In the end, it’s Bucky who decides.
“I don’t trust him,” Steve says, not for the first time, as he paces the safe house. “He means well, but he’s–”
“Scared,” Bucky supplies. His arm creaks with his breath. “He should be. So am I. I don’t want to be put in a hole to rot. I’ve done enough of that.”
“He won’t do shit. The system’ll do something. We don’t know what. But,” Bucky cuts off, raking a hand through his hair and then across his mouth. It’s an unfamiliar gesture, enough that Steve is once again forcibly reminded that the friend he’d known from Brooklyn is no longer the one he has now. Still his brother, just…
“You haven’t done anything wrong,” he insists.
“Except that I have,” Bucky growls. “It may not be my fault, but all of those awful things in that—that file that’s everywhere now, that was me. I wasn’t right, but it was me.”
“What he’s suggesting isn’t justice.”
“What he’s suggesting is going to get the fewest people killed.” Bucky exhales. “At least for now.” He looks up at Steve with infuriating doe eyes. “At least talk to him.”
Steve looks at Sam, who’s been watching them go back and forth for the past twenty minutes, not saying anything, arms crossed. At Steve’s expectant look, he raises his eyebrows.
“Look,” he says, “You’ve got a couple of options here. One, go after the establishment, which I’m not saying is the wrong thing to do—establishment’s got a lot wrong with it—but it will cause a lot of collateral damage, not the least of which being the team you’ve just formed, the allies you’ve just found these past few years.”
“Romanoff,” Bucky murmurs, and Steve winces. The last time she talked to him, she’d made her position very clear.
“I put my name out because I was willing to be accountable,” she had said, eyes still damnably warm, but also sad. “I stand by that. I stand by the reasons behind it. I joined SHIELD before, remember? I stand by that, too.”
“Two,” Sam continues, “You talk. Maybe you work something out, maybe you don’t. But at least you’ll know why Stark’s doing what he’s doing. You might not agree with it, but better to know than not.”
“And three?” Steve asks, with growing dread.
Sam shrugs. “Run.”
Bucky barks out a laugh. “Yeah, right.”
Steve sighs. “It’s not going to—“
“Sam,” Bucky cuts in, “Can we have a minute?”
Steve looks at him incredulously. “Sam’s one of us, anything you gotta say, he can hear.”
“I don’t have to, though,” Sam says, putting his hands up. “I’ve said my two cents, and frankly, listening to you two for half an hour is exhausting. I’m gonna go call my mom on the secure line and let her know we’re all right.”
He steps out. Steve looks at Bucky. “What?”
Bucky looks right back at him. “You’re taking this awfully badly, for a guy who took Duggan royally fucking us over once or twice with barely a blink.”
“Your life’s at stake, Buck.”
Bucky tips his head in acknowledgement. “So it is. So it was. What’s eating you this time?”
Steve glances away.
“He got under your skin, huh?” Bucky says, with a crooked smile.
“We barely know each other,” Steve says, but it sounds insincere even to his own ears.
“You know enough. And from what I’ve seen, he’s a better man than his father.”
Steve swallows. “He is.”
“So go,” Bucky says. “Go before you start a fight you don’t want to finish. Idiot.”
Tony looks tired, when Steve comes into the offices at Stark Tower. It’s…disturbing. Steve’s seen Tony tired before, of course, numerous times, but it’s always been tinged with manic energy, a last crackle of fight that keeps his tongue sharp and his eyes focused. The bags under his eyes this time speak of slow, grinding exhaustion that Steve remembers seeing in the eyes of his men, when they’d been walking for weeks, sleeping fitfully in foxholes.
“Oh,” Tony says, uninflected. “We’re talking now? That’s new and different.”
Steve takes a slow breath. “I deserve that.”
From behind his desk, Tony tilts his head up to regard him. “Long time no see, Cap. What can I do for you?”
Slowly, Steve crosses the room. He’s in his civvies, having purposefully left his shield at home, and he feels underdressed in his jeans next to Tony’s bespoke suit. “You can explain to me,” he says slowly, sitting down in one of the ergonomic client chairs, “How a guy who told Congress to fuck right off over his intellectual property can suddenly turn around and act holier-than-thou about vigilantism.”
Tony’s eyes flash, but then the spark is gone again. “The day I have a leg to stand on in a holier-than-thou competition with you, Cap, is the day I should probably retire.”
They stare at each other for a long moment. Then it’s Tony who exhales.
“Did it ever occur to you,” he says, scrubbing a hand across his face, “That I might have people to protect? Just like you?”
Steve opens his mouth; Tony talks over him.
“Except, see, they aren’t supersoldiers. They haven’t got special powers, they’re not gods or heroes, they’re just people. Like me. I’m just a guy in a suit, remember?”
“We save people, we keep them safe,” Steve says. “That’s what we do.”
“We try. We do our best. But what about when our best isn’t enough? What if our best is a massive fuckup, that ruins a whole country, what then?”
Steve cocks his head. “Is this…about guilt?”
“You’re damned right it’s about guilt,” Tony snaps, hand coming down on the table flat. “What happened in Sokovia was all me, and like it or not, I should be tried for it. But because Iron Man got some good press about it in the States, fighting the good fight with the Avengers, we as a country have decided that I’m a-okay, I’m fine, besides, Eastern Europe doesn’t really matter, we’ve ignoring what goes on there for years—“
“Tony!” Steve leans forward. “Taking you out of the picture isn’t going to fix anything.”
“No,” Tony agrees, meeting his eyes for the first time. “Not at this point. But there should be laws in place that will make it harder, not just for me, but for all of us, to fuck up. Because I know I’m the merchant of death, but you’re not fallible either, Cap, and neither is Natasha, and neither is your friend.” He makes a considering look at the ceiling. “Sam, on the other hand, possibly infallible. He is almost inhumanly even-keeled, especially for a guy who likes flying around on actual metal wings.”
“He was the one who first suggested I should talk to you,” Steve admits.
Tony snorts softly.
“So where does that leave us?” he asks, after a moment. He sounds startlingly vulnerable all of a sudden, and Steve suddenly thinks of Rhodes, who risked his military commission every time he made it up to the Avengers facility, and Pepper, who had seemed surprised and wary when Steve showed up at the office this morning, but let him up anyway. He looks at Tony, who had walked away because he was “done”, even when he clearly wasn’t, not in spirit or intention.
“I don’t trust you,” he repeats, and as Tony’s face falls infinitesimally, adds, “But I could, if you let me work with you on this.”
Tony looks at him, and Steve lets him. He doesn’t know what Tony sees. Realizes that he hasn’t cared about that in a while, but he does now, suddenly and strongly.
“Undermining it doesn’t count as working on it,” Tony says finally, the edge in his voice only somewhat softened.
“Understood,” Steve nods. “I don’t—I don’t want to fight.”
“That’s a first.”
“You been talking to Bu—,” he stops himself with a huff.
Tony manages a wan smile. “No, but I’ve got this feeling I know what he’s talking about.”
Steve smiles back.