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No Winter Lasts Forever

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Hours after the firefight, the Avengers handed over the Winter Soldier to SHIELD medical. The doctors there knew about all kinds of brainwashing; they insisted that they could break whatever Department X had done to him. Barton blanched at the topic of discussion and hastily excused himself. Romanova stuck it out through the whole explanation, though, as did Rogers. For Agent Coulson it was a grim reminder of too many times when he'd brought assets back with head injuries, mental damage, or worse.

Stark pinned him with a worried gaze for a moment, then returned his attention to the computer in his palm. Agent Coulson ignored the busy genius. He was more concerned about Rogers, who seemed impassive ... except that Agent Coulson had seen that look on men who were quietly bleeding to death inside.

He may be physically uninjured, but he's far from unhurt, Agent Coulson thought. Stark turned his anxious eyes on Rogers, frowned, and tapped something else into the tiny keyboard. Rogers didn't even notice, all his attention riveted on the doctors. Usually he tracks teammates better than this. His situational awareness is dropping; we need to get him home as soon as possible.

Agent Coulson furnished Director Fury with a preliminary report, augmented by camera footage from the battle that Stark had quick-sorted. He also managed a list of the most readily identifiable prisoners and weaponry, although they'd need to make a more thorough inventory of both later. He told Fury that the Avengers weren't up to more than cursory debriefing.

"Nobody's dying. We have auxiliary teams set to capitalize on the chaos, and they need all the intel they can get before they leave," Director Fury insisted. He leaned toward a stone-faced Rogers. "You all can damn well finish the full debriefing now."

"Well we have a man down and a whole lot of collateral damage from that, and we need to get the fuck home," said Stark, pushing between Fury and Rogers. "You are getting on my last nerve, One-Eye."

Romanova reinforced Agent Coulson's assessment by pinning her single-page summary to Fury's desk with a knife. Hawkeye's mouth twitched.

There were no more delays getting the team home after that.

The ride to the tower itself was quiet. Nobody felt like talking. The warm spring weather didn't cheer them up, although it was a relief after the chill of Russia's late-running winter. Even the bustle of the city around them felt muffled and strange.

"I need to go pour Bruce into bed," Tony said when they arrived. Bruce had recovered enough to stagger along with some assistance, but no more than that. Betty hurried up from the lab levels to support Bruce from the other side.

Phil nodded agreement. That left him torn between Natasha and Steve. Natasha was visibly trembling and taking deep measured breaths in an effort to maintain control of herself. Steve sidled around proffered hands to head briskly toward the door, and that just wasn't like him. He might keep silent about some things, especially his own grief, but he didn't tend to shy away from physical contact as some of the others did.

"I've got this," Clint said, taking charge of Natasha. He led her away.

Phil hustled after Steve. He had no hope of catching up to the long legs and determined stride, but at a jog he could at least avoid falling any further behind. Oddly enough, Steve went straight to the common room instead of to his own floor. He dropped himself on the couch just as Phil crossed the threshold.

It was like watching a vase hit pavement.

Steve's composure broke all at once, scattering into a thousand razor shards. He folded over his own knees without any effort to support himself. Everything hidden spilled out all at once, broken open with no hope of containment. The deep, shattering sobs tore at Phil's heart. Steve's whole body shook with the force of them, heavy breaths dragged in and coughed back out. Words mingled with the cries, too tattered and incoherent for Phil to interpret.

Mindful of how firmly Steve had rebuffed earlier offers of comfort, Phil approached with caution. He did not want to intrude where unwelcome. If Steve truly wanted privacy, though, he would have retreated to his own floor, Phil reasoned. Maybe he feels ready to deal with this now that we're safe ...

As soon as Phil came within arm's reach, Steve grabbed him and bawled into his legs. It took a few minutes for Phil to untangle himself enough even to sit down. He shifted Steve into a more comfortable position, draping the soldier over his lap so that Steve's head rested on Phil's shoulder. Steve didn't resist, but neither did he help; he simply let Phil move him as desired. Steve cried as if he would choke up pieces of himself into the open air. Phil could feel how broken Steve was, a sensation as disturbing as bone shards shifting under his hands.

The first words that Phil could make out were "my fault."

It's going to be one of those nights, Phil thought. Sometimes all you could do after a bad mission was hold the emotional garbage can for your assets to puke into so they wouldn't have to suffer through the aftermath alone.

"This is all my fault," Steve wailed. "I let him fall. I left him there, I thought he was dead but he wasn't, and I left him there to die! I should have gone back for him. I should have saved him. Bucky's my brother and my best friend and I want him back I want him back I want him back." Steve's voice sawed through the phrases with harsh, desperate haste.

Phil combed his fingers through Steve's hair. "You're not alone. I'll take care of you," he said. "Get it all out." There would be no talking sense to Steve until he ran through everything he'd stifled while they were in the field. Truth and lies mixed together like broken glass in molasses, and Steve had no way of sorting them out as long as he held them inside. Phil held him and let him talk.