with bated breath to see how Tony would respond. Tony, for his part, merely raised an eyebrow and quipped, “You know, I’m pretty sure we’d find a similar psychological evaluation on me from around that age. Are you accusing me of being a manipulative, deceitful person as well? People can change. Just because his file said this back then – and once again, that assumes this hasn’t been doctored – doesn’t mean that’s the type of person he is now. Besides, as far as I’m concerned, this is still circumstantial evidence. It’s not definitive proof.”

“What would be definitive proof?” Talbot asked, his voice silken and tone filled with encouragement, as though all he cared about was getting Tony to tell him what needed to be said to ease his mind, as though all he wanted was to smooth things over between the two of them. “After all, you were willing to go public without ‘definitive proof’ and I have to say I wasn’t too thrilled with hearing the accusations that were laid out against me. What I am providing you with now is my side of the story, as well as background information that you have not been privy to before. The fact remains that the twins were abused before they ever came under my care and both were quite emotionally disturbed. We did everything we could for them but clearly it wasn’t enough if they are making up these types of stories about their upbringing.”

Pietro felt bile rise in the back of his throat and swallowed hard to keep it down. What if Tony believed this? Pietro already had no doubt that the public might have already been changing its tune in light of Talbot’s evidence but he cared significantly less about that than what would happen if Tony also bought into it. Maybe they would need to prepare to run. Maybe they would need to actually run.

Tony leaned forward. “You’ve given no evidence to suggest that both are – or were – ‘emotionally disturbed’ as you said. You said that Pietro had Conduct Disorder. How does that impact Wanda?”

“Well, the twins always had a bit of an… unhealthy bond,” Talbot said – and Pietro caught Wanda’s hands curl into fists at that. “They were far closer than myself and my wife ever found appropriate. There was a reason we insisted on separate rooms for them fairly early on. Given that closeness, I do not believe it would have been hard for Pietro to convince his sister of anything he wanted to. You’ve heard of gaslighting, of course, Dr. Stark?” Tony grimly nodded. “I believe that Pietro created this new reality for Wanda. He got her to believe these stories so effectively that she truly believes these events happened.”

“You know, it’s funny that you mentioned gaslighting,” Tony said, almost conversationally. “Because I always had the sense that’s exactly what you did to the twins yourself. In fact, I think that’s what you’re doing right now. Twisting the facts to make them – and the public – doubt what actually happened. It happens in a lot in families in the media spotlight, you know. The type of family that needs to have a separate public face from the private one lends itself to abuse and gaslighting.”

“Well, now, Dr. Stark, it sounds as though you may be projecting some of your own family history into this,” Talbot bluntly stated.

If Pietro hadn’t been looking for it, he wasn’t certain he would’ve seen the shift in Tony’s body language in response to that accusation. It wasn’t anything drastic, just an extra furrow in his forehead, tightness of his jaw, and just the absolute slightest protective hunch to his shoulders.

“I meant no offense to you or your family, of course,” Talbot quickly continued. “I also did not mean to cast aspersions on your parents, God rest their souls. I merely noticed that you seemed to have a bit of a… personal… interest in all of this and I had to wonder if that was a part of it. After all, your own family difficulties were quite publicly documented.”

“I stand by what I’ve said,” Tony said firmly. “I stand by everything said at that press conference as well. You have provided some compelling information but nothing that, as far as I’m concerned, would stand up in a court of law. I have no way of knowing whether those documents were modified and, even if they weren’t, that doesn’t discount the twins’ depiction of events.”

“Then look for the evidence,” Talbot returned. “Look at their medical records. There is absolutely nothing there that would indicate a long-standing history of the abuse, such as they accuse me of. If you’re telling me that you’re willing to take the circumstantial evidence on their side, I do not understand why you dismiss the same, so called ‘circumstantial’ evidence on my side. It seems to me that you are being blinded by emotion, Dr. Stark. Perhaps your own issues with your father…”

“Leave my father and my relationship with him out of this,” Tony snapped, his remaining words coming out in a decidedly icy tone. “When someone comes to me, asking for help, because they’re telling me they were abused, you’re right, my emotions do come into play. I’m inclined to believe them because that’s not something people lie about. Especially not people – teenagers, really – who have been living homeless, on the streets for years. That’s not something that people do unless they have a desperate need to run away.”

Talbot sighed heavily. “You’re right to point that out. That’s the part I hadn’t spoken about yet. You see, right before the twins ran away, I had informed them that I was planning on sending Pietro to a separate boarding school for troubled youth, where he would remain, year round. I was concerned about the influence he had on his sister and with his behaviors spiraling out of control, I did not want him to pull her down with him. It had been something I had thought about for a long, long time, especially as his behavioral problems escalated, but I had not wanted to separate the two of them. I probably should not have told them ahead of time or mentioned that he would likely be unable to come home for holidays but I didn’t think it was fair to do that behind their backs and without family discussion.”

“That motherfucking lying piece of shit,” Pietro exploded, and this time when the glass found its way into his hand, Wanda wasn’t able to stop him before he flung it against the wall to a satisfying explosion of broken glass. “You never once said you were going to do that! You never cared about whether we were together or not or happy or sad or any of that shit!”

Talbot pulled out another folder and said, “In fact, here is the paperwork that I had submitted, if you are looking for something to back up the claim.”

Tony accepted the file and looked it over and for the first time since the conversation started, he didn’t seem to quite know what to say. That was the point where the interviewer cut in and said, “We are almost out of time. I had wanted to give you, Mr. Talbot, a chance to respond to a few questions. The public has been curious as to whether you plan to file charges against Mr. – I mean Dr. - Stark or the twins for the accusations that they laid out against you.”

Talbot shook his head, a pleased smile curving just the edges of his lips, so small that Pietro guessed no one watching would even noticed it. “As I have made it clear this evening, the twins had behavioral problems. I would not want to cause any further difficulties in their lives, beyond what they have already experienced. I would just hope that they might be willing to come home one day, to get the help that they need. As for Dr. Stark, I do believe that he was doing what he thought was best. I cannot fault him for that. He was trying to help my children and I do appreciate his efforts, even when those efforts cast me in an unduly negative light.”

“Then with that, we will bring this interview to a close. Thank you, Dr. Stark and Mr. Talbot, for joining us this evening. We hope that this will give both of you, as well as the public some peace of mind.”

With that, the channel clicked off and shifted to another news segment. Pietro and Wanda sat there, stunned by everything that had just transpired. Wanda had resumed chewing on her nails and, moving almost on autopilot, Pietro pushed himself to his feet and started to carefully pick up the remnants of his broken glass from the carpeted floor. He didn’t realize his hands were shaking quite badly until one of those pieces bit into his palm. Not that he noticed right away – there wasn’t any pain, just the realization a few moments later that he was dripping red liquid all over the white carpet.

For an instant, just an instant, he imagined taking that piece of glass and raking it over his arms because if he didn’t do something to let out the anger filling his entire body, he was going to burn up and explode. There was no way to contain this rage without letting it out somehow and he damn well wasn’t going to do anything that would hurt or frighten his sister.

And that was what stopped him; that, and Wanda’s sudden gasp that brought him back to the present and yanked him away from those thoughts. Before he could assure her that he was fine, she was crossing the room and kneeling down at his side.

“Pietro, you’re bleeding,” she said, as though that wasn’t already perfectly evident to him. Then, before he could respond, she guided him to his feet. “Come on. Let’s get your hand cleaned up.”

“I wasn’t going to…” he found himself saying. Then, “I didn’t mean to.”

Wanda furrowed her brows and cautiously said, “I know, Pietro. You were picking up glass and you cut yourself. It happens.”

She led him over to the sink, turned on the water, and placed his hand under the stream. He flinched the slightest bit as the water entered the cut but didn’t pull away when Wanda held his hand in place. The anger remained, right below the surface and yet he held it back all the more. That wasn’t something to be expressed in front of his sister. Not when her hands were shaking as well. After a few moments, as the water ran clear instead of red, he gently pulled away.

“Grab a band aid. It’s not that bad.”

She hesitated but then disappeared into the downstairs bathroom. Pietro focused on his breathing and tried to keep his thoughts in check. Not to wonder about what the public now thought of them. Not worrying about whether Tony’s impression of the two of them had changed either. Especially not letting his thoughts go in the direction of whether or not Tony might not longer be an ally and might disclose their location to someone else – someone like Talbot – after tonight.

The last one, at the least, he could reliably reassure himself wasn’t a concern. Tony wouldn’t pull that shit on them, not after everything he’d done to help. Still… his gaze lowered to the floor and immediately he found his eyes drawn to the recycling bin filled with empty bottles and cans. Just to be safe, maybe he could pull from some of his old tricks. They’d had to find ways to protect the different places they stayed in while on the streets. Create traps and alarm systems out of whatever they could find. Given everything they had here, there wasn’t any reason they couldn’t do that.

By the time Wanda returned with the first aid kit and started to bandage his finger, he already had a plan in mind.

-~-

The mood – hell, the morale – in the townhouse seemed to be going from bad to worse by the day. While conversations were somewhat more open over dinner – Clint managed to discuss his afternoon meet-up with Barney and some of the information his brother had been able to provide to him – there was still a whole hell of a lot that wasn’t being said or discussed and everyone seemed to be aware of that.

It probably wasn’t helping that the house was more packed than usual, at least in some ways. When he looked at it realistically, it wasn’t – the twins had been replaced with Bucky and Steve – but somehow, maybe with the increased tension and desperation of everyone in the walls, it felt smaller and more claustrophobic. That held true despite the fact that when he came home, Steve and Bucky were sequestered in their room. Sam informed him that Bucky had complained of a migraine and gone upstairs to get some rest and Steve went to stay with him while he slept.

The two hadn’t stumbled down until dinner, with Bucky still rubbing the sleep out of his eyes and barely responsive as he flopped into one of the kitchen chairs. Natasha – whose protective instincts towards Bucky seemed to have resurfaced all the more since the incident at the shop – had spent a few minutes smoothing his hair back and massaging the back of his neck while Clint helped Sam tag-team getting the food on the table. Neither of them, nor Steve, seemed at all bothered by the fact that Natasha’s attention towards Bucky grew by the day. Particularly given that by the time everyone sat down to eat, he looked more alert and less unfocused.

All-in-all, maybe he was being too negative. During and after dinner, while conversation remained stilted, things were relatively comfortable, at least until the interview between Talbot and Stark came on TV. Clint could feel his blood pressure rising and he definitely wasn’t alone in that. Sam’s jaw had tightened to the point that Clint was fairly certain he could hear him grinding his teeth. Natasha’s expression shifted to one of hardened steel. Steve gave up on sitting entirely and started pacing after the first several minutes. Bucky’s foot tapped an uneven pattern on the floor that increased by the moment.

When the interview ended and Natasha hit mute, no one said anything. Bucky took several shaky, deep breaths, as did Sam. Natasha rose to her feet and poured herself a glass of vodka. Steve all but flung himself on the couch beside Bucky – who startled – and started sketching furiously in the sketchbook he always carried with him, at least once Bucky settled back down. Clint, for his part, exhaled raggedly and ran a hand through his hair.

While he’d never expected Talbot to admit to any of the abuse, he hadn’t expected these types of tricks to be pulled out. He didn’t worry too much about what would happen with public opinion since technically speaking, that wasn’t going to impact the twins, at least not where they were at the moment. On the other hand, he had no doubt that the twins were watching and he had no idea how they were handling everything that Talbot had said about them. It might not have mattered but depending on whether those files were accurate and truthful to any degree, that likely dredged up a whole lot of bad memories. It didn’t help that due to Tony’s security system on the twins, no one in the townhouse had any way of contacting them, unless one of them reached out.

“Alright,” Sam spoke up, finally breaking the silence. “That’s over. At least we know where Talbot stands. I think we can also all agree that technically speaking, this doesn’t change anything.”

“Except for the twins,” Clint spat out before he could stop himself. “They’ve been through so much. They didn’t need for their names to be dragged through the mud in front of the entire world.”

“Agreed,” Steve added, a snarl to his voice. “I’m fucking sick of these assholes getting away with everything and the whole blame the victim shit. We all know that Talbot hurt the twins. Hell, most of us have seen the scars. I don’t care what any of those files say and while I never thought I’d say this, I’m with Tony – we don’t know if these files are even real. I wish there was some way to take him down.”

“Which is what we’re all working towards in a variety of ways,” Natasha spoke up. “Because you’re right, Steve, we need hard evidence if we’re going to find a way to take Talbot down. I know Tony didn’t feel as though he had another option except to go live tonight but he should have done more to stall it until he had that evidence in his possession. Because right now, while it may not be strictly true, public perception is likely to show that people trust Talbot more than Stark simply because Talbot could bring the files.”

“So what do we do?” Bucky asked. “Do we just keep sitting here on our asses, watching this unfold? Or are we gonna do something about it?”

“I’m still not signing off on the vigilante justice route,” Sam quickly responded. “It’s not worth it to end up in prison.”

“Why are we back here, having this discussion again?” Clint cut everything off with that question. “We know we’re working towards a solution. We’re not there yet. How about instead of projecting all kind of shit into the future, we focus on something we can actually control?”

“Which is what exactly?” Steve spat out. “Being a college student? Pretending that our lives are normal? Acting as though half of us here haven’t had our lives threatened in the past couple of months?”

By the time Steve finished talking, Clint caught Bucky wincing and rubbing at his temples with his one hand. Natasha noticed as well and moved over to him to resume the earlier massaging of the back of his neck. Steve looked guiltily over at her and then reached over to rest a hand on Bucky’s leg.

“With tensions this high, having this discussion tonight isn’t going to help anyone,” Sam murmured. “We’re all upset. How about we put on a movie? Nothing needs to be figured out tonight. Our conversation is going to be a lot more productive if we’re calmer.”

Steve scowled but didn’t argue – Clint guessed that might have had something to do with the fact that Bucky was still visibly suffering, given that the bit of color he’d gotten back during dinner was pretty much gone and there was a pinched look about his mouth and eyes. With everyone else willing to let it go for the time being, Clint wasn’t about to argue either. He settled on sifting through the movies before tossing on The Princess Bride and then obligingly offered himself as a pillow for Sam, who sprawled out on the couch.

Natasha joined them early on in the movie, once she’d gotten Bucky and Steve settled comfortably on the other sofa. The tension in the room finally dropped to a manageable level. With Sam all-but-dozing more or less in his lap and Natasha curled against his other side, her head nestled on his shoulder, his thoughts about the twins and Talbot’s words drifted away. Not entirely, but enough that he was able to focus on the movie. On the other sofa, Bucky made a few soft, content sounds as Steve threaded his fingers through his hair and Clint could visibly see his muscles relaxing.

That was when the sound of Natasha’s cell phone ringing cut through the movie. Immediately, the atmosphere of the room shifted to one of anxious waiting. There could have been multiple options for callers – Natasha’s father, for instance, or the twins, even if they usually called Clint’s number, or just a classmate – but not one of them in the room believed it was something that simple, given that the relaxed atmosphere fell away entirely.

Natasha disentangled herself from Clint and went over to the counter, where her phone set on the charger. Clint caught her brow furrow when she saw the caller but she didn’t say anything as she answered the phone and raised it to her ear.

“Hello, Pepper. What’s going on?” Immediately her expression darkened in response to whatever Pepper had just said and she turned her back to the living room. “That does sound concerning. Have you already contacted the police? Good. Keep us updated, let me know if you need anything, and hopefully this is just Stark being Stark and nothing to be concerned with.”

By the time she finished talking, Sam and Bucky had both sat up and all eyes were focused on her. Before turning around to face them, she took in a deep breath, then another. Despite whatever she had heard, her expression was tightly controlled and revealed no emotion.

Even as she said, “That was Pepper. Tony Stark never made it home from the interview.”

Chapter Text

Everything came back too slowly. The kind of slowly that made him wonder who had slipped what into his drink because he didn’t recall ever feeling this way after a heavy night of partying, even those nights where he couldn’t remember exactly what had happened and the memory remained fragmented and incomplete when it came back at all. He kept his eyes closed, his breathing slow, as he took in his surroundings. You didn’t grow up with a father like Howard Stark and not learn basic self-defense and what to do in the event of a kidnapping.

The chair he was in was metal, likely bolted onto the floor, although he didn’t test that. Still, no one built something this durable without ensuring that it wouldn’t move. The arms were wide and thick, double the size of his own arms, which were being held down – as were his legs – with what felt like equally enforced metal.

Great, whoever this was meant business.

He focused on sound and boy oh boy was that disconcerting. He could hear something dripping, maddeningly slow, but consistent. That was maybe on the other side of the room or another room over, and that was when he became aware of a sound that turned his blood to ice. Someone breathing, not more than a few feet away from him. His own breath caught in his throat.

“Mr. Stark,” A German accented voice broke the silence. “Glad to see you are no longer feigning unconsciousness.”

Reluctantly, Tony cracked his eyes open, revealing a low-lit room with walls made of cement and heavily soundproofed. The man who sat in front of him had silver hair that didn’t quite fit with his apparent age, unless he was one of those men who went grey early on. He wore a monocle over one eye and while that should have made him look ridiculous, the cold blue eye that shown through just made him look all the more threatening.

Tony swallowed, trying to limit the dryness in his throat before attempting to speak. He needed to look as unphased by this as possible. That was a bit difficult once he noticed an IV in his left arm, pumping what he hoped was just saline and at worst something to help counteract whatever he’d been drugged with.

“For the record, it’s Dr. Stark,” he said, his voice barely shaking. “You seem to have me at a disadvantage. You know who I am but you haven’t told me who you are.”

The man rose to his feet. Tony fought not to flinch as he moved towards him, each step purposeful, tension drawn in every line of his body. Thankfully, the blow Tony anticipated never came. The man simply paced over to him, then paced a few feet away, his body turned enough that Tony could see his hands clenched behind his back. Seeing that was almost worse than a blow would have been. The tension in his hands and forearms spoke of a man who could barely hold his violence in check. That was far too reminiscent of what Tony had seen from his own father.

“You can call me the Baron,” the man said, finally breaking the silence.

Tony’s breath caught in his throat. The Baron. That name again. The same one Wanda had referenced. The figure she was clearly frightened of. Just like the monocle, this tile should have sounded ridiculous but Tony had never heard anything less funny. Especially not when he’d been spending the past several weeks grabbing intel on this man after Wanda’s mention of the name or, more, trying to find that intel. As far as he could tell, the man didn’t exist, or at the least his name had never come up in any connection to Jonathan Talbot’s name. As far as Tony could figure, he was a ghost.

Tony bit his tongue, knowing himself well enough to recognize that if he spoke, he’d say something stupid, just as he’d always done to provoke his father. Unlike his father though, Tony couldn’t calculate how much violence this man might be capable of. That made him nervous. If Wanda was this afraid of him after the hell she and her brother had been through with Talbot, then this was a man to be feared.

When Tony didn’t speak, the man – the Baron – allowed silence for a few moments before saying, “Now, Mr. – oh, I am quite sorry, Dr. Stark - we can do this the easy way or the hard way. Any preference?”

“Jesus Christ, could you be any more stereotypical?” Tony blurted out before he could stop himself. “What do you want here? Money? Information? Weaponry? New tech?”

Say any of those. Just don’t say the twins, please don’t say the twins, he chanted to himself as he awaited the response.

The Baron turned back to him. “I want to know where the twins are.”

Stupid, Tony, you’re so stupid, the inner monologue shifted. He’d assumed that Talbot wouldn’t be impulsive enough to target someone as high status as Tony Stark and he’d bet wrong on that.

For some reason, maybe hysteria, Tony found himself suddenly laughing and unable to stop, even when the Baron shot him a glare and inquired, “What exactly is so funny, Dr. Stark?”

“This entire situation,” Tony said breathlessly. “You. Talbot. All of this. Why the fuck does he want them back so badly? Just because they defied him by running away? Because they went public with their abuse because he wouldn’t stop sending assholes like you after them to hunt them? I mean, Christ, how is any of this worth it? What is this to you? Are you just some professional Nazi? I mean, I know he’s sent the Irish and Russians after ‘em. Aren’t the German mobs just called Nazis?”

“No,” the Baron said, his voice deadly quiet. “I have no mob affiliations. I was the twins’ tutor and I was… I am… fond… of them.”

The pause before and after the word “fond” as well as the intonation made Tony’s skin crawl.

“Alright, so you still haven’t denied the Nazi association and you’re also telling me that you’re just as fucked up as Talbot.” He took a deep breath. “Well, kidnapping me was a mistake. Especially because after tonight – is it even still tonight? Never mind, who fucking cares – this is going to fuck Talbot over. He’s going to be the number one suspect and, besides, I’m not selling out the twins to you or Talbot. I don’t care what you do to me.”

The Baron sighed dramatically and the smirk on his face made Tony think it was all for show. He wasn’t disappointed, he was eager to cause some pain.

“A shame for you, Dr. Stark. You know, I’ve heard those words many times before. No one has ever maintained that stance for long.”

He carefully strode across the room and stopped at a small tray that looked like it belonged in a surgical room, although aside from the scalpel and pliers, nothing else looked particularly like it belonged in medical treatment. As far as Tony was aware, there were few medical procedures that would require something like a drill or hammer. He kept his breathing as even as he could manage, despite the fact that he could feel his heart pounding out of his chest.

The Baron trailed his fingers against each individual item on the tray before turning back to Tony. “Let’s get started.”

-~-

“We need to be calm and rational about this.”

Natasha’s voice held an edge but remained collected. Incidentally, she also seemed to be the only one of them capable of remaining still. Sam and Steve immediately shot up, alternating their pattern of pacing back and forth across the room. Bucky went for his phone, then put it down, then picked it up again, only to put it down once more with a rather truly impressive string of curses.

Clint, for his part, managed to hold himself back from leaping off of the sofa and joining Sam and Steve in their wearing of a hole through the living room floor – or, hell, just booking it out of the townhouse and heading for the streets. That wouldn’t do anyone any good. There would just be a search party for him, too.

Clint tried to consider his options: he could go out and try to get information on his own, he could try to get information from or through his brother, or he could do nothing at all. The last one of those options would be pointless while the first one would probably just get him killed. Again, not particularly helpful. Which just left the middle option.

He stood and Natasha immediately fixed him with a stern look. He quickly explained. “I’m just calling Barn. That’s all. I promise.”

Before she could argue, he headed upstairs and dialed the now familiar number.

“Hey, Clint,” Barney greeted him. “What’s up?”

“Barn, I’m asking you for any and all of that help I’ve asked from you in the past. Tony Stark’s missing. Any word on the street for what might’ve happened to him?”

Barney whistled, long and low. “Tony Stark? You serious, Clint? I didn’t think anyone was stupid enough to make a move on him.”

“Well, it appears someone was. Have you heard anything, Barney, yes or no?”

“I haven’t had my ear to the ground over the past few hours but I hadn’t heard anything in the past couple of days. Obviously, no one’s particularly happy with the fact that he helped the twins go public, making their lives a whole lot harder. But everything I’ve heard made it pretty clear that everyone knew better than to target him directly.”

“And who in particular were you hearing those things from? The Irish? The Russians? The Italians?”

“All of the above and more. Anyone who had a stake in the outcome has been bitching and complaining. I heard Talbot increased the money for the twins but most everything I heard indicated that no one thought the danger was worth it, even with the added perks Talbot was offering. Still…” and there Barney hesitated.

“What, Barn?” Clint questioned.

“There has been talk of different groups trying to sabotage one another. Kind of a, ‘If we can’t take in this haul, no one can.’ Not that any of that helps to explain who might’ve grabbed Stark. I can put my ear to the ground again. See what I can gather, if there are any rumors over who might have him.”

“Thank you,” Clint said gratefully. “I’ll have my phone on me. Just call back when/if you have anything.”

“Will do. I’ll come through in any way I can, Clint.”

Clint hung up. He took a few, deep breaths, trying to sort through the rest of his options. First, he sifted through his phone, finding – as he’d expected – that all of the calls he’d received from the twins had been through blocked numbers. All of Tony’s security on the two of them appeared to be backfiring now when they needed to inform them, to warn them, and they had no way to do that.

But maybe, hopefully, that was jumping too far ahead. Just because Tony was missing didn’t mean anything. Hell, he’d been missing before. Usually because he’d gotten drunk and made some poor life decisions. Even if it were for more concerning reasons, Tony had plenty of other enemies. Enemies who might have just decided that the recent conflict with Talbot was an excellent time for them to act, when all eyes and evidence would point towards someone else as the potential perpetrator.

Maybe.

But the timing seemed far too coincidental for that to be the case.

-~-

Tony tasted blood in his mouth and the back of his throat. Trailing his tongue along the inside of his mouth revealed no missing or broken teeth. The taste was easier to focus on than the needles beneath the fingernails of his left hand or the broken and twisted fingers on his right. He kept reminding himself that nothing had been done to him that he couldn’t fix. That sticking something beneath the fingernails was the world’s oldest torture method because it left minimal long-term evidence. There were many ways to set broken fingers – hell, Steve’s hands had healed just fine, hadn’t they? That didn’t mean he’d have long-term problems.

Facts helped. That took him out of the room. When his mind insisted on bringing him back, he reminded himself that he hadn’t broken yet. He hadn’t broken when the Baron covered his covered his face with a cloth and poured water over it, despite the terror that he would die, even as he carefully recited the facts he knew about waterboarding to himself. He hadn’t broken when the needles first went under his fingernails or when his fingers were broken. He’d kept his mouth shut even when the Baron added some sort of cocktail to the IV in his arm that left him unfocused –holding onto something as solid as the facts proved to be difficult – while also being sharply aware of each and every injury being done to him.

Then something larger than the scalpel appeared in the Baron’s hand, something more akin to a meat cleaver.

“You have been a pleasant surprise, Dr. Stark,” the Baron said. “I had expected you to break a long time ago. You didn’t seem the type to be able to withstand pain. Yet you haven’t told me a single thing yet. I’m almost impressed.”

“Go fuck yourself,” Tony managed to rasp, and was rewarded by a backhand to the face.

“You would do to learn some respect,” the Baron continued. “I’m not quite certain where to go from here. I could take one of your fingers or all of your fingers. Though would that be enough of an incentive for you? Perhaps a hand would raise the stakes an adequate amount. I would hate for you to go into shock, perhaps bleed out. I’m not in the business of killing, after all, but your vitals have been rather erratic.”

Tony tried not to let his mind follow those words too far. His body had already been through a lot. Could it already have been too much or nearly to that point? If the Baron removed his hand, would the blood loss take him over the edge? He tried to go through the information he knew regarding anatomy and the veins and arteries that attached at the wrist and exactly what would happen if all of those were severed at once. But his thoughts refused to cooperate. That was enough for his heart to shudder frantically and skip several beats.

The blade lifted. Before he could stop himself, he choked out, “Please.”

The blade dropped but stopped several inches above his wrist. The Baron looked at him expectantly. Tony’s resolution faltered, despite his best attempts to remind himself why he’d sworn to keep his mouth shut. He couldn’t do this to the twins. He tried to hold onto that but he could only remember how it felt to drown, of the pain in his fingers, of the arteries that would be severed if he didn’t give in, and how quickly he would bleed out if that happened.

Before he could stop himself, the address spilled from his lips, once, twice, and then came the security codes – Jesus, what kind of a monster was he? He could have lied. He should have given all of the wrong information that would trap the Baron, or whichever team the Baron sent in, and keep them secure until the police arrived. He could have kept the kids safe if he’d just fucking lied but he couldn’t take his eyes away from the blade and how close it was to his skin. He tried to slow his thoughts, his words, anything that would let him think. Lying shouldn’t be hard. He’d had plenty of practice with it over the years, but now none of those talents were at play. He’d started with a simple disclosure, thinking that he could stop after he provided the address, but fear wasn’t letting him censor himself.

His stomach turned over at the weight of what he’d done. The room swam in and out of focus in a way that made him dangerously concerned that his body had already been taxed too far.

The Baron smiled and slowly lifted the blade up from Tony’s arm. “Thank you for your cooperation, Dr. Stark.”

Then the blade came down.

Chapter Text

In the end, it was Pietro’s trip line around the perimeter that gave them the warning they needed.

The alarm, such as it was – a shake of coke cans by the bed – woke Wanda – well, honestly both of them - with a start. Pietro quickly covered her mouth with his hand, as though afraid she would make a sound. He held up one finger, indicating she should remain quiet, and she nodded.

The two of them made it out of bed, padding through the room on bare feet. Pietro paused in front of the television, quickly pulling up the screen to check the security footage. Two black cars with tinted windows moved up the driveway. Their pace was determined and focused but careful and cautious – just slowly enough that the two of them still had a chance. Pietro turned the television off and insisted on taking point in front of Wanda, despite her attempts to step in front of him. He gently but firmly remained in front of her, then leaned out into the hallway and checked before moving forward towards the stairs.

In the darkness, the house felt different; heavy, smothering. The moonlight seemed fractured through the windows. Wanda wished for pure black, rather than this half-light and frightening shadows. Every sound was a warning – could that be broken glass tinkling against the floor or the creak of a door being forced open? – and soon she couldn’t distinguish between false sounds her mind created and actual threat. She kept reminding herself that no one could have moved that fast, given where the cars had last been.

Pietro paused long enough to turn back to Wanda to mouth, “The panic room” and she nodded her understanding. As they moved down the hallway and started down the stairs, she tried to remember the quickest path there. She thought it might involve turning left and down the hallway but she wasn’t quite certain. It was hard to think with the blood pounding in her ears. All of her energy was going towards controlling her breathing to prevent herself from audibly gasping or panting as they made their way downstairs.

They had a head start. That was the important thing. No matter what tricks her ears played on her, they had been alerted. With Tony’s extensive security system, there was no way they wouldn’t reach the panic room in time. Either the intruders’ attempts to break through the security would set off alarms or it would delay them. Regardless, it would give them a few more precious minutes.

As they turned at the bottom of the stairs, she realized that there were few windows in the hallways leading up to the panic room. They had to move through complete darkness. She reached forward, grasping at a handful of her brother’s shirt, in an effort not to lose him, no matter how unlikely that would be. Instead of focusing on the hallway enveloping them, she tried counting each footstep. One, two, three – and she tried to remember exactly how many steps it took to reach the next turn, and then how many steps from there it would take to reach the panic room.

The counting gave her something to focus on and that helped, truly helped, because without it, she would have frozen when she first heard the footsteps. Instead, she shifted to counting how many pairs of footsteps were moving towards them. No, not towards them. Towards the stairs. Towards the rooms. Spreading out to most quickly cover the area. She felt Pietro stiffen and quicken his steps and she struggled to match her pace to his because she wasn’t about to lose him in the darkness. Each floorboard threatened to creak, every footstep sounding far too loud to her ears, but there was no other choice except to keep moving forward.

Then, without any warning, her brother stopped moving and pushed her in front of him. Caught unprepared, she stumbled, nearly falling, and barely managed to catch herself.

Pietro hissed, “Put in the code, Wanda” and suddenly she couldn’t seem to recall those series of numbers Tony had repeated to them more than once.

She typed in the code once and hit enter, only to receive an error messaging indicating some part of it was incorrect. She took in a deep breath to calm herself, trying to figure out where she went wrong, and that was when she heard the horrifying sound of multiple sets of footsteps accurately approaching.

That came only a moment before lights were trained on them and several voices yelled at them to stop.

“Keep trying, you can do it,” Pietro whispered in her ear, as he leaned closer to shield her. Somehow, someway, she forced herself not to listen to anything and focus solely on putting in the numbers once more. There were only so many attempts allowed. If she messed up enough times, the two of them would be completely out of luck.

She checked, then double-checked the number before hitting enter. In the same moment it flashed green, there was the sickening sound of a gun firing. Pietro gasped and stumbled against her back. She spun around, more than ready to see the worst for the second time – her brother choking on his own blood, his shirt soaked with it.

Her heart seized in her chest, even as realization washed over her. There was no immediate injury but Pietro swayed on his feet, barely standing. A moment after that, her eyes fell on the dart sticking out of his thigh and the pieces fell together.

They weren’t targeted to be killed. They were going to be taken back to their father.

She almost wished these men had been sent to kill them.

Behind her, the door to the panic room and opened. Wanda turned, grabbing her brother and dragging him back, hoping against hope that if she kept him in front of her as a shield the men wouldn’t fire again because they wouldn’t want to give him too high of a dose. Already, Pietro slumped as nearly dead weight, his legs barely offering any help as she forced him to take a step, then another, as the men with the tranquilizer guns yelled for her to stop.

A step. Then another. Then one more.

And as the men rushed forward, Wanda shoved her brother inside.

Arms grabbed her from behind and she reacted without thinking. She kicked both her feet against the door, letting whoever was holding her take her weight, and heard the satisfying click of the panic room door locking as she slammed it shut. Her heart hammered in her chest as the full weight of everything came down on her; her last chance to escape was gone.

But Pietro was safe. They weren’t going to take him. Talbot wasn’t going to take him.

“What’s the code?” the man holding her snarled.

“I… I don’t know. The one to open it once it’s been activated is different. Stark said that it changed from the outside every time the door locked.”

“What’s the code?” The man twister her arm behind her back roughly enough that Wanda couldn’t help crying out. “Tell me now, unless you want your brother to die. Those drugs shut down a person’s system and the reaction needs to be monitored. If we leave him in there, he’ll be dead within an hour or less.”

Her heart seized in her throat and she almost blurted out the code. Then, the reminder of the last time Talbot had beat her brother – and how he looked afterwards, covered in bandages, with tubes coming out of him – came into her head. She swallowed the numbers back. Maybe the drugs would kill her brother. But better he die here than suffer for as long as Talbot would put him through hell.

“I don’t know,” she insisted, not bothering to fight the tears now streaming down her face. “I swear, I don’t know!”

“We have the girl,” another one of the men said. “That’s enough. We can’t wait any longer. We don’t know what alarms or calls to the police using the panic room might have triggered.”

“Yeah,” one of the others said. “Stark didn’t warn us about that.”

Whatever vague relief Wanda felt when she realized her brother would be kept out of their father’s grasp, at least for the time being, dissipated with those words.

“He wouldn’t do that!” she cried out before she could stop herself. “He wouldn’t have warned you!”

The man holding her sighed. “You never should have trusted a Stark. Everyone’s got a price.”

Before she could struggle, a pair of thick metal cuffs were hooked to her wrists and a hood was shoved over her head. She was dimly aware of moving forward – of being carried when she refused to walk on her own – and then they were outside, the night air freezing against her skin, and her brother left behind.

-~-

When Steve’s phone rang, flashing Pepper’s number, he wasn’t even surprised. He glanced at Bucky, who had resorted to pacing around the house like a trapped animal, and answered.

“Hey, Pepper. Any news?”

There was a beat of silence before Pepper spoke, more uneasy than he’d ever heard her sound before. “No news on Tony but I just received a text message with an address and a series of numbers.”

“You think it’s from the people who took Tony?” Steve asked. “Why the hell would they send you that? Is it a trap? Was the number a ransom amount? Something like that?”

“No, no, it’s not that,” Pepper said hurriedly. “It’s a bit more complicated than that, I think. Tony told me there was a panic room in the house where the twins are being kept and if it were ever activated, I would be sent a text message with the address, plus the code. He made me sure I knew the phone number that the message would be sent from and… and, well, it all lines up.”

“And what exactly did Tony tell you to do if you received this text?” Steve asked, shoving back the flash of anger that sparked at the thought of Tony making things more complicated. Not now. Now was not the time for that.

“All he ever said was to let him know. I guess it was a fail safe to have me on the message, even though this is Tony and he obviously would have also made sure the message would be sent to himself – but maybe he never considered the possibility that he might not be around. That’s why I’m calling you. Because Tony’s always trusted you and I don’t see any other option: I’m going to have to go to this address and I don’t want to go alone. Not with everything that’s going on.”

“Or you could call the cops,” Steve pointed out, not because he honestly thought that would be a good option but because someone had to suggest it.

“You know that’s not going to happen,” Pepper firmly stated. “I’m going and I’d rather have you with me.”

“Okay, okay, of course I can go with you,” Steve agreed, ignoring the questioning look that Bucky sent his way. “This isn’t something to do on your own.”

“Steve…” There was a moment of hesitation before she asked, “Do you honestly think I should call the police instead of going myself?”

“Definitely not,” Steve said. “That wasn’t a good idea, just something I had to suggest. We don’t know who we can trust in the police force. I mean, I guess I could try to get ahold of Detective Coulson but I doubt he’d be able to come with us immediately. No, we should go on our own. Tony trusts you and you trust me. It makes sense for us to go and see what’s happened.”

“Alright,” Pepper said, her voice no longer hesitant but now cool and collected. “I’ll be over as soon as possible. Where should I meet you?”

“I’m over at Natasha’s still. But Pepper… are you sure you shouldn’t just stay put? In case something happens with Tony and you’re needed here? You could just forward the text to me and let me and Buck handle it.”

“No. Tony wanted me to be alerted for a reason. I’m going with you,” Pepper said firmly.

“Alright. Then we’ll be ready to go when you arrive.”

“See you soon, Steve.” With that, she hung up, and Steve turned to meet Bucky’s wary, watching gaze.

“Pepper received an address. She’s pretty sure it’s where the twins are. Seems like they must have used the panic room, which suggests something went down. She asked me to go with her. I figured you’d come along as well.”

“You’re damn right about that,” Bucky agreed. “I’m not letting the two of you go alone.”

“I figured you’d say that. She’ll be here soon.”

Bucky nodded curtly and headed straight for the stairs. Steve took the opportunity to try Tony’s number, despite the fact that it continued to go straight to voicemail. Even if it was pointless, it was something to do, other than wait and wonder and feel goddamn helpless. It irritated him that in this immediate moment, there was nothing he could do except wait for Pepper’s arrival.

Already, Clint, Natasha, and Sam were trying to gather information on Tony’s whereabouts. There was no point in sitting around and waiting for them to return. For an instant, just an instant, he considered texting or calling one of them, just to let them know what they were doing but the thought that Natasha might stop them or intervene made his fingers still on the phone. They were already occupied and letting them find the information on Tony was the important thing. In the meantime, Steve, Bucky, and Pepper could help the twins and keep them safe.

It was better than sitting around and waiting. That was something Steve absolutely refused to do from here on out. He’d spent too much time over the past several months waiting to see what would happen and dealing with the aftermath. Not anymore.

Footsteps on the stairs alerted Steve to Bucky’s return, as he came into view, now clad in all black, from his pair of jeans to his sweatshirt. He held a gun in his right hand.

Steve’s gaze fell heavily on the gun and he couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow, even though he didn’t audibly question it.

Bucky bristled. “What? I can still shoot with one hand.”

“I have no doubt,” Steve assured him. “I was just… not expecting you to have that. But I guess it’s good we’re going in prepared. Any chance you have one for me?”

“Last time I checked, you don’t know how to use a gun,” Bucky pointed out, although his tone was gentle. “Giving an untrained person a loaded weapon is asking for one of us to get shot.”

While there was logic to the statement, it still set Steve’s teeth on edge. He’d known from the start this was going to be the response but it was infuriating to once again be told that he couldn’t do something.

“What about something else then?” he couldn’t help but ask. “Something like a knife? It seems pointless for only one of us to be armed, especially given the situation we might be going into.”

Bucky studied him for a moment before nodding curtly and heading back upstairs. This time when he returned, he carried a small metal object in his right hand. He handed the object over to Steve and then showed him which area to touch to spring the blade open. Steve practiced a few times on his own before determining he felt comfortable with the knife.

“So, what do we do now?” Bucky asked.

“We wait for Pepper to arrive. What else can we do?”

-~-

“Are you sure we should be here?” Sam asked warily as the two of them crossed the motel parking lot and headed towards the door to Barney’s rented room.

“What other choice do we have?” A tinge of frustration edged into Clint’s voice. “We’re not talking about this over the phone and we don’t have any other leads.”

He knocked on the door and a few moments later, Barney opened it to reveal a room in its usual disarray. The only difference was that this time, in addition to the various fast food containers, empty bottles, and assorted weaponry visible, there was also an uncomfortably familiar bow propped up against the wall with an equally familiar quiver filled with arrows beside it. Clint froze without meaning to as his eyes locked on the sight. The room around him fell away. All he could hear were incomprehensible shouting and the thudding of boots against his body.

Sam’s voice – saying his name loudly and sharply – brought him back to the present. He sucked in a deep, ragged breath before pulling his eyes away from the bow and onto his brother. While Clint had checked out for the moment, Barney had sprawled out on the bed with a fresh bottle of beer in his hand. Clint shifted his attention over to Sam, whose eyes were narrowed and filled with worry, and focused on taking in a normal deep breath and hoping against hope his heart would stop pounding out of his chest.

“You look like you could use a drink yourself,” Barney commented. “There should be a couple left in the mini-fridge.”

Against his better judgment, Clint accepted the offer, taking one of the ice-cold bottles out and easily popping off the top with a quick, practiced move and the assistance of the bureau’s edge. It wasn’t as though another scratch was going to make a noticeable difference. The chill of the beer moving down his throat calmed him all the more and a few gulps – and half a bottle into the drink – and he couldn’t even remember why his heart had been trying to punch its way through his ribcage.

Sam cleared his throat rather pointedly when neither Clint nor Barney had spoken in a few moments. Clint did his best to ignore the worried, somewhat irritated look on Sam’s face in response to the drinking. Maybe it was a mistake but he’d be more clearheaded with a little alcohol in his system.

“You gonna introduce your friend, Clint?” Barney asked.

“This is Sam,” Clint offered, before considering that maybe it would have been a better idea to give his brother a fake name. “He’s a friend. I trust him implicitly.”

“Well, that’s good, I’m always glad to hear you have that level of trust in someone who you brought to the room where I’m technically hiding out.” Barney extended his hand. “Anyways, I’m Barney. Clint’s brother.”

“Yeah, I gathered that much.” Sam somewhat reluctantly accepted the offered hand. “Why did you call us?”

“For starters, I called my brother,” Barney pointed out. “And I called him because he’d asked me to see if I could find out anything regarding who has Stark.”

“And have you?” Clint asked. “Or did you just call me over here to shoot the shit and drink a beer?”

“I called you over because the last thing I wanted was for you to be on the streets tonight, trying to find intel on your own. I can tell you that it’s not the Russians, the Irish, or the Italians, because right now each of those groups is accusing the other one and a whole lot of fighting has broken out. Everyone’s pointing fingers and accusing everyone else and then accusing them of lying when they deny being involved. ‘course, there’s also a sense of relief because none of them wanted to be the one gunning for someone as big as Tony Stark. I don’t know exactly what it is about the man but given that there have been quite a few successful assassinations by the higher ups in these organizations, the fact that they’re afraid of making a move on him speaks volumes.”

Clint cut in at that point. “Alright, so if it’s not the Russians or the Irish, then who? The Italians, coming in from Jersey? Who else is on the playing board?” When Barney still didn’t offer up the information in-between the time it took Clint to take a breath before speaking again, he pressed on. “I need something and I need it now.”

“It’s no one on the street,” Barney slowly said. “It’s someone new. Someone that even the others are afraid of.”

“Given that time is of the essence, could you be a little more direct?” Sam spoke up. “Do you have a name or are you just gonna keep stringing us along?”

Barney was quiet for a long moment. “Why should I tell you? I still don’t know this guy you’ve got with you, Clint. I’ve already said more than enough. For fuck’s sake, for all I know he’s a cop. I already know you’ve gotten involved with them. Maybe this is all a set-up and you’ve finally come to take your revenge on me by getting me arrested.”

Clint downed the rest of his beer before running a hand through his hair. “Seriously, Barney, now is not the time. I’m not here to set you up. That’s not the type of thing that I do. There’s nothing in it for me to do that. Sam’s a friend. That’s all.”

“Seriously, I’m probably the most trustworthy person in the room,” Sam commented, crossing his arms over his chest. “The only thing I care about here is making sure no one else gets hurt. So give us something or we’ll go hunt down the information ourselves. And I do recall you saying that you didn’t want Clint out on the street.”

Barney let out an amused laugh at that. “Seems like a pointless threat, depending on whether Clint’s self preservation is actually working. After all, Clint might know his way around the streets but I don’t get the sense you do.”

“There’s a lot you don’t know about me,” Sam said, and there his voice turned the slightest bit cold. “If you think the streets of DC scare me, you’re not taking into account that I’ve seen a whole lot worse overseas than anything that could happen in this country.”

Barney’s look contained some grudging respect in response to that statement. “Well then. Maybe I am underestimating you.” He took in a deep breath and slowly let it out. “I don’t have much. Just a name. A name I haven’t been able to pull anything up with. If I tell you this, Clint, I don’t want you doing something stupid. You think the Russians and Irish and Italians are a threat? From everything I’m hearing, they’re nothing compared to this man.”

“Just spit it out, Barn,” Clint said, and instead of the adrenaline he expected to surge in response to everything his brother had just said to him, out of the fact that his brother actually looked worried and perhaps even frightened about disclosing this information, all he felt was exhaustion.

“The Baron,” Barney said, after a long enough moment of silence that Clint had wondered if he’d actually disclose this information.

Clint exchanged a look with Sam, who looked as confused by the title as Clint himself felt.

“The… Baron? What am I supposed to do with that? Find a man with that title? Who the fuck even uses titles like that these days?”

“Definitely no one in America, unless it’s a code name,” Sam said.

“I don’t have any more than that to offer you,” Barney replied. “Like I said, I couldn’t find anything on him. No one will speak about him. But the others are definitely afraid.”

“Thank you,” Clint said, his tone genuine. “I know it’s not much but it’s still something to go on.”

Barney looked troubled. “Just be careful, alright?”

“I appreciate the brotherly concern but now isn’t the time to go all protective on me. I’ve been dealing with this shit on my own for long enough. I can handle it now.”

“I hope you can,” Barney murmured. “And even if I can’t trust you on that, I think your friend isn’t going to let you run off with a half-cocked plan of some sort.”

“You’ve got that right,” Sam agreed. “I probably don’t have to say this but I’m gonna – I hope Clint’s trust in you isn’t misplaced and that if you find out anything else, you’ll let us know.”

“What other choice do I have?” Barney said with a shrug. “That’s what brothers do, right?”

“Right,” Clint agreed, taking a step back towards the door. “That’s what brothers do. Hopefully you won’t forget again that that’s what we are.”

He didn’t give Barney a chance to respond, just followed Sam out the door. The name wasn’t much to go on but at least it was something. At this point, something was better than nothing. It wasn’t until he settled himself in the passenger’s side of the car that his gaze drifted back to the motel and immediately was drawn to the door of his brother’s room, where Barney stood, watching as Sam backed the car out of the spot.

Clint tried not to examine the look on his brother’s face. The last thing he needed to consider was that Barney actually worried about him and his well-being. With everything else going on, he didn’t have the energy to examine what that might mean.

-~-

The silence in the car crawled over his skin and set the last of Steve’s nerves on edge. Aside from an automatic, emotionless greeting from Pepper, there had barely been a word exchanged between the three of them. Pepper already had the address plugged into the GPS and Steve watched out the window as the city slipped away and the highway took them across state lines.

Bucky claimed shotgun and sat quietly in the front seat, tapping his fingers against the doorframe beside him. He only broke the silence to ask Pepper for the address, which he followed up by saying that he would send it to Natasha shortly before their arrival, just in case something happened. Then he lapsed into silence once more. Something about how his eyes shifted to the window and his breathing became more controlled and rhythmic made Steve marvel at how easily Bucky was able to fall back into the same routine he must have during his time in the military.

There was something far too practiced and preparative about these changes; there was a spark in Bucky’s eyes that didn’t match any look Steve had seen before. Bucky might have been anxious – must have been anxious, if Steve’s own feelings were anything to go by – but the adrenaline clearly overpowered any sense of fear. He might have been operating with only one arm but Steve could easily see that there was a part of him that thrived off the danger they might be about to face.

As the car took an exit and moved off of the highway, Steve, for his part, only felt restlessness building up inside of him. Each minute seemed to last an hour and didn’t seem to be ticking down quickly enough to match the miles unfolding beneath the car’s wheels. The weight of the switchblade in his pocket brought some comfort but nothing would allow him to actually feel prepared to handle this situation. Not when the people they might be facing could have any variety of weapons and between the three of them, they had a knife and a gun.

Outside the window, the land became more rural, unfolding with rows of trees and patches of land that would be green in the coming months. The space between the houses increased as well, becoming more and more spread out. The houses varied from one to the next, with a tiny cottage in one yard to a sprawling McMansion in the next. Some had basic wooden fences to keep in livestock – it seemed to primarily be horses, given the jumps set up in the fields – and others had stone walls that met together in an impressively secure, locked gate, looking less like a house and more like a fortress.

Then the smaller houses became fewer and fewer, replaced by longer spaces between the buildings and increasingly intricate huge, gated entryways. The houses, previously visible in the distance beyond the security systems, now slipped away into darkness, with driveways reaching as far as the eye could see without any clear housing beyond it. Steve idly wondered how much these houses might go for – probably double or triple the price of his student loan debt, at the least – and quickly determined that it was a number he could not begin to comprehend.

Steve wasn’t even surprised when Pepper slowed and turned into one of the longer driveways. By his estimates, they had driven at least several minutes without seeing another house before reaching this one. She rolled down the window and tapped a code into the keyboard at the gate. The gate obligingly opened and Pepper continued on her way down the drive.

Steve’s breath caught in his throat as the full reality of the situation fell over him; they were really doing this, they were going in there without any backup, and he was fine with that, despite the pounding of his heart in his chest. After all of the shit the twins had gone through – hell, given the hell Tony must be going through in this moment, if he was even still alive, and Steve wasn’t about to let his thoughts go any further in that direction – he was ready for a fight.

In the front seat, Bucky sat up straighter, carefully scanning the area as they approached the house. Given that he remained quiet, Steve had to assume that he saw nothing out of the ordinary there.

At least that was his thought until Bucky tensed and said, “There are two sets of recent tire tracks and the front door is open.” Steve couldn’t imagine how Bucky could see that clearly, despite the darkness, but he didn’t doubt him or his words for a second.

Steve reached for the door handle, ready to jump out, until Pepper’s voice stopped him. “Wait. Let’s get closer and park.”

“Agreed,” Bucky said. “And once we get there, I need you both stay back until I assess the situation.”

“I’m not letting you go in alone,” Steve quickly said.

“Neither am I,” Pepper said.

Bucky’s eyes narrowed. “Fine. But the two of you are going to follow all of my orders and stay behind me the entire time.”

Both Steve and Pepper – grudgingly in Steve’s case - murmured their agreement as Pepper eased the car to a stop. The silence felt heavier without the background noise of the engine and GPS to mask it. Now there was nothing, save for their breathing – slow and steady from Bucky, more ragged from both Steve and Pepper. The creak of Bucky opening the door all but sent Steve’s heart into overdrive, as though it were trying to beat it’s way out of his chest, and his throat tightened and closed. For an instant, panic flashed through his system; he could see his inhaler clearly back in the medicine cabinet at Natasha’s cabinet. If he had an asthma attack – which seemed to be more of a possibility when his throat seemed to be closing up – he would be, in a word, fucked.

Instead of focusing on that, he kept his gaze locked on Bucky, who swung his legs out of the car and rose to his feet. In almost the same motion, Steve caught a flash of movement, followed by a distinctive click, which could only be Bucky easing back the safety on the gun. Ignoring his own ragged breathing, Steve scrambled after him. Pepper pocketed the keys and following behind. The only pause in movement came from Pepper starting to hand over a flashlight to Bucky before pausing and passing it to Steve instead. Bucky motioned for them to stay behind him, as though they might have already forgotten his order, and then turned his full attention to the house in front of them.

Just as Bucky had said, the front door was open, the house in darkness beyond. Bucky approached cautiously, pausing right in the doorway, and stood there listening intently After several drawn out seconds, he nodded and moved forward. Steve tried to mimic his movements, noticing how Bucky kept his back to the wall at all times. What Steve couldn’t figure out was how Bucky moved soundlessly through the house, when Steve’s own feet – not to mention Pepper’s – seemed to find every bit of creaking wood. When Bucky gave the signal, Steve turned on the flashlights, carefully directing it around Bucky and panning it from side to side depending on the direction Bucky looked in.

The house stayed unnervingly quiet, aside from the ticking of the clocks spread throughout. Nothing seemed to be out of place or disturbed; there were certainly no signs of a struggle. As they moved from one room to another, Steve half-expected a figure to jump out at them from the darkness. With no streetlights around, it wasn’t particularly easy to see even a foot in front of them without a direct beam from the flashlight. His thoughts drifted to images from the final scene in Silence of the Lambs as he considered the possibility that the people who had done this just might have night vision and be waiting to make their move as soon as the three of them were lulled into a false sense of security.

Steve and Pepper stayed close behind as they reached the stairs, having exhausted the first floor and the basement, and moved now from bedroom to bedroom – the majority of which looked unlived in, only one of which where the flashlight lit up bedding clearly disturbed and mussed, a sign that it was the twins’ room. This was the first room where things looked somewhat out of place, as there were cans and bottles strung up, attached to what appeared to be fishing line, given that Steve almost tripped over one of the lines because he couldn’t see it. The majority of the lines, however, appeared to go somewhere outside the window. That brought up some hope for Steve; if the twins had advanced warning, maybe they managed to get themselves into safety.

Bucky took particular care in this room, checking under the beds and anywhere a person could have attempted to hide. Everything about Bucky seemed different; this was a far cry from the Bucky who had been sleeping fitfully this afternoon in the attempt to stave off and stop a migraine. This Bucky moved confidently and fluidly, with no hesitation, and no sign of pain or discomfort, even still missing half of his left arm.

After reaching the last bedroom, Bucky lowered his gun. “The house is clear. Where did you say the panic room was, Pepper?”

“It’s down on the first floor. I think I saw it as we were moving through.”

She turned to lead the way, then paused and looked to Bucky for confirmation. He nodded his agreement to this plan and took up the rear in order to let Steve continued to guide the way with the flashlight. Navigating the stairs still felt unnerving, even knowing there was no one in the house with them. Each step seemed to bow under their weight, the wood creaking ominously.

The panic room itself was made of solid metal, with an intricate security setup. Pepper took out her phone, then motioned for Steve to direct the flashlight onto the keypad, and tapped in several numbers. The door unlocked with a click and swung open. Steve felt his heart leap into his throat when the flashlight fell on the motionless form on the floor. Pepper gasped and Steve saw her fingers shift towards the emergency call button on her phone.

Bucky, who must have tucked the gun into the waist of his jeans – which Steve seemed to recall wasn’t exactly protocol for securing weapons – reached out to stop her and shook his head. Then, without missing a beat, he knelt down beside Pietro and softly but sharply said his name as he reached a hand towards his shoulder. No, Steve realized, not his shoulder but his throat. The thought that Bucky must be checking for a pulse turned Steve’s blood to ice.

Steve recoiled when, unexpectedly, Pietro snarled, “No!” and lunged at Bucky. Thankfully Bucky’s reflexes were intact, not to mention that Pietro’s movements seemed off and jerky. It didn’t take much for Bucky to twist enough that Pietro’s wild blow caught his right shoulder instead of his face or his still healing left shoulder.

Before Bucky could react or respond, Pietro scrambled away from him and slurred out, “Get away from me.” Or at least that was what Steve thought he said; it was a bit hard to make out the words clearly.

“Easy, kid,” Bucky said, his voice gentle but somehow still sharp and commanding. “It’s just me. I’m not here to hurt you.” The unexpected blow from Pietro must have hurt but his voice betrayed none of that. “It’s just me. It’s Bucky.”

“Bucky?” Pietro echoed hollowly. “What… how… where… where is Wanda? Where is my sister?”

Steve panned the flashlight around the panic room as though he might have somehow missed seeing Wanda there the first time. While the room was large – clearly designed to keep people there in comfort for however long it might take for safety to return – there was nowhere Wanda could have been hiding. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught Bucky’s hand reach out to grab something, which was quickly placed in his pocket.

“They… did they take her?” Pietro slurred out. “Is she gone?”

Pepper knelt down beside Pietro, careful to keep her distance. “Pietro, Wanda’s not here. We don’t know where she is but we’re going to do everything we can to find her. In order to do that, we need to get out of here. Can you walk?”

“I… yes… yeah, I can walk,” Pietro said slowly, although he made no attempt to move.

“Pietro, is it alright if I put my hand on your arm? I’m not going to hurt you, I just want to help you up. Is that okay?”

Pietro looked a bit wary but merely said, “Yeah, that’s fine” in a far too resigned tone.

In the end, it took both Pepper and Steve to help Pietro stand, one of them tucked under each arm. Pietro’s legs barely supported his weight, looking almost boneless, but with their support, he managed to take one shaky step after another. Steve murmured encouragement to him, trying not to grimace in response to carrying half of Pietro’s deadweight. Out of the corner of his eyes, he caught that Bucky remained on high alert and continued to scan the area for threats, even if that was made a bit more difficult given that Steve could no longer man the flashlight and carry Pietro at the same time. Bucky, of course, couldn’t do much either, given that he needed to carry the gun in his one hand. Thankfully their eyes had adjusted enough that they were able to navigate the house and get Pietro out to the car and into the backseat with Steve.

The end result had Pietro half in Steve’s lap but he didn’t protest as Pepper slid into the front seat, Bucky settling back into the passenger’s seat. As Pepper turned the car on and pulled out down the driveway, there was nothing but the purr of the engine and ragged breathing. Steve pulled out the nursing training his mother instilled in him and checked Pietro’s pulse – somewhat slow, although not alarmingly so – and his respiration, which was a bit slower.

“Kid, I’m gonna need you to stay awake,” Bucky said from the front seat. “We don’t know how much they dosed you with and the last thing we need is for you to stop breathing on us. Got it?”

“Got it,” Pietro mumbled.

“Steve, keep an eye on him.” Bucky pulled out his phone and muttered a few curse words.

“What’s wrong?” Pepper immediately asked.

“Oh, nothing. Just Natasha not being too happy to see my message about us going AWOL.” He tapped out a message. “I’m letting her know I’ll call in a minute. I want to make sure that Sam and Clint will be back at the townhouse when we bring Pietro there.”

“I need to find my sister,” Pietro insisted.

“I know,” Steve quickly offered. “We know. But we need to get you there first to figure out the best course of action.”

He paid some attention to Bucky’s conversation with Sam – which mostly seemed to be confirming that they were back at the townhouse – and didn’t fully tune in until he heard Bucky’s phone beep. Bucky quickly cut his conversation with Sam off by saying, “Shit, I’ve gotta go, it’s Nat.”

Then he switched over. “Hey, Nat. It’s me. Yes, we’re fine.” A beat of silence. “What? Are you serious?” Another beat. “Fuck. Well, we have the kid. Yes. Only one of them. We’re bringing him to the townhouse. Yes, I’ll let Pepper know. We’ll let you know when we reach the townhouse. Be safe. See you soon.”

When he hung up the phone, he didn’t say anything. Steve could see the tension in his shoulders. He let a few moments go by before asking, “Buck, what did Natasha say?”

Bucky exhaled slowly and his voice was the slightest bit shaky. “She said they found Tony. That he was dropped off at the Georgetown Hospital.”

Steve saw Pepper’s fingers tighten around the wheel and when Bucky didn’t say anything further, she asked, “How bad is it? Did she say?”

Bucky nodded curtly. “She did. And it’s bad. He’s in surgery right now. It’s… it’s not looking good.”

Pepper’s hands clenched all the more and the speedometer moved up another five miles an hour. Still, her voice was perfectly even as she said, “Then I will drop the three of you off at the townhouse and head straight to the hospital.”

“We’ll go with you,” Steve said.

He couldn’t help it. The image of what “bad” might look like, the idea of what the emergency surgery might be for, all of those things after everything Tony had done to help Steve out over the years, after everything he’d done for the twins made Steve’s heart twist. He and Tony butted heads often enough but that didn’t mean Tony deserved whatever hell he’d gone through this evening.

Then he remembered the kid still half-sprawled in his lap and amended the statement to, “If that’s alright with you, Pietro.”

“That’s fine,” Pietro murmured.

“Sam and Clint are at the townhouse to take care of you,” Bucky added. “So… it’s settled then. We’ll drop you off there and then head to the hospital.”

No one responded to this statement and the car lapsed into silence. Steve just kept his focus, as much as he could, on continuing to monitor Pietro’s vitals so that he could relay that information to Sam when they arrived. He caught bits and pieces of what was going on in the front seat, with Pepper creeping the car up to speeds that were treading on ones that might lead to her being pulled over. Bucky’s shoulders slumped, as though all of his energy had left him, and he rested his head against the window.

Steve tried to keep his mind focused on the present moment and not move towards what might be happening to Wanda – or, hell, even where Wanda was at this point – or what they would find at the hospital.

Because the only answer he could come up with to those questions was nothing good.

Chapter Text

If Steve never ever saw another hospital waiting room, it would be far too soon. Bucky’s head felt too heavy on his shoulder, but Steve made no attempt to move. There was no need for him to disturb Bucky’s uneasy, restless slumber. By the time the three of them had reached the hospital, he could see the adrenaline rush ending with a crash – a pallor leaching the color from Bucky’s cheeks, a tremble in his hands, the slump of his shoulders. During those first few hours of waiting, every time Bucky started to drift off, something would yank him back to wakefulness. Even with Winter’s presence offering continued comfort, Bucky continued to struggle.

In the chair on the others side of him, Pepper tapped furiously on her phone. While Steve had done his best to respect her privacy, an occasional glance over revealed that she was dealing with her inbox of emails and, it seemed, the media starting to get ahold of the initial pieces of the latest Tony Stark story. Every so often, she would go up to the nurse’s desk and ask about the status of Tony’s condition. Information continued to be limited – brief comments about him being in surgery, with no specifics of what the surgery entailed.

After several failed attempts on Pepper’s behalf, Steve made the mistake of trying himself. After arguing back and forth and Steve nearly getting kicked out of the waiting room, the nursing staff pointed out that neither Pepper nor Steve were listed as family or a point of contact for Tony and therefore had no privileges regarding his confidential medical information. At that point, both Pepper gave up and just continued sifting through her phone, although once or twice she stepped out to take or make a phone call or just to compose herself; Steve honestly wasn’t certain which one or if it were all of the above.

Steve settled on trading texts with Sam, who kept them apprised of Pietro’s condition through cryptic, indirect messages in case anything was intercepted. That was about the only reassuring part of things; that whatever Pietro had been dosed with appeared to be making its way out of his system without any overly concerning effects.

Still, that didn’t change the fact that Steve didn’t know the details on Tony’s condition. The real question at this point was just how bad things were.

But then there was Wanda. Steve couldn’t get Wanda out of his head. What was happening to her? Where she was? Whether or not she was injured. How they would get her back. How they could get her back.

It then clicked that targeting and taking Tony served multiple purposes. It was genius, really. Not only did it provide Talbot direct information about where the twins were, it also left the rest of them with their hands tied. By being the one to go public, Tony made himself a target and, really, that hadn’t been the best choice. Tony was the one with the connections. Tony was the one who would have known what to do, how to proceed, who to talk to. He would have been able to get together the resources to find Wanda. Hell, he probably had a private investigator on retainer who might be able to track Wanda’s location down within 24-48 hours, tops.

Or at least that was what Steve liked to think. Because if Tony couldn’t solve a problem like this with all of his resources, then what help did they have?

Really, focusing on Wanda’s current condition and how Tony could have fixed things wasn’t fair to whatever hell Tony had gone through. He would never have let that information about the twins slip if he had any other option. Steve knew that, despite how many times he’d given Tony shit for not being trustworthy. There were lines that Tony wouldn’t cross. Something awful had been done to him to get him to give up that information.

But Steve knew that having his thoughts turn in that direction wasn’t helpful either. Which was the problem at this point; nothing seemed to be helpful. He couldn’t anything do except sit and wait and wait and wait some more in the hopes of hearing something about Tony’s condition.

It was at that moment that Pepper returned to her chair. Steve managed to find the words to ask, “Any further news on any fronts?”

Pepper shook her head. “They still won’t tell me anything. But Tony designated Rhodey as his next of kin. So I’ve contacted him. Apparently the hospital already reached him to let him know what was going on and I caught him just as he was hopping on a flight. He should be here within the next few hours.”

“Good. I’m guessing he’s stateside if he’s coming that quickly?”

Pepper nodded once more. “Unfortunately not local, obviously, but stateside. He hadn’t been told too much on the phone, so he couldn’t provide much more than we’ve already gotten, but hopefully when he arrives we’ll find out more.”

“And until then… we just keep waiting, right?” Steve said. Of course that was the answer. What else could he do at this point? What else could any of them do?

For an instant, just an instant, his fingers slipped into his pocket and brushed the side of his phone. He wanted to call Tony.

But he couldn’t this time.

They were on their own.

-~-

Darcy fidgeted in the backseat seat, fighting the urge to check her phone again, as though another message might have arrived. She caught a glimpse of Jane’s tired eyes in the rearview mirror, and could see a barely stifled yawn from Thor’s rumpled form in the passenger’s seat as Jane maneuvered the car around the corner, driving far too slow for Darcy’s needs. Then again, she was lucky enough that Jane had been willing to come and get her in the middle of the night to drive her a few blocks over.

The text she’d gotten from Clint about – she flipped back to it and checked the timestamp against the current time – exactly 40 minutes before only said, “Come to townhouse. Your friend is back in the area. Could use some support.” She’d texted back that she would be right over, then immediately realized that all public transportation was long closed for the night, and without thinking things through, had automatically dialed Jane’s number.

From the front seat, Darcy could see Thor continually glancing over his shoulder at her, as though he weren’t sure if he should say anything or ask any questions. She wouldn’t have minded if he did but given his silence, she had to figure he was planning on giving her space for the time being. Probably a good thing, given that she wasn’t certain how much Jane had already shared with him. The last thing she wanted to do was share more than she needed to with anyone not already in the know.

Of course, Thor was smart. There was a good chance he had already put the pieces together. He would have seen the press conferences with the twins and been able to identify that they were the same twins Darcy had been bringing out with her.

Instead of meeting Thor’s eyes, Darcy fiddled with her phone, locking and then immediately tapping in the code to unlock it as though she might have missed a message in the interval. No further information came and she tried to consider that a good thing. Something bad had happened. That was the only explanation for why Pietro would have been at the townhouse, rather than the safehouse. Something had happened after the interview with Tony and somehow that had led to the twins’ safety being compromised.

When Jane finally eased the car to a stop in front of Natasha’s house, Darcy leapt out, issuing a quick set of thanks and an apology for waking Jane and Thor up. Ignoring their attempts to ask questions, she waved and hurried up the steps. Her knock on the door was answered in what was probably thirty seconds or less but felt like an eternity. The door opened to reveal Natasha, standing there decked out in evening wear for some reason that Darcy couldn’t focus on long enough to question. Natasha stepped back, allowing Darcy to step inside.

Darcy barely allowed Natasha to shut the door behind her before asking, “Where is he?”

Natasha evenly answered, “In the living room” and Darcy didn’t wait to see if she would add any additional information to that before hurrying in that direction. Maybe it would have made sense to ask how bad things were, so that she could prepare herself, but as far as she was concerned, she might as well face that head on.

What she found wasn’t quite as horrible as she anticipated. At the least this time, there was no blood to be seen. Pietro was propped up on the couch, a blanket covering the majority of his body, and while his face was pale and his eyes were unfocused, he didn’t seem to be in any pain. Sam crouched beside him, his fingers at Pietro’s wrist, his gaze dark and angry. There was the sound of footsteps from the upper floor, pacing back and forth, and the faint sound of muffled speaking that Darcy thought belonged to Clint.

Darcy hesitated just inside of the doorway and softly said, “Pietro? It’s me.”

He raised his head a bit in response to her voice. “Darcy?”

“Yeah. Clint let me know you were here.” She looked to Sam, waiting until he nodded, before moving closer to take Pietro’s hand. “Are you okay?”

When Pietro didn’t immediately answer, Sam offered some clarification. “He was drugged. I have no reason to think he won’t be fine but without knowing exactly what he was given and how much, I’m monitoring his condition just to be sure we don’t need to take him to the hospital.” He scowled before adding, “Even if I still think he should have been taken to the hospital for proper monitoring to begin with.”

“As I keep saying, I don’t need a hospital,” Pietro started, but on the next words, his voice broke. “Wanda’s gone. They took her.”

“Yeah, we didn’t really get the specifics on that when the others dropped you off here. Who exactly took her? What happened?” Clint spoke, his voice startling Darcy, who hadn’t even realized he’d come downstairs.

The first thing she registered was that his cellphone was in his hand. The second was that his voice was hard and cold in a way that was, overall, unfamiliar to Darcy, who was used to the nice, easygoing Clint she worked with. Even with everything that had happened over the past several months, she’d never heard him sound quite like this.

“Clearly someone sent by my fucking father,” Pietro ground out. “I don’t know who. But they were prepared. Night vision goggles. Tranquilizers too. Obviously...” There was a pause before he added, “And… and they knew where we were. So obviously Stark told them. That fucker sold us out.”

“Stark is currently at the hospital,” Sam pointed out. Before Darcy could ask Sam to clarify that statement, he continued. “Also, Pietro, I need you to take a couple of slow, deep breaths because I felt your pulse jump and you don’t need this kinda strain on your body right now.”

“Sam’s right,” Natasha said, stepping out from the direction of the kitchen with two cups of tea in hand, one of which she placed on the coffee table, within reach of Pietro. Although Pietro made no attempt to reach for the cup, she cautioned. “This is waiting for you when you’re ready and when Sam gives the okay for fluids.”

“Which is not yet,” Sam confirmed.

Darcy squeezed Pietro’s hand. The contact appeared to be enough to help him slow and steady his breathing. Despite the fact that he appeared a bit calmer, there was a clear edge to his voice as he said, “I shouldn’t be here, sitting on my ass. I should be out there, looking for her.”

“That’s not a good idea right now. I mean, seriously, what good would that do?” Clint questioned. “How exactly would that help, kid? I get the urge but, seriously, you don’t have anything more to go on than we do. I’ve put some feelers out based on the intel I got earlier and I’ve got a line in through my contact in the police. Now it’s a matter of waiting to see what pans out. Hell, why do you think I’m not out there myself? If I thought there was any possibility of finding her faster, I would be.”

“As we wait, my sister could be getting hurt or killed or… or…” Pietro choked. “It’s my fault. If I hadn’t gotten drugged, I could have stopped her from pushing me into the panic room. Or dragged her in there with me. Then we’d both be safe or I would be with her. At least she wouldn’t be alone.”

“Which also would not help,” Natasha said, her voice firm but gentle as she took a seat in the armchair across from the couch. “Especially the latter. Then both of you would be in that situation together.”

Pietro cut her off. “At least Talbot would have me to take his anger out on, instead of her. I didn’t protect her for years just to fail her now. I can’t live with myself if he hurts her the way…the way…”

His voice broke. Darcy couldn’t bring herself to fill in the gap, although Clint clearly didn’t share her reluctantly, given that he gently inquired, “The way he hurt you, kid?”

Pietro mutely nodded. Darcy just slipped her fingers under the blankets and gently rubbed his lower arm. His skin felt alarmingly clammy to the touch. She looked over to Sam and, almost in the hopes of providing a distraction as much as she wanted an answer, asked, “Is he supposed to feel this cold?”

“Sedatives lower all body functions. This isn’t uncommon but given the length of time since he was dosed, this is a little more alarming. Makes me wonder how high a dose was in that tranquilizer. Which is, once again, why he should have been taken to the hospital to begin with.”

Pietro snarled, “No hospitals. The last thing I need is for them to find me there.”

Darcy bit back the urge to point out that just a few moments before that had been exactly what Pietro wanted. Instead, she asked, “Is that really a concern at this point? I mean, you’ve gone public with everything. How could going to a hospital lead to any further danger now? If anything, I would imagine the hospital would put extra security on your room.”

Sam gave her a grateful look for bringing that up and looked to first Clint, who missed the look entirely as his pacing speed increased, and then looked to Natasha instead. Natasha looked thoughtful and then shook her head. “Unless you think it’s necessary to take him now, Sam, I’d rather see how he does over the next hour or two. I mean, overall, aside from that spike a few moments ago, his vitals have already stabilized, right?” Sam grudgingly nodded and Natasha continued, “Then let’s stay put for now, where we know we’re safe, rather than splitting up any more than we already have this evening. At least until we have a clearer sense of what’s going on and what the next steps should look like.”

As Natasha stopped speaking to take a sip from the cup of what Darcy presumed was tea, Darcy felt the palpable tension and frustration and hopelessness in the room. At least taking Pietro to the hospital would be something. It would be more than just sitting and waiting and wondering.

Darcy smoothed Pietro’s hair back and wrapped her arm around his shoulders. Somehow, despite the muscle and weight he’d put on over the past few months, he felt thinner, more fragile. Not to mention that she could now feel the slight shivers working their way through his body.

Ultimately, Natasha was the one to break the silence. “I hate to put it this way, Pietro, I truly do. But better to have at least one of you on the outside. After all, you have insights into your adoptive father that we could never have. If we have any hope of finding your sister, we need to have that insight into where your father would have taken her and how we can catch him in all of this. You can provide us with that. Which makes you incredibly valuable.”

Pietro miserably said, “Still. It’s my fault. I should have been the one who was taken. Not her. She should be the one providing you with those insights.”

“Kid, please don’t start in with that shit again,” Clint sighed, running a hand over his face. “We’ve been through all of this already. Neither of you should have been taken. This is all bullshit. It’s not your fault. You didn’t do anything wrong.”

“And worrying about that right now isn’t going to be doing anyone any good,” Sam noted. “Right now, all you need to focus on is resting. Everything else can wait at least until the morning. There’s nothing more we can do now.”

Given the restless shifting coming from Clint and Pietro and Darcy’s own internal response, which was one of frustration – not to mention the clear reluctance in Sam’s voice as he said those words - no one seemed to be willing to accept that but at least no one argued. Instead, Darcy just threaded her fingers through Pietro’s damp hair and tried not to think about what could have happened. Because as much as she could understand Pietro’s desire to be with his sister, she couldn’t shake the awful, sickening feeling that if he had been taken along with her, she might never have seen him again. Not with everything she knew about Talbot’s treatment of him over the years. Or when she factored in his recent, near-death experience after being shot. Even if Talbot hadn’t signed off on the shooting, it was clear that he wasn’t motivated to keep Pietro alive.

“For now, let’s focus on distraction,” Clint suggested. “Will it distract you, Sam, if we put on a movie or something? To at least have background?” Sam shook his head and Clint moved over to the TV. “Good. Let’s focus on that, then.”

“And wait to hear anything from Steve or James,” Natasha added, a bit reluctantly. “It seems they’re the most likely ones to provide us with updates any time soon.” She checked her phone again. “They’ve been at the hospital awhile now but I haven’t heard anything since they arrived there.”

It finally seemed the right time for Darcy to ask, “Are they there for Tony?” When Natasha indicated the affirmative, she hesitantly asked, “What happened to him?”

Natasha’s expression darkened. “That’s something I think all of us would like to know.”

-~-

Somewhere between their arrival and now, Steve stopped looking up every time someone new came into the waiting room. There were only so many times he could see an injured or limping person make their way in, or a clearly sick child enter the room. While it gave him a few moments to disconnect from himself, it didn’t offer him any help. There was only one person who could make a difference for them right now and Steve didn’t know a single way to make a plane move any faster. Pepper kept him updated with the latest news from Rhodey, noting when he went dark due to being in the plane. Steve forced himself to stop trying to estimate when Rhodey might be arriving.

Which was why it took Rhodey saying Pepper’s name for Steve to realize he was there. Bucky, who had been awake a bit more often over the past few hours and alternating between waiting inside and taking Winter on walks, startled and Winter immediately pressed herself against him.

“Colonel Rhodes, it’s so good to see you,” Pepper said, rising to her feet immediately. “As I told you on the phone, we’ve been trying to get information but they won’t tell us anything.”

“I’ll see what they’re willing to tell me,” Rhodey said. “And you can call me Rhodey, Pepper. I thought you knew that by now.”

“I really don’t think now’s the time to be debating proper names,” Steve cut in before he could stop himself, even though what he really wanted to do was beg Rhodey to head to the nurse’s desk and force someone to start talking.

Thankfully Rhodey’s demeanor remained the same and he merely nodded. “Point taken. Wait here. I’ll be right back.”

He stepped up to the front desk and Steve watched as he provided his identification and then spoke with the nurse for a few moments before stepping back with a “thank you, ma’am.”

“The doctor is on his way down to speak to us. I’m going to insist that the three of you are allowed to join in this meeting, even if I have to pull rank to make that happen. The nurse couldn’t tell me much more beyond the fact that he made it through surgery and was moved to the ICU.”

Those words did nothing to ease Steve’s nerves but he reminded himself that at the least they would be getting more information soon. Well, relatively soon, he supposed It wasn’t as though doctors often were able to present immediately after being called down.

Or at least that had always been Steve’s own personal experience with doctors, such as the many trips to the hospital he’d taken with his mom since her diagnosis. Apparently that was not how the world worked when one was Tony Stark or a representative of Tony Stark. Because Steve barely had the chance to sit back down beside Bucky and half-heartedly listen to Pepper asking Rhodey about his trip before a tall man with dark hair already greying at the temples despite the fact that he looked barely 30 strode into the room. His white coat and bearing made it clear that he was a doctor and given that he immediately approached Rhodey, Steve had to assume he was the doctor in question.

“Colonel Rhodes?” When Rhodey nodded, the doctor extended his hand. “My name is Dr. Stephen Strange. I was the resident on call when Mr. Stark was brought in. If you would, I think it would be best if we stepped into one of the private rooms to discuss Mr. Stark’s case further.” When both Steve and Pepper rose to their feet, his eyes shifted to them and his gaze hardened. “My recommendation would be for the two of us to speak privately, Colonel. There is a lot of sensitive information involved in your friend’s situation.”

“Understood,” Rhodey said, and Steve caught Dr. Strange’s shoulders relax the slightest bit before tensing again in response to Rhodey’s next words. “However, it is my preference that the individuals with me tonight join us for this conversation. Pepper Potts is Mr. Stark’s close friend and the others with us are close enough friends that they have been sitting here with Ms. Potts all night to hear word on Tony’s condition.”

“As Mr. Stark’s designated next of kin, that is your decision to make,” Dr. Strange said grudgingly. “I have cautioned you against this choice, which is all I can do at this point. If you will not heed my recommendation, then I suppose you should all come along with me.” He gestured for them to follow him and his brow furrowed when he caught Winter following with Bucky. Steve braced himself for another argument but Dr. Strange seemed to recognize that arguing at this point was futile. Surprising, given that even if he were only a resident, Steve didn’t get the sense that Dr. Strange tended to shy away from anything he had a strong opinion about.

Once the four of them were in one of the private rooms, Dr. Strange began speaking without much preamble, although he did provide enough time that those who chose to sit had the option. “Mr. Stark was brought in at approximately nine-oh-five. He had been left right outside the emergency room entrance – a car dropping him off was spotted by the security cameras, although the individuals driving had clearly anticipated this since the license plate was obscured. Mr. Stark was found with significant injuries, with the most severe being the loss of his right hand.”

Steve’s breath caught in his throat and he couldn’t manage to find the words to respond to that.

Pepper somehow managed to speak through her horror. “I’m sorry, the loss of his hand?”

The look of shock in Pepper’s eyes hurt too much to maintain eye contact. Steve averted his gaze as he tried to process the words he’d just heard. Rhodey’s expression was marginally easier to handle because it was completely closed off and there was no emotion there. But that was hard too, in a different way than the overwhelming emotion in Pepper’s face. After a moment, he found himself looking towards Bucky, whose face had lost every bit of color. The discussion of amputation probably wasn’t the best thing for Bucky to be hearing but before Steve could say anything, Dr. Strange spoke again.

“Yes. Mr. Stark’s hand had been removed at the wrist. While attempts were made to minimize the blood loss, including cauterization of the wound, these attempts had been only marginally successful.”

Those words weren’t easier to process. Steve’s gaze remained fixed on Bucky. Bucky hard and automatically reached one hand down to rest on Winter’s head. Steve realized he should have told Bucky to leave. He shouldn’t have brought Bucky with him to begin with.

He should have done things differently but now he couldn’t stop thinking about a bloody stump where Tony’s hand used to be. The hands that he’d watched work on technological masterpieces in the lab. The hands that irritatingly pulled out various tattoo designs and sketches from the pile whenever Tony visited Shield.

Dr. Strange spoke again but before he could finish the first word of the sentence, Rhodey – who despite his expression, was clearly as affected as the rest of them – asked, “I’m sorry, Dr. Strange, but please go back for a moment. His hand is… it’s gone?”

Dr. Strange answered affirmatively and likely would have had more to say if Pepper hadn’t broken in with, “But he can’t have lost his hand. Not with the type of work he does. That’s not… that’s not possible.”

“I assure you that it is possible. If the severed limb had been brought with him, particularly if someone with training or knowledge had kept it in the proper conditions, there may have been an opportunity to reattach it. However, the hand was not present anywhere near or on Mr. Stark’s body and I sincerely doubt that the individual – or individuals – who did this to him cared enough to ensure that the limb could be reattached. As a result, we are currently focused on stabilizing Mr. Stark and ensuring that he makes it through the next several, critical days. Moving forward, we can consider other options available, such as prosthetics.”

That was the final straw for Bucky who cleared his throat and quietly said, “I need to step out for a moment.” Before Steve could ask whether he wanted company, he clucked to Winter and stepped out of the room. Steve, for his part, found himself frozen. His instincts said that he should follow Bucky out and make sure he was as okay as he could be, given the circumstances.

But the other part of him, the selfish one, didn’t want to step out while the doctor continued to talk about what had happened to Tony. While he tried to convince his frozen mind to weigh the pros and cons, he had the opportunity to hear the next piece of information Dr. Strange provided.

“The reason it has been touch and go, aside from the obvious blood loss and injuries incurred, was that Mr. Stark had a variety of substances in his blood. Many of those substances had reached critical levels and while our immediate concern upon his arrival was addressing the significant injury and blood loss, the remainder of our focus has been on balancing out those levels of substances in his system while also ensuring that he is receiving adequate medication to address his current status. If all of that were not enough to weigh, Mr. Stark’s body went through considerable additional damage. The type of damage that the police are now investigating. That type of damage leads to shock and with those substances in his bloodstream… well, things have been critical since his arrival. Suffice to say, at this time, Mr. Stark is in a coma.”

There was nothing more than silence in the room in response to that, almost as though all of the inhabitants were unable to process those words. Steve, for his part, couldn’t comprehend what he had just heard. Tony Stark couldn’t be in a coma. He couldn’t have lost his hand. None of this could be happening.

Rhodey took a deep, steadying breath and his gaze sharpened. His voice was even as he asked, “What’s Tony’s prognosis?”

Dr. Strange studied Rhodey’s face for a few moments. “If he makes it through the night? I would estimate 75% for him to survive this, perhaps 50% to make it through without significant, permanent, irreversible damage. In addition to the loss of his hand, which is already a given.”

Rhodey’s expression didn’t change. He didn’t even flinch. All he said was, “Thank you for your candor” and then reached over and rested a hand on Pepper’s shoulder.

Somewhere in the midst of his own numbness, Steve saw that tears were streaming down Pepper’s face. Despite the tears, she remained quiet and her expression was determined. “When can we see him?”

“Given the current situation, I would not advise more than one visitor in the room at the time,” Dr. Strange said.

Steve couldn’t stop himself from cutting in with a sharp, “I don’t care what you advise.” The last thing he wanted was for Rhodey or Pepper to be left alone in the room with Tony’s unconscious body.

Dr. Strange’s jaw tightened. “You have my recommendations for his care.“

At that moment, Dr. Strange’s pager went off. He glanced at it and then replaced it in his pocket.

“If you will excuse me, I am needed back in the ED. The ICU is on the third floor. If you have further questions, please direct them to the nurses on the floor.”

Rhodey extended his hand and Dr. Strange, with the slightest bit of hesitation, accepted it and shook.

“Thank you,” Rhodey said, and there was genuine gratitude in his voice, which Steve thought was generous given that Dr. Strange hadn’t had much of a bedside manner. “I’m sure Tony will thank you as well when he wakes up.”

Steve could see Dr. Strange make a concentrated effort not to say something, which he had to assume would have been along the lines of clarifying, “If he wakes up.” Which was good, given that Steve wasn’t certain he could stop himself from speaking exactly what was on his mind.

As he gazed around the room and took in Pepper’s tear-streaked face and the emotionless mask on Rhodey’s face that was starting to slip, Steve remembered that Bucky wasn’t there. How could he have forgotten? It must have been only a few moments. It couldn’t have been more than that. Right? How long had he left Bucky on his own?

Steve muttered a “be right back” to Rhodey and Pepper. He hurried out of the room, taking a moment to process the comparatively overwhelming waiting area after the relative silence of the room Dr. Strange had them in. Not that there was a lot of noise or even activity out there at this hour but it still felt like a lot. The waiting room even looked different after the news they’d received about Tony: the colors were all too muted or too intense, there was no in-between.

As Steve scoured the area, he could easily see that Bucky wasn’t there. Of course, he wasn’t there. Why would he have been? If he was having a panic attack, the last thing he would want was to be in the hospital. Steve stepped out of the front doors to the emergency department and looked up and down the path outside as he tried to determine where Bucky would have gone. The hospital campus was huge.

Steve took a steadying breath. The cold air chilled his throat and went straight into his chest. He choked back a cough and waited to see if his lungs would seize up and refuse to cooperate; although if he had to have an asthma attack, he supposed that already being at the hospital put him in a pretty good place. After a few false starts, he managed to get his chest rising and falling again.

The cold air was good, though. He needed to focus. Bucky couldn’t have gone far. They’d only been talking to Dr. Strange for a couple of minutes. He glanced at his watch as though that might provide an answer but the numbers meant nothing to him. He tried to run through the facts. If Bucky were having a panic attack, which was likely, he could only have gotten so far. Unless he had panicked and tried to run. But had Winter with him. It would have made a lot more sense for Bucky to find a quiet place where he could sit and let Winter do his job.

He took in another deep breath and thankfully this time his throat and lungs did not rebel. That was good. He needed to think through the white noise in his head that couldn’t get past the news he’d just heard about Tony.

Bucky wouldn’t have stayed near the buildings. That was the easiest thing to determine. The main question wasn’t which building he was near but which direction he had gone in. That was a bit harder to figure out.

Instead of overthinking everything, he just started walking, moving through parking lots, trying to avoid the icy spots on the ground, and letting instinct guide him. After five minutes of what seemed to be hopeless wandering, he considered heading back inside to grab his jacket to protect against the cold. It was then that he heard a low bark and immediately turned towards in the direction of the sound. There couldn’t be two dogs out here. Not at this hour of the night or morning or whatever the fuck it was at this point. Now that he paid attention to it, he see the beginnings of red creep across the sky.

Bucky sat in a gazebo, Winter’s front paws and most the dog’s upper body in his lap, his head pressed against Winter’s fur, his remaining arm wrapped around him. Steve stood back for a moment and studied Bucky’s body language before hesitantly moving forward. Bucky was visibly shaking, although that could have been from the cold, but his breathing was slow and steady.

Bucky glanced up. His face was pale and drawn, his eyes were red and his cheeks were tearstained. Steve could see that he was trying to figure out what to say.

“Do you want me to call Nat? I could ask her to come by and pick you up to bring you home?” asked Steve

A mixture of emotions flashed across Bucky’s face– relief, guilt, anger, and sadness. After swallowing hard several times, enough to finally speak, Bucky admitted, “That’d probably be for the best if you’re okay staying here on your own.”

“I have Rhodey and Pepper,” Steve gently pointed out. “I think I can manage.”

“I’m sorry.” Bucky’s voice broke and his face crumpled as soon as the words left his mouth. “I’m so fucking sorry, Steve, but if I stay here, I’m not gonna be good to anybody.”

Winter licked at his face and Bucky pulled back enough to pet his dog. Steve took a step forward and rested his hand on Bucky’s good shoulder.

“It’s okay, Buck,” he said gently. “It’s okay. Hell, it’s good that you know yourself well enough to recognize that. This is a fucked up situation. It’s been a long, rough night and it’s been a hell of a past couple of months. If you need to recharge, no one – let alone me – is gonna fault you for that.”

Bucky just miserably nodded and pressed his face against Winter’s fur once again. Steve stepped away and took the opportunity to pull out his cell phone and call Natasha. She answered after two rings and he took a moment to summarize all of the information that Dr. Strange had given them about Tony’s condition.

Before he could even ask her if she could come down to pick Bucky up, she asked, “What do you two need?”

He hesitated, studying Bucky intently. Bucky raised his head long enough to nod shortly and then lowered his gaze to miserably look down at Winter. Steve exhaled slowly and said, “I’m gonna stay here for a little longer, with Rhodey and Pepper. If you’re up for a little drive, I think Bucky’s gonna need to head home and get some proper sleep.”

“Of course,” Natasha said, and her tone registered no surprise. “Is there anything I can bring from home for you and the others?”

“Nothing major’s coming to mind but I guess a change of clothes might be good. Otherwise, surprise me, I guess.”

“I’ll be there within the next half hour. Where should I meet you?”

“Just come to the main entrance. Me and Bucky will be waiting there.” He hesitated before he asked, “How’s Pietro?”

Natasha was quiet for a few seconds. “Angry. Upset. Slowly coming off of the drugs he was given. But Sam says he’s stable. Darcy is here, so he has support.”

Steve bit his lip. “That’s something, at least. Any… any word on anything else?”

There was a long, uncomfortable pause. “No. Not yet. We’re doing everything we can though.” Then, before Steve could respond, Natasha added, “But I’ll keep you updated. For now, just let James know I’m on my way.”

“Will do. Thanks, Natasha.” Steve hung up and moved closer to Bucky once more. Bucky sat up as Steve’s footsteps approached and Steve said, “I guess you already know what I’m about to see but Nat’s on her way.”

Bucky nodded, his fingers still sunk into Winter’s fur. “Then we should head back inside, shouldn’t we?”

“Probably, if you’re ready.”

“I don’t know if I’ll ever be ready to but I suppose I can manage it.” Bucky pushed himself up to his feet. “That way Nat’s not out searching for us as well.”

While Bucky remained silent as they walked back, Steve couldn’t find the words himself at this point. Perhaps that would change after the shock had worn off but Steve just couldn’t comprehend how much his life had changed over the years. Once upon a time, his biggest worry was Tony Stark being an asshole. Now his biggest worry was whether Tony would live through the night.

And whether they would ever see Wanda again.

Steve considered the fact that the worst part, perhaps, beyond the immediate situation was the thought that even if Tony made it through the night, even if Wanda were back at home, safe and sound and with them, nothing would ever go back to where it was before.

-~-

The townhouse was quiet when Natasha led Bucky and Winter inside. Bucky had barely said a handful of words on the way home and she hadn’t pushed him for more. Given the information Steve had shared with her about Tony’s condition, she could only imagine where Bucky’s thoughts were and none of those places were particularly good.

Natasha paid attention to the creak of their feet against the floorboards as they moved towards the stairs – she could see the flickering of the TV and caught enough of a glimpse of the living room to see that Pietro, Darcy, Sam, and Clint had all set up camp for the night there, with Darcy and Pietro curled tightly around one another on the couch. Sam and Clint had curled themselves rather uncomfortably in the chairs.

She left them where they were for the time being and focused instead of steering Bucky upstairs. He leaned his good arm on the stair railing, while Winter padded at his side. Natasha kept pace, a step or two behind him, just in case he lost his balance or faltered, but he seemed as steady as he could be, given everything.

He made his way into the bedroom and, once inside, stood there, looking lost. She gave him a few seconds before gently resting a hand on his right shoulder. He tensed but didn’t pull away. She took that as good of a sign as she could have expected.

“James, what do you need?” she asked. When he didn’t answer, she said, “Why don’t I bring over your medicine and then help you get into something a bit more comfortable?”

He nodded, on sheer autopilot, and she took that opportunity to steer him towards the bed. He sat down without argument. She waited until he was settled before shaking out a Xanax and opening a bottle of water, handing them to Bucky one by one. He took the pill and she checked in with him once more, waiting for him to nod in agreement before starting to take off his shoes.

She continued to check in with him every step of the way as she tugged off his jeans and layers of various shirts and sweaters, which she replaced with a pair of pajamas and t-shirt, and then encouraged him to lay back while she worked on removing Winter’s vest and collar. Bucky initially remained sitting upright, although after a few moments he shifted enough to slip under the covers and settled down under the blankets. Once out of his gear, Winter hopped up immediately and settled against him. Natasha took the time to start the oil diffuser and ensure that the blackout curtains were in place over the windows. The routine was familiar, despite all of the unknowns currently running through her head, and something about that was comforting. She hoped it was equally comforting for Bucky.

It was only after she was satisfied that everything was in place that she turned to Bucky. “Is there anything that you want to talk about?”

He instinctively started to shake his head, then paused to consider the question. “I don’t know. There’s a lot on my mind right now, given what happened to Stark.”

“Steve mentioned that he lost his hand,” Natasha said carefully. “I could see how that would bring up for a lot of unpleasant memories for you.”

Bucky choked back a bitter laugh. “Yeah, that’s one way of describing it. I wanted to stay there for Steve but I knew I was just gonna implode. I guess despite how far I’ve come, I haven’t come far enough to handle something like this.”

“James, I think you need to consider the full context of this situation.” Natasha settled down on the edge of the bed and rested her hand on his good shoulder once again. “For starters, you’re only a short-time off from dealing with the fire at Shield and the damage to your arm. Prior to that entire traumatic event, you had only just been reaching a point of stability in your own recovery. And now, on top of all of that, you spent the night going into a potentially dangerous situation that I’m sure brought up plenty of memories for you, before even reaching the hospital and hearing the news about Tony. You can’t judge yourself for your reaction tonight. You can’t even judge yourself if you have the same reaction tomorrow because you need more time to handle everything. This is a very unusual situation and you’re someone who has already been through plenty of traumatic situations that the average person would never encounter. That sort of thing can build up.”

“But what do I have to handle, Nat?” Bucky questioned, and she could hear the anger in his voice. “I’m safe. I’m not in danger. It’s Pietro who needs to be worried. He just lost his sister. It’s Wanda who is in danger. It’s Tony who’s in intensive care. I feel like out of everyone, I have no right to be falling apart.”

“Last I checked, James, none of us have the luxury of deciding when and how to break,” Natasha said. “It’s something that happens when events build up. But instead of arguing, how about we focus on resting for the time being? We can discuss this more when you wake up. Do you want me to stay with you while you sleep?”

She could see him wrestle with the question but instead of arguing, he merely said, “I think that would help, as much as anything can help at this point.”

“Then let me get changed and I’ll be right back,” she promised, leaning down to kiss his forehead.

She left him in bed, his fingers sunk into Winter’s fur, and waited until she was alone in her own room to take several, shaky breaths. No need letting him or anyone else see how shaken she was, particularly with what she had found while she was out this evening. That would be something to explore more once she had enough time to process everything.

Returning to the room, she found Bucky already stretched out and relaxed, Winter curled close to his side. Clearly the medication had already worked its magic. She slid in on the other side and carefully wrapped her arms around him. He exhaled raggedly and shifted his weight closer to her but didn’t say anything. Otherwise, he remained quiet. It wasn’t long before his breathing evened out and the last of his muscles relaxed as he drifted off.

Natasha only wished she would be able to fall asleep just as easily instead of watching the minutes on the clock continue ticking by, knowing that outside the sun was already rising.

Chapter Text

The first thing Wanda noticed was the scent of lilies. Her mind panicked but her body didn’t move into fight or flight. Her heart rate and respiration remained alarmingly steady despite the fact that her mind was screaming at her to run. Her body felt heavy and numb, disconnected from her.

With effort, she opened her eyes, wary of what she would see. The blurry shapes and images were even more confusing and frightening than she had anticipated. The room, which came more and more into view as she blinked repeatedly, was both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. There were elements that were the same as the room of her childhood – the decorations, the wall color, the furniture – but the geography was all wrong. The furniture sat in different places, the paintings on different walls, hanging at different angles.

But enough was the same for her to start making sense of her fragmented memories. She remembered the panic room and the heaviness of Pietro’s slumped body as she shoved him through the door. She remembered the click of the door as she kicked it shut. And she remembered the sinking feeling in her stomach when she was told that Tony Stark sold them out.

Everything after that was fuzzy and blurred, with bits and pieces fighting to come through. The feeling of a car moving beneath her. Snippets of conversation that didn’t make sense because they were either in a different language or she only caught every few words instead of the full sentence. The disorienting sense of being lifted and carried, combined with whatever medications they had put in her system.

Then being in one place and not moving, with the same smooth and soft sheets around her that covered her now. Someone leaning over her. Pills placed in her mouth and her having no choice but to swallow. The prick of a needle entering her arm. And then the world falling away again.

She had no idea how much time had passed. It might have been hours or days or weeks. With effort, she pushed the sheets down and felt vaguely sick as she realized that she no longer wore the pajamas she’d been in when she’d been taken. Instead, she was in a pastel colored nightgown, similar to the type her adoptive father had ensured she wore throughout her entire childhood.

A glance at her body revealed that while there were mottled bruises on her arms from the injections, there was no IV or feeding tube anywhere. It couldn’t have been more than a day or two, definitely not a week. That was good. That was something. As was the fact that while her body still felt heavy and remote, Talbot had decided that she did not have to remain sedated.

Which meant she would be required to make an appearance soon. She would have to be face-to-face with Talbot and would not be able to lose her temper. At best, she would need to act the role she always had with him; at worst, she would be the recipient of his wrath with her brother thankfully not there.

She carefully pushed herself into a sitting position, taking it slow as the medications still in her system made the room spin. Her bed was the same, as was all the furniture, but the sheets were different. Of the same quality, naturally, but the fact that Talbot had clearly prepared this family reunion left a sickened feeling in the pit of her stomach.

The fact that the two of them had been found, that he had spent so much effort in sending various groups after them, that he had not blinked an eye over Pietro being shot, all of those things had demonstrated to her that Talbot was never going to let them go. But somehow seeing the set up of the room made things even worse. He had kept all of their furniture but moved it to a new, secure location where it would be harder to find them. He had also purchased – or had someone else purchase – new bedding and clothes, because none of her previous nightgowns would have fit her any longer.

This wasn’t the work of a man who planned to kill her. This was the work of a man who wasn’t going to let her go that easily, who had plans that would require her to be alive and around for a length of time. How long, exactly, was the question.

Getting to her feet was difficult when her legs did not feel attached to the rest of her but she only stumbled for the first two strides. Then, even though her legs felt no more connected with her than they had a few moments ago, she made her way over to the windows. Or, more appropriately, what she had thought were windows, given that there were curtains.

She pushed the curtains back to reveal a steel contraption which covered the actual window underneath. Definitely an upgrade from the bars that he had fixed to her and her brother’s windows after the first few escape attempts. But Talbot wasn’t taking any chances now.

There was a knock from behind and she spun around, almost falling, just as the door creaked open. The figure strode into the room and Wanda found herself stumbling back, only to find the wall and covered window behind her. There was nowhere else for her to go but she couldn’t stay here. She had to run. She had to escape. She had to get away from him.

“Hello, Wanda,” the Baron said, his tone neutral and yet also somehow far too familiar. “It is good to see you again.”

“Hello, Baron,” Wanda said, lowering her head demurely and averting her gaze, just as she always had with him.

The words and gestures came automatically, despite the fact that she was saying the farthest thing possible from her actual thoughts or feelings. But she knew better than to respond truthfully. Not with the Baron.

“Please, take a seat,” he said in a way that was less of a suggestion, more of an order, as he gestured towards the bed.

She kept her eyes locked on the floor as she made her way back to the bed and sat on the edge. She made no attempt to raise her eyes from the floor and therefore saw the well-shined black leather of the Baron’s shoes as he stepped over to her. She heard the rustling of cloth as he laid something down beside her. Then slipped his finger beneath her chin, raising her eyes to meet his own.

Despite how the touch barely registered through the numbness still coating her body, she had to fight the urge to flinch.

“It has been some time, Wanda. You have been missed. Your father is glad to have you back.”

There was no right answer to respond to that. Simple pleasantries were acceptable but stating, “I am glad to be back” or “I am glad to be home” would be clearly lies. But to disagree would also not be acceptable. Finding a correct answer would be easier if her head didn’t feel packed with cotton. The only option was to remain silent.

The Baron allowed a few moments to go by, providing her with the opportunity to speak, but it was clear to her that they both knew she wouldn’t be saying anything. After those few moments went by, he sighed and then took out a small orange cyclical container from his pocket.

“It would seem that you are not yourself yet, Wanda,” he noted, pulling his hand away from her face and shaking two pills out of the container to hand to her. “Perhaps these will help.”

She took the pills automatically and placed them in her mouth. They left an unpleasant residue on her tongue in the time it took the Baron to hand her the glass of water placed beside the bed on the nightstand. The thought of pretending to take the medication lasted only a few seconds; he would check and she needed to start things off in the correct way. By following orders, she would incur trust and good will. Eventually, that would allow for them to slip up. Then she could make her move.

As she expected, the Baron checked her mouth for any remnants of the pills – and the feeling of his finger in her mouth, moving over her tongue and digging into the corners of her mouth with feigned gentleness nearly made her gag – and then nodded approvingly.

“You are being such a good girl, Wanda. This is a good first step to rebuilding trust with me and your father.” He kept his hand on her cheek, although his gaze shifted over to the item he had placed on the bed. “Speaking of your father, he is ready to see you. You have approximately 45 minutes to make yourself presentable. At that time, I will return to bring you to have dinner with him. Do you understand?”

“Yes, I understand,” she recited.

The Baron trailed one finger against her cheek. “Very good, Wanda. Very good. I am pleased and encouraged by how cooperative you are being.” His hand slowly moved away from her face and he stepped back. “I will return in exactly 45 minutes.”

Wanda managed to wait until he left the room, the sound of the lock clicking into place behind him, before she stumbled her way from the bed through the cracked open bathroom door on the other side of the room. As much as she longed to be sick and curb the nausea now wracking her body, she forced herself to swallow everything back down. The Baron wouldn’t have gone far and if he heard her throwing up – or realized that she had thrown up – that would mean injections and IVs and all sorts of other unpleasantness to keep her compliant.

She took several deep breaths and then slid down to the bathroom floor to take inventory of her situation. The tile on the floor was blessedly cool. The more deep breathing she engaged in, the more the nausea eased up. Even from her position on the floor, she could see that the lock on the bathroom door had been removed. It wasn’t surprising – her adoptive father always had a way of staying a few steps ahead of them, at least in terms of the environment and setting. That led to her and Pietro – and it was agonizing to think of him, even for a second – needing to find ways around Talbot’s scheming.

Her brother. Who could have been dead, for all she knew. Still, better than having him here with her. He’d definitely be dead here. At least where he was now there was a chance. She had no idea how much of a chance but the odds had to be better.

Didn’t they?

Getting to her feet took effort but she had no idea how much time had already gone by. If she wasn’t dressed and ready to go by the time the Baron returned, she had no doubt he would dress her himself and that was the last thing she could handle. Best to be ready and waiting for his return and minimize her need to spend time with him.

Her body felt numb as she moved to the wardrobe, barely feeling the wood under her hands as she opened it or the fabric as she took down the first dress she saw hanging there. Moving on autopilot, she removed the nightgown – trying not to think too hard about who had placed it on her – and replaced it with the dress. A few moments of rummaging in the wardrobe revealed several pairs of shoes and she selected a non-heeled pair – not trusting her balance with even low heels – and instead selected a pair that almost appeared to be ballet flats. These would do nicely, giving her close contact with the floor to help her stay grounded, but providing a bit more protection than bare feet would provide.

She tested out a few steps, waiting until she felt comfortable. Then she returned to the bathroom, splashing water on her cheeks and not registering the temperature and whether it was hot or cold, and ran a hairbrush through her already mostly tangle-free hair.

The nausea started to resurface as she considered how much care had been taken with her while she was drugged. She splashed more water on her face in the hopes that would help. It gave her something else to focus on than the meal she was about to attend with Talbot.

It seemed that hardly any time had passed at all when her door was unlocked and the Baron stepped through. He looked her up and down, his gaze moving slowly over her body in a way that felt almost as violating as his touch would have. She kept her gaze straight ahead and did her best not to meet his eyes or focus too long on his face. After a few moments, he nodded approvingly and then offered his arm to her.

She took it without hesitation and now lowered her eyes to the floor. It was wood, well-polished and utterly unfamiliar. As they reached the steps, she found it padded with a strip of red carpet coating the middle, which she found herself grateful for, given that her balance was poor due to the medications running in her veins. The last thing she wanted to do was lean any more heavily on the Baron than she had to. Somehow the feeling of the carpeting beneath her thin soles helped steady her.

Every instinct in her body warned her to panic – told her to allow her adrenaline to start flowing, to bring on that fight or flight or freeze response – but instead everything felt remote and distant. Her heartbeat remained steady, her breathing even, even as each footstep took her closer and closer to Talbot. Even with the Baron at her side, her arm on top of his own.

Then they turned and stepped through a doorway and there he was, seated at the head of the table, just as he always had been. It all looked horrifyingly familiar. Even the table appeared similar – no, identical – to the one in the house. He’d either brought it to this new location or he had bought the same model for the sake of appearances. He remained seated and brought a glass of wine to his lips as the Baron walked her into the room and didn’t quite bow, more just inclined his head in a respectful manner in Talbot’s direction.

The Baron lightly pressed his elbow against Wanda’s side and she curtsied automatically. It was alarming, really, how quickly this all came back to her. The movements, the inclination of her head, and the intonation of her voice as she said, “Good evening, father.”

None of that remotely matched what she wanted to say and for an instant she wasn’t certain if she’d made the right decisions. Though, it wasn’t as if she’d thought through her actions. It had merely been the programmed response, triggered by all of the situational cues, and therefore there was nothing false about her words. Even if a part of her wanted to tell Talbot to fuck off, that wasn’t the way she spoke in these situations. Nor was it the response that would be beneficial.

“Good evening, Wanda.” He gestured towards a chair to his right. “Please, take a seat. I trust that you are hungry.”

The Baron didn’t give her a choice – he started to move her towards the chair before her feet could decide whether or not to respond to the order. She didn’t protest. There was no point. Instead, she allowed the Baron to pull out the chair for her and guide her into it, before pushing in the chair and placing her uncomfortably close to Talbot. But being close to him was nothing compared to the Baron standing behind her, his hands on the back of her chair, fingers pressed against her shoulders like weights.

She swallowed against the lump in her throat as she saw the food on the table. “Father, I must admit… I do not have much of an appetite.”

She could hear the cadence of her voice changing, her choice of words shifting away from the usual ones, and that, as much as the scent of the food on the table, left her feeling unsettled and sickened. She hadn’t heard those words come out of her mouth in that manner since she left home. She’d worked hard to change how she spoke, to not feel as though each word had to be carefully selected and pronounced, and now she was right back to the beginning.

“You must eat, Wanda. After all, you need to keep up your strength. I would not want to have to find other ways for you to get your nutrients.”

She swallowed hard again, trying to force the lump further down into her throat, and then reached for the fork. The alternative involved tubes or needles and that was not something she was willing to entertain. The food, despite clearly being of the highest quality money could buy, was tasteless in her mouth.

The Baron’s presence behind her remained and she tried to take her mind off of his hands still touching her shoulders. Focusing on the action of eating helped somewhat with that, but not enough.

“Well, Wanda, it has been awhile,” Talbot said. “It sounds like you’ve had quite a bit happening since you left, including befriending Tony Stark. How exactly did you and your brother manage that? Was he hiding you this entire time?”

She flinched at the reminder of how Tony had betrayed them, even though she still couldn’t believe he would have done that. Not after everything he had done for them.

Given her thoughts, she wordlessly shook her head, then realized, as Talbot’s gaze remained on her, that she needed to speak. “No. We only met him recently.”

“Interesting. That sounds… impressive and unlikely, to have developed a friendship with someone in such a high place.”

She could hear the questions imbedded within the statement and opted to ignore them.

“Yes, I suppose it is,” she said demurely, keeping her eyes on the plate in front of her.

“It’s a shame,” Talbot commented. “While I do not like him, I do have a certain level of grudging respect for him. I wish I had not been compelled to use force on him to find out where you and your brother were hiding.”

Although her fork had barely touched the food on her plate and therefore there was nothing in her mouth or throat for her to choke on, she suddenly couldn’t breathe. Despite that sliver of hope inside of her that kept assuring her that Tony never would have willingly sold them out, she had not gone further down that path. But now the pieces were coming alarmingly into place. Tony had been forced – tortured – to extract the information. The Baron was now standing behind her. While she had no doubt that her father knew others with those talents, Wanda doubted there were many with the same level of expertise as the Baron. And if the Baron had tortured Tony…

“What do you mean?” she asked, before she could reconsider those words.

“Just as I said, Wanda,” Talbot said calmly, surveying her in a way that made her question whether he was wondering whether he should have held back on that piece of information, to increase her distrust of Tony.

But of course, that tactic only would have been helpful if he thought Wanda might see Tony again and he clearly didn’t intend for that to happen.

“He was reluctant to share with my associate here where you and your brother were,” he continued. “But the Baron was able to get him to provide that information. Of course, that has drawn a bit more undue attention to what should have been a simple, discreet job.”

A pause and another bite of food, as though he were talking about something commonplace like an article in the newspaper, not having a man tortured for information. “Not that I need to worry. I have my alibies already set in stone and there is no way to connect what happened to Mr. Stark to me. It was, of course, a gamble to raise the stakes to this level, especially with all of the recent press between us. I know I am the most likely person to be scrutinized in light of this but it will be impossible for anyone to prove anything about my involvement.”

He took another bite of food. “Especially with the condition Mr. Stark is in. I do not anticipate he will be able to provide any information, if he survives at all.”

Wanda froze, partially in light of those words, partially in light of the fact that she had no idea how to respond to them. If she responded too emotionally, she’d be in more trouble. If she didn’t respond with any emotion, Talbot would be suspicious.

It was a lose-lose situation.

Although the emotions were raging inside of her, they didn’t seem to be able to make it to the surface due to the pills. Everything felt muted and distant and while part of her wanted to scream and rage and question why, even if she already knew the answer, there was a barrier between all of that and what came out on the surface.

Ultimately, she decided not to say anything and instead concentrated on forcing another bite of food into her mouth instead of speaking.

She could feel Talbot’s eyes on her and the Baron’s presence loomed at her back. When it became clear she wasn’t going to raise her gaze or speak, Talbot broke the silence.

“Well, enough of that unpleasantness. I suppose it is best to focus on the fact that you are back at home. That is an event to celebrate.”

With those words, Wanda could already imagine meal after meal after meal, just like this, in her future. She could see that the safe house, which had previously felt like a prison, was freedom compared to being locked in here. Already, she had to consider the fact that Talbot likely would be gone and not every meeting would involve him. At least for the immediate future, she guessed Talbot’s presence would be replaced by that of the Baron and the last thing she wanted was to be left alone with him for any length of time.

“Soon enough, your brother will be home with us. Then we’ll be a family again. And won’t that be nice, Wanda?”

She forced her gaze up at those words, knowing that she couldn’t avoid a response. All of the anger, she pushed back. Any defiance that might leak out of her gaze disappeared.

Being alone with the Baron would be horrible but nothing would be as bad as having her brother there with her. She didn’t know how, if at all, she could prevent that from happening, given her place locked up in here. But maybe, just maybe, if she played the dutiful daughter and demonstrated the proper level of obeisance, that would be enough. Maybe Talbot would forget about bringing Pietro here.

And so, she met his gaze without a hint of hesitation and said, “Yes, it will, father.”