Actions

Work Header

Sine Qua Non

Work Text:

sine qua non
noun  si·ne qua non \ˌsi-ni-ˌkwä-ˈnän,
- something that is absolutely needed
Merriam-Webster

Steve stays flushed with victory for a long time after he and Bucky limp away from the Winter Soldier facility, heading towards cold air and freedom. No more Accords. No more secrets. No more hunting Bucky across the globe. No more sleepless nights of worrying where he is, has HYDRA retaken him, no more wondering if he remembers who he is. No more government trying to tie them in knots. No more… of anything they don’t want to do.

He doesn't know if he's ever felt this free.

He has regrets. Of course he does. Things didn't play out the way he'd expected, wanted, needed them to. The people who should be here with him aren't here. Maybe he should have tried harder to make them understand, but maybe they should have tried harder to understand too. Because he’d been right, all along.

And yet, there’s a tightness in his chest, a hot, hollow ball of grief and anger and sorrow, a shadow over his thoughts. A bitter taste in the back of his throat, past the coppery blood and fresh pain that he does his best to ignore, even as it grows to coat his whole mouth.

He’s right, and has been all along.

It’s not as satisfying as it should feel.

oOoOoOo

Bucky chooses to go under again, kept safe and secure until they can figure out how to get HYDRA out of his head. Steve understands, is even glad that Bucky’s able to make that kind of decision about his life, after spending so long with someone else deciding everything for him. He just wishes it was different, that he could figure out a way to dig Bucky’s demons out, let him finally live his life the way he should have been allowed all along.

I should ask Tony, he catches himself thinking. Tony would probably be able to help.

I don’t care. He killed my mom.

Steve closes his eyes against the wave of fresh hurt and pain that slams into him, resists the urge to gag as the bitter taste floods into his mouth again. Everything else just fades away, leaving him bone-tired and drained, tapped completely out of the single-minded determination that’s been driving him for days, weeks, years.

He scrubs at his face, feeling every single one of his hundred years all of a sudden. Right. There’s no way in hell Tony’s going to be in the mindset to help anyone, least of all Steve, any time soon.

Well, Steve’s used to being on his own. He’s been on his own since he was 18, except for Bucky. Come hell or high water, he’ll figure something out.

oOoOoOo

Unwilling to put it off any longer, Steve meets with Princess Shuri two days after Bucky goes under, in order to find out what happened to the team he left behind.  As T’Challa’s sister, Princess Shuri could live a life of leisure and luxury, but she instead chooses to serve as the Minister of International and Media Relations, and Steve’s hope is that she’ll be able to tell him what he needs to know.

Shuri’s office is spacious, gorgeously decorated, and strategically placed with east-facing windows to take advantage of early-morning light. Her smile is more polite than it is friendly, but warmth is warmth and Steve isn’t complaining. “Captain Rogers, you are up early this morning. Is there something I can help you with?”

He nods. “Yes, Your Highness. If it’s not an inconvenience. I’m wondering if you’re able to tell me what happened to everyone else.”

“It is not.” Moving her attention to her tablet, she swipes through several screens before returning her attention to him. “Four of your compatriots were remanded to the Raft Supermax Correctional Facility, where they are being held until the United Nations can convene a special tribunal to try them under the Sokovia Accords.”

For a moment Steve can't breathe. The Raft is where Rumlow would have gone, if they'd taken him alive. The Raft is where they keep Abomination, Justin Hammer, Aldrich Killian. To think of Avengers in that place is beyond abhorrent. He doesn't have to ask which four, either. Sam, Clint, Wanda, Scott. The ones who had made the sacrifice play. The ones who'd lain down on the wire to let him and Bucky crawl over them.

I think I'd just cut the wire.

Tony's voice, the memory of it, the shine of defiance in dark eyes, challenging jut of the chin, is unwelcome in his head, especially now. Four Avengers in the Raft, and Tony had done nothing . Where is he in all this?

Shuri continues, heedless of his internal monologue.  “Colonel Rhodes remains at Ramstein Air Force Base under heavy sedation, and —”

“Wait. I'm sorry, Your Highness?” He frowns, leans forward over the edge of her desk, hoping to catch a glimpse of the information. “Rhodey’s in the hospital?”

“Yes, Captain,” Shuri says serenely, turning her tablet towards him and folding her hands together on top of the desk.

Steve all but snatches the tablet up, scanning the report. Words keep jumping out at him, out of sequence. Words like paralysis and terminal velocity and will never walk again. He swallows hard, tasting bile and last night’s supper in the back of his throat. “What happened?”

Shuri’s expression is carefully neutral. “In an attempt to neutralize the Falcon,” she says, “the Vision inadvertently shot out the arc reactor powering the Colonel’s suit. He fell six hundred feet ”

He’s in the chair before her desk without being conscious of falling into it, the tablet sliding from nerveless fingers to clatter gently on the desk. He sinks back against the chair, running a hand down his face, distantly noting that hand is trembling. Had that happened while he and Bucky were flying away? God, if he’d known…

What’s going to happen to your friends?

The tight, hollow ball is back in his chest, and he presses the heel of his hand against his collarbone as he tries to breathe past it. Because he just realized that knowing would have changed nothing. He’d do the same thing all over again, even knowing what he knows now. Zemo might have had no intention of waking the Winter Soldiers, but he’d already proven capable of doing anything to get what he wanted. He bombed the UN. Murdered dozens of people. Obsessed with revenge, there would never be a guarantee he wouldn’t have used the Soldiers, if Steve had taken too long to arrive.

Rhodes is a soldier too. Steve knows he’d understand duty.

He pulls his thoughts together, bolsters himself against the wash of guilt — I did what I had to do. I did what was necessary. — and rises out of his chair. “Thank you, Your Highness,” he says, bowing his head with respect. “I appreciate you taking the time out of your day.”

“You’re welcome, Captain Rogers.” She eyes him speculatively, her expression so closed down and controlled, Steve can’t even begin to guess at what she’s thinking. “You did not ask about the other Avengers.”

Steve frowns, running the roster in his mind. Vision, Natasha. Tony. “My apologies, Your Highness. I thought you were finished.”

“Not quite.” Shuri’s eyes shift downwards to her tablet again. “The Vision has not been seen outside the Avengers facility since his return to the United States. Ms. Romanoff disappeared shortly after the battle at Leipzig/Halle Airport, though unconfirmed reports have her sighted moving through Peru. As for Mr. Stark, he  has been out of contact for the last five days.”

Sick, cold worry creeps in, freezes around the hollow ball in his chest. Five days is as long as he’s been in Wakanda. Five days since he and Bucky left Tony bloody and angry. Ross doesn’t know I’m here. Had anyone known Tony was there? He swallows hard, thinking of the way the arc reactor had sputtered and spit when he yanked the shield out of Tony’s armor’s chest. “Could you please let me know if there’s any news on...If there’s anything I... ” He trails off, because he doesn’t know what he’s asking. Doesn’t know how to frame it.

Shuri seems to understand anyway. “I will have my office send a message if circumstances change, Captain Rogers.”

“Thank you,” he says, feeling wholly inadequate. He stands up, needing to escape suddenly. To pace, to think. To worry. “And thank you for taking the time to see me, Your Highness. I know you’re a busy woman. I hope I didn’t disrupt your day.”

“Not at all,” she says, rising from her chair as well to walk him to the door. “I wouldn’t be concerned, Captain,” she says, courteously opening the door for him. “Your friends are resourceful and clever, resilient and strong. I believe they will be fine, but we will keep you informed.”

Steve thanks her again and wanders in a daze back to his suite. It’s well and fine for the Princess to have faith in Tony’s survival, but she hadn’t seen the wreckage of the man Steve had left in his wake. Voices hammer in his head, accusatory and unwelcome, strident and unstoppable.

Staying together is more important than how we stay together.

Congratulations, Captain. You're a criminal.

Your judgment is askew.

You really want to punch your way out of this?

Don’t bullshit me, Rogers. Did. You. Know?

We’re not all getting out of here.

I don’t care. He killed my mom.

I’m not sure I’m worth all this, Steve.

Steve puts his head in his hands, grinding the heels of his palms into his eyes. “He’s my friend,” he mumbles, reassurance, justification? He doesn’t know anymore.

So was I.

oOoOoOo

Breaking his team out of the Raft is a challenge, enough that he wishes he'd done it before leaving the country. He feels wrong in civvies, misses the shield like he's lost a part of himself, but at the end of the day, he's quick and resourceful and unaugmented soldiers will never be a match for his capabilities, no matter how many come at him.

He moves through the darkened halls, alarms whooping in the distance, tries to focus because he’s on the clock here. But a part of his mind is elsewhere, riding along with an innocuous cardboard FedEx box. He wonders if Tony’s gotten the letter he wrote yet, wonders if he’ll read it. He’d sweated and gnawed fingernails over every word. Tried to explain himself. Tried to make amends, despite still not agreeing with Tony on the Accords.

He’s not sure how well he did it, but he knows he had to try.

He’d been relieved after Shuri’s attache delivered the news that Tony had been located and rescued by Vision not long after Steve himself had left the Winter Soldier facility. Injured but alive, the words a salve for a nagging wound. Tony was fine. Their last words wouldn’t be angry and cruel, there was time to repair their friendship.

So was I.

He shakes it off and continues his swift journey to the suite of cells where the schematics say the Avengers are being held, takes out the last two conscious guards with a couple of quick, efficient nerve strikes. As the second guard crumples, Steve swipes the keycard from his belt and uses it to unlock the final door standing between him and the cells.

Sam’s the only one on his feet, but they’re all looking at the door when he comes out of the dark. Sam’s smile is faint, Clint’s bitter. Scott looks like he wants to smile, but can’t find the energy to do so. Wanda… Worry pricks needle-sharp in Steve’s mind. Wanda’s expression is distant, vacant, and she’s curled up on the floor with her back to the wall, one hand pressed against the collar around her throat. A red light blinks between her fingers.

“The Star-Spangled Man with a plan,” Clint says, and there’s a hint of something in his voice that raises Steve’s hackles, something dark and angry and violent. He stands and moves to the glass, wraps his hands around the bars inside the pane. “Thought you might have forgotten about us.”

“It was always the plan to come back for you,” Steve says calmly, even though he knows he really hadn't been thinking that far ahead after the airport. He ducks his head, studying the cell control panel, mostly so he doesn't have to look at Clint's burning, angry eyes or Wanda's dissociation.

Clint's laugh is short and ugly. “Good to know.”

Steve inputs the command to disengage the locks and looks up as the doors whir and slam and slide open. “We've only got a few minutes before Ross realizes the Raft is breached.”

“So if you gotta pee, pee now?” Scott's smile is horrific in its lack of humor, but he gets off the cot and leaves his cell. “I need to get the suit. I can't leave it behind.” His expression twists into a half-sneer. “If Stark hasn’t stolen it already, that is.”

Steve blinks, taken aback. “All your gear is still in the armory,” he says. “We’ll grab it on the way out.”

Wanda still hasn’t moved, but looks up when Clint goes into her cell and holds out a hand. “C’mon, on your feet,” he says. “We gotta go.”

She blinks, slow and bleary. “The last time you came for me, I ended up in prison,” she says. Steve winces as Clint reels back like she slapped him. “Where will I end up if I come with you now?”

“Somewhere safe,” Steve cuts in, glances up at the monitors and radar screens. “We have incoming aircraft. We don’t have time for this. Move now, or stay here.”

“Nowhere is safe,” she mumbles, but gets herself on her feet and slowly moves past Clint and into the room.

Only then does Steve realize Sam hasn’t said anything yet. But when he turns to look, Sam’s out of his cell, silent and waiting. Those needle pinpricks are digging into Steve’s mind again, leaving things feeling askew and off. But he takes his own advice and moves now, because they really don’t have time for anything else.

-----

They’re ten miles away from the Raft, flying under stealth in Steve’s stolen quinjet back to Wakanda, when Sam calmly turns to Clint, eyes him for a moment, and then punches him in the face. Steve reaches out and hauls Sam back as Clint rocks back, nearly falling into Wanda, who is staring with gigantic, frightened eyes. His cheek is already red and swelling. “Ow! Fuck! “What the fuck was that for, Wilson?”

Sam’s voice is cool, quiet, deadly. “The crack about Rhodes. I don’t care how pissed you are at Stark. You went too far.” He shrugs Steve’s hand off his shoulder and sits down, closing his eyes and leaning his head back against the hull of the quinjet.  

Steve arches an eyebrow as Clint glares but slumps back, pressing ginger fingertips against his cheek, hissing in discomfort. “Tony came to see you?”

Sam opens his eyes, and they’re tired. “Yeah, man. He wanted to know where you went, because he thought you needed help. He find you okay?”

Steve looks away for a moment, then back. Folds his arms against his chest. He hadn’t questioned how Tony had found them in Siberia, and Tony hadn’t said. “Yeah, he did,” he says, and falls silent.

“Well?” Clint says. “I mean, we went to jail to get you there. I don’t know about you three, but I’d like to hear what happened.”

Steve sighs. “The interrogator’s name was Zemo, and he was Sokovian,” he says tiredly, and Wanda jerks her head up. “He had no intention of using the other Winter Soldiers. They were dead when we got there. He killed them without even trying to wake them up.”

“Then…” Scott’s forehead furrows. “I’m confused. He wanted information about psycho assassins to not use them? That doesn’t make any sense.”

I've lost everyone. And so will you.

Steve smiles humorlessly and turns to sit down on the rack, rubbing his hands together slowly. “He lost everyone he loved when Ultron attacked Sokovia. He wanted revenge. He wanted to destroy the Avengers. From the inside.”

The silence is long, weighty with shock. Steve doesn’t want to see realization dawn. Doesn’t want to see it sink in, make sense. He forces himself to keep his eyes open, his head up, because they deserve that much out of him. “Jesus, Steve,” Sam says quietly. “What did Tony say?”

I know that road. What’s this? Don’t bullshit me, Rogers. Did. You. Know?

“Not much of anything,” Steve says, settling on half-truths because it’s still too raw. The hurt, the betrayal, the stripped-bare anger and judgement on Tony’s face when he turned from the screen. He’s a coward for it, he knows it, but he can’t see it in anyone else’s face right now. “He’s been riding the edge for awhile. What Zemo had to say… Tony snapped, and we had to stop him before he killed someone.” Namely Bucky. “We… didn’t part well.”

“Figures,” Clint mutters. “Control freak can’t take losing control. Must’ve killed him to realize that for a futurist, he actually sucks ass at predicting the future.”

“None of us did,” Steve says, and closes his eyes. But he knows he’s lying. He saw it coming three years ago at Camp Lehigh, when Arnim Zola implied the Starks’ car accident hadn’t been an accident. When he found out the Winter Soldier assassinated people HYDRA wanted out of the way. He’d put it together all the way back then, but in all the bases he’d raided, all the files he’d pulled, he had never tried to confirm it. Never wanted to confirm his suspicions.

I didn’t know it was him.

Don’t bullshit me, Rogers. Did. You. Know?

…. Yes.

He hasn’t stopped lying about it yet, and he knows it. Knows things could have been very different if he’d just been honest with Tony from the start. He’d said it in the letter, hadn’t he? I was protecting myself. He needs to be honest with the others too. Scott and Wanda and Clint and Sam. Tell them what they really threw their freedom and their families and their lives and their respect away for.

But not right now. He’ll tell them when they get to Wakanda.

oOoOoOo

The next time he sees Tony, it’s two weeks later and he’s on the TV, being interrogated by a special Congressional hearing on the events in Siberia, sitting at a table in the front and flanked by people Steve assumes are his lawyers. Tony should be owning this; Steve's seen footage of the hearings from when Congress wanted him to hand over the Iron Man armor to the government. He'd been in his element then, had full control over the proceedings with his characteristic flair.

Now, he just looks pale and tired, silent and stone-faced. And try as he might, Steve can’t see a single face in the crowd he knows. Why isn’t anyone with him? Pepper, he can understand, he supposes, remembering that Tony told him they’d split up. And Rhodey as well, since he’s no doubt still recovering. But where’s Natasha? Where’s Vision? Where’s…

He really should have realized it before, he thinks, staring at the television. There aren’t any more Avengers left, because they’re in Wakanda with him.

“I don’t know where they are,” Tony says into the microphone, and Jesus, he sounds weary. “Believe me, if I knew, I would tell you. They all need to answer for what they’ve done.”

“Do you honestly expect this committee to believe that you would give up the location of your friends, Mr. Stark?” one of the committee members asks, and derision is clear in her voice.

“They’re not my friends,” Tony says flatly. “As I think my many on-record documented injuries show.”

And Steve flinches, stomach roiling, as the picture cuts to a pretty brunette holding a microphone. “Wrapping up his third day of testimony before Congress, billionaire Tony Stark claims he has had no contact with former Avengers Hawkeye, Falcon or Scarlet Witch since their escape from the enhanced containment facility, believed to be facilitated by none other than Captain America himself.

“Stark further claims he was not involved in the breakout, but questions remain as to how it was funded, leading many to believe that Stark provided financial and technological assistance to Captain Rogers. Stark is expected to testify before the special committee for two more days, and—”

Steve turns the TV off, unable to watch it anymore. He stands from the couch and goes over to the window, leaning against the frame with folded arms and staring out over the city. He can’t help but think that Tony would love it here, be completely in his element with the technology. He also knows Tony would never be allowed in, not so long as T’Challa is protecting him and the others.

“I take it you saw the report,” comes Sam’s voice suddenly, and Steve looks over his shoulder to see him standing in the door.

“Yeah,” he says, and returns his attention to the view out the window. “I didn't think they'd go after Tony like they are. He signed the Accords, he should have been safe.”

“Except he broke them when he went to help you.” Sam joins him at the window, leaning on the sill. “They could probably find a way to pin everything on him if they wanted, man. I mean, does Ross seem like the kind of guy to lose graciously?”

He's seen the footage of the Hulk, seen the classified interviews with Ross and other military officials about the project. He remembers being taken aback by the zealotry Ross displayed then, determined beyond reason to capture the Hulk, and using his own daughter to do it. “Not really. I just thought…”

“I don't think you were thinking, Steve,” Sam says quietly. “I think your brain shuts off when you hear the word Bucky, and everything else stops mattering. And I don't think the full weight of everything that's happened has sunken into your head yet.”

Steve blinks.

“You know what you have a lot of time to do in supermax, Steve?” Sam isn't looking at him. “You have a lot of time to think, because they don't give you books or paper or magazines. And I did a lot of thinking. And I kept right on thinking after we got here.”

Steve’s mouth is inexplicably dry. “About what, Sam?”

Sam turns, and the look in his eyes stabs at Steve. Sharp, disappointed, unhappy, regretful. “When did you know Bucky killed Stark's parents, Steve? When did you find out?”

“I didn't know it was him.” It sounds tired and weak to his own ears.

Sam arches an eyebrow. “Really.”

Steve sighs, stares out the window again. “Not for sure,” he mutters. “But I suspected.” He rubs his forehead tiredly. “Zola dropped heavy enough hints, but I never confirmed it.”

“Zola… the dude in the computers, Zola?”

Steve nods tightly.

Jesus, Steve. That was three years ago. Why didn't you tell him? Didn't you ever stop to think that might be information Stark might want to know?”

“You think you're saying anything I haven't thought a thousand times?” Steve turns from the window, sinking back against the wall, tilting his head up to stare at the ceiling. “I should have. I know I should have. I just… I don’t know what I thought, okay?”

“He was helping you , Steve. Running facial recognition, buying information, ransacking HYDRA bases...”

Steve sighs. “I was trying to protect Bucky, Sam. It wasn’t his fault. HYDRA was controlling his mind. You said it yourself, back in Seoul. Tony wouldn’t have believed me. And he didn’t care, when he saw it. He didn’t care that it wasn’t Bucky. He wanted to kill him, just like T’Challa did. He wouldn’t stop.”

Sam’s eyebrows both go up, and there’s a kind of horror on his face, slow-moving. “When he saw it? When he saw what?”

Steve flinches, fast and deep, because he hadn’t meant to say that at all. “There was a video,” he admits reluctantly. “Zemo had it set up to play. It was a street camera from the night Tony’s parents died.” Sam is gaping at him like he's never seen Steve before, dismayed and bewildered. Steve rolls his shoulders uncomfortably under the weight of it.

Shit .” Sam sounds shaky, dumbfounded. He wipes at his face again with a palm. “ Jesus Christ . You...Man, who are you anymore?”

“I’ll tell you if I ever figure that out.” He opens his eyes, rolls his head on the wall until he’s looking at Sam. “You going to tell the others?”

“No,” Sam says, and there’s the anger Steve’s been expecting. Furious hurt, betrayal and disappointment. “ You are. You’re going to tell them exactly what you just told me, because they deserve that much respect from you. It’s about goddamn time you showed it, don’t you think?” He stares wordless at Steve for another minute, the bursts out, “What were you thinking?”

“I was trying to protect Bucky.”

Sam shakes his head slowly. “And who, exactly, was trying to protect the rest of us?”

I’m trying to keep you from tearing the Avengers apart!

You're going to turn over Barnes and come with us because it's us.

It’s a horrible, bitter pill to swallow. But the ugly truth is… “Tony was,” Steve says quietly, and doesn’t try to stop Sam when he turns on a heel and stalks out of the room without another word.

oOoOoOo

Steve finds Clint outside, at his makeshift archery range, sinking arrow after arrow into a broad wooden post a hundred yards away. Clint is in a rhythm, arrows drawn, nocked, released with the kind of precise regularity a person could keep time with. Steve watches him for a while, trying to get a read on his mental state. Clint’s been bitter and angry since Steve told them about the Starks’ assassination, and Steve hasn’t seen him much in the last couple of weeks.

“Nathan’s birthday is in a few weeks,” Clint says out of the blue, while Steve’s still trying to figure out the best way to approach him. He doesn’t stop, doesn’t turn, doesn’t look Steve’s way. He just keeps smoothly drawing and loosing at his target. “Did you know that?”

Steve shakes his head. “No, I didn’t.”

“He’ll be one.” Draw, nock, pull, loose. “Laura had a party planned. She’s been planning it for weeks.” Draw, nock, pull, loose. “So when you called, said ‘Hey Clint, I need some help’, I was looking for an excuse to get out of the house.” Draw, nock, pull, loose. “Cos you know, I love that woman, but she’s hell on wheels when she’s got her eyes set on something.”

Steve chews on the inside of his cheek. “Clint…”

Reflex snaps his hand up before he registers Clint’s whirl, and his hand closes around the shaft of an arrow, stopping it midflight. The arrowhead vibrates beside his temple; Clint wasn’t aiming to hit. It’s small comfort, all things considered.

Clint’s hand is white-knuckled on his bow as he lowers it. “I came out of retirement for you. Because you’re Captain goddamn America, and when Cap calls, you answer because you know he’s doing the right thing. But more than that… when Steve Rogers calls, and he’s looking for his friends to help him, you’re happy to do it, because Steve’s a good man. And now…” He smiles a bitter, twisted smile and spreads his arms. “Here we are in Wakanda, and fuck only knows if we’ll ever get to go home again. Because of you .”

“Clint, that’s not…” Steve shuts his mouth and squeezes his eyes shut. “There was a lot going on that you don’t know.”

“Yeah? Seems as good a time as any to get it all out in the open, Mr. I Hate It When People Keep Shit From Me.”

Steve tenses with a grimace, because that was more than a little pointed. “There’s...Tony would have… I needed…” He’s fumbling for the right words. It was easier with Sam, because Sam started life as an Avenger thanks to his friendship with Steve. Clint’s been there since the start, though; his loyalties have always been more divided.

I’m trying to keep you from tearing the Avengers apart!

“No,” Clint says with a dark chuckle, shaking his head. “No, fuck you, Steve. You know what, I’m pretty goddamn pissed at Tony right now, but you don’t get to blame him for this particular clusterfuck. This is all you. We gave up everything because you asked. I left my wife, my kids, my cozy fucking retirement because you needed me to do some avenging one last time. But somewhere along the line, it stopped being about the Avengers or saving the world and stopping the bad guy. And then it was all about your ego. Your certainty that you’re the only one who can ever be trusted. Everyone needs to fall in line behind you. You let us all throw ourselves at bullets for you, thinking we were sacrificing for the cause. Only the cause was you getting Barnes away from anyone who might look at him cross-eyed.”

Steve bristles, shoulders bunching, and he draws himself to his full height. “It wasn't his fault!” he snaps. “And they wanted to bring him in like a criminal! He's a victim here! Of all people, I thought you'd understand! I’d do the same for any of you!”

“Why? Because I spent some time with Loki digging around in my brain? Yeah, I get it. I understand perfectly, Steve.” Clint swallows hard, his eyes full of ice and rage. “What I don’t understand? Where was all this hyperprotective big-brother bullshit when it was me, huh? When SHIELD had me locked up with shrinks and therapists crawling out of my ass? Why wasn’t ‘protect my friend’ your reaction when it was Tony, after Wanda messed around with his head? Christ , Steve. You were attacking him, blaming him, making sure he knew he’d fucked up. Hell, where was your concern for Wanda’s mental state after her goddamn brother died saving my ass? Nowhere. So no, Steve. You wouldn’t do it for any of us, because you didn’t do it for any of us. Not when we needed it. Just Bucky fucking Barnes gets that privilege.”

Every word smacks at him like a hammer blow, until he’s buffeted in a storm of accusations, battered around and around until there are icy claws in his gut, until his chest is so tight it feels like an asthma attack, until his head spins with dawning, sick realization. “That’s not…”

Your judgement is askew.

Rumlow said “Bucky” and I was a 16 year old kid in Brooklyn again.

“Zemo wanted us torn apart?” Clint sneers. “Congratulations, Captain. You destroyed us for him.”

oOoOoOo

He has regrets. More than he thought he would. Things didn't play out the way he'd wanted, and his reasons weren’t what he thought they were. The people who should be here with him aren't here. Maybe they should have tried harder to understand, but maybe he should have tried harder to make them understand too.

Because he didn’t just lose the higher road here. He’s no longer sure he ever had it to begin with.

No one's talking to him. Scott, with terrible disappointment on his face, retreats to his rooms. Sam doesn't look at him. Clint glares every time he comes near. And Wanda... Wanda wanders into the jungle, and doesn't come back for days.

The tightness in his chest is a constant pressure now, a hot, hollow ball of grief and anger and sorrow, a shadow over his thoughts. A bitter taste in the back of his throat, that grows to coat his whole mouth. He knows what that taste is now. He knows it’s ash from his Pyrrhic victory, because he might have won Bucky’s freedom, but he lost everything else important to him.

oOoOoOo

The week after his conversation with Clint, a quinjet bearing the Avengers symbol on both wings streaks overhead, and Steve finds himself reaching for the shield before he remembers he dropped it in Siberia, curses under his breath as he races to intercept whatever force is going to come down the ramp. He loses sight of it as it drops behind the building, and rounds the corner at a dead run.

He skids to a stop, confused at the sight of Laura Barton and her three kids coming down the gangplank, with another couple and a brown-haired girl behind her. He slowly moves forward, still wary for attack, as Clint drops to his knees and gathers his family to him, turns his face away at the tears streaming down all their faces.

“How?” Clint’s saying brokenly. “How are you here?”

“Tony,” Laura replies, tremulous. “Tony came for us before Ross could.”

“He had an invisible plane, Dad,” Clint’s son — Cooper, Steve thinks — says. “It was really cool.”

“Tony did this?” Clint, low and slow, incredulous. "Even after everything?"

“Yeah,” Laura breathes. “Even after everything. He didn't want me to tell you.”

Steve’s back stiffens, shoulders bunch tight. He withdraws as Scott comes racing out of the building, yelling for his daughter. This isn’t a place for him. The tears, the joy, he has no right to witness any of it.  Because the simple sight of the Barton family, the Lang family, with their tears and their laughter… It finally opens his eyes.

I'm trying to keep you from tearing the Avengers apart!

Your judgement is askew.

You're going to turn Barnes over and come with is because it's us.

So was I.

You really want to punch your way out of this one?

Captain Rogers, for the common good, you must surrender now.

What do we do, Cap?

What’s going to happen to your friends?

Sometimes I want to punch you in your perfect teeth, but I don’t want you to see you gone.

We need you, Cap.

Somewhere along the way, he stopped caring about his family. Somewhere along the way, they stopped being anything but pieces to sacrifice for the end result. Somewhere along the way, he decided that his way was the only way, and everyone could get on board or step aside.

Staying together is more important than how we stay together.

I’m trying to keep you from tearing the Avengers apart!

“Oh God,” he breathes, and sags against the wall of the building, sliding down when his legs refuse to hold him up anymore. He can't breathe past the hot ball of pain. “What have I done?”