Actions

Work Header

Hydra's Revenge

Chapter Text

Tonight was the night. 

Tonight, Steve would tell Tony that he loved him. That he was in love with him. 

Tonight, he would tell his love that he would accept anything Tony was willing to give him and that he would stay his friend and family if that was what Tony wanted. 

There was a slight chance, Steve might run before tonight happened. 

Exhaling harshly, Steve squared his shoulders. No. Tonight, he would tell Tony how he felt and then… then Tony would be able to decide what he wanted. He would know what his glances and (innocent!) touches meant. No, that was wrong. It didn’t mean he wanted something more from Tony, if he didn’t want that. 

Oh god, what if Tony thought he wanted him just for that and that their cuddling (because there had been cuddling and Steve was over the moon every time it happened) had been sexual for Steve? What if he thought Steve had taken advantage of him?

Had he taken advantage of the genius?

Oh god, he had, hadn’t he? What if-

A small hand connected hard with his cheek and Steve, without thinking about it, grabbed the slim wrist of his attacker to stare down in Natasha’s calm green eyes. 

Steve let go of her wrist as if it had burned him. Nat could do so much worse to him if she wanted to.

Taking a step back, Steve put his hand to his cheek. He didn’t ask why she had hit him. He knew.

Nat just looked up at him, unimpressed, not trying to hide her exasperation that could also be a heavy annoyance. She didn’t say a word, but she didn’t need to. They had talked about it.

More exactly, they had talked about it three days ago, when it felt like they were finally relaxing again. After Tony almost dying because a building fell on them, all of them being kidnapped to a fictional island and believing Tony was dead the first time and Tony being kidnapped again a week later and them thinking he was dead for sure that time, while Hydra reared its ugly heads, the last couple of months had been rough. 

Six weeks ago, he had come face to face with the Winter Soldier. The one he had thought had killed Tony. But he hadn’t. While being kidnapped Tony had managed to uncover a decades old conspiracy and turned their Asset against them.

A few days later he had learned that the Winter Soldier had once been his Bucky but wasn’t anymore. After that it had taken them all almost a month to finally calm down again. There had been setbacks from time to time, the last one happening two weeks ago in which Winter, as Bucky called himself now, had stopped speaking completely and had not left Tony alone for even a minute. He had even stayed with Steve and Tony in his bedroom. He hadn’t touched Tony, even moving back from Tony’s touches, which he hadn’t done before, looking more haunted than Steve could stomach. 

Tony hadn’t said a word about it, but the guilt had been heavy in his eyes. 

Steve still didn’t know what had happened. Neither why Winter had the setback nor why, suddenly, he seemed to be better again, taking up where he had left off, starting to talk again, or step closer to Tony and relax. 

He didn’t think Tony knew either, but as he relaxed as well, Steve was okay not knowing, as long as Tony was happy.

That was the exact reason he had started to think about telling him again. And then Nat had taken him aside, smiling up with that special smile she used for the worst of the villains or whenever she thought one of her teammates was exceptionally stupid. 

For a heartbeat Steve had known she thought him to be a villain. She had told him to be careful with Tony months ago. What if she thought he had done something to Tony?

Luckily, that hadn’t been it. She had just thought him to be idiotically dumb, encouraging him to try. 

Steve trusted her. Of course, he trusted her. With his life, the life of the world and his family. Of course, he did. 

Still, he was terrified. Because what if? What if Tony rejected him and their friendship would suffer? What if he didn’t reject him and Steve hurt him? What if he would become an even more desirable target if they got together? Would the villains try to hurt Tony to get to Steve?

What if Tony hated him for it? 

“Do I need to slap you again?”

Steve looked back into Natasha’s eyes, calm and almost amused if there hadn’t been the growing frustration.

“No, I’m good.”

“You’re going to tell him.”

“…yes.”

“Tonight.”

“…yes…?”

“Tonight.” She repeated, a threatening edge to her words.

“Tonight.” Steve confirmed. He might be stubborn and stupid, but he was neither too stubborn nor stupid to go against Nat when she had that glint in her eyes.

“Good.” Nat’s smile softend. “Our kotenok might take some time to react to it, but he will, Steve.”

Nodding, Steve didn’t think about what that could entail. There was just too much that could happen. Sometimes he hated how is mind would immediately start to formulate plans, pick every possibility apart and show every possible and probable way for him to fuck this up. 

He should be more confident. Tony liked him. Maybe not like Steve liked Tony, but he liked him. They were sleeping in the same bed for god’s sake. They cuddled . And sometimes he thought that Tony was smiling at him, or looking at him and… even if Steve and Natasha misinterpreted it, Tony wouldn’t be cruel about it. Never.

But this was Tony. So even if he liked Steve that way, he was certain the genius would find a way in his brilliant mind to either devalue it all, so that Tony would think he wasn’t good enough for Steve or make it out like Steve didn’t really want it. Both were ridiculous. If anything Tony was way too good for Steve and he has been gone over the genius basically since they met. 

If Tony didn’t like Steve that way, there were a lot of possibilities how he could react. The most likely was a kind but definite decline, letting Steve down easily, which would probably mean they wouldn’t cuddle anymore. Which would be horrible. 

Another possibility was that Tony would think he should like Steve back. Or would force himself to do it, because he didn’t want to hurt Steve. Or tear the Avengers apart. No, Tony had to have more self-worth. Right? He had to!

The worst would be if Tony thought Steve did everything he did, especially the physical expression of love and comfort, only because he wanted to sleep with the genius. Which was not true! It wasn’t! Had his body reacted to Tony’s presence? Yes, it had and some of that could be blamed on the serum, but… oh god, what if-

Nat slapped him again.

She was right. Steve had to tell Tony. It was only right. Tony had to know. Steve had to tell him. 

The butterflies in his stomach made a somersault at the mere idea that Tony could actually like him back. He would be able to hug Tony more . He would be allowed to kiss Tony. Most likely. He would ask, of course, but… he would probably be able to kiss Tony! To hold him! To tell him that he loved him! 

“Better.” Nat commented, almost a smirk on her lips. “Now get dressed, we have to be there in an hour, and you know who Pepper is going to blame if we are late.”

Yes, he knew and they had to do anything to keep Tony calm and happy. Not because of the press conference, if anyone didn’t give a shit about those it was Tony. Sure, he hated them and hated to put up his masks, but they didn’t scare him.

Not that they scared Steve. Or Nat, Clint or Thor. They might scare Bruce a little, but differently. The fact remained that none of them were as used to giving interviews as Tony. None of them were as relaxed doing so.

One of the things that might make Tony nervous was the fact that Winter would come along. Not that anyone was surprised. Tony had tried to fight it, nevertheless. 

No one had been surprised when Winter, exceedingly unimpressed, had just turned from Tony to the rest of them, raising an eyebrow as if to ask do you believe this guy ?

The following fight had been short, half-hearted and ended when Nat ignored all of them and told Winter that Pepper had sent a suit for him and that he could wait in the backroom.

“I hate wearing these monkey suits.”

“We know and we don’t care, Birdbrain.”

“You hate them too!”

“Doesn’t matter, they love me.”

Steve stepped around the corner and had to bite back a whine. Because Tony was right. Not that Clint didn’t look good in a suit. He did, even if you could see how uncomfortable he was in it. At least if you knew him.

But Tony? The black suit hugged his curves tightly, showing his well built body off with class. The red satin shirt was a splash of colour, beautifully accented by both the sunglasses with the red tinted glasses and the thin black tie. 

As luck would have it, Clint saw Steve staring at Tony, an evil smile creeping on his lips. Before he could say whatever it was he had planned to say to embarrass Steve, Winter stepped towards them and Clint’s focus, thankfully, shifted.

“Why is it that even the defrosted Assassin over there looks good in a suit and I look like a show poodle?”

“Show poodle.” Winter answered, nodding condescendingly. 

“That’s right, Buttercup, if everyone else looks good in a suit it might be that, as always, Clint is the problem.”

“I’m damn hot, you assholes! Something is wrong with my suit!”

“I do not think so my friend.” Thor, wearing a white shirt and suit pants, stepped closer, looking at Clint critically. “I think your natural beauty shines much more in other clothing.”

“AHA!” Clint gestures dramatically at Tony and Winter.

“Calm down, Clint, he is saying that you can’t pull off anything that is more than the Walmart T-shirts you wear so offensively.”

“This was not my intend, I-”

“All your band-shirts-”

“If you say anything against my awesome shirts, Birdbrain, I will-”

“Home sweet home.”

Steve almost startled looking to his right side where Natasha had just materialized, wearing a beautifully cut suit herself, accenting her more female attributes to perfection. It didn’t really do anything for Steve, but he could appreciate beauty when he saw it.

Smiling, Steve looked back at his fighting family. The happiness was almost visible between them. It was audible in their voices and he could feel the last of his panic calm.

“Bruceybear, back me up on this!”

Bruce, who had just stepped out of the elevator, glanced over all of them, some of his tension lessening, even though he still looked like they would drag him to his own execution.

“What am I backing you up on?”

“See! Bruce is on my side!”

“That’s bullshit and you know it!”

Ignoring the Tony-Clint-Show for the moment, Steve followed Thor’s eyes to Bruce. The scientist wore a black suit, as all of them, with a dark blue shirt. 

Biting back a smile he met Natasha’s eyes. The Black Widow obviously trying to hold back a sigh. 

“Sir, if I might remind you of the very inventive and descriptive threat that Miss Potts made against you, if you’re going to be late.”

“Shit.” Tony flinched, already backing towards the limousine, waving demandingly to his teammates. “Come on, chop chop. Pepper is going to- never mind. She is not going to do it if we’re on time.”

The fact that Winter didn’t growl at that showed how far he had already come in the last weeks. The fact that every Avenger, even Nat, got into the car at a fast speed, spoke for how utterly terrifying Pepper Potts could be. And that they all loved Tony. Like family. Not like… 

Focus. 

Right now, they were on their way to their first big press conference after Hydra had shown their hand too soon and lost. There had been some statements, and Tony’s interview, but nothing more. 

Now, over a month after everything happened, most things had calmed down, and the Avengers had been asked to give a press conference about what had actually happened, how they had coordinated and worked with other teams, such as the X-Men and allies around the world, and that the world was safe again.

It didn’t matter that it would be at least partly a lie. There were still a lot of operations going. There were people in positions of power that, if not outright being Hydra, sympathised with them. There was still a long way to go, and Steve was ready to tackle everything. As soon as he had talked to his genius. But right after, he would be ready to fight Hydra. Maybe tomorrow morning. And then: destruction to Hydra once and for all.

This was one of the parts of being an Avenger he hated the most: being the dancing monkey in front of the cameras. It wasn’t like he didn’t know how to do it. Hell, this was how he had started out as Captain America. But that he still had to do it even now grated on his nerves.

And the fact that Tony was at a scheduled meeting out in the open. Last time that had happened he hadn’t even reached his hotel. True, his kidnapper was sitting with them in the car and would sooner rip his metallic arm off, which he loved with a passion since Tony had created it just for him, then hurting him ever again. And by now Steve was sure he had understood that taking someone against their will was hurting them. 

It wasn’t a guaranty that no one else would be stupid enough to try anything. Yes, it was the middle of the day, and yes, the Avengers were surrounding Tony, but desperate people were known for desperate ideas. 

A warm hand patted his knee and he looked up in whiskey-coloured eyes with just the slightest splashes of dark chocolate and honey. They were warm, calm and smiling.

“Come on, Cap, if Brucey looks like we’re going in front of a shooting commando at least you, as our fearless leader, have to look like we survive this. It’s just the press.”

“They called you the devil two weeks ago and thought it was your failed attempt to finally go bat-shit-crazy-supervillain-overlord on our asses.”

“See? Nothing to worry about.”

Steve sighed deeply.

“It was a disservice to us!” Clint exclaimed, offended. “If we ever take over the world, we, of course, will succeed!”

“This is why you aren’t allowed to say anything at press conferences, Birdbrain. Jenny threatened me with death if I allowed you to speak.”

“As if you can stop me.”

“Jarvis is running the mikes. He knows to not project your voice.”

“What? It’s my God-given right to say-”

“All the shit you wanna say.” Tony smiled sweetly at him. “Just like those lovely reporters saying I was too stupid to take over the world.”

“First of, low blow. Secondly, that’s exactly what I mean. We wouldn’t have failed.”

“Not we, Birdbrain, I.” Tony was fiddling with his phone, distractedly. He didn’t see the smile forming on Clint’s lips.

“There is no ‘i’ in Team, Tony.” He said, shaking his head, disappointedly. “I thought you knew that.”

“Thank god, we’re here.” Happy mumbled from the front seat, not reacting to the glares he earned for his trouble. 

They got out of the car, making sure to keep Tony in their middle, which he commented with an eyeroll. He didn’t say anything further on the matter as some reporters, probably those who weren’t invited into the press conference, were waiting for them in front of the back entrance.

Winter, who hid his face under a black fedora, pushed his way through them with Thor by his side. It had taken them barely thirty seconds to leave the open street, still Steve relaxed his muscles as soon as they entered the narrow corridor of the backstage part of the theatre that had been rented to hold the press conference.

“Breathe, everyone.” Tony quipped, winking at them. “The show is about to start and if we can sneak in some burlesque dancing-” 

“Tony!”

“Pepper, light of my life, I-”

“If you even think about going off script-”

“Would I ever?”

The silence was answer enough. As was the glares Tony earned, not only from Pepper but also from the blond woman standing behind her. It was Jenny from PR, who had handled some of SI’s and the Avengers' more delicate matters in the past and was Pepper’s right hand woman in all things media related since Hydra had attacked the Tower.

Clint snorted, clapping Tony hard on his back. “I take it back. There is an ‘i’ in Team. Good luck, you’re on your own.”

Instead of an answer, Winter grabbed Clint by the back of his suit jacket and pushed him in front of Tony.

“What the- I thought we were friends!” Clint huffed, looking hurt. Winter just smirked. 

They really had come a far way.

Pepper, as the wise woman that she was, didn’t react to them, but was still staring holes into Tony.

“No, Pepper, I will be very good. I will not tell any state secrets and I won’t close any departments of SI; I swear.”

“You can’t do that anyway.” Her shoulders relaxed and she stepped closer passing Winter, who didn’t react but kept his eyes on her.

“As this is an official Avengers press conference, we couldn’t decline certain news stations and newspapers, but Jenny made sure the worst of the worst paparazzi were uninvited.”

“Thanks Pep.” Tony leaned forward kissing the woman on her cheek. Which was fine, because they were friends and he kissed others on their cheeks too. Not Steve, but if he was honest, that weren’t the kisses he wanted anyway.

“And to you, Jen-Jen.” He smiled at the blond woman, who nodded, business-like, before glancing down on her wristwatch, an old model with a gold casing. 

“You’re up in 5.” She said, before turning around promptly, leaving for the stage entrance.

“Everyone ready?” Steve turned to his team, looking at everyone, to make sure they were fine.

Bruce’s “No” was almost drowned by the agreeing noises the others made.

“Come on, Brucey,” Tony slung an arm around the other scientist, dragging him along. “You can stand beside me; I’m going to keep you safe from all the asshole reporters.”

“Are you going to do it by drawing all the attention to yourself?” Bruce asked, disapprovingly. As much as he didn’t like to be the focus of anything, he hated the way the press reacted to Tony as much as the rest of them.

Which meant that there had been an instance in the past in which Thor and Steve had to wrestle the Hulk into his cage after one paparazzi had written an extraordinarily piece of trash in which the nicest accusation against Tony was that he forced the Avengers to be his personal harem. 

When Tony had learned about it later from a still seething Bruce, he had started laughing, declaring each and every one of them could kill him without effort. The following mood drop seemed to go unnoticed by the genius.

“I don’t have to, the press is naturally drawn to me, honey.” Tony winked at him, before letting go of the other man.

“Cap, you’re going to start this speech or should I rile them up first?”

“No.” 

“Come on, I thought we could-”

“Absolutely not.” On this Steve wouldn’t budge no matter the pout Tony sent his way. He had learned that lesson painfully enough to know, this was never an option.

Before either Tony or Clint could comment, they got the signal to get onto the stage and Steve groaned, silently. Up into the spotlight to dance. 

While Tony told Winter to stay with Pepper, he stepped out into the blinding light. Forcing a relaxed smile on his face, that he knew looked like he wanted to be anywhere but where he was at the moment, he took his place in the center.

Nat stepped to his left, her natural grace making it look like she was finally home. Her posture was relaxed and elegant, her expression calm and a silent smile tucking at the corner of her mouth. 

Next to her stopped Clint, his shoulders squared, his expression open and relaxed, a smile brightening his eyes.

Bruce stopped to his right, leaving a spot open. He, too, had his shoulders squared, his expression calm, his fists clenched. 

Beside him stood Thor, tall, smiling and relaxed. 

A few seconds later Tony stepped onto the stage, waving and smiling, like he owned the theatre, the crowd and the stage. His hair gleamed in the bright lights and his eyes danced. He hated it, yes, but no one would guess that, as he stepped between Bruce and Steve. 

As soon as the crowd quieted down some, Steve cleared his throat. 

“Thank you for coming. In this press conference we will usher a statement to the current state of affairs and afterwards we will be answering some questions.” He smiled his useful I-am-new-to-this-century-so-please-be-gentle-smile (Tony’s description, not his) at the sharks in front of him. 

“Six weeks ago, we learned that Hydra was still-” Steve never finished that sentence, as, right at that moment, a shot interrupted him. 

Chapter Text

“Don’t look at me like that, Buttercup, you knew this was going to happen.”

Winter glared at Tony. 

“Go with Pepper, protect her, I’m surrounded by the Avengers for fucks sake! I am an Avenger!”

Winter knew that, of course. It didn’t change that it made Winter nervous to know Tony would step out into the open. In front of a lot of people. Who would all hold something in their hands that could hide a weapon.

Without his suit of armour.

“I don’t have time for that. You stay with Pepper and Jenny, are we clear?” His words were harsh, but Winter could see the urgency in his brown eyes. He let Tony squeeze his arm, letting the contact calm him some.

Before Winter could answer, Tony had already turned on the spot and walked out on stage, following the rest of the Avengers and stepping between the Captain and Dr. Banner. 

Winter really didn’t like this.

He didn’t go into the backroom where he knew Miss Potts and Miss Webbier were. He didn’t trust them. But being here, out in the open was nerve-wracking too. Winter exhaled, trying to calm himself and physically fighting his need to hide in the shadows or get into a higher spot to see more, to oversee everything.

Letting his eyes wander over the people in the crowd, he forced his need down to run out and drag Tony kicking and screaming into the shadows where he would be safe. Tony wouldn’t like it. Miss Potts wouldn’t like it. But Winter almost didn’t care. What were all of them thinking? They were literally standing still on a podium with spotlights on them. Any shooter would be able to-

Winter froze, his eyes snapping to a spot in the high seats at the back of the theatre. Had there been a metallic glint? He-

The shot rang loud and clear through the air. 

The shooter hadn’t used a silencer. 

Not that that was in any way important. 

He was already running towards the exit that was closest to the stairs leading to that part of the theatre. Because, in an architectural failure, the highest seats had two staircases, one of which led to another “backstage” part where stage props were stored. Running up the small staircase would be faster than jumping around panicked people, Winter knew. He had enough experience doing this.

He didn’t look back. Didn’t wait for the confirmation who was the target of their attack. There were two who would be most likely. But even if he knew who had been shot, there was nothing he could do better than the Avengers. They would keep their injured safe. They would help. 

Winter could catch whoever did this. He knew how Hydra operated, knew how assassins would plan their exit. He had looked over the building plans with the Black Widow… Natasha… and they had strategized with the Captain… Steve… what to do if… if they needed to get out.

They had promised they didn’t need to do another perimeter check. They had said they would be fine. They had-

Focusing on his running steps, Winter pushed all of those thoughts out of his head. He had a mission. If he succeeded, everything would be good. 

The press, thankfully, had been in the main room so it was easy to ignore the screams, the uproar and the panicked people, as they weren’t blocking his way. He stopped for a heartbeat to make sure the attacker had already exited the alcove, even if he had known he would have. He hadn’t left anything behind.

Winter stormed forward, running down the staff-only staircase, hidden behind a dark red curtain. It ended in a big corridor, big enough to maneuver machinery through it to set up the stage props. Winter didn’t glance around, didn’t care for the signs of people having hastily run when the commotion started that was audible even here. 

Storming forward, he reached the slightly ajar standing fire exit door. This was probably their entry and exit point. 

Winter didn’t stop running, pushing the door out of his way with enough force to rip it out of its hinges. He didn’t stop.

From this point there were four most likely routes to take. Presuming they hadn’t gotten rid of their weapon and if so, Winter didn’t know where; they would probably try to use smaller paths to disassemble their rifle and would be picked up by a car. Using the metro had its perks but the police would scan those tapes first – and everyone knew that the Avengers had good technical resources to pull this off in a very short amount of time. 

That meant they needed a pickup point that wouldn’t be observed by cameras and alleys that weren’t filmed in which you wouldn’t come across someone that would tell the police or the Avengers anything if they saw you. 

Deciding on his course, Winter doubled his speed. His approach wasn’t anything he had trained. He ran, not covering himself in any way, not checking for traps or people possibly hiding behind dumpsters and other obstacles standing around. 

It didn’t matter.

They couldn’t be that far ahead. If they weren’t enhanced in any way, there was no way they could outrun him. Especially if they tried to disassemble their weapon and tried to be inconspicuous.

If they would use similar tactics like Winter. What if they didn’t? What if they knew he would be there, knew he would follow them? They would probably use the opposite of what would be logical.

What if they used the tactic that had never worked with Winter and joined the panicked crowd?

Fuck.

Winter propelled himself around a corner, catching a glimpse of a dark figure at the other end before it ran around another corner. They hadn’t looked back.

Ignoring his instincts, that told him this was most likely a trap, Winter kept running, his steps as silently as he could make them while sprinting down an asphalted narrow alley between concrete walls. 

Getting closer to the corner, Winter tensed his muscles, speeding up just a little more, jumping around with a spin, running two steps on the side of the concrete wall, before jumping back to the street.

Or that had been his plan. He felt the bullet rip through his leg almost the same second he saw the attacker. He held a gun with a silencer in a steady hand, his expression deadly focussed.

Had Winter run around the corner, he was sure the other assassin would have killed him with a head shot. 

Not slowing for an instance, Winter jumped off the wall, not favouring his injured leg, and grabbed for the other man’s throat with his metal hand.

He narrowly avoided the next bullet, ducking in the right moment and knocking his hand away with brutal force. The other man’s wrist snapped, but before he could say anything, Winter’s metal hand was already around his throat, pushing the assassin into the wall behind him with a thudding sound as his head connected with the concrete.

The whole thing hadn’t taken more than five seconds, still the other had already grabbed a knife and stabbed it through Winter’s shoulder. Not that it stopped Winter.

Grabbing his other wrist, he pressed down on it, ignoring the jerking motion that made the blade cut deeper into his shoulder. The assassin’s right wrist snapped, too.

Looking up into the blue eyes, Winter knew he had fucked up. The assassin was smiling.

“Hail Hydra.” He rasped, froth already forming at his mouth. 

Winter growled, low and frustrated. He hadn’t thought about it. How could he have forgotten? Sure, he had never gotten one of the suicide pills, like every true Hydra agent, but he should have known . Should have remembered. Even if, judging by the symptoms, the assassin had bitten down on it a few minutes ago. 

As if to prove him right, the body seized up and gasped for breath, desperately. 

Winter let go of the assassin and stepped back. There was nothing he could do to save him. Waiting for it to be over was all that was left for him to do. 

Exhaling, Winter looked down to the knife sticking out of his flesh shoulder. It would heal. As would the bullet wound, a through and through, thankfully. 

His heart was still thumping away frantically, which didn’t make any sense. This was nothing special. Nothing new. He could remember similar situations. His heart had never felt like it tried to jump out of his throat, stopping him from breathing.

His head snapped up when he heard footsteps approaching. They were light, only one person, but they were running.

Moving backwards, Winter grabbed for the gun he hadn’t used in his chase, and pointed it at the corner, waiting.

The steps slowed until they stopped, right around the corner.

“Winter?” 

It was barely more than a whisper, quiet enough that no one without enhanced hearing would have been able to pick it up.

Not able to answer the Black Widow verbally, Winter knocked his gun once against the wall behind him.

A moment later, the Black Widow glanced around the corner. As soon as her eyes met Winter’s, she stepped around it, eying the dying agent who was still gasping for air.

She didn’t say anything. It was one of the things Winter had learned to appreciate about the other assassin. She only spoke when words were needed. Not that he disliked it when Tony talked. Listening to Tony was good. It was safe. 

“Do you need help?”

Winter glanced towards her. She nodded to the blade in his shoulder. He shook his head once, grabbing the handle and pulled. Warm blood rushed out of it, wetting his once white shirt. Not that he cared. 

“...who?”

The Black Widow looked up at that, her green eyes dark and worried. Winter wasn’t sure if that had more to do with the victim or the way his voice had sounded. Dead and hollow.

She didn’t need to answer.

Of course, it was Tony. Hydra had wanted him. Winter wasn’t sure why; the Asset wasn’t told and hadn’t cared. But they had wanted him and whatever they would have done with him, it wouldn’t be good. 

It also didn’t matter that the world thought others had saved them from Hydra, because Hydra would know that it came down to Tony. Sure, they would also blame Winter, as he had helped, but those who had worked with him, his handlers wouldn’t believe that the Winter Soldier could do anything without a direct command. They would believe Tony had broken him, had gotten into his head and warped him to Tony’s will.

They weren’t exactly wrong. Tony had gotten to Winter. But through kindness, understanding and compassion. 

Not that Hydra knew what that was.

The agent in front of them finally gave his last death rattle, leaving the alley in blissful silence. 

“They had already called the ambulance when I followed you.”

Winter nodded once. Tony had been alive or they wouldn’t have bothered. 

Stepping forward, Winter crouched down, ignoring the flaring pain in his leg and shoulder. It meant nothing. Not only because there was a weird numbness in his head. The Asset had learned to ignore pain. The only pain that had ever gotten to it was the chair. This was nothing. 

Winter wasn’t the Asset. But his body remembered it. Remembered how to work. To react.

Checking the pocket of the dead man, he wasn’t surprised that he didn’t find anything. 

Looking up, he saw the Black Widow open the dumpster a few paces down the alley, pulling out an inconspicuous briefcase.

Although they got more nervous by the second, neither of them wanted to leave before making sure they didn’t overlook anything. SHIELD, even if supposedly clean, couldn’t be trusted with this. Winter wasn’t sure why the Black Widow agreed with him. Maybe because she didn’t trust anyone but the Avengers with her kotenok ?

Ten minutes later, they had checked everything at least twice. After calling it in, they waited. Winter in a different alley, the Black Widow with the corpse. Another endless fifteen minutes later, she picked him up with a black nondescript car, most likely stolen from SHIELD.

He sat down in the passenger seat, glancing at her. She just shook her head.

No news. 

“Tony is strong.”

Winter looked over to the Widow. Her hands clutching the steering wheel tightly, her face expressionless. Her eyes, dark and calm, focussed on the road. 

She was right. Tonx was strong. But he was also human. He didn’t have enhanced healing. His body was weakened because of the Arc Reactor. He was still underweight. He had almost nightly nightmares. 

Tony’s mind was strong. His body wasn’t. 

He didn’t tell her that. She knew. Even if she didn’t want to. 

Had she said it to calm Winter? Had she said it because she wanted to believe it? Was this one of these moments where Tony had told him lies could be white?

Winter didn’t understand the concept. Why would the lie be acceptable if it told the other person what they wanted to hear? It wouldn’t change whether or not Tony would survive.

His chest, already tight and hurting, got even worse, and he forced himself to keep breathing evenly. 

He had learned to keep calm. To not react. To not feel. Afterwards Tony had taught him to feel and react, sure, but what were a couple weeks compared to months? Not that much. It wasn’t. And his body, it seemed, remembered the longer training, even if Winter didn’t. 

They stopped a few streets away from the hospital, the Black Widow parking the car on some greenery, not caring in the slightest what others would think of that. 

Good.

They had seen the reporters and paparazzi standing in front of the entrance to the hospital while circling around the building. Winter wasn’t surprised in the slightest when the Black Widow led him to an almost hidden fire escape door in the back of the hospital. Hawkeye was already waiting for them.

“News?”

“He is in the operating room.”

Hawkeye’s voice was off. Cold and detached in a way it hadn’t even been in the beginning when he had threatened to kill Winter.

Following them both, Winter tried to calm the adrenaline in his system. It hadn’t been difficult when he had been with the Widow in the car. Walking down increasingly busy clinic hallways he was hard pressed to not start shooting. 

Especially when they saw the blood on him. As he was following two of the Avengers, they didn’t approach him, still their eyes followed him, adding to his already rising… feelings.

The halls were bleak and busy, the signs telling them they were close to the operating rooms. 

Good. 

Hawkeye opened a door to a small room, with some chairs around the walls, a vending machine and a big loud clock at the wall opposite of the door.

Winter followed them in, closing the door behind him after glancing at the people in the corridor. They seemed to be average hospital staff, but if you didn’t have a metal arm and dead eyes, it wasn’t hard to dress in scrubs and look stressed.

Turning around to the people in the room, Winter noticed, approvingly, that Dr. Banner wasn’t here. He must be with Tony, making sure they didn’t do anything to the Arc Reactor, as he and Dr. Cho were the closest there were to specialists for it. 

If Tony wasn’t able to work on it himself.

To the far right sat Miss Potts, her back straight, her eyes closed. Her expression was tightly restrained. Her hands clutched a phone, desperately.

On the seat beside her sat Thor, his expression grim, small electrical currents running through his eyes. He had his arms crossed. When their eyes met, he nodded at Winter, as if to approve of his action, but didn’t ask. The Black Widow had most likely already informed them. 

She and Hawkeye sat beside the vending machine. Not talking. Not touching. Just sitting close. Waiting. 

Winter knew that feeling well. That none-feeling. The waiting.

The Captain sat on the left side. He had lost the suit jacket. His once light blue shirt was covered in blood, as were his hands and arms, that rested heavily on his knees. His head hung low, his body arched forward.

Winter didn’t see his eyes, but he was sure they were closed.

The Avengers had broken. 

Winter took a step to the side, standing right beside the door, he took first watch. None of them were in the condition to be useful at the moment. Not even the Black Widow who, judging by everything he had learned so far, and had seen from her, was the closest to himself in her training.

Of course, he had known that already. One glance at her and her file had been enough to make sure Winter knew that she was a dangerous opponent. She wasn’t strong compared to him, but she was highly trained, fast, precise and only fools would underestimate an assassin of her calibre. 

But it was more than her training or the way she seemed to be able to cut off her emotions like he knew he was able to. 

He was doing it right now. Wasn’t he? Probably. Because he had learned that he was useless with the emotions running high when Tony had told him that it had been the Winter Soldier that killed his parents. 

The first three days after, Winter had been useless. He hadn’t been able to think of anything but the pain he had caused Tony. And others. He hadn’t been able to bake. To take care of Tony. To help in any way. 

Instead, he had followed Tony, needing to see him, to know he hadn’t killed him too. Even though he had known he shouldn’t be there. Shouldn’t force his presence on Tony. 

He hadn’t been able to look into his eyes. His compassion hurting more than anger would have. 

He hadn’t been able to let Tony touch Winter, even if his touch grounded him. Helped him.

Three nights he had been lurking in the shadows of Tony’s bedroom, watching the genius sleep beside the Captain. Letting himself be calmed when he woke up from a nightmare. Tony didn’t talk about them. But some must have been caused by Winter. By the Asset.

On the fourth morning, after a particularly bad nightmare from Tony, Winter had fled, no longer able to be near him. He still hadn’t much of a reference for family or friends, to be honest, aside from snippets and observations, but he had watched Tony with Peter. He had watched everyone with Tony. 

He had hurt Tony. The Asset had hurt him and whether or not Tony was right, and it wasn’t Winter’s fault, as the Asset hadn’t been Winter, he still had the same face. 

And Tony had to look at him.

The Black Widow… Natasha… had found him shortly after, destroying punching bags.

She had sat down and waited, until he had turned, glaring at her. 

Indicating a spot opposite, her on the mat, she had waited, seemingly unconcerned until Winter had joined her. 

He wasn’t sure why he had followed her… wish. But he had, sitting down. Waiting.

“Tony forgave me for spying on him.” She had said, toneless, her eyes sharp. Knowing. 

But she didn’t know. Tony had said no one did. Not even her.

“He understands guilt almost better than anyone.” The green in her eyes had darkened and just for a moment, Winter had seen a splash of pain and sadness, before she had blinked, hiding it all away again.

“We learn from our pasts. We acknowledge our actions, whether or not others consider it to be our faults.” A melancholy note hit that last word, before her voice got hard. Uncompromising. “We do better. Do as much good as we can.”

Her eyes hadn’t left Winter’s for a second. That was her story. It was Tony’s story. It was Winter’s story, too. 

Tony even told him that Winter wasn’t to blame for his actions, but Tony was. And he blamed himself. Winter knew. He had seen it in his eyes. 

“…how?” It was the first time he had spoken directly to the other assassin. Just a few weeks ago he would have killed her without questioning it just for coming near him.

“Learn from it. Acknowledge your actions. If possible erase some red from your ledger. Do good.”

Winter looked away from her burning eyes. He had learned. Tony had taught him. He was still learning. And he would keep learning.

Tony told him it hadn’t been his actions. And it might not have been Winter who did all the kills of the Winter Soldier, but it had been this body. And Winter remembered some of the kills. Yes, it had been under orders and yes, at that time there had been no thoughts in his mind, no understanding that what he did was wrong. Still, he had done it, hadn’t he?

Winter hadn’t heard that expression before, but it was easy to guess what it meant. Try to pay your debts. Could you do that when you killed the parents of a kid and that person saved you and helped you and… was there for you?

Do good. Winter was still unclear what that exactly meant. Or how he could achieve it. Yes, there were rules, but some of them were confusing and- 

Looking back into the green eyes of the Black- Natasha, he wasn’t sure whether or not what he wanted to do, was good. If it would erase some red. Or if it would make it worse.

“…protect…Tony?”

She didn’t know. Didn’t know the context. Didn’t know what he had done. But Tony was there, he stayed close. He hadn’t commented when Winter had stayed close and not left the bedroom. He still reached out to Winter, touching him carefully, gently. Letting go whenever Winter moved back.

He just smiled at Winter sadly, as if it was his fault. As if he blamed himself when Winter was the one who had hurt him!

“Yes. That is something good. It erases some red.”

Because he had kidnapped him. Had shot him. Had hurt him. Even if it would never erase that he had killed Howard and Maria Stark.

After that, Winter had started to think of the Black Widow as the Avenger and that woman who had talked to him as Natasha. Even if it was still a work in progress. 

That same night he had gone to Tony, who visibly relaxed when Winter came close again, meeting his eyes. He had smiled. Warm and trusting. 

“…protect you?”

Tony had scrunched up his forehead, before telling Winter, again, that it hadn’t been his fault, that Tony didn’t tell him because he thought he was guilty, but because it was a secret and secrets like these between friends could be disastrous. 

Winter had listened. Had tried to understand what Tony was saying. Of course, he hadn’t told Winter to make him protect Tony. Winter knew that. 

“Do good. Protect.”

At that, Tony had deflated. “There are better people to protect than me, Buttercup.”

Winter hadn’t answered. He didn’t believe that. He did know that he wanted to protect the genius, because he needed it. Because he was good and because he was Winter’s. Whether or not he knew it. 

And Winter had been right.

Blinking, he focussed on the scene in front of him. On the broken heroes in front of him. 

Hydra had shot Tony. During a press conference. The rifle he and the Black Widow had found didn’t have a silencer with it. It had been supposed to be heard. 

Winter knew these kinds of kills. He had had two missions like this shortly after getting out of the chair. They had ordered him to make a spectacle out of it. To make it as public as possible. To make sure it was caught on film.

These had been executions to make a statement. To make sure their enemies knew who to fear. That they weren’t safe.

Hydra was going to make an example out of Tony. Their proof that every time someone cut a head off, two grew back.

Chapter Text

Tony stumbled.

The echo of the shot was still vibrating in the air and none of the people in the crowd had yet realized what had happened.

Steve hadn’t either. His brain shying away from what couldn’t be true. 

Without his reflexes, that worked without the input of his brain, Steve wouldn’t have been able to catch his genius as he crumbled.

It took a heartbeat longer for his mind to react. It switched into mission-mode, pressing down on his feelings. The painful gasp, as he caught the other man, made him kneel down on the hard stage, trusting his team to keep them safe, despite his need to run, to hide Tony away.

All these were thoughts that were just a shadow in the back of his mind as he stared down into Tony’s far too pale face. As he saw the blood already soaking the red shirt, the same colour as his blood.

There were screams. Steve knew they should be near and piercing. He barely heard them. 

Glancing up, he saw Thor standing over them, protecting them, while he talked to Bruce, obviously trying to calm the other man, whose eyes were blazing green. His hands were shaking and tinged with the same green, promising that Hulk would break free and destroy everyone who dared to hurt his Tin Man.

Steve couldn’t think about it. Couldn’t care.

When he looked back, Tony had closed his eyes, pressing them shut as he struggled to breathe. Blood was pooling out of his chest, his shirt still hiding most of it, but if Steve had to guess, and he didn’t want to. He didn’t want to be right. But if he had to guess, he would say, the bullet had hit his Arc Reactor. Or his lungs.

A movement out of the corner of his eyes had him move forward. It was Hawkeye, coming closer, grabbing Tony’s head and helping Tony lay down flat on his back.

“Jacket.” He bit out and Steve, barely able to do anything, barely able to react because everything he knew was the silent scream in his head filling everything which should have room for plans. And thoughts. But he didn’t want to think. If he started he would see. He would see that something was different.

Ripping his jacket off, he pressed it to Tony’s chest, trying desperately to stop the bleeding. To stop the wet heat from flooding out of Tony and taking his life with it.

Tony whimpered. It was a pathetic sound. Almost inaudible. Full of agony. He couldn’t think about it. Couldn’t realize. Wasn’t allowed to think about the implications that Tony, his Tony, his genius, who never showed physical pain, who could hide his injuries away and was able to make his enemies and fans believe he was invincible, was whimpering. 

Steve faltered, not able to keep pressing down. To hurt Tony.

As his life flooded out of him. His blood, that was already dripping on the stage.

Clint moved forward, ripping the jacket out of Steve’s hand and pressing it down on Tony’s chest. Tony whimpered again. Clint didn’t let go. His expression was hard, cold and set. He would save Tony’s life no matter what it would cost him. 

And it did cost him.

Unable to be useful, Steve grabbed Tony’s hand, clutching it to his chest. He was still hiding him with his own body from the screaming masses that wouldn’t stop. It didn’t matter.

Lifting his other hand, he took Tony’s blood red glasses off, looking in the deathly pale face of his love.

The genius didn’t react. Didn’t show he knew that Steve was there. That Clint was there, doing everything he could to keep Tony alive.

Steve couldn’t remember one time, not one, in which Tony hadn’t reacted to him. Even when hurt, even almost unconscious, he had always reacted. Had tried to calm Steve, to hide his pain.

“It’s okay, Tony.” Steve whispered, moving a little closer, ignoring his knees getting wet. Ignoring the faltered breathing of the genius. “Just hold on.” His pleading was full of desperation, of agony and fear.

Tony pressed his hand, not strong, not with precision, but he pressed down, as if to reassure Steve. To let him know he knew. That he wasn’t alone. That they would keep him safe. That they would try. That they-

Steve ignored the screams and the voice being projected over the speakers. Until Clint cursed, colourfully, his eyes ablaze with hatred.

“- Stark! Hail Hydra! We are plenty and our heads are everywhere. The world will fall before us and the first to fall is Tony Stark! Hail Hydra! We are plenty and our heads are everywhere. The world will fall before us and the first to fall is Tony Stark! Hail Hydra! We are plenty and our heads are everywhere. The world will fall before us -”

It was repeated over and over again. 

Looking back down at his genius, he saw that Tony’s eyes were open. The beautiful whiskey colour dull. The sharp wit non-existent. Pain was clouding them, making them almost unrecognizable from his Tony’s eyes, that sparkled with life and hope and determination. Even if they were producing sparks of irritation or anger, they were never dull. Never this unfocussed. Never empty.

“Tony.” Steve whispered, desperately, leaning forward and pressing his cheek to Tony’s forehead. “You’re going to be okay. I-”

A hand on his shoulder tried to move him backwards and the only reason Steve didn’t lash out was that he couldn’t let go of Tony – and that he knew his team had his back. Literally. 

Looking up, he saw Bruce. His eyes were still acid green, but his expression was calm and determined. He didn’t say a word, but he didn’t have to. Steve moved aside, making room for Bruce, as he kneeled down beside him, his focus solely on Tony’s bleeding chest. 

Steve focused on Tony’s eyes. They were half open by now. He looked into them, trying to find his Tony, the man that could smile, just with his beautiful eyes and let Steve believe that everything would be okay. Who could slay people with one look. 

He didn’t find him.

Glancing to the side, Steve saw Thor step closer to them, his massive shoulders providing necessary shelter. Behind the god Steve could see security clearing the room from the last reporters. Pepper stood to the side, a phone clutched to her ear. Her expression was hidden, but her shoulders were rigid. 

Nat was nowhere to be seen. Neither was Winter. 

“- and the first to fall is Tony Stark! Hail Hydra! We are plenty and our heads are everywhere. The world will fall before us and the first to fall is Tony Stark! Hail Hydra! We are plenty and our heads are everywhere. The world will fall before us and the first to fall is Tony Stark! Hail Hydra! We are plenty and our heads are everywhere. The world will fall before us -”

For just a heartbeat, Steve pressed his eyes closed, reminding himself, that this was Tony Stark. He was strong. He was better than them. Better than some Hydra goons that hadn’t been stopped just yet. Reminding himself of the indignant look he would probably throw at Steve the moment he woke up in the hospital. Telling him that Steve should have more faith in Tony. That he couldn’t be stopped by a simple bullet. He was Iron Man!

Looking back at his genius, Steve almost choked on the breath he had been meaning to take. The bullet had wedged itself alongside the Arc Reactor into Tony’s body. Most likely harming the Reactor. And his heart. And his lungs.

“- Hail Hydra! We are plenty and our heads are everywhere. The world will fall before us and the first to fall is Tony Stark! Hail Hydra! We are plenty and our heads are everywhere. The world will fall before us and the first to fall is Tony Stark! Hail Hydra! We are plenty and our heads are everywhere -”

Steve just stared at where Bruce and Clint were now trying to stop the bleeding. He barely realized it when the transmission was cut off and silence fell. What made him move was the convulsing of Tony’s body. The choking sounds.

He pressed his face to Tony’s whispering calmingly in his ears. Pleading with him to stay with Steve. To hold on. To not let go. To trust them, even though they had done nothing but fail him. 

When the paramedics came, Thor and Clint had to move him backwards to let them work on Tony. To let them touch him. Because Tony, who would fight them every single time, didn’t. Because he just lay there, his eyes closed.

“We’re both driving with.” Bruce ordered, his voice hard and absolute.

“That’s not-”

“Shut up.” Clint was between them. Pushing the paramedic back. Protecting Steve?

In the next moment Steve helped Tony on the stretcher. He helped put Tony into the ambulance and cramped himself in the furthest corner, his eyes trained on his genius, as one of the paramedics and Bruce were talking. Checking Tony, pushing a mask over his nose and mouth.

And Tony didn’t say anything. Too far gone already to even know what was happening.

Then he flatlined. 

Steve’s breath froze, reaching out to Tony, but there was no room, as Bruce and the paramedic started to work furiously.

He watched in horror as the broken body spasmed. Again. And again.

On the sixth try, his heart started to beat again. Steve’s had almost stopped.

He flatlined again, when the ambulance stopped at the hospital. Bruce and the paramedic had Tony out of the cramped space before Steve could even move. He followed. Followed the frantic voices. Followed Tony, broken and bloody, because there was nothing else he could do.

When people stepped into his way, trying to stop him, it was Thor and Clint who held him back. He wasn’t sure where they had come from. 

Steve let himself be led by them. Because they wouldn’t… Because he had to?

Because he couldn’t help Tony.

Because he had let this happen.

Because Hydra would do anything, they could, to kill Tony. If they hadn’t succeeded already. 

We are plenty and our heads are everywhere. The world will fall before us and the first to fall is Tony Stark! Hail Hydra!

Steve let himself fall to a chair Clint had guided him to. If he said something, Steve didn’t hear. Didn’t hear anything other than those words. Tony’s whimper and gasp. The frantic machine. 

When the door opened, he looked up, to see Pepper step into the room. Her expression was hard and cold. Her eyes red rimmed. She was clutching a phone to her chest.

She said something. About Stephen Strange being called. Coming to help. To help Tony. 

Because Steve couldn’t. Because he had failed to protect Tony.

Clint and Pepper exchanged information over the phone. Clint telling him that Natasha and Winter had followed the attacker. That he had killed himself. That they were coming to the hospital.

Pepper’s phone rang and she answered. It was Rhodey. Telling her he was on his way. Steve didn’t want to listen in, but his ears were too sharp. He heard the other man’s pain. His fear.

Opening his eyes after endless minutes of listening. Of praying and trying to not think about the last moment he had seen Tony, an oxygen mask pressed over his face, his eyes closed. One of his hands hanging lifelessly from the bed.

Before the doors fell shut.

He wasn’t alone though. Bruce was with him. Bruce, who could help him. Who knew about the Arc Reactor. Who would keep him safe. 

Looking down, his eyes fell on his blood-stained hands. The bright crimson colour that was set off by his pale skin and once pristine light blue shirt.

Tony’s blood was on his hands. 

Leaning forward, Steve didn’t know what he wanted to do, he just couldn’t look at the blood anymore. He needed to get up, to scrub at his skin until it wasn’t Tony’s blood that was sticking to his hands. Not Tony’s blood that-

Clint got up from his chair and left the room. 

Steve concentrated on his heartbeat, fast and frantic while the seconds dropped by slow and agonizingly unimportant. 

What if Tony died? 

Coldness settled into Steve. Into his gut, into his lungs, freezing the air in his throat. Stopping his heart. He couldn’t- He couldn’t think about it. Couldn’t-

What if Tony died?

They were heroes. He was a soldier. Death was part of life. It was nothing to fear, because it was a part of life. 

You lost people on the battlefield. You lost people in life. 

He couldn’t lose Tony.

Twice before he had believed he was dead. Twice before he had felt like all colour had drained from the world. Like all warmth had gone. 

He couldn’t lose Tony. 

He had a mission both times. Find him. Protect the other Avengers. Get his body back. Now, he didn’t have a mission. He was sitting uselessly here in a room he hadn’t looked at. Doing nothing while Tony was-

The door opened again. He didn’t look up, but he recognized his team anyway. The graceful, almost noiseless movements of Natasha. The heavier but still graceful and almost noiseless steps of Clint. Even the threatening presence of Winter, overseeing the room, before taking position at the door.

Minutes later, Thor left the room and returned with wet washcloths, pressing them into Steve’s hands. Helping him to get rid of the blood.

Later again, Natasha and Clint moved. They made Winter sit down. They argued with him. Told him he had to be checked over. Steve barely even managed to look at him. He was covered in blood. His own. Not Tony’s. Not like Steve had been.

He didn’t answer, but he showed them already healing wounds. Clint left to get supplies, not letting the nurse enter when she followed him.

They took care of Winter. Winter didn’t comment on it. He didn’t look at Steve either. 

And why should he? He had been against it. Hadn’t wanted Tony to go to the press conference. He had been right. 

Steve had thought it would be okay. It was the middle of the day. He had been surrounded by the Avengers. Nat, Clint and Happy had said they had checked the security. Pepper had said, she had made sure the worst of the worst wouldn’t come. And he would be there to protect his team. To protect Tony.

Still, Hydra had found their way in. They had shot Tony. They had-

Later again, Happy came into the room. He had a bag with him, giving out food and fresh clothes for all of them.

Clint and Thor forced both Steve and Winter to move. To change.

While in the bathroom, washing his hands furiously, he heard people in the corridor talking. About the attack on Tony Stark. About the message Hydra played over the radio and put out into the world. 

Heard them debate whether or not Stark would survive. 

Whether or not he was worth all the trouble.

Steve threw up into the sink, being held up by Thor. Clint handed him a toothbrush. Both their faces were grim. Both of them stayed close to him. 

They also stayed close to Winter, who looked at all of them. His expression too calm. Far away.

Back in the waiting room, Pepper made them eat. She was on the phone again. Organizing the press coverage. Making sure someone managed the lies. Made sure the world knew Tony was still alive. Was fighting for his life. 

Steve didn’t want to know. He pressed his forehead down onto his arms. Breathing. Concentrating. 

Tony was a fighter. He was a fighter. He was stronger than anyone Steve had ever met. He loved life. He loved people. He loved the Avengers. And even if he wasn’t in love with Steve, he loved Steve. They were friends. They were family. 

Tony wouldn’t give up. He wouldn’t leave Peter behind. Or Rhodey. He wouldn’t leave Pepper or the Avengers. 

Tony couldn’t leave Steve.

After a while Natasha started to accept calls. Like Pepper. She spoke with Fury. With Charles. With Luca. She talked with people. Organizing. Coordinating.

Steve couldn’t care less. 

He perked up when Pepper reached Dr. Cho. She was in Korea. She would come as soon as she could.

What if it was too late?

When the door opened again, Steve looked up. It was Strange, wearing scrubs, his face dark. His hands were slightly twitching.

“Stephen, my friend, what news do you bring?” Thor asked, his voice quieter than normal.

It seemed, no one else had the guts to ask. Not when his eyes were expressionless and professional.

“The bullet damaged Stark’s heart and his lung. Dr. Banner and I are working with what we have.” There was a slight hesitation. Just a heartbeat. “I fear there is not much we can do. The doctors already stopped trying. We keep him alive as it is, but there is nothing we can do to heal him.”

Steve stared at the Sorcerer Supreme. 

He couldn’t understand the words. They didn’t make any sense. 

“There has to be something you can do.” Pepper said. Her voice was… off. 

“I’m sorry, Miss Potts. I can keep him in a stasis but aside from that we have no idea how to help him. His heart and lungs were already damaged by the Arc Reactor. The additional stress and injuries…” Strange stopped. Exhaling. “There is nothing we can do.”

Steve broke.

Chapter Text

“There is nothing we can do.”

No. 

Winter didn’t move. Didn’t fall forward like the Captain. Didn’t sob like Miss Potts. He stood there like the Black Widow. Like Hawkeye. Frozen. Like statues. Staring at Dr. Strange. 

Hydra had been undecided on his threat level. Standing in front of the Avengers, his face calm, his back straight and his eyes apologetic, Winter didn’t think he could be a big threat. 

He couldn’t even help Tony.

Tony couldn’t die. 

No. That was wrong. Of course, he could die. He was a breakable human. An injured one at that. Winter knew how easy it would be to kill Tony. That was the reason he was staying close to the genius. To protect him. To prevent that. 

But Tony couldn’t die. There was something in Winter’s chest. Something in his throat. It wasn’t fear, but close. It made it hard to breathe. And to swallow. 

Tony couldn’t die.

His feelings were far away, like feeling them through fog. And that was good. Because he saw what feelings could do, if they were close. 

Miss Potts had fallen to her chair, glaring at Dr. Strange, tears falling from her eyes. She was fighting. She didn’t want to accept it. Good. 

The Captain had folded in on himself, his face hidden in his hands, as he breathed. Shoulder’s shuttering. 

Hawkeye moved, slow, calm, no emotion at all visible in his expression, but his eyes screamed of pain. He stepped beside the Captain, putting a hand on his shoulder. 

The Black Widow moved too, slow, deadly, and blank. She stepped towards Miss Potts, offering… what? Strength? Reassurance?

“No.” Thor pushed himself up, electricity sparking all around him, his expression grim and thunderous. “Keep him alive, my friend. I will bring help. I promise you that.” His blue eyes wandered to the Captain, to everyone. And to Winter.

“I shall hurry. Keep him alive!” He ordered again, rushing out of the small room. Which seemed even smaller now.

Dr. Strange nodded to Pepper and turned. Leaving. To help Tony. To keep him alive. 

Because he couldn’t die. Tony couldn’t die.

Looking away from the closed door, he met the Black Widow’s eyes. They were closed off, calculating and challenging.

Winter didn’t know what she might want him to do. They had decided Tony should be on that stage. He had been told to stay back. To not be there. To not protect Tony. Because he was safe. And they had been wrong.

He didn’t say any of that. Mostly because there were no words left in him. Nothing to say. And there was something else about her. Something he couldn’t grasp. Something that was there, but he couldn’t put his finger on it.

Hawkeye was similar in his expression of… devastation? He was cold, hard, precise and silent. All things he wasn’t in the Tower. He hadn’t even been like that while threatening Winter with death. He had been wary and careful but not cold or silent or motionless. 

Now, he was all of it. He had his hand on the Captain’s shoulder, but his eyes were on the wall, unfocussed, as if deep in thought. 

Winter let his gaze linger on the Captain, who was just a shadow of himself. His normally big body, small and crumbled.

Before he could look any further, Miss Potts pushed herself off the chair, leaving the room without a backwards glance. 

None of them moved. None of them reacted.

Winter was used to waiting. Was used to sitting or standing somewhere for hours on end. Not doing anything.

Why did this feel like torture then? If he knew how to do it, why did he have to force himself to not pace. Why did he want to lash out? To fight something? Sure, he also wanted to go to Tony, to make sure he was alright. To make sure-

The door opened and Black Widow, Hawkeye and himself had their eyes on the newcomer. Who possibly brought news of Tony. Or was here to attack them.

It was Peter. Tony’s kid. His eyes were red-rimmed. His expression was heartbroken.

“Tony?” He asked, a hiccup in his voice. As well as desperation and cruel hope. And fear. A mind-numbing horror that took away his breath and left him almost paralyzed. 

No one answered him. Had they lost their words like Winter? 

As the seconds ticked by, Peter whimpered, his small body shivering. 

Winter didn’t know what he did. Didn’t know what he could do, but he moved forward, opening his arms from where he had crossed them in front of his chest. Mimicking what he had seen Tony do for the kid.

Peter whimpered again, before stumbling forward. In Winter’s arm, clutching at his body with strength that would have crushed the non-enhanced people. Winter closed his arms around the boy, carefully applying pressure. Not hurting. Never hurting Tony’s kid. Comforting. Tony had explained it. Hugs were comforting to people. Especially people like Peter who needed touch to feel safe.

Holding Tony’s kid, Winter hoped to the heavens that someone would tell him what to do when the kid stopped hugging him. Because he had no idea.

He felt the body shiver against him, felt tears soak his sweatshirt. Using his flesh-hand, he gingerly patted his back. Like Tony had done for him, when he had cried. Because he had killed Tony’s parents. Had Tony cried like this when he had heard the news? He had told Winter that he hadn’t loved his parents like this, but he would have cried, right?

There was a movement to his right and his head snapped up, ready to protect the crying boy in his arms with everything he got. But it was just the Captain. Who had sat up. His face was pale, his eyes dark and empty. He had broken. 

The haunted expression sharpened when he saw Peter. The despair seemed to splinter him further. But he didn’t say a word. Just broke a little more.

Moving backwards, still holding the kid tight, Winter sat down, letting Peter curl onto his lap like a cat. Like he had done with Tony. When he had seen Tony after Winter had taken him. A broken kitten that wanted his father. His Iron Mom, like Hawkeye would say, with a teasing smile.

He didn’t. He stood beside Steve. His eyes lingering on Peter, before he locked eyes with the Black Widow. Who didn’t do anything either.

About a half hour later, Peter had cried himself to sleep in Winter’s arms. And Winter was about to panic. What was he supposed to do? How could he help the exhausted kid?

No one said anything. And Winter didn’t have words. 

When the door opened again, Hawkeye and the Black Widow had weapons ready. They would protect their catatonic Captain and Tony’s sleeping kid. 

It was Colonel Rhodes. Tony’s brother. And Miss Potts. Stepping in behind him. Both looked furious. Hurt. Panicked. Desperate. In command. 

“We’re moving Tony.” The Colonel said, his voice hard, cold. Agonized.

All of them looked at him.

“…why?” It was nothing more than a broken exhale. But Colonel Rhodes had heard it all the same.

Rage flashed over his features, before it settled behind a mask of calm and control that was flimsy enough that Winter hadn’t seen it at first.

“Get up. We’re moving him now.” He hissed at Steve. “Barton and Rogers take Peter. You will leave with Pepper and May. Get the Tower ready.”

None of them moved. Both Hawkeye and the Black Widow were glaring dangerously at the Colonel, who didn’t care. He was a man on mission, that much was obvious to Winter. And it had to be obvious to them as well.

When they still hadn’t moved ten seconds later, the Colonel stepped forward, taking Peter out of Winter’s arms. For a heartbeat Winter wanted to fight, but he didn’t. This was Tony’s brother. He had seen them together. He knew that Tony trusted him like no one else. He knew that Peter trusted him too. 

He did nothing. But he wanted to keep Peter close. To make sure the kid was safe. 

Colonel Rhodes huffed under the boy’s weight, turning and pushing the still sleeping boy in Rogers’ arms. Who moved a little too slow, but still caught the kid. Holding him close. In a protective embrace. Like he was breakable, and the Captain had no idea how to handle him. 

Winter could relate to that. 

“Get him home, Steve. Get everything ready, we bring Tony as soon as he will be safe there.” His voice was strained but friendlier. Even if forced. Even if it seemed like it cost the Colonel. 

“I can’t-”

“Now, Steve.” Colonel Rhodes all but growled. 

“Come on, Steve. Let’s bring Tony’s kid home.” Hawkeye patted the Captain’s shoulder, comfortingly. “Pepper will have a car ready.”

“Of course.” Miss Potts stood there, her back straight enough Winter thought it might break. “Let’s hurry.” She turned and left. 

The Black Widow helped Hawkeye get the Captain out of his chair without jostling the exhausted kid in his arms.

“Take care of Peter.” Nat whispered to him. He nodded back. Mechanically. She looked over to Hawkeye and they exchanged an understanding. He would take care of the Captain. She would take care of Tony.

Winter would, too. 

They waited in silence, presumably until they could be sure the Captain couldn’t hear them.

“What happened?” The Black Widow asked, her voice hard and cold. Her eyes fixed on the Colonel as if to catch any lie. Did she think he would feed them white lies to not hurt them?

“The hospital told us to let Tony go. After they heard that Stephen can’t help him, they-” He stopped, closing his eyes just for a second. “As his medical proxy they wanted me to stop Bruce and Stephen. They, and I quote, let us try long enough with our voodoo . They say they need the bed.” 

Winter didn’t react. Like the Black Widow didn’t. Not to the incredible hatred that dripped from the Colonel’s words. Not to the hurt screaming out of his eyes. 

Not to the unthinkable concept behind their request.

“What do you need us to do?” The Black Widow’s voice had changed. Every word drew blood. Winter didn’t need to glance over to her to know that she would do anything the other man asked of her right now. 

“Until we can move Tony, we need to keep all and everyone of those doctors and nurses out. That’s your job.” He nodded at Winter. “Before that, you need to get your hands on every sample, every scan, every physical evidence that they have. Jarvis is already erasing everything else.”

The Black Widow nodded. “Which room?”

The Colonel told her. They left together. The Black Widow in the direction of the labs. Winter followed the Colonel through corridors, walking faster when he heard Dr. Banner’s strained voice, telling someone to leave.

Seconds later, Winter had pushed himself between the doctor and the Avenger, growling threateningly. He didn’t care that the other man recoiled, stammering something about calling security. 

Planting himself in front of the door, he acknowledged Dr. Banner's thanks and let the Colonel slip past him. Nothing would move him from his spot.

The minutes slipped by. He ignored the discussion in the room behind him. Ignored the worry, he heard. The desperation. Instead, he concentrated on glaring everyone away. No one was stupid enough to try anything. Although, the security was already on this floor, eyeing him carefully.

Almost twenty minutes later, judging by the white clock on the hallway wall, the Black Widow strode towards him, a plastic bag in her hands. Her expression was calm, almost relaxed, but her green eyes were cutting. 

She met his gaze, raising one eyebrow fractionally. Winter moved his head minimally, indicating a headshake. Nothing happened. Not yet. But she saw his body language, had seen the security people at the end of the hallway. She knew they didn’t have much more time before someone would break. 

It wouldn’t be them.

He moved, letting her through. Not reflecting that he let her into the room where Tony lay, injured and vulnerable. That he trusted her to not stab him in the back. Literally. 

He heard the door close, broadening his stance to cover all of it. Not even a minute later it opened again. He didn’t look back, moving to the side, before he froze, as a small hand was placed on his flesh arm. 

“We’re leaving.” The Black Widow whispered, low enough to make sure no one else heard it.

Winter nodded, almost unnoticeably. Watching around a second longer. As soon as the Black Widow dropped her hand and stepped back, Winter turned and followed her into the room.

Tony lay motionless on the bed, his face pale. Almost grey. Winter didn’t see his chest moving, didn’t see him breathing. But none of the other people reacted to it. 

Dr. Banner held onto the bed, one of his hands on Tony’s shoulder. 

Colonel Rhodes stood on the other side of the bed, holding onto it. His expression grim and desperate.

The Black Widow stood at the end of the bed, grabbing it as well. She glanced back at Winter, motioning him to follow her example with his eyes. He did.

Dr. Strange stood beside them. Beats of sweat prominent on his forehead, while he directed some sort of magic towards Tony.

“Ten seconds.” His voice was strained, almost breathlessly, as he waited for the nods of everyone but Winter.

As soon as he got the confirmation, he dropped his hands, letting the magic fizzle out. Immediately, Tony’s blood started to flow, and Winter could hear his heartbeat, weak and erratic.

Dr. Strange didn’t hesitate. He moved one of his hands in a circulating motion, producing a magic circle right in front of them. As none of the others reacted to it, neither did Winter. Even if it moved towards them with incredible speed. They stood in the middle of the living room on the common floor.

Dropping his hands again, Dr. Strange stumbled slightly, before catching himself, raising his hands again, freezing Tony’s body in time again. Winter thought. Because Tony stopped moving as soon as the magic surrounded him.

“Tony?”

Winter looked up, seeing the Captain take a step forward, Peter right by his side. No one stepped forward to stop them. Dr. Banner even moved to the side, letting them stand beside Tony, starting to explain what Dr. Strange did. Winter was right, Tony was frozen in time. That he was safe. That it was the only thing keeping him alive. 

Although he didn’t say it like that. 

The Captain took Tony’s hand, flinching when he touched his skin, his expression falling.

The next hours were hard. Winter stood at the wall, keeping an eye on all of them. He didn’t trust the Avengers. They were too occupied by their feelings. Too distracted. Both Hawkeye and Black Widow were on watch too, but from time to time… they seemed distracted. 

Winter wasn’t. He didn’t look at Tony. Didn’t listen to the Captain or the kid. Didn’t listen to the Colonel.

Instead, he kept his eyes and ears open. Noticed the way Dr. Strange weakened. Noticed the way Dr. Banner got more desperate. How his eyes started to blaze green again and again.

By now, it was the early morning hours of the next day. Almost eighteen hours after Tony had been shot.

Peter had fallen asleep in the arms of his aunt, the nurse. No one else had taken the opportunity to rest. Winter understood. He hadn’t either. The thought alone was laughable. There had been few conversations. 

An hour later the rumbling crash that everyone waited for shook the Tower. The change in the atmosphere was almost palpable as shoulders relaxed and held breathes were released.

Winter’s eyes went towards the elevator. Waiting. 

“If I might suggest to grab your weapons.” Jarvis said. His voice hard. Angry.

Winter had a gun and a knife in his hands before the AI had even finished. 

“Jarvis?” The Captain asked, uncertainty loud in his voice. Possibly because his Shield wasn’t here. Hawkeye and the Black Widow both grabbed weapons, both hidden on their bodies and around the room, passing guns to both the Colonel and the Captain, who reluctantly took it. Hawkeye even grabbed a bow hidden under the couch. Arrows and quiver inclusive.

Winter and Hawkeye stayed back taking aim, while the Captain, the Black Widow and the Colonel stepped forward, beside Dr. Banner, protecting Tony and Dr. Strange. And Peter and the nurse.

“Thor asked me to let him explain himself. I am inclined to let him do so as he had never shown any signs of ill intent. If that is a mistake on my part, I’m prepared to right that wrong.”

Before anyone could react to that, the elevator doors opened.

Thor, holding up his hands in the apparently universal sign of surrender came first into view. Behind him stood a tall man with black hair, green eyes and a calm expression. Even though Winter thought he was nervous.

“My friends-”

“What the fuck!” Hawkeye hissed, venom dripping from his voice. 

“Thor?” The Captain stepped forward; the gun held tight in his hand.

“We come in peace.”

“Fuck that!” Hawkeye stepped forward; the arrow aimed at the man with the black hair. Hatred burning in his eyes. “I promised myself to kill you the next time I would see you.”

Thor stepped between them; his expression pained. “My friend-”

“Let him have his shot, brother.” The other man looked around Thor, meeting Hawkeye’s hatred. “He deserves his revenge.”

“It wasn’t your fault, brother.” 

“WASN’T-”

“STOP!” The Colonel hollered, taking a step closer to Thor, his posture hard. “Why did you bring him, Thor.” There was a clear threat in his voice. 

“He can heal our Antho-”

“He will not get one step closer to-” Clint hissed, aggressively.

“Shut up, Barton.” The Colonel growled, getting closer to Thor, his shoulders tense, his voice almost provocative. 

“Tony told me that your brother was controlled, too. That you believe he can be saved . I get that. I do. But my brother is dying as we speak.”

The Captain flinched, an almost silent whimper escaping him.

“So, I want you to look me in the eye and swear on your life that all he will do is save him.” Without waiting even a second, he stepped to the side, glaring at the other man, Thor’s brother, his voice dipping even lower. “And you will swear the same. Don’t think because I’m just human I won’t find a way to kill you, slowly.” 

“I don’t doubt it.” The other man said, dipping his head lower in recognition, his green eyes sharp and almost amused. 

Winter didn’t like it. Not one bit.

“Rhodes, you can’t-”

“I swear to you, James, my brother wants to save our Anthony. He recognizes the life debt he has to pay to-”

“NO!” Hawkeye let the arrow fly from his bowstring, and already throwing himself after it, grabbing for a knife.

Winter watched, as the arrow met an invisible wall, splintering on impact. Both the Captain and the Black Widow intercepted the archer, subduing him without hurting him. The Widow pressed her face to his, whispering harshly, breathlessly, ignoring the yelled curses. The desperation.

And Winter understood. Hawkeye had been controlled too. He had been used by that man, by Thor’s brother to kill. To hurt people. He had been hurt like Winter. He had been used like Winter. Like the Black Widow.

He was like Tony and Winter and the Black Widow. Had shadows and ghosts haunting him. Lives he had taken that he hadn’t wanted to take. But had been unable or unknowing to do so.

Right now, he was hurting. He was furious. And he was ready to kill this alien. This demigod. For revenge. To protect Tony. Because if he had done that to Hawkeye, how could they believe he wouldn’t do that to Tony? Or worse?

Thor was pleading with them, with Hawkeye, swearing it was the only way. Promising Loki would help Tony. That it was the only way he knew how to help. That he would never do anything to endanger their Anthony. 

That Asgard and their mother had made sure Loki was himself again. That he had been better for months. That he had a talent for healing and had studied with their mother. That he was wearing magic dampeners and wasn’t a danger to them.

The screaming stopped, when Dr. Strange stumbled, falling to one knee. Dr. Banner turned around, pressing down on Tony’s wound as his blood began to escape his body again. As Peter cried out, moving forwards to Tony’s side, tears in his eyes.

The Colonel hadn’t moved, hadn’t looked back. He didn’t seem to hear the commotion, the pleading of the kid, the urgent voice of the Doctors. Or that the nurse hissed commands. He just glared into green eyes. 

“Swear to me.”

“I swear, I will heal Anthony Stark, not harm him and shall be of service to my brother and his shield-brothers and sisters until my guilt has been erased.”

“You killed-” Hawkeye screamed, but was forcefully ripped back by the Black Widow, making the way free for the demigods to move.

“If we want to save Tony, we have to do it now .” Dr. Banner growled with the Hulk’s voice, his hands steady even if the green was spreading all over his skin.

“Everyone out!” Rhodey growled, gesturing for Loki to step forward. “Get healing. Thor, you stay in that corner and watch. You are your brother’s keeper. The rest of you, out!”

The man – Loki – moved smoothly and with the grace of a predator. Winter wouldn’t leave Tony to him.

“Winter.” He looked back at Dr. Banner, who nodded to his hands, and Winter moved, taking his position. He was shaking, mumbling something about the Hulk cage and ran. He was out of the floor before any of the others. Before the Black Widow had wrestled Hawkeye into the elevator. Before the nurse had ordered Peter to follow her.

Loki, seemingly undisturbed, had already started to work his magic, coldness spreading around them, making Winter think of the ice. He wanted to hiss, to get between the threat and Tony, but he couldn’t let go. And the Colonel didn’t say anything. 

The Captain, who also hadn’t left the floor, helped Dr. Strange to sit down, as he overlooked what the alien did. 

Winter wasn’t sure if he would even be able to recognize if Loki would do anything. Was their magic similar enough? Was the wizard coherent enough to realize anything?

But it didn’t matter, did it? Tony was dying. Either Loki would save him, or he would be dead. If he didn’t do worse to him. What if he took away Tony’s mind? What if he took Tony away, saving just an empty body?

“You can let go, friend.”

Winter almost flinched when he heard the voice a lot closer when he had anticipated. He looked up, meeting green, clever eyes. He didn’t see a lie in them. Didn’t see a threat or anything indicating that he wanted to harm Tony. But that didn’t need to mean anything.

“My scans show the worst of the damage to Sir’s internal organs are healed, Mr. Winter.” 

Winter’s gaze snapped up to the camera in the corner. In the AI’s voice had been a lie. Or at least an omitted truth. 

“Jarvis?” Both the Colonel and the Captain asked. The first in a harsh command voice. The second with a bleeding edge to the name.

“My scans aren’t as clear as I would want them to be. Mr. Odinson's magic distorts my readings. What I can see is that Sir won’t bleed out if you let go, Mr. Winter. But the damage to his body is still extensive.”

“Healing is taxing for the body of the injured. As Mr. Stark’s injuries were fatal; it will take time and several healing sessions.”

“Stephen?” 

“He is right.” Dr. Strange sounded exhausted, but he still nodded, decidedly. “It will take time to heal Tony.”

“But you can heal him?” The Captain clarified, his voice void of all emotions.

Loki looked back at the Captain, taking in the picture of him, standing tall, his hands clasped behind his back, his eyes cold and hard and pleading. All at the same time.

“I am almost sure, yes. We will see if he will allow me to continue the healing after he wakes up.”

Winter felt his heart make a leap in his chest. As if it had woken up. Finally, he could breathe again. 

“You are sure, brother?” Thor asked, hope loud in his voice.

“Of course, I am.” The green eyes met the blue ones of Dr. Strange. “His body has been held in stasis long enough. As I said, it will take several healings and time for him to make a full recovery.”

“Full recovery?” The Captain whispered, almost noiselessly.

“From his recent injuries, yes.” The god agreed, something like annoyance in his voice, turning back to Winter, one eyebrow raised, as he nodded to his hands, still pushing down on his bullet wound. 

“You can stop pressing down.”

Glancing at the Colonel and receiving a nod, Winter stepped back, letting go of Tony reluctantly. 

The same second he moved backwards, the Captain stepped forward, grabbing one of Tony’s hands and sighing. It seemed as if all of the world’s sorrow was let go with it. His blue eyes focused on Tony; his lips pressed into a thin line.

Winter ignored the sticky blood on his hands, stepping a little farther back, to have everyone in his line of vision.

Thor was leaning against the wall, his arms crossed over his chest. Relief was obvious in his expression. And pride? 

The Colonel stood close; the stress visible in the bags under his eyes. Still, he was alert, keeping watch over Tony. Making sure he wasn’t hurt by Loki. 

The alien stood beside the bed, a greenish glow around his hands and Tony. Right now, his focus was on the unresponsive genius. His expression unreadable. 

Winter didn’t like it. If Tony thought, he had been controlled himself… Then that meant he was like Winter. But he had also controlled Hawkeye. Winter didn’t know how that worked. If he had to guess, the god was as dangerous as either the Black Widow or himself. Maybe even worse if he had magic.

If he had betrayed Thor before and had controlled Hawkeye, and fought against the Avengers, there was no reason to assume he wouldn’t do that again. If he hadn’t done all of it while being controlled. But even so, how could they make sure he wasn’t controlled right now?

Winter wasn’t, because he hadn’t been on a chair for a long time. And Tony had said, he and Jarvis had found two of them, the only two that were listed anywhere. And they had been destroyed by people Tony trusted.

Winter was safe. 

The Black Widow was probably safe, too. Tony hadn’t told him exactly what had been done to her, but that she had lived through something similar to Winter, but when she was a child and with practices a mere human could survive. 

As long as Winter didn’t know what had happened to Loki and how he had been controlled and forced, there was no way to say whether or not he was safe.

And as long as they didn’t know whether or not he could do that again to other people, none of them would be safe, wouldn’t they?

Watching wordlessly, Winter let his gaze wander to the Captain, who clutched Tony’s hand in his own. His eyes finally showed signs of life again. Of hope. Of a will to fight. 

Which was good. They would need it. Judging by all the remarks, by all the reactions, they would need everyone at their best. Or at least functional.

Exhaling, Winter looked down at Tony, his pale face, pain lines edged into his skin. At his calm(er) moving chest. Listening to his still weak, but steadier heartbeat. To his still wet but even breathing. 

Then, Tony twitched.

Chapter Text

Something was wrong. Tony knew that, mostly because there was nothing else, he knew – and that was… not right. (He also thought he should be… better with words. Which probably also had a word he should be able to use. But he couldn’t remember.) So, yeah, something was wrong alright. 

Having no context didn’t help at all. 

Trying to push, something that felt natural to him, ended with numbness, with pain stabbing through that fog – but without clearing it. That was wrong too. Pain was supposed to cut through it and clear his mind, wasn’t it?

Not having any answers was fucking frustrating. The fact that he couldn’t do anything about that was as frustrating. 

He was almost sure that there had been more to existing. Like… something. He was absolutely sure there was more. He just couldn’t remember. Couldn’t think of anything.

Then there was a presence in his mind. Cold. Precise. Threatening? Tony wasn’t sure. It brought feelings with it – which should be good. Everything was better than this non-existence. This nothing he had been in. 

But even though it was good to feel, there was no clarity. No way for him to react. Should he be reacting? Doing something? Fighting felt like a good choice. But he didn’t know how to. Or what would happen if it went away again.

The presence grew stronger, touching against something, lightning it up like fireworks. Sparks flew, lightning erupting – and thoughts. Memories?

He is a child. Small. He plays with something. No. Not playing. Working. He is working. Other kids play but he is… he is something. Something that makes him different. Different is important. And it is bad.

There is pain. And a dark figure towering over the child. A loud voice. Harsh words. There is… more. But he doesn’t want to see it. He doesn’t want the presence to see it. He remembers. And he doesn’t. It is far away. The pain still feels real right now. The sting of the hand. The humiliation. The fear. The burns. The shards.

He wanted to reach out to the child and protect it. Because that was what you did with children, right? You protected them. You loved them. You-

But that child was bad, wasn’t he? There was something. Conflicting words. Conflicting emotions. Self-loathing, hatred, desperation and fear.  

The presence moved closer, and Tony wanted to fight. It shouldn’t be here. It shouldn’t see this. It-

Before he could do anything – if he could do anything, he wasn’t sure – it touched something else. There were more sparks. More lightning. More pain. 

He is still a child, but much bigger. The pain is bigger too. It is the same and different. It is all consuming. But now there is a different shadow. That one is good. Safe. He wants to get to the shadow because with him, Tony will be safe. Because the shadow will take care of him. He will read stories for babies to him. And Tony will be safe.

But there are other shadows. That grab him. Rip at him. Taking. Taking everything. They push and pull and take and take and take.

These memories seemed to be blurrier and sharper at the same time. As if you could cut yourself on their edges but couldn’t look at them directly.

They were soaked in shame and fear and hatred. Against anything and everything. And there was other pain, too. Cuts. And hits. Forgetting for a time. But never escaping.

The presence moved again, and Tony wanted to fight it. To plead with it. He didn’t know why, but he knew it was just going to get worse. And he was right. 

Everything lights up again. The pain is sharp. Dust in his mouth and water in his lungs. There are rough hands on him. Forcing. Hitting. Starving him. His chest being ripped open. Someone holding his heart in their hands. Ripping. Destroying. Taking. Always taking and taking and-

There are flashes of warmth. But they are gone before he can reach for them. Gone, before he can identify anything beyond fear and the absolute knowledge, that he will be left. Even if the shadow is there again. The good shadow. The one that he is safe with. He is there and he helps with the pain. And the fear. 

That shadow didn’t take. Tony was taking from the shadow. And it was still there. In his memory. And… more? In the… the other? The outside?

Tony tried to grasp. For words, because there had to be words! And even if he didn’t know how or why or when or anything, really, he knew that he was good with them. With words. 

There was a feeling from the presence. It wasn’t bad. It was… laughing? About him? With him? Couldn’t be. He wasn’t laughing. Looking at his life he couldn’t think there was much that he could laugh about. He-

The presence moved, lightning fast, touching something else. It shone bright. Hurting and not hurting. Flashing through him. Making him warm. Making him hurt less. Making him… heal?

That was important. Healing. Injury. He… he… there was something on the tip of his tongue. There was something. But before he could concentrate on it, before he could start to react to it, the light, the warmth, enveloped him. Drowning him. 

No. That was wrong. Drowning was bad. It hurt. So bad. This didn’t hurt, it… there was warmth. Trust? Love? Warmth. Feelings that didn’t rip.

His shadow was part of it. A constant he had had for years and years. He was there. In the warmth. Arms around his shoulder. Gentle hands on his face. A body pressed close and holding on.

But there were more. Shadows that glowed. That were there. They were different. All important. All close and warm and… safe. They were all safe.

One of them glowed brighter than the rest. Hot like the sun and as unreachable. But the sun didn’t have to be near to give life, had it? It had just to exist. That glowing shadow was Tony’s sun. It didn’t have to be close. Shouldn’t be close. Because if inventors got too close to the sun they died. 

They fell. From the sky.

Darkness flooded the space. The… where was he? There were no… things. Nothing to grasp and to tell and to hold onto. Nothing but the glowing shadows. Even when the dark engulfed him, trying to take. To take everything away, there were the shadows.

They were around him. They were protecting him from the darkness? 

In front of him was the sun-shadow, big and warm and so bright, Tony could barely look at it. Beside him was the other shadow, the one that had been there for years. And all around them were more shadows. Somehe thought were new, and he felt protective about. 

No, that was wrong. He wanted to protect all of them. All of those shadows standing up to the darkness trying to swallow him. 

But two shadows he still felt more protective of. There were shadows that had a long history with him. Shadows he knew weren’t there anymore.

And there were four who seemed to have… things. Slicing at the darkness.

In their midst he was safe. He knew that. Even if he had no goddamn clue what the darkness was. Or what it would want from him. What it would take from him.

He shook, when a pulse of energy, of pure power flashed through him, eradicating the darkness. And taking Tony’s strength with him.

Collapsing to his knees, he realised he had been standing? He had a body? Well, of course he had a body. It had been hurt. His soul too, being ripped and shredded at least as brutally as his flesh had, but- what had been his point?

Grasping at straws, he looked up. His shadows were still there. And so was the presence. It too was a shadow now, but not one of his glowing ones. But he stood between them. Looking at Tony. Judging.

It offered Tony a hand. And Tony just knew that this was a bad idea. Something was up. And if he had more words and more thought and-

But it didn’t matter, did it? The shadows… they protected him. And he had to protect them. He couldn’t. Not here. Not without… what he needed. Not here. So, he had to go with the presence. To that place where he had been hurt again and again. 

It didn’t matter, though. Because out there would be the shadows. Most of them, at least. And he wanted to be there. With the one who had been there for so long. And with the sun, even if he was already too close, burning himself. He wanted to be there for the ones that needed protection. 

He wanted to be with all of them, damnit.

Reaching out, he touched the presence and for a heartbeat he saw a smile and green, mischievous eyes. 

Then there was pain. Exhaustion. Voices. His family. 

“Tony?” 

It’s Steve’s voice. Close. Hopeful. Fearful. Desperate.

“Come on, Tones, stop being a drama queen.”

Rhodey. His Rhodey. Who had carried his ass since he had the misfortune to meet Tony when he was a little fuckup in MIT. 

They needed him to say something. And he was Tony Stark. That meant something. It was still unclear what. But it meant something. It was important. And he had been right. He was fucking good with words. 

Scrapping every last bit of strength together, he opened his mouth, forcing one word out, before he fell unconscious. 

“…articulate…”

Chapter Text

“…articulate…”

From now on, this was going to be the most beautiful word Steve had ever heard. 

Even though Tony had breathed it silently enough that only he, Winter and Loki had been able to pick it up. Even though it had been raspy and slurred and made no sense at all.

It was the most beautiful word, because Tony had spoken it, proving that Loki hadn’t lied. That he had started to heal Tony. And that he was getting better. 

After they had hoped for it for almost… he didn’t know. Looking down on his wristwatch, he felt the strained muscles in his neck move almost reluctantly. Twenty-six hours. Almost twenty-seven.

Looking up again, he made sure to check that Tony was still looking better. Not good. It would take time. Loki had said it and Stephen had confirmed it. Instead of grey, he looked just pale. Instead of whimpering if he wasn’t frozen in time, he breathed evenly, even if a little slow.

And his heart was beating again in a steady rhythm. 

It almost didn’t matter that he had fallen asleep just seconds later. He had been coherent. Or at least awake enough to say something. 

He would recover. 

Tony would recover.

He hadn’t lost him. 

Tony was alive and he would keep being alive. And if it was the last thing Steve was going to do, he would keep Tony alive. 

Loki moved and Steve’s eyes flickered to him, carefully taking in the man that had tried to overthrow the world eighteen months ago. The man that Thor claimed as his brother. Who apparently had been manipulated. And, true, now his eyes were a startling green and no longer blue. Still. He had tried to enslave the human race. Had tried to kill all of them. 

Even though his plan, as Tony had told him, hadn’t been good. And Steve, in some dark nights, had wondered how someone who was famous for his sharp intellect and cunning plans could have messed up this badly.

Steve had come up with at least seventeen better plans in a week. After that it hadn’t been a far step to ask himself whether or not Loki had wanted to lose. 

Still, Loki had tried to take over the world. He had killed people, had-

He didn’t condemn Hawkeye for what he had done while being controlled. Didn’t condemn Winter for what he had done as Hydra’s Asset.

Loki moved back, signs of exhaustion visible in his expression and slightly uncoordinated movements. He had been healing Tony for the better of seven hours now, taking over when Stephen had all but collapsed.

The wizard was still with them, looking close to blacking out. But he had not asked to leave. When he fell asleep, they had moved him to the couch. 

Neither Rhodes nor Winter had moved. The Colonel drank coffee to stay awake, not letting his eyes wander from his brother for longer than it took him to blink. 

Winter, like a statue, had stood in the corner of the room, watchful of anything and everything. 

Steve knew both he and Winter needed to eat and drink soon. Bruce and Tony had run some tests, watching them, taking blood samples when they both agreed to it, and found out that Winter wasn’t quite as strong or fast, but almost. It also meant they both needed an almost ridiculous number of calories a day. 

They needed to eat. 

He didn’t care. 

Tony was alive. He was getting better. 

“Brother?” Thor stepped forward. As he had been standing out of Steve’s eyesight, he had forgotten about his teammate. Too focused on Tony.

“My magic is rather limited with the dampeners.” Loki said, dismissively. “It doesn’t make a difference for Stark. His body is healed as much as I’m comfortable doing to him in one session.”

Thor nodded, clapping a hand on his shoulder. “Thank you, brother.”

“When will you continue?” Rhodes moved closer, resuming his position at Tony’s head.

“If he allows me to, I will continue tomorrow.”

It was the phrasing that made Steve nervous. He should be thankful that Loki appeared to be concerned about what Tony wanted. Steve should be concerned with what Tony wanted. And he was, of course he was. But what if Tony didn’t want to be healed by Loki? What if he didn’t trust Loki to do this?

What if he hated them for letting Loki get close to him while he couldn’t consent to it?

“That is not going to be a problem.” Rhodes all but growled.

“If you say so.” Loki’s smile was mischievous. It started a lot of warning bells in Steve’s head. He needed sleep. Needed to recover enough to actually be able to think. He could almost feel his thoughts moving slow like honey dripping from his brain.

He didn’t go to sleep.

Instead, he pulled the chair even closer to Tony’s bed, clutching the limp but warm hand in his and breathed with Tony. Listening for every heartbeat. 

All the while Strange offered to take Loki with him and both Thor and Loki agreed. Steve barely cared enough to even listen to them.

As soon as Strange had circled them back to his Sanctum, Jarvis let the Avengers back onto the floor. 

None of them had used the time to sleep or rest. Not unsurprisingly. They had watched the live feed, making sure Loki didn’t do anything to Tony or the others.

Steve mostly ignored the fight between Rhodes and Clint. It ended abruptly when Pepper came back from where she had tried to manage the media and told Clint that they had been Tony’s family far longer than the Avengers. 

Which had started a whole new fight that ended when Bruce, worn-out from the last day and his hulking-out, stumbled back onto the floor and checked Tony over. With the help of May and Jarvis.

They came to the same conclusion: Tony was going to recover. He was no longer in critical condition. 

And Steve, after hearing the confirmation from people he actually trusted, melted, his muscles relaxing all at once.

Natasha, thoughtful Natasha, had Thor get another bed and put it close enough for Steve to keep clutching Tony’s hand.

Even though he felt Tony’s warmth and heard his heartbeat and breathing, his sleep was restless. He was woken from two nightmares, first by Natasha and then Thor, both loosening his hand around Tony’s. 

After the second nightmare, he just laid down again, with closed eyes, not wanting to fall asleep again. Trying to fight those memories. All his fears. His failures. The feeling of Tony’s warm blood running through his finger, feeling it drip down. He couldn’t hold it in Tony. He couldn’t even hold it in his hands because it was too much. 

The moment Tony’s heart had given out. The moment Tony had been dead. These minutes that had felt like an eternity. Some part of him was still stuck in that moment. Looking down on Tony’s broken body and knowing that he was gone. 

Knowing that he was too late.

Knowing that he would never be able to tell him that he loved him. 

Knowing that he had lost him.

But he hadn’t. Tony was here. Right beside him. Breathing on his own. His heart beating in a calm rhythm. 

He was going to be fine. He was going to recover. He was going to bounce back like only Tony could. In no time, they would have to plead with the genius to stay in bed. To let his body heal.

Because Tony was fine. And Tony would want to fight. He would want to go against Hydra. Steve knew Tony felt guilty because he hadn’t helped with the fights when they had tried to take over the world. Which was ridiculous as he had been injured, had been operated on during the worst of it. But it didn’t change anything.

He was Atlas, holding up the sky. He was Prometheus, giving the world fire and the skill of metalwork. He pushed himself harder than anyone Steve had ever met. And he punished himself more harshly for being human than anyone else.

As if he had to be a God, a Titan. Not because he felt like he was one, but because he had accepted it as his duty. As his burden to bear. And every time he did something that was almost magical, he thought it wasn’t enough because a God would have done more. 

Although Steve wasn’t sure anymore. Thor had been thought to be a god by humans centuries ago and… he didn’t hold himself to the same standards Tony forced upon himself. And he didn’t fault Thor for it. He might be an alien prince with magical powers and could outlive the whole human race, but he was still just a person. Not technically a human being, but still a being with feelings and thoughts and wishes. 

That was what made heroes. What made people. Their desires and beliefs. The hills they chose to die on, knowing their lives would end and not caring, because what they believed in was bigger than themselves. 

Tony was a hero, there was not a single doubt in Steve’s mind. They all were. All of them. Winter might still be struggling, but he would become a hero, judging by the way he acted and how much he admired Tony. Peter already was a hero, even if he was still a child. 

All of them had earned it through tears and sweat and blood. Sure, Steve pushed himself, wanting to be better and faster, to help more people and to keep his own safe. But he knew, even if he might forget it some days, that he was just a small guy from Brooklyn, having been granted a purpose. That being him serving humankind as one of them, standing up to protect those who couldn’t do it on their own.

Sometimes Steve thought, Tony didn’t know he was one of them. He couldn’t exactly pinpoint it and he hoped it had gotten better, that he had learned in the last year that he was one of them. A human. A person that was loved for being that person. That was allowed to stumble and fall. To fear and doubt. That no one who loved him wanted him to be this grand creature.

Sometimes, and that had an ascending trend, he wanted to go to the past and save the bright-eyed child that Tony must have been at one point in his life. 

He must have fallen asleep again, thinking about Tony’s beautiful whiskey-coloured eyes set in the face of a small child with the troublemaker smile Tony liked to smile when he decided to rile up Fury or the press. When he decided to play a prank or be exceptionally sarcastic. Steve knew that smile meant trouble, but he couldn’t help himself, he loved it. He wanted to go back in time and see it on a happy child, who knew he wouldn’t be hurt by those that were supposed to love and protect him.

Because, and Steve knew that in a way he knew he loved Tony, he would have become a hero even if he hadn’t suffered like he had. It might have been different. He might not have become Iron Man, but he was a hero at heart. And that was something you couldn’t hide.

Waking up for the third time, Steve felt more relaxed. He hadn’t been shaken from a nightmare. Instead, he had seen Tony’s smile. Warm and trusting and alive . Moving around, he looked at the living room to his right. The floor was once again littered with mattresses, pillows and blankets. 

By this point they should just commit to it and put them in a room on this floor when they didn’t use them. 

Winter, Rhodes, Bruce and Nat were sleeping between the pillows. They looked relaxed enough, even if Rhodes' forehead was slightly furrowed. 

Pepper sat on one of the couches, a Starkpad on her knees typing furiously. Thor sat closer to the open space between kitchen and living room, his expression troubled.

Clint had perched himself on a cupboard in the furthest corner of the living room, overlooking all of them with a coldness in his eyes that almost frightened Steve. 

Looking back to Tony, he saw that Peter had curled himself up like a kitten beside Tony’s legs. The smile had spread over his face before Steve could even realize it.

Moving noiselessly, he got up from the bed, forcing himself to let go of his genius’ hand, to gingerly lift Peter up.

He woke, blinking up at Steve, confusedly.

“It’s okay, Peter. Go back to sleep.” Steve mumbled, reassuringly, before laying him down beside Tony.

Trusting Steve, Peter curled around Tony’s arm, sighing contentedly, before he fell back asleep. 

Taking a step back, he met Thor’s gaze.

“We will keep our Anthony safe, my friend.”

There was no comment from Hawkeye and Steve looked at him, worried. This was not like their archer. His eyes were cold when they met Steve’s, but he nodded an affirmative.

It was harder than Steve had thought it would be. And he had known it would be hard. Stepping back from Tony. Turning his back on him. Leaving the floor, because Jarvis told him there was no change of clothes on the common floor.

Steve hesitated before riding up to Tony’s. He was living here too, now. Almost two months. Maybe it would stay that way when he told Tony. Or he would have to move out. If Tony didn’t want him. Or thought Steve had taken advantage. 

“Captain Rogers?”

Steve looked up at the corner of the bedroom where Jarvis’ camera was.  Only now realising he had been standing motionless in front of their- of Tony’s bed.

“Yes, Jarvis?” He bit down on the pressing question whether or not Tony was alright. Jarvis sounded relaxed. He would have told him right away if something was wrong.

“Sir is going to be fine.”

A shuddering exhale wound itself out of Steve’s throat. Shaking him. 

“Yes. He- I-” He didn’t know what he wanted to say. 

“I suggest you take a shower, Captain.”

“Yes, I- Jarvis?”

“Yes, Captain?”

“How are you- How are you holding up?”

Silence filled the room. 

For a moment Steve wasn’t sure if he had crossed a line, but then again, last time, Jarvis had been cut off after he thought his father had been killed. He couldn’t imagine how the AI felt. 

“Every time situations like these occur, I think I have already seen the worst. By now I fear… that there will always be something even worse to come.”

It wasn’t really an answer. And it told Steve everything.

“I’m sorry.”

“This wasn’t your fault, Captain.”

“It wasn’t yours either.” A memory flashed before his eyes. He, sitting in front of a screen, that mere minutes ago had displayed the Winter Soldier apparently shooting Tony in the head, dragging his corpse away. 

Steve almost choked.

Jarvis didn’t comment. Steve was thankful for it. 

Forcing himself under the hot shower, he tried to relax. To loosen his muscles that were in that weird state between tension and being a crumbled wet paper tissue.

After getting dressed again, Jarvis informed him that Pepper had ordered food for all of them, and that Dr. Cho was on her way.

“Is she-”

“Colonel Rhodes let me inform her about everything important. She decided to come nonetheless to, I quote, make sure the idiot doesn’t kill himself .”

It was supposed to be humorous. It fell flat for both of them.

Glancing at the time, he realized it was already after eight pm. He had barely slept four hours.

The meal was a tense affair. Clint wasn’t speaking at all. He didn’t even come down from his position, just accepting food from Nat that she held up for him to take. Apparently, she and Colonel Rhodes were already using their sources to hunt Hydra down. 

What did Steve do? He had showered.

Nat, when not asleep, never let Tony out of her sight, as if making sure he was still there. Still asleep and healing. She didn’t talk just nodding to what Rhodes said, typing on her Starkpad. Her eyes cold and threatening, especially when she looked at Thor.

The god in turn appeared to be heartbroken. 

Bruce was sitting close to him, offering comfort and reassuring touches. Even though his troubled expression and the way his gaze snapped to Tony every other minute was enough to make sure he was supporting Thor, not necessarily his decision. 

Steve understood. All of them. He did. He was just too exhausted to say anything about it. He knew he had to. He was one of their team leaders and now that Tony was unconscious, it was his job to keep the team together. His job to make sure they were fine.

He didn’t. Worse still, he let the team carry him. When they were barely able to carry themselves.

They were all on their breaking point. Actually, scratch that. They were beyond their breaking point. They had broken again. After just starting to mend.

Thor had done exactly what he had promised to do: he had found a way to save Tony’s life. And in the nick of time, too. 

He glanced towards Winter, who was double-teaming Peter with May, forcing the kid to eat something. If Bucky would still be in Winter, if there was a way to get him back, Steve knew, he would do it, without a second of hesitation. And he would trust him. No matter what he did before. He knew Bucky. He loved Bucky as his brother, and he would have died for him. 

Couldn’t he understand Thor? Who had seen his brother change and then commit horrible crimes just to find out that he had been controlled? That everything he had done hadn’t been his fault? Wouldn’t he be thankful too? Trusting that once he was healed from whatever had been done to him, his brother would be back?

Didn’t he get it?

Glancing towards Hawkeye perched up high, his bow ready in one hand while he ate with the other, he couldn’t say yes. Because Loki had hurt one of his own. He had gotten to Clint, taken his mind and forced him to kill his co-workers, had made him fight against Natasha. 

Loki had been forced to fight against his brother, though. Had been forced to kill hundreds of whom Steve knew. Maybe more. He should be sympathetic. He should be at least open to let him prove himself, shouldn’t he?

Fuck. He wasn’t even sitting with his team right now. Aside from Clint, everyone was on the couches surrounding the mattresses and pillows. Steve was sitting beside Tony, who was still unconscious. But he couldn’t. Couldn’t leave Tony. Couldn’t- 

He had to. He knew he had to. It was what Tony would do. And he knew it was what Tony would want him to do. For Tony, the team always came first. Steve understood it and in any other situation he would have agreed wholeheartedly: the team came first. Of course, it did. 

But right now, it felt like he had to decide between Tony and his team. It wasn’t. Of course not. He was in the same room for Christ’s sake. He wouldn’t leave Tony behind. He wouldn’t turn his back on him. He could literally sit down with them in a way that he would be able to see Tony the whole time.

He couldn’t do it. Couldn’t-

About an hour later Dr. Helen Cho stepped onto the common floor. She didn’t look surprised, nor commented on what she saw. Waving Bruce and May over, they started to examine Tony again. 

Winter tensed, but didn’t get between her and Tony, watching carefully. 

Dr. Cho agreed with all the statements before: Loki was healing Tony. She and Jarvis even scanned his brain with some kind of machine she had brought with her. As far as she could tell, he was fine.

During the night, Steve woke every time when Tony moved. It was a good sign that he had started to move around and whoever was awake when he moved always jumped up, getting closer to make sure he was actually fine.

That if he woke up, they would be close. 

But he didn’t wake up. Instead, he had nightmares. Or at least Steve was sure he had nightmares. Tony would frown, his heartbeat and breathing would fasten, and he would fidget.

The only thing that stopped Steve from freaking out was the fact that Tony would nuzzle in his touch. Would calm down whenever he would pet his hair and whisper reassurances to his genius. And he would fall back asleep, apparently assured that he was safe. 

In the morning his team sent him upstairs to shower. They did it in shifts, making sure two people  at most left the floor at the same time.

When Steve returned, he saw Hawkeye and Thor stare at each other, their body language almost threatening. The atmosphere was tense, like heat in a summer forest just waiting for a spark to set everything aflame.

“What-”

“Finally.” Rhodes turned to Steve, glaring at him. Without explaining. Although, he didn’t need to. Hawkeye was clutching his bow tight enough in his hand that Steve was almost sure he would have snapped it, if it wasn’t one of Tony’s. He stood with his back to Tony and was full on in Thor’s personal space, glaring up at the god, daring him to try to move him.

“Clint.”

“No.”

“My friend,” Thor began, his expression pained. Still, there was irritation in his eyes and in his voice. “I understand that you don’t trust my brother-”

“I hate him.” Clint growled, low and threateningly. 

“Even if it pains me, I-”

“How can we be sure he isn’t messing with Tony’s head!” Clint hissed, venom dripping from his every word and if Thor’s expression was anything to go by, Clint was getting on his last nerve. 

“I told you, he was controlled himself, he-”

“And do you have any proof aside from his eye color that he was-”

“Be careful my friend,” Thor growled, sparks dancing in his eyes, “how you progress. He was as much a victim as you and-”

“Stop!” Getting between them, Steve put a hand on each of his teammates chest and pushed them back. 

Clint growled, not moving any inch farther away when Steve had forcibly pushed him. 

Thor had actually shocked Steve with some electricity running over his body, although not strong, it had still hurt and Steve used it as an excuse to start with him.

“Thor, I get that you trust Loki-”

“He is healed! I would have never risked you or our Anthony if I-”

“I know Thor, I understand. But the last time we saw him he tried to enslave humankind. He did enslave Clint. We can’t just ignore that.”

“Can’t you?” The god hissed back, his eyes staying on Steve. As if he knew any doubt Steve had ever had about Loki. As if he knew what Steve had mused about yesterday.

Instead of answering, Steve turned to Clint, his expression softening just a little. “Loki did help.”

We don’t know that !”

“Stephen said so. Dr. Cho said so. May said so. Bruce said so. Jarvis said so. Do you think any of them are working for Loki?”

“I can assure you, Agent Barton, that I did not see any attempts. My readings didn’t detect any magic from Mr. Odinson aside from his healing which had direct and measurable influence on Sir’s-”

“But you can’t be sure.” Clint hissed, glaring at one of the AI’s cameras. “You can’t know!”

“Clint-”

“No!” Clint stepped back, his back pressing against Tony’s bed. “Just because you are willing to risk him doesn’t mean-”

Steve actually stepped back. It felt like a gut punch. Like the Hulk had slapped him across the room. His stomach dropping, his heart stopping, and- there was no air.

Don’t. You. Dare. ” Lieutenant Colonel Rhodes stepped in front of Clint daring him with his voice, his posture, his glare to repeat those words. “Tony is my brother. I carried his scrawny ass since he was fourteen years old . I was there when his parents died. I was there when he drank himself into a stupor. I was there when he was so high on drugs, I was sure he would overdose any day, trying everything to get him help. I was there when he got on his feet. I was there when he started to live again. I was there when-” He stopped himself, seething. Taking a calming breath, he looked back into the hard eyes of Clint. “I searched for three months nonstop when he was taken by the Ten Rings. I was there when the aftermath hit. I was there when- You don’t stand there and tell me that I would risk Tony.”

Turning around, he glared at Thor. “Tell your brother to come. Tell him to heal Tony. And if anyone intervenes without probable cause, I will shoot them myself.”

No one spoke afterwards. No one reacted when Loki and Stephen entered via magic – even if everyone tensed even further. Steve, Winter and Rhodey were close to Tony the whole time. Bruce, May, Dr. Cho and Stephen oversaw every movement Loki did.

Clint was perched on his cupboard, glaring down at all of them, an arrow on his bowstring the entire time, while Nat stood right beside the cupboard.

Thor stood on the other side of the living room, glaring at almost everyone.

Thankfully, they had been able to convince Peter to go downstairs and play with Dum-E. At least for the first hour.

Loki worked for exactly three hours, before lowering his hands, looking at Rhodes. 

“It is most likely that he will wake up in the next twenty-four hours.”

“You said he would already be awake.”

“I hoped for it. Clearly I was wrong.”

Steve wanted to strangle the god.

“Clearly.” Rhodes growled, making it more than sure what he thought of all of it.

“Predicting when a patient, especially a magical healed one, will wake up, is difficult.” Stephen crossed his arms. He still looked tired from yesterday. “With a patient like Stark it’s even harder. Not only were his injuries fatal, but his body is constantly under a lot more stress than it should be.”

No one answered him. They also didn’t answer when Loki said again that they would return tomorrow, that he didn’t dare to use more magic on Tony right now, in fear of injuring him. And Steve couldn’t stop himself from thinking that it was a convenient lie to make them accept him back in the Tower – and to beg Loki to push a little more, because Steve needed to see Tony’s eyes open. To see his genius in them. Not the pain haze. Just Tony.

As soon as Stephen and Loki had vanished, after Thor and Loki had a short conversation about his room and whether or not he was taken care of in which Steve was almost sure Clint was about to shoot Loki, Dr. Cho, Bruce and Jarvis made sure the healing actually did progress. They didn’t find anything suspicious. 

It didn’t calm any of them much. 

It didn’t make the atmosphere easier. Everyone still was on a hair trigger. 

At least no one was fighting. Yet. Aside from some hissing. But mostly everyone behaved themselves. Possibly because of Peter. Who stayed close to Tony if he wasn’t baking with Winter. Who was surprisingly good with Peter and in making the kid think about anything aside from Tony. 

That night, Steve barely slept at all. Tony woke him with more nightmares, in which he twitched and moaned, as if in pain. Or fear. And it almost killed Steve. Moving closer to his genius, holding him tightly and whispering promises in his ears. 

Then Tony woke up. Just for a couple of minutes and he was sweating and afraid, but coherent enough to talk to Steve. To recognize him. And to relax the second he saw Steve.

Steve almost started crying when he looked in the trusting whiskey-coloured eyes. When Tony smiled up at him, exhausted and in pain, but relaxing already because he saw Steve. Because he trusted Steve to take care of him. To keep him safe.

He was going to be okay. 

He was going to be okay

Tony was going to be okay .

Steve felt like he could finally breathe again.

Chapter Text

Winter had started to understand the Avengers. He had started to understand their dynamics. What made them tick. Or so he had thought. 

Standing between all of them, who, three days ago, had seemed to be a happy family, he wasn’t sure anymore if he understood them. 

Hawkeye, who, after accepting Winter, had started to play pranks on him, who tried to steal Winter’s muffins, who seemed to smile most of the time, showed less emotion than the Asset had. 

And he had fought with the Colonel. Twice. Both fights had been short. But vicious. There hadn’t been physical violence, but they had been brutal all the same.

The Black Widow, who had started to calm around Winter, who had started to include him, looked like a statue. Without the dry humour she liked to show or the fondness she had for her teammates. 

Dr. Banner, who had to flee the common floor because he would have attacked the person who had saved Tony. 

Thor’s brother. Who hadn’t done anything to Tony. At least nothing they knew about. Winter, of course, knew, there were still plenty things that he could have done to Tony. They wouldn’t know until he woke up. And he would. Jarvis said so. Dr. Banner said so. 

Thor, who normally was pleasant and exuberant, seemed to be defeated and hurt.

The Captain was barely functional. 

Winter was sure he hadn’t realized that the Black Widow, the Colonel and Jarvis were already hunting down the last remnants of Hydra. That the hacker who had brought down Jarvis seemed to be behind the recording and the messages that were posted on different social media sites. Because they didn’t find anything.

He probably hadn’t realized that they organized search teams. That contacts of theirs had offered their help. 

He most certainly didn’t know about the media responses that Miss Potts managed, whenever it became too much for the blond woman who called her constantly when she was with them, her eyes lingering on Tony with an angry expression on her face. 

As if this was Tony’s fault.

The Colonel, who Winter had thought couldn’t be shook by anything, growled and hissed at almost everyone, barely allowing the Captain to stay as close to Tony as he did. 

The only one who didn’t seem different was Peter. But then again, he was like he had been when Tony and Winter had come back to the Tower. Quiet, afraid and touching Tony more often than not. Which was different. He had been careful, touching Tony often, laying on him or cuddling, but the fear had lessened. Now it was back in full force.

And Winter? He didn’t know. All of this was weird. To him, it seemed almost like the arguing and growling had gotten worse since Tony had gotten better. But that couldn’t be right, could it? 

There were too many questions in his head he couldn’t voice – and the others were too occupied to notice. Or care.

The most pressing one circled in his mind again and again. Why didn’t they hate him as they hated Loki? He understood why Hawkeye was a different case, of course. He was one of them. But why was Winter different from Loki? Because he didn’t hurt one of them? But he had taken Tony and hurt all of them?

Because he hadn’t controlled one of them? He hadn’t, had he? At least not like Loki had. But if it had been his order, he would have. It didn’t make sense. 

Especially since it seemed like Tony thought Loki was innocent – or not-quite-guilty, like Winter. Which was the only reason the others had accepted him. Why did they trust him but were only barely restraining themselves to not kill Loki? Because he hadn’t hurt them like Loki had? Because they didn’t know any of the Asset’s victims?

In that case, why could Tony forgive both of them? 

Judging by the fights he had overheard; Loki had tried to kill Tony. They had fought and Loki had thrown Tony out of a window up on his floor.

It didn’t make sense. 

Additional, Winter was… worried. Of course, he was worried. Everyone was worried. But he was also worried, because he didn’t… feel. It wasn’t like before, when he was the Asset. It wasn’t. (Although he was afraid it might become like that again. But it couldn’t!)

Sometimes there were feelings, but not like they had been days ago. These were… less? Less defined? Less intense? Just less. Even the worry seemed less than it should be.

Tony would know what it was. Maybe something like what made Peter and the Captain appear so… distant. 

That was one of the reasons he had started baking with Peter again. And because he knew that Tony would take care of Peter if he was awake. The other grown-ups didn’t seem to have enough focus to concentrate on Peter.

At least they didn’t snap at him. Winter didn’t know what he would do if they would. In fact, they behaved themselves better when Peter was around. Still. 

All of this was wrong. Winter might not be able to exactly say what was wrong, but he knew all of this was wrong. 

Forewarned by the reactions of the Avengers, he had kept an even closer eye on the god. He hadn’t done anything, aside from smirking, that was even a little bit suspicious. He hadn’t touched anyone without permission. Hadn’t gotten close to anyone. Keeping away from Peter. He only started healing if the Colonel allowed it.

He didn’t ask for anything. Didn’t look around in a suspicious way. He didn’t even comment on the glares and threats.

His magic, presumably always visible with the colour around his hands, was only on Tony. And Jarvis said, he didn’t detect it anywhere else. 

It seemed Thor was right. He really was… like Winter. He was healing. 

Because there was no way he was healed already. No matter what he might want others to believe. No matter how sure he wanted to appear. There had been two instances in which Winter had known that the god wasn’t as unaffected by everything as he acted. 

The first time he had healed Tony, there had been a moment, without any reason Winter could detect, in which he had flinched, trying to hide it. But for a heartbeat, his expression had been panicked and agonized.

The second time, his hand had shaken when Peter had asked the Colonel whether or not Tony would wake up.

Shaking himself out of his mood thoughts, he glanced at Hawkeye, who was sitting on the cupboard, his eyes closed, his breathing even. Winter was almost sure he was taking naps between his nightmares. He had seen him wake up with noiseless gasps a couple of times already.

Then again... how would Winter react, if some of his handlers were here and were supposed to help Tony? Actually, he would just kill them. He wouldn’t scream like Hawkeye. He would kill them dead. Fast and precise. Tony would be better off dead then having any of them mess with his head. 

Then, in the middle of the night, just after four am, Tony actually woke up. Just for a couple of minutes. He didn’t talk to Winter. He didn’t do anything but be comforted by the Captain.

Still, when he smiled before falling asleep again, something in Winter loosened. Just for a heartbeat he felt relief, sharp and hard and all consuming, before it dulled again.

Tony had been exhausted, in pain and afraid, but he had recognized the Captain. He had been Tony.

As soon as he was asleep again, the Captain moved closer, pressing his forehead against Tony’s side. He had given his bed to Peter and sat beside him on an armchair. 

His tense muscled loosened considerably and he fell asleep mere minutes after Tony, his face pressed against Tony’s side. His hand holding Tony’s close. 

The next morning the team didn’t have to be informed that Tony had woken up. They seemed to see it in the way the Captain was still asleep. And, apparently, they could read it in Winter’s posture. Although he didn’t know how.

After the Colonel made the Captain confirm their suspicion, he crumbled. Even if just for a moment.

Miss Potts ordered everyone to have breakfast, before they decided how to proceed. The Black Widow and the Colonel would leave the Tower to start hunting Hydra. They would take Thor with them, who was to come back when Loki and Dr. Strange were supposed to have the next healing session. 

For that Dr. Banner and Dr. Cho would be there too. Just to make sure. 

Before that Dr. Banner was asked to go over some data they had gotten. Apparently, the poison the assassin had used to kill himself had been special for one reason or another. Winter really didn’t care. 

Miss Potts would rule Stark Industries with an iron fist, making sure the press didn’t run too wild with the story and appearing calm and colllected, informing the world that Tony was healing.

Peter would be taken home by his aunt. For a day. Peter didn’t want to, but was calmed when Steve, Jarvis, Rhodey and Winter promised they would tell him any and all changes as soon as they happened. 

Hawkeye, as Winter found out at the end of the breakfast, had been drugged by the Black Widow. His lifeless body was arranged on the mattrasses, making sure he was comfortable – and that the Captain and Winter were able to react the second his breathing would change. The Black Widow was sure there wouldn’t be any side effects. Winter believed her. 

About an hour after everyone else left, Tony woke up. It took him a few minutes, but when he opened his eyes, he smiled. First at Steve, then at Winter.

“What did I miss?” His voice was hoarse and weak. But there was humour in it. His calming presence. And life. 

Tony.

The laugh from the Captain could have also been a sob. Winter couldn’t be sure, as he pushed his face into Tony’s side, the moment their eyes met, holding the genius close with both of his arms.

Winter just glared down at the other man.

“Oh, come on, Buttercup, what’s with the frown?” 

“Tony…” The Captain sighed; his face still hidden. 

“It’s okay, Cap.” Tony’s voice was still raspy, but also calm, warm and relaxed. 

Moving forward, Winter grabbed a glass of water and helped Tony drink a few sips. When the man was finished, he smiled up at Winter.

“Thanks, Buttercup. So, how long was I out? And while we’re on the topic: what happened?”

When the Captain didn’t answer, Tony looked at Winter. There was no way he could answer that with words. 

Lifting his human hand, he formed a gun with his thumb and index finger and mimicked shooting Tony.

“Shot, again?” Tony huffed. “This is becoming a trend, and I know I’m an icon and a trendsetter, but-” He stopped. Most likely because the Captain had pushed himself closer, holding onto him tighter, as if someone was about to take Tony away from him.

Patting the distraught Avenger, Tony looked up at Winter, worry clear in his eyes.

“How long?”

Winter held up three fingers. His expression cold.

“Oh shit.” He looked around, seeing the mattrasses, the pillows, but most likely not the archer hidden between them.

“Where are the others?”

“Trying to stop Hydra.” The Captain’s voice was quiet and muffled.

“Hydra? I thought we already got rid of those fuckers.” There was a smile on his lips, but Winter thought it was more mocking than anything else. Tony and Jarvis had kept looking for more hidden agents and spies, guessing that some where still out there. 

He had been right. 

“Jarvis?”

“Yes, Sir? And might I say it is a pleasure to have you back in the land of the living?”

“Thanks, Jay. Bring me up to speed. What happened.”

For a moment there was silent. No one moved. No one answered.

“Jay?” There was a new tone in the genius’ voice. Real worry. 

“You flatlined.” The Captain’s voice was barely recognizable. Emotionless. He sat back up, looking at the Arc Reactor rather than Tony’s eyes. 

Winter was sure, he didn’t see the pain spreading over Tony’s expression. The sympathy and guilt. But he must feel the way Tony grabbed his arm.

“It’s okay, Steve, I’m here. A bullet isn’t enough to stop me.” There was the attempt for humour in his voice. And love. And pain. And way too much guilt. 

The Captain’s eyes snapped up to Tony’s. Anguish in his expression. 

“You flatlined.” He bit out. Barely able to form the words. “Twice. You were…”

“I’m here, Steve. Right here.” Tony smiled at him, apologetic, his hands holding on to Steve’s arm. “You’re not getting rid of me this easy.”

Fear and soul deep agony flashed over the Captain’s expression.

“Steve?”

“The hospital…”

“Sir, the hospital declared you dead seventeen minutes after your arrival. Dr. Banner and Dr. Strange-”

“Strange?” Tony groaned. “You called Strange?” He quieted immediately when he met the Captain’s eyes. The brown eyes flickered to Winter. He wasn’t sure how his expression looked right now, but guessing by the way Tony sobered, it must be angry.

Good. Winter was angry. It was still too far away, but he felt the anger. Something to hold onto. 

“Miss Potts called for Dr. Strange, Sir.” The AI’s voice was hard, too. Angry. Frustrated. “He was one of the reasons you survived.”

“Great, I’m indebted to that asshole. What else?”

The AI didn’t answer.

“Jarvis?”

The Captain’s hands moved, closing them around Tony’s, as if he wanted to make sure that the genius couldn’t run. Which was bad. If he wanted to run they shouldn’t stop him. But he was injured, so he had to stay in bed. Dr. Strange, Dr. Banner, Dr. Cho, Jarvis and Loki had said so. 

“Answer me. Anyone. What happened?” By now, there was something like panic in Tony’s voice. Good. Everyone else was panicking about him. 

But that wasn’t fair. It wasn’t Tony’s fault. He hadn’t wanted to go to the press conference. He couldn’t have known that someone would try to kill him. Even if he should have known, shouldn’t he have? Winter knew he had been kidnapped before. Knew there had been several attempts on his life. And still, Tony hadn’t taken more precautions. Hadn’t- but he he had trusted them, hadn’t he?

The Avengers and Winter had failed. Not Tony. They had failed in protecting him.

“Stephen told us… he…” The Captain squared his shoulders, his lips pressed into a thin line while staring in Tony’s eyes. Hard. Trying to make Tony understand?

“He said he could keep you frozen in time but not safe you. Thor-”

Fuck .” Tony almost recoiled, but the Captain held him to tight for him to be able to escape. Something Winter would have to keep a close eye on. 

Tony’s breathing had quickened. His brown eyes large and almost fearful.

The Captain moved closer, murmuring soothing sounds, even when he looked close to panic himself. 

“How’s Clint?”

Winter wasn’t surprised by the question. Not really. Of course, Tony would understand exactly what Thorhad done. From what he had gathered, Thor had talked with Tony about his brother and Tony had accepted everything and comforted Thor. Like Tony did.

Winter had seen the reactions of the archer. Of course, Tony would know about it, would care about it and of course , he would care how the archer was feeling.

How’s Clint ?” The Captain asked, disbelief and a simmering anger in his voice.

Not wanting to startle him, Winter stayed where he was, not moving a muscle, but keeping an even closer eye on him. Waiting for a hint he might become dangerous to Tony. Or himself.

Tony raised an eyebrow. “Yes. How is Clint? If Loki is here-”

“The hospital declared you dead.” The Captain hissed. “Thor dragged his demented brother back to earth after he had tried to conquer it and Rhodes basically told us he would shoot any of us if we tried to stop Loki from using his magic on you. And your only question is how is Clint ?”

“As I’m not dead, Loki doesn’t seem to have tried to conquer us again, if that’s not the reason everyone else is gone – and if that is the reason you have better told me right in the beginning – my eyes are probably still brown, or you would have said something, and I’m sure I’m myself, yes. How is Clint? Because, as you said, last time-”

“Can you, just for one fucking second think about yourself!” The Captain screamed, his hands flexing on Tony’s. 

Winter was already between them, forcing the Captain to let go of Tony and pushing him back. He had known the Captain would try to fight him. It didn’t matter. Ignoring Tony’s commands, he pushed the other super soldier a little farther back, keeping his ground.

He would not let the Captain hurt Tony. Never. Also, he knew that the Captain wouldn’t want to. Even if he was right. Tony should think about himself. Just for a moment. Because he almost died. Because he was hurt. Because he was important. 

“Winter!”

He didn’t turn around, keeping his eyes trained on the Captain, who pressed the palms of his hands over his eyes, breathing harshly, as if he had run for miles. As if he was fighting for his life and losing. 

“Steve, what-”

“Sir, calm down, your blood pressure-”

That was enough for Winter to move, turning, he was already back at Tony’s side. Pressing his flesh hand carefully down on his shoulder, catching the almost panicked brown eyes.

“Calm.” He ordered; his voice almost as rough as Tony’s had been.

Tony’s eyes flickered from Winter’s away and he followed the gaze. Steve was standing at the end of the bed, wringing his hands and looking scared, guilty and furious. 

“Are you okay?”

The Captain groaned, pressing his eyes closed for a moment, his hands flexing in the metal frame, denting it. When he looked back at Tony, frustration won out. 

“Yes, Tony. I’m okay. I wasn’t shot. I wasn’t-”

“No, you just had to try to keep everyone calm while my honeybear ordered the Avengers to let Loki into the Tower. I’m sure you had a great time.”

Winter glared down at Tony. Could he really be this oblivious? Did he really think the Captain was doing anything when Tony was hurt? And of course, it was, again, besides the point. 

“I had a great time because you were dying!” The Captain growled. 

“I’m not. I’m fine.”

At that, Winter growled, too, low and harsh and threatening. A growl that would do a lion proud. Or a grizzly. A growl that would have armies cower. 

Tony just rolled his eyes, patting his arm. “Breathe, Buttercup, if the Wizard and a Demigod are working on me and the Hulk didn’t kill any of them yet, I’m as good as fine.”

“Tony…” The Captain’s voice had changed again. Now, he sounded exhausted. Broken. He sounded like he had looked before this morning, when Tony had woken up fully for the first time since they had thought he was dead. Or controlled.

Seemingly without thinking about it, Tony moved forward, ignoring his body, biting back a grimace as he reached for the Captain. Who, without being dragged closer by Winter (and he would have done it) moved around the bed, sitting down on the arm chair again, holding Tony’s hands in his own. 

This time he was careful, holding them like they were fragile. Rubbing his thumbs over the red patches where his grip had been too hard before.

“We thought you…”

“I’m sorry, Steve.”

The Captain shook his head, his eyes still on their hands.

“I don’t- We wouldn’t survive without you, Tony.”

“Sure, you would.” Tony said it with a smile. Reassuringly. As if he actually believed it. 

The Captain just shuddered as if holding back a scream. 

“I… We need you, Tony. The team needs you. This family needs you. I need you.” The last three words he muttered so quietly; Winter was almost sure Tony hadn’t heard them.

“Still here, still kicking and still being a pain in your ass.” The genius nudged the Captain’s hands, playfully. “I’m okay, Steve.”

The Captain sighed deeply while Winter huffed. 

“I’m not sure I should ask, but how is-”

Sighing deeply again, the Captain tried to answer. But it seemed he didn’t have words either. “Clint is... He is…”

“Not fine, then.”

The Captain met Tony’s eyes. He looked beyond exhausted. “No. Not fine.”

“Fuck.” Tony moved, slightly, as if to ease pain. 

Winter turned, to grab the pain medication from the kitchen counter where Dr. Cho had left it with strict instructions. Freezing when Tony asked his next question.

“How is Thor?”

The Captain sighed again, apparently even more tired and done with the world. “Thor isn’t fine either.”

What the Captain didn’t say was that none of them were fine. None of them were even able to act as if they were fine. 

“Okay, what are we doing about this then?”

Holding one pill and a new water glass in his hands, Winter walked back, concentrating very hard on not throwing anything at the genius. 

“Tony…”

“Let me talk to Thor. You know he-”

“You need to rest, Tony. Stephen said-”

Waiving his worries away, impatiently, Tony ignored, expertly, the pill and glass of water Winter held out for him and instead looked imploringly at the shadow of Captain America leaning against his bed.

“Yeah, I can rest later. We need to calm Clint, make Thor understand, get Rhodey under control – you called Peter, right?”

“Yes, Tony.”

“Good. He shouldn’t worry.”

For just a moment Winter mused if it would count as an attack if he cut of Tony’s air supply long enough to render him unconscious. Just to make sure he actually rested. He wouldn’t do it, of course. Tony would be angry with him and Winter didn’t want to take his choices away or hurt him. 

Still, the thought had something… comforting. 

“Where is Clint?”

“Natasha drugged him.” Steve said, nodding towards the hidden figure under the blankets.

“Is he still breathing?”

“He is, Sir.”

“Good. And Thor? The others?” There was an edge to his voice, again. “No one else was hurt, right?”

“No.” The Captain’s voice was almost toneless when he answered, not looking him in the eyes. “No one else was injured.”

“Good, that’s good.” Tony relaxed into the pillow, a tired smile appearing on his lips. “So why did Hydra shoot me?”

The Captain didn’t answer.

“According to an audio file they played and posted on various social media sites, and I quote ‘ We are plenty and our heads are everywhere. The world will fall before us and the first to fall is Tony Stark. ’” 

“They always had a flare for the dramatic, hadn’t they?”

“If you say so, Sir.”

Tony’s voice was casual, unconcerned. But he held the Captain’s hands. Moving his thumbs in circles over them. Calming the other man. Making sure he knew Tony was really there?

Winter was almost sure that if his feelings weren’t stuck in fog right now, he would be pissed about that. Like, really pissed. But they were. And he couldn’t do much more than watch, numbly, as Tony discussed the next steps with the AI, sending text messages and three emails. 

Thankfully, his body wasn’t healed enough to keep him awake much longer. That was a terrible thought, wasn’t it? But it was also true. As tired as he was, Tony didn’t fight Winter any longer. He accepted the pill, drinking some more water, before patting the mattress just beside him. 

The Captain hesitated. For about three seconds. Then he stood up, carefully arranging Tony, before laying down beside him, his arms tight around the genius, his cheek pressed to the dark locks. 

Both of them were asleep before Winter could figure out why both of them had looked equal parts happy and guilty.

Putting the half empty water glass down again. Winter moved noiselessly over to the couch, checking on Hawkeye. The archer was still asleep, his breathing even. 

Sitting down in the now empty armchair beside Tony’s bed, he leaned his head on his metallic hand, trying to figure out… everything. Why his feelings were all fuzzy and distant. Why Tony and the Captain seemed to be so close the one second and were fighting in the next? 

Why Earth’s Mightiest Heroes were falling apart because of nothing more than one bullet, when they had stopped an Alien Invasion. 

Letting his eyes wander back to Tony’s relaxed expression, Winter leaned back into the comfortable cushions. 

He was asleep before he knew it.

 

Chapter Text

Waking up, Tony knew this would become another long day. Or week. Probably month, if not year. If the way Steve had attached himself like an octopus to Tony was any hint at all, it would be a long decade. Tony had really messed up by getting shot. 

Of course, he would be able to make the Avengers agree that he was a capable member of the team – he was Iron Man after all – and they could stop hovering – just a little – to be fucking shot. Standing between all of them. 

God damnit.

And apparently, dying because of it. Or almost dying and being brought back. At least he wasn’t a Zombie – as far as he knew. Could Loki make him into a Zombie? Probably.

Back to the problem at hand – or rather around his whole body – the Avengers would never leave him alone again. They would probably never let him leave the Tower again.

Hell, the way Steve’s arms constricted Tony’s movements (and almost his breathing) he wasn’t sure he would be allowed to go alone into his bathroom again. 

Fucking hell, they would stalk him even more closely now, wouldn’t they? 

“Just kill me-” He mumbled, under his breath. But judging by the low, sleepy growl not low enough to not wake the second self-appointed bodyguard. Who obviously had been sleeping right beside them. Probably in an armchair or something. He couldn’t check, as he couldn’t move. Like at all. (Not that he wasn’t fucking delighted to be held like this by Steve. It was a dream come true, if Tony was honest with himself. Which he wasn’t. Also, in that dream he wasn’t in pain, he didn’t feel like a twice drowned kitten and they were awake and naked. Oh shit. Hopefully his body hadn’t enough blood to react appropriately to that mental image.)

Winter’s face came into view and Tony couldn’t hold back the frown. Winter looked like shit. He had thought the same thing when he had woken up earlier today (most likely) and even if he didn’t look as terrible as Steve – which meant he looked exhausted, Steve could never look anything less than gorgeous – his expression and eyes were far closer to the Asset’s than Winter’s.

“Just an expression.” He murmured. Thankfully Steve was still asleep. He really didn’t have the energy to spare to fight with him again. 

“Did something happen?”

Winter frowned down on him before shaking his head.

“Would you tell me if something had happened?”

Winter hesitated before shrugging his shoulders.

At least he didn’t lie. Silver linings. Learn to see them. Keep looking for them. And if you don’t find them, lie like a motherfucker… he was probably high as a kite, right now. It would explain why he didn’t feel much pain, just a little pressure in his chest. On his-

“Jarvis?”

“Your Arc Reactor got hit, Sir, but Dr. Cho, Dr. Banner and I are certain it is not harming you. You will have to do some minor repairs, but you are safe for now, Sir.”

The spiking panic needed a few moments to lessen again. They had hit the Arc Reactor. As the cover was shatterproof the bullet must have lodged itself between his flesh and the casing sitting in his chest. 

Oh fuck.

“Jay?” He heard the lingering panic in his voice.

“You’re safe, Sir. If you want me to, I can ask Dr. Banner to come up here and confirm-”

“No, it’s fine.” Trying to calm down, trying to breathe, to not wake Steve, Tony kept his eyes on Winter’s chest. This was fine. Jarvis said so. Bruce said so. Sure, they had hit him where his stupid body was the most vulnerable, could have finally destroyed his lungs or his heart or-

“Are you-”

“It’s okay, Jay. I trust you.” He did. Jarvis would never risk him. Would never lie to him about his health. Hell, he was the one harping on Tony for being more careful, sleeping more, drinking more water and shit basically since his first week.

“Thank you, Sir.”

Moving his face as much as he could, he smiled up at one camera. 

Steve, even if not waking up, flexed his arms around Tony, not letting him go, but rearranging them on the bed in a way that gave Tony at least the opportunity to look around the room. And see Hawkeye, bleary eyed and yawning sitting up on the couch, looking like a grumpy duckling. 

“Good morning Birdbrain. I see I’m not the only one getting drugged when I’m annoying.”

Clint, still out of it, flipped him off, before his whole body stiffened. He turned his head, meeting Tony’s eyes, letting his roaming over Tony’s body.

“Tony.” The tone in his voice was something Tony wouldn’t try to name. He didn’t know enough about emotions to even have a chance. But it wasn’t anger. So that was something at least.

“I’m fine.”

Clint didn’t answer to that or Winter’s growl. It took him a minute to untangle himself from the blankets and stagger over to where Tony was thoroughly restrained by Captain Snuggles, reaching out with his hand and, hesitantly, grabbed Tony’s arm. 

“You-”

“I’m fine, Clint, I promise. No wish to serve anyone and no more megalomaniac tendencies than normal.”

Clint held his gaze a moment longer and Tony let all his walls fall. Let the archer see that it really was him. That, whatever Loki did, hadn’t messed with Tony’s mind – at least he didn’t think. That even though the figure out of Clint’s nightmares was back on earth, Tony wasn’t a mindless drone wanting to serve anyone or posing a threat to all of them and the world.

It took Clint almost five minutes to let his shoulders relax. When he did, he moved forward, pressing his forehead against Tony’s and exhaling harshly. “You asshole.”

“Morning breath, Birdbrain.” Tony huffed and Clint’s lips spread into a smile, even if it didn’t reach his eyes just yet. 

“You’re not smelling like roses either, princess.”

“I was drugged out of my mind. What’s your excuse?”

“Same.”

“Lazy asshole.” Tony grinned, trying to wiggle himself free. Which resulted in Steve’s arms pressing down even harder. 

Before Tony could do so much as think that that was probably not good, Winter was already prying Steve’s arms away and Clint dragged him out of them. Which hurt. 

Even if Steve’s fearful yelp hurt more. 

“Relax, Cap, we’re trying to stop you from cuddling Iron Mom to dea- too hard.” Clint snapped. 

That wasn’t good.

Turning his head, he saw Winter had Steve in a chokehold, not hurting – most likely – but restraining the other super soldier, whose frantic eyes were on Tony.

“Sorry for waking you, Steve, I just wanted to go to the bathroom.”

“Sir-”

“Nope, don’t want to hear it Jay. Someone can help me, but I will go to the bathroom. I can pull the catheter on my own.”

“Dr. Cho will not be happy.”

“When is she ever happy with me?” He asked, smiling into the camera of his disapproving AI.

“Tony-” Steve started, moving forward, Winter allowed it, even if he stayed close.

“Just going to take a leak, Cap. And maybe a shower.”

“Sir!”

“Not showering, of course not. Would never even consider it.”

“Just shut up.” Clint growled into his ear, slinging Tony’s right arm over his shoulder and grabbing him securely around his waist. 

He moved them carefully from the bed to the ground and Tony would not admit, that they nearly took a nosedive right then and there if Steve hadn’t steadied them. He helped them towards the door of the bathroom, where Clint looked up at their Captain and raised one eyebrow. 

“I know you want to get Tony naked, but I think today is not that day, is it, Cap?”

“Who says-” Tony started, but was interrupted by the deep red blush on Steve’s cheeks – and the door Clint pushed close behind them, keeping both super soldiers out.

“What the hell?”

“Oh, come on.” Clint huffed. “You can’t tell me-”

“Agent Barton, I would think it pertinent to get Sir back to bed as soon as possible.”

Clint’s eyes snapped towards his hip, where he must have pushed his phone into his jeans pocket. 

“Sure, Jay.” He agreed easily, helping Tony to sit down on the toilet and rummaging through the cabinets while Tony got rid of the catheter (sadly, he had too much practical knowledge about it) and yelling through the door that the stalkers should get Tony and him some fresh clothes.

Tony wasn’t exactly sure how it happened – or why he let it happen for that matter – but a couple minutes later, he sat almost naked in the empty bathtub and let Clint rub him down with wet washcloths.

“Just so we’re clear, this is not going to be a regular thing, Iron Ass.”

“Oh, thank god.”

“You could show some form of appreciation here, asshole, I’m not playing nursemaid for just anyone!”

“The way I remember it is you kicked Steve and Winter out.”

“Would you prefer it if Steve-”

Even if it hurt to ram his elbow backwards into Clint’s side the pained hiss was worth it.

When Clint didn’t start to banter again – and Tony really couldn’t start thinking of where he was right now, and how easy it would be for the archer to- not that he would. Of course not, Tony trusted him. He would never- But-

“Breathe, Tony.” Clint murmured, lowly. “The Docs say you’re going to be fine.”

Forcing his breathing back under control, Tony looked over his shoulder, catching Clint’s eyes. “What about you?”

Clint stiffened. Averting his eyes, he resumed washing Tony. He helped him stand up. Helped him brush his teeth. Helped him with the dry shampoo. Helped him get into new clothes he had gotten from Steve, who had handed them over, and then pushed him out into Steve’s anxious arms, closing the bathroom door before either of them could say anything.

While Clint was most likely showering – and hopefully not planning to take revenge on Tony – he was presented with his next lost duckling. Quite literally. Winter, although as protective as ever, seemed off. Not like he had fully slipped back into Asset mode, more like he was in shock. Which was both unlikely and the best option Tony could come up with – and wasn’t that disturbing in and of itself? 

Letting himself be carried back to bed, Winter hovered right beside Steve. It spoke for Winter that he still let Steve touch Tony – not that he had a say in it, but he didn’t even try to stop Steve from reaching out – even if he had twice stopped the other super soldier from… not hurting Tony. Steve would never deliberately harm Tony. But apparently Winter wasn’t the only one in shock. 

Of course not. It was only a few weeks since Steve had learned about Winter. About Hydra still being around. Of course, he would think it was his fault that Tony got hurt again. It wasn’t. But if Tony understood anything, it was guilt. He would feel responsible if he was in Steve’s shoes. He would hate himself, thinking it was his fault. Not that he could have known. Or done anything.

Clint was, obviously, in shock too, having his tormentor here and everything. That made three. 

Thor was four. He had told Tony how much he loved his brother. How sorry he was. How much he hoped Loki would be able to atone himself. He had never said it, but he had wished for his earth family to get to know his brother. The man who had stood with Thor, who had been let astray and then brainwashed and controlled. He wouldn’t be in shock but suffering still. 

Peter was number five, only that low on his mental list, because the others were bigger threats to each other if they snapped. 

And then came the rest. Rhodey, Pepper and Happy would be… furious. They had just started to calm down, to relax again. Bruce and Nat had started to lessen their obvious hovering. Had started to calm down. 

That might never happen again. 

It wasn’t important right now. One crisis at a time. Right now, he had to try to manage the breakdowns of the Avengers. Which, for obvious reasons, was doomed to fail, but Tony, being the engineer of the group, wouldn’t give up without a fight. 

He would fix them. One way or another. And if that meant he had to hire every last shrink on earth, he would do it. He would even talk to them too. 

And even after that there was still Loki, who Tony was dying to meet (he should probably not say that, even if it was funny). Until now he only knew his brainwashed version – also he needed to find out what was in all of this for the god. Thor would think he did it just as a favour to him, or as a reparation to Tony. Rhodey wouldn’t have cared what it would cost them if he was the only way to save Tony’s life. Clint, and most of the others, would believe it was part of a bigger plan for evil or at least mischief, him being the god of chaos and all. 

Having heard story after story about Loki, Tony knew he would have a goal in mind. But without getting a read on him, he couldn’t know what kind of goal. As it was right now, he seemed to behave himself. Which was good but didn’t mean anything. Tony could behave himself if he wanted it, too. And then turn around and raise havoc.

Not that he didn’t want Thor to be right. He did. But nothing in life was that easy. Especially not for Tony Stark.

While trying to get his thoughts straight – quite literally when Steve propped Tony up against his chest to help him eat some rice pudding – he observed Winter.

For all of about a minute, until the elevator doors opened, and Thor stepped onto the floor, his hands already raised before he saw Winter pointing his gun at him.

“At ease, my friend, I- Tony!” A relieved smile spread over his face, calming the storm in his eyes a little. “Your son informed me that you had woken up, but let me tell you, I am most glad to see you awake.”

“Thank you, Thor.” Tony smiled up at him, knowing he had about five to ten more minutes before Clint would join them. 

“I hear you’re the reason I’m still here on this mortal plane.” He winked at the god, trying to take away the sting while simultaneously telling him that Tony knew that without the god, he, apparently, would have been last week's news. 

Thor tensed, his eyes darkening again. “I did almost nothing, my friend.”

“You got the Avengers, Rhodey and Pepper to agree to let Loki heal me. Enjoy that feeling of power, Pointbreak, that’s as high as you can get.”

“You might be right, my friend.” Thor had moved to stand in front of his bed, his blue eyes exhausted and melancholic. “I hope you don’t feel like I betrayed your trust. I-”

Fuck. What had all these idiots done while he had been sleeping on his job?

“You could never, Pointbreak. You’re a goddamn golden retriever.”

“My brother-”

“You trust him. I know you would have never brought him here if you weren’t sure that we were safe with him.” Tony was absolutely certain about that. It didn’t mean that he was right, just that Thor loved his brother. But he also loved the Avengers. And he was just too good to risk them on a whim. It also meant he would be more… suggestable to an act of innocence from his brother.

“Never.” There was heat behind the word. And the smell of ozone. 

“See, nothing to worry about, Thor. I trust you.”

Thor’s shoulders sagged. Relief, pure and almost painful to watch, flashed over his expression, his eyes glistening with something that couldn’t be tears, because there was just no way anyone could ever think Thor would betray them. What the fuck had happened?

The hope in Thor’s eyes was almost as painful as the confusion in Winter’s. Realizing he didn’t even know how much Winter knew about Loki, the whole megalomaniac episode of his and what he had done to the Avengers and especially Hawkeye. As he was clever and had learned to observe, he would have guessed a lot – but how would he be able to understand what was going on here when Tony, a certified genius, who had been there the whole time barely had a clue what was going on?

How did he end up in this position again? Ah yes, Hydra hadn’t finished their job. Twice. Speaking of people not finishing their jobs-

“Not that I want to sound ungrateful” – Winter snorted. At least he hadn’t lost all of his humour. Silver linings – “but I think your brother didn’t finish the healing schtick.”

“He didn’t.” Thor agreed, his forehead furrowing again in worry.

“Any reason for it?” Aside from keeping Tony bedridden and weak. Possible giving Loki more access to the Tower, the Avengers and Tony’s brain. 

“He said that healing was taxing on the body. Stephen agreed.” Steve mumbled into Tony’s ear and he had to bite back a shudder. (This wasn’t the situation he could give his brain any kind of leeway, absolutely not.)

“Okay, when does he come back? We need me back in working condition pronto.”

“Tony-”

“Hydra isn’t going to stop itself. Obviously. Although I don’t know why. They fail at everything else, if they actually want to stay in business, they should have sabotaged themselves decades ago.”

“I’m not sure-”

“No, really think about it, they tried to take over the world how many times now and it never happened. They tried to kill me tw-”

Steve behind him flinched, Winter and Thor both growled and Clint, who must have just stepped out of the bathroom, his hair still wet and sticking up in every direction cursed, violently.

“What the fuck, Stark!”

“That was out of context-”

“No, it wasn’t.” Thor said, glaring at Tony (he didn’t look at Winter, if anyone would be able to find a way to use the Medusa-stare it would be him. Or Nat. Also, he could feel his heated stare almost melting one side of Tony’s face). 

He also didn’t turn around to see Steve’s reaction. Mostly because it would hurt – and Steve was clutching him tight to himself, as if Tony had threatened to throw himself out of the window. Which he hadn’t. Right now.

“First of-”

“No!” Clint growled, pointing aggressively at Tony, real fear not fully hidden behind rage. “You are not trying to defend that fucking sentence, you asshole.”

Winter growled, lowly, almost agreeing.

“See! Winter is on my side!”

“What are you? Five?”

“Five times hotter than you.”

“That’s it! Thor, get your brother here so I can kick Birdbrain’s ass!”

Everyone stiffened. The air itself seemed to thicken with tension. Tony, because he was the well-adjusted adult that he was, knew exactly how to react to that. Ignoring it altogether.

“Tony-”

“I know I’m hot, Steve, you don’t need to tell me” – not that he would, but Tony was making a point and his stupid brain had malfunctioned – “but aside from kicking Clint’s ass, I still have work to do. You don’t want to see my to-do-list, I’m telling you, I’m so far back on my deadlines even I get worried.”

“There was a malfunction in my systems, Sir. Your to-do-list was erased. And Miss Potts didn’t have time to write you a new one yet.”

“You’re killing me here, Jarvis.”

“Tony!” Steve hissed, harsh, as if in pain, his hands biting into his arms, before he let go. Still, Tony could feel Steve’s rigid body and the way he obviously held himself back from grabbing Tony and shaking him violently. Which was a good idea. Just because Winter would get between them again and one of those times, they would really get into it and he really didn’t want to remodel the Tower again. Hell, the lower floors had just been finished.

“You really are an asshole, Stark.” Clint growled. “Jay, call Bruce. He has to give Tony whatever Nat drugged me with or someone is going to smack him.”

The fact that Winter didn’t growl at that should be a warning to Tony. He ignored that too.

“I’m not sure that will be a long-time solution.” Thor muttered, darkly.

“I don’t give a fuck.” Clint growled, viciously, not even looking at Thor. That shit didn’t fly on Tony’s watch. No matter the reason.

“Winter, get your rules, I think Clint needs a reminder of what we’re allowed to do and how we speak to each other.”

Clint would have thrown himself at Tony if Thor hadn’t grabbed him around his chest, holding him back.

“Do not make light of our agony, Anthony.” 

Stiffening, Tony looked up in the god’s blue eyes, lightning seemed to flash in them. His face was hard and cold.

Fuck. 

“Let Clint go, will you, I’m sure he has a right to clock me one.” That elicited growls from all of them and Steve grabbed him more securely around the middle, pulling him even closer to Steve – which would be amazing under different circumstances. Like, without the others growling bloody murder around them and if Steve was into men… Which wasn’t the point of any of this.

Tony was just now realizing how much he was talking about death without thinking about it. This was going to be difficult even if he would try to not be difficult. And whether or not he would try that was still up for discussion. (Who was he kidding. He couldn’t not be difficult.) 

Thor let go of Clint, who stepped aside, not acknowledging Thor and no, that really couldn’t happen. Yes, he was hurt and panicking, and Tony would never fault him for that because, fuck, Loki was back on earth and potentially turning one of them against the others – or two, if you counted Thor – but he still couldn’t punish Thor just because-

Bruce used that moment to step out of the elevator, saving all of them from whatever brilliant ideas Tony’s brain would come up with next.

Looking around, Bruce sighed. “What did he do?”

Using his chance, Tony pouted, crossing his arms carefully in front of his chest. “I’m hurt, Bruce!”

“Yes, I know that. Do you know that Tony?”

Great, Bruce was already in a mood. And not even a Hulk-mood. Because Hulk would be nice to his Tin Man. Probably. And of course, they all were in a mood. Not only had Tony let himself get shot again, Hydra was back – again. And by now, all of them would be pissed with them. And all of them would feel guilty because none of them had done enough to get rid of them in the first place – and that was Tony’s fault as well. If the others wouldn’t have felt (and fucking rightly so and wasn’t that the worst of the worst of the worst) that they couldn’t leave poor helpless Tony alone, they would have been able to stop Hydra.

Hell, if Tony wasn’t as useless as he was, he would have been able to help. But he had let the others coddle him. Had let them stop him from working. He hadn’t even been able to find bring_the_world_down_with_sparks – and that he should have been able to do drugged, out of it while lying on the couch. 

Good job, Stark. 

“Words hurt, Bruceybear.”

“Oh, do fucking tell, asshole.” Clint hissed, viciously.

“Clint-”

“No, Steve, just because you can’t tell him how you feel, that doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t.” Stalking forward, his eyes were boring down into Tony’s and just for a fluttering heartbeat he felt like a little mouse looking up at a Hawk, knowing there was no way to run.

“We love you, Tony. This messed us up. Worse than it did you, probably. So have the fucking courtesy to fucking shut up.”

Hell.

Biting down, Tony kept his mouth shut. Mostly because he just knew whatever would come out of his mouth would only make everything worse.

This plan evaporated about three seconds later when Clint started to look even worse.

“I’m sorry.”

Chapter Text

“I’m sorry.”

The words hung heavy between all of them, and Tony hoped they wouldn’t ask what he was sorry for. He didn’t want to tell them. He didn’t want to- 

Clint nodded. Once. Hard. His shoulders relaxed. Just a little bit.  

Steve moved behind him, pressing his forehead down on Tony’s shoulder. Moving closer still.

“What happened was not your fault.” Bruce’s eyes were certain. As if this was a proven scientific fact. “But we all could deal with this more… maturely.”

“Not it.” Clint said in the same moment as Tony. Neither of them could stop the grin. Even if it wasn’t as big as it normally would have been. It was there. He didn’t hate Tony. (He had also said he loved him, but as he had almost screamed it, the signals were a little mixed.)

Bruce rolled his eyes a fond, even if strained, smile on his lips. “Yes, mature like that.”

Everyone relaxed. Just a little. But at least the air didn’t feel any longer as if Tony was suffocating. That could actually also be because Steve’s arms had loosened his hold on him a little. Whatever.

“Don’t set yourself up for failure, Brucey bear, it’s not going to get any better.” Tony winked at him. “Not to piss anyone off again, but when am I going to be healed?”

“Are you in pain?”

He made a dismissive hand gesture. “Helen has put me on the good stuff, I’m f-” turning to Winter he held up his index finger, stopping the growl before he could make it “not hurting.” 

Winter glared; his arms crossed in front of him. His eyes cold and hard. Winter was still in them, there were still flashes of him, so Tony was confident – praying to every existing or not existing deity – that he would be fine. He would be. He had to be. There was just no way that Tony would have been able to fuck up this bad already, was there?

New plan. He had to get his family back on track. This, all of this was his fault – Hydra did help with the whole kidnapping, brainwashing Winter and shooting him, but at the end of the day it was his fault. He should have known . He should have focused more on finding Sparks. He should have focused more on finding more sleeper cells. Hell, he should have left the fucking Tower. He should have- 

“Tony?”

He blinked up in Bruce’s warm, brown eyes. There was worry in them he wouldn’t voice with everyone around – something he loved and also hated about the other genius, because he didn’t voice it out of fear the others might not value his input. Or that Tony wouldn’t want him to and what? Hate him? As if Tony could ever hate his science bro. As if the Avenger ever could. Sure, Tony might be annoyed when Bruce ratted him out about not eating, sleeping or shit, but he could never hate him.

Back to the new plan. He needed to fix his family. At least as much as he could – which, granted wouldn’t be much at all – but they needed at least to be functional. They had just survived an almost public execution – and he didn’t even meant the little shooting he survived, but the way the media had gone after the Avengers after the whole Hydra-tried-to-take-over-the-world-debacle. They couldn’t have another scandal. 

That meant that they couldn’t hide here. It also meant that Tony needed to get out into the world again as soon as possible – and he was already frustrated with the fight all of them would have because of it. Maybe he could have Pepper or Jenny fight that one, while he … what? Hiding sounded good, but he would never do that. 

Back to the problem at hand: He had broken the Avengers. Again. Or Hydra had done it but used him as a tool. Why him? Not that he wasn’t glad that he was the target and the rest relatively safe, but it didn’t make sense. Aside from his obvious value there was no reason to go after him. Steve was their leader. Without him they wouldn’t be able to work. 

Sure, it made sense that they wouldn’t go after the Hulk or Thor. Actually, it also made sense to not go after Nat. But Clint? Okay, he would probably be hard to kill, too… but it would be possible. 

Hell, Steve should have been their target! Not, that he wanted them to go after Steve, fuck no! But he had been a thorn in their side long before Tony was even born! He was an icon. He was the face of the Avengers. If they wanted to make a statement, the world would be devastated when he would be killed. Sure, Tony had some fans – most of them disturbed if his previous experiences were anything to go by – but most of the world would ever be glad and applaud them for getting rid of him or not care at all. 

The only thing Tony could come up with was the fact that he had superior tech-skills. He was one if not the best hacker, especially with Jarvis help. And they could boast about succeeding where everyone else had failed before. But that was just a numbers-gamble. One day someone would take him out. Maybe just because of dumb luck. 

Back to the fucking problem at hand that he tried to avoid like a freaking expert: he needed to find a way… somehow… to fix the people around him enough so that they would be able to fix themselves. And/or he needed to get every shrink here to make all of them tick again – although Tony was almost sure the Avengers would break the shrinks long before they would ever have a chance to try to fasten the loose screws, they all had. Hell, Nat could kill all of them. Literally and metaphorically.

“Tony.” Bruce's voice had a disapproving tone in it now. He would have guessed at least a little from what Tony had thought about. Great minds think alike and all that shit. Bruce also had a guilt complex big enough to rival Tony’s. And he knew him.  

Smiling up at the other scientist, Tony tried to stay relaxed. Ignoring the way everyone else seemed to stiffen. 

First things first. If he wanted to stop all of them to kill each other he most likely needed to get at least half of them out of here before Dumbledore and Reindeergames showed up. While planning that he could (maybe) get them to do something useful, like focusing on themselves. Or getting Hydra. 

“Is Luca still in the country?”

Clint’s face darkened dangerously. “Why?”

“Why would Hydra focus on me? If this is about revenge, why not focus on Winter? Why not focus on all of us? Why did they only shoot me? Why not Steve? Why do they need to make sure I am out of the picture?”

“You-” Steve started, but Tony just petted his arm, leaning a little forward, letting his eyes bore into Clint’s.

“I couldn’t find a hint of Sparks. Neither could Jarvis. Although I’m sure she was the one getting their message out, am I right, Jay?”

“…you are, Sir.”

“So, what have they planned with her or the internet that they have to get rid of me before? Also, if they really wanted to get rid of me, why not use a bomb? Why not-” A hand clamped over his mouth, shutting him up. Steve’s body was rigid behind him. 

“Tony.” Steve’s voice was nothing more than a whimper and Tony’s heart seized. It did. He didn’t want to hurt them anymore, but they needed to look at this logically. They needed to find out why Hydra had done this. Was it just a scare tactic? And if so, why not kill all the Avengers who were killable? 

Leaning back into Steve’s embrace, letting the soldier feel his beating heart, his steady breathing, letting him make sure Tony was still alive, he looked up at Clint. He wasn’t as pragmatic as Nat, but close enough. He would understand. And he did. 

The stone mask on his face was enough to get the point across. And that he hated it. 

“What are you saying?”

Steve behind him shuddered, pressing closer. The way he was clinging to Tony, he was surprised Steve hadn’t imprisoned all of the Avengers by now. He seemed too distraught to be able to let any of them get away right now. On the other hand, Tony wouldn’t try to stop Natasha either if she wanted to leave. 

Reaching up, Tony pushed Steve’s hand aside, knowing full well he wouldn’t have a chance if Steve really didn’t want it. But Steve would never do that. He would never use his strength like that. 

“If I was in their position, right now, after having to speed up my plans because of one or two people finding out, being almost fully defeated in a battle, having lost most of my resources and accomplices and leaders, my focus wouldn’t be on revenge. Sure, I wanted them to die, but my focus has to lay on either a backup plan that has to change the landscape drastically ” – like a nuclear attack. Like an attack with biological or chemical weapons that would erase at least half of the people working against his cause, preferably with a cure for those who would follow him. How many people, how many governments would (could) refuse to bow down to them in that scenario? – “or I would hide everyone and everything that I could still use and wait for the right opportunity.”

“But they didn’t.” Thor said, his brows furrowed.

“Can we be sure of that?”

Bruce crossed his arms, his face set in stone, eyes ablaze with fury. But thankfully, they were still brown. “What’s your theory?”

“I’m not sure.” He wasn’t. He just knew that Hydra had survived for seventy years in the shadows. He knew that they had been powerful and influential enough to destabilize most of America’s government and mess with a lot of European countries in a similar manner. You didn’t get that much pull without planning. Without brilliant thinkers. Without knowing what to do and when. It was implausible to think that they got all or even most of those people. 

“It doesn’t make sense for them to go after me just because of revenge.”

“They wanted to send a statement.” Steve whispered from behind him. “They know we need you.”

The words tugged at Tony and he wanted to believe them. But it didn’t make sense. It wouldn’t matter who they killed of the Avengers. They would always go after whoever dared to hurt one of their own and kill them. (And right now they actually couldn’t even be sure they wanted to kill Tony just yet. Why wouldn’t they have used a headshot? Why shoot at his chest? They had to know the Arc was protected. If they send an assassin after him, in a public setting like that, why not make sure to kill him and aim for the head?)

If they wanted to destabilize them, they should have gone after Steve. The only logical reason to go after Tony was if his skill set would be dangerous to their plan. 

“You think they will pick us off one by one?” Clint asked, his voice a deathly cold in it.

“In that case why not just take us out all at once? Actually, that’s the only logical thing to do. They had the perfect opportunity. Why didn’t they?”

Steve shuddered again and Tony grabbed his hand, pressing down on it, reassuringly.

“They knew they wouldn’t be able to kill us.” Bruce muttered, nodding to Thor and himself.

“But how effective would we be without our fellow teammates?” Thor asked, electricity dancing over his skin. “You wouldn’t be the only one lost to a mindless rage, my friend.”

“If played correctly, they could have instrumentalized this to make the other teams focus on you and not them.” Clint muttered.

Before Tony could answer, Winter stepped forward. His expression was lifeless enough to almost frighten Tony – especially since he knew how the other man looked when he was smiling happily.

“Yes, Buttercup?”

He lifted his hand and tapped his shoulder where his metal arm was wired into his body and then shook his head, once.

It took Tony a moment to guess what he meant. “They’re sadistic assholes?”

Winter nodded.

“Sure, they are, Buttercup, but-” it made sense to torture you with the arm. No. He couldn’t say that. He couldn’t. Also, who would Hydra torture by just taking out Tony?

“They might not be as clever as you, friend Tony.”

“No one is, Thunderboy, but they have been able to stay hidden for-”

Without warning a magical lightshow happened right in their midst, forming a glowing circle. Fuck. Dumbledore was early.

Tony looked at Hawkeye, Clint having left the building seconds ago.

“Go to Nat. Try to find out-”

“No.”

“Yes. Go.”

“No.”

Tony looked back at the archer. He saw the resolve. Saw the tightening of his muscle. Saw the way he readied himself for an attack. To protect. To fight. But he didn’t need to. He didn’t need to put himself through this. He didn’t need to torture himself. 

“Please.” It was a dirty trick – and they all knew it. Still, Tony let some of his masks slip for just a second. Let Clint see his resolve. That he didn’t want him to hurt himself just for Tony. He had Steve, Winter, Bruce, Thor, Jarvis and Strange would most likely stop someone from killing Tony, too – if only to hold it over Tony’s head.

Clint tensed even further. It was enough for Tony to put his masks back up. Loki was about to step out of the portal and there was no way he would let him see more than absolutely necessary. 

Clint glanced behind Tony, most likely checking with Steve, before he glanced to the side to Thor, acknowledging his presence for the first time today. “Keep him safe.”

“I swear on my life.”  Thor said, his voice solemn. It didn’t matter that he thought his brother wouldn’t hurt Tony. He would protect him. Tony knew that. And Clint knew that too.

The moment he turned was the same moment Loki stepped out of the glowing circle, the Sorcerer Supreme on his heels. 

“You still don’t know what doors are, do you, Dumbledore?”

“Stark.” Stephen acknowledged, with a long-suffering sigh. “It was rather pleasant while you were unconscious.”

“You always say the nicest things, Strange.” Looking away from the wizard, Tony met the green eyes of Loki. They reminded him of Nat’s, when she was at her most dangerous. But he had seen that expression in his own eyes before, too. Calculating. Formulating plans. Not trying to hide your intelligence. Just waiting to let the other person fall into the traps you laid out for them. 

Last time they had stood face to face, his eyes had been blue. They had been cunning, sure, but they had also been clouded. They weren’t any longer. 

“I have a question, Reindeergames.” 

Loki nodded, almost submissive, if it weren’t for the smile in the corner of his mouth and the glint in his eyes.

“Now, in control of your own, if I had blown up your plan to take over the world, your resources mostly depleted, almost all allies or underlings out of the game, what would you do?”

Steve had started tensing the second Tony had started talking, most likely anticipating what he would do – and apparently, he hadn’t disappointed. Yay. 

Winter had moved closer, growling lowly. 

Both Bruce and Stephen looked resigned to their fate – which was really disrespectful. They were fellow scientists – if you allowed Stephen and his wet science in the holy world that was science, but as he had saved him like yesterday, he might be lenient this once – and Thor frowned unhappily. 

Loki’s eyes had lit up with humour. 

“I take it you’re talking about Hydra?”

Tony just smiled, ignoring all the other reactions.

“If I were in the situations Hydra was in, I would have either a fallback plan, which would have been activated the second I would have seen my chances of success were slipping. If I hadn’t, I would take my time to formulate a plan. There would be the thirst for revenge, of course, but even if you were the first domino to fall, and if so I would make certain, you would not have a chance to get back up again, I would not let a perfect opportunity slip through my fingers and not kill Earth Mightiest Heroes in one swift move.”

Tony smiled, mirroring the beginning of the sharp one he could see in Loki. 

“A swift move just for the Avengers or more something big, like taking out half of the country? Possibly with showing mercy to my followers?”

Loki’s smile grew. “In that case, I would take out people and let the Avengers live. Make the people kill them for me.”

“Dramatic, but not practical. They could also build a fighting force behind them.”

“Not if I make their survival and the survival of their children hinging on whether or not they kill the Avengers.”

Tony laughed, oh this was fun – as long as he ignored Winter’s growl, the way Steve held onto him with bruising force or the disapproving way the others looked at him. 

“That only works if you proved you can do it.”

“Or if I proved how cruel their deaths would be if they didn’t try for that. And, more importantly, would the Avengers really not sacrifice themselves to safe children ?”

Tony’s smile grew wider, showing teeth. “We are all self-serving egomaniacs. It might be more important to stop you. If our kids can’t live free, they might as well die.”

Steve behind him went rigid, Winter actually hissed, while Bruce’s eyes flashed green and the air around Thor crackled with electricity. Stephen seemed borderline disinterested. 

Loki raised an eyebrow. “Better to die standing than to live kneeling.”

“Oh, absolutely.” Tony’s smile grew darker. “As I told you last time we met, there is no throne. There is no version where you come out on top. Because if we can’t save the world you can be damn sure we will avenge it.”

“I remember.” Loki held up his hands, in a literal show of hands. “The question you need to answer in this is simple, then.”

Tony leaned back, nodding. “Your best guess?”

“I’m not familiar enough with-”

“Cut the crap. You know.” Because he had been in Tony’s head, he was almost sure. Also, Loki would have tried to find out anything he could about the situation. Knowledge was power after all. Especially for a trickster and someone who knew the political game – and as a prince he would be well versed in it. 

“They want to shape the world in their beliefs.”

“Yes, a first grader knows that. What else?”

Loki tilted his head slightly, his eyes narrowing just a fraction. Still, both Winter and Steve reacted. Winter stepped in front of them, a knife out, while Steve tried to protect him with his arms, probably hating the fact that he was behind Tony right now. 

Neither Tony nor Loki let themselves be stopped by their baseless panic, though. Or at least Tony was pretty sure it was baseless. Not that he wouldn’t ground Peter forever if he would argue like that. 

“You think they aren’t out for revenge?”

“Oh, sure they are, but other people have done more to stop them than me.”

Loki tilted his head a little more. “But they didn’t embarrass them like you did.”

“If I have a goal, I won’t let myself be stopped by revenge.”

“Why not?” Loki asked, a real curiosity behind his words. “The other person has deserved it for crossing you. To make sure your enemies fear you, you might need to make sure everyone knows what will happen to them if they stand against you.”

“It’s illogical. They will fear me when I succeed. They will fear me when I kill their heroes, snuffing out their hope again and again.”

“But we are stubborn.” Steve’s voice was hard. Almost as hard as his grip. “We won’t stop fighting.”

“Won’t you?” Loki looked away from Tony’s eyes, probably meeting Steve’s.

“Never. We might stumble. We might hesitate. But we will never stop fighting.”

“Good point.” Tony nodded, leaning back a little more. “So, we have to decimate the people enough to make sure they aren’t a threat.”

“This is still a theoretical discussion, right?” Stephen asked, his face absolutely expressionless. “Because if not, I might have to take you back to the Sanctum, Stark.”

“In that case, it’s 100% theoretical. Just getting some inside in a probably formally disturbed mind.”

“Your ideas are serviceable, Mr. Stark.” Loki smiled, kindly. “I’m sure you would have as good a chance as myself to take over this world.”

“I think it would be best if you would take both of them back to the Sanctum, Stephen, but please, make sure they can’t plan together.” Bruce said, sighing, before moving closer. “As fun as that has been, how about we let them start the healing.”

“We still haven’t heard your ideas.” Tony pouted, keeping his expression calmer than he would have normally. 

“Surprisingly, I don’t have any.”

“None?” Tony asked, with mock surprise.

“No one has, Stark.” Stephen sighed. “That is exactly the reason why people think it was your coup.”

“In that case, I would feel slighted, in your place, Mr. Stark. You would be far more successful.”

“Please, brother, do not encourage him.” Thor sighed, as if he had feared something like this would happen. Which was ridiculous. 

“I would think complimenting others was polite, brother.”

“Not on their world domination plans.”

“Earth rules are confusing.”

“I’m with Reindeergames on that.”

“Tony…” Steve sighed, heavily.

“What? Ask Winter, rules of society don’t make any-”

“Steve, get up, please.” Bruce ordered, ignoring Tony altogether. The vein throbbing on his temple was a good indicator it would be clever to follow his instructions. As Steve was cleverer than Tony when it came to all of this, he did get up, moving Tony as minimally as he could, stepping just far enough to have technically let go of Tony.

Loki took a step closer, raising one hand.

“Stop.”

Everyone froze.

“Are you all just standing there while Elsa is going to heal me, seriously? This is going to be boring as hell.”

“Tony.”

“No, seriously, I don’t think-”

“Tony!”

“Come on, Steve, he hasn’t tried to kill me while I was-

Tony !”

“If I might, Stark?” Loki didn’t really wait long enough for anyone to answer him, but his eyes were on Tony in a way that made it clear, he would shut up if his opinion wasn’t wanted. Loki most likely wasn’t someone to give out free advice – and why would he be?

“Your family cares enough about you to work with a sworn enemy to save you. It might be appropriate to not make it harder on them then it has to be.”

Holding his gaze, Tony tried to read the god. Was he right? Absolutely. But why the hell would he say that? To spare his brother? He would be the one most comfortable with the situation. Was he trying to gain brownie points with the others? It could be a good strategy to make them like him better. Although it was quite obvious – something he wouldn’t do? Or was it a double bluff?

Then again, why saying anything at all if he could let them fight.

(Tony was not even going to think about the actual thing he had said.)

“Something you have experience with, I suppose.”

Loki didn’t blink, his expression didn’t change. There was nothing Tony could point at that was proof for his certainty, deep down, that Loki actually tried to communicate something here right now.

“I’m blessed with a family that cares about me, too.” The way his back straightened and he did not look away, almost tilting his body farther away from Thor was the only reason Tony believed him right now. This was an olive branch or a trick.

“And you never wished, even knowing what they would do for you, to get some of the freedom back that being alone gave you?”

“It’s an honour to be thought of high enough that those who love you make sacrifices for you. Such as caring more for you than chasing glory in battle.”

So, he did know about the media backlash the Avengers had faced because they had been holding his hand instead of fighting Hydra. That meant he most likely knew everything else, too.

“What do you honour?”

For just a second deep emotions blazed in his green eyes – ones Tony could almost name – but just a heartbeat later, Loki looked calm and collected again. “A great man that my brother loves like his family. What do you honour, Mr. Stark?”

“A liar saying the truth.”

“Anthony-” Thor started, anger in his voice, but Loki stopped him with holding up a hand.

“Because a liar knows the value of truth while an honest man doesn’t think he has an option.”

Tony smiled his Merchant of Death Smile™. “Like a villain deciding to do something good.”

“One good act doesn’t mean anything in the greater scheme of life.”

“No, it doesn’t. But that is the brutal thing about free will, isn’t it, Mr. Odinson, we all have to decide every day anew that we will do the right thing. Whatever that might be.”

Loki stared into his eyes, not letting anything slip past his impenetrable mask of calm. Then, he nodded. Once, before looking away, meeting Thor’s eyes.

“You were right, brother.”

Thor seemed lost for a moment, before a brilliant smile split his face, lifting most of the heavy guilt and fear off of him. Before he could say anything, Loki turned back to Tony.

“Might I start now?”

“Sure, get healing, Snowflake.” Tony lied back on the pillows – that weren’t half as comfortable as Steve. It was almost cold without him, warming Tony. Stopping the shivers he held back. Also, without him there to hold him (which Tony wouldn’t even acknowledge) his stomach did backflips. Fucking weak and stupid physiology. 

“It will be more effective if I touch you.”

“Everything about the belt is okay.” Winking, Tony ignored Steve’s groan that could have been a growl – but Tony wasn’t that lucky.

“I will remember that.” There was a smile in his words that Tony would have to keep in mind. The god might have seen more in his thoughts than he wanted him to know – not that he wanted him to know anything.

Reaching out slowly, probably more so to save his own skin from being shot, stabbed or punched to a pulp by the Hulk, Loki reached out to place his cold hand on Tony’s arm. The magic starting to mingle with his body was – in a freaky way – familiar. Something Tony hated almost as much as the fact that he was touched by fucking magic. 

Raising an eyebrow, Loki waited for Tony to probably tell him to go fuck himself – but he wouldn’t. Not only couldn’t he do that to Thor, Rhodey or any of them, he needed to get better pronto. No matter what it would cost him. 

Because miracles like this always had a price. The Arc Reactor in his chest was a miracle too. And he was paying the price every second of every day. 

Having been blessed with getting a second chance had been a miracle. One he sometimes still wished he hadn’t survived – even if it had been worth it, paying that price still hurt worse than the chronic pain of the Arc Reactor.

Opening his eyes that must have closed involuntarily, he met Lokis’s green eyes. There was a crease between his eyebrows. He met Tony’s eyes and then let his eyes flicker down to Tony’s stomach. Where, judging by feeling alone, he would have a new impressive bruise.

Tony barely indicated a head shake when Loki was looking at him again, but the deepening frown was answer enough.

“Everything okay?” Steve’s voice was terse and even closer now.

Tony turned towards him, smiling up at the super soldier, who was so out of it because Tony had fucked up again, that he didn’t even have his strength under control. Something he didn’t have any problem with before Tony decided to let Hydra use him as a practice target.

“Everything is fine-”

Winter growled, low and threatening.

“You’re already taking his side, Buttercup?”

“Whether or not something is wrong with your health? Absolutely.” Stephen said, not even looking up from the book he was reading on the armchair he had placed close enough to probably feel Loki’s magic. Or however this hocus-pocus bullshit worked.

“Brother?” Thor stepped beside his brother, his eyes on Loki’s hand on Tony’s arm. “Is something wrong?”

Looking into Tony’s eyes for a second longer, his frown vanished, leaving back a relaxed expression. “It must have been something from the rather impressive invention in his chest.”

“Just stay away from it.” Without meaning it, Tony’s words had been sharper. Instead of commenting, Loki nodded, accepting both. The lie and the truth woven into it.

“Of course.”

The tingling where Tony knew Steve had held onto him a little too desperately, promised that Loki would take care of them. Good. There was absolutely no way for Tony to explain them otherwise.

Two hours later, Tony had to agree with Loki and Dumbledore. Healing was fucking taxing on the body. He was barely able to keep his eyes open. And that was a fucking problem. He had to work. He had to find Sparks, the rest of the Hydra agents, trying to fix the Avengers – and he hadn’t had any possibility to talk with Rhodey, Pepper or Peter yet – who would definitely kill him.

“You should rest, Mr. Stark.”

Tony looked up at Loki, not sure whether he could read minds – which would be a huge problem or whether he was just that obvious. That would also be a problem. 

“I did rest.”

“Healing is taxing on the-”

“Body, yes I heard.”

“Your body needs time and rest. After all, everything comes from something.”

Looking up at the trickster, he met his yes, trying to stay awake enough to get every possible meaning of what the other could possibly hide in his words. 

“Even miracles?”

“Magic is just a more advanced form of science.”

“So, everything has a price?”

Loki blinked once, before nodding. “Yes. Everything has a price.”

Chapter Text

Clutching Tony’s hand in his own, Steve didn’t listen to what the others discussed. Bruce had checked Tony over the second Loki and Stephen had left, making sure he was fine. And he was. Or at least he and Jarvis couldn’t find anything. 

He couldn’t forget the ominous… statement? Promise? Threat? That Loki had told Tony. Or that Tony didn’t seem overly worried when Loki had basically told him he was indebted to him. Which wasn’t true. If anything, Colonel Rhodes was. Steve was. All the Avengers were, but not Tony. He didn’t consent to anything. 

Didn’t agree to be treated by magic that he hated. Didn’t agree to let Loki, someone who had tried to kill all of them, had tried to kill Tony right here in this Tower, heal him. He hadn’t agreed to them letting Loki poke around in his head. Hadn’t agreed to let Loki so close to the Arc Reactor he protected viciously. 

If anyone would have to pay the price it wouldn’t be Tony. Steve would make sure of that. If it wasn’t something inherently ingrained in the magic, like Thor believed. If he was right, and Steve didn’t think that would mean Loki wouldn’t demand something from them for his service. If he didn’t just take it. 

Like he had taken Clint’s mind. 

What if the magic really did take a price from Tony? What if it took more than just making him sleep afterwards? What if it changed something in Tony? What if Loki manipulated him? 

Not that the whole discussion hadn’t been pure Tony. It had been. And Steve wanted to strangle him for it. Of course, it had been brilliant. Heck, he was sure he hadn’t picked up everything Tony had, but Loki had revealed more in that one conversation than in all the hours he had been in the Tower before. 

If Steve wasn’t mistaken, he would almost say Loki respected Tony – he wasn’t sure if that was something good, though. Or the fact that he seemed to have a plan to take over the world. He wasn’t surprised that Tony had one, of course, but sharing it with Loki

Leaning a little closer to Tony, Steve let his eyes slip close. He needed to calm down. He needed to finally get up again. Tony was healing. His team was down, and he couldn’t let Tony pick them up again. Tony needed to rest.

He wouldn’t. Hell, the only reason he was sleeping right now was that the healing had drained him of all of his strength. Something Steve shouldn’t be thankful for. But he was. Just a little more time in which he wouldn’t have to fight him. He was so tired of fighting Tony. All he wanted to do was wrap himself around his genius. To keep him close. To keep him safe. To tell him he loved him. To tell him what it would do to him if something else happened to the man he loved. What it would do to him if he would be killed. 

It was unfair. It was wrong. And he wouldn’t do it. But he wanted to. 

Peter laughed; the first laugh Steve had heard since everything happened. He turned, watching Peter and Winter baking together with Bruce. They were making muffins for Tony.

Thor stood beside them, a small smile on his lips as he watched Bruce teach his eager pupils. 

Winter, although more reserved than before, was almost relaxed around Peter. As if he wanted to protect him. Or as if he knew Tony would be worried about his kid. He probably did. And he was able to actually do that.

Natasha and Clint were sitting on the couches, discussing what they and Colonel Rhodes had found out today. Apparently, Clint had left the Tower after Loki and Stephen had, finding Nat and making sure she knew about Tony’s – and Loki’s – plans to take over the world. Neither of them would have been surprised, still Steve couldn’t agree with the annoyed huffs Clint had to breathe from time to time. 

Colonel Rhodes just nodded along, as if he had thought about all of that before, too. Knowing full well, he would never do anything to hurt Tony – and that most likely included not hurting the Avengers or taking over the world – Steve tried to not think too hard about all the implications. The world could never find out that there were that many plans ready to conquer it. Or that Steve thought that they could work. 

They needed some more details, of course, but it wouldn’t be too hard. Especially with Tony’s resources. Or with magic. Heck, Steve would be able to use his fans to get far enough to at least take the American government. He didn’t have contacts like Tony – in case he wouldn’t follow him too, but Steve didn’t think so. It didn’t matter whether or not he loved Steve, he wouldn’t – but even on his own he had enough. Enough people in high places. Enough knowledge to manipulate. Enough skills to get what he wanted. 

Was it so unlikely Tony was right? It never was, but if he was right, what did they want from him? Loki had been right too, if they wanted to kill him, why not a head shot? The thought alone let him shudder. Pressing his eyes closed, he knew he needed to get a grip on himself. He was a tactical genius. He could see coherences before others were able to. He was always at least three steps ahead, having enough plans to fill the alphabet. 

It wasn’t like Tony’s planning, calculating and thinking it through with the numerical precision he did. Steve did all this too, but he trusted his gut feeling a lot more than the genius. He just knew what would be most likely. He knew what the enemy would most likely do. He could think in a pitch, could focus. Could do what was necessary. Always knew what would be right and do it. 

If it didn’t involve Tony. If it didn’t mean to think about how to kill Tony. To hurt him worse. To think about all the possibilities, he would try to get to him.

He couldn’t. Couldn’t know how easy it would be if someone actually took the time to get to know Tony. How simple it would be if you were able to get into his circle of trust. And even if you didn’t – how many people were working in this Tower? How many possibilities were there for them to kill Tony when he was in his own mind, not seeing the world around him?

Sure, Jarvis kept a close eye on the genius and everything going on in the Tower, but the public didn’t know about Jarvis. Sure, the Avengers were there now, but just 18 months prior they hadn’t been. He had favourite coffee places. He wasn’t a regular with a schedule – thank god – but went there often enough to make waiting a good opportunity. And how difficult would it be to become a barista there?

Oh god. 

If someone wanted to get to him, he just needed to get to Peter. To May. He could take Pepper. 

He could just wait outside of SI and-

“Mr. Rogers?”

Steve’s eyes snapped up to look in the still smiling face of Peter. He held a muffin out to him. Vanilla-raspberry. His favourite. 

“You should eat something. Dr. Banner says if you don’t, he will tell Mr. Stark that you didn’t take care of yourself.” 

The smile was easier to force on his face when he had feared. Peter had calmed down considerably, after Tony had been awake twice, even if he hadn’t seen Tony yet. There were still shadows under his eyes, of course. There was still fear clinging to him, but compared to the rest of them, he was almost good. 

Or he hid it expertly, like his father would. Not showing how much he had been hurt by all of this.

“Thanks, Peter.” He let the kid give him the muffin, smiling.

“Sure. We have blueberry-chocolate-chip ones for Mr. Stark when he wakes up.”

“He’ll love them.”

The smile on Peter’s lips widened, even reaching his eyes, calming the haunted look in them a little. Turning, he walked over to Colonel Rhodes, Natasha and Clint who all took muffins from him, praising him. Peter even sat down beside the Colonel, letting the other man hug him to his side.

The Colonel’s dark eyes met Steve’s. They needed to protect Peter from as much of all of this as they could.

Taking a bite, he looked over to Bruce and Thor, talking quietly to each other, Thor’s hand was resting on Bruce’s shoulder, both men wrapped up in the other.

Finishing the muffin, Steve ignored the twisting feeling of his stomach. He was happy for the both of them. He was. They deserved happiness. Bruce more than most. 

It still showed him painfully clearly what he had almost lost again. The chance he missed, because he hadn’t just used the opportunity and told Tony what he was feeling. Because he was a coward.

Looking back at the genius when he felt him move, the pains in his stomach quieted again. Tony was going to be fine. And as soon as he was back to his health, no matter whether Hydra was still around or not, he would tell him.

Blinking his beautiful whiskey-coloured eyes open, Tony smiled sleepily up at him. And Steve melted. It wouldn’t matter what he had to do to have this for the rest of his life. If Tony would allow it, this was all he needed.

“Mr. Stark!”

The moment was interrupted when Peter jumped onto the bed, already pressing close to the genius.

“Petey-pie.” Tony laughed, his eyes warming even further. “What’s up? Do I smell your muffins?”

“Mr. Winter, Dr. Bruce and I baked for you!” He leaned closer, whispering that he had given all the other adults the ones Tony didn’t like, and the genius started to laugh. 

Steve leaned back in his chair, having let go of Tony’s hand when he had moved it to hold his kid close.

Peter cuddled closer to the other man, careful, to not hurt him, and started to tell him about Ned and that his aunt had forced him to go to school today. Both of them talking as if nothing had happened. As if Tony hadn’t died twice. As if Peter hadn’t cried his eyes out.

As if Steve hadn’t held him during a panic attack when he woke up in the Tower and Tony hadn’t been there yet.

Tony held his kid close. Quipping with him. Making sure Peter was as good as he could be. He knew the kid was hurting. Could probably see it in his eyes as Steve could, even if he was smiling. Could probably feel it in the way his hand twisted the shirt Tony was wearing.

The others didn’t come over, but they all watched as father and son made sure the other was as good as he reasonably could be.

An hour later, May came to take Peter back home. Tony promised to text him every other hour – and so did Steve, Jarvis, Rhodes and even Winter, who, apparently, had taken up texting with the kid. Mostly through emojis. 

As soon as Peter had left, Rhodes was on Tony, hugging him tight enough to almost strangle him. Or at least that was what Steve and Winter thought, obvious in the way Winter moved forward to get between them.

But Tony just laughed, again. Holding his brother close. Who was muttering curses to him. Promising, that he wouldn’t care next time. That he wouldn’t move heaven and hell again, if something happened to Tony. Right before helping the genius up and into the bathroom.

The air all around them seemed to have lost most of the urgency. Most of the angry quality. All of them were still on edge, of course. And the smallest flame would probably be enough to set them off again, but right now. They were able to relax.

Clint, sitting on the couch, rubbed his stomach. “Just a question, but is there a chance you want to kill us, Winter?”

So much for a relaxed situation, then. But despite Steve already getting between them, Winter just raised an eyebrow.

“You sure? Because I know Peter would never and Bruce would just Hulk out.”

Winter tilted his head a little, not looking worried or hurt.

“Could it be, that you ate too many of the delicious pastries?” Thor asked, his voice more careful than it would have normally been.

Clint looked over to Thor, before letting his eyes wander to the empty cupcake wrappers. “They are not all from me.” 

“But you ate five.” Nat said, nudging his ankle with her foot.

“Five small ones.”

“They were all the same size.” Bruce sat down beside Thor, not leaning into the other man, but sitting closer than he normally was to anyone. Aside from Tony, but that was mostly Tony’s fault. Not that Bruce had ever shown anything aside from worry, before he relaxed around the other genius, marvelling at his trust. 

That unimaginable trust he had given all of them. And might extent to Loki. Something sharp moved in his gut, just thinking about it.

The elevator door opened and Pepper, high heels clicking demandingly on the floor, stormed inside their living room. Before anyone could say anything, she commanded Jarvis to start the TV, forcing them all to see the moment Thor stepped in front of Steve and Tony. Steve, who held the still body. Blood not yet dripping.

Thankfully it cut to another scene, showing Tony being moved into the ambulance.

Steve barely heard a word. Barely felt anything as he stared at the screen. Feeling Tony’s blood slip through his fingers. As he heard, again, the machine screaming when Tony’s heart stopped.

“Pepper.”

Natasha’s voice woke him from his stupor. It had been hard. Almost vicious. She never used that tone with anyone she respected, and she did respect Pepper. Also, Pepper was Tony’s and Nat would never do anything to-

“You can all come along, if you want to, but Tony has to be there.”

“What?”

Pepper glanced at Steve, her eyes hard enough to cut straight through him.

“Tony has to go to the gala tomorrow night.”

Steve stared at her. What? She couldn’t mean-

“Pepper-”

“No, Bruce.” She bit out hard. “Tony’s tell it all and my work is the only reason the Avengers got out of your last scandal-”

“That wasn’t a scandal.” Clint growled, leaning forward, his shoulders tense and ready to strike. 

“No? So, there weren’t news stories about the Avengers working for Hydra? Sitting the fight out because Tony was behind it? There weren’t stories that he had turned you evil or killed you? There wasn’t a drop in what the public thought about all of you when they saw everyone else fighting?”

“I don’t give a fuck!”

“That’s the problem!” Pepper growled, dangerously enough to rival the Winter Soldier – who thankfully had followed Tony and Rhodes. Just to be sure they were safe.

“Pepper-” Thor began, but Natasha interrupted him. 

“He almost died.”

Pepper took a step closer to the female assassin, as if she wanted to bodily fight her. “I know. And I know how to handle a situation like this. Because I know how the press will spin it. SI’s stock value has already dropped. People are asking – again might I add – where the Avengers are. Whether or not Iron Man is even useful if he gets shot every other week. And all of you hide away while Rhodey and I try to save as much of the situation as we can!”

“Pepper!”

Steve’s eyes flew to Tony, who let Rhodes help him along, but his eyes were on Pepper. They were burning with fury. 

“Don’t ‘Pepper’ me! They-”

“Stop!” Tony pushed away from Rhodes, trying to hide the stumble in his steps as he moved forward. “They didn’t do anything wrong.”

“Of course! They-”

“Pepper!” Tony was in front of her, grabbing her by her shoulders, forcing her to look at him. “I’m sorry, okay? I promised I wouldn’t go off script and-”

Pepper surged forward, grabbing at Tony’s shoulder, hiding her face into the crook of his neck. 

Engulfing her into his strong arms, Tony held the shaking woman close. His eyes moved to the tv, seeing the story, and his face twisted to resignation, before he hid it behind a mask of calm.

He wouldn’t. Steve knew he wouldn’t. Not even Tony would be that self-sacrificing, right? He couldn’t-

“When do I have to be there?”

Looking towards Colonel Rhodes, to have an ally in the fight he would have to fight against Tony Stark and the Pepper Potts, he froze when he saw the frozen mask the Colonel showed. He had known about this. And even if he wasn’t happy, he was on board with it.

What the fuck?

“Tony, what-” Clint started, his voice hard.

Tony cut him off with one look .

“Pep? What do you need?”

What did she need? What about what Tony needed! What about what all of them needed!

“You have to be there.” Her voice was quiet. Almost small. But still, she said those awful words. Forcing them on Tony, who would rip his own beating heart out of his chest and give it to those he loved if they so much as hinted at wanting it. How could she?

Was the stock value of Stark Industries seriously more important to her than Tony’s life?

He pressed his lips together. He couldn’t say that. He knew. Because Tony would probably kill him on the spot. Whether or not it was the truth. He would argue she had to think of the company. Of all of their employees. He would say she just did what she had to. 

But did she? Both Tony and she had enough money to keep the company afloat for some time. Was she really going to risk Tony’s life for some points on Wall Street?

“I got you a new suit.” She whispered, and if Steve would be charitable, she sounded pained. He wasn’t. Why had she made a new one? Because the last one had a bullet hole in it? Because it wouldn’t be appropriate to wear something Tony had bled out in previously to a gala the next week?

“Something flashy?”

“Red.”

Steve saw red, too. She would send him out there in a red suit? What? Did it also have a map on it for every weak spot Tony had?

Tony laughed, but Steve barely heard it over the rushing in his ears. 

“You actually listened to me?”

“I lost that bet.” She moved back, wiping her eyes with her index fingers. To not smear her mascara. Because apparently everything was more important than Tony’s life to her.

She exhaled, her shoulders relaxing. And in front of them stood Pepper Potts, CEO of Stark Industries. Steve had admired her for her strength. Maybe it wasn’t strength at all. Maybe she was just heartless.

“Is that all, Miss Potts?” Tony smiled up at her, calm and lovingly.

“That will be all, Mr. Stark.” She reached out, pushing a strand of his still damp hair out of his face. “I’m sorry, Tony.”

“Not your fault, Pep.”

She didn’t answer. She didn’t turn around to face the Avengers. She just left.

No one moved.

“What the fuck?” Clint growled. Steve had to agree.

“Don’t start, Clint.”

“Don’t start?” He pushed himself off the couch. “Is she fucking serious?”

“Clint, don’t-”

“No, Tony! What the fuck is she thinking? What the fuck are you thinking?”

“She is doing her job!” Tony bit out, trying to keep his voice calm.

“Is she?” Steve asked, not being able to hold those words back.

“Yes. She is.” Tony growled, glaring up at him.

“It’s too risky.” Nat moved forward, her expression a calm mask, not showing any emotion at all.

“We’ll take precautions.” Rhodes moved beside Tony, staying close, but not trying to take some of his weight.

“Like the last time?” Bruce asked, a growl rippling just under his words.

“Weren’t you the ones-”

“STOP!” Tony shouted; exhaustion already clear on his face. “We’re not going to do this. All of this is Hydra’s fault. Also, I could have-”

“No, Anthony, you couldn’t have-”

“I don’t give a fuck! You-”

“The gala-”

All of them stopped, when Winter rammed his metal arm into the wall, breaking it. 

Tony stumbled slightly, letting Colonel Rhodes grab him, to steady him. And he thought he was ready to go to a fucking gala?

“You okay, Buttercup?” 

Winter shook his head once.

None of them were okay. How could they be.

Ripping his metal arm out of the arm shaped hole and letting concrete fall to the floor. He pointed accusingly at Tony; his eyes cold.

Tony just shook his head. As if that communicated everything he was able to say right now. Turning around to face all of them, his face hardened again.

“You don’t have to come along-”

“Tony-” Colonel Rhodes growled, but the genius ignored him. 

“But I will go. There will be no discussion. There will be no trying to stop me. Hydra attacked me . They want to see me fall? Let them try.”

“Tony!”

“I will not beg down. I will not hide. The last couple of weeks were obviously a mistake, because they thought I was an easy target.”

“They killed you!”

“You made sure I got better.”

Steve’s hands were balled into fists. He was shaking. All he wanted to do was to grab the genius. To shake some goddamn sense into him. 

“What if we lose you this time?” 

Steve barely recognized Nat’s voice. It was small. Unsure. 

Tony looked over to her and his mask slipped. There was pain in his eyes. Exhaustion. Agony. And something that could be fear.

Tony was afraid. 

Tony was hurting.

And they just made it worse.

“I’ll try anything to stay a pain in your ass, Red.”

She just held his eyes. “What do we do, Tony, if we lose you this time?”

Tony exhaled. Letting Rhodes take more of his weight. 

“What do I do when I lose you, kotenok?” She stepped forward. Slowly. Calmly. Reaching out to him, waiting for him to move forward. To let her hug him to her chest.

Tony held her gaze a moment longer before stepping into her arms and let her hold him close.

“You do what you always do, Red. You fight.”

Natasha didn’t answer. Instead she buried her face in his neck, hiding herself away.

Steve wouldn’t have been able to answer either. 

“Why?” Clint asked. The word sharp enough to draw blood.

Tony looked up at him, still held close by Nat.

There was a fight on his expression, before resignation overshadowed everything else. “What will the media make out of all of this if we stay hidden any longer?”

Both Rhodes and Potts had given statements. They knew Tony was getting better. They had told the world the Avengers were already working on fighting Hydra. And they did. Maybe not with everything they could. But they had almost lost one of their family! They had almost lost Tony .

“What will happen, if Hydra thinks they already got rid of me?”

Maybe nothing. Maybe all his fancy plans were just that. Maybe Thor was right. Maybe Tony was too brilliant and all they wanted was revenge.

“Who will they target when they don’t have access to me?”

Steve froze. Peter. His employees. Pepper. Rhodes. Natasha, Clint, Winter or Steve.

None of them answered his questions. 

Chapter Text

Feelings, Winter had started to learn, were as much a blessing as they were an inconvenience. They made you irrational. They could make you downright stupid.

The fog around his mind was almost a shield, making him calmer. Making him able to see more. How far the Avengers had already spiralled. Seeing the mind-numbing fear everyone seemed to experience. The anger.  

Winter understood it, even if he couldn’t feel it. 

Looking around the room this morning, he was almost surprised that the only physical reminder of the fight last night was the dent of his arm in the wall. Everything else was hidden behind masks. Behind aggressive words. Behind sighs. Behind frustration. 

Winter understood them all. He didn’t feel it (although the dent in the wall might suggest otherwise) but he understood. And sometimes, there were flashes ripping through the fog like electric shocks, burning him to the core, hurting worse enough that he was almost glad for the numbness, even if he feared it. 

When he had followed Tony and the Colonel upstairs yesterday, they had explained to him what would have to happen. Explained that the Avengers wouldn’t like it (not that the Colonel liked it. Not that Winter liked it.) 

Tony explained that it had to happen for Peter to be safe. That it had to happen because the people couldn’t hate or fear the Avengers. He explained it in a way that made sense. As if there really was no other way for them. As if their best option was to use Tony as bait. 

Logically, Winter understood. It was a good strategy to focus the enemy’s energy on one point. You could lay traps; you could set up situations that would be too good for them to pass up even if they knew it would be a trap. You had as much control over the actions of the enemy as you could ever have without inside information. 

Logically, Winter understood. But everything in him hurt thinking about it. His heart was beating faster, in an almost panicked rhythm. His breathing changed. Everything in him screamed to not let it happen. To hide Tony away. To drug him, if he had to, to make sure he would not take the risk. 

Looking into the genius eyes, he had known there was no way he could stop him without losing his trust. No matter what he did. No matter what he would say. Tony thought this was the only way to protect what was his. He thought it was the right thing. 

And then the Avengers started to fight with Tony. Screaming at him. When he looked like a strong breeze would be enough to knock him down. When it was obvious that he was hurting. That he didn’t want it either. When he was clearly exhausted and desperate himself.

Destroying the wall hadn’t been the plan. He had meant to knock three times, like he always did. To tell them all to stop. To make them understand. 

Apparently, his body felt anger even if it didn’t reach his brain. 

Then the Black Widow- no. It hadn’t been the Avenger but the woman, Natasha who asked Tony what they would do if they lost Tony. As if that was even an option. 

Since then, the air was heavy with their worry. Their fear. Their anger. 

The Colonel kept close to Tony, not leaving this morning, instead working from the couch, glancing up at Tony every other minute. The genius sat on his bed, working with Jarvis on finding the hacker. Either he really was as deep in thought as it seemed or he ignored the way the other Avengers glared at him. 

All of them kept close. Until the Colonel kicked Thor, the Black Widow and Hawkeye out, telling them they had to be seen outside, knowing full well, he wouldn’t be able to kick out the Captain even if he wanted to. Winter thought he did want to do that.

When Loki and Dr. Strange came back, Tony demanded the god should get the healing on the fast track, ignoring any and all warning, until Loki stopped smiling, telling the annoyed genius again, that healing was taxing on the body and that he wasn’t in the business of killing heroes anymore. Which resulted in a mock fight between Dr. Strange and Tony, debating whether or not Tony was, in fact, a hero. 

The only reason Winter didn’t attack the magician was the fact that the Colonel just huffed, annoyed, not tensing in the slightest. It seemed a common occurrence between the two fast talking men.

After they left Tony fell asleep again, exhausted from the healing. The Colonel asked Dr. Banner up to take a look at the sleeping genius and ordered the Captain to keep his eyes on him (as if there was any possibility the Captain, even as angry as he was right now, would even think about letting go of Tony’s hand that he was clutching like it was the last line to his sanity).

It wasn’t an order, not really, when he asked Winter to come upstairs with him. Glancing at the Captain for a moment, Winter followed the Colonel, feeling uneasy the second he couldn’t see Tony anymore. Not because he thought the Captain would do something to him… just because he couldn’t see Tony any longer. 

“I have a question for you, Winter, and I know Tony is going to kill me if I don’t tell you that you don’t have to do what I ask of you. You don’t have to agree. You don’t have to do it, okay?”

Winter hesitated for a moment, before nodding. 

They stood inside Tony’s kitchen, the Colonel tapping a fast rhythm on the kitchen island, his expression serious and… hopeful?

“You understand that, even if you say no, nothing will change?”

Winter nodded again. Yes, he knew. Tony had said it again and again and now, after knowing everything, he couldn’t not believe it.

“Good. Pepper and I were talking, and we want a bodyguard for Tony.” His dark eyes bore into Winter’s. “And we think you would be the best for the job.”

Winter nodded. Of course. He was the Winter Soldier, or at least he had been and the Soldier had been a bodyguard a couple of times. His skill-set would be helpful.

“You would, of course, get paid and because you will put your life in danger, it would be a fair amount of money. Though the hazard pay will be for keeping up with Tony. Even if I think that you will be the only bodyguard since and before Happy who will most likely not try to kill him sooner or later.”

Winter’s eyes narrowed. There had been bodyguards who tried to hurt Tony? And almost as important, the driver had been Tony’s bodyguard? He wasn’t equipped to be a bodyguard!

“You can think about it, but-”

“Do it.” His voice was hoarse from disuse, but even so, the intent behind it was loud and clear. He would do it. He was doing it already, but with Miss Potts and the Colonel behind him, Tony wouldn’t be able to tell him no. At least not like he could right now. Winter would be allowed to follow him. Would be able to keep other people away. To keep Tony safe. 

“Are you sure?” The Colonel asked as if he already knew the answer. As if he had known what the answer would be from the very start. “I know Tony told you that you don’t have to keep fighting, Winter. You can just start a new life. Learn pottering. Move to a beach. Do anything you want.

Winter nodded. Yes, Tony had told him. Made sure Winter understood. But this was what he wanted to do. He had skills that were… very specific. And he wanted to stay with Tony. He wanted to stay close to him. To Peter. Even the Colonel. All those people who had accepted him. Even after everything.

He wanted to keep Tony safe. This was a golden opportunity.

“Sure. Protect him.”

“Just to make that clear, I don’t ask you, to kill yourself for him.”

“Don’t have to.”

The Colonel held his gaze, searching Winter’s expression as if trying to find something. Then he nodded, holding out his hand to Winter.

Hesitating, Winter reached out and shook the offered hand.

“Thank you, Winter. And welcome to the Tony Stark Defence Squad™.” He smiled saying that, as if it was a joke, even though Winter didn’t know where the joke was supposed to be.

“Just to be clear here: You can use weapons, but do not kill if you have any other option, okay?”

Winter nodded. Tony had said that often enough already. He wouldn’t. Unless he needed to protect someone and it was the only way to save them.

Turning around, to head back to the elevator, he pointed at Winter, a smirk on his lips. “This is very important, Winter, Tony can’t fire you, okay? He lost a bet years back and now Pepper and I are allowed to hire bodyguards for him. She and I are the only one who can dismiss you. You can quit, of course, but Tony can’t fire you.”

Winter felt a smile creep on his lips. That was even better. 

When they got back down to the common floor, Tony was still asleep, and Bruce and Steve were working on their plans for the night and how to best protect Tony. They all had been working on the details since last night.

Right now, Thor, the Black Widow and the Hawkeye were scouting out the venue for the gala tonight, with the help of Happy and Pepper. Which seemingly no one seemed to like, still they worked together. For Tony.

The phone in his pocket vibrated and he looked down on the text message from Peter, asking how Tony was. 

Sending back the sleep emoji, or what the kid had taught him to be the sleep emoji, and a thumbs up, he put it back into his pocket, watching the Captain move even closer to Tony, his hand entangled with the sleeping man’s. Now that the genius was asleep, he seemed to be able to get closer again. During the morning they had snapped at each other again and again. 

Now, all the anger seemed to have vanished from the Captain and all that was left was fear and worry. And the soft glances he used only for Tony. The way he pressed his lips together as if he needed to keep something unsaid inside that wanted to get out. 

A couple hours later Miss Potts came over, nodding appreciatively at Winter, before taking Tony and the Colonel with her. The tension was high when they left the floor. As if the Avengers actually believed Miss Potts would do something to Tony. Not that Winter thought she couldn’t. Just that he knew, she wouldn’t. Like they wouldn’t hurt Tony. Like the Colonel wouldn’t. 

Still, it was nerve-wracking to know the only line of defence for him was the Colonel, Miss Potts and Jarvis. 

Finalizing how they would keep an eye on Tony, who would stay close to during the gala, Winter was glad that the Avengers apparently knew what they were doing. He didn’t feature in any of their plans right now – as if they didn’t know he would be there. It might be that they didn’t want to force him into the limelight, because they all knew that the press would stick close. To Tony. To the Avengers.

Winter didn’t care. Not when it meant he would be able to stick close to Tony and make sure that he was safe. To make sure he wouldn’t get hurt again. (And maybe even being able to hurt some of those who had hurt him before.

They also didn’t know he was Tony's bodyguard.

Taking another bite of the sandwich he had made himself, he ignored how his stomach grumbled. He needed the food. Especially now, that it was literally his job to keep Tony safe.

“What is the plan?” 

Everyone looked around towards the Colonel who just now exited the elevator, already wearing his uniform, showing off his rank.

The plan basically boiled down to the Avengers killing anyone before they could lay a hand on Tony. The Captain, Dr. Banner and Thor would stick close, being able to withstand more force than most or all humans. The Black Widow and Hawkeye would keep an eye on everything.

“Good. Also, Pepper and I just hired Winter to be Tony’s bodyguard for the foreseeable future.”

For a moment none of them said anything. Then all of them looked at Winter. They didn’t seem all that surprised, the Black Widow and Hawkeye even looked approving. As did Thor. 

The Captain appeared to be… sad? No. Crestfallen? Before he caught himself, nodding at Winter. “Good.”

Everyone left the floor to make themselves ready on the Colonel‘s command. Winter too, as said Colonel had told him that was part of his job now. He even helped him with the tie.

Miss Potts, having anticipated that Winter would become Tony’s bodyguard, had a suit ready. 

Taking the sunglasses the Colonel handed him, Winter felt a little better. They were dark enough to hide his eyes but not too dark to hinder his vision. 

Tying his hair back after the Colonel told him to, he heard a low whistle from Tony. 

“You’re cleaning up good, Buttercup.” 

Winter turned, looking at Tony who stepped out of his bedroom with Miss Potts. He looked better, his complexion healthier. His suit was in the same red as his Iron Man armor.

“I don’t want to hear it, yes I’m wearing makeup. And mascara. But why are you-”

“Meet your new bodyguard.”

Tony looked over to the Colonel, his expression hardening. “No.”

“Yes.”

“No.”

“Absolutely.”

“No.”

“We hired him, and you know the rules: You can’t fire him.”

No .” Tony growled, before turning back to Winter.

“You do not have to do this, Buttercup. You shouldn’t. I-”

“Protect.” His voice was still rough.

“No, you shouldn’t-”

Protect .” This was his choice. The Colonel hadn’t forced him. He had told him too, that he didn’t have to do this. But he wanted to. He had decided weeks ago that he would protect Tony. This was nothing different. 

“Winter…”

“I explained everything to him, Tones. He knows what he is getting himself into.”

Glaring at his best friend, Tony took a step closer. He didn’t say anything, but his eyes were burning dangerously. 

The Colonel didn’t seem to care. His stance was still relaxed. “I told you, I know what has to be done, but that doesn’t mean we like it. Or think you should do it. Of course, we-”

“The Avengers won’t even let me take a piss on my own, Winter doesn’t-”

“Enough.” Miss Potts stepped between them. Her expression pleading as she turned towards Tony. “Don’t do this to us, Tony. This needs to happen, we all know that, but please …” She didn’t finish her sentence, as if she didn’t have the words. As if she didn’t know what she was pleading for. But there were tears in her eyes.

Looking away, Tony exhaled harshly, before meeting Winter’s eyes, pointing an accusing finger at him. “No sacrificing yourself for me, capisce?” 

Winter raised an eyebrow. He could be mistaken, but he almost thought that if anyone wasn’t allowed to order that it would be Tony. Of course, he would protect him with his life. Peter needed Tony. The Avengers needed him. The world needed him. And Winter wanted him to be safe. 

“If anyone-”

“I don’t want to hear it, Honeybear, I’m still pissed at you.”

“That’s mutual, Tones, believe me.”

It didn’t change that the Colonel helped Tony along. It didn’t change that he sat down beside Tony in the car, forcing the Captain to take the passenger seat, because as Tony’s bodyguard, Winter wouldn’t let anyone push him away.

With them in the car were also Hawkeye and the Black Widow. Both looked a little paler and twitchier than he would have thought they would be, even knowing how much they cared for Tony.

Dr. Banner, Thor and Pepper were in another car ahead of them.

Tony, obviously didn’t care about his safety, trying to give Winter a crash course in how to deal with the press. Winter didn’t listen. He would just glare them away. If that didn’t work – and he had, as Thor had told him a couple of times, a mighty glare – he would just remove them. (Without hurting them, because Tony had made him swear to not hurt them if they weren’t trying to hurt anyone else. Winter wouldn’t tell him, that he had looked at the Colonel afterwards. As he had nodded, although reluctantly, Winter would at least try to follow that.)

“You will get inside the building as soon as you can, Tony.” The Captain ordered when they neared the red carpet, the car already slowing.

“Sure, I will, Cap.”

“I mean it.”

“I know.”

Turning in his seat, the Captain glared at the genius. “Tony, you-”

The doors opened and the Colonel, most likely anticipating that Tony would probably climb over him if he didn’t move fast enough, sighed heavily, threw Winter a glance and got out of the car.

“Tony!” The Captain growled, but the infuriating genius was already out the door.

Not waiting at all, Winter slipped out of the car behind him, trying to ignore the screams all around them, keeping his eyes on Tony and everyone else.

The flashes of cameras were almost blinding, even behind his dark sunglasses. 

The screams all around were almost deafening. Yelling for Tony to look everywhere at the same time, shouting questions.

Tony… no Tony Stark walked over the red carpet as if he weren’t injured at all. As if he didn’t have a care in the world. He smiled at the cameras, ignored most questions, but quipped at some, telling them Iron Man wasn’t easily killed. 

Winter understood the way the Captain balled his fists. And the way the Colonel sighed. And the way the Black Widow glared at him. Or the way Hawkeye got between the paparazzi and Tony, almost hissing at all of them.

After five minutes on the red carpet, out in the open, literally standing in the spotlight, Tony finally let himself be guided into the building.

Winter had been hard pressed not to grab the infuriating man, sling him over his shoulder and just drag him away from all the possible assassins. Was it really too much for them to ask for at least some self preservation instincts from the person Hydra had literally sworn to kill?

As soon as they were hidden from the cameras, Tony’s smile faltered, he stumbled slightly, being steadied by the Captain, who seemed both angry enough to start screaming immediately and worried enough to carry him to safety. 

“You really had to glare at me the whole time, hadn’t you?“ Tony sighed. “Wait for it, in five minutes there will be the first articles about how, if I die in the next week, it will have been one of you.”

Winter wasn’t sure what would have happened if they hadn’t been interrupted by Miss Potts, Thor and Dr. Banner in that moment.

“Tony, you need to-”

“On my way, Pep, don’t worry.” Tony leaned forward, pressing a kiss to her cheek, before straightening his shoulders.

Mingling, Winter decided, was worse than anything else he had been forced to do before. At least that he remembered. 

Following Tony through the masses of over-eager, ass kissing rich people, whispering awful things behind their hands but smiling falsely at Tony, Winter was hard pressed to not attack any of them.

The Captain wasn’t so reluctant. So much so in fact, that Tony made him stop several times and  dragging him to the side twice, before Miss Webbier came over to tell them to stop it or she would make them stop herself. Apparently, there were already articles out there explaining Tony being shot had been a ploy to make it look like he hadn’t been behind the coup.

Winter could understand why the Avengers almost went back outside to kill some of the reporters. 

The Captain actually broke a table when Miss Potts told them to lighten up, because tweets said that the Avengers hated Stark and had been forced to attend this gala against their will.

Thor, grumbling threats under his breath every time he didn’t go to run interference so that the Captain wouldn’t actually start swinging his fists, smiled, winningly at the people, acting as if a lot of earth's culture surprised him. Especially when it was something negative against Tony or the Avengers.

Something else he positively hated, and that feeling, along with the annoyance cut clear through the fog, was people getting close trying to give Tony drinks. Tony didn’t take them, of course, not liking to be handed things. Which didn’t stop Winter from starting to growl every time a waiter came close to them, trying to give Tony anything else. 

One of them was even more persistent, and just one glance made sure, Hawkeye and the Black Widow had noticed too. 

Not that the other waiters weren’t trying to get all of them drunk, but that one seemed off. As soon as Winter started to look out for him, he had vanished.

Dr. Banner took a sample of the last champagne glass he had tried to force on Tony, still standing behind them.

About an hour later, Winter was ready to kill someone. If only for the reason that if he committed a murder, they would have to leave.

Deciding who the most likely target would be was difficult. There were so many to choose from. And right now, he was almost certain even the Captain would look away.

Tony’s movements had slowed noticeably in the last half Hour. His expression became tighter. They couldn’t stay that much longer. A fact the Captain whispered every other minute to the exhausted genius.

Winter would have loved to shut him up, because he believed Tony to be petty enough to stay longer just to not follow the Captain’s orders. He might be a genius, but he was also an idiot.

When he stumbled again, Winter steadied him once more, glaring down on the other man.

“Bathroom break.” The genius mumbled, his words almost slurred. 

Growling, Winter steered him towards the end of the hall, ignoring everyone who wanted to step into their path, not caring whether the Captain followed. Out of the corner of his eyes he saw both the Black Widow and Hawkeye end their conversations and moving with them­.

Thor, the Colonel and Miss Potts stayed back.

Dr. Banner had excused himself twenty minutes ago when the flashes of green in his eyes had stayed almost constantly. (Winter had understood, even if he thought it would be a good idea for the Hulk to end this horrible night.)

Thinking back, that might have been a blessing.

Hawkeye was the first in the bathroom, going in to check the room, while Winter ignored Tony telling them that was unnecessary. As his bodyguard, it was Winter’s right to decide what were necessary precautions and he intended to use that right extensively.

When they got the all clear from the archer, Tony walked to a stall, having to prop himself up with one hand at the wall.

Tony closed the door behind himself and Winter exchanged a glance with Hawkeye. They needed to get Tony home. Preferably right now. 

Winter tried to relax his stiff muscles some. The last two and a half hours had taken more out of him than he had thought possible. And Tony did this regularly? It was no wonder he tried to hide away in his workshop as much as he did.

Hawkeye leaned back against the wall, crossing his arms in front of his chest. His expression was hard and annoyed.

There was an almost inaudible shuffling sound above them. Snapping his head up, winter didn’t need to give any other signal. Hawkeye already reacted, his hand reaching for a hidden weapon while taking the first step towards the genius.

It was that exact moment that the tile over Tony’s stall moved. 

“NAT!” Hawkeye yelled, while already throwing himself forward, climbing the stall wall.

Winter, not even taking the time to shout, pushed his metal hand through the lock of the door, ripping it back, ignoring the metallic scream. 

The doors behind him burst open, but Winter couldn’t care. And he trusted the Avengers to have his back. To make sure Tony would be safe.

Grabbing the shocked genius, he dragged him out of the small space, while the Black Widow jumped up on the other stall wall, reaching out to the removed tile. Hawkeye was hanging onto someone, trying to pull him out.

Pushing Tony into the Captain’s waiting arms, he turned back to the silent fight above his head, getting between the assassins balancing on the stall walls on either side of him, glaring up through the crack in the ceiling.

It really wasn’t a surprise to see the angry face of the waiter. Nor the fear in his eyes.

“You’ll catch him?” 

Winter nodded. A second later both Avengers pulled, dragging the assassin out of his hiding spot. Judging by the scream (and the blood later to be found on the edges of the tile) it hurt.

None of them cared.

Winter grabbed him, securing the flailing arms, turning him head up in one swift move, pressing him face first into the wall, inches away from where the Captain held Tony in his arms, a fierce glare pinned on the assassin.

Moving even closer, he opened the other man’s jaw and made sure he wouldn’t be able to close it any time soon.

The Black Widow and Hawkeye jumped down, elegantly, moving closer to them in a decidedly menacing way. Winter approved.

“Who do we have here?” Hawkeye asked, a purr in his voice.

“A greeny.” The Black Widow purred back, like a lioness on the hunt, a dangerous glint in her eyes.

“Seriously?” Tony whined, all exhaustion hidden away, even if he was still held up by the Captain. “A greeny? I’m appalled! This is a disgrace, I-”

“Tony!”

“No, I mean it! I should have a better class of-”

“They sent the Winter Soldier after you and you turned him. What are they supposed to do?” Hawkeye asked, his voice warmer, but not by much. He walked even closer, a dagger in his hand.

“Say ah.” 

The assassin tried to fight it, but he had no chance against Winter’s strength. 

Taking a phone out, the Black Widow called Shield, making sure it was someone she trusted, while never letting the assassin out of her sight.

“Got it!” Hawkeye leaned back, holding up a small pill triumphantly. Looking back he made a mock serious face. “I really think you should thank us, in prison you will be able to go to the dentist.”

“If he makes it to jail.” The Black Widow hissed, threateningly, making the Hydra agent shudder in Winter’s grip.

Letting go of his jaw, but still pressing him to the wall, he looked towards Tony, who seemed to be decidedly unimpressed. 

Meeting the gaze of the Captain, he nodded.

“What the-” Tony started when the Captain moved him out of the bathroom. Did Winter want to follow? Yes, he did. But they would find Thor, Dr. Banner and the Colonel. They would be able to keep him safe, too.

“So.” Hawkeye leaned himself against the wall, casually. “Why do you want to kill Tony? Don’t get me wrong, I understand, I do, the guy is annoying. But what is your reason?”

“Hail Hydra!”

“Yeah, sure, what else?”

“Stop annoying the prisoner.”

“Oh, come on, Nat, why can’t I have a turn before you get him somewhere more secluded?” The grin on his face was positively evil. 

“I’m not afraid of you.” 

Winter huffed. The waiver in that guy’s voice said something else.

The Black Widow stepped behind Hawkeye, laying her chin on his shoulder and smiled at him, cheerily.

“Big mistake.” 

 

Chapter Text

Tony wasn’t exactly sure how it happened but right now, he really didn’t care about it. Because he was lying on the backseat of the limo, his head pillowed on Steve’s thigh while said super soldier played with his hair. (There might also be the slight reason that his useless body had just given up and he was barely awake anymore… He would take that information to his grave though. Along with the way he felt when Steve’s fingers touched him, oh so carefully, as if he was something precious.) 

Sinking a little deeper into the relaxing warmth, trusting that Steve would keep him safe and not really coherent enough to realize how embarrassing all of it was, he sighed.

“Is he asleep?” Rhodey asked, quietly. He would have been Tony’s second choice as a pillow right now. Or ever to be honest.

“I think so.” Steve murmured back. His body moved slightly, his hand making sure Tony’s head stayed right where it was. 

“Did he hurt him?”

“No.” The warm hand rested on Tony’s shoulder, making him feel protected.

“You’re sure?”

“Positive.” There was a new undertone in Steve’s voice, almost resentful. “Why?”

His Honeybear took his time to answer that. Tony presumed. Time was a concept not available to him right now. He also didn’t care, just enjoying the touches. 

“Why is he asleep?”

The hand on his shoulder moved, pulling his body closer to Steve. Nuzzling even closer, Tony’s mind slipped away.

 

—c—c—c—c—c—

 

“Sir.” 

Snapping his eyes open, Tony tried to sit up. His heart-rate, already spiking, made another leap when he couldn’t move. And then when arms flipped him, pressing him down into the mattress. 

Trying to get his arms free, Tony was distracted enough to not immediately recognize the wide chest pressing down on him.

“Captain Rogers, Sir can’t breathe!”

The heavy body above him moved back, arms still holding Tony close, but giving him a little more room at least, while the room lights flared up, blinding Tony.

“Jarvis?”

“I’m sorry, Sir, but bring_the_world_down_with_sparks just made contact.”

“What?” Pushing at Steve, who was still way too close – but that wasn’t important right now. Neither was how he had ended up in the middle of their pillow pile, obviously functioning as the super soldier’s teddy bear. 

He glanced barely to his other side, seeing Bruce and Thor sitting up, side by side, focusing their gazes on Tony.

“Steve, my tablet!”

It must have been the tone Tony used because Steve normally didn’t jump to run and bring him something to work. Especially in the middle of the night.

“What do you got, Jay?”

“She opened a chatroom in the darknet, pinging sixteen of our search parameters.”

“Message?”

It’s good to know you’re alright, Mr. Stark.

Tony ignored the huffs and growls from the men around him and pushed the question of where the hell Winter, Nat and Clint were to the back of his mind, where he also asked himself whether or not Peter knew about the bathroom attack (he would never be able to live that one down. He had been jumped in bathrooms before, but not like that or with that many spectators), where Rhodey was and in how many ways Pepper was going to kill him.

Right now, all of that had to take a backseat – and he was pretty sure the rest of his merry band of heroes wouldn’t have been sleeping here if they were in trouble. (And if they had, Tony would rip them a fucking new one.)

Ripping the offered Starkpad out of Steve’s hand, he delved into the code around it. Jarvis was already running decryptions, building firewalls and trying to pin her down.

“Did you-”

“Of course, Sir.” Another window opened showing all the progress Jarvis made. The screens were too small, but Tony didn’t dare go to the workshop. Sparks wouldn’t wait forever.

“Can you put the chat on the TV, please, Jarvis?” Steve asked, hovering over Tony’s shoulder and probably not seeing anything understandable with all the open windows using code.

“Certainly, Captain.”

Tony didn’t look up to confirm that Jarvis would have made a copy of the chat window visible on the TV.

Taking another thirty seconds to confirm with Jarvis that they were as safe as they possibly can get, Tony hesitated for one heartbeat longer before starting to type.

I was looking for you.

I noticed.

It took her barely three seconds to reply, something that was a good sign in terms of knowing for a fact, now, that she was invested in this. It also meant her agenda was time sensitive. And considering there had been two attempts on his life in the last couple of days, that might not be such a good thing.

What can I do for you then?

“Tony!” Steve hissed right beside his ear, moving even closer, almost hugging Tony back against his chest. He had his legs on either side of Tony – and he was not thinking about that.

I want to get out

Well, wasn’t that generic.

Out of what?

The next answer took a lot longer, and Tony was almost sure it was slightly more annoyed than the last message.

Hydra. I want to get out of Hydra .

Do tell.

“Tony.”

Looking to his left he was met with Steve’s beautiful bright blue eyes being right there and it took his brain a second to reboot. But even after it, he had no idea what he wanted to say. (And just to make that very clear, his gaze had not flickered down to Steve’s lips, thank you very much.)

The new message of Sparks was the only reason Tony didn’t either melt to a puddle or flee. This was going to kill him one day. If Hydra didn’t take another shot at him first and succeeded.

I didn’t know who they were and what they wanted when I started and once I learned about it being Hydra, I couldn’t leave anymore.

Because they physically hold you somewhere? After that info-dump you left me, hacking into my Tower and apparently most news networks and social media sites it feels kind of presumptuous to underestimate you.

They do. The info-dump was nothing as I was the one preparing the system for you. Hacking networks and media sites is no work at all, Mr. Stark, as you very well know. And about your Tower. You have a good system, but it could be better. It shut off way too soon.

A vicious smile stretched across his lips and Tony felt a dark glee bubble inside of his veins. She hadn’t been able to find out about Jarvis. There was, of course, the possibility of her not telling him, but he didn’t think so. Most hackers, him included, loved to brag whenever they found a brilliant system and were able to crack it. The understated way she wrote it wasn’t to appear humble but to attack his own ego.

“She doesn’t know about Jarvis?”

“She doesn’t.” Tony confirmed, not risking to look back at Steve and losing himself in his eyes again – not the right time! – trying to concentrate on the screen in front of him. And not on the way Steve moved a little closer still, almost pressing his chest against Tony’s back.

Under different circumstances I would ask for your advice, but you have to understand that I do not feel inclined to do so.

I remember a lecture you once gave at MIT saying, that it was a fucking shame to not use those people breaking your code to help rebuilt it even better.

YouTube?

This time it took her almost a whole minute to answer. Steve, although fidgeting slightly behind him, said nothing.

Yes, actually. Were you really as drunk as you looked?

Tony smiled. Kids gloves off then.

“Probably. Doesn’t take away from my genius though if I managed to say that. Not working with you has nothing to do with you breaking my code and everything to do with you working for Hydra .”

He would never work with her. Ever. She had hurt Jarvis. She had shut him down and Tony would never forgive her for that. 

I didn’t know they were Hydra.

You did know they were terrorists, though.

I didn’t know!

Someone clever enough to hack into the Pentagon and not even make a beep on my systems until I started to look for your signature in theirs is not stupid enough to start working with an organization without a deep dive into their systems.

Someone clever enough to find my signature inside of the Pentagon should have been able to find Hydra in the organization he was actively working for.

Without thinking about it, Tony grabbed Steve’s hand, squeezing it tightly to calm the other man. It wasn’t Steve’s fault. This was a hit against Tony, a well-earned one too, something he would never be able to right, because he had known that there had been something. He could have stopped all of this if he had just done his fucking job.

“It’s not your fault.” Steve whispered into his ear, his warm breath tickling his exposed skin and Tony had to force himself to not shudder.

“It is true, Anthony, you couldn’t have known.”

Tony didn’t contradict Thor. Didn’t correct Steve. And didn’t look at Bruce, who would know they were wrong. 

There were different ways to play this, and the question was: what did she want? Out, okay, yes, but what did she want them to do for that? 

“Ask her about the video.” Steve’s voice was hard. Cold, almost.

Glancing to the other man, his expression was closed off as he stared at the screen, his arms now resting comfortably around Tony’s chest. As if he needed to feel Tony’s heartbeat and breathing to make sure that the video had been false. That he hadn’t lost one of his team members.

He should have been. 

The strong arms around him tightened a little, spending warmth and comfort.

On the topic of things that should or shouldn’t have happened: You should have never sent that video to my team.

I only wanted to help.

By showing them a video of my murder?

To give them closure! 

You could have written them an email. 

As if they would have believed that. I understand it must have been hard watching you get shot but as soon as I saw the footage, I knew they needed to know.

Bruce beside them growled, the Hulk’s voice mixing with his own. 

Hydra was going to take over the world. I knew they needed to get back to America and save the world.

At that all of them growled, Steve moving even closer to Tony, holding him securely in his arms.

Tony understood the logic behind that. If they knew Tony was dead, they wouldn’t have a reason to stay in Germany. What Sparks didn’t seem to get was that some of them would have stayed back no matter what. Tony knew they wouldn’t have stopped until they would have found his body. Like Rhodey hadn’t stopped looking for him.

Did he know why? Hell no. But he knew that was what would have happened.

A world that you helped endanger.

Under the threat of death!

Tony didn’t pay that any attention. 

You have the blood of my employees on your hands, Spark. 

That’s rich coming from you.

Tony ignored the growls, knowing full well she was right, of course. But that was the game, wasn’t it?

Is it? Shouldn’t I be the perfect person to comment on it? After all, it takes one to know one.

“Tony.” Steve mumbled, almost hurt.

This was a game, one Steve would never understand, because he was good , because he wasn’t like him, or Nat, or Clint or fuck it all Loki. To win here, you had to bleed, to let the other person slice and rip. The only thing important was, to get more hits in, to cut deeper and be the one standing at the end. It was the political game without the smiles.

I tried to delay it. But once I was in your system it was just too easy. They saw how far I was. I couldn’t move slower.

Lie. She had taken thirty minutes to get far enough to force Jarvis to retreat and wasn’t able to get into his workshop at all. He waited, long enough to let her believe she hit where it hurt. She didn’t. Because he had already known that.

“Tony?”

He glanced over to Bruce, who had moved into his yoga pose, sitting cross-legged, his clenched fists on his knees. 

“She is wrong.”

How are you able to chat right now, then?

I’m held in a literal prison and I’m alone in my cell right now.

And they let you have tech?

I smuggled it with me.

Unlikely but not impossible. 

What do you want from me, then?

Your help, Mr. Stark. I need your help.

Using his name right here made the message appear more personal. It was cheap but effective. If you weren’t waiting for it. 

And why should I help you?

There were different possible answers. He and Jarvis profiled her to be around twenty, so that was of course an angle to exploit. She could also milk the ‘every person deserves a second chance angle’, him being a part of the Avengers, or-

Because you’re a hero. Iron Man. An Avenger. You’re too good to not help me, even if you hate me. I swear, I didn’t know it was Hydra. I was young and stupid when I got involved with them for the first time and when I realized what they were doing, it was already to late.

Please, help me. 

Or she could just check all of those boxes in one go.

I tried to help you as much as I could. Sending the video to the Avengers, not hacking your vault in the basement, giving you enough time to hide when you called the Avengers and leaving you all the information.

If we save you, you have to help us bring them down. 

Of course. I already started, didn’t I?

I don’t think so, no. We will need more.

What do you need then?

And they were in the negotiation part of their interaction. Lovely.

“All details she can get on how they plan on… attacking you.”

What do they want with me?

They want to kill you, Mr. Stark. They really don’t like you.

Tony really didn’t think so. 

How do they want to kill me then?

Steve’s arms pulled him back a little, possibly trying to pull him inside of him. The term ‘mother hen-ning’ popped up in Tony’s mind with a mental picture of Steve building a nest and sitting on Tony, which, if you ignored all the other implications, was hilarious. 

Grinning, he kept typing, ignoring the worried glances he could see Bruce and Thor exchanging out of the corner of his eye. Granted, he might look like a lunatic that had to be held back by Captain America right now.

I don’t know, they aren’t telling me.

You’re a hacker, Sparks, they didn’t tell you shit about the other stuff.

They know you’re a hacker too. They don’t want to risk you finding out!

So, they don’t trust your systems?

It took her almost embarrassingly long to formulate an answer to that.

They trust no one. Especially after you hacked their assassin.

You can’t hack a person.

You sure about that?

Oh, that bitch was going down. But before that he would have to save her. And if only because Steve wouldn’t be able to live with himself if they didn’t. And because there was a chance, she did tell the truth and would be able to give them inside information. 

…and because he was supposed to be a hero and save people and do good and shit. 

Yes.  

Did you read his file? All of his file?

I did. But we’re not here to talk about all the different methods to break someone, are we?

There was no way he would discuss what he had read in that file with her.  Or in front of Steve and Bruce. Never. Both would be triggered to hell and back. Not on Tony’s watch.

Please, Mr. Stark, I don’t know how long I will be useful to them. They will kill me

Of course, they would. 

Let’s make a deal, then. You get all the intel you can get, about Hydra, their plans, everything you can get. And about where you are and how to get to you. If you’re certain you’re not going to backstab us, you send it and we’ll get you out.

I would never! I’m dead without your help.

Could be. Or you want us all to die in a trap of yours. But, as I have proven time and time again, I’m not that easily killed. So, think carefully about this. If you send us intel, I expect you to cooperate, be a good girl and afterwards work for the government. If you backstab us in any way, I will find you and I will make you pay.

“We will.” Thor growled from the end of the couch. “Such dishonour shall be punished accordingly.” 

And apparently Thor will too.

I won’t. I’ll find as much as I can, but I can’t hold out here for much longer. They will kill me, Mr. Stark and if they do, my blood will be on your hands, too!

That’s a risk I’m willing to take.

Leaving the chatroom, Tony didn’t look up until he and Jarvis were absolutely sure she hadn’t used the time to plant anything in their system. The chance was slim, but she had hacked Jarvis once before, and even though they had fixed that problem, it didn’t mean she or someone else wouldn’t be able to, sometime in the future.

“Tony?”

Holding up his index finger for a heartbeat, he checked over Jarvis findings. Because they definitely had used the time to find out as much about her as they could. And that had been more than Tony had hoped. 

Of course, they hadn’t been able to hack into her system, but the way she had set up the chatroom and protected it showed more of her style, of her signature. Enough to confirm some bank accounts she was using and more espionage jobs they had theorized to be her work. What could he say, they had been right. Naturally.

Sitting up a little he realized how cramped his muscles were. Groaning, he tried to loosen his shoulders.

“Are you okay, Tony?”

He didn’t turn around. Steve’s voice was enough to make him feel guilty. He sounded worried, maybe even disappointed. Hell, he had just told someone who could very well be a kid, that she was on her own if she didn’t risk her own skin to get them inside information.

It could get her killed. And her blood really would be on Tony’s hands. A deliberate decision he made just because he didn’t trust her.

“Sure.”

Steve didn’t answer. Instead, he tugged Tony back against him, holding him close, as if he could forgive Tony for what he just did.

Five hours later, Nat, Clint and Winter were back, Jarvis had ordered breakfast and Tony felt like shit. Still, he was forced to eat a healthy breakfast , as Steve had told him, sternly. The way everyone else had glared at him made sure there was no way of getting out of it without a fight (even if Nat and Clint didn’t eat much more than him).

And he was just too exhausted to fight right now. Maybe it was the gala, or the newest attempt on his life, or the fact that he had possibly damned a girl to her death, he was barely able to stomach anything they forced on him.

He just gave up trying when Pepper sent a summary of the articles published this morning. Most seemed to fall into two categories: Tony Stark™ was hated by the Avengers, had forced them to come along to a gala to boost his own ego and had taunted Hydra to try harder because he was a megalomaniac asshole who had set everything up to hide he was behind it all along. Oh, and the reason he had been suddenly carried out by Steve was because he had been drunk. 

The other category was closer to the truth. At least a little bit. Most of them still speculated Tony had forced the Avengers to attend the gala, thinking they had better things to do than following Tony around. Here he had taunted Hydra because of his massive ego and was carried out, because he was still injured and wanted to keep it under wraps.

At least no one knew about the new attempt Clint so lovingly called a great set up to a joke . Or he had called it that once. As Steve had looked like a kicked puppy and both Nat and the Winter Soldier had hit him for it, he might not repeat it. 

Who was he kidding, Clint would definitely call it that again.

Back to the point. After Steve had dragged him out of the bathroom (and Tony, embarrassingly, fell asleep on him), Nat and Clint had interrogated the Hydra assassin while having Winter stare him down from the corner of a room. As Clint told it, it had been awesome, effective and they should do it more often even if they didn’t get a lot of information.

That, all of them agreed on, had less to do with the guy not tripping over himself to tell them everything after getting the right kind of motivation – none of them commented on what that exactly entailed and, surprisingly, not even Steve tried to pry more out of them – and more to do with the fact that he seemed to be a rather low-level minion.

Tony was still pissed about that. 

After breakfast, his wardens – everyone aside from Thor and Bruce who went downstairs to work on the samples Nat had brought back from SHIELD – made him rest. Nat, Clint and Winter claimed they needed sleep and he had to shut up for them to get it. That had him texting with Peter until the kid’s teacher confiscated his phone. 

Tony was almost thankful for it, really.

He was also thankful then the three assassins actually fell asleep for a few hours. They needed it. Also, he would kill them sooner or later if they didn’t stop staring at him. (Winter had physically held onto him for the first three hours after getting back.)

It was almost a blessing when Loki and Strange portaled in – at least they wouldn’t coddle Tony. Or so he fucking thought. 

“You need to rest more, Mr. Stark. Your energy feels significantly worse today.”

“Shut up, Reindeergames, I’m golden.”

“I hate to disagree.”

“Sure you do.” Tony growled, when he saw the glint in Steve’s and Winter’s eyes. He didn’t even dare to look over to Nat and Clint. Fuckedy fuck. They all would be unbearable.

“Couldn’t you just-” He made a wiggling motion with his fingers, hating himself for doing it.

“I do recall telling you that healing is taxing on the body.”

Tony huffed.

“And that I’m no longer in the business of killing heroes.”

“I didn’t ask you to-”

“Do not finish that sentence.” Steve growled, lowly, and Tony huffed again. 

Steve should be happy he hadn’t started to argue with him about the hero part of that statement.

“It might have been unwise to go to that gala.” Loki observed, apparently not too wrapped up in the healing process to not be a smartass.

“I don’t think the new attempt was that bad.”

Both Winter and Steve growled at that, Clint cursed, and Nat’s glare was cold enough to almost freeze him on the spot.

“I meant the stress you put your body through attending. Although I do not think an attempt on your life was helpful in any way.”

Tony just rolled his eyes. “Please, any board meeting is more stressful.”

“In that case you might think about not attending them.”

“Jarvis, send that to Pepper, pronto.”

“As you wish, Sir.”

Fighting the exhaustion crawling up again, was annoying. Especially since there was so much shit he still had to do. Like trying to find out more about Sparks. Trying to find the last remnants of Hydra.

Finding something to get rid of two super soldiers and two spies, who literally checked the bathroom on this floor, every time before Tony was allowed to enter. And they were even waiting in front of the door. After checking in with Jarvis! 

He knew he needed to be patient and shit because as Hawkeye had screamed at him just some days ago, they seemed to take this harder than Tony did. It didn’t make sense, but feelings seldom did.

“Sir?”

“Hm?” When had he closed his eyes? When had he started to relax around Loki? Sure, he knew the others were keeping an eye on him and there was like a seventy-five percent chance Loki actually did all of this to get back into the good graces of Thor (not that he needed to, Thor loved his staby-baby brother), at least judging by the last few interactions. 

“Miss Potts wishes to inform you she will not take business advice from an alien who tried to take over the world and failed.”

Chapter Text

Steve was tired. Not physically. Actually, if anything, he needed exercise. He needed to get rid of the pent-up energy. The adrenaline that didn’t seem to have gone down much since the bathroom attack. The contact with Sparks hadn’t helped at all.

To be honest, it had made him even more angry. He felt like he needed to lash out. To go out there and finally do something. To fight. To do anything to make sure Tony was safe. 

Going down to the gym would be a good start, probably, but he couldn’t make himself let go of Tony’s hand. He fell asleep during the healing with Loki again.

Loki was right. Tony did look worse. His complexion was paler again, he could barely eat anything and for once, Steve believed the genius that he was physically incapable of eating more than he did. Hell, Steve had to force himself to eat. Nat and Clint barely ate anything either. They also looked paler than normal. But Steve wouldn’t mention it. He might be misstepping from time to time, but he wasn’t stupid enough to pour fuel over the smouldering fire they all were.

Everyone was on a hair trigger already. 

It was almost a blessing that Tony was asleep, because Steve knew he would, sooner rather than later, demand for them to back off. Looking logically on it, Steve understood why. It was not likely that another Hydra assassin would wait in their own bathroom. But it was possible. And even though the possibility was almost non-existent, he couldn’t take the risk. He just couldn’t. And apparently the others couldn’t either.

Cradling the genius’ hand in his own, Steve closed his eyes. He was tired of the all-consuming fear. Of the panic every time he didn’t see Tony, he didn’t feel him right beside him.

He was tired of the anger he felt towards the world and Hydra. And Tony. Because he just couldn’t quit. He couldn’t stop. He had practically dared Hydra to try harder next time. How could he have done that? And sure, the Hydra assassin posing as a waiter had been there before Tony had told them to throw everything they had at him but to Steve it still felt like he had dared them, and they had responded accordingly. 

What would they do next time? Especially if Tony was right and they hadn’t wanted to kill him as they fucking shot him in the chest? Would they care who they got in the crossfire? Would they use it to hurt Tony worse? To provoke him to go to them?

He was tired of fighting with his teammates. It hadn’t been an open fight yet, but it would become one sooner or later. The tension was too high and none of them did much to let it go. Because none of them could.

Bruce had barely managed to leave the floor to go downstairs and check the samples Nat, Clint and Winter had brought him. Because last time he had left, Tony had been, once again, attacked. Thor was probably the only reason the genius had left the common floor to go to his lab. 

Winter, after sleeping a few hours, was guarding the windows and every possible entry, checking them every thirty minutes. He had even enlisted Clint, who, when he didn’t sit up on his cupboard, crawled through the vents, making sure no one used the design flaw Tony had put there to give him the possibility to do just that. Making Tony more vulnerable in the process.  

Nat was working from the couch, her eyes fixed on the screen of her Starkpad. 

Colonel Rhodes checked in every other hour with them (Steve was sure he also asked Jarvis how Tony was and probably in shorter intervals), informing them what was happening outside, because, as he put it, someone had to be out there working.

Steve hadn’t said anything to it. Because the Colonel was right. And because Steve knew that he wanted to be here too. To see and feel that Tony was safe. No matter what happened in the outside world.

Miss Potts had called twice, telling them that someone had better go out of the Tower today and if it was just to buy some bagels, but they had to be seen outside.

Steve couldn’t care less if he tried. Also, it would be better if it wasn’t him. If he, by chance, would meet one of the reporters telling all those lies about Tony, he would not be responsible for what he would do to them. Especially since his muscles all but screamed for a fight.

He really should be careful what he wished for.

“We have a lead.” 

It took all of them ten minutes to get ready to leave. Six of those minutes had been an almost silent fight who was going and who was staying behind until Colonel Rhodes called again, telling them it wasn’t a code green so Bruce should stay back, and Winter was Tony’s bodyguard so he would naturally stay back, because they weren’t under no circumstances to let Tony tag along (as if they would have. Although Steve couldn’t deny that he was thankful that Tony was asleep when they left) and the rest had absolutely no reason to not answer the call and do their damn job.

It was almost painful to get on the Quinjet and leave Tony behind. And Steve was obviously not the only one to think so. Thor was pacing, Mjölnir clutched in his hand. Nat didn’t seem to have moved even one muscle since sitting down in the co-pilot chair. And Clint hadn’t said a word.

Was it wrong to hope that there would be a lot of Hydra agents? And that they wouldn’t come quietly? And that all of them would be able to fight back? To have an enemy in front of them and be able to actually do something? 

“ETA five minutes.” Clint told them, voice cold and detached.

“Okay.” Steve stood up, strapping the Shield to his arm and met Thor’s gaze. The god nodded. 

They were ready. 

Rhodes had gotten the information from a cooperation between Jarvis, Rhodes himself, some trustworthy intelligence officers and the X-Men. They had found a possible base of Hydra agents nearby in an abandoned industry park. (He might have to agree with Clint. He had said months ago everything would be easier if they would just destroy all abandoned buildings in the outskirts of cities. Right now, it seemed like a good idea.)

“Captain?” Rhodes' voice out of his earpiece was crystal clear. Of course, it was. Tony had designed it. 

“We’re going to be there in three minutes, Colonel.”

“There is movement in two buildings.” 

Without a command Jarvis activated the screen, showing them a satellite image of the industry park. Two buildings in the far east corner were highlighted.

“They are careful, but we think it can’t be more than ten people. Do you need assistance?”

Steve didn’t need to glance over to Thor, didn’t need to ask Nat or Clint.

“No. We got this.”

“Alright. The clean-up-crew is waiting for your signal. Make sure to gather as much intel as you can.”

With one hand to the wall, Steve steadied himself when the cloaked Quinjet touched down on a flat roof at the southwest end of the industry park.

Turning to his teammates, he saw the same frustration, the same pent-up energy in them, nodding. “Two and two. Nat you’re with me. Clint you’re with Thor.” Nodding to the screen he laid down the ground rules. Not that they didn’t know them anyway.

“Questions?”

“Are we shooting to kill?” Clint’s eyes seemed to be even colder set in his emotionless expression.

“Not if it is avoidable.”

It took them about five minutes to get into position. Thor had been displeased to not be able to fly ahead and smite all of them, but as this was an intel gathering job as well as a capturing the Hydra agents one, they couldn’t risk the agents deleting and or destroying everything. It would be hard enough to stop them from killing themselves. 

Crouching beside Nat behind the corner of a building, they exchanged one look.

“Go.” Steve whispered, knowing Tony’s tech wouldn’t fail them. It never did after all.

Nat was already on the move before he finished the word and Steve pushed himself up, following her in the building that was – most likely – the tech heavier, having been an office building before the whole thing shut down instead of a storage unit, which was what the building Clint and Thor would be raiding, had been.

Passing Nat in time to kick down the door, he shielded himself with the metal strapped to his arm and Nat with that and his body. 

The corridor was empty. 

Moving as quickly as they could, Steve followed the voices he heard upstairs, trusting Nat to clear the lower level. 

Thunder crashed outside, just a heartbeat after something shook the floor. And that was the reason they hadn’t been sneaking in. Thor had a lot of qualities. Subtlety in a fight wasn’t one of them.

Flat out running up the stairs, he heard shots being fired where he suspected Nat to be. 

She was fine. She was the Black Widow. 

Erasing every thought, he focused on what was right in front of him. Right now, that were two Hydra agents clutching guns in their hands and screaming at him to stop moving. 

Throwing his shield while ducking, he hit both of them in quick succession, being able to avoid getting shot. One of them had hit his head hard on the wall, laying crumbled on the floor, while the other was at least conscious enough to try to crawl away.

Steve knocked him out, not being as careful as he normally would have been. But careful enough.

The first room was empty aside from some desks without any tech. By the set-up with a coffee machine and a microwave in the corner it looked more like a break room than anything else. 

Picking up noises, Steve moved over to the room two doors down the corridor, making as little sound as possible. The door was closed but judging by the whispers and the typing sound of a keyboard this was where he wanted to be right now.

Without hesitation he stepped back, breaking down the door with one swift kick. He held his shield in front of him when the first bullets ricocheted off of it. They never shot at his legs, not that he was complaining. But if he ever saw someone holding a slightly bigger dinnerplate in front of him, he would definitely shoot at his legs. Like Tony always did during training.

Two men, wearing dark clothes, stood in front of a third one who was wildly typing on a laptop. The room was small enough to move fast and hard. So, he did. 

Jumping forward, he smashed his shield against the Hydra agent to his right, ignoring the bullet shooting right beside his ear, while kicking simultaneously at the knees of the second agent.

The one he got with the shield flew back against the wall, his head making a sickening cracking sound as it collided with the unforgiving stone. 

The other one had, sadly, avoided the worst of the kick and was still shooting at him, hitting him once in his upper arm and shoulder, before Steve could fling the shield, hitting him in the chest and smashing him into the opposite wall.

Not taking the time to check whether or not that agent was out and down for the count, he already threw himself on the third, who had grabbed a long black combat knife in the last second, trying to ram it into Steve’s stomach. 

Of course, Tony’s gear didn’t fail him. 

Barely feeling the direct hit into his lower stomach that would have surely gutted him, if the Hydra agent had been able to actually cut him, he grabbed the wrist holding the knife and pressed down until he heard the snapping of bones. The knife fell from the attacker’s hand.

Steve’s other hand was already on the Hydra agent’s jaw, prying it open to make sure he wouldn’t be able to kill himself.

The man laughed, hoarsely, pain contorting his features. There was already foam forming in his mouth.

He was too late.

Letting go of his jaw, Steve stepped back, after kicking the knife away. The other man sagged, falling down to the floor coughing.

“…hail…hail Hydra...” He rasped grinning up at Steve with a mad glint in his eyes. 

“What were you doing?” Steve hissed. Nat had a stick with herself that carried Jarvis, or something like that, Steve hadn’t been listening. (He might have been staring down on a sleeping Tony, fearing he might be worse when they came back.)

The agent just laughed, coughing up blood. 

“Are there others here?”

“…hail...Hydra...”

“Are there others?” Steve growled, dangerously. He had it with these assholes. Thinking they were better. Thinking they had some kind of right to hurt and torture and kill people. Just because. Thinking they had a right to take and take and take. To attack the people Steve loved. To break Bucky. To attack Tony.

When the Hydra agent just coughed and laughed, Steve lost it. Grabbing him by the throat he pushed him against the wall, letting him dangle there.

Are there others ?”

The Hydra agent just spluttered. His feet dangling in the air, moving desperately to touch the floor, to save himself from choking. 

Steve stopped, heart suddenly beating a lot faster. Almost frantic. He let go of the other man’s throat, flexing his hand before balling it into a fist. 

Looking down on the crumpled and dying man, Steve bit down on his tongue until he tasted blood. Back in the war he had sworn to himself that he would never lose to them. That he would never become like them .

And he didn’t. He wouldn’t. Never.

Securing the dying man’s hands with zip ties, he moved back, checking the others. The one that had shot him wasn’t breathing anymore. The other was, but barely and he, too, was foaming from the mouth, he would be dead in a few minutes. 

They must have bitten down on the pills when they heard Steve kicking down the door. Fuck.

He spared a glance to the Hydra agents laying in the hall. They still hadn’t moved. The other rooms were empty too, aside from some computers, all of them destroyed and one other Hydra agent who had been shot in the back of his head. His body was already cold, so it must have happened some time ago.

“Status?” He asked, checking the Hydra agents in the hall. Both had died by now.

“All dead and that wasn’t our fault.” Clint’s voice was hard, almost cutting. 

“They decided to take their own lives instead of fighting against us.” Thor growled, obviously frustrated.

“Nat?”

“All dead, but Jarvis was able to download most of their system. I’ll go through it.” That was the deal they had made with Colonel Rhodes. The military and SHIELD would get the info after they (and some trusted people) had gone through the formation. Just to make sure nothing got ‘lost’.

“Anyone hurt?”

The resounding no was comforting right up to the point where he remembered he had been shot twice.

“Check for anything hidden.” Not that they wouldn’t if he hadn’t told them.

Steve went back into the room with the three Hydra agents and picked up the combat knife. The bullet that had hit his arm was a through and through and judging by the tingling it was already healing nicely. His shoulder tingled too, but as the bullet was still stuck in it, Steve had three options: Ignore it and let Tony chew him out over it when it came out, go downstairs and ask for help or cut the bullet out himself.

One door down was a small bathroom with a cracked mirror. It wasn’t ideal but better than what he had to do from time to time during the war. Also, he wasn’t one to complain.

He pushed the suit down enough to have an unobstructed view of the wound.It was already healing. 

Gritting his teeth, he inhaled, before making the first cut. It hurt. Especially since the flesh was already irritated, but it wasn’t as bad as it could be. 

“Captain, your heart rate-”

“It’s okay, Jarvis.” He pressed out, making the second, diagonally cut, before inhaling again.

“Stop.”

He jumped around; the knife held high while his other hand was already reaching for his shield.

Natasha didn’t look impressed. Even though she didn’t say anything, her raised eyebrow was enough to make it clear that she didn’t approve (even if she had done the same) and that he should pray that she didn’t tell Tony about this. The genius would never let him hear the end of it.

She did help him though, getting the bullet out and patching him up as best as she could. It wasn’t really necessary; the serum would take care of it. 

It took about an hour more to check everything. They didn’t find any hidden spots, didn’t find any documents or tech that wasn’t destroyed. At least Nat had the stick.

They waited for the clean-up-crew before they flew back. Something that Steve appreciated more than he normally did as it gave his shoulder more time to heal. And because Tony had sent him some very annoyed text messages.

Nat was already diving through the information with Jarvis' help, sitting on the co-pilot seat with a Starkpad on her knees.

The air was as charged as when they had left the Tower. 

Taking a shower and changing before he went downstairs to the common floor, he tried to calm down. To let go of the pent up anger and frustration. 

Leaving the elevator he saw Tony sitting on the couch, working on something on his laptop, while Winter stood right beside him, a gun in his hand. But he didn’t raise it. Didn’t even glare. The dark strands falling into his face making it look even paler. 

Another difference to Bucky.

He opened his mouth to ask Tony how he was feeling, when Tony already cut him off.

“I could have helped you.” He didn’t look up. Didn’t acknowledge Steve in any way, but his voice was loud and clear. As was the anger. The frustration.

Of course, he could have helped. Tony and Iron Man both would have been valuable for the job. But someone had had to tell the world press that Hydra could come at him. And they had done it literally hours after it. That same person was also still injured, still healing and every last doctor and healer and freaking alien had told them that he needed to take it more slowly. (And that didn’t even take into account what Colonel Rhodes would have done to Steve if he had been stupid enough to go against him. Not that Steve even wanted to go against him!)

“You need to rest.”

Tony’s shoulders stiffened. He still didn’t look up, something that should really worry Steve, but right now he was far too focused on not screaming at the idiot genius to fucking take care of himself for once.

“I need to find out what Hydra wants.” The words were still too calm. Still too controlled. Especially if Steve took into account how Tony grabbed the laptop. The way he obviously tried to stay calm. 

“We need you alive.”

At that Tony did look up, a storm raging in his beautiful whiskey-coloured eyes. He didn’t answer but his expression was enough for Steve to pray to the high heavens (or Jarvis more likely) that Tony didn’t know he had been shot.

“And what would I have done if any of you had gotten hurt?” His words were clipped and hard.

“It wouldn’t have been your fault.” Steve said, because whatever else he might feel , that Hydra had singled Tony out wasn’t Tony’s fault. (That he provoked him was, though.)

“That they shot me while you stood right beside me wasn’t your fault either. Doesn’t change anything, does it, Cap?” The smile on his lips hurt to see. It was resignation marred with self-hatred.

All Steve wanted to do was grab the genius and hug him tight. While possibly yelling at him. Because that was different! Steve had been standing right beside Tony. He had known the potential risk and had done nothing. Tony was injured. He couldn’t have come with them and Colonel Rhodes had made sure they were as safe as possible.

He didn’t do anything, just looked back into those eyes. The guilt that was almost choking him came back with a vengeance after being pushed to the side since he had been kneeling in Tony’s blood. 

He had almost lost Tony and it would have been his own fault for endangering him.

“Captain Rogers, Agent Romanov needs you to sign the debrief.” 

Steve blinked, looking up at the camera in the corner of the ceiling. Trying to breathe.

“Tell her I’m on my way, please, Jarvis.”

“Of course, Captain.”

Clearing his throat, Steve looked back down to Tony, who was working on his laptop again, as if nothing had happened. As if he hadn’t gutted Steve with one look.

“I’ll be back.”

“How very Terminator of you.” The words were still clipped and strained, but warmer at least. That was enough to not comment that he didn’t get the reference.

Waiting for a heartbeat longer, to try to find anything else to say, he just gave up, turned and stepped into the elevator. 

“What is the problem?” Because they had given their debriefs already, one more tactic Steve had deployed to give himself more time to heal. And to avoid what had happened just now. Although he had thought Tony and him would end up in a screaming match, which might have been better than whatever it was that just happened.

“Agent Romanov wishes to inform you herself.”

Steve frowned. That didn’t sound good. That didn’t sound good at all

It would be even worse. A lot worse. Steve knew that the second the elevator doors opened on Nat’s floor. A space he had never before even seen. He wasn’t sure if anyone aside from Clint had even been here before.

“Nat?” He called out; not sure he was brave enough to step onto her floor without her explicit permission.

“Kitchen.” 

That had to be enough then.

All their floors were structured the same. The only differences were the designation of some rooms and the interior decoration. 

Nat’s floor was held in warm beige colours with tasteful photography of beautiful landscapes. Aside from one picture on the fridge. It showed all of them, sitting in the common living room, eating pizza. Jarvis must have taken it, as Steve remembered the moment, it was almost a year ago, after a long and annoying fight. They had met there after showering and changing and laughed most of the night until all of them had fallen asleep on the couches for the first time.

Meeting Nat’s eyes the smile on his lips died. There was dread in her green ones. Her lips were pressed into a thin line and the hand holding onto her teacup (a present from Tony showing a chibi-version of Black Widow) was cramped enough to have whitened all of her knuckles.

“What is it?”

She didn’t answer, just nodded to the chair opposite of hers, a teacup with a chibi Iron Man standing there on the kitchen island, steaming tea in it.

Heavy fear settled into his stomach and just for a heartbeat he wished that all of them would be able to catch a break. Just a short one. Just a month of calm. One week without a new catastrophe. Was that really too much to ask for?

Sitting down, he steeled himself. Whatever it was, they would get through it. Nat had looked so much worse than this when they still thought Tony was kidnapped by the Winter Soldier. And they had survived it. Tony had survived it. Hell, Steve had found out it was Bucky and that was okay (even if still a work in progress.) Nothing could be worse than that, right?

Nat waited patiently until Steve took a sip of the herbal tea, a concoction that Bruce swore by. 

Gingerly, he put the cub down and met her green eyes. They were colder again, as if she needed to distance herself from what she had to tell him right now.

Opening her lips, she inhaled visibly.

“The Winter Soldier killed Howard and Maria Stark.”

Steve stared at her. 

She didn’t elaborate. Just let the information sink in. Didn’t move. Didn’t even blink.

The Winter Soldier… No. No. That couldn’t be-

“…No.”

Nat didn’t move. “I found a reference to it in a document. There is a video.”

Steve closed his eyes.

This couldn’t be true. It couldn’t be. Winter- no, Bucky had killed Howard? 

Winter had killed Tony’s parents.

Winter had killed Tony’s parents.

Winter had killed Tony’s parents .

Winter had killed Tony’s parents.

Winter had killed Tony’s parents.

This would break Tony’s heart.

A warm hand grabbed his hand, pressing down on it. Grounding him.

Tony had taken Winter in as one as his own. Hell, he seemed to have basically adopted him by this point. His parents’ killer, who had almost killed the last Stark, too.

Because Steve had failed Bucky. Because he hadn’t saved him. Because he hadn’t looked for him.

Tony had lost his parents because Steve had failed his best friend.

“What are we going to do, Steve?”

Blinking up, he met the hard eyes of the Black Widow. She knew exactly what this meant to Steve and what it would mean to Tony.

The dread and guilt, heavy, ice cold and fiery hot and acidic worked itself through Steve. Settling in his stomach. 

This could destroy Tony.

If it did, that would be Steve’s fault, too. 

All official reports said that the death of the Starks had been an accident. Tony himself had told Steve that, one night when they had met in the common floor kitchen after Steve had been woken by nightmares. Telling him about the night the doorbell had rung, and a police officer had told Tony his father had killed himself and Tony’s mother because he had been drunk. He hadn’t said anything more. Hadn’t gone any further into detail what that had done to him.

What would it do to him to learn that it hadn’t been Howard?

What would it do to Tony to learn that Winter had done it? The person that he protected viciously. The one he had forgiven that he had kidnapped Tony for Hydra. The one he had let close to Peter.

“Do we tell him… now?”

Steve shuddered. Things like this always saw the light of day. And even if there was a chance Jarvis wouldn’t tell his creator himself, Steve couldn’t even fathom to not tell Tony. Of course, he had to. Of course, he would. 

But why now? Why while he was hurt already? Why now that Hydra was trying to kill him? Why before Steve could have told him that he loved him?

Not that that mattered. Not that he had any right to even think that. Hell, he was the reason Tony had lost his parents! He could be thankful if the genius would ever talk to him again. 

“I- I could tell him.”

He looked back into her eyes. They were still hard, but the underlying comprehension, the love was all Nat. He couldn’t let her do that.

“No. No, I’ll tell him.”

Nat nodded, as if she had known that he would insist on it. Of course, she had known. Of course, she would have offered nonetheless. 

“Do you… Do you think Winter knows?” Steve had to suppress another shudder. If he had known… If he had known, he was the murderer of Tony’s parents… Steve wouldn’t forgive him. He would never forgive him.

Like he wouldn’t forgive himself. 

“No.” Nat's answer was hard and certain.

Looking up into the green of her eyes, he knew that this no was as much desperation as it was a threat. Winter wouldn’t survive if he had known. Not because he had killed them, but because he had started to understand feelings, had seen Peter and Tony together – and hadn’t told them. 

But if he didn’t know…, what would it do to Winter to learn that he had killed Tony’s parents? He adored Tony and Peter and had obviously started to understand their dynamic and relationship. Hell, it had been Winter who had taken the best care of Peter in the last couple of days. 

What would it do to him to realize he had taken that from Tony? Even if Tony’s relationship with his father had been different.

What would it do to Winter if Tony would hate him?

(Steve didn’t have to think about what it would do to him if Tony would hate him. He knew.)

What would it do to Tony if he hated Winter? Would he feel guilty for helping Winter? Would he feel guilty for hating the killer of his parents?

What would it do to Peter? And how would that affect Winter and Tony?

This really would break Tony’s heart. And it was all Steve’s fault.

He didn’t know how long they sat there. Not talking. Nat’s hand holding on to his. Her touch the only thing grounding him.

Inhaling, Steve looked back up at Nat. 

If it did break Tony, he would be there. He would help the genius to piece himself back together. He would do anything to help. To lessen his pain in any way Tony would allow him. If he allowed Steve to be around Tony at all.

He exhaled. Nat’s face contorted into a painful grimace, before she relaxed.

“I’m going to talk to Winter.”

“You don’t have to.” Even to his own ears it sounded weak. This was his fault. She didn’t need to-

“I know.” There was a glimmer in her eyes. Like memories. Like understanding. 

“May I offer to ask Mr. Winter to go to the gym and Mr. Stark to his workshop?” Jarvis asked, his words clipped.

Steve inhaled again. “Yes, thank you, Jarvis.”

Minutes later they were informed that Winter was in the gym and Tony in the workshop. Steve had no idea how Jarvis had managed that. He also didn’t ask the AI what he thought his father would do when he knew .

Stepping into the elevator, Steve closed his eyes, just for a second. He would be strong for Tony. He would be there for Tony.

No matter what Tony would need.

No matter what he would do to Steve.

Straightening some, he walked towards the workshop doors, not in the least surprised that they opened before he came even close to the motion sensors.

Tony sat on his favourite chair, fiddling with his favourite wrench (even if he would say that he didn’t have such a thing).

“Jay told me you got a dent in your body armour? At least you’re safe, I-” the words died on his lips when he saw Steve’s expression. 

There was a moment in which neither of them moved. Steve just looked into those eyes that first grew wide with shock and fear. And then closed off.

“Steve?”

It was a plea. It was a cry for help. It was worry for Steve. Fear that Steve was hurting. That Steve was the one Tony needed to care about. 

“Tony…” Steve swallowed, his eyes still on the genius that didn’t deserve any of this. 

Why couldn’t he be here and tell him that he loved him? He would be nervous, too, sure, but it wouldn’t be laced with dread and terror. It wouldn’t almost kill him, knowing how much he was about to hurt the one he loved.

“I need to tell you something.”

Chapter Text

Winter had a bad feeling.

By now, he trusted the AI Jarvis to protect Tony as viciously as Winter would. He trusted it – him? – to not endanger Tony. To never harm him.

Still, Winter really didn’t like being separated from the genius. Not understanding why he should. Yes, Tony would meet the Captain in his workshop and Jarvis had sworn to him that it was safe. The question remained: why?

And why would the Black Widow meet him here? Was it something the Captain wanted to discuss with Tony that Winter shouldn’t be there for? Or was it something the Black Widow wanted to discuss with him. Maybe something about the Hydra assassin, they had questioned together?

What if it was a ruse? What if someone had been able to hack into the AI again?

Stopping his brutal assault on the punching bag, Winter took the phone Tony gave him out of his pocket and hesitated. There was a new message from Peter. A single question mark. The kid wanted to know how Tony was doing. 

Peter, more perceptive than a lot of people Winter had met as the Asset, had realized Winter didn’t like to use words. Not even in texts. He knew how to write, of course. Still, it had been drilled into him to never leave any kind of evidence. He didn’t remember what they had done to him, but the mere thought of writing a message down that could be linked to him?

Pictures it was. Peter had explained in detail the different meanings of the small pictures and they had decided on codes only they knew. With a little more time together, they would be able to make up a more complex system, of course, but for now it was enough. 

That was not why he hesitated though. He wasn’t sure what was going on at the moment and he didn’t see Tony.

Closing the chat, he opened the one with Colonel Rhodes. They didn’t have a code yet, so he bet on the intellect of the Colonel. 

Typing the words was hard. Almost painful, but not impossible because it was to confirm an order and Colonel Rhodes had told him to do it. Still, knowing that he left information out in the open like that? It made Winter uneasy. Or even more so.

‘T. with C.R. ok?’ 

It didn’t take the other man more than three minutes to answer. That didn’t change that Winter had almost decided to follow Tony. What if, as Tony’s bodyguard, he was supposed to be around Tony all the time? He would be going against his orders- his job. What if Tony got hurt?

‘Check in with T. or J. every hour. C.R. is safe.’ 

Winter relaxed when he got the Colonel’s answer. Even though he wasn’t sure about it. It made sense that he was supposed to check in with Tony and Jarvis. And he thought the Captain was safe, too. Or at least mostly. But Winter knew that the Colonel was weary of the Captain around Tony. Not that he had ever voiced that in front of Winter. But it was obvious in some of the glances he sent the other man.

‘Affirmative’ He sent back, before opening the chat with Peter, sending him a thumbs-up-symbol. 

Turning around, he pocketed his phone and started punching the bag again. Just to release a little tension. A little of the buzzing feeling. Of the nervousness. 

Tony was getting better. He wasn’t fully there yet and, if they could believe Loki, it would still take some time, but he would get better. He was a little paler again, a little more tired and could barely stomach anything edible. But neither could the rest of them. 

Was this what feelings were able to do? The last couple of days had frightened Winter. By now, he was feeling more like himself again. Which was both better and worse. Better because the numbness was almost gone, the terrible none-feeling that reminded him too much of the Asset. 

And it was worse because now he felt everything. The fear and panic. The frustration. The worry. The anger. He also had a glimpse into what he had done to all of them when he had taken Tony. He understood their feelings, now. He knew . What it did to them when they saw Tony dying. When they thought he was gone. 

Winter knew and it hurt. And this time Tony had been right there the whole time. He hadn’t been gone. Hadn’t been taken by Hydra and the Winter Soldier. 

Understanding what he did now, he had no idea why they hadn’t killed him the second they had seen him. Sure, Tony had told them not to but- he wasn’t sure if he would have listened to Tony in their place.

His phone vibrated in his pocket and he stopped mid-swing. It was just a moving picture, repeating the same gesture of relief over and over again. Peter had explained them too, and although they were a little too on the nose for secret messages if not used in a decrypted way and seemingly out of context, Winter still was glad to share them with the kid. And he was right. That was how it felt. 

Every time he looked over and saw Tony awake, he was relieved. Even if he might think that Hawkeye’s idea of drugging Tony (although wrong, you didn’t do that without a reason, like the Black Widow. Although she probably did have a reason) was a good one. They would probably all regret it if they had to see him sleep motionless again.

It didn’t change that he was angry with the genius. Some of that anger seemed… wrong. Tony wasn’t responsible for being injured. Some of it was justified. Because Tony was infuriating in his ignorance. Did he really think any of the Avengers would function without him? Did he think anyone would care about Winter without his input?

Peter might. Colonel Rhodes and Miss Potts might. Both had chosen him to be Tony’s bodyguard after all. Winter wasn’t sure about the Avengers. Especially now, that they acted this… erratic. 

Although it might not be all that erratic, if Winter was honest. Didn’t he, too, feel conflicting emotions about Tony? About some of the others? And about Loki? Didn’t he understand their behaviour? Didn’t he do the same things?

He wasn’t sure, though. About a lot of things. All of it was confusing. All of it was… it was exhausting.

“Winter.”

He stiffened, turning in a controlled manner. 

The Black Widow stood in the open door to the gym, her back straight, her shoulders back. Her hands were close to her hips where she hid some knives and openly showed a gun. Even while wearing civilian clothes. Her expression was deadly calm. All emotions hidden behind the mask of the Black Widow.

Something happened.

As her muscles were tense and she seemed to just wait for an excuse, Winter didn’t move at all. The AI had separated him from Tony. He knew what was going on. Was he compromised? Or did he think Winter was a danger to Tony?

She took one step closer, letting the door fall shut behind her. Her complexion was a little paler still, and if Winter wasn’t mistaken, she was trying to hide a slight shiver in her frame (and right now, he was as sharp as the Asset had ever been, focused on the potential enemy in front of him. Even if he didn’t want her to be an enemy. He had just accepted her as someone safe. As one of Tony’s.)

“I have a question.”

Winter didn’t react. A question was better than an accusation at least. It was obvious that the other assassin tried to appear calm. That she tried to be non-threatening. But there was something in her stillness. Something in her closed off eyes that was worse than any hatred. He knew, because that was how she had looked at him before. With hatred and fear.

Now, it was this nothing and something else. It was too hidden, too minimal for Winter to identify. But it wasn’t good.

The silence stretched. Both of them were able to use silence. Even if Winter thought the Black Widow didn’t lose her words like he did his, she had probably learned to keep quiet, too. No one wanted a chatty assassin.

The Black Widow inhaled. It wasn’t visible, was barely audible, but she did. Steeling herself for whatever she would ask. 

“Who killed Howard and Maria Stark?”

Winter, already motionless, froze completely. His breathing cutting out for a heartbeat. His pulse quickened, but he knew the other assassin wouldn’t see it. 

Tony had said no one knew. But they had been to another Hydra hideout. Had they found out? Who else knew? Was the Captain telling Tony right now? Had they separated to make sure Tony wouldn’t be hurt by Winter? Or to hide him away?

Trying to focus despite the rising panic and fear, Winter didn’t know how to answer. Tony said the Asset had been the weapon of Hydra. Therefore Hydra killed them. But he was almost certain it wouldn’t be what the Black Widow would want to hear. 

If she wanted to hear anything. Maybe she thought he didn’t know. And he hadn’t known. Hadn’t known when he kidnapped Tony, when he decided to help him. When he decided to stay with Tony. When he understood that he was one of Tony’s.

He hadn’t known. But now he did. 

Opening his mouth, he fought for words. To answer. He wasn’t sure why, but this felt important. And maybe she would allow him to take the blame. Maybe she would tell him he was right. Maybe she would tell him he couldn’t stay with Tony. What if the Avengers thought so too? What if the Colonel and Miss Potts would decide that too? What-

“Do you know who killed Howard and Maria Stark, Winter?” There was a new edge to her words. An accusation that drew blood.

“…Asset.”

Because the Asset had. The Winter Soldier had. He didn’t know how. Didn’t know why. But he knew the Asset had killed them on December 16 th 1993. Orphaning Tony when he was a child younger than Peter was now.

The Black Widow froze. Her expression flashed to something very close to a murderous rage, before she hid it away again, behind a mask she had been trained to show. Winter knew. He might not remember his training, but he could see it in her. 

Her eyes were still ablaze with fury. To her credit she didn’t attack right away even if her hand twitched to the gun at her side for a heartbeat.

“Since when do you know?”

It was the way she asked this. Like she wanted him to not have known from the start. Like she wanted to have an excuse to not kill him. Could that be possible?

If that was true (and Winter didn’t want to hope in case, he was wrong) she might be thinking about the conversation they had after Tony had told him. The one she might be hating herself for right now. Because she had told him to protect Tony. Or had encouraged him at least. 

“…weeks.”

“Before or after you met Tony?” 

If Winter didn’t know better, he would have sworn there was blood dripping from her words. From the sharp angles and edges digging into her throat and piercing his heart.

It was hard to answer. Hard to say anything. He tried, opening his mouth but nothing came out. He didn’t dare to move. Didn’t dare to make a gesture. The Black Widow was ready to attack. Whether because she knew or because the feelings that escaped her death grip were affecting her as much as Winter thought.

“…after…” It was nothing more than a gurgled breath, but she seemed to understand.

Her stance didn’t change.

“Did you remember?” Besides pain and anger there was now also something new. Understanding?

Winter shook his head, carefully moving nothing else and never looking away from her green eyes. Keeping her hands in clear view.

No, he didn’t remember anything before the last time they had dragged him off of the chair. Tony had explained his theories and Winter was glad he didn’t remember more. What he did remember from being the Asset was bad enough.

The Black Widow stayed silent for long minutes. Looking into Winter’s eyes as if wanting to drag the answers directly out of his brain. As if she suspected a lie. As if she hoped for something.

“Did Hydra tell you?”

Winter’s lungs froze. 

She thought he was a spy. 

She thought he was working for Hydra. Was still working for them. Was helping them hurt Tony? NO! Winter would never! He would never-

His words were gone. There was only ice and pain and fear because he wouldn’t! He would never! Never for Hydra! Never to hurt Tony. He wouldn’t!

Her green eyes hadn’t changed. There was still the mixture of emotions, although there was relief in them now too? Winter couldn’t be sure, couldn’t care, because he was choking on air and ice and fear and-

“Mr. Winter, crouch down and breathe in deeply. Agent Romanov, assist him, I assure you, he is no longer working for Hydra.” 

Winter couldn’t follow the instructions of the voice, his muscles locked.

The Black Widow’s eyes didn’t leave him. She didn’t move.

Now , Agent.” The AI commanded, harsh.

The other assassin hesitated a moment longer. Then she grabbed the gun with index finger and thumb, putting it on the ground and kicking it away. It was a gesture, showing him, she didn’t mean harm.

Right now, Winter didn’t really care. His heart was beating fast enough to make his head spin and it felt like his lungs weren't working. Even when he tried to breathe. 

Taking the first step, she moved casually. Carefully, her hands open and empty.

“Can I touch you?” She asked, her voice different. Warm. Calm. It was Natasha. Not the Black Widow. This was how she talked with Tony. With Peter. With her team when they didn’t annoy her too much. 

She waited. Looking inviting up at him. Not challenging. 

Winter didn’t know. Didn’t know what to do. Because if she believed he was with Hydra… she wouldn’t do this. She wouldn’t- but she thought he could have been still working for them. He wasn’t. They hadn’t told him anything. Neither the Hydra agent that he had encountered had told him anything. And she had been there both times. Most of the time. But they hadn’t told him about the Starks.

“… Tony …” He croaked, his throat almost constricting that one word. 

“Should I call for him, Mr.-”

“Jarvis, don’t-”

“I was talking to Mr. Winter, Agent Romanov.”

At that the female spy looked up at one of the cameras in the corner of the gym, hiding her expression from Winter.

No, he didn’t want Tony to see this. He would ask why and would get angry with the other spy. Would be hurt. Would feel guilty. Because this was what Tony did. 

Even if the Black Widow obviously was right. She wanted to make sure Winter wasn’t hurting Tony. And he wasn’t. Or he didn’t want to.

Shaking his head again, he gasped, and a strong, warm hand grabbed his.

“Breathe in.” Natasha commanded. Not hard. Winter still obeyed. 

After a few more minutes he relaxed. His breathing was easier. His heartbeat had slowed down.

He felt exhausted.

“Come.” The Black- no. Natasha tugged at his hand, guiding him to the mats they had sat on when they had their first conversation. 

Taking the exact same positions seemed logical. Sitting across from each other, cross-legged.

“How did you learn about the Starks?”

His heartbeat quickened again, but not threateningly so. Breathing calmly, Winter still hesitated. He wasn’t sure if he was allowed to tell her. Tony hadn’t told her anything. She probably had learned about it through Hydra files. And he couldn’t betray Tony’s trust. Saying the truth was the right thing to do. But you didn’t tell other people’s secrets.

“Sir told Mr. Winter himself.”

Natasha’s face fell. For a heartbeat the carefully constructed mask slipped showing something shattered and agonized, before she put it back on her face, letting her head sink down. Just a centimetre, but it was enough to show her devastation.

Winter didn’t know how to react to that. So he did nothing. Sitting there silently, waiting.

“When did he find out?” She looked up at Winter, something like a plea in her expression. That he could understand. He had felt like that when Tony had told him about what Winter- the Asset had done to him.

“…beginning…”

“Before you fled together?”

Winter nodded. He had asked the same thing. He understood the way she sighed, the way her eyes grew hard with anger and agony for the compassionate idiot.

“And he told you-?” She didn’t finish the sentence. As if she couldn’t. 

Winter nodded again. Tony had. And it had hurt him probably more than Winter. And Winter had wanted to get back on the chair to forget it. To not feel the pain.

“Before we had our conversation.” It was a conclusion and therefore didn’t require an answer. 

“You asked if you should protect Tony.” She straightened her spine again, looking directly at Winter. “If I had known, I would have told you to stay away.”

Winter understood. It still felt like a devastating punch in the gut.

“Does Rhodes know?”

Winter blanched. If the Colonel didn’t know-

“Sir told him. Mr. Winter I feel the need to inform you that the Colonel knew about it before he asked you to become Sir’s bodyguard. I sincerely hope you do not consider it a breach of trust.” His voice sounded more like a threat than anything, but Winter didn’t care. 

Couldn’t care. Because the Colonel, Tony’s brother, knew and still trusted Winter to protect Tony. Not behaving hostile towards Winter even if he deserved it.

He understood, of course, what the AI meant. Tony had told him that no one knew, and he must have told the Colonel before he had told Winter. But how could he be angry with Tony for telling someone who he trusted and loved?

How could he think anything when Tony had forgiven him for killing his parents? When he had held him while Tony had been hurting himself? Who had let Winter be around him the entire time in which he had been too freaked out to even look Tony in the eyes and had just smiled, when Winter had decided to try to repent himself by protecting the genius?

He shook his head. He didn’t consider it a breach of trust. Hell, he was relieved. Tony had told someone else before Winter. He had been able to show his emotions to the Colonel. Had been able to show whatever he hadn’t shown Winter.

The silence stretched again. The Bla- Natasha looking down on her hands clasped tight in her lap while Winter looked to the side.

He was almost thankful that she had come down here. Whatever was going on in her head, she most likely understood more than the other Avengers would have. And she had held herself back. Even though it had been obvious how angry she had been.

“How was he?”

Winter almost startled at the question. He looked back at the woman, who pointedly didn’t meet his eyes, showing more weakness than ever before in front of Winter.

“…hurting… protective…”

She sighed. “Of course.”

That sigh Winter felt as well, deep in his gut. Tony really was a self-sacrificing idiot, worrying about everyone else, just not himself. That reminded him.

The Bl- Natasha was still looking down, but her posture had softened. Her expression, too. 

“Why?”

Looking up at him, he saw lines of worry, stress and frustration on her face vanish behind a calm expression.

“Why what?”

“Captain… and Tony?”

Her eyebrow rose a fraction, seemingly without her input. “What about them?” She sounded carefully neutral. 

“…different.”

“Tony almost died.”

Winter shook his head. That wasn’t what he meant. Yes, they behaved differently but the behaviour of both of them had just intensified. All of it had been there before. Why did they sleep in one bed when no one else seemed to do that? Why did they seem to crave physical contact and sometimes allow themselves that but other times they didn’t? 

Why did the Captain react the way he did? Why did Tony not seem to see the difference in his behaviour towards him compared to the other Avengers?

“…different.” He insisted. Nat just looked at him. As if she wasn’t sure what she should tell him. 

“I-”

“I’m sorry to interrupt, but it seems something is… suspicious with the delivery of the groceries for the Avengers.”

The tone of Jarvis’ voice was enough for both of them to stand to attention before he had finished the sentence.

The Black Widow was a step ahead of Winter. Mostly because he didn’t know where the deliveries were stored. 

They didn’t ask any more questions until they stood in a storeroom that was heavily secured, as far as Winter was concerned. 

In the back were three big plastic boxes. The locks were closed, and from walking around them neither he nor the other assassin could see anything.

“What do you detect, Jarvis.”

“It appears the box to your left was opened, Miss Romanov. The temperature is three-degree Fahrenheit too warm.

Winter let his eyebrows raise. That was enough for the AI to think something had tempered with the box? Not that he would disagree with him. Hydra was targeting Tony. They would absolutely try to get a hold of the food delivery – if they could.

“Something else?” The Black Widow asked, eyeing every centimetre of the box.

“There was a new delivery driver. He has been vetted by the company but has never before driven this tour.”

“What do you know about him?” She asked and Winter was only a little surprised when the AI rattled down every and all information about the man. Nothing at all seemed suspicious though.

“Is Bruce in his lab?”

“Yes, Dr. Banner is down there with Thor.”

“Good.” She looked up at Winter, her expression set. 

Taking the box, Winter followed her to Dr. Banner’s laboratory. Together with the Doctor and the god they took samples of everything inside the box. 

Winter didn’t comment about it, but he had a bad feeling. In there was the flour Peter and he used to bake along with sugar, other staple food and coffee. If he would mix poison under people’s deliveries- no. Not him. If the Asset would have been ordered to take someone out by poisoning the delivered groceries, he would have chosen staple food and things he would have known the target would consume. It was a well-known fact that Tony drank coffee. 

Dr. Banner must have thought something along the same line, focusing his energy on the coffee sample.

Hawkeye joined them in the laboratory a few minutes later, obviously informed by the AI about what was going on, judging by his tense frame.

“What now?”

“We can’t be sure, yet.” Dr. Banner answered his eyes fixed on the samples as if forcing them to reveal themselves sooner.

Hawkeye shared a glance with the Black Widow and Winter had to force himself to stay calm. Hadn’t they all appeared a little paler the last couple of days? A little weaker? The normal people had barely been able stomach food, even Winter and the Captain eating less than normal.

Peter and he had baked for Tony. Making him eat. 

What about Peter? And his aunt? What about the Colonel and Miss Potts?

Before Winter could spiral any further, the machine got the results. Winter knew the answer before Dr. Banner turned around. He knew it by the way he stiffened. By the way his skin was crawling with green. That his exhale sounded like a growl. 

Someone had poisoned the food. 

And Winter was sure this was not the first time.

Chapter Text

Tony’s heart came to a stuttering halt when he saw Steve’s expression. There weren’t words for him to explain the anguish in the beautiful blue eyes- There was no way to express how it ripped his heart in two. 

The moment seemed to be endless. The horrific panic rising in Tony’s chest and cutting off his air. 

“Steve?” It was a strangled plea that fought itself out of his throat and tasted of blood. 

He had no idea what had happened, had thousands of horrible ideas that might have happened to make Steve look like this. And all he wanted to do was go over to the broken man and hug him. Hold him close and promise he would do anything in his power to fix it. To make it better. Because Steve should never look like this.

But his stupid body didn’t move. 

“Tony…” Steve swallowed, his eyes still on Tony’s, pleading with him, but he didn’t know for what. Didn’t know what Steve needed, but whatever it was, he would give it to the other man.

“I need to tell you something.”

Tony nodded, numbness and unspeakable fear battling inside of his chest. Taking a step forward his vision blurred and he almost stumbled, but caught himself, reaching out to the super soldier that looked too lost, like he had to deliver a death blow to Tony – and he wasn’t thinking about the implications. Wasn’t thinking about anything. He couldn’t.

Steve caught his hand, holding it too carefully, like Tony was made out of glass, like he would break any minute like Steve had broken. 

Tony wouldn’t let it. Whatever it was, he wouldn’t let it break him. He would fix it. Would be strong for Steve.

Looking up in the agonized blue eyes, all he wanted to do was reach up and put his hand on his cheek. Wanted to wrap Steve in his arms and hold him close. Wanted to take his pain away and protect him from the cruel world that didn’t deserve a good soul like Steve.

“I-” Steve stopped as if he didn’t have the words. 

“It’s okay, Steve.” Tony barely recognized his own voice. “Whatever it is, we’ll fix it.”

It was clearly the wrong thing to say as Steve pressed his eyes close, letting his head sink a little, breathing a shuddering exhale.

Tony grabbed his hand harder, trying to make sure Steve knew that he was there, even when he obviously didn’t know what he was doing.

Flexing his shoulders, Steve looked at him again. The agony still shining bright in his eyes, but also resolve. He breathed in, as if to steel himself, his hands holding onto Tony’s.

“The Winter Soldier killed your parents, Tony.”

Tony froze.

Steve didn’t say anything more. He stood there, strong and sympathetic and suffering because Tony hadn’t told him. 

Because he thought he was hurting Tony by saying those words. (And maybe he was right. Because before this, no one had said these words to Tony. He had read about the Asset killing Howard and Maria Stark, had said it over and over in his head. He had told Rhodey about it. He had told Winter about it, but somehow it was different hearing these words. Somehow it was worse. Somehow it made his pain more… real.)

Tony swallowed. Or tried to. 

There was so much pain in Steve’s eyes. 

Tony blinked, looking away. He couldn’t do it any longer. 

Steve’s pain was Tony’s fault. He knew how horrible it was to tell someone news like this, didn’t he? He had done it twice before. And now, because he hadn’t been able to talk about it, even if it all happened a long time ago, he had forced Steve to hurt himself like this.

(He didn’t acknowledge the way everything inside of him felt like an open wound. Like all the ways he had thought he had dealt with the death of his parents and everything that had happened before and after, were ripped away at once.)

(He didn’t acknowledge the way the confusing emotions whirled like a maelstrom through him.)

(He certainly didn’t acknowledge the way he felt wetness in the corner of his eyes.)

Steve didn’t say anything. Probably too hurt himself to act. Because Howard had been his friend. Because Bucky had been tortured and broken to become the Winter Soldier. Because his brother had been used to kill someone they had both known. Steve had believed Tony when he told him Winter wouldn’t remember anything. He must think Winter didn’t know. Maybe even plan to go to Winter next and tell him.

And because Steve was a good person, one of the best Tony had ever met, he would hurt so damn much because he was the one telling Tony something he must think would devastate him. 

Opening his mouth, he inhaled, shatteringly. This was his fault. He could have spared Steve at least some of the pain, but he didn’t. To self-absorbed in his own drama. 

“How did you find out?”

This time Steve froze, his hands flexing on Tony’s.

Forcing himself to fucking do something right, Tony looked back at Steve. There was confusion in his expression, just sharp enough to be seen beneath the pain.

“You knew?” There was an accusation in his words, Tony was sure. It was garbled beneath pain and Tony, like the fucking asshole that he was, wanted to turn around, to flee.

All he managed was a sharp nod, avoiding to meet Steve’s eyes, too cowardly to stomach Steve’s anger right now. 

“How did you find out?” He asked again, his voice even quieter. 

“Nat found it on their servers.”

“Does anyone else know?”

“No.”

Tony nodded again. 

The silence between them stretched, but this wasn’t one of their comfortable silences. Neither of them knew what to say. 

“How long did you know?” Steve’s voice was calm. Almost too calm. As if he was trying to hide away his anger.

Tony closed his eyes, breathing calmly.

“Sparks left me an info package… I found it after the welcome beating in Germany.”

Steve flinched and Tony wanted to kick himself. Why did he always do this? Hurting the people he loved.

For a heartbeat nothing happened and Tony was sure, Steve would start yelling any second now. Tony, in true Tony Stark fashion, would lash out too. Even if he didn’t want to hurt Steve, never wanted to hurt him and should probably beg for forgiveness. But he felt too raw. Too open. Too-

Steve let go of his hands, but before Tony even realized this fully, his strong arms were wrapped around Tony, holding him safe. Holding him close. Not hurting or constricting but shielding Tony from the world.

As if he deserved that. 

One of his big hands landed on the back of Tony’s head, guiding it, gingerly, to Steve’s wide chest and holding it there, while he pressed his own cheek down on the top of Tony’s head, shielding him even more completely.

“I’m sorry.”

It was a silent breath, almost too silent for Tony to hear. But the agony in these words ripped too viciously at his heart to have imagined them.

Tony shuddered in the embrace, pressing closer even if he knew, Steve was hurting too. Even if he knew he was-

Steve’s arms held him close. His warmth seeping into Tony. Calming him bit by bit. He didn’t deserve it. He should be comforting Steve, because he had clearly just found out about it. And Tony had known for weeks.

Still, he stayed in the embrace. Soaking up the warmth. The care. And for a heartbeat he let himself imagine how it would be if Steve returned his feelings.

Exhaling, Tony moved back, Steve letting him go, even if it felt reluctant.

His eyes were still full of pain when Tony looked up into them, but they were clearer. As if this hug had helped Steve too.

It felt like a long moment, looking up into Steve’s eyes, trying to decipher all the different emotions in them. Tony wasn’t sure if he got even half of them right. Why would there be wonder and pride in his blue eyes? Why wouldn’t there be any betrayal, or more frustration? 

Why would there be a small, gentle smile on his lips?

“Why did you help him?”

“Sparks included what they had done to make him the Winter Soldier in her info package. And back then… he was barely a person, Steve. It wasn’t his fault.”

Steve flinched again, and Tony wanted to kick himself again.

“But you didn’t have to make him one of yours. You didn’t have to-” 

“It wasn’t his fault.”

“I get that, Tony, I do.” There was a little more frustration in Steve’s voice although Tony really had no idea why. 

“Why did you bring him with you? Why did you make him one of yours?”

Tony blinked. There were a couple different answers and two reasons. The first was that Winter had needed help and Tony had known he couldn’t trust anyone – aside from maybe Charles Xavier – to treat Winter right. Because they would see a weapon, or something less than human and Winter didn’t deserve that. 

He deserved to be treated with respect. Which included explaining the world to him like you would to a child. He deserved the chance to learn and to grow and to actually live .

The second reason was Steve. Because Tony had known, the second Steve would find out about Winter, he would do anything to help him.

“It was the right thing to do. Winter deserves to be free.”

Steve laughed. It was wet around the edges, but he still smiled at Tony, the agony in his eyes not as sharp as before, dulled by another emotion he couldn’t pinpoint. 

Inhaling deeply, Tony steeled himself.

“I told him.”

Steve looked confused for a heartbeat, before his face fell, agony flashing over his features again.

He wanted to explain that Winter had deserved to find out from someone who liked him, that didn’t want to hurt him. But so had Steve. 

“Was that the reason for the setback?” 

Tony nodded, looking away.

He could have told Steve, too. Why hadn’t he? Because he was afraid? Because he didn’t want to hurt Steve like this? And because of that he had hurt him so much worse.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

Tony closed his eyes, trying to ignore the painful stabs of guilt in his gut.

“I could have helped you.” There was sadness in Steve’s voice. And conviction. “You didn’t have to do this to yourself.”

“They were both your friends, Steve. I didn’t want-”

Without any warning at all, the doors to the workshop opened and both of them looked over. Before they could do anything more, Winter flat-out ran into the workshop, grabbing Tony. His hands weren’t hurting him, but he was dragging him towards the still open doors.

Steve, who was probably even more fucked up by their conversation, tried to get between them, which had Winter growling at him, viciously.

There was no time to ask anything before Thor burst into the room right after Winter.

“Wait my friend!” Instead of stopping Winter trying to manhandle Tony, he got between Steve and Winter. 

“Hydra poisoned our food.”

Tony went cold, no longer refusing Winter to drag him out of the workshop, just looking back to see the horror on Steve’s face.

Five minutes later he lay on a stretcher on the medical floor, beside Clint and Nat while Bruce took a blood sample from him, while Nat gave a recap of what had happened. As far as they knew right now, the coffee, the flour and the sugar had been poisoned. 

“You’re not going to tell Peter.” Tony’s voice was hard. And he had meant it to be hard.

“Tony, we have bigger-”

“Absolutely not! The coffee was poisoned. If any of you tell the kid that the fucking muffins he baked were-”

“Of course not, but we have to test him, too.” Bruce said, his voice much calmer than the panic in his eyes.

They also had to call Pepper and Rhodey. Thank fuck both had been too busy to eat anything on their floor for the last couple of days.

“Has he taken any muffins home for May?” Nat asked from the stretcher to the far left and Tony wanted to kick himself. Fucking hell.

If any of them got hurt because Hydra didn’t have the possibility to get to him, he would… he would kill them all. There would be no mercy. No regret. No one touched Peter. No one hurt Pepper.

“Jarvis-”

“I’ve already informed Miss Potts, Colonel Rhodes, Mr. Parker and Mrs. Parker. They are all on their way to the Tower as we speak.” Jarvis' voice was forcedly calm, as if he was trying to provide some order while everyone else freaked.

Clint was fuming, hissing under his breath about fucking Hydra and stupid wanna-be-gods not able to find poison in Tony’s system. 

Nat was almost calm in comparison, typing furiously on her Starkpad, contacting people and organizing whatever it was she organized.

Winter was walking circles around them, death-glaring at everyone and anything. It was almost contradictory to the careful way he had handled Tony, even when Tony had tried to stop him. Like he was fearing Tony would break any second now. 

Which he wouldn’t.

But from Winter’s body language alone - and knowing his stupid meddling family - Tony was sure Nat had talked with Winter. No one he was as on edge as he was right now. Tony was barely able to force himself to appear at least a little calm. 

Thor had followed Bruce to his lab, probably to keep him safe. Both of them had tried their very best to appear as calm as possible. It didn’t work so good for them, though, as there was small lightning flashing in the god’s eyes and green flashed over Bruce’s skin from time to time. 

At least they tried. Steve seemed to have broken once more. And that alone would be a reason for Tony to kill every last member of Hydra.

The super soldier was sitting motionless beside Tony’s bed, one hand holding onto him as if Tony was in danger of jumping up and fleeing – which was fair to be honest. At least they hadn’t dragged them to the nearest hospital, even if he was sure, they would call Strange, Loki, Helen and let May work on all of them the second it was sure they weren’t affected.

Tony just lay there; one hand being held captive by Steve and the other clinging to his phone.

What would he do if Peter got hurt? What would he do if May got hurt and Peter lost his last family member? (Aside from adopting him, of course. But would Peter even want to see him again if Tony got her killer? Wouldn’t he hate Tony for what he did to him?)

What would he do if Pepper got hurt? She had nothing to do with the Avengers. She was a civilian. Not that Hydra cared, of course, but… He didn’t know what he would do if she got hurt. 

He didn’t know what he would do if he lost Peter. Couldn’t even think about it.

He would completely lose it if they hurt Rhodey. 

What if they actually went after Steve next? Or Clint? Or Nat? Or Winter?

He couldn’t think about that either. He still felt the stabs of agonizing pain when he remembered the island. When he remembered the moments he thought Steve might be dead and-

“Tony?”

He looked up, meeting Clint’s eyes. They were worried, but not for himself. Even though he had been poisoned because of Tony.

“You okay?”

“Sure.”

Steve squeezed his hand, reassuringly and Tony looked over, smiling calmingly at the super soldier. Who didn’t react aside from squeezing his hand again.

Tony would keep them safe. It didn’t matter what he had to do. It didn’t matter what would happen. They would probably hate him for it, but it didn’t matter if it meant they would be safe.

An hour later, Tony felt better. Not because Bruce had explained to them that it was an almost simple lead poisoning and Nat, Clint and he himself were hooked up to a sodium sulphate solution and had to take activated carbon as pills (which was absolutely disgusting). It was also not because they hadn’t been dragged to an actual hospital, although that was a plus in his book.

He felt better because neither Peter, May, Pepper or Rhodey showed any signs of lead poisoning. They were safe.

The relief he felt was unimaginable. Glancing over to Nat, who glared at anyone who tried to help her - they were all back to their common floor -, and Clint, who was still complaining about the bad taste, all of them carrying their drip back.

It was Tony’s fault that they had gotten poisoned. Steve and Winter had had traces of lead in their system too, even if their serum had almost completely washed it out already.

They had been poisoned. Because of Tony. They could have died because of Tony. 

All of them had been poisoned and Tony hadn’t even realized it. His teammates, his family was hurt because of Tony.

He let them place him right beside Clint, let Peter snuggle up to him. Let Pepper and Rhodey work with Jarvis and Nat to find out how it could have happened.

Tony almost didn’t care.

When they got Strange and Loki involved, he barely calmed everyone down, believing Loki when he said he hadn’t realized that the lead wasn’t supposed to be in Tony’s system. He had literally a machine stuck in his chest. How should the god have known? It was surprising enough that he seemed to know about human physiology at all.

He didn’t banter with the trickster. Didn’t ask him all the questions he wanted to ask. All the theories that were firing in his brain.

Why would Hydra try to poison him with lead? Not that he wasn’t thankful for it. Hell, he was more than thankful for it. Both Clint and Nat would recover without Loki’s involvement. Their bloodwork showed the poisoning had only started a couple days earlier, so there wouldn’t even be long term complications. 

But why not? 

The pills the Hydra agents used on themselves to make sure they couldn’t be questioned were filled with a mixture of cyanide and some other fast working poisons. Why the fuck hadn’t they given him something like that?

Why did they seem to be set on injuring Tony, but not killing him? 

Even their message had been off, telling the world that Tony would be the first to fall after they shot him. They didn’t say he had fallen, but that he would be the first one. 

Why announce that and not just take him out? It was so much easier to gloat after you killed your victim, especially knowing that they wouldn’t come back to prove you wrong.

Why not kill all of them?

Why only injure him?

Blinking, Tony looked over to where Rhodey stood, his arms crossed in front of his chest while Jarvis told him something.

Why tell your target that you intended to kill it? Was this whole thing not about him? Was this about the Avengers? Were they using Tony as a distraction to kill the other Avengers?

But if so, why try to poison them with lead?

No, this didn’t make sense. This had to be about him, one way or the other.

What the fuck did they want from him, then? If it really was about revenge, they would either try harder or go for his family – not that he wanted to think about the possibility.

No, it had to be about something they needed from Tony. Thinking back, the schematics they had wanted him to work on in Germany had to have been decoys. Every first-year engineer would have been able to improve them.

What was it then? Something Sparks wasn’t able to do? Or did she just act like she couldn’t do it to stop Hydra. Was it her plan to get Tony into the clutches of Hydra?

She had given him the info dump, had been the one who had tried to manipulate all of them from the very beginning. She probably didn’t want him to kill Winter or she hadn’t shown him the torture Hydra has put him through. Or had that been a Test? And if it had been a test, what had she wanted to find out? Did he pass the test or did he fail? 

She had also manipulated the Avengers. Or had that been the test? Seeing whether they would put the fate of the world about one of their own? 

Did she consider what happened a success or a failure? 

He watched as Peter helped Thor throw away every single edible thing in the Tower before leaving with May to go groceries shopping.

They checked every item they brought home and made them rice pudding that they had to eat.

Peter hugged him tight before leaving that night. May had explained to him that, with a little rest, all of them would be fine. 

Tony had pressed a kiss to the top of his head, mumbling something reassuring.

Then he had taken his phone out and opened Twitter. 

Next time try something that will actually get me, losers #Hydrasucks #pathetic #tryharder

Twitter’s servers crashed almost immediately.

 

Chapter Text

Steve sighed. After hours of constant panic, he had finally calmed down enough to lay down beside Tony. Sure, before he wouldn’t have been able to because Peter had been clutching the genius as if his life depended on it even if Steve had been able to calm down enough to sit down.

Focussing on the here and now, on the warmth of Tony’s body right beside him and the knowledge that all three of them would survive, he let some of the exhaustion creep in. 

God, he was so tired. And at the same time, he felt like he would never be able to sleep ever again. Because if he did, he would see it again. He would feel the stone-cold panic squish his heart again, when Thor had told them they had been poisoned. 

Hell, maybe the worst thing in his nightmares (aside from the knowledge that Tony might really die this time) would be to see the panic in the genius’ eyes again, before he had told him that Winter had killed his parents. 

Or it would be the realization that Tony had known. That he had helped his parents’ killers, just because it was the right thing to do. And because Tony thought everyone’s emotions were so much more important than his own.

Exhaling, Steve forced himself to stop thinking about all the other reasons for him to have nightmares about losing Tony. 

The genius was right here. Right beside Steve. And he would be okay. He would be. It didn’t matter what Steve would have to do. He would keep the other man safe. And afterwards, he would tell him that he loved him. 

Exhaling, he looked over his teammates. Steve didn’t know how much all of them would be able to stomach until they would break for good. Not that Steve didn’t feel like he had already broken for good. Scratch that. He knew that something had irrevocably broken. But that didn’t matter, as long as Tony wouldn’t break.

Tony hadn’t moved much since Peter left. He didn’t appear to be in pain, but that didn’t mean much. That he had said next to nothing since he hugged the kid goodbye worried Steve. Tony was never quiet if he wasn’t either badly hurt or planning something. And as he was still healing from a deadly gunshot and being poisoned, he shouldn’t plan anything. He should just heal! 

Steve had to bite down hard on his tongue to not say it. That would lead to a fight, he knew that! And the last thing any of them needed right now was a fight. That was why he kept quiet, moved a little closer to Tony and watched the rest of his team.

Clint lay on Tony’s other side. He appeared to be annoyed more than anything. He was bickering with Bruce because he hated needles. Bruce, patient as ever, listened to all of the archers’ arguments to then say no over and over again. 

Not even Clint was… adventurous enough to fight Bruce to the point where he was in danger to Hulk out. Judging by the vein on his forehead and the mild flashes of green in his eyes, the scientist was calmer than Steve had hoped. Which meant the Tower had at least a small chance to survive today.

Natasha lay right beside Clint. She was as silent and motionless as Tony, which was almost as dangerous. She was definitely hurt, as she was as pale as Clint and Tony, but also definitely planning something. As dangerous as Tony’s plans were, Steve knew he had a moral code as fundamentally unmovable as Steve’s, even if they varied from one another.

Nat had a moral code, too, of course. She was a hero as much as any of them. But she also had a ruthlessness to herself that Steve sometimes feared. Because she would destroy the world to avenge her family. She would kill every last Hydra member or associate to protect her family. And she had the knowledge and connections to do so.

Not that Steve thought she would do it. Right now. (The worst thing was, he wasn’t sure whether or not he would try to stop her. Heck, it was probable he would help her.)

Thor sat in the corner of the room, his eyes on all of his teammates, but mostly on Tony, Clint and Nat, small currents of electricity flashing through his stormy eyes.

Winter was still pacing all around, checking and double checking all entry points every ten minutes. 

Steve didn’t have the heart to tell him to stop. He could guess how Winter was feeling, as he hadn’t been able to protect Tony from being poisoned and Nat had spoken with him about what happened in the past.

Now, his behaviour a couple of weeks back made a lot more sense. Steve really had no idea how Winter had been able to bounce back at all. The thought, that Bucky… that Winter had been used to kill Tony’s parents-

Steve closed his eyes, moving a little closer too, for once not caring about the fact that he might do something Tony could be uncomfortable with, because right now, it was just grief that motivated him. 

Grief for Winter and Bucky, who had been used like that. Grief for the man Howard had been and that he had been murdered. Grief for the little boy Tony had been, a far too intelligent thirteen-year-old, angry at the world for treating him so poorly, who lost the people who were supposed to love and protect him.

Tony moved, and for a heartbeat Steve thought he would get up or move away, instead he placed his arms around Steve’s shoulder, holding him a little closer. 

As if Steve needed to be comforted right now. And he did. But not by Tony! If anyone, he should be comforted! 

Steve sighed, letting the other man hold him close. He knew without a doubt that he loved his genius, no matter what he did, still, it frustrated him to no end, that he would most likely fight like a feral cat if Steve tried to tell him that he was the one who needed comfort right now. 

To be honest, all of them needed comfort right now. 

Closing his eyes and inhaling the calming scent of coffee and Tony, he allowed himself a little to relax, knowing that it would also relax the genius sooner or later. 

They needed a plan to keep Tony and all of them safe. 

Hydra seemed to have more resources than they had feared. Or they were desperate enough to put everything on one card and that seemed to be Tony. Steve didn’t want to admit it, but it seemed the genius was also right in thinking they didn’t just want to kill him. Thinking about it almost turned his stomach, but he had to think about the possibility that they did all of this to get to Tony. 

If that was the right assumption, they didn’t do a good job. The shooter almost killed Tony. If it was their goal to hurt or injure him, the poisoning had worked far better, even if Jarvis had found evidence too soon. 

But what was their goal? They probably didn’t try to use them against Tony, or they would target the team, and not the genius. If they wanted to get to him, why injure him? Sure, he had been very well protected since coming back from Germany and had barely left the Tower, therefore the opportunities were scarce, but why try to injure him?

Inhaling deeply, Steve forced himself to focus on how he would try to kidnap Tony if he was Hydra. There were little opportunities – and if he was honest, the best way was probably to kidnap someone close to him. Best would be either May or Pepper. Peter would be his first choice of course, but it would be difficult to kidnap the kid because of his strength and the fast-working metabolism. 

As Tony used great lengths to keep the kid as much off the radar as possible (Steve was 100% certain Jarvis was hacking every and all devices that took pictures of Peter when around Tony and the Tower) there was the possibility that they didn’t know of Peter. That would be the only logical explanation why they hadn’t tried to take him yet. 

If they didn’t know about Peter, they didn’t know about May. That left Pepper, Colonel Rhodes and Happy as likely targets, as the Avengers were clearly not targeted, just collateral damage. 

The Colonel was a high-ranking official in the United States Air Force which made for a poor hostage as they would not only have to fight him all the way but would also anger said US Air Force. 

Pepper was better hostage material, especially if the kidnappers didn’t know how fierce she could be. But as she was the CEO of Stark Industries, she, too, had several precautions to keep her safe. 

Happy, even if a close friend of Tony’s and counted to be his family by the genius, flew below the radar for most. If they knew about him at all, it was because he was Tony’s driver and no one but the genius’ close circle knew that he cared about the other man.

The only logical choice for them would be Pepper. But that was almost as difficult as taking Tony.

If that wasn’t an option what was left to draw him out? Stage an attack to force the Avengers to come out. But then you had all of the Avengers to fight. 

They could, of course, threaten SI but the past had shown that it normally didn’t bring the results the attackers wanted.

What could they want to provoke by hurting him publicly? They could stir up panic. And they had. But then, as Pepper said it, they hadn’t taken full advantage of it, by committing crimes and showing that the Avengers cared more about one of their own than the world.

They could weaken the morale of the Avengers. And they had. But at the same time, they had made sure that they would go to even greater lengths to keep their Tony safe.

They could… they could force Tony to go to the hospital.

Steve blinked his eyes open. There had been moments in which none of the Avengers had been with Tony, hadn’t there?

No. At least Bruce had been with him the whole time. Because they had damaged the Arc Reactor. And then Stephen had stepped in. 

Shit. What if they wanted to hurt or injure Tony enough to force the Avengers to submit him to a hospital so that they could take him from there, already weakened and drugged?

Shit! 

Steve pushed himself up, opening his mouth to tell the other’s his theories, because if he was right, and he couldn’t even fathom that he actually thought about asking Loki what he thought of his plans, they had an idea how to react.

He never had the time to say anything. 

“Sir, Mr. Parker is calling.” It was the tone of the AI that stopped Steve in his track. There was resentment in it. Frustration and anger. 

“Mr. Stark!” The kid’s voice was breathless and terribly vulnerable. “ How could you ?”

Dread exploded in Steve’s chest, zinging through his veins and settling cold and hard in his stomach. 

They didn’t need to ask what he had done, as Jarvis showed them a Tweet on the television screen.

Steve’s heart stopped. 

Next time try something that will actually get me, losers #Hydrasucks #pathetic #tryharder

“Peter, I-”

Try harder ?” The teen screeched. If Steve wasn’t frozen, he might be surprised at the vehemence in the kid’s voice. Normally he didn’t raise his voice. Never. And especially not at Tony, who he loved like a father and knew the older genius would rather kill himself than hurt him.

Although it seemed Tony really didn’t need much to throw away his life. 

As if he didn’t know that he would hurt Peter with provoking the Nazi-Terror-Organization who was already out for his blood to try harder .

“Peter-”

No !”

If Steve could feel anything right now aside from the terrible emptiness, the agonizing horror and the gut-wrenching fury, he would be impressed. He didn’t have any words right now. 

Hell, he couldn’t even move.

“Kid-”

“They’re going to kill you and-” Peter stopped mid sentence, obviously trying to hide his sob. It didn’t work. 

“Peter…” Tony’s voice was pained, carefully trying to convey understanding.

If Peter felt anything like Steve right now, this would make him even angrier.

A shuddering sob was audible over the phone and for a vicious second Steve was glad to see the heartbreak on Tony’s face. 

“Peter, it’s going to be okay.”

How?!? ” Peter gasped, anger and blank fear overshadowing everything else.

“They will make a mistake and-”

“What if they don’t? What if they just kill you !”

“That’s not their plan, Peter. I need to-”

No !” This, he cried. 

“I need to keep you safe, Peter. You and the Avengers.”

“We want you to be safe!”

“Do not worry too much, Peter, we will keep your father safe, whether he wants us to, or not.”

Steve looked over to Thor. The god sounded murderous. His blue eyes were buzzing with lightning, which was also crackling all around him. 

“Thor-”

“Shut. Up.” Nat hissed with ferocious anger to it.

Tony didn’t.

“Peter, I-”

“Mr. Parker, might I suggest you go to your aunt. We will make sure that Sir will not take other actions tonight. Mr. Winter and I will keep you informed.”

“Jarvis-”

“Okay.” There was a shuddering exhale on the other end of the line. “I’m very angry with you, Mr. Stark. But I… I love you and you can’t get killed. You can’t!”

The call ended before Tony could react. If he would ever be able to react to that.

I love you and you can’t get killed. It seemed so easy to say. 

Blinking, he realized that everyone was glaring down at Tony, who visibly tried to calm down, even if Steve felt the slight shiver go done the other man’s spine, as he was still clinging to him. And would probably never, ever letting go again.

“If you don’t want to get punched, you better keep quiet.” There was no humour in Clint’s voice. No infliction. Just the cold hard truth.

Tony, of course, didn’t.

“Punch me all you want, Birdbrain.” Tony looked over to the archer, hiding half of his expression from Steve. “They poisoned our food to get to me . I’m not going to-”

Clint slapped him. 

No one stopped him. Winter didn’t even growl from his position right behind them. 

Tony didn’t stop him either, he barely reacted at all. Just kept looking at Clint with an acceptance that Steve could barely stomach.

“Someone else want a shot?”

Nat moved fast enough that Steve barely saw it. She was on Tony in the next second, laying half on Clint and holding the genius head with both of her hands in a way Steve knew it wouldn’t be a problem for her to break his neck.

Winter was already on her, grabbing her by the throat, but she didn’t let go of Tony.

“Winter, stop!”

He didn’t. Neither did Nat. 

Her green eyes were filled with rage and agony as she stared down at him.

“What will Peter do, if you get killed?” She hissed, ignoring the spasming hand on her throat. She didn’t even react when Winter let go of her. She kept staring into Tony’s eyes that Steve couldn’t see from his position. 

“What will we do, if you get killed?”

Tony didn’t answer, still Steve, and he was sure, Nat too, felt a shiver run through him.

“We love you and you can’t get killed, kotenok.” 

I love you and you can’t get killed.

“We won’t let them.” She sat back, relieving Clint from her weight. Both of them were even paler than before. 

“Do something like that again and you will regret it.” 

“He will regret greatly what he did this time.” Thor said, no thunder to his voice. It was quieter than Steve had ever heard it. His blue eyes bore into Tony, not giving any breathing room at all.

“Do not misunderstand me, Anthony, I do love you and I will give my life to protect you, but I am very angry with you.”

“Thor-”

“I would prefer if you would not say another word.” 

Steve let his gaze flicker over to Bruce. There was no anger in his expression. No green in his eyes. No green flickering over his skin. But there was grief there. And betrayal.

“You told me we were a team, Tony. You told me; we would survive this together.” Bruce took a step forward, pointing accusingly at the other genius. “ You said, I didn’t have to do this on my own. You said, we were a family, that we would help each other.”

“Bruce-”

“I don’t want to hear it right now.” Bruce stood up. “I need a minute. He took a step away before turning around again. “We are family, Tony. You taught me that. You gave me a reason to stay. I love you. And if you get killed…” He shook his head, leaving the common floor, followed by Thor.

I love you and you can’t get killed.

Winter moved, stepping in front of Tony. He didn’t say anything. But his expression said more than a thousand words ever could. There was fear and anger, panic and rage. Betrayal and frustration. 

“Buttercup…”

Winter tilted his hint as if to ask what Tony could possibly say to him right now to justify what he did.

“I told you.” It was barely more than an exhaled breath, making sure Clint and Nat wouldn’t be able to hear Tony. 

Protect you. ” Winter said, more emotions in his voice than Steve had ever heard from him. “Promised.”

“Winter-”

“Seriously, Tony, shut the fuck up.” Clint growled.

Steve felt the way Tony stiffened.

“If you even think about moving away, I will shackle you to the couch.” 

It took him a moment to realize that it was in fact Steve himself who had growled these words with a definite threat in his voice. It wasn’t I love you and you can’t get killed. Even if Steve wanted to say those words. 

But feeling his brilliant genius trying to physically move away after daring fucking Hydra to try harder , he couldn’t.

He didn’t even fully know what he wanted to do. He wanted to scream at Tony. Wanted to yell until he was hoarse. How could he do that to them? How could he? Didn’t he know that they loved him? Fuck, most of them had said it to his face! Just now!

Didn’t he know how much they had suffered because- Didn’t he understand? 

He wanted to hug Tony close. He wanted to beg him to stop. To please, please take care of himself. To not dare them. To take it back. To realize they would fall apart without him.

He wanted to put him in the Hulk cage and guard him with all he got.

He wanted so badly to tell him I love you and you can’t get killed. I don’t know what I will do if you die. I only know I will break even further. I love you and I will not be able to go on. Don’t do this to me.

He wanted to shake him until he finally understood how important he was.

“I’ll help him.” Clint growled, threateningly, before leaning on Tony. “You’re such an asshole. Don’t think we will let anyone get to you.”

“Clint-”

“Apology or silence.” Nat said, her voice hard and cutting.

“This is my fault.”

“If anything, it’s my fault.” Steve hissed, the anger bubbling too close to the surface. It also was an easier reaction than admitting everything else. “Should I ask them to kill me?”

Tony stiffened, turning in their grip as good as he could. “No, you-”

“Should I ask them to try harder? They weren’t able to kill me 70 years ago, they really should-”

“No!”

Then why did you !” Steve barely recognized his own voice.

“They want something from me, Steve, I don’t know what, but-”

It doesn’t matter !”

“Of course, it matters.” Tony’s voice was too quiet. Too calm. He had known this would happen. He had fucking known, and he had still made the tweet. 

His whiskey-coloured eyes were open and honest. Steve could see guilt there, pain and fear. Acceptance.

It made everything worse.

“Why don’t you trust us?” The question was out of his mouth before he could stop it. Would he have stopped it?

Tony flinched hard, looking back with his big brown eyes that could break Bambi if the genius wanted to.

Right now, Steve didn’t feel any of the emotions pressing down hard enough to suffocate him. He just wanted an answer. He wanted to understand why Tony would go above and beyond to protect and help them, all of them, but not trust them to help him.

The hurt in Tony’s eyes had intensified, but now he hid everything behind one of his masks again. Everything aside from his frustration. Still, he didn’t try to dislodge either Steve or Clint. 

“This is not about you.”

“Isn’t it?” Steve leaned a little closer. In any other situation he would think about how close he was to kissing Tony. Right now, all he could focus on was the rapid heartbeat hammering in his ears and how to control his strength. 

“No. It’s not. Someone wants something from me and-”

“You’re one of us, asshole.” Clint hissed, every word a hard edge to it.

“I know.” The genius said those words almost breathless, before he caught himself. “I know. I do.” He caught Steve’s eyes and held them, drawing Steve in.

“They will make a mistake.”

“Because you think they want to kidnap you from a hospital.”

Tony blinked.

The genius hadn’t come to that conclusion yet. 

“That could work.”  

Steve moved back, looking to the other side of the couch, where Nat had turned to look at him. He knew it could work. Still, he didn’t want to hear the confirmation.

“Fucking Hydra.” Clint groaned. “Only they would be stupid enough to kill when they want to injure.”

Winter growled at that, glaring menacingly at the archer.

“Oh, come on, he would have-”

“Clint.” Natasha snapped, stopping him before he could start.

“Why start with the shooter?” Tony asked, no emotion whatsoever in his voice. “Why not start with the poisoning?”

“Panic.” 

All of them turned to look at Winter. His blue eyes were fixed on Tony.

“Panic the public? Why not attack all of us then? Let me survive and take the rest out?” This time there had been the slightest of waver in his voice. 

Why did he care so much about them and could not even care the slightest bit about himself?

I love you and you can’t get killed.

“Assuming this is right, where does that leave us?” 

“End of the world if you’re the voice of reason.” Tony mumbled, his gaze far away.

“If anyone is not allowed to make that judgment, it’s you Mr. #tryharder.” 

Steve met Nat’s eyes again. If they were right, Hydra would try again. And because of Tony’s stupid tweet they might even focus solely on him. It meant they would have to stock the med bay and make sure Loki and Stephen were available 24/7. 

None of them could go to the hospital until this was solved.

“I took the liberty to order every material that might possibly be needed over a contractor never used before, who has no known ties with the military or every other organization with high probabilities to be used by Hydra.”

“Thank you, Jarvis.”

“You’re welcome, Captain. Sir, Colonel Rhodes wishes me to tell you that he will ground you for all eternity for this. Mr. Winter, he asks you to not leave Mr. Stark’s side for any reason.”

“Jarvis!” 

“Sir, I wish to also use Mr. Parker’s sentiment. I love you and you can’t get killed. I will make sure this is not going to happen.”

“Jarvis-”

“Miss Potts is calling.” The AI, obviously as pissed off as the rest of them, connected the call and Pepper, earning some respect back, yelled at Tony for about fifteen minutes, before demanding they would have a meeting about it in the morning. 

Both Clint and Steve wrapped themselves around Tony before he could even answer. Not that Pepper had given the genius room to answer anyway.

“He will be there, Pepper.”

“Good, thanks, Natasha.” Pepper exhaled noisily. “You better come up with some ideas to un-fuck this situation, Stark, or I’ll have your hide for this. Fucking hell.” Pepper ended the call before any of them could react.

“Nat-”

“Her office is in this Tower, Steve. You know that.” Tony muttered with something like embarrassment in his voice.

He did know that. It didn’t matter though. If there was a way for him to go through with it without losing Tony for good, he would put him in the Hulk Cage, no questions asked. 

“You will not go alone.” 

The genius forehead wrinkled, and he opened his mouth, possibly to contradict Steve, but thankfully Winter was faster.

“No.”

“It’s just-”

“For the love of everything fucking suck it up, asshole!”

“I’m sure, Bruce would be okay if we put him and you in the Hulk Cage indefinitely.” Nat interrupted Tony before he could answer Clint. This, more than anything, showed that Tony really was anything but okay-

“Why would you put Bruce in-”

“Dr. Banner offers to walk there right now, if it will help.”

“This is absolutely not-”

Thirty minutes later they had pushed all of their mattresses and stuff inside of the Hulk Cage, had sent pictures of Tony in the Hulk Cage with Steve and Winter right beside the genius to Peter, the Colonel and Miss Potts, who all approved and settled in for the night.

The atmosphere was tense. All of them tried to be polite in a way they hadn’t been since the beginning.

Tony barely spoke at all, the aftermath of everything finally hitting him. The fact that he didn’t try to move away but rather cuddled closer to Steve was a small consolation. It didn’t quiet the storm in him though. It didn’t stop the thoughts racing through his head. 

Or the fear that he could actually lose Tony because the genius had decided to provoke Hydra without a plan. 

I love you and you can’t get killed.

They hadn’t talked about it, not wanting to risk a new fight, but Steve knew that Tony wouldn’t take it slow. He wouldn’t sit back. No matter what Steve would say or do. Tony did what he thought to be right, no matter what it would do to him. Or, apparently, anyone else. It was one of the qualities Steve loved in the genius. Even if he wanted to strangle him for that exact reason right now.

Then, in the middle of the night, they were woken up by Jarvis – which resulted in a small panic in which Clint, Steve and Winter threw themselves over Tony, trying to protect him while Nat tried to calm Bruce and Thor summoned enough lightning to almost shortage the Cage. 

After calming down everyone, Jarvis displayed the message of bring_the_world_down_with_sparks. She wanted to make a deal. Together Tony and Nat decided on the terms and conditions, while pointedly not talking about anything aside from their immediate task.

The Avengers would get Sparks out if she helped and would work for an organization of their choice afterwards. Tony made it very clear that he did not trust Sparks. Neither did any of them. Best case, she wanted to use them to get her out. Worst case, she was one of Hydra and tried to get to Tony.

At least he didn’t try to hide their contact from them.

It took some time for Steve to calm down again. Even when the others had already settled and even Tony had fallen asleep (which might have something to do with what Bruce gave him, Nat and Clint, to counteract the poison and knocked all of them out).

Pressing a little closer to Tony, he exhaled inaudibly. This day had been a nightmare and Steve really didn’t want a repeat of it. He wanted to forget about it, if only for a few hours. He was almost sure he wouldn’t get that much.

Before he fell asleep, he sent a silent prayer up to the heavens. 

I love him. Please, you can’t kill him.

Chapter Text

Winter was furious. It was a feeling he hadn’t experienced before. Not like this. Not this fire searing his thoughts, that was boiling his blood to a point where all he wanted to do was attack. 

He didn’t. He had seen what feelings could do to yourself if you didn’t keep them in check. 

That’s why he pressed them down. Why he kept them locked up in heavy chains. It didn’t matter though. There was still fire searing his thoughts. His blood was still boiling. 

Because Tony had provoked Hydra. 

Tony had told them to try harder. 

Hadn’t it been Tony telling Winter that they had to work together? Hadn’t it been Tony explaining to Winter that you couldn’t do stuff like this alone? That you were allowed to make decisions for others only if you had no time to talk to them?

Tony had had the time. He had sat there on the couch and written the provocation, sending it out into the world. And he hadn’t said a word. 

The AI hadn’t stopped him. He hadn’t even warned them. 

Didn’t Tony know that Winter needed to know that? Didn’t he know what that could mean. Didn’t he know that he risked himself like that? Didn’t he know that this could potentially endanger the others as well? 

He thought Hydra wanted him injured. But Hydra wasn’t like Tony. They would hurt as many people as they wanted to get to Tony. They wouldn’t care or even use it to hurt Tony further. 

What if they decided he went too far? That they just wanted him dead? What if because of his message to the world, taunting them, they would decide he needed to be an example?

He didn’t know who was at the top of Hydra right now, or if he had ever known. But he knew that there had been handlers in the last years that let themselves be ruled by hatred. They would change a plan just because.

And Tony had provoked them in front of the whole world. Tony thought people were like him, thinking, planning, even though Winter thought, he wasn’t right now. Other people weren’t though. They would want to get revenge. Like Loki had said. Like Thor had said, not everyone was as intelligent as Tony.

Winter exhaled, carefully, thinking there should be flames leaving his mouth judging by the heat cursing through him. The only reason his limbs weren’t shaking with the overwhelming emotions was the fact that he had locked himself down. If he moved right now… Winter didn’t know what he would do.

Tony made Peter cry. Even if that hadn’t been a written down rule, Winter would have known that it was unforgivable. Still, he had done it. Because he hadn’t talked to them. The hurt wasn’t deliberate, Winter was sure, Tony could never hurt Peter deliberately, but he had accepted that it was a possibility and still done it.

Winter was so incredibly angry.

“I need to keep you safe, Peter. You and the Avengers.” 

Of course, Tony had done this to keep them safe. This fact made everything worse.

“We want you to be safe!” 

The pain and devastation behind those words made Tony flinch. Good. Natasha had said you needed to accept your guilt and then do better. Tony needed to feel what he had done. To Peter. To all of them.

Because they all were furious. Angry. Devastated. Betrayed. 

Hawkeye hit Tony. And Winter didn’t stop him. He didn’t even know if he could have, his body still locked up and frozen even while fire raged inside of him. 

Tony didn’t react to it. Didn’t apologize. Didn’t explain. He just provoked them.

When the Black Widow moved, so did Winter. It was reflexes more than anything else as she was a more serious threat than anyone else in this room right now.

Grabbing her around the throat, Winter made himself stop. If he moved further, if he reacted, he would lose himself to the white-hot anger storming through him.

“What will Peter do if you get killed?” 

Winter stopped. Letting her go. She didn’t actually hurt Tony. Not physically. But making him flinch. And Winter couldn’t help it, he thought Tony deserved it.

Thor and Dr. Banner were angry too. Less loud. Less physically expressive. But their words hurt the genius probably worse than the hit or the Black Widow grabbing him.

“You told me we were a team, Tony. You told me we would survive this together.” Dr. Banner took a step forward, pointing accusingly at the genius, a slide tremble to his hand. “ You said, I didn’t have to do this on my own. You said, we were a family, that we would help each other.” 

It was the same thing Tony had promised Winter. Strangely, it made Winter feel better to know Dr. Banner felt like him. Felt betrayed by what the genius had done. Felt betrayed and hurt and… more. 

Both he and Thor left the common floor. That, Winter didn’t understand. He would probably never again leave the other man’s side and glue himself to the infuriating genius if he had to.

He had moved before he actually realized it, standing in front of Tony and looking down on him. There were no words, but it was different from normal. He knew what he was feeling, and he knew the words. But if he said any of them, he would probably not stop. 

“Buttercup…” The genius looked up at him, with something like defeat in his expression. Because he had known. He had known what it would do to them and he had done it regardless. 

Winter tilted his head, daring Tony to explain himself. To say anything to try to justify going against everything he had taught Winter. And apparently also promised to Dr. Banner and to Peter.

“I told you.” It was barely more than an exhaled breath.  

He had. He had said, often enough, he would keep his family safe. He would protect them. That it was the right thing. 

But not like that. And he knew that too. Or he wouldn’t look as guilty as he did.

Protect you .” Winter barely recognized his own voice, clamping down on the feelings raging in his chest as he glared down on the smaller man.

Hadn’t that been their agreement? They would protect each other, because he was one of Tony’s and Tony was one of his? They were friends. Family.

“Promised.” This he said calmer. He had promised to protect Tony. He had promised that to Tony and the AI and Peter and Colonel Rhodes and Miss Potts and the Captain and the Black Widow and basically every other Avenger.

He would keep that promise even if it killed him.

“Winter-” The genius started but Winter took a step back, not able to say more right now.

Thankfully, Hawkeye interrupted him, rudely, telling the smaller man to shut up.

Moving back to the wall, he kept a close eye on all entries and exits while keeping Tony in his eyesight the entire time.

The Captain was really angry, too. 

Then he asked Tony, why Tony didn’t trust them. And the genius flinched badly.

Didn’t the Avengers realize that, at least in Tony’s mind, this really wasn’t about trust? This was about hypocrisy; a word Winter had learned from the Colonel in the context of Tony. The genius did trust the Avengers. He loved them. And he would, and obviously tried to, give his life for them. Because he loved them. And because he trusted them, he knew that they would do the same.

But Tony thought he wasn’t worth that. In his mind, everyone else was more worth than him. It was obvious if you looked at what he said and did. And Winter still had a lot to learn about emotions and how they worked. Still, to him, it was so glaringly obvious.

“They will make a mistake.” There was conviction in his statement. As if there was no other option. And Winter agreed, it was most likely that they would make a mistake, but it wasn’t a certainty. Or the mistake would get the genius hurt even worse or killed.

“Because you think they want to kidnap you from a hospital.” The Captain stated, obviously raining in the feelings that were flashing through his eyes, solely focussed on the smaller man. Who blinked, once.

“That could work.” The Black Widow murmured, earning a desperate look from the Captain, who probably had hoped he was wrong about his idea.

“Fucking Hydra.” The archer groaned, snuggling a little closer to Tony. “Only they would be stupid enough to kill when they want to injure.”

Growling, he glared at Hawkeye. No one made those kinds of comments.

“Oh, come on, he would have-”

“Clint.” The Black Widow snapped, stopping him dead.

Tony, apparently lost to everything around him, tapped one finger to his lips. “Why start with the shooter? Why not start with the poisoning?”

“Panic.”

When everyone looked at him, Winter realized he had said it. And he knew he was right.

Looking at Tony, he also knew the genius followed his line of thought. There were times when it was logical to hide what you were doing. And there were times when it was logical to broadcast what you had done. Killing Tony Stark? It was something to boast about. 

Not that Winter would allow that, of course.

“Panic the public? Why not attack all of us then? Let me survive and take the rest out?” 

No one answered him. 

“Assuming this is right, where does that leave us?” Hawkeye asked, his eyes flickering to Winter before settling on Tony.

“End of the world if you’re the voice of reason.” The genius mumbled, his eyes on a point on the wall, obviously thinking a lot of ideas through at the same time, barely recognizing that he said anything.

“If anyone is not allowed to make that judgment it’s you Mr. #tryharder.”

An hour later they had settled down in the Hulk Cage. It was a calm night, everything considered. Some nightmares, but not as much as possible. 

Winter slept about four hours when Thor swore he would protect all of them to his dying breath and Winter believed him. Sleep didn’t come easy, but he knew he needed it to be able to protect Tony again in the morning.

When he woke up the next time in the early morning hours, just after five, he started texting with Peter, who seemed distressed.

Taking a picture of Tony sleeping between the Captain, who had latched onto him like a leech and Hawkeye snuggled close to the genius, he sent a picture of a lock. 

Colonel Rhodes joined them just before six, looking exhausted and fierce at the same time. Apparently, he and Miss Potts had used the night to think of a strategy. He laid it down like the law and Winter knew there was not much any of them would be able to do to change it. 

It also was a good plan, even if he understood that the Captain rebelled against it as much as he could while trying not to wake Tony who was still sleeping. 

Every Avenger aside from Dr. Banner and Tony were to let themselves be seen outside of the Tower, appearing to be working if they weren’t able to actually do something useful, as the Colonel put it. As the toxicity levels of Tony, Hawkeye and the Black Widow were still dangerously high, they had to make it fast, efficient and without endangering their weakened team members. 

Thor was going to follow a lead with the Black Widow. The Captain was to do the same with Hawkeye. Just for an hour in which the press and people saw them working. Saw them do anything productive.

The Captain only stopped fighting, when the Colonel told him he would stay with Tony until the Captain would come back, underlaying his words with a threat, daring the super soldier to tell him he would risk his brother.

No one said a word about what had happened yesterday. 

When Tony woke up a little later, the Colonel just looked at him, an expression in his eyes Winter couldn’t read. All of them were forced to eat something that Dr. Banner had tested beforehand and the three injured were promised that they would have to stay in bed the second they came back and that Hulk himself would hunt them down if they even thought about prolonging their work.

Tony didn’t make a comment about that.

After breakfast and a quick stop at Tony’s floor (that Jarvis and the Colonel had already vetted before they went upstairs), Winter followed them both to Miss Potts' office. 

Winter didn’t like it one bit. 

Yes, there weren’t that many people allowed on that floor, but more than on the personal floors of the Avengers.

Glaring at everyone, he followed close, listening to the instructions the AI whispered into his earpiece, explaining who did what and an estimated threat level and with what kind of lie they had been sent away from their normal offices today. Winter was not really surprised to learn that Miss Potts' receptionist was trained in self-defence and had served in the army for five years. 

He was still glad, that she had been relocated for the duration of the meeting, emptying the whole floor aside from them and Miss Potts, who was glaring threateningly at Tony the second he stepped inside the office, ending the phone call she had been a part of almost immediately. 

For just a moment Winter thought about stepping between them. That glare was at least as fierce as the death stare of the Winter Soldier. Instead, he moved over to the glass front. Thankfully all neighbouring buildings weren’t high enough to give a good vantage point for a sniper.

“Light of my-”

Explain yourself.

The Colonel sighed, sinking in one of the chairs facing the desk. He placed his phone on the desk sighing when it started vibrating again. Like it had at least every ten minutes for the past two hours.

Tony didn’t say a word. He didn’t smile any longer, not that it had reached his eyes in the first place.

The staring contest ended when Miss Potts threw up her arms, still glaring at the genius. “Next time-”

“There will be no next time.” The Colonel interrupted her, his voice perfectly civil. “Jarvis is monitoring his internet use.”

What?

“Oh, don’t act like you didn’t know.” The Colonel looked up at Tony, who was still standing there, obviously weak but not willing to sit down.

“I told you last time-”

“That was something totally different!”

“Surprisingly, I don’t give a fuck.”

The glare Tony sent the other man was half-hearted at best, before he turned back towards Miss Potts. 

“What’s the status?”

“The stocks have fallen, again, there are open battles on every social media site, every media corporation wants an interview with you, we have received several more threats against you, although none of them seem very credible, the PR department threatened to quit as a whole and I had a two hour call yesterday because May couldn’t calm Peter down.”

Tony flinched. 

“Jenny is coming in a few minutes. She worked out a plan on how to handle Twitter.”

Tony nodded.

“Tony?” Miss Potts waited until he looked up at her. There was still anger in her blue eyes, fury and frustration, but also love.

“He will forgive you. So will we. But you have to fucking stop.”

Winter had never seen Tony that lost and afraid than in that moment. There was real fear in his eyes, panic almost, pain and an uncertainty that no one would usually associate with the genius.

“I don’t know what-” He pressed his lips together, a shiver running through him. 

The Colonel was already there, hugging Tony. Miss Potts was right behind him. Holding both of them close.

“Don’t think we have forgiven you. We’re both very very pissed and I’m still thinking about asking Winter to keep you in the Hulk Cage indefinitely, but it doesn’t mean we don’t love you, Tony.” Colonel Rhodes whispered, probably to make it at least feel like Winter couldn’t hear them.

“Very, very, very pissed. Jesus Christ, Tony.” Miss Potts pressed a kiss to his cheek, before moving back, righting her clothes. 

“I’m sorry.”

His apology was met with silence, before Rhodey sighed. “We know. Thank you, Tony.” He hugged him close once more before looking down on the vibrating phone again.

“Doesn’t mean you get your Twitter privileges back. Or that you won’t be followed 24/7 until we decide it’s no longer necessary.”

“No, Rhodey, you can’t-” Tony started, a small whine to it.

“Sorry, can’t hear you, I’m on the phone.” Colonel Rhodey called over his shoulder before answering the phone a second before he closed the doors behind him.

“How are you feeling, Tony?”

The genius blinked up at Miss Potts as if he hadn’t understood the very simple question. Although Winter knew by now that everything involving feelings was anything but simple. And that Tony really didn’t like giving answers about his health in general. 

“It’s not as bad as it could be.”

“Clearly. You’re still breathing.”

“Pep-”

“Tony.”

Tony growled. “Isn’t Jenny normally punctual?”

“If anyone can’t say anything about other people's punctuality it is you! Especially since she is probably late because of some asshole's tweet yesterday.”

“Pepper! Such un-lady-like words coming from you?” 

Winter relaxed just a fraction as he saw the small smile on Tony’s lips.

“I'll show you un-lady-like, you-”

They were interrupted when the door opened. It was Jenny. She looked angrier and more nervous, but it seemed to be the new normal around Tony.

“Thank fuck you’re here Jen, Pepper just wanted to start to curse and that is brutal .”

“Don’t make me hurt you, Tony.” Miss Potts hissed, her eyes on Tony as he winked at her. Neither saw the heavy steps of the other woman that normally wore high heels like Miss Potts. Today she wore flat shoes. Almost too sensible ones. 

“Hail-”

Winter was already on the move. Already propelling himself forward, to get between her and Tony.

“-Hydra.” 

Tony, just a second behind Winter, threw himself over the desk, colliding with Pepper, as he, of course, tried to protect her and was hopefully being shielded behind the desk. Winter still hadn’t reached her, when he saw her thumb twitch, and everything went black for a second. 

He couldn’t have been unconscious for more than a few seconds when he woke up again.. The formally well organized and way too big office of the CEO of Stark Industries was in ruins. Small fires burned on some paper files, splintered wood and one sad looking plant. Winter had been thrown back against a bookshelf, judging by the way his back hurt despite the protective gear Tony had made him and the books surrounding him. 

His pain was mostly a faint whisper telling him his arm was broken, telling him some of his ribs had broken too. And that he had burns over his arm and face.

That didn’t matter though.

Pushing himself up on his metal arm, Winter learned that he apparently sprained or broke his ankle, too. Probably when the bookcase had fallen on him. It didn’t matter though.

Breathing flatly, he pushed himself out of the debris, crawling forward towards the destroyed and burning pieces of Miss Potts’ desk.

He had barely reached it, when there was a commotion before the doors hanging from their hinges or lying in pieces on the floor. Grabbing for the gun securely strapped to his thigh, he held it up to see the Colonel stumble closer, a bleeding gash on his forehead.

“Tony! Pepper!” There was just the slightest sliver of fear in the Colonel’s words, hidden behind steel and training. 

Winter lowered his gun, already moving towards them again. The Colonel was right beside him with a few running steps, helping him to lift some of the debris away.

Tony had managed to throw himself over Miss Potts. His back was covered in dust, his hoodie almost shredded, blood dampening the material.

“Tony.” It was only a breathed whisper, full of despair, before the Colonel had his feelings under control again.

Carefully, they moved Tony from Miss Potts, neither reacted to being addressed or touched. Colonel Rhodes very obviously knew what he was doing, moving both bodies carefully, making sure they were as good as they could be. 

Both were breathing. Both had a steady heartbeat. Just a few bruises, cuts and mild burns. At least that was what they could see in their short check-up.

“We need to get them out.” The Colonel looked at Winter, meeting his eyes with a question. “Can you carry Tony?”

Winter nodded, carefully cradling the genius in his arms. 

“Are you sure? You look worse than them.”

Winter raised an eyebrow. He had been the Asset. The Winter Soldier. This was unpleasant, but he could work. He could get Tony to safety. 

Standing up with the added weight sent a zinging pain through him, not that he showed it. They needed to get out of here. The fires were small, but the smoke got thicker, they couldn’t know whether or not the room was even safe anymore, even if it had been a small bomb. 

It had to be, or Winter would be dead. He had been right in front of the Hydra spy, already reaching out with his metallic arm to stop her. 

But he had been too late. And now Tony was hurt again. 

One more reason they needed to get out. If the Captain and Tony were right, this was what Hydra wanted. And they couldn’t know whether one of the firemen or whoever else would come to investigate would try to kill Tony, too.

Stumbling slightly, he moved forward, keeping Tony safe in his arms. He heard the movements behind him, knew the Colonel would carry Miss Potts as carefully in his arms.

They needed to get out. They needed to get help. Real help. Dr. Banner. He would still be here. He would be able to help.

Staggering forward, Winter ignored that there was wetness wandering down his back. He also ignored the black spots appearing in his vision. They didn’t matter.

He almost tripped over some broken pieces of the office door, moving forward regardless.

“Mr. Winter!” The AI’s voice sounded as if it came from far away which had probably more to do with the speaker closest to the door being destroyed than with the black spots dancing through his vision.

“Help is coming!”

No, no they couldn’t. They couldn’t trust help.

He clutched Tony closer to himself, his eyes set on the doors leading to the staircase. He needed to get to Dr. Banner. To get to the Hulk Cage. Somewhere they could keep Tony and Miss Potts safe.

“… Mr. Winter?”

He hadn’t listened to what he said. Didn’t know what the AI wanted. 

Before he could reach out for it, the door to the stairwell was being pushed open. 

Reacting just a second too late, he pointed the gun towards their attackers, ready to kill anyone that was a potential threat to them. 

His finger froze on the trigger when he realized who was in front of him.

Captain Rogers. His blue eyes screamed fear and the same battle readiness Winter felt pulsating through his mind. The same decision to fight to his last breath, no matter the cost as long as Tony survived.

Tony would be safe with the Captain.

Lowering his gun, he stumbled forward. The Captain met him in the middle. Pressing the limp body into his arms, Winter whispered one word.

“Help.”

 

Chapter Text

Not having Tony in eyesight was incredibly stressful. But that was all. Just stressful. Nothing more. Because Steve didn’t feel like he couldn’t breathe. He could. Of course, he could. He hadn’t had trouble breathing since he had been injected with the serum and even though it might feel like it right now, the serum wasn’t failing him.

It was just stressful because Hydra wanted to hurt and possibly kidnap the love of Steve’s life, and they had poisoned him, and Tony had provoked them and-

The glass in his hand burst, sending water and shards everywhere.

“I wanted to ask how you’re doing, my friend, but it seems I don’t have to.”

Steve looked up, in Thor’s stormy eyes. The god was tense, electricity almost unnoticeably crackling over his skin.

“We will protect him, Steve. We will do whatever is in our powers to keep him safe.”

Steve nodded, not reminding him that they had failed again and again ever since they had met the genius. He got hurt more often than not and now he had provoked Hydra. There was little they could do other than grab him and put him into the Hulk Cage without his phone, Starkpad, laptop and whatever else he would be able to use to taunt Hydra.

“I will contact my brother to ask for his aid in protecting our Anthony.”

Steve just nodded again. He didn’t trust Loki and couldn’t think about what Hydra would be able to achieve if they had the trickster on their side, didn’t want to even think about it. Would it be worth the risk if there was still the chance that he could keep Tony safe?

Yes.

Yes, it was worth it.

Thor and Nat left about ten minutes after the god had checked on Steve. He used this time to try to keep himself calm. It didn’t work.

“Steve you ready?” He looked over to Clint, who had just come from his floor, dressed in his Hawkeye outfit, where Steve had decided to wear some non-descriptive gear and his shield. They didn’t need to taunt Hydra anymore than Tony already had.

No, he wasn’t ready. He didn’t want to leave the Tower. Didn’t want to understand why it made sense to show themselves in public.

It didn’t matter though. If anyone should stay back, it was Nat and Clint, both of whom had been poisoned as well. Sure, Bruce had declared them fit enough to get up and run around for an hour, but only because they had to keep up appearances. They couldn’t appear weak or divided. He got that. He understood. Of course, he did.

But he didn’t want to. He didn’t want to care what would happen to the world. Hadn’t they all done enough already?

He would never voice those thoughts. How could he? He was an Avenger. He was Captain America. He had gotten those powers and now had a duty to use them for good. And he wanted to. Of course, he wanted to. 

Right now, though, all he wanted was to stay close to Tony and keep him safe.

He still got into the elevator with Clint, letting it transport them into the garage. They were going to use one of the cars Clint had appropriated from SHIELD. The archer had started to make a game of it and as of now, they had three SHIELD cars in the garage.

Putting his hand on the passenger door, he hesitated. The bad feeling in his stomach was most likely nothing more than nerves. Hydra wasn’t as organized as it once had been. And even though they didn’t know how many agents were left, how high were the chances that they would be able to pull off an attack this soon after the taunt?

The Tower was even better secured after Hydra’s last attack on it, with more security personnel, more reach for Jarvis and even more camera’s everywhere. And that was before the extra protection Tony had added to Pepper’s office and the floors on which the Avenger’s lived. 

It didn’t change the churning in his gut, screaming at him to not leave Tony behind. To not give Hydra another chance.

“Winter and Rhodes are with him, Steve. He is going to be okay.” 

He looked up, meeting Clint’s eyes over the car. They had all been with him as Hydra had shot him. They had all been there when Hydra had poisoned all of them. It didn’t really matter who was with him. They could all fail him.

It was that exact moment that something rumbled through the Tower, barely more than a vibration in the stone.

Like someone heavy jumping right beside them. Or like a bomb going off in one of the highest floors.

Steve didn’t wait for the fire alarm. Didn’t wait for Jarvis frantic shout for them. Didn’t even breathe. He was already in the stairwell. Running.

Fuck. Why hadn’t he listened to his instinct? 

He ignored the screams he heard echo through the stairwell, hell, he barely stopped himself from barrelling through the people running down the stairs, trying to get out of the Tower as alarms blared and Jarvis' voice tried to coordinate them.

When running through the panicked people on the stairs got almost impossible, he started to climb the railing, using every method he could think off, to get up to the floor where he knew Tony had a meeting with Pepper.

Begging and pleading, that this was just a coincidence. That Tony was fine. That he wasn’t hurt.

He knew it was bullshit. Knew this was another attack. He knew because he would do the same. Knew it because Hydra wouldn’t be able to let the humiliation stand. 

Pushing the thoughts away, he pulled himself up, starting to run up the stairs again, when less and less fleeing Stark Industries employees ran downstairs.

His heart was beating fast enough to make him think he would be able to pass out any minute now. He wouldn’t. But it felt like it, the erratic beat pulsing loudly in his ears.

Running up the last flight of stairs, he almost threw himself at the door. Even if he couldn’t see the smoke yet, he could smell it.

Pushing the door open, he stopped dead. It had nothing to do with the muzzle of a gun being pointed at him. It had everything to do with the state Winter was in. That Tony lay unresponsive in Winter’s arms. Blood smeared all over them.

Winter stumbled forwards, lowering the gun. 

Reflexively, he moved forward, trying to steady the other super soldier. Getting close to Tony, needing to know he was alive, that he was-

The genius was pushed into his arms and he grabbed him closer, as he looked into the panicked blue eyes.

“Help.” It was a plea. A command. The last of his strength, as Winter stumbled to the side and Steve couldn’t steady him if he didn’t want to jostle Tony.

Winter crashed with his metal shoulder into the wall, sliding down on it.

“Rogers!”

He looked up to see Rhodes, an unconscious and slightly bloody Pepper in his arms. The Colonel had a bleeding head wound but seemed mostly fine.

“We need to get them downstairs!”

He was right. Of course, he was. 

Steve couldn’t move, though. 

Tony was in his arms, bleeding and unconscious. But Winter- Bucky, no, Winter - was bleeding too. He was unconscious, too, and Steve couldn’t leave him again. He couldn’t-

There was another set of running footsteps coming up the stairs and Steve tensed, turning around, his Shield right in front of him.

Clint ran into the floor, his sharp eyes wandering around the hall once, before he moved over to Steve, and held out his arms.

“I can’t carry Winter. We have to move, Steve, now .” 

He knew. And he trusted Clint. With his life. Of course, he did. Still, it was hard to place Tony into his arms. To let go of the genius.

But he did.

Clint, still breathing hard, turned on his heels, while Jarvis told them Bruce was already on his way to the med bay and that he had taken the liberty of informing Dr. Strange about the situation.

Grabbing Winter, he hoisted the other man over his shoulder, feeling the blood seeping right into his clothes, as he followed both Rhodes and Clint down the stairs.

It wasn’t easy to run past Tony’s unconscious form and keep going. It also wasn’t easy to not run faster. To not jostle Winter more than he absolutely had to in his haste to get him to safety and then come back to grab Tony.

Bursting through the doors to the floor with the medbay, Steve pushed the door hard enough that it splintered when it hit the wall.

Dr. Strange stepped out of a room, one hand already raised, which he lowered as soon as he saw Steve. Stepping back, he let Steve run into the room, where he put Winter on a stretcher, before turning, without acknowledging what Bruce said, and running back into the stairwell. 

Clint had gotten only two flights of stairs downstairs, visibly shaking under Tony’s weight.

“Help-”

“I got it, go!”

Once again, Tony’s limp body was pushed into Steve’s arms and he clutched his genius in his arms, running down the same flight of stairs again.

He ignored the broken door and rushed Tony into the med bay, placing him carefully on the bed in the middle, his hand ghosting over Tony’s chest, before Bruce pushed him back.

Biting back a growl, he looked over to Winter. Beside him stood Loki, his eyes closed and one of his hands touching his shoulder, his green magic wrapping around the other super soldier. 

Balling his fists, Steve didn’t know what he should do. On the one hand he wanted to tear Loki away from Winter. On the other he wanted to push him to Tony. 

Instead, he looked back at Tony, before rushing out again, to get Pepper. Tony would never forgive him, if he didn’t do everything he could to help her. 

Running up the stairs again, Steve forced himself to think about nothing but the next step. Get Pepper to the med bay. 

Rhodey and Clint had gotten another three sets of stairs down. Taking Pepper out of their arms, he ran back down, after Rhodes told him, he wouldn’t have to come back for them. 

Good.

Coming back into the room, Loki was now standing beside Tony, while Stephen and Bruce were working on Winter, although Bruce walked over to Pepper the second Steve laid her down gingerly.

“How is Rhodey?”

“Head wound.” Steve’s eyes were on Tony’s grey face.

“Captain?”

It took him a moment, before he nodded, suddenly too wound up and exhausted at the same time to verbally answer.

“Mr. Parker wishes to talk to you.” There was urgency in the AI’s voice and for a heartbeat Steve was back in Germany, when Jarvis had told him he couldn’t inform Pepper and Peter.

Closing his eyes, he nodded.

“Steve, you-”

“It’s okay.” He looked up at Bruce, his facial muscles spasming when he tried to smile. The AI obviously hadn’t been able to calm Peter. Tony, Winter and Pepper were unconscious. Rhodey was injured.

That left him. 

He would be there for Tony’s kid. Because right now, it was the only thing he could do.

Keeping his eyes a moment longer on Tony, he moved back into the hall, pressing his back against the cold wall. 

Then he called the kid.

“Captain Rogers, I-”

“He is alive, Peter. They are all going to be fine.” Because there was no other way. Judging by what little Steve had been able to see, Winter must have thrown himself at the attacker, while Tony shielded Pepper with his body. Both assumptions were more than logical. Not like the scream lodged in his throat that he could have protected Tony and Pepper, if he had been there.

“There was an explosion in the Tower and-” The teen’s voice was shrill, panic, fear and tears all audible, even before he hiccupped. 

“I know, Peter.” Steve exhaled, forcing himself to be calm. “We just got them out.”

“Is… Mr. Stark, is he…?” 

“He is going to be okay.”

The sob that followed hurt almost worse than feeling Tony’s blood run through his fingers.

“Bruce, Stephen and Loki are already helping them, Peter. They will-”

“Mr. Winter?”

Steve stopped. “Yes. He protected Tony. But he is a super soldier, Peter, he will-”

Peter sobbed again and Steve pressed the back of his head against the wall, breathing calmly. He needed to be strong right now. For Peter. For Tony.

He looked up when he heard footsteps, watching Rhodey stumble into the med bay. Clint was supporting his weight.

“Can I come over?”

“Not right now, Peter. We have to deal with the police, okay? Afterwards you can come. And you can call me and Jarvis the whole time.”

“Do you promise?” It sounded younger. More desperate. And hopeful.

“I promise, Peter. As soon as something changes, Jarvis or I will inform you.”

“Okay.” He heard another sob. This one quieter. “I’ll call May now. Tell her…”

“That it’s not as bad as whatever the press is saying. They’re going to be okay.”

“They’re going to be okay.”

“Yes.”

“Okay.” The kid exhaled harshly, as if forcing himself to calm down. He seemed too experienced with it. 

“I’ll call you-”

“Wait, you said all of them. Not both of them. Who… who else...”

“...Pepper. But Winter and Tony protected her, Peter. They are all going to be fine.”

“Hydra is not going to stop before they kill him.” It was said almost emotionless and scared Steve more than the desperate agony.

“We will make them stop.” It was a threat and a promise and desperation, plain and simple. He wouldn’t rest until Tony was safe. Would do anything to keep Tony alive. To make sure Peter wouldn’t lose his father. To make sure the genius was happy.

Peter didn’t answer. Why should he? They hadn’t been able to keep Tony safe before.

“I’ll ask May if we can come over tonight.”

“Okay.” Steve didn’t know what else to do but agree.

Peter disconnected the call and Steve closed his eyes again. Everyone else would have been a better choice to talk to the kid.

“Steve?”

He looked up at Clint, who leaned against the door frame, his expression calm, even if his eyes were hard and cutting.

“Peter.”

The archer nodded. “When does he come?”

“Tonight.” 

“Probably a good idea to wait a little.” He looked over his shoulder and Steve followed his gaze. Bruce was cleaning Rhodes’ head wound, while Dr. Strange worked on Tony and Loki on Winter. 

“How are they?”

Clint glanced up at him. His mistrust and hatred towards the Trickster god were almost unbroken, not that Steve could be reproachful about it. Hell, he didn’t trust Loki either. But right now, he would take anything, as long as all of them survived Hydra.

“They’re going to be okay.” Bruce said, calmly. It was his forced calm, but as no green flashes were visible in his eyes when he looked over to them, Steve didn’t think they needed to worry. Right now.

Steve opened his mouth to ask for more than the calming platitude he had given Peter but was interrupted by Jarvis.

“Captain, the police is demanding entrance to the med bay.”

The next hours were filled with Steve, Clint and later on Rhodes, Nat and Thor denying the police, FBI, what was left of SHIELD, medical personnel and basically every person who wasn’t an Avenger entrance to the med bay, while simultaneously coordinating the panicked employees, keep the press away and a hundred other things.

As Pepper was out and the whole PR-Team was interviewed by Nat, Colonel Rhodes stepped in front of the press when they were about to start rioting in front of the Tower. The bandage on his forehead prominent in every shot, and told them that it had been a suicide bomber sent by Hydra, that Tony and Pepper weren’t badly injured.

Steve was glad that he didn’t have to talk to the press. He would have most likely started punching people when they asked why Tony’s security had failed again. He didn’t even listen to any more questions, knowing full well, he wouldn’t be able to keep calm.

Instead, he asked Jarvis for news every five minutes until Clint snapped and sent him upstairs, because Steve got on his last nerve. It hadn’t been his plan, but he couldn’t deny he was glad to finally be able to get upstairs again.

Thor stood guard before the broken door to the stairwell, his eyes on the elevator. Jarvis would warn them if anyone would try to get inside, still, it was a good idea to have someone standing guard. Not only were Pepper, Winter and Tony vulnerable, the world didn’t know Loki was back and right now was not the time to let them find out.

Stepping inside the room with the three patients, the first thing Steve saw was Loki, paler than normal, his eyes closed in concentration, one of his hands resting on Tony’s shoulder. 

“Steve!”

He looked over to Pepper. She, too, was paler than she normally was and looked a little shaken, but she was also awake and obviously in control.

Glancing over to Winter’s bed, he saw that Winter was also awake, frowning and obviously ordered to stay put in bed, if Bruce sitting watch over him, was any indicator.

“How are-”

“We’re fine.” She cut him off. “Can you please get me a Starkpad? I need to-”

“You need to rest, Pepper.” Stephen said, calmly and without looking at her from where he kept a close eye on Loki.

“One of my PR team tried to kill us, I need to-”

“We’re taking care of-”

“Bullshit!” Pepper hissed at him, her eyes glinting dangerously. “We need to-”

“Rhodes just made a statement, Jarvis is coordinating every question and the evacuation, Nat is interviewing the rest of the PR team and-”

“Did anyone else get hurt?”

“As I told you before, Miss Potts, no. It was a small bomb. As far as I can detect, it didn’t even damage the integral structure of the Tower.” Jarvis sounded exasperated, as if his never ending patience was starting to run thin.

“I have to-”

“-be a good example for Tones.”

Steve looked over his shoulder, to see Captain Rhodes step into the room, his eyes on Pepper.

“I-” The Pepper Potts didn’t seem to be able to finish the sentence. Her gaze almost far away.

The Colonel stepped to her bed and took her into his arms. “Deep breaths, Pepper, we’re fine. Tony is just a little dramatic, you know that.”

All of them had been kept informed that Bruce and Stephen had decided to give him a mild sedative to keep Tony down while Loki healed him. As all of them knew he would drown himself in guilt or start planning an attack, no one had tried to stop them.

Exhaling harshly, Pepper melted into the Colonel’s hug before whispering “I liked her.”

Steve closed his eyes. He hadn’t known Jenny all that well. She had helped them manage the press for over a year now. Jenny had been professional, quick witted and he had been there when Pepper had told Tony a couple of months ago that she wanted to promote Jenny, because she did such good work, helping Pepper with far more than she had to.

“I know.” Rhodey hugged her closer. 

Being attacked in your own space was never easy, but being attacked by someone who you trusted? It was worse.

As soon as Jarvis and Rhodes had informed them what had happened, the AI had re-evaluated everything they knew about Jenny and had found nothing but a very slim connection between her and a few people who had been at the same college during roughly the same time who had also been found out to be Hydra agents. Nothing more.

Pepper couldn’t have known. Jarvis couldn’t have known. Tony couldn’t have known. All of them would still blame themselves for it. 

A tiny voice in Steve was almost viciously reminding him that Tony was responsible for this attack. Not because he could have known that Jenny was a sleeper agent of Hydra, not because he wanted to endanger any of them, but because he had provoked Hydra. He had dared them to try again. And they had.

The rest of him just wanted to walk over to the still unconscious man and hug him close like Rhodey hugged Pepper. He wanted to make sure that he was protected. Wanted to stop him from doing something else stupid like provoking them again.

Wanted to tell him this wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t his fault that Pepper and Winter got hurt. It wasn’t his fault Rhodey had a cut on his forehead. Jenny would have betrayed them sooner or later. Without his provocation it would have just been later.

Whether he believed it or not, Tony would hate himself for putting Pepper in danger. Would hate himself for Winter’s injuries.

The worst part was, Steve wouldn’t be able to tell Tony that he wasn’t responsible for the attack. 

No, the worst part was, Steve knew there would still be a price to pay. Not only for Tony’s provocation, but because his genius wouldn’t hide now. He would attack. And it was a good strategy. 

His gaze fell back on the ashen face of the love of his life. He wasn’t in the condition to bring the war to Hydra, whether or not it was a good strategy. He was still healing from almost dying, was healing from being poisoned and now-

It wouldn’t make a difference. 

Biting down hard on his tongue, Steve clawed at the calm he was trying to keep since rescuing them. As long as he had had a job to do, it had been almost easy. Standing here, looking down on Tony, it was all but impossible.

He could have lost him again. 

He could have lost Tony. 

Tony could have been dead.

If Winter had been too slow.

If the bomb had been a little more potent.

If…

Loki stumbled and barely caught himself. Winter, who must have waited for it, grabbed and steadied the god.

The green magic around him had dissipated and he opened his eyes, looking up at Stephen.

“He is healing well.” Standing up, he nodded at Winter. “With your healing factor I imagine you will be as good as healed tomorrow.”

Winter nodded, his eyes flickering towards Tony, before he looked back at him.

“Mr. Stark will take some more time, I’m afraid. In case that he manages to stop getting hurt.” There was a new tone in his voice that made Steve uneasy.

“When will he wake up?”

“In the next hour, I imagine.” The Asgardian prince supported himself inconspicuous on Tony’s bed frame when he answered Rhodes, his expression calm.

“That’s our cue, I think.” Stephen stood up, righting his clothes. “Please inform us about any further steps you’re going to take. I know it’s quite inconceivable for you, but I actually have other things to do than to be at your beck and call.”

“Tony is still unconscious, Stephen.” Rhodes said, a small smile playing on his lips.

The Sorcerer looked down on the genius. “Keep us informed.”

“Of course, Dr. Strange. Thank you for coming immediately.”

Glancing towards the AI’s camera in the corner of the room, Stephen nodded.

As soon as they had left, Steve dragged a chair over to Tony’s bed, settling in. He had already taken the other man’s hand in his own before he knew what he was doing. And now, he was unwilling to let go. 

If it was up to him, he would never let go of him ever again. Every time he did, something bad happened. Or at least that was what it felt like. 

Feeling his muscles relax for the first time in hours, more of the suppressed panic and agitation creeped in the forefront of his mind, eating away the forced calm.

Tony was still here. He was alive. 

Rubbing his thumb over the back of the genius’ hand, he concentrated on the almost inaudible whirring sound of the Arc Reactor. Listened to the steady heartbeat and his breathing.

Because Tony was alive. He had taken the second Jenny had given him and protected Pepper.

He was here and Steve wouldn’t allow anyone to take him away. 

Nat, Clint and Thor joined them twenty minutes later, dragging more chairs into the room.

“Fuck.” Leaning back against the wall, Clint looked over all of them, exhaustion obvious in his almost grey face. “If Loki keeps saving us, I might have to stop hating the guy.” While saying that, he glanced at Thor. It wasn’t an apology, but probably as close as he could get right now.

Thor, thankfully, seemed to understand that, as he nodded.

“The PR team is clean as far as I can tell.”  Nat crossed her arms in front of her chest. She too looked like death warmed over. “But, apparently, that doesn’t mean all that much.”

“I hope you didn’t scare them for life. We need them.” Pepper said, furiously tipping on a Starkpad Clint had brought with him, courtesy of Jarvis, most likely.

“What are we going to do now?”

Steve looked up into Bruce's eyes. They were brown and calm, but the way he flexed his hands told a different story.

No one answered. There weren’t that many options left to them.

And Steve knew which Tony would choose.

No matter how much all of them would hate it.

Chapter Text

Waking up, the first thing Tony realized was the numbed pain. The second thing he felt was the familiar grip of a warm hand around his. Calm and grounding. 

Then he remembered Jenny looking at him, her eyes hard and unfamiliar. He had known what she would say before she even got the Hail out. He had tackled Pepper. Had pushed her down behind her sturdy desk, hoping it would give them some more shelter. After that, nothing.

Pushing himself up, it barely registered in his mind that it didn’t hurt as much as it probably should. Blinking into the blinding lights, he ignored the warm hands on him, trying to push him back down on the mattress. Ignored the voices.

He only stopped when his eyes met Pepper’s. She was awake. She was sitting in a bed in med bay, a Starkpad on her knees. Her eyes worried, her complexion a little too pale. But fine. There was no blood he could see. No bandages.

“Pepper?” He croaked, barely able to get her name out after almost getting her killed.

Fuck. Panic flashed through him. He had almost gotten Pepper killed. 

“I’m fine.” Pepper reached out, not really close enough to touch him, but there was a watery smile on her face. Because he had almost gotten her killed. Because he had provoked Hydra and they had used someone he hadn’t even considered to be Hydra. Who he had let stay close to Pepper.

“I’m sorry.” It was a broken plea. He didn’t care. She needed to know he never intended that. Needed to know he would never risk her, would rather-

Pushing herself out of bed, she was on him before the other people in the room could react – or they didn’t dare to get into Pepper Pott’s way. It didn’t matter, because now strong arms were wrapped around him, and his face was pushed into the crook of her neck. 

“I know.” The conviction in her words was absolute. 

It didn’t matter though. He had still risked her life. Had risked Peter. Had risked-

“Winter?”

“Behind you.” She moved them so that he could look over her shoulder, without having to look away. 

Winter was sitting in the bed on his other side. He was pale, too, his front wrapped in bandages. His blue eyes were worried, as if he wasn’t sure what happened. As if he didn’t understand why Tony was near a panic attack. 

As if he actually accepted that Tony had almost gotten him killed. That he had been in the presence of another Hydra agent who could have tried to take him. 

“Buttercup, I-”

Following Pepper’s example, he pushed himself out of bed, a lot slower than the red head. He must have been hurt badly to be affected like that. And he would be, wouldn’t he? Because Rhodey and Pepper had made him Tony’s bodyguard, and now he believed he had to keep Tony safe.

Stepping closer, obviously favouring his right leg, he placed his bandaged right hand on his shoulder, his blue eyes worried but calm. As if Tony deserved that.

“I’m sorry.” He said again, his voice almost more desperate than before. 

His stupidity, his hubris had almost gotten Pepper and Winter killed. He had almost-

The plan to provoke Hydra was still solid. Tony knew the odds. But he should have laid a trap before doing it. Should have known they would react the next day. 

Next time he would be prepared. Next time no one else was going to get hurt. Next time he would stop them once and for all.

“Okay.” Winter tilted his head a little but Tony didn’t understand what he wanted to ask. Barely registered the arms around him. Barely heard Pepper’s voice. And Steve’s. Barely felt it when strong hands turned him, touching his back that had flashes of pain rip through the numbness and panic.

“Tones, look at me.”

He found Rhodey’s eyes. Then he saw the white bandage on his dark skin. Rhodey had gotten hurt. He hadn’t even thought about Rhodey. He hadn’t been in the room with them, had he? What about all of his employees in the Tower? Hydra had attacked them just a few weeks ago. Had killed twenty of them and-

God, he had almost lost Rhodey.

Moving forward, he pressed closer to his brother, needing the contact to know he actually hadn’t gotten his Honeybear killed. The one person that had stayed with Tony ever since he knew him. 

This was it. He had enough. He would stop them, kill them if he had to.

“I need you to breathe, Tones.” Rhodey’s voice was calm and in control. Like Tony hadn’t almost gotten him killed. Like Tony hadn’t risk his life and Pepper’s and Peter’s and-

“Any- anyone else?”

“No, just us.”

Just. Like it wasn’t bad enough for any of them to get hurt.

“Breathe, Tony, come on, you know the drill.”

He had thought he would have enough time. Thought that he would be able to convince the others to lay out a trap today. 

Pressing closer, Tony focussed on Rhodey’s breathing. Focussed on his arms around him. Focussed on Pepper’s small hand on his back, focussed on the way her leg pressed against him. Focussed on Winter’s hand on his shoulder. Grabbing tighter onto Steve’s warm hand grounding him.

It took him minutes of breathing. Minutes in which he was cocooned between those people that he had risked. People who would be so much better off without him. 

He was exhausted when they helped him lay back on his side, because, as the skin of his back had so helpfully informed him, he had been burned. But it didn’t matter, because Pepper was fine-ish and Winter was hurt way worse than him. And it was all his fault.

Loki would be able to get him fight-ready. He didn’t need to be fully healed, just enough to play the bait. Hell, it would be better if he was still somewhat injured. It would make Hydra overconfident. Like he had been. 

Looking around tiredly, he saw that the others weren’t there, which almost sent him into another panic attack, before they informed him, they secured the higher levels, as all of them would stay there for the foreseeable future. The Hulk Cage – thank fuck – was too small to fit all of them.

His mind was racing, overthrowing himself with possible ways to get the others to agree to his plan.

After getting the okay from Jarvis and the murder twins, all of them were relocated to the common floor. Winter was placed right beside Tony on the mattresses, glaring at everyone but letting them pamper him, because they had convinced him that would make it easier to get Tony to rest.

And they were right. Tony would do anything to make it easier on Winter. As soon as this was over, he would plead with Rhodey and Pepper to fire Winter as his bodyguard. He should never be forced to injure himself just to protect Tony. If he wanted to protect someone, he could become Pepper’s bodyguard. She clearly needed one.

Tony must have fallen asleep between planning what to do next, how to keep all of them safe and being force fed, because now, he had an arm full of a sobbing Spiderkid.

“I’m okay, Peter.” He mumbled, holding the kid close. What had he done to deserve this kid? Or maybe more accurate, what had Peter done to be punished with Tony?

There was no question in his mind that Peter was not going to be a part of the plan, whatever the Avengers would agree on. 

Pressing his cheek to Peter’s lock he closed his eyes.

“It’s okay if you hate me right now, but I… I love you, too.”

Peter’s whole body shuddered, before his arms constricted Tony’s. The grip lessened a heartbeat later when Winter moved slightly, probably tapping on the kid’s arm.

“I don’t hate you.” Peter’s voice was quiet. “But you can’t do that again.”

“I’m sorry, Peter.” He hugged the kid a little closer, feeling the shuddering breath the teen exhaled.

“Next time, I’m going to-”

“Next time?” There was dread in the teenager’s voice.

“I… We have to stop them.” It had been a close call, but he managed to change the sentence when he felt the glares hit him. Looking over Peter’s shoulder he saw all the Avengers, Rhodey and Pepper stare at him. Viciously.

They would stop Hydra. Tomorrow, if Tony had a say in it.

Peter nodded, rubbing his face over Tony’s shirt.

May dragged Peter out of the Tower after dinner, which Tony was barely able to stomach. Instead, he used the time to watch everyone. 

He saw Pepper stare at the wall and flinch at loud noises. Saw Winter move more carefully than he had ever moved before.

Saw all of them watch him out of the corners of their eyes, as if they thought he was about to throw all of them under the metaphorical bus again. Not that he could fault them for it.

Saw Steve’s eyes linger on him with something between desperation and frustration. 

Hell, all of them should be screaming at him. They should tell him they had known. That he had fucked up. That he had risked all of them. That he, the supposed genius had been, once again, fucking stupid. 

Instead, all of them settled around him, Pepper and Winter, making sure to keep them in their midst. Keep them safe. As if Tony deserved it after risking all of them. 

Nat and Clint, who had stayed too long on their feet were forced to take some medication as well, while Thor and Steve decided that Thor would keep watch for the first few hours and Steve for the rest of the night.

Bruce must have slipped something in Tony’s drug cocktail, as he was knocked out almost immediately after taking it.

At least he learned that he had knocked all three of them out, which both Clint and Nat were pissed about.

Steve had curled all around him when Tony woke up, not pressing down on his sore muscles or back, just keeping him warm and motionless – which might be the actual reason behind it. Because it definitely wasn’t what Tony wished so desperately. 

On the other hand, he might have to be thankful Steve cared at all after what Tony had done.

Pepper, his lovely, rational Pepper, demanded to be checked over the second she woke up, glaring at everyone, until Bruce gave in and took her up to Tony’s floor to examine her in one of the guestrooms on Tony’s floor.

Rhodey used that as the cue to pry Steve off of Tony and drag him upstairs too, to get him properly cleaned up. They didn’t talk much aside from the promise Rhodey got out of him to not do anything without talking it through with at least one of them.

“I didn’t want to-”

“I know, Tones.” Rhodey grabbed his shoulder and held him tight. Or he might hold him still, so that he had to look in the exhausted and worried eyes of his best friend. “You would never risk Pepper. Not deliberately.”

But he had. He had put all of them in harm’s way.

“I know you’re planning something, Tony, and I can guess what that is, just…” There was a hint of desperation in Rhodey’s voice and it all but killed Tony to have put it there. “You can’t kill yourself, okay? No more stupid shit like this. My heart can’t take it.”

Then he had hugged Tony, pressing him close against himself. “I love you, Tones, you know that.”

He did. Of course, he did.

Pepper was declared fit to leave after breakfast, although she would be followed by Rhodey and Happy and two people from Stark Industries security personnel that Jarvis had re-evaluated last night and was reasonably sure weren't Hydra.

Tony hated it. But he understood.

But just one glance towards any of the others assured him that he shouldn’t voice his complaints. Especially when he had to do what he knew he had to do.

Hell, all of them probably knew what they had to do now. No matter that they didn’t want it.

No one voiced it though. Even if Tony saw the glances. The rest of the Avengers circled around him as if he was a wild animal that they had cornered. 

Wasn’t it the other way around? 

It was Tony’s stupidity that was forcing their hand. Not that there had been a lot of other options he could have taken. But that didn’t matter. He should have known they still had at least one spy in Stark Industries. Should have known they wouldn’t wait. Should have known that he needed to have set the traps beforehand. That he should have ignored everyone and make himself vulnerable enough for them to go after only him. Should have never risked any of his family. Not freak them out. Not make Peter cry. Not-

Steve placed his hand on his shoulder and squeezed it comfortably. Reassuringly. Even if Tony didn’t deserve it.

Dumbledore and Loki showed up a little after breakfast, Loki seemingly tired, even if he hid it well. Not that Tony would expect anything less from the Trickster.

He started with Winter, his expression not showing any emotion. As Tony had watched Winter carefully, he was almost certain the super soldier was almost back to health, not that that was any excuse for getting him hurt, of course.

“Do you wish me to-” Loki started but Winter shook his head hard, before pointing demandingly at Tony.

“I will heal Mr. Stark whether or not-”

“Tony.” Winter all but growled and Tony wanted to hide. How did he deserve any of them?

“Buttercup, I-”

“Healed.” Winter growled, daring Tony to contradict him.

“He is right. The last of his injuries will be healed in the day and shouldn’t give him much discomfort.”

Biting back the demand that he shouldn’t be in any discomfort, Tony just nodded. He needed all of them if he wanted to pull this off and there was still the very plausible chance, they would just drug him and throw him into the Hulk Cage. 

Even after everything, he felt all of them tense when Loki stepped closer reaching out with his hand. “How are you feeling today, Mr. Stark.”

“Surprisingly good, and I think I have to thank you for that.”

“It wasn’t me who protected you.” The green eyes were seemingly indifferent, but Tony didn’t believe that even for a second.

“No, you just healed the worst of it.” Letting his gaze flicker to Winter before looking back into the Trickster’s eyes, he wished he didn’t have an audience for all of this. 

“Thank you.”

Loki inclined his head. The by now familiar magic seeped into his body and Tony felt himself relax against his will. At least the others would see it. The fact that Clint was here right now and just staring at the god was more than Tony had hoped for.

“How would you propose to take down Hydra?”

Loki’s eyes bore into his own, almost challengingly.

“I swore an oath, Mr. Stark, to use my powers to protect and defend. Breaking that oath would result in my death.”

Tony blinked up at the god, searching for even the smallest hint of deceit, even though he was sure, Thor would correct him, if it wasn’t the truth. He didn’t.

That would make the next step easier. Not only because Loki had said it in front of all of them, making him more vulnerable, but also because there was a chance the rest of the Avengers would be too stunned to interfere. Or at least not as much.

“I didn’t ask for your help.”

“No, you want me to offer it. I told you before, everything has a price. What is my help worth to you?”

“If it keeps my family and my people safe?” Tony leaned forward in his strong grip and ignored the death glares thrown his way. “Everything.”

“Tony!”

“That isn’t clever, Mr. Stark.” Loki seemed almost uneasy. 

“Isn’t it? You said you’re healing me for your brother’s sake. Thor loves this world. He is one of it’s Avengers. If you were honest about it, you will not demand anything I won’t be able to give.”

“You might still not want to.” There was something else in the Trickster’s voice. Something like regret and loss.

“As long as my family and my people are safe-”

“And you!” Steve growled from right beside him, glaring down at Tony, his fists shaking at his sides. “You have to be safe, too, Tony.”

“Steve-”

No.

“Do not worry, Captain. All of you are chosen Shield brothers of my own brother. Now, with a sound mind, I would not want to hurt any of you.” 

Would not want to hurt you. Not would not hurt you. 

Steve, as it seemed, heard the distinction too, as he stepped closer to the god, almost threateningly. 

Grabbing his wrist, Tony tugged him back, or at least tried to. “Good to know. Let’s hope that we don’t need your pricey help, then.”

Loki looked back at him, not answering. And why should he, Tony would be dead if Thor hadn’t gotten his brother.

It didn’t matter. Loki would help them. As it would be tremendously stupid to announce his presence ti the world, Tony had never planned to use him openly in a fight. But his cursed magic could be an asset. 

Healing, surprisingly, was still taxing on the body, which meant Tony fell asleep during it – which was as disturbing as it sounded, especially since he was better. He was!

It also meant that the others were almost relaxed when he woke up again. Clint and Nat had apparently been ordered to lay down again. That was the only reason Tony could think of why he lay between them, while Steve sat just beside them, looking troubled.

Glancing behind him, he saw Winter and Thor guarding the windows and entrances, while Bruce worked on a laptop at the kitchen table.

“Hey there, Sleeping Beauty.” Clint nudged him in the side, smiling, even if it was strained. “You okay?”

He did not deserve any of this.

“I’m sorry.”

The silence that followed was telling and Tony, as the coward that he was – even if he would deny it to his last breath – didn’t look at any of them, rather told it to the room than anyone especially. Even if all of them would deserve a better apology.

He said it because he really was sorry. For what he had done to them. For all the trouble he was. That Hydra wanted to get to him, and they got in the crossfire. That he couldn’t communicate. For worrying them. For fucking up again. For being about to ask for their help. For forcing all of their hands. 

“And?”

Looking up at Clint’s waiting expression, he was glad to not even see a slither of anger there. There was literally no chance in all the multiverses that they weren’t still furious with him, but right now, at least Clint didn’t seem to want to get into it. His expression was that of Hawkeye. Ready for battle. 

Thank fuck. 

“Nothing. Just… I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, I don’t believe you.”

“Clint!” Steve growled, moving forward and placing a calming hand on Tony’s knee, glaring the archer.

“What? We all know it’s bullshit!”

“I don’t think so, my friend.” Thor interjected, a frown on his face. “It takes strength to-”

“Not that part. He is sorry, yes, we know.” Looking at Tony again, his expression softened just a little, as if to make sure Tony understood that he hadn’t dismissed his apology, even though it would be absolutely okay if he did. It was a poor excuse of one anyway, but Tony didn’t know what else to do.

“I mean the nothing part, because, let me make this very clear Iron Ass, if you apologize for being stupid and then turn around and be stupid again, I don’t care what our Captain decides, you’re going to live in the Hulk Cage.”

“Forever.”

Tony almost flinched when he heard Nat’s hiss right beside his ear. Turning, he was inches from her face, her green eyes promising a very slow death, if he even thought about anything they would consider stupid.

How could they still care that much? 

“Clint you can’t-”

“We can, Steve, and we will.” Nat leaned against his side, pressing close, as if to make sure, Tony didn’t dare to run.

“I’m not going to do something stupid.”

“We will be the judges of that.”

Looking over to Bruce, who was still working on the laptop, Tony felt his stomach drop.

“Let’s hear your plan, then, Anthony.” Thor stepped behind Bruce, placing a calming hand on the other man’s back.

“I’m done with this.”

The silence all around was all consuming.

“We need to start to act, not react, bring the fight to Hydra. We need a plan, and we need to end them once and for all.”

“Thank fuck. Also, we need to learn how to fucking communicate.” Clint let himself fall back into the cushions, smiling up at Tony, almost too happy.

He looked towards Steve, who had lessened his grip on Tony’s leg, but was still holding onto it as if he feared Tony might run. As Nat was also still pressed to his side and Winter, Thor and Bruce were eyeing him almost suspiciously, they must have decided his flight risk was high when he had been knocked out.

Fantastic. 

“And what did you come up with?” Steve asked, his voice almost unnaturally calm. Tony would have bet his billions and Jarvis, that all of them had already gotten to the same conclusion. There was no other option for them, really.

“We lay out a trap.

“Knew it!”

“We all knew that.” Nat said, rolling her eyes at Clint before looking back at Tony. “Details. Spill.”

Tony sighed, forcing a smile on his lips. The fact that he wasn’t screamed at, tackled or immediately sedated and thrown into the Hulk Cage, which apparently, was now their very own prison, was a sure sign that they all knew that, too. Whether or not they liked it.

Hell, Tony didn’t like it. But it didn’t matter. Because he would do anything to stop Hydra. And thankfully, the rest of the Avengers seemed to have finally decided to remember who they were. Earth Mightiest Heroes. 

What still almost broke him was the grimness in Steve’s expression. 

“I’m going to be the bait, because, let’s face it, I’m too delicious.” He said, smiling, trying to take the sting out of it.

Actually, he was the only reasonable bait they had, because Hydra wanted him, Sparks had made contact with him and he would never allow Winter to be the bait. Him, they would maybe torture a little, but they wanted something from him which would give the Avengers enough time to get him out before they would make a spectacle out of his death. And that was only if their plan went wrong.

Winter, they would either kill or put back onto a chair, and Tony would never let that happen.

Also, Tony really was an incredible juicy bait for anyone stupid enough to think they would be able to get anything out of him. And Hydra were definitely stupid enough to believe that, even if he had just escaped them together with the Winter Soldier.

“Details” Nat demanded again, settling herself against some fluffy white pillows and making it look menacing.

“We need them to go after me. Directly after me, not some half hearted attempt. We’ll tell them that their attempts get less impressive by the minute and that we know something. I bet Jarvis that Sparks is going to contact us again.” 

“We’ll feed her the same bullshit?”

“Yes.” 

By now Hydra had to have realized that Tony wouldn’t go back to a hospital, so if Steve was right, and that had been their plan all along, which seemed plausible, they would need another way. As of right now he was as secluded as he could be, that meant they would be attacking the Tower with everything they got. 

Tony couldn’t let that happen.

Steve gritted his teeth but didn’t say anything. 

“We’re going to give them everything they need to find out our trap and then find out my schedule.”

Winter stepped behind the other super soldier, glaring at Tony, but not contradicting him. Whether they wanted to admit it or not, it would be a lot easier if they arranged for a situation they could control. In the hopes that they would be able to control it. The problem with working against stupid people was, sometimes they were too stupid for clever tricks. 

Also, luck was with the incompetent. 

It would also be easier to only try to protect Tony and not the whole Tower. If they did it right, they might even be able to use Loki in his limits and to their advantage as there was a reasonable chance that Hydra didn’t know about him.

“And how do you propose we will accomplish that?” Thor asked, his hand still on Bruce’s shoulder, standing closer to him than necessary.

Two hours later, Tony posted a short video of himself on Twitter. It was barely one minutes long and he had gotten it in the first take – of course he had – but as the Avengers, Rhodey, Pepper and their new public relations minion, who had been grilled by Nat and Pepper and had been vetted by Jarvis three times, had to agree to the plan and afterwards to the video, it had taken them almost two hours. 

And that included the ten-minute phone call Tony had with Peter in which he explained to the teen what they had planned and that this was a team effort - which did not include the teen.

He hadn’t felt as young as he had while basically asking Peter for permission to post the video than he had in years.

The tweet was short and to the point Gotcha #Hydratriedagain #wearefine #wearecomingforyou

The video opened on Tony sitting relaxedly on his couch (they had pushed the mattresses aside to make it look like Earth Mightiest Heroes weren’t having a permanent slumber party in their own living room. Curiously enough, Pepper and Micky, the new media person, had insisted on it).

“Hey everyone, guess what, Hydra tried to blow me up yesterday, you might have heard of it. Pepper and I are fine and so is my bodyguard. Someone seemed to be not as experienced with building bombs as they might want to be. Don’t worry, they made a mistake, so now it’s hunting season.” At that Tony smiled viciously at the camera. 

“See you soon, Octopus people, we’re coming for you.”

Surprisingly, Twitter crashed again.

Chapter Text

Winter hated the plan. It was a good plan. Solid. Logical. 

And he hated it with a passion. Even if he was glad, they were finally doing something. Were finally going to do more than sit around and glare. 

The only problem: he was in a warehouse somewhere outside of New York, moving crates to build a deliberate maze with the Captain and Thor, preparing it for the trap they all had agreed on. Which meant Tony was on his own in the Tower. With Dr. Banner, Hawkeye, Black Widow and the Colonel, sure, but without any of the super powered people who actually could take a hit.

Also, as this was the fake trap, they had basically flown on street level and as far as he could say, they hadn’t been followed, which had been half of their job to do. They had even given Hydra an hour to put spies on their tale and they had failed to do that.

After Loki and Dr. Strange had left, the Avengers and Winter had sat down around the genius, Hawkeye and Black Widow had been told to lie down and take some more medicine, as both had declined to be healed by Loki.

The archer had looked from Tony to the Captain, his expression set, and asked “What’s the plan.”

The Captain hadn’t said anything, just looked down at Tony, something like desperation and hope and fear in his eyes. As if he couldn’t look away even if he wanted to.

“He will want to lay a trap and be the bait.” The Black Widow said. Calm. Hard. 

Winter growled. Because she was right, Tony would want to do that. Of course, he would. He was a hero. And although Winter didn’t want him anywhere near Hydra, they needed to do something. 

He had been itching for a fight since… for a while. Since almost losing Tony when he got shot. Since he found out that Hydra had tried to poison all of them. But now, after they tried to blow up Tony and Miss Potts? 

He was done. He wanted to find them and destroy them . So that they would never be able to hurt anyone ever again. Especially not Tony. Or Peter. 

“Good.”

“Good?” Steve looked up, meeting the hard gaze of the archer. 

“Yes. Good. We have to bring the fight to them. We all know it, Steve. Fuck, we should have done it the second we knew Tony was going to be fine.”

He was right. But Winter remembered. None of them would have been able to. Still, he was right. They needed to fight. They needed to stop them. They needed to act. Right now. And before Tony could do it on his own.

Because Tony would do it on his own. And that just wasn’t an option. At all. Looking around, all of the Avengers knew it. All of them would fight with him.

“Do we have any idea what the genius is going to do?”

“Annoy them into taking him. Laying a trap or two. Using Loki and Sparks to get to them.” The Black Widow said, tapping on a Starkpad. “And judging by his reaction, he will want us to help.”

That was good. It was right. They needed something good. Needed something right. 

Nothing had been good. Or right. Tony had gotten hurt again and they hadn’t done anything. The guilt inside of Winter, cold and heavy, was almost burned away by his fury.

“That is something at least.” Hawkeye answered, his gaze snapping to Tony before looking at Winter. A moment later he knew why.

“He will not want you with him. It’s too risky for Hydra to get his hands on you again.”

Winter looked back in the almost emotionless green eyes of the Black Widow. Guilt and anger flashed through him. And fear. He would rather kill himself than being dragged back there. Would rather gut himself than become their weapon again. 

But he needed to protect Tony. Because he knew what they were capable of. He knew what they would do to him. For disobeying them. For humiliating them. For refusing them. For taking away their Asset. 

“You took that better than I thought.” Hawkeye moved a little around in the cushions and pressed closer to Tony, almost unnoticeably. 

“We can’t just let him wander out there.” It was nothing more than a token protest of the Captain. No one thought that or Winter would kill them, but on the other hand, bait had to at least look accessible. 

“Of course not, my friend.” Thor said, his eyes wandering from Dr. Banner, who was working on a laptop and didn’t seem to listen, if you ignored the way he tensed again and again before forcibly relaxing his muscle, to Steve. “My brother is the more experienced in subterfuge, but I am sure we are able to come up with a plan to foil our enemies attempts.”

Winter hoped he was right.

After preparing the warehouse, the Captain and Thor were going to another Stark Industries warehouse that was used to store weapons and would try to make enough ruckus to alert Hydra and or the media. 

Winter returned to the Tower, as the other warehouse wasn’t empty, and it should look like official Avenger’s business. And he wasn’t an Avenger.

He found Tony, Hawkeye and the Black Widow working on several different cover stories and one best suited to be told to bring_down_the_world_with_sparks. The hacker had not made contact yet, which nobody seemed to be concerned about just yet. It was early evening by now and although Loki had promised that he had healed Tony as much as he could, the genius looked exhausted.

It didn’t slow him down though. He looked a little like he had when Winter had observed him in his workshop: full of energy, knowing what he was doing and determined to finish whatever he had started. 

Winter had almost forgotten it, after watching the Avengers break and break again. These were Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. And right now they were on the warpath.

Tony was Iron Man, someone who had destroyed his captors with the tools they had handed him to build weapons for them and had burned them to the ground.

Natasha, a woman who cared deeply for her chosen family, was the Black Widow, who had survived the red room and was on par with the Winter Soldier.

Clint, who barely could be taken seriously, was Hawkeye, a spy rivalling the Black Widow.

Dr. Banner, although mostly mild mannered and quiet, was the Hulk. And both of them would protect their family with everything they had.

Thor, although friendly and good hearted, had fought wars long before any of them had been born and Winter was sure that he could be ruthless.

The Captain, although barely able to step away from Tony since Winter had met him, had been a Soldier in World War II. He had fought Hydra without any hesitation and Winter, knew he would do the same again.

They had been broken, had been down, had needed to remember who they were. But they had. And now they were going to remind Hydra and the world.

Winter would help them. Even if he wasn’t sure who he was. Not Bucky Barnes anymore. Not the Asset. Not the Winter Soldier. But these people had taken him in. Had made him one of theirs and now he would help them take down those who had taken everything from him. Who were trying to take something from him again. But they wouldn’t. Never again.

“Are you really sure you want-”

“For fuck’s sake, Clint!” Tony growled. “Do you have a better idea?”

“You said your trackers were almost undetectable.”

“Yes, and the keyword in here is surprisingly, almost . I didn’t have time to implant more inside my body and there is the chance that they will make me strip, in which case, bye-bye trackers.”

“Not if-”

“Clint.” The Black Widow said, not being able to stop the other Avenger in his track.

“We don’t know what Loki will demand for-”

“He hasn’t-”

“That doesn’t mean-”

“Dumbledore said his reach-”

“- might be not strong enough and that is only if we all fuck up and they-”

“Looking at our track record right now, I don’t think-”

“Enough!” The Black Widow hissed, menacingly, finally stopping the other two Avengers.

As far as Winter had been able to understand from their fighting, Loki and Dr. Strange had been contacted while he had been helping to set up the false trap and it had been decided to put something like a magical tracker on Tony in case he was going to be actually taken and Hydra would find all the trackers Tony planned on putting on himself.

Winter approved even though he clenched his fists hard. They couldn’t let Hydra take Tony. Last time he had been lucky. Winter had defected while holding Tony. Next time, he wouldn’t be so lucky. Next time, they wouldn’t give him the chance.

“Nat, you can’t-”

Before the Black Widow could kill Hawkeye, and judging by her stare she was about to, a circle of light erupted in the hall.

“Speak of the devil.” Tony groaned, turning around to it, murmuring something about making his Tower magic repellent. 

That was actually a good idea. Even though Winter had no idea how he would be able to do that.

Loki stepped out of the light that dissipated behind him and Clint groaned.

“Don’t you have someone else to annoy?”

Looking at the archer, the god inclined his head to the side. “No one knows I’m here and I’m under strict rules to keep it that way. Also Mr. Stark-”

“Tony, Reindeergames, this is weird enough without dragging my father into this.”

Loki’s green eyes flashed over to Tony, some emotion vanishing almost the same moment it had almost settled in them.

“Tony, then.”

“Splendid. So, what is it you want?”

“The Sorcerer Supreme-”

“We call him Dumbledork around here.”

“-wants me to inform you, that he thinks my magic will be the better option to settle on, as it is still in you.”

“Thanks for not making it sound creepy.” Tony said as Clint was looking like he was about to throw up.

“You’re welcome.” Loki answered. Only the glint in his green eyes betrayed his humour. Something that could be potentially dangerous, even if, as far as Winter was aware, Loki hadn’t done anything other than heal Tony, Miss Potts and him. Even offering it to the others.

“What do you want, Loki?” The Black Widow asked, calm and collected, although she was playing with a pencil, she had taken notes with and Winter was absolutely sure she would be able stab Loki with it, even if that might not even hurt him.

“My brother informed me that-”

“Sir!”

Winter was on his feet, his gun cocked, before the AI could even get out another word. His voice was enough to let his blood freeze.

“Jarvis, what-”

The TV in the living room started a news broadcast. The Black Widow and Hawkeye were already on their way over, Tony right behind them, a worried expression on his face. 

Looking over to Loki, he let the god walk in front of him, just in the off chance that he had anything to do with it.

He heard the words before he saw the TV, seeing a distraught reporter trying to explain what he had seen.

“-uploaded just now. Younger audiences should not see this, I- okay, we’re not going to play it, and as I hear right now, Twitter is trying to remove it, but-”

The screen flickered before it went black and white letters appeared: 

#youknownothing

#comingforthelaststark

Winter froze in his movement. And so did Tony.

“What-” Clint started but was interrupted when the screen flickered again, and a grainy video was played. Of a snowy road. A car crashing into a tree. The time stamp displaying PM 7:01. Dec. 16 1991.

Winter didn’t remember the road. Didn’t remember the day. Didn’t remember anything about it. But he knew. Because Tony had told him.

“Tony.” The Black Widow was in front of the genius, putting a hand on his shoulder, as if trying to move him. 

Tony didn’t react. He stared blankly at the screen. Like Winter. Staring at what he had done.

A bike stopped beside the car while the driver’s door was being pushed open and a white-haired man fell out of it. 

The black clad driver of the bike walked over. Smooth. Emotionless. Grabbing the man by his hair and dragging him up. Before bashing his head in. Letting the corpse fall to the ground. Before picking it up, placing the lifeless body on the driver’s seat again. 

Then he walked around the car. Slowly. As if he had all the time in the world. It wasn’t easy to see, but from the way he stood, the man must be strangling someone on the passenger’s seat. With his right hand. 

His flesh hand.

It took only a minute. But it felt incredibly longer. 

Then the man walked around the car again, towards the camera. His face was hidden behind the Winter Soldier’s mask. But the eyes were his own eyes. Even if there was no life in them.

He raised the gun in his metallic hand, looking directly at the camera, before he pulled the trigger.

The screen was black again. White words appearing on it.

You’re going to die like your parents. 

But this time the whole world will know. 

Hail Hydra!

Tony had said there was video proof. He had been right.

The screen flickered again, and a shocked newscaster was shown as he tried to explain that they had been hacked and that it had apparently been a message from Hydra. That one of the Winter Soldiers as another tweet said it, had killed Howard and Maria Stark.

One of the Winter Soldiers. Because no one knew that only Winter had been the Asset.

He blinked. And Loki was between him and Tony, his back to Winter and his hands held up, as if to calm Tony.

Clint, obviously shocked, couldn’t do much more than grab for a knife on his belt. Not moving from his spot, but ready to get between them if he had to.

Winter couldn’t move. 

The recording had been silent. But it had been good enough to see Howard Stark had tried to talk to him. Had he tried to plead with the Asset? Beg for the life of his wife? For his own life?

“You do not want to do this, Tony.” Loki’s voice was calm, commanding. Understanding. “Hydra is trying to-”

Tony blinked too. Once. Twice. His body moved as if he would have stumbled if the Black Widow wasn’t holding onto him.

He looked towards Winter, before Loki moved, stepping between them. As if to protect Winter. As if to protect Tony from himself.

Tony was Iron Man. An Avenger. And under different circumstances, Winter thought he would have attacked him. He would have fought him. Even if he and his parents hadn’t been like Peter and he were. 

But Tony knew. 

“I know.”

“Let the Widow take you away. It is not-”

“No, it’s okay.” Tony’s voice sounded even more exhausted than before. “I knew.” He took a step to the side, this time obviously stumbling, before he could catch himself. Or rather the Black Widow did.

“What do you mean, you knew?” Hawkeye asked, his voice hard and threateningly, before his eyes flashed over to Winter, worry and mistrust mixing into each other.

“Sparks… I hadn’t seen the… the video.” He cleared his throat, looking to the side. “There was a mission report.”

“You-” Hawkeye looked over to Tony, not finishing his sentence when he saw the emptiness on his expression.

Shaking his head, Tony looked up, meeting Winter’s eyes. “You okay, Buttercup?” There was the ghost of a smile on the genius lips. As if he wanted to smile but had forgotten how to.

As if it was important what Winter thought when Tony had just seen what the Asset had done to him. What the Asset had taken from him. 

The Asset who was Winter and wasn’t him. Who had his face. But looked more robotic than Dum-E. Who had had no expression in his eyes. Who hadn’t hesitated even for a moment before killing two defenceless people. Who hadn’t done anything to him.

Winter nodded. He didn’t know what his expression showed but guessing from the pain flashing over Tony’s it wasn’t any better than what he could read in Tony’s eyes.

“You need some time?”

Did he need time? For what? This was retaliation because Tony had provoked them again and made fun of them. As the physical attacks didn’t seem to work, they had taken another approach. To throw him, throw them all off their rhythm. 

They couldn’t. They needed to focus. They needed to fight. 

He shook his head, before tilting it a little, asking Tony if he wanted to take some time. If he wanted for Winter to leave.

He forced himself to not ball his human hand to a fist. Even if it tickled. Even if he wanted to… He didn’t even know.

“I’m okay.”

It was a lie. Nothing white about it.

“Tony-” 

The genius met the archer’s eyes. 

Neither of them said anything. As if they didn’t have any words left. Then Hawkeye moved forward, grabbing Tony and hugging him. Hard.

The genius needed a moment to react, before hugging him back. His eyes back on Winter. Trying to be calming. And not pulling it off.

“Sir?” The AI’s voice was almost timid. Guilty. 

“It’s okay, Jay.”

“It is not. I apologize, I should have-”

“No. It’s better we know.” 

The weight behind those words almost made Winter almost stumble. 

Loki, a deity from another planet, balled his hands to fists. His expression absolutely neutral as he looked at Tony.

“I am still sorry.” There was a pause and Winter knew, if Jarvis had a throat, he would be clearing it right now.

“Mr. Parker is on the line. He wishes to speak to you, Sir.”

Tony let his eyes close, his shoulders sagging for a heartbeat, before he nodded. He took his cell phone out of his pants pocket and tapped Hawkeye, who was still clinging to him, on the shoulder.

The archer let him go reluctantly. 

All of them stayed close while Tony moved over to the other side of the room, looking out of the window over the Skyline of New York.

Winter didn’t think he saw anything.

“Did you know?”

Winter looked at Loki. He had no words left. He shook his head.

“Tony told him.” 

All of them looked at the Black Widow who kept looking at Tony.

“Tony…” Hawkeye didn’t finish his sentence, just closing his eyes for a moment. “We’re going to end this. Once and for all.”

“Once and for all.” The Black Widow agreed, before meeting Winter’s eyes.

He nodded. Once and for all.

Loki didn’t say anything. Just kept looking between Winter and Tony. As if they were a puzzle he couldn’t solve.

Winter turned away. Trying to not hear Peter cry. Trying to not hear Tony’s warm and calm voice, trying to comfort his child. Telling him it hadn’t been Winter’s fault. Telling him that it had been a long time ago.

Telling him white lies to calm him.

When Tony hung up, he turned around, his expression set. 

“Let’s do this then.” He walked back over to the kitchen island, picking their planning back up where they had left off, discussing different possibilities for Loki to track him in case that Hydra was actually able to kidnap him.

He looked over at Winter and smiled. It was a small one. An exhausted and pained one. But a smile, promising that this didn’t change anything. 

Then Miss Potts called. Telling Tony, they needed to react. Planning a statement to be sent out. Being as professional as Tony was, even if Winter heard the waver in her voice.

His phone vibrated. The display showed a message from Peter. An emoji of two people hugging.

Winter turned around, walking over to the window and looking out over the dark skyline of New York. Watching the thousands of lights get blurry before his eyes. 

Chapter Text

Steve had new appreciation for the minions of all the megalomaniac organizations. He was running around organizing traps and warehouses and fake weapons deliveries for less than twelve hours and he had it.  

It was stupid, exhausting, there was still no one following them as far as he could tell and worst of all, he wasn’t with Tony.

Granted, Tony was with Nat, Clint and Winter so there was a reasonable chance that he wasn’t doing anything self-sacrificing at the moment, but then again, this was Tony they were talking about.

“Fear not, Steve, our Anthony is in good hands and as soon as we defeat Hydra you shall take the chance and confess your love to him!” 

Steve almost choked on nothing. Spluttering, he turned towards Thor, seeing the laughter dance in the god’s eyes.

“Do not take me for a fool. That is your plan, isn’t it?”

Steve didn’t respond, but the blush creeping up his cheeks was enough of an answer.

“This will be a joyous occasion, dear friend! We will celebrate your love and then-”

“Can we start by stopping Hydra?”

“Gladly, but now that we all found our will to fight again, there will be nothing standing in our way!”

Dragging the suspiciously undescribed crates into the warehouse, Steve saw a movement out of the corner of his eye, forcing himself to not turn around. To not appear disturbed. Leaning over, as if to expect the crate closer he mumbled quietly. “Jarvis?”

“I do not see anything. But as the cameras have deliberate blind spots, I do believe that is the point, isn’t it?”

Steve didn’t like it, but Jarvis was, of course, correct.

Sighing, he grabbed the crate and lifted it, not looking towards the spies. His fingers itched to turn around and throw the crate at the spy, run them down and- 

Biting back his frustration, he went back inside and met Thor’s eyes. They were almost done. The Hydra agents had found them. Next step was closing up with the flimsy, at least for Tony, security measures. Then they would go back home. 

Having ditched the Quinjet at their last location and changed for a van, they got back into the car and drove home.

“Captain Rogers?”

“Yes, Jarvis?”

“I feel obliged to inform you that Hydra just hacked all news stations and posted a video.”

“What kind of video?” Steve asked, while simultaneously wanting to pull over to watch the video and drive faster to get back to the Tower as soon as possible.

“Video evidence of the murder of Howard and Maria Stark.”

Steve froze. 

“What does that mean?” Thor’s blue eyes bore into Steve, while he kept his eyes on the road. 

“The Winter Soldier was ordered by Hydra to kill Howard and Maria Stark.” Jarvis' voice was too calm. Too nonchalant. As if he really was a machine without heart. “He did so on December 16 th 19-”

“Stop.” Steve bit out, losing his inner fight and pulling over on the dark street.

“I’m sorry, Captain Rogers, I-”

“Anthony’s parents were killed by Winter?”

Steve closed his eyes and pressed his forehead to the steering wheel.

“Did he- Did they see the video?” Steve wasn’t sure who would react worse to it. Tony? Winter? Both?

The silence was answer enough. Still, Jarvis did answer after a long minute. “They did.”

“Steve?”

Forcing himself to sit back, he met Thor’s eyes. Seeing there the same worry, the same fear and hatred he felt burning through him.

“Did you know?” There was an accusation in his voice.

“Nat found the information when he raided the last Hydra base.” Steve looked out of the front window, watching the shadows dance all around the light of the headlights. “Tony knew already.”

“He knew?”

“Found it out before… just after Hydra kidnapped him in Germany.”

“He knew?” It was the same question, but this time it was full of pain.

Steve nodded.

“Does Winter know?”

Steve sighed. The steering wheel creaked silently under his hands.

“Tony told him.”

Thor didn’t comment on that.

Blinking, Steve exhaled, harshly. Taking his phone out, he opened the screen.

“Show us.”

“Captain Rogers-”

“Show us, Jarvis.”

“My friend, are you sure-”

“The whole world has seen it, Thor.” Steve looked over, seeing his own reluctance in the expression of the god.

“That doesn’t mean we need to see it, too.” Thor said, his voice sombre. "As I understand it, Howard had been your friend during the war. He is the father of your beloved who was murdered by someone who was your brother. You do not need to see this.”

It had been bad enough to hear Thor say it like that. But how could he not watch it when both Tony and Winter had lived it? Could he be that cowardly? 

“It’s not weakness to not subject yourself to something like this, my friend.” Thor moved, putting a heavy hand on his shoulder. “If you wish me to, I will watch it.”

Biting his tongue, Steve shook his head. “Anything we need to know, Jarvis?”

“There were messages before and after the video.”

“Show us, please.”

A picture flickered alive on his phone showing white text on a black screen 

#youknownothing

#comingforthelaststark

Thor growled. Steve broke the steering wheel. 

“And the other?”

The white text changed. 

You’re going to die like your parents.

But this time the whole world will know.

Hail Hydra!

“This is not going to happen.”

When Steve looked into Thor’s eyes, he saw lightning flashing in them. Right now, it was no problem for Steve to picture how Thor must have looked to the humans when he had come down from the sky, bringing the powers of a storm with him. This was the heir to the throne of Asgard. A god. And he would smite anyone standing against him.

Anyone Steve would have left standing, that is.

Ditching the car where they had stopped, Steve let Thor grab him around the middle and fly him back to the Tower. It was not the same as flying with Tony. Where Tony’s movements were smooth as if he was dancing, even with Steve’s added weight, Thor using Mjolnir to propel himself into the air and to his destination was pure power and raw energy. But it was their best option. The fastest option.

Steve hadn’t asked how Tony was. Hadn’t asked how anyone else had reacted to it.

Touching down on the landing pad of the Tower, Steve rushed into the elevator, Thor hot on his heels. They didn’t have to say a word before it descended and then opened again on the common floor.

Jarvis must have warned the others, still, they had their weapons drawn, at least Clint and Nat had. Bruce, who sat right beside Tony, closer than the quiet genius normally liked, had pressed even closer to his science bro, as if to be able to grab him in case he needed to.

Loki was there, too, sitting to the side, his eyes on Thor. The thunderer had asked Steve whether or not he would feel better if he asked his brother to go back to the Tower and keep an eye on everyone while they had been flying to their second location. Surprisingly, Steve had said yes. That had probably been born out of desperation more than anything else.  But he had said yes.

Letting his eyes wander while walking closer to Tony, Steve saw Winter standing at the window front, staring outside.

The warm touch on his shoulder was enough reassurance for Steve to ignore that for now. Thor would look after Winter.

Walking closer to the people sitting around the kitchen island, he saw why Tony hadn’t even looked up. The laptop in front of him showed a chat room, the same bring_down_the_world_with_sparks and he had used before.

Meeting first Clint’s and then Nat’s eyes before looking over to Bruce, he got all the confirmation he needed. They all knew. They all understood. They all were pissed as hell and worried.

Moving to stand behind Tony, he saw the exhaustion in his genius’ expression. He hadn’t moved at all, his eyes fixed on the screen in front of him, as if it bound all of his concentration. Or as if he wasn’t really seeing it.

Just as he was about to ask what all the files where that he could see on the screen, Sparks sent a new message. 

That is all I could get my hands on.

  I’ll read through it. Tony typed.

We do not have much more time, Mr. Stark. Hydra is out for your blood.

Oh really? I didn’t notice.

Good job on hacking all news stations again.

I didn’t want to post that video, Mr. Stark. They forced me to do it.

Sure, they did. 

Tony didn’t even flinch while writing it.

They did! What was I supposed to do? Let them kill me over a video? At least you knew already!

Steve shuddered, involuntary. He didn’t even want to imagine how it would have hurt to see the video without any knowledge about it.

You’re a real peach. Back to business. 

Yes, they want me to hack your servers to find out your plan.

It’s not on my servers.

I noticed.

Remember our deal, Sparks, you send us all the intel you have about them and you’re not going to stab our back.

I remember! Get on with it, I don’t know how much time I have before they realize that I’m not doing what I’m supposed to be doing

If she was anything like Tony while hacking, Steve knew that was a lie. She would be able to hack and plan while chatting. And if she was lying, then she was exactly doing what she was supposed to be doing.

There was a chance that she actually was in need of help. That she had been young and naïve when she got involved with Hydra. But Steve didn’t believe it. If he was wrong about her, he would feel terrible, but if he, Tony and Nat were right, she might not be a part of Hydra, but an opportunist. And those people destroyed as much as the actual followers of any megalomaniac supervillain.  

Tony told her about the warehouse. Told her that he would sneak out tomorrow morning to meet up with someone, he wouldn’t share the info who he was going to meet but heavily implied it might be someone from the X-Men.

Is it smart to leave the Tower on your own?

I’ll have a tracker on me. Don’t worry, even if Hydra would get me, they won’t find it.

Won’t the Avengers find you then, too?

It has to be activated remotely. This is not the point though, is it?

You promised you and the Avengers would get me out.

And we will, but they have too many qualms about violence, sometimes. I plan on eviscerating Hydra.

What did you do to the Asset?

Tony tensed, exhaled, before starting to type again.

That is not your concern.

I showed you his file.

Yes, thanks again, I needed the nightmare fuel. Anything else?

We don’t have much more time.

Don’t worry. We’re coming for them.

Sparks didn’t seem to find that very reassuring as she wrote for a long time, probably deleting and rewriting it again and again.

As long as you get me out, too.

Sure. I’m a man of my word.

Tony was. It didn’t mean that he couldn’t also lie like a politician wanting to be elected president.

Leaving the chatroom, he leaned back in his chair, pressing closer against Bruce's shoulder.

“Anything useful Jay?”

“There is a list of properties used by Hydra, but I would believe it is incomplete. There is also a list of names of supposed Hydra agents. Some of them are interesting, higher ranking personnel in law enforcement and some smaller politicians.”

“Stark Industries and SHIELD?”

“None.”

That was either really good or really bad.

“Check them.”

“Already on it, Sir.”

Before Tony could do anything else, Nat grabbed the laptop and took it with her to the living room, not even looking back to see the half-hearted glare the genius sent her way.

“You should lay down, Tony. You're still not-”

“I’m fine, Brucey.” He had turned to the other scientist, a tired smile on his lips and empty look in his eyes.

“We don’t know how long we will have to play the charade tomorrow. I would feel better if you would rest.” Bruce said, his big brown eyes on Tony, letting him see his earnestness. Using Tony’s weakness against him.

“I don’t-”

Before he could get further, Steve put his hand on the genius shoulder, pressing down gently. He didn’t trust himself to not say the wrong thing, Tony was the one who could comfort with words, so he offered his touch. His warmth. Something Tony seeked out, whenever he was hurt. 

Steve shouldn’t be as happy about it as he was. 

When he felt Tony slump under his touch, he stepped even closer. He didn’t wait for him to say anything, or to remember any of the million things he could also be doing.

Dragging him up from the bar stool, he met Bruce’s eyes, making sure the other man knew he would make sure Tony would rest. 

But not here. Not where everyone was watching. Where everyone was listening. Where Winter was.

Steve knew that Tony wouldn’t think differently about the man. That also meant that he wouldn’t break in front of him. He wouldn’t want to make Winter feel worse than he did. 

Glancing towards the living room, Steve was glad to see Thor had gotten Winter onto the couch and was quietly talking to him. 

One less thing to worry about. Probably.

Steering him towards the elevator, Tony blinked, as if waking up. He met Steve’s eyes, before carefully, moving away from Steve’s touch and back towards the living room.

Steve would have been able to stop him, of course, but he never would.

Watching the genius, it got even more evident how exhausted he was, all of his movements slower and less graceful than normally.

He walked over to where Winter sat, the other man watching him carefully, as if he was unsure whether he wanted to go to him to possibly stop him from falling on his face or run.

Winter did neither. 

All eyes were on them, when Tony leaned forward and hugged Winter to his chest.

“It wasn’t your fault.” Tony whispered, too silently for most others to hear. 

Winter didn’t react for a heartbeat, before putting his arms around the genius and hugging him. Holding him like he was his lifeline.

Tony stood back up when Winter let go, turning around and walking towards the elevator, not acknowledging any of them.

Steve stepped behind him, pressing the button for Tony’s floor. 

Tony didn’t even seem to notice. He let Steve steer him towards his bedroom. Standing in it motionless when Steve took a step back, unsure what the genius needed right now. Heck, he wasn’t even sure he himself knew right now.

Turning around, Steve grabbed his pj’s and went into the bathroom, hoping that would give Tony a clue what to do. Or time to decide what he wanted to do. 

After taking a quick shower, brushing his teeth and putting on the pyjama, Steve went back out to find Tony sitting at the foot of the bed, staring against the wall.

“Tony?” He asked, carefully, before squatting down in front of him and looking up in those beautiful whiskey-coloured eyes that looked like stone right now. The energy normally surrounding the genius was gone. 

“Is it okay if I remove your shoes?”

Tony didn’t react. Didn’t even move when Steve reached out and took his left foot into his hands. 

Not daring to do anymore, Steve put the shoes away and then moved the motionless genius in the middle of the bed, curling around his back and hugging him close.

The silence was heavy and dark. Nothing like the times he had enjoyed the quiet while Tony had slept. Nothing like the times they both had been reading. Or Tony had been working on his Starkpad while Steve watched him, while pretending to be reading or drawing.

Tony moved for the first time in what felt like hours, pressing himself closer into Steve’s arms. 

“Did you see it?” It was Tony’s voice, but barely recognizable.

“No.”

Tony exhaled, his body shuddering under the force.

“It wasn’t Winter’s fault.”

Steve put his chin on Tony’s shoulder. “I know.”

“He…” Tony shuddered again. “He strangled her.”

Steve closed his eyes, pressing even closer. Holding him tighter.

“He-” The sentence was interrupted by a heart-breaking sob and Tony curling in on himself.

Before he knew what he was doing, Steve had turned Tony around in his arms, pressing his face into Steve’s chest and holding him tight, one hand rubbing soothing circles into the other man’s back while he cried silently.

There was nothing more he could say, nothing more he could do. 

One of Tony’s hands grabbed Steve’s shirt, holding onto it like it was the only thing real. Like it was his anchor in a storm. 

It could have been minutes or hours when Tony calmed down, his grip loosening on Steve’s shirt, but not letting go. Where he had hid his face, the shirt was soaked with his tears.

Listening to the genius’ breathing calming down, Steve let his body relax into the mattress. But he didn’t let go of the genius.

Hell, he didn’t know how he was supposed to ever let him go again, much less in a couple of hours to face Hydra.

Some hours later, Jarvis woke them up, his voice full of regret.

Tony didn’t look at Steve when he pushed himself out of bed, his expression grim. 

Swallowing hard, Steve got up as well, dressing in the black tactical gear he had been wearing yesterday. 

He didn’t hear the shower, just the sink.

When Tony emerged, he looked tired and dishevelled. There was steel in his eyes when he met Steve’s.

“Let’s do this then.” His voice was clear and hard. It was the voice of the Merchant of Death, ready to collect the debt of people who had crossed him.

Steve nodded.

The common floor was already buzzing with energy. Nat, Clint and Winter all wore black tactical gear and were armed enough for a small war. 

“Don’t do anything stupid.” Clint said, when all of them moved past Steve and Tony, after a short discussion about the plan.

“Would I ever?” Tony’s smile was sharp enough to draw blood.

When the three assassins were in position and gave the go ahead, Tony put on a black coat, before smiling up at Steve. This one softer than the last one, but still hard and jagged. He didn’t say anything, just turned around and left.

Everything in Steve screamed to follow him. To not let him go out alone. That this was a trap. And it was. The question was, whose trap would work? Who was playing who?

“Breathe, Steve.” Thor grabbed his shoulder and held onto it.

Steve inhaled, turning away from the closed elevator doors and looked into the room, meeting Bruce’s and Loki’s eyes. On the kitchen island were several laptops and Starkpads open and showing different information.

“I see him.” Hawkeye’s voice mumbled. “He’s got a tail.”

Steve clenched his fists. That was the plan. It was the plan. Everything was okay. That was the plan.

Thor pushed a coffee mug into his hands and Steve inhaled the familiar scent, trying to calm his nerves.

Watching the screens intently, they saw Tony walk down the street, as they had planned. He looked agitated. Driven. He didn’t look right or left. As if he was on a mission. As if his mind was occupied with something more.

“Two ahead.” The Black Widow mumbled.

“I see them.” Hawkeye replied, his voice as devoid of emotions as hers.

“Two more tails.”

Steve stiffened.

“Fuck.” Clint breathed and the next second there was a commotion and shots were fired.

“Hawkeye!” Steve demanded, the same second that Nat cursed.

“Tony!” Winter growled. 

Then Tony’s signal vanished. 

“Thor!” 

Both he and the god were already running towards the open elevator. As soon as they were back on the roof, Thor grabbed Steve around the waist, Steve holding onto his shield with everything he got as the god launched them into the air.

It was only three blocks. 

Thor dropped him onto the roof where Hawkeye was battling with three Hydra agents, who must have been able to sneak up on him from behind.

“Cap!” Hawkeye yelled, ducking behind the chimney.

Steve didn’t answer him, just threw his Shield while running towards the second attacker. There was a stinging bite on his arm when a bullet grazed him, but he didn’t even acknowledge it, catching his Shield as it rebounded on the head of the Hydra agent and knocked him out cold. Probably.

Smashing the shield into the face of the one agent that kept shooting at him, he heard the crunching of bones.

When he turned, Hawkeye just let one of his arrows fly, hitting the agent in his chest.

Not waiting to see him fall, Steve turned back towards Clint. “You okay?”

“Peachy. Widow?” He called into the comms.

“Lost him.” She was out of breath, which was enough for Steve to leap over to the new building and kept running, not waiting for Clint. 

“Agent Romanov is on the street, Captain, use the fire escape to your right.”

Steve sprinted towards it, jumping from landing to landing and sliding down the rest.

The agents in the streets were shooting at the Black Widow, who had already killed three of them by the looks of it. 

Throwing his shield again, Steve jumped down on two of the agents, knocking one out with a kick and the other with a hit to his temple. Both men crumbled. Only after they fell to the street did Steve realize he had gotten shot again. Not that it mattered. It was just another graze.

Catching his shield, he turned, hiding behind it, when another agent fired at him. 

Holding the shield in front of him, Steve ran towards his next enemy, smashing the shield into him and ignoring the scream of pain.

“Thor!” He yelled into his comm, while simultaneously jumping beside the Widow, covering her with his shield when a new burst of gunfire rained down on him. 

Thor didn’t answer.

Pressing her further down, Steve heard the tell-tale singing of Clint’s bow string before the bullets stopped. Moving away from the Widow to stop her from gutting him, he looked over to where the last Hydra agent had been standing. An arrow stuck in his chest.

“Thor!” Steve demanded again.

He could already hear sirens in the distance.

“We prevailed.” Thor’s voice was hard. “But they got Anthony.”

That wasn’t the plan.

Chapter Text

Smiling at Steve, Tony felt his expression soften. There were a million things he wanted to tell him, but nothing that he could say in front of their company or that he knew how to put in words. 

So, he didn’t.

Instead, he smiled at him. Then, he turned around and stepped into the elevator. The door closed immediately.

“I wish you wouldn’t do this, Sir.”

Tony sighed. “I know. Sorry, Jay.”

“I wish that would change anything.”

Tony nodded. Sometimes he did too.

“It’s a good plan, Jay.”

“As you so eloquently liked to point out, Sir, plans go wrong more often than they go right.”

“Keep an eye on everyone, Jay.”

“I don’t-” 

“Please. For me.”

There was a moment of silence. If he could, Tony was sure he would be sighing.

“Certainly, Sir. Do keep an eye on yourself. For me.”

Tony closed his eyes, nodding. 

The elevator doors opened into his garage. He took the side door, trusting that Hydra would be good enough to find and follow him even if he didn’t use the front entrance. Judging by how long it had taken them yesterday to follow Steve and Thor around, he couldn’t be certain. 

On the other hand, in that case they would actually be able to trap them, so that would be a good thing, too.

Focusing on appearing distracted, he took his phone out, shooting a text to Peter, telling him he would be off the grit for a bit, but that he was going to be careful. He sent the same text to Rhodey and Pepper, taking full advantage of the situation Hydra had presented him with showing the video to the world.

Because this was chess, and he could use the video against them. And he would. 

He stumbled on a curb, just enough to not look suspicious, trying to look behind him. He didn’t see anything and as he hadn’t a comm in, he couldn’t be sure, but his gut feeling said he was followed. Which was good. 

Rushing forward, he let his doubts bloom again. He had estimated that there was about a 23% chance that he would actually reach his destination undisturbed. There was an 18% chance Sparks hadn’t sold him out. A 37% chance Nat, Clint and Winter would be able to stop Tony’s attackers. An 83% chance they wouldn’t get hurt while fending off their own attackers. An 85% chance Hydra wouldn’t be able to take Winter. 

Calculated risks he was willing to take. He didn’t like them, especially the ones involving Winter, Clint and Nat, but they were safe enough. Thor and Steve knew to go after them not Tony. Make sure Hydra wouldn’t take Winter. 

He felt his phone vibrate in his pocket, took it out and turned it off without seeing who had answered his text. 

Focusing on appearing as if he had just seen the video documenting the murder of his parents was surprisingly hard. His lifelong training of denial actually worked against him right now – which all of his former shrinks would probably find hilarious.

But the joke was on them, because Tony knew, he would be able to feel it. Had felt it last night when he had broken down in Steve’s arms. When the super soldier had kept him safe. Had held him in his strong arms and made sure Tony couldn’t break further. 

As he needed to be in control and just appear to be out of his mind, that was not an option. 

The real question was: did Hydra know who Winter was or did they believe he was just another Winter Soldier in a long line of Winter Soldiers? Had it been Sparks' doing to post the video or had she been ordered to do it without her influence?

And what was her goal? He believed that she wanted to get out of Hydra, but if he wasn’t totally mistaken – which was a possibility, even if he didn’t believe it – she would have been able to do so some weeks ago when there had been open war on the streets. 

While they were on the topic, what the fuck was Hydra’s goal. Sure, they wanted to kill him, but not even they could be that nonsensical about it. The shot could have been dumb luck. But there were around a hundred better ways to poison him and actually kill him. And if they would have actually wanted to blow him up all they would have needed to do was not suck and use a bigger bomb. 

Yes, they wanted to kill him – and use Winter to do so and that would never happen. Tony would off himself before that could even become a possibility – probably in a poetic and/or grandiose way and with a live transmission. But that would be after

After they took something else from him. After they made him do whatever it was, they wanted him to do.

Not that they would get anything from him. There was literally not a single chance.

Still, it would be good to finally know what they wanted from him. And it would be damn satisfying to tell them to go fuck themselves before shutting them down for good. Preferably by killing all of them. 

He bit down the vicious smile that wanted to split his face. 

A car rushed by him and Tony knew this was it. Abruptly, the car hit the brakes, turning to block his path completely. 

He didn’t even have time to stop before he saw a dark figure from the corner of his eyes. Turning around, he was already tackled by the other man and thrown to the ground. 

It was almost the same moment when he heard the first gunshots in the distance. They had been prepared for his trap.

Grunting, he tried to kick his attacker off, but the other was heavier and obviously not recovering from Tony’s week of hell.

Before he could do anything, two more attackers appeared, all of them clad in black combat gear, one of them pulling out a syringe.

Hell, no! Leaning forward, Tony bit the other man lying on him, which earned him a hard slap that almost split his head on the concrete beneath him.

His vision blurred just long enough that the other men could grab onto him and the syringe was plunged into his neck.

Fuck.

“Do you have the-” His first attacker asked, sounding pissed as hell.

“Yes, give me a moment.”

Tony struggled in their grip as the third one took out a small box and placed it on Tony’s chest activating it with a simple button.

A jolt went through him and Tony almost screamed. 

An EMP. Fuck.

He couldn’t see it. Couldn’t hear it. But he felt the stuttering of the Arc Reactor in his chest. 

Normally, a small one like that, that didn’t even kill the car right beside them, wouldn’t have been able to do anything. But the Arc had been damaged when they had shot him, and he didn’t have the time to fix it properly yet. 

Fuck.

The at least as bad news: the drug was working damn fast. 

He tried to move when the Hydra goons let him go, he was barely able to move his arms sluggishly.

“Don’t worry, Stark, you’ll see your puppet back soon enough.” The one who had stabbed him with the needle cackled. 

“…you…”

Speaking was hard. So was thinking. There were rough hands on him again, grabbing him, bruising him. Throwing him into the car, he thought. His eyes not able to see it, but he felt metal where he hit his face. And the ground vibrated beneath him. 

Didn’t it? Or was it him shaking. Breathing got harder. Or was it thinking? 

There was a sharp voice right beside him, barking an order, but he couldn’t follow it. 

Then everything went silent. 

 

-c-c-c-c-c-c-c-c-c-c-c-c-

 

Waking up sucked. Waking up with a drugged induced headache sucked even more. Especially while being chained to a steel table after being kidnapped. 

At least he had woken up. 

Not moving more than absolutely necessary he breathed in and focussed on the feeling of the slight humming of the machine in his chest keeping him alive. There was something, something that seemed slightly out of place. Something that seemed not quite right. But it was still running. Still humming and would keep him alive for the moment. 

Back to the immediately important things. He was chained to a steel table and he wasn’t alone. He heard someone breathing beside him. Almost calmly.

Groaning theatrically, he moved, rattling the heavy shackles on his wrists and pulling on them, before carefully blinking into the light. 

Beside him sat a young woman, around twenty years old, long blonde hair and big brown Bambi eyes blinking worriedly down on him. 

They were situated in a lovely cellar room with rough stone walls, no windows, a steel door and a naked lightbulb hanging from the ceiling.

Someone had passed Evil Lairs 101.

“Who are you?” He asked, his voice rough. There was no camera that he could see, but as he wasn’t going to be able to check her or the room for any and all listening devices, he was not going to risk it in the off chance that she really did want his help and wasn’t screwing him over. 

He didn’t believe it, but there had been weirder things happening in the world. Like adopting the 100-year-old murderer of your parents.

“Sparks. They can’t hear us.”

“You sure?”

“Yes.”

Looking closer at her, Tony saw the signs of stress, of worry.

“How long have I been out?”

“About an hour I guess?”

An hour? That was even shorter than he would have guessed. Which meant they were on a strict timetable, which, yes, they were but didn’t know that yet. But more importantly:

“You knew where you were held the whole time.”

Sparks raised a slightly overgrown eyebrow. Not that Tony cared, but she looked like her privileges might be cut back just a few days ago. Her clothes were clean but dishevelled and she didn’t seem like she had brushed her hair this morning.

“Yes.”

“Why the whole bullshit then?” Leaning back, Tony tried not to wince. There must be an impressive bruise starting to bloom on his back when it already hurt like that right now. And the drugs, even if only short lived, had given him a killer headache.

“I needed to get you here to make sure the Avengers actually came to save me.” She said, nonchalant. 

“You do know they are heroes, right?” Tony drawled, trying to hide his annoyance as best as he could.

“Heroes lie too, don’t they, Iron Man?”

Before Tony could answer, they heard muffled footsteps outside of their cell and then the scraping of metal on metal before it opened. 

Sparks whole demeanour changed immediately, her shoulder sagging into herself, curling forward to make her as small as possible and letting her long blond hair hide as much of her face as possible. 

Tony, being Iron Man and the former Merchant of Death, leaned back in his chair, relaxing his body language as much as he could.

If he had only been unconscious for about an hour it was only going to be minutes before his team was going to show up and get them out. Or get him out and find a nice tech-free prison cell for Sparks. Preferably without visitors. 

The first man walking through the door was about forty, hair line already receding, wearing a tailored, even if not that expensive black suit and sporting a vicious smile. 

Following him were two goons, wearing the same black gear the others had. Hell, it might be two of them for all Tony knew.

“Mr. Stark it’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“I imagine, it is.” Tony crossed his legs lazily. “What can I do for you?”

The man laughed. “Straight to business. I must confess I thought you would struggle more.”

“Nah, that comes when my backup turns up.”

“I fear they won’t be able to find you Mr. Stark. See-”

“Your minions used an EMP on me, I know.” Tony smiled, pleasantly. “Even if they don’t make it, I do have a bad habit of escaping kidnappers, even Hydra.”

“That wasn’t Hydra.” There was the slightest infliction in the other man’s voice. His first mistake. After thinking he could win against Tony. 

“It wasn’t?” Feigning surprise, Tony put a hand on his chest, feeling the calming humming of the Arc Reactor under his hands and ignoring the not so calming hiccups of the machine. 

“I thought I had seen your ugly looking logo on those blueprints they wanted me to improve.”

A vein on the Hydra-what-ever started to pulsate and Tony didn’t even try to hold back the smile. “I see you’ll need a little more incentive than seeing your parents being murdered by one of our Soldiers.” He hissed, before nodding.

One of the two goons grabbed him, while the other unbound the shackles from the table. 

They weren’t methodical about it. Nor inventive in any way. Still, the hits and kicks landed on the not-so-meaty parts of his body, jostling him enough to make biting his cheek and spit out blood easy.

It was better to focus on that rather than the pain flashing through him every time he was punched. 

“That’s enough.”

The goons let go of him and Tony fell to the floor hard, barely able to stop the worst of it. Hissing when even that movement sent new pains flaring through his body.

“Let’s try this again, Mr. Stark.”

Rough hands dragged him up again and pushed him brutally onto the chair.

“We want you to-”

“I don’t care.”

The bulkier one of his captors stepped forward, slapping him harshly.

“-hack the pentagon for us. This one-” He pointed carelessly at Sparks, “is good for smaller systems, like your own, Mr. Stark, but-”

“Why would you think I could-”

Another slap.

Leaning forward he spat some blood on the floor before looking up at the Hydra official.

“We know you can, Mr. Stark.”

“Fine, I can, but there is no way I’m going to hack anything for you.” Tony smiled up at him, knowing full well there was blood coating his teeth, as well as running down the side of his face.

“I think you will.”

Tony laughed, ignoring how it rattled his whole body. “No, I really won’t.” 

They had better chances that Tony would create new weapons for them – and he would never do that. Giving them access to the pentagon? With all the secrets, atomic launch codes and all the other crap? Yeah, no that would never happen. 

The suit opened his mouth, probably to spout more bullshit, when there were footsteps echoing down the hall. 

Four people stepped into the cell, all of them wearing military gear – and even without it, their postures screamed military or at least ex-military. 

“What-”

“Haven’t you learned anything?” The leader of his little squad hissed, as two of his men stepped forward, grabbing Tony around his biceps and dragging him out of the room, while the two men yelled at each other. 

Tony’s money was on the new one. He seemed like someone who would get the job done. 

Most things Tony did were calculated risks. And he fancied himself to be quite good at calculating them, too. 

Then he was dragged into a room and chained to a ring in the floor, forcing him to kneel in front of a video camera. 

The bad thing about people who got the job done? They seldomly liked to let their prisoner’s play for time.

Maybe he had miscalculated this risk. Although how could he have known that they would be too stupid to not try to use him? Or for them to be actually clever enough to off him before he could escape?

“Get her in there too, it’s good for her to see her future if she doesn’t step up her game.” The new head-goon growled, and his third minion pushed a panicked looking Sparks into the room.

As the room wasn’t all that big, it was about to be closed because of overcrowding. 

Tony glanced up at Sparks, trying to catch her eyes. Was this part of her plan? Had she known about this?

“Start!” The head-goon yelled at Sparks, before ordering his men to leave the room.

Smiling maniacally at Tony, he stepped closer, looking down at him while taking his gun out of its holster and pressing it to Tony’s temple.

“I will enjoy killing you.”

“Good for you.” Tony hissed back, not willing to lower his eyes.

The Avengers were on their way. Whether or not they made it wasn’t important in the greater scheme of things. They would find Hydra and destroy it.

He couldn’t think of anything else. Couldn’t think of Peter. Of Rhodey. Or Winter. Pepper. He couldn’t think of Steve and the concern in his beautiful blue eyes when he had let Tony leave on his own.

Tony hadn’t lied. Had planned with them. He had just not told them what he thought would happen. Hadn’t told them that Loki’s spell needed him to stay still for a while before he could locate them.

The goon laughed, roughly, as he pushed Tony’s head back with the muzzle of his gun, before stepping behind him.

“Ready?”

Looking over to the camera, Tony saw Spark’s nod, her eyes on the camera, before they flashed up, meeting Tony’s.

Moving over to the door, she stopped dead in her tracks when she was yelled at again. Shivering, she mumbled something about better audio quality without the background noises, not moving a muscle until she got the okay to continue.

The door closed with a metallic clicking sound that was more than just a normal door closing. If Tony had to guess – and it might be his life was fucking depending on it – he’d say it had been a mechanical deadbolt, often used in high security facilities.

That would keep the other goons out at least. 

As Sparks was not suicidal, she must have a plan. 

Walking over to the camera, she put her hand on the table filled with cables and over junk you did not necessarily need for a simple transmission but did obscure what she actually grabbed with her hand.

Then she nodded. 

Kicking out with his legs, Tony let himself fall to the side. The second kick actually hit the other man. But it wasn’t the reason why he stumbled. That would have been the bullet in his chest.

Tony didn’t even have time to look over to Sparks before another bullet hit the Hydra agent. And then another.

He fell backwards, hitting his head hard on the brick wall. 

It didn’t seem enough for Sparks though, as she was already on the man and firing a last bullet into his skull.

Staring up at her, Tony bit back what he wanted to ask, knowing full well that it was not the clever thing to do to tempt fate staring at a sociopath who would be able to get away with your murder without even trying.

She crouched down, moving the body enough for her to be able to pat him down, before taking some keys from him and picking up the gun he had clung to until dying. Turning around, the gun dangling from her hand, she smiled.

“How long until the Avengers get here?” She asked, apparently unaffected that she had just killed someone.

“Can’t be that long now.” Tony answered, moving into a sitting position.

“Good.” She walked over to the table, putting down the guns on it, before moving over to Tony and opening his shackles.

He didn’t need to ask why she thought that was good. But even if there had been any doubt about it, it was at this very moment someone started to pound on the steel door and demanded to be let in.

“The door will hold for a few minutes.” She said, standing back up again, carelessly clearing a little space on the table before sitting down on it.

Tony, knowing better than to try to stand up, moved himself towards the wall, letting his hurting body lean against it.

“Did your tracker survive the EMP? I made it as weak as I could.” She swung her legs lazily.

“One did.”

“Good.”

The pounding on the door got louder.

“You don’t seem worried.”

“Neither do you.”

“Yeah, well this isn’t my first rodeo.”

She smiled. “Same.”

That much was obvious. Sighing, Tony moved a little, trying to find a position that was at least a little more comfortable.

“Can I ask a question?”

“Shoot.”

The smile splitting her face was almost that of a naughty nine-year-old on a sugar rush. “Why did your system shut down when it did?”

Looking into her brown eyes, Tony saw real curiosity, the wish to learn more. 

“I hadn’t updated it fully before going to Germany. I had meant to, but then I got a new idea and didn’t, you know how it is.” He smiled at her, like it was an inside joke. “In case my systems are breaking there is a failsafe to protect what is really important.”

“And what is that Mr. Stark?”

“My workshop, of course.”

Sparks smiled back, obviously buying it. Why shouldn’t she? It wasn’t a lie per se. The fail-safe made sure no one would be able to get into the workshop where he had stored everything from Dum-E over Jarvis to all the information about his family.

Sparks laughed.

Next time he thought, he had calculated the risks; he might have to get it fact checked by Jarvis. It seemed he was worse at it than he could have imagined.

 

Chapter Text

Winter had a bad feeling about this. All of them had a bad feeling about this, he knew. But this was not a good idea. Not at all.

Forcing himself to keep quiet and concentrated, he pressed his eye closer to the sniper rifle, focusing his gaze on Tony.

Ignoring the way his empty stomach churned. 

If Hydra got a hold of him… If they put him on the chair again…

No! They wouldn’t! He wouldn’t let them! Wouldn’t let them take his mind away! Wouldn’t let them take Tony.

They wouldn’t turn him into a weapon again. Wouldn’t make him kill Tony. Never.

“Two more tails.” Hawkeye said over the comm and Winter bit back a growl. 

It was hard to not look around and rather keep his eyes on Tony, he knew the chances were high Hydra agents would try to take him. It was only logical. But they wouldn’t take him. Never again.

It was the slightest sound of ruffling clothes that tipped him off a heartbeat before Hawkeye cursed over the line.

“Hawkeye!” The Captain demanded in the same moment Winter had to lose his position, rolling away from the potential Hydra agent. 

“Tony!” He growled, while kicking his attacker, trying to convey that he had lost visual on the genius.

“Thor!” The Captain’s voice demanded but Winter ignored them in favour of dodging the second and third attacker. 

That was when he was hit in the neck with something like a dart arrow. He felt something warm rush into him and ripped it out, throwing it in the face of the third attacker.

Gritting his teeth, he kept moving, taking out one of his throwing knives and slicing at the first of his attackers. 

None of them were a match to his strength and they seemed to realize that when he pushed one of them hard enough against the chimney that all of them could hear the agent’s bones break. Not that Winter cared.

Another of the small arrows, probably filled with a sedative, hit him and it took him a moment too long to get it out of his skin.

He was shot in his flesh shoulder with an actual bullet, before he could let himself fall backwards, trying to ignore the black spots dancing in front of his vision and how hard it was to move his body.

Blinking up, he saw four more men advance on him, their weapons all pointing at him. Six attackers weren’t that much of a problem, of course. Especially since being killed would be preferable to being taken.

“Calm there, Soldier.”

Winter growled at him.

Before anyone else could move, thunder rumbled right above them and Thor dropped in front of him, his hammer raised for attack.

“Are you alright, friend?” He asked, not looking away from their enemies.

Winter didn’t answer but pushed himself into a sitting position, waiting for the dizziness to stop, before standing up.

The following fight was short. The Hydra agents wouldn’t have had a chance against one of them. Together Thor and Winter bested them in barely a minute. 

Winter didn’t wait for Thor to ask something or tell him they needed to secure the prisoners. He jumped onto the next fire escape and ran. 

Ignoring the way every step seemed to rattle his brain, how he was clumsier than he normally was, he pushed forwards.

Tony was long gone. The only thing left was a broken syringe and his phone.

Winter growled. It had been a possibility. It had always been a possibility. And it was the reason why Loki had put a magical tracker on him. 

It didn’t change the fact that he wanted to scream. To kill.

“My friend?” Thor landed beside him, the force sending a small shock wave around him. His expression darkened, when he saw Winter’s expression.

“Thor!”

“Are we sure?” The god asked, as if he wanted any other news, he could tell the Captain. 

Winter just glared at him, holding out the dead phone.

Thor sighed, closing his eyes. The flashes of lightning still lit up his eyelids. 

“Thor!” The Captain demanded again, desperation in his voice.

“We prevailed.” Thor’s voice was hard, his expression set. “But they got Anthony.”

There was no answer to that. All of them knew the next step of the plan.

Winter bit back another growl, when Thor offered him a hand, but he shook his head. It was only a few blocks back to the Tower. He would run. 

The Widow waited for him at the side entrance, letting him in. There was a small cut on her cheek, otherwise she didn’t appear to be injured. Good.

She let her eyes wander over his frame, noting the bullet wound but didn’t comment on it. Good.

Stepping into the elevator, Winter counted the seconds until they arrived. Everything was too slow. They needed to move faster. To get to the Quinjet, fly to where Hydra had dragged Tony to and then kill them.

The doors opened onto the common floor, where everyone else, including Colonel Rhodes were already waiting for them. Or rather waiting for the location Loki would provide them with.”

“-has to stay in one place for at least a minute for me to be able to track Mr. Stark.” Loki said, annoyance just barely visible in his expression.

The Captain growled at that, turning on his heels and walking towards the kitchen island. There were two bullet grazes on him, one on his arm, the other on his leg. But his movements weren’t hindered. 

Hawkeye sported a bandage on his left biceps and a black eye. Nothing too bad.

Dr. Banner sat a few paces away on the couch, Thor standing behind him, a calming hand on his shoulder. That seemed to happen more often now. Those two men standing close. Touching. Not that it was important.

The Colonel stood in front of Loki; his arms crossed in front of his chest.

“All this magic and you can’t find him now?”

There was a frown on the trickster’s face before it smoothed out. “I told you before, Lieutenant Colonel. With my magic bound, no.”

Turning, the Colonel met Winter’s eyes, before letting his eyes wander over his frame. “Are you okay, Winter?”

Was he okay? No. But he was functional. He had failed at protecting Tony. Again. But he would get him back. No questions asked.

“Yes.” Because that was what you said in a situation like these. You told them a white lie, something they needed to hear so that they wouldn’t worry.

The Colonel just nodded. “Good.” Stepping closer, Winter saw the stress in his expression. The fear. “Anything we need to know?”

Winter hesitated. Then he touched the side of his neck where the first tranquilizer arrow had hit him. The mark was already gone, though.

The Colonel stepped even closer, eyeing his neck as if trying to find a clue.

“Arrow.” Winter forced out, holding up his hand to show the size of it.

“A tranquilizer arrow?” The Colonel asked, his expression getting even darker with worry.

Winter nodded.

“Did you feel it?”

Winter nodded, then held up two fingers.

“They shot you with two?”

Winter nodded again. They had. It had barely slowed him down.

“When I met friend Winter, he was surrounded by six agents of Hydra.” Thor didn’t move away from Dr. Banner but was eyeing the Colonel. “I believe they wanted to drug and take him like the honourless creatures that they are.” 

“Are you in need of healing?” Loki did not move, but his green eyes were immediately on Winter.

Shaking his head, Winter pointed at Loki and then out of the window.

“They are still moving Stark.” Was the trickster's reply.

“Doesn’t matter.” The Captain said, his voice hard and unyielding. “Let’s get into the Quinjet. Do you still have no visual on them, Jarvis?”

“No. Bring_down_the_world_with_sparks put a virus on a timer in the system of the video surveillance of law enforcement.”

No one commented on that fact. 

It was barely thirty minutes they waited in the Quinjet, Colonel Rhodes standing beside them, even if he wouldn’t come along. He had to protect Miss Potts in case Hydra had planned more.

He was angry about that, Winter understood. He would make sure they got Tony back.

It was hard to focus on the next step when, right now there were no immediate steps to take. It was harder to not follow his thoughts into a blind panic or total rage. 

Tony and he had talked about wanting revenge. Back then, Winter hadn’t wanted revenge. He had wanted to never see them again. He hadn’t wanted to be hurt again. He had wished they wouldn’t exist anymore. But he hadn’t wanted to take revenge.

That had changed. Had changed when they had decided to hurt Tony. When they had decided to torture them both with what they had made him do. Made him do to Tony. 

When they had shown the video to the whole world. When they had told them, they would use Winter to kill Tony.

Winter wanted to stop them. Wanted to make sure, they would never have the chance to hurt anyone else again. And he wanted to hurt them.

Tony had told him about his early days of being Iron Man. Had told him about revenge and how it was never the answer. Because it only hurt more people.

Still, Winter wanted to make them pay. It was a red-hot force in his gut, screaming at him to act . He didn’t. He wouldn’t. Would try to not do it. 

He had failed Tony again and again. Maybe he would be able to not fail him there.

Focusing on his surroundings, Winter watched the Avengers. The first thing he realized was that they weren’t fighting. Not even quipping. Not about the fact that the Captain was walking a path in the floor where he was pacing. Not that Hawkeye was obviously hiding most likely impressive bruises as he was too sore to sit still for long, moving almost restlessly on the pilot’s chair. Not about the way the Black Widow obviously favoured her right side.  

There were no comments about Loki sitting there between them. No remarks about the lightning in Thor’s eyes or the green flashes in Dr. Banner’s. No word about the two men sitting closer together than they normally did.

The next thing he realized was the quiet. Not even Jarvis was talking.

Then Loki sat up straighter, his eyes closing for a moment, before moving forwards to the cockpit, explaining to Hawkeye where to fly to.

Hawkeye didn’t even hesitate.

“Bring him home!” The Colonel ordered, to Winter, to all of them.

“We will.” The Captain promised, as the Colonel stepped out and the doors closed.

Ten minutes later, they already touched down, not caring to be careful or silent. Something Winter found quite odd. But then again, Dr. Banner didn’t seem like he was able to hold out any longer. He ran out of the Quinjet, his body already contorting into the Hulk.

Thor was right behind him, yelling over his shoulder that he was going to keep an eye on the Hulk.

Hawkeye and the Black Widow were to find as much intel as possible before Hydra could erase it. They also carried an USB stick with them with Jarvis on it.

Winter and the Captain were going straight for Tony. Loki had explained where to find him when they had circled around the facility in the industrial district Hydra had their latest hideout, because he wouldn’t join them.

None of them talked, when they followed Hulk, who was already throwing cars at the building. They were lucky that it was a Sunday and not as many people would be around here.

Storming through the entrance doors, Winter started shooting, while the Captain threw his Shield, letting it bounce off of people and the walls. It made it easier that all of them were wearing combat clothing and were armed. They clearly had waited for them.

Good.

Shooting three people in quick succession, Winter ducked when the Captain’s shield almost decapitated him. The other super soldier grabbed the shield out of the way, while kicking someone else and throwing it in the same movement at the next attackers.

Shooting another of their attackers in the shoulder, before jumping over the reception counter and kicking the guy in the head, Winter turned to shoot two other agents running towards the front, their guns at the ready.

If Hydra had still this amount of cannon fodder, why hadn’t they sent more people to retrieve him? Why hadn’t they killed the Avengers in that trap of theirs?

Pushing forwards, he kicked another Hydra agent in the face, before shooting another, throwing himself to the side when the shield flew past him.

For a heartbeat, he met the Captain’s eyes. It wasn’t hard to guess that they would hold Tony downstairs. That was also where the agents seemed to come from.

The Captain nodded, before punching his shield in someone’s face.

Not hesitating a heartbeat longer, Winter started running, dodging bullets and shooting four more goons, before ripping the door to the stairwell out of his hinges and using it as a shield when three people started to try to shoot him in earnest.

Slipping another spare clip into his gun, Winter got read to move, when something heavy hit the door hard and he heard the meaty thudding of people crashing to the ground.

“Go!” The Captain yelled, and Winter went.

Jumping down the stairs, Winter used the momentum he built to run around the corner and jump onto the wall, saving himself from a cascade of bullets. 

He had shot three people before he even touched down, rolling himself up and continuing shooting, only getting hit once in his leg and a graze to his cheek.

Shooting the last one, Winter pressed his back to the cold wall, his gun pointing at the corner of the hall he had just come from. The heavy running footsteps were most likely the Captain, still, it was probably a good idea to be careful.

Moments later Captain America ran around the corner, his shield in front of him. He slowed down a little, looking around the bloody floors and walls, a frown just visible under his mask.

He didn’t say anything, just ran ahead. 

Winter followed him, two guns at the ready. Just in case. 

Motioning to the left side of the corridor, Winter pushed each door open, glancing inside to make sure no one, especially Tony, weren’t inside, before getting to the next one.

The third room had a metal table, two chairs and the bloody body of a guy in a suit in it.

The floor was surprisingly quiet now. Most noises came from upstairs, where Hulk and Thor were destroying everything in their path to get to Hulk’s Tin Man.

Aside from a rhythmic pounding sound, like someone trying to break something down. 

Getting closer they heard curses. Slowing down and moving on almost noiselessly, the Captain glanced around the corner of the corridor.

Time was running out. Winter ignored the screaming in the back of his head that there was a really good chance Hydra had killed Tony when they heard the Avengers coming. And why shouldn’t they? If they didn’t believe they could use him as a bargaining chip it would be logical for them to kill him off. 

Biting back the almost feral growl, he stepped beside the corridor and looked to the second to last door where four people with different tools tried to take down the door.

Glancing to the Captain he saw his own resolve reflected in the other man’s eyes.

Stepping around the corner, the Captain threw his shield in the same moment Winter shot two of them. The clattering of the shield against the steel door let it sing before the Captain caught it on it’s way back. 

Nodding ahead of them, Winter jogged into the floor, looking into the room on the right side, which was a normal storage room, before stopping in front of the door now surrounded by dead bodies.

“Captain?”

“Jarvis?”

“I am in their system now. Sir is held in the room you’re standing in front of.”

Winter held back a snort. That had been obvious.

“As far as I can tell he was forced into the room with Sparks and someone who seems to consider himself one of the new leaders of Hydra.”

“What is the point, Jarvis?”

“There is reason to believe the Hydra agent is dead and Sparks might have a weapon on her.” 

Winter didn’t stiffen. That too, had been probable.

“It seems she set this whole thing up, including the idea to get Sir into that room to be shot on camera.”

That did make both of them stiffen.

“We’ll keep that in mind.” The Captain looked over to Winter, who nodded, then stepped forward and knocked. Three times.

At first, nothing happened. 

Then there was a metallic click, as the door was opened by Tony, a young woman with blonde hair standing behind him, two guns in her hands.

Winter was between them before Tony could even open his mouth. 

Throwing himself on the woman, he dodged a bullet shot at him, as he grabbed her, pushing her hard against the wall, holding her delicate wrists dangerously tight in his hands, forcing her to let go of the weapons.

“Don’t hurt me!” She whimpered, her body going lax in an instance.

But the fear in her voice was fake.

Looking back towards Tony, he saw the blood, the black eye, the way the genius favoured his right side. The way he seemed to be exhausted, pale and short of breath. But alive.

Something in Winter uncurled. Something that let him breathe easier again. Something that had been sitting on his chest and almost suffocated him. 

The Captain was holding onto Tony, carefully, as if he might break any minute now. 

He wouldn’t. His eyes, although showing his exhaustion, were clear and focussed. Tony was in control and he had a plan.

He caught Winter’s eyes before letting it flicker down to the girl and then shake his head almost unnoticeable. There was an edge to his expression that told Winter everything he needed to know. 

Tony thought the woman was dangerous.

Chapter Text

Tony smiled and for one moment Steve was back in the conference room in the Tower, watching helplessly while Tony was a hostage by forces unknown on another continent. 

It was the same smile. Full of trust. Knowing that he was going to win no matter what. Just… Tony.

But it was also as bloody as that smile had been. The blood coating his face and beard. He had a black eye, a split lip and probably more injuries, but right now, all Steve could do was stare into his whiskey-coloured, beautiful eyes. They were full of life. Full of trust as well.

Winter was already on the move, already getting between the woman and Tony.

Steve just held Tony in his arms, hugging him closer when the woman shot a bullet at Winter.

Tony whipped around in his arms, not stepping away from him, almost leaning on him. His body language was tense. Carefully neutral. Ready for an attack.

“Don’t hurt me!” The woman whimpered, her body lax in Winter’s grip.

Tony silently huffed.

Winter looked back at them, his blue eyes the only colour on him, most of his face hidden behind his mask. His focus was on Tony, obviously cataloguing his injuries. Then something in his eyes relaxed, as if he had held his breath like Steve until they knew Tony really was safe. He really was fine. 

God, Steve hoped he was fine.

Then, Tony almost unnoticeably shook his head and Winter’s eyes grew colder again. 

Tony thought Sparks was just acting. If she was, her act was worthy of an Oscar.

“Are you injured?”

Tony turned his head to Steve, looking up at him. He was so close. Steve could feel Tony’s warm breath on his lips, and it was all he could do to not lean that little closer and kiss him.

“I’m okay for now.” Tony smiled and Steve could have sworn it sounded a little desperate. Maybe he just wanted it to sound that way, though. Maybe he also imagined the way Tony’s eyes flickered to his lips, before he turned in Steve’s arms and his whole demeanour hardened.

“Where is our special tracker?”

Steve blinked, before he could kick his brain back into gear again. 

“On the Quinjet.”

“Good.” Tony held out a hand, not even looking back, trusting that Steve would give him what he needed- the earpiece! Steve meant the earpiece!

Clearing his throat and taking a step back, Steve took the spare out of his pocket and placed it on Tony’s hand, who put it into his ear, never even once stopping to look at the blonde woman. 

Forcing himself to concentrate on the situation at hand, namely that they were not alone, actually actively in a fight with Hydra and didn’t know how the others were holding up, in company of a possible enemy and not even having talked to Tony yet, Steve started to catalogue everything he could see of the woman. 

She was young, probably not older than twenty. She had long blonde hair and big brown eyes that she used to blink helplessly up at Steve. She looked a little unkempt, but healthy and unharmed. For a prisoner of Hydra, she looked almost too healthy.

She had stopped struggling in Winter’s grip and was now lowly whimpering.

The room was small and looked almost crowded with all of them inside of it. There was a table on one side, a video camera in front of it and shoved to the side, a bloody body.

“Did you miss me?” Tony asked into the comm, a cocksure smile on his lips. “Before we’re going to celebrate, I need, you, Green Bean, to calm a little and you, Princess, to make yourself invisible. We’re bringing company.”

A roar answered them that vibrated even cellar walls.

“Just like that, Hulk.”

“Finally!” Clint huffed, sounding a little out of breath. “You took forever!”

“I-” Tony started, but Steve interrupted him. They really didn’t have the time for Clint and Tony to have a quip-fight. Glancing down on his wrist watch he sighed. They had about five more minutes to get out before SHIELD would take over the crime scene and he really wanted to be gone by then. They would debrief later. 

“Everyone in position?” Steve asked, his eyes on Sparks.

“Yes.” The Black Widow answered. “Everything secure.”

“We are too, Captain, although I believe Hulk will be calmer once he sees our friend.”

“We’re on our way.”

Before Steve could react, Tony stepped towards Sparks. “Just so we’re clear on the terms here: You tried to fuck me over. That means our deal is off the table.”

“I-”

“We take you with us. And after a… debrief… we will find some place for you. But if you reach out to anything even remotely looking like a weapon or tech you can use, that too, will be off the table.”

“What-” She blinked up at him, tears leaking out of her eyes. She sobbed again. “I don’t know what you’re-”

“Cut the crap, Patricia .” Tony’s voice had been just this side of pleasant and even if Steve knew how dangerous Tony Stark™ could be when he used that kind of tone, he guessed it was the name that stopped the woman dead.

“Don’t think I don’t have at least as much crap on you as you have on me.”

Sparks- Patricia blinked, her face contorting in an annoyed smile. “I was actually starting to think you were a little stupid.”

At that, Tony barked a laughter, even if it seemed to be painful for him. “I can be, don’t worry.”

Steve frowned. Tony was a lot of things. Stupid was not one of them. Not ever.

“Can he let me go?” She asked nodding back at Winter, who growled at her.

“You can ask him yourself.” Tony answered, all of his humour vanished in an instance. “But I don’t think any of us would be inclined to do so.”

She met Steve’s eyes, assessing him, while Winter took a step back, his mechanical hand gripping her shoulder and more than obviously not letting her go.

“Do you have anything on you?” Tony asked, raising one of his eyebrows expectantly.

“You’re gonna believe my word?”

“The Black Widow will search you.”

There was a flicker in her eyes that was gone too fast for Steve to actually catch, but it was enough to step a little closer to his genius, getting a belittling smile from the hacker.

“An USB drive.” She nodded to her left pants pocket and Tony retrieved it. 

“Anything else?”

“No.”

She was lying.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.” Sparks, or Patricia, bit out and Tony took a step back, glancing up at Steve. There was something like regret in his eyes, but it vanished when he looked back at her.

“Ladies first.”

Winter led her through the corridors, with his hand holding her shoulder tightly and his eyes focussed on the woman and the corridor, his other hand holding a gun.

Steve held his shield high, his eyes wandering from the corridor, to Sparks, to Tony and back again. All the while straining to listening for any danger.

Tony was walking beside him, a gun held closely to his leg. His other hand was pressing down on his right side. He hadn’t said anything, and Steve hadn’t asked, but he was almost sure that his ribs were at least bruised.

Meeting his genius’s eyes, he couldn’t help himself from smiling. This wasn’t over. And if Tony was right, they would have to deal with Sparks before they could rest, still, it felt like they had done it.

Like it was over. God, did he hope this was over.

Taking the lead when they reached the stairs, Steve looked at Tony and the genius nodded. He would stay back. 

Hefting his shield higher, Steve walked up the stairs. Glancing into the entry hall, he couldn’t see anything aside from dead or unconscious looking bodies and broken inventory. Nothing out of the ordinary. 

Glancing back, he met Winter’s gaze. The other super soldier nodded. They would wait.

Keeping his shield held high, he walked farther into the room. Nothing.

He was about to turn around and call for the others when he felt eyes on himself. Turning again, the shield at the ready, he met Nat's green eyes.

Steve relaxed his stance. 

“Everyone safe?”

She nodded.

“Clear!” He called out, not turning around when he heard the others come closer.

Nat didn’t wait a moment longer, walking around him and starting to pat her down methodically. She found another USB drive, a small knife and something that looked almost like a miniature transmitter. 

Stepping back from the hacker, the Black Widow smiled dangerously at her. Then she reached behind herself, before binding the hacker’s hands with zip ties she seemingly produced out of thin air. 

Sparks didn’t comment on it, just glared at the other woman.

“Tin Man!” Hulk bellowed the second they stepped outside and it took everything he had for Steve to not go between the green behemoth and Tony.

Walking closer with thundering footsteps, Hulk stared the genius down. A genius who either really had no self-preservation whatsoever or actually trusted Hulk as much as he trusted any other Avenger.

“Hey Big Green.” Tony smiled as he let the Hulk pick him up. Patting the green hand that was moving him towards the broad green chest, Tony laughed. It was a little breathless again, but happy.

“Hurt.” The Hulk growled, his green eyes fixing themselves on Sparks who tried to take a step back but couldn’t, as she was now flanked by both Winter and the Black Widow.

“It’s okay, Big Guy. I’m gonna be fine.”

“She hurt Tin Man?” Hulk growled, moving Tony a little closer to his chest, still.

“No.” 

The Hulk growled, threateningly at the hacker, picking up on the unspoken but in Tony’s voice.

That was enough clue for Winter and the Black Widow to push Sparks forward and towards the Quinjet. 

“It’s okay, Hulk.” Tony patted the green chest. “Could you give us Bruce back? Then he can check me over and tell everyone that I’m fine.”

Hulk huffed. “Hurt.”

“Just a little banged up.” Tony smiled up at the Hulk and if Steve hadn’t already known that Tony was Hulk’s favourite, he would have known right then and there when Hulk very carefully patted the genius head with his index finger.

“Careful.”

“I try to be.”

“Try better.”

“Yes, Tony, listen to Hulk and try better.”

“Shut up, Birdbrain.” Tony hissed playfully to the archer, when Hulk put him down and pushed him into Steve’s arms. 

“Protect.” He told Steve, his expression serious.

“I promise.”

It seemed to be enough for the Hulk, as he started to shrink down almost immediately. Thor, who had kept himself close, stepped forward, catching Bruce when he stumbled.

Blinking up at them, Bruce’s expression darkened when he saw Tony.

“I’m fine, Brucey-Bear, you should see the other guy.”

Bruce huffed, leaning closer into Thor’s touch when he normally would, while simultaneously looking Tony over.

“Anything bad?”

“I might have some cracked ribs, but it’s fine.”

“Tony.” Bruce sighed, while Steve hissed.

“It’s not that bad and we have to take care of Sparks before anyway.

“What about her?” Clint asked, stepping closer, even if his eyes were wandering over their surroundings. “We should leave soon, though, Coulson texted they will be here any minute now.”

“Keep a close eye on her. With any tech at all, she might be as dangerous as me.” Tony met first the archer’s eyes and then Steve’s. “And she knows far too much.”

“Do not worry, my friend, we shall keep close watch over her.” Thor promised, slinging one of Bruce’s arms over his shoulder and helping the other man towards the Quinjet.

“Do they know they are in love?” Tony mumbled and Steve almost choked on air.

“Are you serious?” Clint asked, incredulously. 

“What? Did something happen in the last few hours?”

“Are you shitting me?” The archer yelled, pointing accusingly at Tony. “Tell me, you’re shitting me! Not even you can-”

“Clint.” Steve interrupted him, even if he couldn’t stop himself agreeing with him. Steve was a lot more obvious about his feelings towards Tony than Thor was towards Bruce. 

“I don’t believe this.” Turning on his heels, and muttering furiously, Clint walked towards the Quinjet at a brisk pace.

“What did I miss?” Tony looked up at Steve with his big brown eyes and Steve bit back the words that wanted to escape him. This was not the time. Tony was hurt, hell, Steve was hurt. The last week was enough to shake more than a few screws loose in all of them and… No, this was not the right time.

“You know how Clint is.” Steve looked to the side, not able to meet Tony’s eyes any longer, while carefully pushing him towards the Quinjet.

The flight back was rather unspectacular. Tony was looked over by Bruce, who cleaned the bleeding cuts, before walking over to Clint, who had apparently sprained his wrist. 

“Can I have your phone?”

Steve blinked at Tony, who held his hand out and that was when he remembered. Tony’s phone had been killed by the EMP. His eyes moved to Tony’s chest while handing his phone over. He wouldn’t ask about the Arc Reactor where Sparks would be able to hear them in case she didn’t know. 

Tony took it and immediately wrote a text to Peter, promising that he was fine, that the Avengers had gotten him out and promising him he could come over next weekend if nothing else life shattering happened. 

Steve sighed. The text would have been fine without that last sentence. Apparently, Peter agreed, judging by the exclamation points in his answer. 

It was worth it though, to see the smile bloom on Tony’s expression.

Then he opened a new chat, that was, apparently, a direct line to Jarvis, starting to plan the next steps that had to be taken. And letting the Colonel and Pepper know that he was fine.

Looking up from the phone in Tony’s hands, he let his eyes wander to Sparks. She was sitting on a seat a little to the left on the other side. Both Nat and Winter stood in front of her, both not blinking.

Sparks, or Patricia, didn’t seem too worried, even if Steve saw the way her fingers tapped a fast rhythm on her thigh.

Tony nudged his knee with his own, apparently engrossed with his phone, angling the screen so that Steve could read it even more comfortably. 

Her name is Patricia Hall. Orphan. Ran when she was thirteen. A few charges because of theft, then she stopped leaving an official trail. Jay and I found her bank accounts all over the world. If she sees an opportunity, she will take it. She will try to blackmail us. She will not stop.

Steve nodded, almost unnoticeably. He hadn’t known everything, but he had seen some of the information Tony and Jarvis had found about Sparks.

Nat and I have asked Luca and her people to take her. She cannot go to SHIELD.

Because Tony trusted a foreign not-mafia more than he did SHIELD. Steve pressed his lips into a fine line.

The other option is to put her someplace where she will not have any access to technology. She is like me; she will find a way to escape.

At that Steve looked at Tony, who kept his eyes on his phone. 

Whatever Patricia Hall was, she was not like Tony.

She has information about Winter. The real information.

Steve nodded. She had been the one giving Tony the information in the first place.

Tony opened the texts with Jarvis, scrolling through them slowly to show Steve the set up.

He nodded again. He didn’t like it, but he understood. Tony would do anything to keep his own safe and if he believed Sparks could be even half as dangerous as himself, not that Tony was dangerous, but he could be when he wanted to, then he wouldn’t take the risk. 

Especially after she had betrayed their trust twice already. Even after being told that she would be found out.

“Nat?”

Natasha didn’t look over but nodded.

“We’ll take her to conference room 37.”

Nat blinked, before nodding again.

Steve didn’t know what was special about it, but Nat seemed to know.

The Quinjet landed just a few minutes later and Sparks was escorted from the roof into the elevator with all of them in there. Once again, they were lucky that it was Sunday as there were no Stark Industries employees on the thirty-seventh floor.

Tony stopped Steve and Clint from following Winter and Nat into the conference room and nodded to a door a little farther down the floor.

“Am I to follow too?”

Steve bit back a curse, when Loki appeared right beside them out of thin air. Clint hissed, but didn’t move.

Tony looked over to him, as if he had known the trickster was following them.

“Sure, why not. Make sure we don’t overlook a lie.”

Loki smiled, a dangerous tilt to his lips. “I can certainly do that.”

Tony moved away from Steve, but before he could get far, Steve grabbed his wrist.

“What are you planning?”

“To get answers.” His brown eyes were focused, showing off the strength he possessed. 

“And?” Because he wouldn’t do all of this just to get answers.

“If she is what I think she is, she will dig her own grave and then none of us will have to lose another sleepless night over her.”

Steve raised an eyebrow, but held back the next question, when the elevator doors opened again and Colonel Rhodes, Pepper, Luca and two of her family stepped onto the floor.

“Tony!” Pepper was already on him, carefully examining the new bandage on his forehead.

“I’m fine, Pepper, don’t worry.”

“I wish it would be that easy.” The Colonel sighed, before hugging his brother.

“Hey there, Tony.” Luca smiled, before leaning closer and brushing a kiss on his cheek. “It’s good to see you again.”

“You too, Luca.”

Steve did not ask how they knew each other. But he would. Very soon.

“Hey Clint.”

“Hey Luca.” Clint smiled at her. “Back to save our asses?”

Tony motioned Luca to step into the conference room before she could answer, while Pepper made the rest of them follow into the other room. It was narrow, no furniture aside from a few chairs. As he had seen Loki enter, he guessed he was invisible again. Something they needed to talk about. And soon.

One wall, the one facing the conference room, was glass. Steve didn’t need to see the other side to know it would just look like a normal wall.

The Black Widow, still in her whole gear and the Winter Soldier… no. Winter in tactical gear and with his mask, stood in the right and left corner facing Sparks, who sat impassive in her chair.

Tony and Luca seemed to have just entered, Luca smiling professionally, while opening some files.

“Hello Miss Hall, I-”

“I don’t use that name anymore.”

Luca nodded. “You are known under your hacker name bring_down_the_world_with_sparks, correct?”

Sparks didn’t react.

“Nonetheless, Miss Hall, as this is an official interview-”

“And who are you? No one has read me my rights and I-”

“And no one will do that, or we will have to send you to prison right away.” Luca still smiled pleasantly, but there was something new in her voice. Something warning. “My name is Luca Agneta and I’m sure you have heard of me. In your circles we are known as the Black Roses.”

At that Sparks paled.

“I see you have heard of us.” Luca said, leaning back.

Sparks looked over to Tony, her expression showing more of her fear than she probably meant to.

“You’re working with them ?”

Tony shrugged. “Not really, no.”

“I do.” Nat said, although this was not Nat. It wasn’t even the Black Widow. The way she moved, the way she said those words; this was someone else. A persona she played.

Sparks eyes widened, before looking back at Tony.

“You can’t-”

“I’m just here as a tech expert.” Tony drummed his fingers on the table, not looking away from Spark’s eyes.

“Let’s get back to why we’re here, shall we?”

Sparks eyes snapped back to Luca, suspicion growing. “You can’t take me. The rumours are-”

“Just rumours, most likely.” Luca said, opening another file. “Let me tell you what we have already found out about you.” 

It was five years’ worth of fraud, identity theft, black mail, outright theft, hacking, stealing and selling confidential information. And apparently, she really did not care who she worked for, as long as she was paid. 

“Was this you?” 

Sparks just glared at her.

“I will take your silence as agreement.”

“Interesting that these accusations didn’t show the good I’ve done. I’ve saved more kids from the DarkNet than anyone else!” The young woman hissed, leaning forward. “None of you-”

“We have that list here.” Luca said, conversationally, starting to read a long list of names, before looking up at the other woman. “Was this you?”

“Yes.”

Luca nodded. “Mr. Stark?”

“The systems, codes and methods used in those cases were the same or variations used in the… more criminal accusations. I have evidence stored to prove it.”

Luca nodded. 

“This brings us to a decision you need to make, Miss Hall.”

“Sparks.” The hacker hissed, leaning forwards. “I helped you.” She glared at Tony. “I gave you the information about him.” She nodded towards Winter. “Told you about your parents, sent the video to the Avengers and slowed Hydra down where I could! I even put the three idiots wanting to rule Hydra against each other and-”

“You also hacked my Tower, scared the shit out of my family with the video, released the video of my parents murder to the world, had me kidnapped and beaten-”

“I had to!” Sparks yelled, obviously panicked, by now.

“Do you want us to bring this before a court, or do you want me to proceed.” Luca asked, calmly and in control.

Sparks obviously tried to calm down but judging by the way Steve could see her breathe far too fast, it didn’t work. 

“You will never let me-”

“Oh, we would. We wouldn’t even take your memories from you.”

At that, Sparks paled again.

Looking over to Pepper, Steve met the woman’s blue eyes. Calm and in control. This couldn’t be right. It couldn’t be legal or-

“But do not misinterpret it, Miss Hall.”

“Sparks!”

Luca just smiled at her. “If you were to give away secrets about the Avengers or what you learned while you worked for Hydra, especially concerning the Winter Soldier program, there will be consequences.”

Sparks balled her hands to fists.

“You don’t have the same presence here in America that you have in Europe.”

Luca nodded. “True. But it reaches far enough. And you do not have to fear us.” She looked over to Tony, prompting Sparks to follow her gaze.

“You’re Iron Man. An Avenger. You wouldn’t-”

Tony smiled back at her. This one was his Merchant of Death Smile™, something that could frighten even Steve. Because right now, he knew that Tony meant every word he would say to her.

“I am. It won’t change anything if you hurt one of mine. Because if you do, I will find you and I will end you.”

He would. Steve knew he would. And so did, apparently Sparks.

“You can’t-”

Tony just smiled at her. “Natasha, darling?”

Nat, who would probably kill him for that later, stepped forward beside him and handed him one of her daggers.

Sparks stiffened. 

Taking the dagger from Nat, Tony leaned forward, grabbing Sparks’ bound hands before she could react. 

There was panic now in her expression. “What-”

Tony let the blade dance over his hands for a moment, before he cut her zip ties with a lightning-fast strike, before throwing the knife behind him without looking, where Nat grabbed it out of the air and let it disappear.

“Here.” Luca pushed two pieces of paper and a pen towards Sparks. “You can decide. Either we bring this to court, of nations that you have harmed quite a bit in the last years, mind you, or you come with me and be able to help more children.”

Sparks looked up at her. It was obvious that she felt like she was between a rock and a hard place.

“If you know our reputation you also know that we keep our word.”

Ten minutes later, Luca and her people took Sparks with them.

“Seid vorsichtig mit ihr.” Tony said as a goodbye to Luca, while her companions stood on either side of Sparks.

Steve hadn’t known Tony knew German. 

“Keine Sorge.” Luca smiled at him, before pressing another kiss to his cheek. “Wir wissen was wir tun.”

Don’t worry. We know what we’re doing.

That sent another chill down Steve’s spine. Because he believed Luca. Having fought beside them, Steve wanted to believe they were good people. Knowing Tony, they had to be good people. Still, it seemed they did a lot of things few people knew about and that was always dangerous.  

Tony stumbled as soon as the elevator door closed. Steve caught him, biting back a wince himself when he saw pain flashing over the genius features. Together, they dragged him up to the common floor, where Bruce was sleeping with his head on Thor’s lap.

None of them said anything. Not even Loki who seemed as amused as Clint, which the archer seemed to be disturbed by.

It wasn’t that hard to get Tony to lie down, Loki offering to heal him once more.

“What do I owe you by now?” The genius asked, meeting the green eyes of Loki and Steve felt himself stiffen.

“Nothing at the moment.”

The answer wasn’t as calming as Steve would have hoped. On the other hand, Thor smiled at his brother as if he had just done something good, so Steve tried to take comfort in that.

An hour later Jarvis had ordered Pizza for all of them, and they all sat around the living room, eating it, relaxing fully for the first time since… Steve didn’t even know anymore.

Tony was sitting right beside him, his shoulder pressed against Steve’s and that was all he needed.

They started to get information from SHIELD, informing them that they had started interrogating the Hydra agents.

Jarvis was working on their servers.

But it didn’t matter, right now, because there was a movie playing on their TV screen and Clint was trying to explain the plot to Thor while Nat threatened to kill him if he didn’t shut up and Tony was falling asleep on Steve.

Nothing out of the ordinary. 

Chapter Text

Putting the new, improved Arc Reactor into his chest, Tony was finally able to relax. 

“Sir?”

“If this is about some new theory about me wanting to take over the world, I don’t wanna hear it.”

The press, as always, had taken what little they had been told about what had happened with Hydra and ran with it. Half of the media was sure all of this had been either a publicity stunt for some new Stark Industries product – that he didn’t have – or to get him more attention, because everyone knew Tony Stark was an attention whore. 

The other half either believed the Avengers had fought Hydra behind the scenes – or were still fighting them, close enough – or something entirely different had happened and the government was keeping under wraps what the Avengers had done for them. Which was also close enough.

“Actually, Sir, it is a message from Miss Potts. She cancelled the next press conference, as the one happening until an hour ago went so poorly.”

Tony groaned. “What happened?”

“Apparently someone insinuated that you misuse the Avengers for your personal gain and Captain Rogers had to be held back by Miss Romanov and Mr. Barton. When someone asked why the Captain reacted with such intensity Thor explained that the bond between Shieldbrothers was a special one which ended in a very… emotional discussion about the term Shieldsiblings which ended in Thor openly apologizing to Miss Romanov, who, by that point had to be held back herself, as the first reporter wouldn’t stop asking questions about your plans of world domination.”

“Ah.”

“Miss Potts thought it to be prudent to give all of you a little rest from the press.”

“Good decision.”

“I have to agree with you there, Sir.”

“You don’t have to sound so surprised.”

“Of course not, Sir.” 

Sighing, he leaned back against his worktable. By now he was almost healed, but apparently, everything leading to this point had done a real number on him, since Loki had just finished healing him yesterday, saying he still should take it easy and rest.

As if.

Sure, the Avengers had tried to protect him as much as they could, taking as much responsibilities as they were able to. But he too, had to give statements, had to step in front of the press, had to make some appearances in front of the board of directors, get some products out and about a thousand over things. Although both Pepper and Rhodey both did their fair share of protecting his back.

Yesterday, Rhodey had been asked to come to Washington, something about him being a Lieutenant Colonel and responsibilities and such. He had left, but promised to be there if anything happened. And practically begged him to not get kidnapped, injured or killed.

As he had said that in front of Steve and Winter, both had sworn to protect Tony - which his Honeybear 100% had planned. The asshole. 

All the while he also kept his eyes and ears (mostly Jarvis) open in case Sparks would try anything and verify all the information they had gotten through their last raid.

 

SHIELD, with the help of Steve, Clint and Nat had unearthed some more deep sleepers, had been able to find the last of the supposedly ‘New Heads of Hydra’ as they had called themselves, the pompous assholes, and taken two more bases down.

Also, they had been threatened to be imprisoned in the Hulk Cage with Tony if they didn’t rest. (He might have to disable it before they actually did it. Again.)

The team had barely seen each other the last couple of days, trying to get as much done as they could. Trying to survive. And probably trying to avoid their next meeting. That, strangely, didn’t mean they didn’t all sleep together on the common floor. 

And if that wasn’t confusing enough, the only times they didn’t hiss at each other or tried to drive each other mental was when they talked about Avengers’ business or not talked at all.

One more reason for Tony to hide away in his lab.

Another was that Peter had called him yesterday, telling him quite nervously that he decided he wanted to see a therapist. Tony, of course, was all for it and organized a meeting for Peter and her right about now. May was with him. The therapist was the best one as far as he, Pepper, May and Jarvis were concerned – anything less wouldn’t have done for Peter anyway. 

It was a good idea for the kid. Hell, it would be a good idea for all of them. Not that Tony could see himself open up to a therapist when he had trouble enough to open up to himself. Also, there was too much sensitive information in his head to let someone in. That was the reason he refused. There was no other reason. No other reason at all.

Turning around, he lost himself again in whatever he was doing. His mind was too occupied with other topics to focus on that.

Stuff like, he had broken the Avengers and now had to fix them, even if he had no clue how he would do that. None whatsoever. As today was Thursday they meet up for food and a movie and judging by their last few interactions it would either be quiet like fuck or they would try to kill each other before the movie had time to start. 

All because Tony had, once again, fucked up and broken them. It was surprising how that worked. He had, of course, accepted that the Avengers liked him. Loved him even. They were family. Still, it was a novel idea.

Peter called him just as Tony was about to walk upstairs. The kid sounded tired but said that he liked the Doctor. Before he hung up, there was a moment of silence, then he told Tony that he loved him. 

Almost choking, Tony repeated the sentiment. Because he did love the kid. And because it was important to tell that to the people you loved. 

At least Peter was someone he could tell. Who wouldn’t run screaming – even if he probably should.

“See you Saturday.”

“See you, Spiderling.”

Jarvis disconnected the call and Tony closed his eyes. He was already drained. Going upstairs to sit between fuming Avengers wasn’t a good idea. It wasn’t even a question that he would go, though. His family got nervous nowadays when he wasn’t accounted for – and in the case of the super soldiers, right fucking beside them.

He was, of course, glad, that Winter hadn’t broken down after watching the video. He was, of course, thankful, that he still wanted to be around Tony and seemed to be better than Tony could have ever hoped for. 

It didn’t change that it was exhausting to be calm. To not think about any of it. 

Especially when the other options were repressing very inappropriate thoughts about Steve. It was hell to be cuddled by the super soldier. Hell, to see his expression soften when their eyes met. Hell, to know Steve was still furious with him but was probably still too afraid of losing his teammate to actually say it.

Or to give Tony some room to breathe. Not that he didn’t – guiltily – enjoy every second of being held close. Of being kept safe from most of the nightmares.

Even if none of them had slept more than an hour uninterrupted since they had gotten Tony back. It was apparently nightmare season in the Tower. Something else that was at least partly his fault.

“Sir, the Avengers ask whether or not you need an escort to leave the workshop.”

Tony sighed. “I’m on my way.”

“That normally means people move towards their intended destination, Sir.”

Tony sighed again. Pushing himself off of his workbench, he cleaned his hands on an old rag Dum-E handed him. 

“Thanks, buddy.” Petting his oldest son, Tony straightened his shoulders. “Here goes nothing.”

“Oh, don’t worry, Sir. You definitely are something .” 

“One of these days I really will change your sarcasm settings, Jay.”

“Should I make a reminder for that?”

Looking up at the camera in the corner of the elevator, Tony smiled. This one less forced as the one he had planned to wear while stepping onto the common floor. 

“Yes.”

“Very good. I scheduled it with all your other plans in case hell freezes over, Sir.”

“I love you, Jarvis.” 

There was a moment of silence. Also, the doors didn’t open even though they had reached the common floor.

“I love you, too, Sir.”

Something in his chest loosened. Nodding, he stepped forward to the doors that opened a moment later.

The Avengers and Winter were sitting on the couches and mattresses eating take out, all of them looking up at him as soon as they heard him. 

His takeout container was placed confidently in the space between Steve and Clint. 

Either they had been sitting in total silence until he arrived or had stopped talking the moment they heard the elevator. Tony didn’t even know which option he liked less. 

Walking over to his food, he let himself fall down on the cushions and opened it. They had gotten him some Chinese noodles with chicken and sweet and sour sauce. Taking the chopsticks, he started to dig in.

The silence all around was heavy. It wasn’t uncomfortable per se, just not comfortable. Not the relaxed atmosphere they had had before.

“That’s it.” Clint said, putting his food to the side, glaring at all of them. “Just for us all to appreciate how ridiculous all of this is, I will be the voice of reason now and you’re all going to suck it up.”

“Clint-”

“Shut it, Cap, I don’t care. You all are the first real family I ever had and I’m sick and tired of this shit. We’re going to talk about this, and we’re going to hug each other and climb a fucking trust tree, I don’t give a fuck, but we will get over this.”

“What is a trust tree?” Thor asked, curious and for once, Tony thought it was actually genuine.

“I have no fucking idea, but we will do it!” Clint growled, glaring at Tony as if he was the only one who had a hard time to open up. Which, in this crowd, was not true at all.

“It’s a method for people to open up around each other. Normally used for kids.” Bruce said, putting away his chopsticks. “Seems fitting.”

“Doesn’t matter.” Clint leaned forwards, looking around. “We all know we need to talk about this, or it will break us.”

That was met with silence. Because Clint was right. They all knew this. 

Sighing, Tony nodded. Once. Almost imperceptible, meeting Nat’s eyes.

“Okay.” Nat said, crossing her legs. She looked about as enthusiastic as Tony felt. But then again, there was a fire in her eyes that promised she would rather kill all of them and then herself than letting them break.

The rest nodded, Steve, pressing a little closer into Tony’s side, as if he needed the comfort. Tony understood. Even though it didn’t really help him.

The silence that followed was even worse.

“I’m going to start then.” Clint growled, leaning a little back, the way he tapped his knee in a fast rhythm the only sign he was nervous.

“The last couple months sucked.”

Tony almost laughed. 

Turning to him, Clint met Tony’s eyes. “I almost lost it when Hydra got you the first time in Germany.”

It was a gut punch, even though that one actually hadn’t been Tony’s fault. Mostly.

“I had a bad feeling about it from the start and after-” He stopped himself, as if he couldn’t finish the sentence, he still didn’t look away from Tony, letting him see what he couldn’t put in words.

“I thought we lost you, Tony. And I still don’t know how to… what we would do.”

“I’m sorry.”

Clint shook his head. “This is not an accusation. It was not your fault. Tweeting that shit without informing us, that was your fault. And you apologized. And we’ll get over it if you don’t pull that crap again. Because we need you, Tony. Can you get that in that big brain of yours?”

Tony nodded. Not because he understood, but because he believed him. Clint didn’t leave any room for breathing, when he leaned forward and hugged Tony, forcefully.

“I mean it, next time, I will knock you out cold.”

“Okay.”

Sitting back again, Tony swallowed heavily. He glanced over to Winter, who looked a little worried, but calm enough.

This was going to be painful. All of this. He didn’t know if he could do this. All of this, but the desperation and conviction in Clint’s eyes and voice rooted him to his spot. There was no way he would take this from his family if they so obviously needed it. 

The archer looked over to Steve, who stiffened beside him. Pressing himself closer to the super soldier, he tried to convey calm, even if he didn’t feel it at all.

“I haven’t been able to tell you yet, but… when we thought you were dead back on that island… we need you, too, Cap. Iron Man wasn’t the only one losing it back then.”

Tony balled his fist. They had all lost it on that island. All of them being almost broken for shits and giggles.

“Most…” Clint glanced over to Thor, before looking down on his hands, twisting them together. “Most of my nightmares right now are about Loki. About… about what I did when… when I.” He cleared his throat.

Before Tony knew what he did, he had reached out and taken one of Clint’s hands in his own. Holding onto him.

“About him doing the same to you.” He looked up, meeting Tony’s eyes. “About him using you to destroy us.”

Tony swallowed. Fuck.

“It doesn’t matter that… that he hasn’t done anything… yet. That he helped us. I’m thankful.” He glanced over to Thor, but Tony was almost sure he hadn’t met the pained eyes of the god. “But every time I see him…”

“What has been done to you, my friend, was unforgivable. I do not fault you for hating him.”

Clint nodded, not looking back up towards Thor.

“I’m not sure I will ever be able to not hate him. But I see what he did for Tony.” The archer let his eyes flicker over to Tony, not looking him in the eyes either.

“I was afraid… that if he did… and we got you back, you would hate us… hate me. For letting it happen.”

Oh, fuck.

Clutching Clint’s hand tighter, Tony tried to say something. But there was nothing. Even if Loki had done something to him, it wouldn’t be Clint’s fault. It wouldn’t be Rhodey’s either. He knew his Honeybear would do anything to keep Tony safe, including using a megalomanic Trickster from another planet.

“Wouldn’t have been your fault.” It was almost too quiet to be heard over Tony’s rapid heartbeat.

“I wouldn’t have stopped it.” Clint looked up at Tony and he saw the deep-rooted fear. “I wouldn’t have stopped the others. I know you would rather go out fighting then be a puppet.”

Tony nodded. They had talked about it. In a dark hour. They had talked about killing each other if they couldn’t save the other from being used as a marionette, dancing on a string. 

“I know you would have stopped me from hurting the others.” Tony whispered, this time, sure and trusting. “You would have made them realize and stopped me.”

Clint closed his eyes, not denying or confirming it. 

Steve’s arms around Tony had started to press him closer to the soldier. That was another talk, they needed to have. But not right now.

When it became apparent Clint was done with sharing, Tony had no idea how to proceed. No idea at all.

“I don’t know if I will ever stop feeling like drowning in fear.”

Tony pressed his eyes close before turning his head and meeting Natasha’s eyes. Her body language was relaxed and in control. Even her expression was calm. But her eyes were screaming.

“I cannot lose any of you.” Blinking, she looked directly back in Tony’s eyes. “You gave me a home, kotenok, even more so than the rest of them did. You forgave me. You understand me when I don’t understand myself.”

Tony bit down on his tongue.

“This is my first real family, too. I can’t… I don’t want to lose any of you. Sometimes I don’t know what to do with… all the emotions.” She exhaled, slowly. “All of you trust me, even knowing what I was taught. What I did.” She moved, minimally, as if to find a more comfortable position. 

She didn’t. It was a tactic to distract. Tony knew. He used it too, sometimes. But instead of stopping, Nat continued.

“I love all of you. I would rather kill myself than hurt any of you.”

Chapter Text

Winter swallowed. Hard. 

Seeing the Black Widow open up like that almost hurt. Seeing her eyes bleed the truths she couldn’t say. 

Hearing what it had done to Hawkeye when the Asset had taken Tony. 

Watching Tony hurt. Watching him try to calm them. 

It hurt. 

The Captain cleared his throat. He was sitting right beside Tony, holding onto him, as if he was about to panic. Or flee.

“I keep having this nightmare.” The Captain said, his eyes far away. He looked at the wall, his arms tight around Tony, but not too tight. Not dangerously so.

“We’re on a mission, or… someplace high… You fall. And I can’t catch you.” There was a waiver in the Captain's voice. “I’m too late.” It was whispered almost too quiet to be heard.

“I feel like every time I turn around you get kidnapped or attacked and- I don’t know how to keep you safe.”

Tony moved in the Captain’s arms, turning to look up in the other man’s eyes.

“It’s not your job to keep me safe, Steve. Whatever happens to me, it’s never going to be your fault.”

The Captain pressed his eyes closed, breathing calmly, obviously trying to stop the tears shining in his eyes from falling. It didn’t work.

Looking away from him, when Tony hugged the Captain around the middle, Winter met the eyes of the other Avengers. None of them seemed surprised. And why should they be. They all knew that the Captain would always try to protect Tony. That he would focus on the genius. That he would do anything for him.

They all would. Because he had given them a family. Winter could relate. He hadn’t been here as long as the others, was still trying to figure out what it all meant. Still, Tony had taken him in. Had protected him. Given him a reason to fight without ever demanding it of him. He had made Winter one of his knowing what Winter had taken from him. Knowing how dangerous he was. And still he had allowed him to get near his family. 

Had allowed him to get near his kid. 

Winter would never be able to understand how Tony had been able to do that. Especially now, that he understood how much the genius loved his child. What he would do to keep him safe. 

And still, he had trusted Winter with him before Winter even knew whether or not he could be trusted at all.

Tony had also made sure the other Avengers had taken him in. Had made them understand. Had been patient beyond belief with all of them. 

Had given him an arm that didn’t hurt. Had given him the possibility to find a hobby .

Letting his eyes wander, he looked at all the people here. Who had started to trust him. Trust him to protect Tony, when they had thought he had killed him just a few weeks ago. Trusted him to watch their backs. 

Hawkeye… Clint… who played pranks on him. Who wasn’t afraid to make fun of him. The Black Widow… Natasha… who would talk to him. Who would tell him uncomfortable truths. Who would listen.

Thor who would train with him, who had never behaved hostile towards him. Dr. Banner… Bruce… Hulk… Who had started to relax around him. Had started to teach him about baking. Who never seemed to be frustrated, when Winter didn’t have words.

Looking back to the Captain… Steve Rogers… Steve. Someone who had known James Barnes. Who had known the person he once had been, had loved that person like Tony loved the Colonel. He tried to not push Winter. Tried to see Winter for who he was now and not who he had been. Even if it hurt him. 

“All of you gave me a home.” The Captain… Steve… said. His voice clear and earnest. “You gave me a place to stay and a family to come back to. You gave me hope.” He said that looking at all his teammates, but Winter saw the way he balled his fist in the back of Tony’s shirt.

“When I first woke up… I didn’t think I could live here. In this century. But you showed me how to. You gave me a reason to fight. To stay.” He blinked and then looked straight into Winter’s eyes.

“I’m glad you’re okay, now. That you are happy now. That you… that... I’m glad you have another chance. You deserve it.” There were new tears shining in the super soldier’s eyes and it almost killed Winter to see it. 

“I will try to… Try to get to know you. To let Bucky go.” 

Winter nodded. He knew. And the Captain did try. Winter knew.

Steve nodded too, biting his lip hard, before exhaling shakily. 

Silence fell again, disturbed only by their breathing. By Winter’s rapid heartbeat. 

“I didn’t think I would ever feel safe again.” 

Winter looked over to Dr. Banner… Bruce… He sat right beside Thor, not touching the god, but clearly taking comfort in the proximity to him. 

“Or having people. Have someone to call family. Be… happy.” His voice was almost surprised. 

Tony let go of the Captain… Steve, turning around to face the other scientist. He didn’t move away from the other super soldier, even leaning against him, letting him hug the smaller man.

As soon as he was turned, Bruce smiled at Tony, almost hesitantly. “I didn’t think anyone would ever trust me again. But you did.”

“Of course, I did.”

The smile on the Doctor’s face widened. “You weren’t afraid at all. Not once. You annoyed me into staying. Into trusting you. Into trusting the others.” He moved, brushing shoulder against Thor’s.

It brought a smile to the god’s face that seemed somehow too big and at the same time appropriate. As if this meant something more. 

Dr. Ba- Bruce’s face clouded over, his brown eyes darkening. “It’s also what… frightens me. What Hulk… what we might do if one of you gets hurt. What I would do if Hulk hurt any of you.” He raised his hand before anyone (Tony) could contradict him.

“I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.” The finality in his tone was jarring. Brutally honest. As were his eyes, open and almost daring anyone to tell him otherwise. 

No one even tried. Most likely knowing, they wouldn’t be able either. Winter at least did. It was almost impossible to accept what the Asset had done. But if he, Winter, did anything like that? He wouldn’t be able to live with himself.

“I’m not a hero. Not like you.” He let his eyes wander from person to person, even meeting Winter’s eyes for a moment.

“I couldn’t watch the video.” He met Tony’s eyes, regret and self-hatred in his own. “I couldn’t help Jarvis, couldn’t-”

“Bruce-”

“I know what you’re going to say, Tony, and it means the world to me that you actually believe that. But it doesn’t change anything.”

“You are a hero.” The Cap- Steve’s voice was calm and sure. 

Dr. B- Bruce smiled. He didn’t contradict them, but he didn’t need to do it verbally, showing that smile, melancholy and defeated.

“I am humbled to be a part of heroes like you all are.” Thor’s voice was strong but booming like it most often was. His blue eyes wandered over all of them while he put his arm around the Doctor, tugging him closer. The other man let it happen, showing only a little surprise.

“When I first came to earth, I was banished by the Allfather and rightly so. I was arrogant, pretentious, entitled and cruel.” He chuckled, humourlessly. "The lady Jane showed me the wonders of Midgard. The greatness in the small things. The true meaning of power. About good intentions. Or so I thought.” His blue eyes bore into Tony and Winter saw the slight movement Tony made with his hand. The way he pressed his lips together.

“I lost my brother after returning to Asgard. Now I know he had already been controlled. Then I was lost in my grief. When he attacked Midgard, I knew it was my fault and I will carry that burden forever.” The god didn’t let anyone inhale before pressing forward.

“I must confess, I was not impressed by the people chosen to defend Earth. But I was wrong. You all showed me what being a hero truly means. All of you.” He let that sit for a moment. None of the Avenger’s apparently willing to say anything to it.

“After defeating the Chitauri, you taught me so much more. Being level-headed.” He smiled down at Bruce. “Being a leader.” He met the Captain’s eyes, nodding to him. “Using your humour to help others and relax them.” He nodded to Hawkeye… Clint at that, before looking over to the Black- Natasha. “Overcoming ones' past and strike fear in the hearts of men with a smile.” Then he turned towards Tony and his smile turned even more tender. 

“Forgiveness born from a pure heart that can even forgive an enemy that tried to kill you and everyone you love. Standing tall even if you have no ground to stand on.”

Leaning back, melancholy overshadowed the god’s eyes. “I already fear when you will be ripped from me by Lady Death, but trust me, my friends, your hearts will live with me until I shall follow you.”

No one answered.

Dr. B- Bruce leaned closer to him. Letting the god hug him to his chest.

Blinking, Winter realized it was only Tony left to speak. The genius leaned against Steve, his eyes closed, and expression pinched as if he was in pain.

Shuddering even before he had done anything, Winter inhaled audibly, making everyone look over to him. Even Tony. The genius shook his head lightly, as if telling Winter he didn’t have to. 

But he wanted to. To share, when everyone else did so too.

“…didn’t know…” His voice sounded hollow. Haunted. As if this was the first time he had spoken. It wasn’t. Even if it almost felt like it.

There were so many things he hadn’t known. Who he was. What Hydra was doing to him. That he was human. That he liked baking. That he has killed Howard and Maria Stark. 

Blinking, he met Tony’s eyes. The one that had saved him. That had helped him learn. Helped him understand.

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, Buttercup.”

Winter nodded. Then he looked up at the- at Steve. Meeting those blue eyes. “…know…try…” He swallowed, hard. “Thanks.”

Steve nodded, apparently unable to say anything back.

Winter exhaled, harshly, looking at the ground, before straightening his spine and looking all of them in the eyes, saving the Black- Natasha for last. “Protect.”

And he would. He would protect all of them. Would keep them safe. No matter what.

The Bl- Natasha nodded, accepting the declaration for all of them. Understanding what Winter couldn’t say.

Silence settled again over them. Heavier than before, Winter thought. Or maybe he just felt lighter. 

Looking over to Tony, the genius looked down on his knees, his hands twisted together. The muscles in his jaw worked, as if he was holding back the words behind his thin pressed lips.

“Come on, Tony. This is the trust tree. Everyone climbs, no one falls.”

The brown eyes blinked towards Hawk- Clint. Meeting the calm expression of the archer.

“You’re full of shit, you know that, right?”

“Yep.” Clint popped the p while smiling calmingly at the genius.

There was a small smile playing on Tony’s lips, before he looked down on his hands again.

“I was never good enough for Howard. He always told me I was stupid. That no one would ever be able to like someone as clingy and stupid as me.” His voice sounded calm. Detached. As if he was telling something he had heard once. As if it wasn’t about himself.

The C- Steve, moved even closer to the genius, resting his forehead on his shoulder, almost as if he wanted to hide.

“Starting MIT I was… I don’t get why Rhodey even bothered with me. Why he kept me alive when… But he did. I thought he was an anomaly.” There was a small smile on his lips. “Then I met Pepper. Then Happy. I knew these were already too many anomalies and I waited for the other shoe to drop. It did when Obi- Obadiah sold me out to the Ten Rings.”

Winter felt something bubble up in him. White hot rage. Glancing around, he saw it in all the other’s expressions. He didn’t know what exactly had happened, but enough. He knew about the Arc Reactor. Had seen Tony’s scars.

“Even before this,” The genius tapped carelessly against his mechanical heart, “I never thought I would live to see thirty.”

The Captain tensed, not even relaxing when Tony pressed one hand to the soldier’s arm around his middle.

“Iron Man saved me. Rhodey, Pepper and Happy saved me. I knew about the Avengers Initiative before the Chitauri came. Knew they would never consider someone like me.”

“A true born hero?” Thor asked, the slightest threat in his voice.

“A drunk man whore too wrapped up in his own ego to see what was happening right before his eyes.” He waved his free hand through the air, stopping the rest of the Avengers before they could defend him from himself.

“Then we survived the Chitauri. And I was able to bully all of you-”

“You offered us a home.” The- Natasha said, calmly but with determination burning in her eyes. “You gave us a family.”

“No, I-”

“You did.” Dr. B- Bruce said.

“You would have managed.”

“I don’t know, my friend. You were the first to approach all of us. You are the one finding us, when we need a friend to talk to or sit in silence with. It is not a slight on my other Shieldsiblings to acknowledge that.”

Tony pressed his lips together, as if forcing himself to keep quiet, before he exhaled forcibly. “You all became family. I would have never… I didn’t think…” He shook his head. “When we were on that island… I thought I’d broken. I thought…” He exhaled shakily, before looking up, meeting all of their eyes.

“I was so fucking thankful that no one was with me when Hydra took me.” Looking directly at Winter, he said, “I’m so thankful that you waited until Peter was back on the plane. That even back then you tried everything you could.”

Something in Winter’s chest burned while also unravelling. He shook his head, trying to convey that Tony was wrong, that Winter didn’t know why he had spared Peter. Even if he, too, was unbelievably thankful that he hadn’t. Because if he had hurt Peter… If he had hurt any of the Avengers, Tony wouldn’t have forgiven him. He wouldn’t have taken him in. And he wouldn’t have been able to get to know any of them.

“Sometimes… sometimes I feel like one day, you will all realize… I don’t know what I would do if I lost you. If I lost Peter.” He shuddered, pressing back against Steve, his eyes dark and clouded.

“I’m sorry about the Tweet. I’m sorry you got hurt and-”

“What Hydra did wasn’t your fault.” Clint’s voice was calm. Understanding. “You couldn’t have known the fuckers would try to poison you.”

Tony nodded, without looking up, his hand that wasn’t pressed down on the Captain’s arms twitched, nervously.

“I couldn’t live with myself either if something happened to you. If you got hurt because I… You’re my family. And I love you.”

 

Chapter Text

Waking up, Steve inhaled slowly, calming down his thrumming heartbeat, not yet opening his eyes to the world.

A warm, calloused hand rubbed soothing circles on his arm.

Tony was alive. It had just been a nightmare. He was alive and right there. 

Blinking his eyes open, he met the beautiful whiskey-coloured ones right in front of him. There were dark circles underneath them, hinting at the sleepless hours and the taxing night before.

After sharing their feelings, the Avengers had laid down together, watching a movie. Steve didn’t even remember the name, plot or anything about it. 

He did remember the way Tony had pressed up against him. Had remembered the bone deep agony crushing his soul listening to his family baring their souls. Admitting to their fears. To their pain.

Steve had known that all of them carried their past. Knew that what they had shared was barely the beginning of everything all of them probably needed to talk about. But it had been a beginning. A start on which they would be able to build on. To become better. To be there for each other.

As Tony and he were parenting the Avenger’s together, he would try to be more helpful. Try to shoulder more of that responsibility if they let him. (Although he would understand it if they preferred Tony. He would prefer Tony too. Who was he kidding? He would always prefer Tony.)

Tony smiled at him, making Steve relax further. 

Whatever had happened, they would have the time to get through it. To find solutions. To learn how to help each other and grow even closer as a family – with the Avengers.

And hopefully them as well.

“Sir?”

Blinking, Tony rolled on his back, looking up to the camera in the corner of the ceiling. Steve wanted to bemoan the end of the moment, even if this was definitely not the right place to have a moment, as Clint so helpfully proved when he groaned beside Tony.

“Get off me, asshole.”

“Hey, you rolled over to my side last night!”

“Your side? What are you, three?”

“Three times hotter than you.” Tony grinned at the archer, humour dancing in his eyes, before he ignored him. “What’s up Jay?”

“I have ordered breakfast for everyone and Mr. Odinson, who wants to come over this morning to discuss his terms of repayment.”

Steve was immediately awake and worried. Sitting up, he met eyes with Winter, who had stood guard at the wall, gripping one of his guns, his eyes narrowed.

“Sure thing.” Tony answered, almost nonchalantly.

“Tony?”

The genius pushed himself out of bed, only throwing a troublemaker smile over his shoulder at Steve. “Better to know what he wants than to keep guessing.”

Walking over to the elevator he tried to tell Winter he didn’t need an escort to his own floor to take a shower which Winter didn’t comment on. As he was still Tony’s bodyguard there probably wasn’t a lot Tony would be able to do to get rid of him.

He had to thank the Colonel and Pepper for making that possible.

“Do you know what he will want?”

Steve turned around and watched the way Thor sighed. He had slept right beside Bruce, one arm around the scientist. 

“No.” He first met Nat’s eyes, before looking around the room. “But he admires our Anthony. He will not harm him.”

That answer wasn’t half as reassuring as Thor probably hoped.

“What does that mean, he admires him?” Clint asked, his voice carefully neutral.

“Loki admires intelligence, cunning and honesty. Our Anthony resembles all of those qualities. He has also expressed his… wonder for the way he reacted to finding out what Winter did to him. He was here when they saw the video.” Thor’s eyes flickered over to Steve before looking back at Clint. “I do not mean to upset you, but he too did things he did not want to do and is hated for them. Seeing that video, he assumed that Tony would react like most beings would. With rightful anger and a wish for revenge. But he didn’t.” There was a sad smile playing on his lips and Steve had to wonder what Loki had to face in Asgard. He knew what the Trickster would have to face if he stepped out into the world.

“That impressed Loki. He will never admit it like that, but I know my brother. He admires our Man of Iron.”

Steve wasn’t sure what he thought of that. Because yes, Tony should be admired and watching him interact with the god that just two and a half years prior had thrown him out of the Tower to his death if he hadn’t been as quick thinking and prepared… it was breath-taking. Because Tony, of course, could almost outthink the Trickster god. Or at least be as intelligent and quick. 

Listening to him compare plans for taking over the world had been… worrying, sure, but also an exercise in self-control for Steve. Tony was so unbelievably brilliant. And if he hadn’t a conscience like he thankfully had, Tony Stark would be a formidable villain. 

His charisma would inspire loyalty and fear in equal measures. He would be able to rally the people to believe in his course of action. Would be able to rationalize it to a point where people would believe him. 

Steve understood why people thought Tony would be able to take over the world. He would. And he would succeed. He wouldn’t fail miserably like Hydra. But he wouldn’t even try it, because he believed in people . Even after everything, he believed in them. Wanted them to prove him right. He had given Sparks four chances to do the right thing. He had practically begged her to do the right thing and only after she decided against it, did he give her to Luca and her family. 

That was probably the thing Steve hated most about all those wrong accusations. They not only thought Tony would do that, they also thought he would fail.

After showering and getting dressed in grey jeans and a blue shirt, he met with the others on the common floor.

Tony sat at the kitchen island, a coffee in front of him and smiling while he texted. 

“How is Peter?”

Looking up at him, Tony smiled brilliantly, making Steve’s heart stop for a few heartbeats. 

“Good. He will be over for the weekend.” 

Breakfast was delivered a few minutes later. The atmosphere all around them was light, like the clear air after a summer thunderstorm. As if all they had needed was to acknowledge their feelings.

It wouldn’t heal anything magically, but it was a first step.

They were all almost finished with breakfast when the gold circle in the living room appeared and Loki stepped out of it. By now it felt more like a small annoyance than being face to face with someone who had tried to kill all of them.

“Snow White,” Tony greeted, raising his coffee cup. “Do you want some breakfast before I sign over my soul?”

“Tony!”

“Thank you, for the offer, but I already ate.”

“Then just soul selling?”

“Tony!” Steve groaned, while Clint and Nat glared at the genius.

“I wouldn’t know what to do with it, Tony, but it seems you want to get rid of it.” Loki said, something like a smile dancing on his eyes.

Tony just shrugged. “What can I do for you then?”

“I want to stay on Midgard.”

The silence settling around the table was all encompassing enough that Steve actually heard the heartbeats of his teammates.

“Brother-” Thor started, but Loki held up a slender hand.

“I will not evade my duties on Asgard, brother. I just wish to learn more about Midgard and its people.”

“And how do you think you can do that without being pitchforked?” Tony asked, apparently unsurprised.

“I do have my ways.”

“Wait.” Clint held up a hand, not even glancing towards Loki. “Are we actually thinking about it? This is crazy!”

“How much control would we have?” Tony asked, his voice calm, almost neutral but with a weight behind it that wasn’t a threat. At least not yet.

Loki smiled, this one wide and dangerous. 

“You’re smart enough to know we will not let you run wild, princess. What is your plan?”

Half an hour later they had hashed out the conditions for Loki’s stay. It would have to be approved by the Allfather and Stephen as well, but Steve was sure Loki and Tony would be able to make it happen.

Loki would have to keep himself or his appearance hidden from people but would be trackable by Stephen, Jarvis and Heimdall. He was going to check in regularly and if he either hurt someone (they had set strict terms for what that entailed), hid himself from either of the three or missed a check-up, he would be hunted and kicked off Earth. 

After that, something like normalcy came back to the Tower, even if all of them were a little too careful about it, not really trusting the peace.

It took another week, before everyone went back to sleeping on their own floors. Although, Thor didn’t return to his and rather spent his nights on Bruce’s. 

As Steve did the same, spending the nights with Tony, he did not speculate or snigger, like Clint did. Not that he would have in any case. As neither of the men said anything about it, it was as likely that they weren’t romantically involved either. Yet.

God, Steve hoped it was a yet. For either of them. Although he also couldn’t be sure Thor and Bruce weren’t already. And if they were, he was happy for them. He was. Both deserved all the good and happiness in the world. 

But if they were they had managed months, if not years before Steve and Tony. Not that they would have to get together, of course. Steve loved Tony, and he would love to be his boyfriend or husband or- Well, if Tony wanted to be romantically involved, Steve would like that. But that was up to Tony, of course. 

What he had wanted to think was, Thor and Bruce might have been able to have the talk before Steve could manage it even if he had had prepared himself for it for weeks now. Months, if he was honest with himself.

Looking down at the sleeping genius beside him, he had to stop himself from reaching out. Right now, they were sleeping together as friends. They were nothing more than teammates helping each other out. 

Nothing more.

Sighing, Steve pushed himself out of bed. After brushing his teeth, he put on his training clothes and stepped outside of the bathroom.

“Winter?”

The other man looked up at him. He, too, was wearing his training clothes. And it seemed almost as if he had been waiting outside of their- of Tony’s bedroom.

“Do you want to join me on my run?”

Winter nodded, his expression closed off. 

Steve didn’t comment on it. Like everyone else, Winter was allowed to have his bad days. Actually, he more than most people. It was uncommon for him to leave the Tower without making sure Steve stayed close to Tony. Something Steve appreciated. 

“Jarvis, would you let the others know that we’re on our morning run?”

“Certainly, Captain Rogers.” 

That way the rest of the Avengers would know to keep an eye out for Tony if he actually woke up before Steve and Winter returned.

Taking a shower on his own floor after returning, Jarvis informed him that Tony was in his workshop and not to be disturbed.

Sighing, he went downstairs to the common floor. 

Tony was doing better, and he couldn’t fault the genius for returning to his workshop when an idea hit him, still he wished Tony would at least eat breakfast before drowning himself in coffee and work.

“Good Morning.”

“Morning, Cap.” Clint looked up from the Starkpad. “You were on a mission with a mysterious man? Are you cheating on us with some other hero?”

“What?” 

Clint grinned up at him, pushing the tablet into Steve’s hand. “Don’t let Iron Mom find out.”

Looking down onto the Starkpad, he saw a blurry picture of him and Winter jogging through New York City.

“And don’t tell me it was just a one-time thing, or it just happened, Cap, I will stay with Iron Mom in the divorce, just so you know.”

Glaring up at Clint, he opened his mouth to tell him exactly where to put those stupid jokes, when something registered in his mind and he looked back down on the news article.

“Shit.”

“Steve?” Clint was instantly beside him, all his humour gone.

“It’s December 16 th .”

As if on cue, another article popped up on the website with some stills of the video showing the Winter Soldier beside the crashed car of Howard and Maria Stark.

“Fuck.” Clint exhaled. “No wonder Winter needed a little exercise. Do you know where he is?”

Steve shook his head. Winter had taken the elevator up to Tony’s floor, he was fairly certain, but…

“Jarvis?”

“Mr. Winter is currently in the gym. Thor and Dr. Banner are on their way to join him.”

“Good.” Steve placed the Starkpad carefully on the kitchen island before he could break it. 

Tony had been subdued last night, almost quiet, but Steve hadn’t thought about it, still caught up in everything he had been working on with SHIELD that day and the week before. With the help of the Avengers, or mostly Nat and Clint, and information provided by Sparks and Luca, they had had a few more days of arresting some more deep Hydra spies and paperwork. So much paperwork. 

Steve had thought that was why Tony had been quiet, as he had to do even more, trying to get Stark Industries out of the press, calm inventors and his employees. 

How could Steve have forgotten? How could he have left Tony alone this morning?

“Is Tony still in black out mode?”

“Yes, he is, Captain.”

“How is he?”

“I’m sorry, Captain, I’m not at liberty to say.”

“Shit.” Clint scrolled through articles. “Has he read some of them?”

“No, he has not.” There was an undertone in Jarvis' voice making it clear he would do everything he could to keep it that way.

“Good.” The last thing Tony needed was… well… this, to be honest.

“What are we going to do about this?”

Steve met Clint’s eyes. He wasn’t sure. 

Four hours later Jarvis informed Steve, who was almost vibrating out of his skin by then, that Tony had opened his workshop again. 

Steve let the blank page and pencil fall onto the table, and almost sprinted towards the elevator. 

“Please, Jarvis-”

“Of course, Captain. Might I-”

“Should I bring something to eat with me, or has he eaten something?”

“He has food in the workshop, Captain. I-”

“More than just snacks?”

“Yes. The-”

“How is he?” Normally Steve wasn’t as disrespectful as he was right now to the AI. And he would apologize for it later but right now, he was barely able to keep it together.

The elevator doors opened before Jarvis could answer and Steve rushed out, stopping dead, when he heard Colonel Rhodes' voice.

“It’s okay, Tones.”

“It’s fucking stupid, that’s what it is!”

The voices were muffled but loud enough for Steve and his super soldier hearing to pick them up. Especially since the workshop doors were still open and there was no music playing.

“It’s not.”

“Of course, it is!” Tony’s voice sounded thick, as if he had already cried. And Steve hadn’t been there for him.

“It has been ages and-”

“You just found out it wasn’t an accident.” The Colonel’s voice was calm and soothing, understanding. 

Even though Steve couldn’t see them right now, he knew the Colonel would hold Tony, if the genius allowed it. Would look at the genius with patience and love.

“Doesn’t change that they are dead.” Tony hissed.

“Just everything else.”

Forcing himself to turn around, Steve walked over to the elevator again. He stepped in, ignoring the voices behind him. If Tony had wanted him there, he would have asked for him. 

That didn’t mean Steve didn’t want to be there for Tony. Wanted to hold him. Wanted to make sure he knew he wasn’t alone. That Steve was there for him.

Sighing, he let Jarvis transport him back to his floor.

Tonight, they all, and probably Colonel Rhodes, would sit down together, eat something Bruce and Winter were going to cook for them and watch a movie. They all would make sure Tony knew that he wasn’t alone. That he didn’t have to go through this alone. And neither did Winter. 

And then, soon, he would finally tell Tony that he loved him. That he was in love with him. 

He would tell the genius that he would accept anything Tony was willing to give him and that he would stay his friend and family if that was what Tony wanted.

Tonight was not that night. But soon he would tell his genius that he loved him.