Natasha's survival instincts kicked in the moment she woke, keeping her body still while she assessed her surroundings. She was clothed in a soft cotton gown with two sets of ties in the back, combined with the antiseptic scent in the air and the dull ache in her side that flared with each inhale, she concluded she was in a hospital. A decent one by the feel of the sheets and a friendly one by the lack of constraints. Wakanda. Steve. Wanda.
"I know you're awake." Tony said. "No one breathes that evenly with two fractured ribs. Good try, but I'm sort of an expert on broken ribs."
Memories filtered back to her. "Is she contained?" Natasha glanced over at Tony, slouched against the doorway and next to Ayo of the Dora Milaje. She realized with a reluctant relief that he looked better, more rested, and happier. Without them.
The bitter taste in her mouth was likely from the lack of teeth-brushing. Dental hygiene didn't seem to be a priority when there were broken bones.
"In a way." Tony shrugged, caution and casualness and callousness were rolled into the lift of his shoulders, then appeasement and apology and annoyance as they dropped. "She didn't make it out. Something about drained life forces and balances in nature. She, um, imploded. Self-destructed. I'm sure T'Challa–" He turned to shoot Ayo an obviously faked cower, at which she rolled her eyes and he responded with a cheeky wink. "I mean, His Feline Highness, can explain what happened better than how I'm doing."
Natasha blinked at the display of emotions before her. It was dizzying how expressive he was, an undeniably force of feelings that set her skin crawling.
Tony straightened. "You know, I thought about what I'd say and even had a speech prepared but eh, screw it. It is what it is." He adjusted the pair of purple tinted sunglasses with a nudge, a subtle but visible layer of armor that he didn't used to need around these people he once considered team, friends, family. "If any of you need help dealing with what happened, call the tower. Pass the offer along, alright?"
"Why me?" Natasha croaked, asking a question of no importance to the situation but of great significance to her.
"At least you tried to apologize." Tony replied, then he left with a small wave and without another glance.
It was as though the noises of the room, the hallway, and the medical wing all rushed back at once, drowning out Tony's parting footsteps. Natasha gaped at the empty doorway, only shifting her puzzled stare away when Ayo spoke up.
"Mr. Stark's offer is quite generous, to allow you use of the technology he has developed. Given the Scarlet Witch's history, her attacks lean toward the psychological and the damage may linger for quite some time. Your physical injuries were sustained when you and the others–" Ayo sneered, no doubt thinking of a far less neutral term to describe the former Avengers. "–attempted to fight off the visions she inflicted on you."
Information and analysis shifted rapidly in Natasha's mind, processing Wanda's powers and their implications, deducing what technology was offered, and snagging on the sheer kindness of Tony's offer. This was the Tony Stark she had never met nor bothered to know, whose heart was hardened to keep betrayals at bay yet still capable to feel empathy for those subjected to mental manipulation. Like Tony had been.
Clint had raged once about Tony's despicable attempt to absolve himself of Ultron with the claim of mind control. She had agreed and labelled Tony as pathetic, going so far as to lecture him in his lab. Natasha wondered, belatedly and pointlessly, how much red in her ledger came from her ill treatment of Tony. Selfishly, she wished she could somehow balance her debt, but she knew now whatever actions she took wouldn't be for Tony's sake. It would be to alleviate her guilt at Tony's expense, which would simply be another entry in the long list of wrongs committed against the man she never considered a friend.
Natasha closed her eyes with a sigh, feeling inordinately fatigued by more than her physical injuries, and waited for sleep to claim her again. It was not peaceful and would not be for quite some time.
Natasha only felt the coldness of the blade for a second before the warmth trickling out of her veins washed it away in a flood of red. Instinctively and uselessly, her hand shot to the wound in a feeble attempt to stop the inevitable. A severed carotid artery was a clear death sentence. She wondered fleetingly how she knew that as she gaped at the blood spray pattern on the wall, a wide arc that resembled a monochromatic rainbow. As the chills settled in, Natasha slumped further down until she lay lifelessly on the floor, staring up into the emotionless eyes of the Black Widow.
The Accords had established a system of review and resolution for superheroes and enhanced beings. A panel would assess the case, hear from the responsibly party, and determine the appropriate sentence. This arrangement obviated conflicts among countries claiming priority jurisdiction, alleviated public reservations about corrupt government seeking to further its agenda, and expedited proceedings that would otherwise span months if not years.
Nine representatives formed the panel, seven rotating members from the 117 countries that had approved the Accords and two of the New Avengers, Dr. Banner and Dr. Strange. The former had been chosen for his history with the ex-Avengers and the latter for his lack thereof, and both for their absence in this so-called Civil War.
Natasha sat stoically throughout her hearing, keeping her answers succinct and avoiding eye contact with Bruce. He, in turn, did not acknowledge her. The shadows beneath her eyes looked like bruises, but she was used to functioning with limited sleep. Nearly every night she experienced or executed death. Sporadically, she would have one night of peace but that only set her on edge because she preferred patterns over unpredictability. Despite her exhaustion, she did not pursue Tony's offer of help. It wasn't to punish herself or to spite Tony, but that her condition was manageable. The Red Room had plagued her dreams for years and Natasha had her own set of coping strategies.
She would survive this too.
The panel did not take long before coming to a decision. Natasha predicted that her sentence would most likely resemble the one she had negotiated with SHIELD when she defected from the Red Room.
She was correct.
SHIELD had reformed and was in need of an experienced agent. Natasha's job was straightforward in its description and complex in its execution. She was tasked with training the recruits, which she had significant trepidation toward, unsure of her own judgment and unwilling to poison younger minds with her flawed teachings. In addition, she would be responsible for recovering former employees who chose to return to the agency. Natasha both dreaded and relished the prospect of connecting, with fists or words, with ex-SHIELD agents who she had indirectly betrayed and directly endangered. These were her first steps toward making amends.
She took them gladly.
The Black Widow watched the senate hearing with her usual clinical detachment, evaluating the target and finding her lacking. The target was arrogant and ignorant, a dangerous combination. She overstated her importance in the world, believing she deserved leniency because her skills as a soldier was irreplaceable. The Black Widow felt a twitch at the corner of her lips, the closest she would come to a frown, and reported her findings: Black Widow, yes. Natasha Romanoff, compromised.
The new agents eyed her with awe and fear. The reinstated agents treated her with cold civility. The ex-Avengers were scattered, no efforts were made to reconnect so she let it lie. The New Avengers ran like a well-oiled machine, without need for an outside consultant.
Natasha felt, for lack of a better word, lonely. It was an emotion that should have been banished years ago. The Black Widow was supposed to be a creature of solitude, yet Natasha wasn't. Her nightmares were manifestations of her fears, the push-and-pull between her two identities tormented her. The Black Widow was ruthless and Natasha Romanoff was compromised. Neither option was appealing.
The SHIELD building was one source of familiarity and comfort. Natasha found herself seeking out her previous hiding spot beneath the third floor stairwell. This was where she and Clint would go when the world became too much and they needed to shrink it down to a corner for just a little while. She had just settled in when she heard his familiar drawl.
"You're in my spot."
"We can share." She tucked her knees against her chest and patted the spot next to her. "Assuming we're still friends."
"You didn't hit me that hard." Clint sat down with a huff, recalling their exchange at the airport. "But let's not have a repeat."
"Agreed." Natasha snorted and avoided looking at his tremoring left hand. "So, how're Laura and the kids?"
"There's a reason I'm hiding from the world." Clint groaned before recapping how their reunion had gone.
Natasha listened, navigating this new terrain between compromised and supportive, sympathy and objectivity. She realized she was creating a new identity in that very moment and welcomed the challenge.
Clint woke up in a softly colored room. The walls were painted buttery yellow and the sheets were mint green. It reminded him of the gender neutral baby shower Laura had insisted on for Cooper, when they opted to keep the gender a surprise.
Since answering Steve's call and taking off in the middle of the night, Clint had purposely avoided thinking about his family. Instant compartmentalization kicked in when he was presented with a mission. After the Avengers had fallen apart, however, they occupied his thoughts and filled his heart with the tearing ache of regret. He missed Laura's dulcet yet commanding voice, Cooper and Lila's screeching laughter, and Nate's happy gurgle during their nightly story. Clint wondered if they missed him, if he deserved to be missed.
Clint had sacrificed one family for another. Laura and the kids for Steve and the Avengers.
Steve had sacrificed one family for another. The Avengers for the Winter Soldier.
Shaking off the unwelcome melancholy, Clint took a quick survey of his body. His left wrist, in a cast from palm to elbow, seemed to be the worst of his injuries. The rest of his body felt like one giant bruise, but nothing life-threatening based on the lack of medical monitoring. The only sound in his room was his own breathing, which Clint counted as he worked to push the faces of his family out of his mind.
Thinking of them won't do him any good, here, now, anymore.
Hawkeye squinted from his perch, the glare from the sun shining inconveniently into his eyes and the heat making him sweat. His longing for a cold beer on the porch in the evening breeze with his family was akin to a physical ache. With a start, he knew for certain that his target would never come and he could never go home. A bead of sweat landed in his right eye and another in his left, then they kept coming like a rain storm. The sweat became tears, which turned acidic and sizzled into his eyes and down his face.
Okoye informed Clint of Stark's offer, which he rejected and then promptly forgot about with a scoff, as she escorted him to his hearing. Once there, he gave Okoye a thoroughly condescending mockery of a bow before backing into the room with his backside toward the panel. They should have no illusion about how he felt about this entire charade.
Despite his purposefully antagonizing behaviors, especially toward the pompous Sorcerer Supreme, the sentence Clint received was better than he had expected, which both said quite a bit and very little considering he had been certain they would throw him back in the Raft.
Clint was back with SHIELD. His experience and skillset were apparently too valuable to languish behind bars, not when agents of his caliber were scarce after the agency's collapse. He considered sending Natasha a thank-you note, she was back at SHIELD too, but dismissed the idea when he remembered her distantly critical demeanor during their last interaction.
Any sense of humor vanished when Clint was informed his freedom, outside of strictly supervised missions, was limited to the SHIELD headquarters and associated subsidiary buildings. The conditions of his imprisonment, because that was exactly what this was, would be eligible for review on a yearly basis.
Clint raged and threatened until his voice ran hoarse, then made up for the lack of volume by punching and kicking at the walls while he waited for transfer. He ended up cracking the cast on his left hand and turning his stable fracture into a comminuted one, the delicate bones in his wrist now shattered instead of the original clean break. He would never hold a bow without a tremor.
"You did this to yourself." The doctor snapped, after weathering much of Clint's insults regarding his medical background and competency. "Learn to live with it."
Those words haunted him, more so than the nightmares.
Clint waited, impatiently, along with the other parents outside the school. A hint of a grin appeared on his face when the bell rung, widening as small children rushed out of the school yard and into the loving arms of their parents. Clint peered at the sea of blurred faces trying to locate his children and had no success – because he didn't know what his children looked like and because his world was suddenly a jumble of shapes and colors. His hands shook as he clenched them, hoping to stave off the emptiness.
SHIELD was the same and different. New faces filled old roles, new enemies in familiar territory, and new trainees learning from a former archer. Due to his record, battle and medical, Clint was removed from the roster as an active field agent. He was appointed to instruct a course on ranged offensive and defensive strategies, but it was cancelled after three sessions. Multiple agents cited Clint's frequent rants as disruptive and criticized his teaching style where the only technique was a feeling and the only advice was to follow one's instincts.
After that, Clint was demoted to a supervisory role during practice and he did not hesitate to snap or bark his frustrations at anyone in his line of sight, which given his moniker Hawkeye, was everyone. His keen vision felt like one giant cosmic joke that wasn't particularly funny but still brought him to hysterics a few times. Dr. Gilmore was a welcome face, to both Clint and SHIELD.
Six months after Clint's return to SHIELD, Laura brought the kids to visit him. The delay was first due to Laura's, and the children's, reluctance; then it was Clint's stunning lack of anger management skills.
The five of them sat around a small table with a large pizza, a poor imitation of how their family dinners used to be. Clint hadn't known how much he missed them and how badly he had ruined everything until he saw them and their sullen faces.
"So, what's that on Nate's shirt?" Clint asked, eyeing the long-necked animal in red pajamas printed on his son's shirt.
"It's the llama from his favorite books." Laura said when neither Cooper nor Lila answered, shifting Nate on her lap into a more comfortable position.
"Llama mama." Nate giggled.
Clint gaped at his youngest, who was talking. "Not familiar with that one, I remember Puff the Magic Dragon though."
Lila frowned. "That's a sad book."
"Puff the Magic Dragon is sad?" Clint asked, his confusion half real and half feigned in an attempt to encourage his children to explain, to talk to him.
"One gray night it happened, Jackie Paper came no more. And Puff, that mighty dragon, he ceased his fearless roar." Cooper intoned, a glare too spiteful for his age, for any age.
"No." Cooper leaned forward, eyes trained on the father he missed until he didn't. "You promised we'd go water-skiing then you just left. I asked you to stay, and Lila did too, but you didn't care. You didn't even stop."
"What? I don't remember that." Clint knew instantly that was the wrong thing to say.
"Of course not. You don't ever remember us. You just find a way to forget it so you can go be a hero." Lila's last word was a whispered scream.
Cooper reached for his sister's hand. "Every night, mom comes in and says everything will be okay but it isn't okay because she cries. I know I'm supposed to be a big boy since I'm the man of the house when you're gone–"
Laura gripped her son's shoulder.
"–but I cry too." Cooper inhaled sharply.
"Me too." Lila added.
"Clint." Laura said in that dulcet yet commanding tone Clint had and still loved. "It's over."
"It's not over, it can't be."
"It was over the moment you left in the middle of a family vacation." Laura's words were soft like a caress but landed like a punch. "My lawyer will contact you later this week, I'm open to a visitation agreement–"
"I don't want to see him!" Cooper muttered angrily.
"–provided the kids are too." Laura continued with the ease and patience of a mother who was used to interruptions. "I'm sorry, but I have to do what's best for my family."
Clint could only nod; after all, he had done what he thought was best for his family. It just wasn't the one with his wife and children. They left shortly after that, deferring to Nate's strict nap schedule, which Clint knew nothing about. He hadn't been there for his family, first because of SHIELD, then the Avengers and finally his own stupidity.
"I did this to myself." He said quietly, holding up his damaged hand and wondering if his shaking fingers were the physical proof of how everything good had slipped away. "Now I have to learn to live with it."
Hope's disapproving face was there when Scott's world blinked into focus, which meant he immediately shut his eyes in utterly childish denial.
"Scott." Hope sounded exasperated, though without the usual fondness.
"Hope." Scott tried for his best grin but failed when it stretched painfully across his split bottom lip, turning it into a grimace.
"You're an idiot, and you look like shit."
"Yep, I'm an idiot. A shitty-looking idiot." He sighed, his shrug interrupted by the dulled pain and numbed tightness in his right shoulder. "I really screwed it up this time, huh?"
Hope's brows hiked, she had anticipated more of a fight or at least a speech extolling the virtues of Captain America. "That'd be an understatement. You'll attend a hearing with the Accords Panel sometime next week, and we'll go from there."
"For what it's worth, I am sorry. Really, really sorry."
Hope hummed, acknowledging Scott's apology but showing no sign of accepting it. "There's some reading material for you." She pointed at the thick binder on the bedside table.
"Looks, um, heavy." He quipped, pleased when it got a flash of a smile. "Will there be a quiz after?"
"More like make-up work, you missed the quiz when you went on an unauthorized field trip."
"I shouldn't have gone."
"No, you shouldn't have." Hope smiled, small and sad, before leaving Scott with his troubled thoughts.
Scott grinned widely at the sight of Captain America's famous shield. Steve was there for them, like he said he would be. He bounced on the balls of his feet a little as Steve opened each cell and waited for his turn. Clint. Sam. Wanda. Scott panicked when they turned toward the exit, walking past his cell without a second glance. He felt small, invisible, and insignificant. Like an ant. Scott watched his childhood hero leave, feeling abandoned and forgotten as he slumped to the ground of his Raft cell.
The Accords, revised and amended, made Scott's head pound and eyes water. It felt like swimming through tar as he waded through the dense language, but he pushed through with the same kind of stubborn tenacity he had when Cassie was a newborn and no one had been getting more than two hours of sleep. He owed it to Hope, to Cassie, and to himself to learn what he had gotten himself into and, if possible, how to fix it.
Scott had thought Steve was a hero, just as Cassie had thought Scott was a hero. But heroes could and would and did fall. He wished his daughter hadn't had to suffer the pain of disappointment. He wished he hadn't answered that call. He wished he had talked with Hope. Scott had many wishes, but he soon realized they were actually distractions to avoid facing the consequences of his own choices.
By his panel hearing, Scott managed to finish two-thirds of the Accords and spent the majority of his time kicking himself and wallowing in shame. He accepted his sentence with a twitch of a nod, surprised at its leniency. It had hints of Hope's influence, though she was absent from the proceedings, but it was probably just wishful thinking on his part.
Without the Ant Man suit, Scott was considered low-threat to the general population but high-risk to be placed in a common prison. He was placed on house arrest at one of Pym Technologies' properties, with an advanced monitoring system named EveryDay. There was no doubt who designed it, the zany name and the sophisticated codes all pointed to Tony Stark, but Hank accepted it without his usual tendency to decry all things Stark. Perhaps the feud had finally been buried.
Stark had offered another invention aimed at eliminating or reducing mental trauma, which Scott declined due to his status as a part-time consultant for Pym Technologies on matters of the Ant Man suit's enlargement capabilities and the quantum realm. Though he thought of it often, because no engineer in their right mind would ever turn down a chance to test new Stark tech.
Tony Stark was brilliant, and Scott wished for the other man to finally find peace and freedom, to no longer be weighed down by his father's legacy or other people's mistakes.
A month after Wakanda, Maggie arranged for Cassie to spend an afternoon with Scott, after much pleading and groveling. He was already anxious about finally seeing his daughter, then Maggie made a comment about how Hope was a saint, and Scott's jitters went from jumpy to debilitating.
Hence why he was entirely unprepared when Cassie did not show any interest in Scott, the movies he had chosen, or the mountain of junk food had had bought. He had expected some reaction from his disappearance, but not none.
Scott settled for his default strategy and began telling exaggeratedly silly stories either from his imagination or at his own expense. Eventually, Cassie showed a flicker of interest and Scott grew more animated. In his excitement and relief, he neglected to shy away from certain events.
"–then he swung around and wrapped my legs in this sticky web, like a spider, and I fell on my butt!" Scott laughed, contorting his face into a dramatic wince.
The expected giggles didn't come.
"Cassie?" Scott's heart sunk when she studiously avoided him, pivoting her body away. "What's the matter, Peanut?"
"I saw that." She finally said, after what seemed like an eternity for an anxious parent with an enormous amount of guilt. "I saw you on TV, you were a bad guy!"
"I don't want you to be a bad guy. Mommy said you just get confused sometimes, when you went away. Did you get confused again? Is that why you went away again?" Cassie blinked rapidly, barely keeping the tears at bay. Scott felt something shatter within him.
"I'm sorry, peanut. I'm so sorry for going away. I didn't mean to be a bad guy." He wanted to wrap his daughter in a tight hug, but he sensed it wouldn't be welcomed, so he settled on repeating his apology as she tried to calm down. "I thought I was doing the right thing because I was helping a friend but I was wrong. I got confused and made a mistake." He explained when her sobs lessened to hiccups.
Cassie sucked in a shuddering breath. "I saw you grabbing people and breaking planes and I saw you hit Iron Man, then he came home hurt. Why did you hit Iron Man?"
"I didn't hit him that hard–" Scott stopped when he remembered sabotaging the Iron Man armor. Stark could have easily fallen like Rhodes. "I was confused and thought–" The words lodged in his throat, he didn't know what he had been thinking. "I don't know, peanut. I don't know."
Cassie sniffled. "I want to go home."
Numbly, Scott reached for his phone and dialed Maggie's number.
Scott was giant. GiANT. He snickered at the word play as he ripped apart planes and toppled buildings like a child would with his Legos constructions. It was exhilarating, to literally tower over everyone and everything. He swung his leg back, aimed at another plane, when he heard her. Cassie. In the window of the plane that his foot was going to– He screamed when his kick connected and the plane carrying his daughter tumbled through the air before crashing into the ground.
The next day, Scott called the Stark Tower to set up an appointment, supposedly to check out the Binarily Augmented Retro Framing device but it was its creator that Scott wanted to see. He suspected his snicker at the acronym might have been how he got an appointment that afternoon.
As Scott stepped through the glass doors of Stark's lab, it occurred to him that he had never properly talked to Stark, though he had talked about and at the other man more times than he cared to count. This was Scott's chance to make a third first impression, or possibly a first impression given the baffled look Stark had given him at The Raft and the one on his face now.
"Hi, again." Scott waved, fully aware of how awkward he looked and sounded.
Stark frowned. "Again?"
Stark's face split into a mischievous grin. "Nah, just messing with you, Ant Man. So you're here for B.A.R.F., hm?"
"Well, um. I'm actually not here for B.A.R.F., by the way, never change that name." Scott didn't miss how Stark's eyes narrowed, so he hastily explained. "I, um, I'm actually here to say I'm sorry. I got in the middle of something that's totally not any of my business, and well, I was a dick. And, er, sorry about that whole 'I'm your conscience' thing too." He stumbled through his apology with his usual eloquence, rubbing the back of his neck and finding it covered with sweat. "Just, you know, sorry, about everything."
"Apology accepted." Stark said magnanimously, after a moment of intense scrutiny.
Scott would have flailed if he weren't afraid to damage the holographic displays. "Wait, what? Dude, don't let me off the hook that easily!"
"This apology has a lot of mixed messages." Stark chuckled. "Look, I accepted it because you weren't expecting one in return, which means you aren't an asshole. So we can try to start over which really isn't hard because, well, I didn't really meet you anyway. Let's just talk tech as one electrical engineer–" He pointed to Scott. "–to, well, genius." He tapped himself on the chest with a wide, though guarded, grin.
Scott swallowed, his throat feeling too dry and full with all the words scratching to get out. He had been so wrong about who Tony Stark was. "Yeah, alright." He held out a hand. "Hi, I'm Scott."
"Who?" Stark smirked.
"Oh, come on!"
"Fine, let's take a look at the B.A.R.F. then, Scott." Stark sniggered. "Stand down, FRIDAY."
"Living dangerously, Boss?"
Scott gawked at the ceiling.
"I'm not in any danger here with Ant Man." Stark waved a hand toward Scott.
The lights flickered disapprovingly.
Scott would be offended if he weren't captivated by the range of emotions in FRIDAY's voice.
"If you say so, Boss." FRIDAY's imitation of a sigh was spot-on. "Please know I'll be watching your every move, Mr. Lang." Her menacing tone was spot-on also.
Scott's enthrallment quickly faded. "She's kidding, right?"
"FRIDAY's a bit protective." Which did not answer the question at all. "C'mon, let's get this science party started."
Engrossed by the stunning lines of codes weaving together an intricate design like an at once ancient and futuristic art, Scott soon forgot about FRIDAY and her omnipresence, which was when she decided to remind him by playing The Police's Every Breath You Take.
Sam startled awake with a lurch, bringing himself into a seated position that he instantly regretted. His vision swam and his stomach turned; carefully, he slumped back with a slow sigh.
The last thing Sam remembered was an explosion of red. He honestly didn't think he would survive, but he did. The splitting headache and constant nausea were preferable to what usually happened when Wanda used her powers; death and destruction and dread.
Sam knew, intellectually, that it wasn't fair to compare what happened in Lagos with what happened in Wakanda. In Lagos, they knew they were facing an enemy with a deadly weapon in the middle of a crowded market. In Wakanda, they didn't know they were facing a deadly teammate in the middle of their sanctuary.
Lagos could, with some convincing arguments, be considered an honest mistake or an unfortunate accident. Wanda had been put in an impossible situation and did the best she could. Sam wouldn't hold her responsible for that, not when she had tried to minimize the damage. The matter of why she was in the field when her control was so precarious was another discussion, a much bigger one Steve had walked away from and Sam, obediently blind and blindly obedient, had followed.
Sam had believed Steve's reassurances that Wanda was just a kid, because this was Captain America, the superhero who was a good man, a better friend, and the best protection this world had.
He shouldn't have.
Initially, Sam had dismissed Scott's claim that Steve was hiding something as preposterous, but then doubts festered. Steve's explanation of what happened in Siberia had sounded vague at best and guilty at worst. A trap? Tony's parents? The missing shield? None of it added up. Steve had also confirmed that Tony was there to help, just as Tony had promised Sam. So what would make a man, who was willing to swallow his pride and help hostile ex-teammates while wounded, snap?
A hundred possibilities ran through Sam's mind, growing more ominous and implausible. Sam considered confronting Steve, the reality had to be better than what his imagination conjured up, but ultimately did not. The tension among them had worsened. Clint's rants, Wanda's isolation, Steve's avoidance, and Scott's resentment formed a toxic cocktail that poisoned their bond as a team. What was done was done. A confrontation would only exacerbate the already strained interactions among them.
Natasha's question about whether Wanda was a kid or an Avenger made Sam realize that somewhere between Germany and Wakanda, Wanda had stopped trying to control her powers. She was a child prone to destructive temper tantrums, ruled by her emotions and armed with a kind of selfish confidence rooted in a deafening certainty that blocked out all other dissenting opinions.
Wanda's attitude echoed something Steve had said once, a speech about planting themselves like trees, when they first arrived in Wakanda and were understandably apprehensive about their new fugitive status. It had briefly roused their spirits, before listlessness settled in.
By taking a stand against the world, they were no longer part of it. The Avengers weren't protecting the innocents because they were too preoccupied with protecting themselves. They were rooted in their conviction and trapped by their ideals, standing idly by and watching the world move, like Steve demanded in his speech, on and around them.
A wave of dizziness flooded him, Sam barely leaned over the bedrails before the taste of bile hit his tongue. Hunched over and breathing heavily, Sam counted the seconds as his vision settled and waited for someone to come. The noises of his retching rang loudly in his ears.
They were falling. Sam. Bucky. Natasha. Wanda. Clint. Scott. Rhodes. Stark. Vision. The rushing wind dried out his eyes and Sam squinted at the ground below, relaxing instantly when he spotted the familiar swirl of red, white, and blue. Captain America would save them all. Sam clung to that faith even as he felt the blades of grass and smelled the freshness of the dirt seconds before he crashed. Bloody and broken bodies littered the field. Steve stepped over them gingerly as he carried Bucky to safety.
Without any specialized knowledge, Sam wasn't valuable enough for secret spy agencies or multinational corporations to vouch for his whereabouts in exchange for his skills. The military had no shortage of pilots, who were far less likely to commit treason for a friend, to test the Falcon Wings.
Unlike the others, whose primary offense was the confrontation in Germany, Sam was also involved in Romania. There would be no house arrest or probation for someone who deliberately aided and abetted in the attempted escape of the Winter Soldier, a known assassin and suspected terrorist. The seriousness and scope of his crimes far outstripped the others.
Sam was given a life sentence with the possibility for parole after twenty years, to be served in Wakanda, a country already proven capable of detaining the Black Widow and technologically advanced enough to gain nothing from what little intelligence Sam might have about aerial warfare. His cell was comfortable and offered a certain degree of freedom. After all, the Dora Milaje could easily thwart any escape plans and he had nowhere to go; the idea of a distant freedom in two decades filled him with dread.
Natasha left first, in a designated SHIELD helicarrier that returned later for Clint; a Pym Technologies aircraft took Scott back. Sam watched their planes soar away with a heavy yet hollow heart.
Sam was speeding through the air, the wind hammered in his face and his ears until his world turned into a silent laser focus on the falling man. Always falling. Always too late. Sam's legs buckled when he landed but he turned the momentum into a forward leap, dropping to his knees next to the prone figure on the ground. A replay of what happened in Germany. Heart pounding from adrenaline and fear and desperate hope, he looked into Bucky's lifeless eyes and felt Steve's shield slamming into his chest.
Okoye looked at Sam with a sort of vicious pity, as though she couldn't decide whether to be angry at or for his willful ignorance. It was unsettling. Mostly because Sam was torn between blaming himself and blaming Steve on a daily basis, so her gaze was a bit too sharp for his already raw nerves. Ayo, on the other hand, was someone Sam looked forward to seeing. She usually brought updates that Sam couldn't learn from the news.
Natasha and Clint were doing well, relatively speaking, and adjusting to their new roles with more or less effort. Clint being more and Natasha being less. Scott was making amends with his daughter and working with Stark on B.A.R.F., which Sam had declined but couldn't pinpoint why, his best guess being some sort of leftover loyalty. The New Avengers gained two more members, Carol Danvers and Luke Cage, and worked together seamlessly, hands not tied by the Accords.
Ayo didn't offer information about Steve or Bucky, and Sam didn't ask. The questions were always hovering at the edge of his lips, but he pursed them and stayed silent. What was done was done. No information could change his current situation nor could he change theirs.
The nightmares still haunted him, though Sam wasn't sure if they were Wanda's doing or products of his own mind. Both were just as plausible. Many mornings, Sam found himself drenched with sweat that felt like blood in the seconds between dreaming and waking. It took longer than that to shake off the effects and feel like himself, though there wasn't much of a difference. In both worlds, Sam had nowhere to go and no one coming.
The avian wildlife books sat unopened and gathering dust on Sam's small table in his modest cell. The sky no longer held any allure for him after all the falls he had seen and felt. There was no more joy in flying, or anything else.
Steve was always sensitive to and wary of the cold. The chilly mist of early morning felt like breathing in icicles and the first snow of the year foretold endless hacking coughs. The serum changed that. It was as though liquid fire flowed through his veins, burning away his weakness and leaving behind warm strength. Which was why the shocking cold of the freezing water caught him unprepared, his shout of alarm muffled by the thick sheet of ice before it claimed him.
Steve was cold. A pervasive chill rattled his bones and shuddered through his body, the way he had been for the many New York winters he barely survived as a child. The covers did little to bring warmth, the cold emanating from within, but they provided some comfort. His lips felt chapped, frostbitten, and his eyelashes clumped together uncomfortably, welded by ice. Steve buried his face under the blankets, coveting the small puffs of warm air as he exhaled.
"He's dehydrated and showing signs of hyperthermia!"
"Get him out of these now!"
Unknown hands attacked the cocoon Steve had built around himself, pulling and tugging until a corner loosened and the blanket was pried off of his shivering body.
A hand stroked Steve's forehead, and it felt like ice. Instinctively, he flinched and an arm flew up to remove the unwanted touch.
The cacophony of shrieks, sirens, and shouts was unexpected.
Steve stared at the crumpled bodies. His hands shook with horrified regret and persistent coldness. He wondered if he would ever feel warm again.
Steve was staring down an army of Chitauri, shield at the ready, the very picture of determined righteousness. The city crumbled around him, dust and ash filling the air. People fled aimlessly, their cries and screams called for a hero, for Captain America. This was Steve's destiny, to stand tall and defend his world. He shifted to square his shoulders but somehow ended up hunched over and gasping for air. He fell to the ground, wheezing uselessly, as the Chitauri marched by.
Steve couldn't move, bands of metal pinning his arms snugly against his body and restricting his movement to the point that breathing deeply was not recommended. It was not a pleasant way to wake up. His shallow and broken gasps of air were reminiscent of the asthma attacks he used to have, when he couldn't do something as instinctive and simple as breathing. He shouldn't be feeling this way, he was given the serum and stood at the peak of humanity but the air at such heights was thin and Steve felt faint, swaying closer and closer to a tumble all the way down.
Or had he fallen already? At that thought, Steve inhaled, winced, and screamed.
"Step away and release the bindings." An authoritative voice ordered.
The pressure fell away and Steve, through sweat-soaked bangs, blinked owlishly.
"Mr. Rogers." Okoye greeted with a furrow between her brows.
Steve panted, eyes questioningly trailing after the medical team scurrying away like spooked critters. A chill settled over him. "What, what happened? Bucky? Wanda? Nat? Clint–"
"Mr. Barnes remains in cryostasis, unharmed."
Steve heaved a sigh of relief and winced at the twinge of pain.
"Ms. Maximoff launched a significant mental assault on you and your team. The guards reported seeing each of you encased in crimson mist, with yours being the densest, likely because you were her primary target based on the argument they overheard."
Steve could barely concentrate, his lungs felt like they were frozen in place and unable to expand. He managed, mostly by habit, a weak mumble of an excuse for Wanda's outburst.
"Upset is a gross understatement, considering she would have collapsed the entire wing if not for the protective runes in place." She scowled. "Your teammates suffered relatively minor injuries, first from the initial blast then as they fought to free themselves. They will heal, physically, in time. The extent of the psychological trauma, however, will not be known for some time but will likely be manageable considering they were simply caught in the crossfire." Her eyes pinned Steve in place with an accusation he didn't understand.
A beat of silence.
"Perhaps you'd be interested to know the medical staff you've assaulted will also recover fully? Or are they not worthy of your concern?"
"Save your breath and meaningless words, Mr. Rogers."
Steve wanted to call her back, to apologize for his oversight, and ask more about the people he hurt. but he said nothing. Instead, he focused on lengthening his inhales and exhales, with little success.
Steve advanced toward Ultron with his shield raised as cover should he be discovered. Once within range, he launched himself forward in a surprise attack, only to stumble over the excess fabric of his uniform and crash painfully to his knees. Steve gaped at his thin limbs, stunned and horrorstruck, as Ultron laughed manically about how the outside finally matched what lay within before offering him a new body.
The United Nations panel seemed objective and cordial, willing to hear Steve's side of this so-called Civil War and consider his reasons for his actions. Steve did his best to keep his shivering and wheezing to a minimum, and treated Banner and the other New Avenger with open disdain.
Banner had always been a coward, first running from himself and then the world. It didn't surprise Steve that at the first sign of trouble, he would seek protection behind Stark; the two mad scientists had always been closer to each other than The Avengers. The other man, a wizard apparently, reeked of arrogance and privilege, much like Stark, down to the infuriating goatee. Steve disliked him instantly. His anger was the first spark of warmth he had felt in days, or perhaps weeks. Frozen in a state of near-suffocation, time seemed to stretch on indefinitely.
Steve was sentenced to life imprisonment in Wakanda. He surged to his feet, enraged at the injustice of it all and daring to punish him for doing the right thing. That was the last thing he remembered.
When he woke next, Steve was in a new room, his cell, and feeling smaller than he ever had.
Banner visited once, peering from the door with an offer extended like a gloat. Steve rejected it, with the most intimidating scowl he could muster, distrustful of anything created by Stark and approved by Banner.
No other visitors came.
Stark had just finished a speech that dressed up government propaganda with contrite sincerity. The Accords was just another way to shift the blame, to pander to agendas, and to tie the Avengers' hands. Steve watched in horror as the document was passed around and each Avenger signed cheerfully. He shouted his objections, only to be told not to worry and that The Avengers would always protect the little guys. Steve felt the asthma attack coming as cold wracked his frail and sickly body.
One of the walls of his prison was made of reinforced glass, allowing sunlight to stream through and brighten the minimal space. Nature's clock and a way for Steve to track time, days, weeks, months, and years. Though it would be a pointless endeavor. He was in no shape for such a task.
His extremities felt numb and tingled periodically, he checked each finger and toe obsessively to ensure they hadn't turned black from tissue damage. His breathing hadn't improved, every inhale a wheeze and every exhale a sigh. His muscles and strength withered away overnight, leaving him straining to perform daily tasks. Despite the sunlight, darkness permeated every square inch. Drowning him, freezing him, and burying him.
Steve couldn't breathe. The inhaler, provided by the medical team with a comment about the placebo effect, crumbled in his fumbling hand. He tried to call for help, but his labored breathing robbed him of his voice and even if he could speak, his teeth clattered too badly to form coherent words. He scrabbled feebly at the pillow, dragging it under his throbbing head, and wondered where it all went wrong.
Bucky squinted at the face peering down at him. "Who are you?" The bright-lit and tastefully sparse room disoriented him was unlike any of his previous waking experiences, most of which involved dank bunkers and invasive machinery. "Where am I?"
"I'm Dr. Banner." The man answered, hands hanging innocently at his sides but his stance was a bit too surefooted to be truly harmless. "You are still in Wakanda, under the protection of King T'Challa."
"Why did you wake me?" Bucky noted the Dora Milaje posted in the room, whether they were here for his protection or his visitor's was undetermined.
"I was told that you elected to be placed in cryostasis until there's a way to remove the HYDRA conditioning." Banner smiled, genuine but not exactly kind. "I'm here to tell you there is a way."
"And to inform you that you will attend the United Nations review before you are allowed access to this technology."
Bucky's excitement vanished. "I didn't set the bomb in Vienna, it was Zemo."
"We know, but you have other crimes to answer for."
"It wasn't me." Bucky winced, parroting the words Steve had drilled into his head. "It was the Winter Soldier."
"Really?" Banner's brows lifted in disbelief. "The Winter Soldier resisted arrest by critically injuring several Joint Counter Terrorist Centre agents in Bucharest? The Winter Soldier destroyed public and private property while fleeing from the Avengers in Leipzig?" His eyes glowed fiercely green. "The Winter Soldier beat my friend to a bloody pulp then left him to die in Siberia?"
"No." Bucky whispered, the sudden realization of just who he was talking with and the list of his, Bucky Barnes', crimes stunned him. "That was me, just me."
"So you'll stand before the panel?"
"Yes." It took almost all of his concentration to keep his voice steady, so he couldn't control the undignified yelp when the door opened suddenly with a bang.
"Hey sleeping beauty, you're up!" Stark strolled into the room, casting a cursory glance at Bucky before stopping next to Banner and looping an arm around the other man's tense shoulders. "Brucie Bear, that shirt really brings out the color of your eyes. Lavender is most definitely your color."
With a sigh, Banner removed his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. "You truly have no self-preservation instincts. I haven't sent the all-clear for you to come in."
"Eh, I have my jolly green knight in a lab coat. I'm not worried." Stark shrugged and tilted his head at Bucky's left shoulder, where the mechanical joint was, eyes casual but calculating. "Plus, he's not much of a threat right now."
"That's because you shot off my arm." Bucky said dourly.
Stark replied in the same tone. "That's because you killed my parents."
"That wasn't me." Bucky repeated, wishing the words didn't sound like a coward's excuse. "I didn't want to hurt them."
"But you did." Stark bit out before he ran out of whatever emotion that sustained him and sagged against his friend. "And that's why we need to get that HYDRA conditioning out of your head."
"We?" Both Bucky and Banner asked, the former confused and the latter concerned.
"Well, when I said we, I actually meant they." Stark winked at Banner's frown. "Kit and Kat and I talked about it. FRIDAY has prepared a manual for his team to get Barnes started."
Stark must have anticipated what Banner was going to say. "We'll cross that bridge when we get to it, sugarbunny."
"You–" Bucky croaked. "You're helping me?"
"Not really a choice, no other tech like mine on the market." Stark preened. "I am a genius."
"But I killed your parents."
"And I shot off your arm."
This time, their exchange was less hostile but still far from friendly.
Stark cleared his throat. "I might have over-reacted a bit." He waved a hand toward the emptiness below Bucky's left shoulder. "That video caught me at the end of a series of really bad days, years really. So, yeah. Sor–"
"Don't even say it, Tony." Banner sighed. "Do not apologize for having a normal reaction to a traumatic event."
"Are you calling me normal?" Stark pouted. "That's just rude."
"That's me, rude and not ginger." Bruce grinned.
"Did you just quote Doctor Who at me?" Stark gasped, utterly delighted. "Tears of joy, I'm weeping tears of joy." He sniffed exaggeratedly then mimed wiping his nose on Banner's shirt.
"What's next?" Bucky asked, their easy banter grating on his nerves. No one had talked this easily around him in years. Not even Steve and Sam.
Banner stepped in, likely sensing the more aggressive shift in Bucky's mood. "Once the panel hearing concludes and your sentence is dealt, the B.A.R.F. preparations will begin."
Bucky blanched. "Barf?"
"Binarily Augmented Retro Framing." Stark supplied with a smirk.
"That's an awful name." Bucky cringed. "And, um, thanks."
"It's no big–" Stark startled when Banner coughed delicately, a reprimand. "Um, you're welcome."
They lapsed into an awkward silence, broken by a series of short raps at the door.
"That's our cue." Stark had a tightness around his eyes that Bucky didn't noticed before, well-disguised underneath the cheerful mask. "I'd say see you later, but I don't actually want to see you again. So, good luck, I guess."
Banner nodded toward Bucky. "Take care, Mr. Barnes." He headed toward the door, taking Stark with him as the other man was still half-draped over him like an oversized sloth.
The hearing was fairly straightforward, most of the questions asked were closed-ended, allowing Bucky to answer with a nod or a shake of his head when speech failed him. It lasted over six hours, the majority of that time spent on delineating which crimes were committed by the Winter Solider, which were by Bucky's hands, and which had no association to either.
At the start of the meeting, Banner had cited SHIELD's data on the Winter Soldier's activities and Steve's hibernation as evidence that Bucky had not been in control of his actions since his disappearance in 1945 and until his encounter with Steve in 2014. He did so to assure Bucky that they were aware of the extent of the mind control and this line of inquiry was not to establish guilt, but to find answers. This was the world's governments' first chance to question the Winter Soldier, to identify his victims and, in a way, clear Bucky's name.
Guilt consumed him, regardless of what they said.
Bucky welcomed the sentence of imprisonment in Wakanda, with the stipulation that should the HYDRA conditioning be successfully removed, he would use his enhanced strength to protect rather than destroy. A chance to do good, to make amends, and, as Natasha had said once, balance the red in his ledger.
Bucky hadn't had a good night's sleep in nearly a century. Cryostasis inhibited dreaming yet also withheld rest. During the years when he was on the run, Bucky had tried sleeping but the faces of the Winter Soldier's victims haunted him. His rest never lasted long nor was peaceful. His sleep deficit had been steep in Romania, his inattention led to his eventual discovery by a civilian and contributed to his easy agreement to Steve's suggestion.
On the morning after the hearing, he was surprised when he woke up from a dreamless slumber, feeling refreshed.
Perhaps Bucky should have stopped sooner. Running away solved nothing and exacerbated everything.
Steve was wrong to encourage Bucky to flee in Bucharest; for a man who had always stood his ground against bullies, he had no idea how to deal with complex situations where there were no heroes or villains. Until Steve made himself into one by running away and knocking down anyone who stood in his path.
The B.A.R.F. preliminary procedures were progressing nicely. Dr. Wu was able to map the glasses to Bucky's hippocampus with some success. The real challenge lay within cataloging the overwhelming number of traumatic memories, scattered and scrambled by years of repeated cryostasis. Bucky remained hopeful. Optimism was less effortful when he wasn't plagued by nightmares.
Dr. Wu mentioned that Stark had sent word that he had a promising lead on an engineer who, with some training, would be able to provide on-site assistance when they moved into the next phase. It would delay the process by several months to half a year, but Bucky had no complaints. Stark was not obligated to help him, and Bucky was floored and humbled by the other man's propensity for kindness. The only thing Bucky could offer in return was distance, to honor Stark's request that he did not wish to face his parents' killer again. Bucky would wait.
He asked about Steve once, when T'Challa visited after one of the sessions. Okoye's stance instantly turned aggressive which set the Winter Soldier's residual programming into overdrive. They were almost at each other's throats when T'Challa ordered her to stand down.
The King informed Bucky that Steve was serving his own sentence and recovering from a severe mental attack perpetrated by the Scarlet Witch. Another HYDRA pawn, a willing one. Bucky snarled at the thought that someone would voluntarily be experimented on, but then he remembered Steve.
Small sickly Steve who had allowed scientists to inject him with an untested serum in a basement.
There would be a long and detailed conversation about that in their future, after Bucky completed his own experimental treatment to remove dormant triggers that could turn him into a mindless assassin with a string of nonsensical Russian words.
"Pot." Bucky tapped his own chest. "Kettle." He pointed at a direction he thinks Steve may be, a smile curving his lips.
Bucky stared, uncomprehendingly, at the shivering form buried under a small mountain of blankets on the bed. "What happened to him?"
"The Scarlet Witch was capable of inflicting visions of great terror and deep doubt." Okoye answered, a hint of sympathy present in her voice. "Mr. Rogers was her primary target."
"What happened to him?" Bucky repeated, unable to tear his eyes away from his friend. Inhalers littered the floors and the temperature in the room was noticeably lower.
"Based on our observation and limited communication with Mr. Rogers, it appears that he believes he has been transformed to his pre-serum state." She pursed her lips, considering her next words. "He is particularly sensitive to the cold, despite several bouts of hyperthermia, hence the lowered temperature. He believes himself to be weak and has no memory or control of his strength; thankfully, he has only lashed out once and we've adapted our strategies to provide for his daily needs without startling or disrupting him. The inactive inhalers have alleviated his fear of asthma attacks."
Bucky imagined each sensation that tormented Steve; shaking from cold dread, buckling under crushing fear, and gasping in horror. While he had escaped his nightmares, Steve was literally living his.
"We had enlisted many experts in the field of magic, and none could undo or repair the damage on Mr. Rogers' mind. It is time we consider other options."
"What does that mean?' Bucky tensed, mind racing toward more ominous interpretations.
"Managing, instead of healing." Okoye said. "Mr. Rogers indicated he does not wish for the Avengers to know of his state-"
"I'm not an Avenger." Understanding dawned in Bucky's eyes, chasing away some of the despair.
"Indeed. We understand that you hold the role of protector in your friendship?"
"Yeah, I guess you could say that." Bucky drew a deep, steadying breath.
"And it appears he is in need of a protector."
"Or just a friend."
"Why not both." With a flick of her wrist, the door swung open silently.
Bucky stepped into the near-freezing room with purposeful steps. "Stevie?"
Blue eyes, wide and fearful, peered up through the tangle of blankets. "Buck?" Steve croaked.
"I'm here, punk, 'til the end of the line." In three long strides, Bucky was by his friend's side.
At that, Steve let out a gut-wrenching sob. Words, random and related, trickled out and painted a bleak picture of regret, grief, and shame. "I think I fucked up bad, Buck."
"Yeah, you did." Bucky sighed. "Also, language, you punk."