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do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

Captain America fic: Lock and Key (2/2)

December 27th, 2017 (07:16 am)
hungry

feeling: hungry

Continued from Part One.



-o-

Upon his arrival, he was informed that T’Challa requested a meeting. Nothing too formal, but he was curious about the progress of his task. Most of the time, Steve would never think of refusing a king -- much less a friend.

But he had something he had to do first.

At Bucky’s side, this time Steve didn’t even pay attention to the scientists and security personnel. Standing there, outside the chamber, Steve focused his attention solely on Bucky. When it counted, there was no one else in the world but them.

They had such a history together.

Time would tell if they had a future.

“I’ve never backed away from a fight, never once, not in my life,” Steve told him. “And I know you always wanted me to. I know it drove you crazy how I kept charging in, taking on fights that I couldn’t win.”

He smiled, a little fond at the memory. Most people wouldn’t think that getting beat up would be something to think about fondly, but most people weren’t Steve. In all his life, he never regretted a fight. He could only regret the ones he walked away from.

“And I know this one, I know it’s one I might not win,” he continued. “The risk, it’s high. Really high.”

Finding Fury would be next to impossible, Steve was pretty sure of that. Fury had gone to ground; he’d given up his place in SHIELD when Steve had dismantled it. He could trust Fury, but taking the time to track him down was prohibitive.

As for Phil Coulson, that wasn’t exactly easy. Coulson’s history with SHIELD was interesting, to say the least, and Steve hadn’t had the pleasure of meeting the man again after his death and somewhat improbable resurrection. Was he still a friend? Was he still Steve’s biggest fan?

Or when Steve put down the SHIELD did he give that up, too? He wouldn’t begrudge anyone that sort of feeling, given what Steve had willingly sacrificed, but it was a big bet to hedge, given the consequences.

Steve wasn’t keen on going to jail.

He kept his eyes steady on Bucky.

He was even less keen on leaving Bucky in a prison of his own choosing.

“If I go, I may not come back,” Steve confessed, feeling a little guilty.

Prone and vulnerable in the chamber, Bucky made no indication of hearing him.

“But if I stay,” Steve continued, feeling his throat tightened. “Then you’ll never come back.”

Bucky remained, unchanged.

Bucky would always remained unchanged.

Until Steve changed things for both of them.

“That first rist, I mean, it’s acceptable,” Steve told him. “But the other one--”

He had to swallow, the lump hardening almost impossibly in his throat.

“Leaving you like this,” Steve continued, choked. “That’s not an acceptable risk.”

Bucky’s chest rose; it fell.

Steve blew out a long slow breath of his own, shaking his head as the tear stung at his eyes. “I know what I have to do,” he said, almost a vow now. “For you, Buck.”

As he turned away, he had to mentally add, for both of us.

-o-

Before he left, he met with T’Challa as requested. When he told the king of his plan, T’Challa did not seem surprised.

“You have my assurance that no matter what happens, we will look out for your friend,” T’Challa pledged.

“I appreciate that, I do,” Steve said, and then he paused. He drew a breath, resolved. “I was hoping I could ask for one more thing?”

“The plane is still at your disposal,” T’Challa said.

“Actually, I was hoping you could request a meeting,” Steve said.

T’Challa looked somewhat surprised. “A meeting?”

“With a top representative of SHIELD,” Steve said. “A director, maybe.”

T’Challa raised his eyebrows. “How would I assume such a meeting?”

“For the king of Wakanda? Who happens to moonlight as the Black Panther?” Steve asked. “I think they’ll come.”

“And why would they send the director?” T’Challa asked.

“By your specific request,” Steve said. “You’ll settle for no one less.”

T’Challa was thoughtful. “That is presumptuous.”

“I know SHIELD; they’ll bite,” Steve said.

“Of you,” T’Challa clarified.

Steve sighed, guilty. “I know I’m asking a lot -- and I know how much you’ve done for me, how much you’re still doing for me and Bucky,” he said. “I don’t know if I can repay the debt.”

T’Challa chuckled. “I fear we both do not want to ask,” he said. “But this world is vast and dark sometimes; threats loom that we can scarcely imagine. Our enemies will continue to grow.”

Steve pressed his lips closed, anxious.

“Our friends may not,” T’Challa continued, kindly now. “I will do this for you, because I count you and Bucky as my friends.”

Steve sat up a little straighter, hope filling him. “If you’re not sure--”

T’Challa waved his hand through the air. “Consider it done,” he said. “My role as king has been more challenging and more consuming than I’d feared. Too many days pass without much fun.”

Steve grunted. “I’m not sure dragging the director of SHIELD overseas on false pretenses is going to be fun.”

T’Challa grinned. “To the contrary,” he said. “I think it will be quite entertaining for sure.”

-o-

T’Challa did as requested.

SHIELD responded as Steve expected.

Within a week, Phil Coulson had landed in Wakanda and was brought to the palace for a private meeting with a special court representative.

When he walked in the room and saw Steve Rogers, he stopped short.

For a moment, he stared in shock, and Steve feared the worst.

But then, Coulson’s face broke into a smile. “Captain,” he said. “I can’t tell you how good it is to see you.”

Steve gave him a skeptical look. “Is that an official SHIELD greeting?”

“No, absolutely not,” Coulson said. “But then, this isn’t an official SHIELD meeting. Is it?”

Steve’s ruse hadn’t lasted very long, but it had lasted long enough. Steve gave a short, apologetic shrug. “Not really,” he said.

“So the king of Wakanda isn’t going to sign the Accords?” Coulson asked.

“No,” Steve said.

“Thank God,” Coulson said, in obvious relief. “So why am I really here?”

Steve inhaled deeply, gathering his courage. “Maybe we should sit down,” he suggested.

Coulson complied quite readily. “A sit down with Captain America?” he asked, grinning now. “I thought you’d never ask.”

-o-

Despite the fact that Coulson had not counted on seeing Steve, he seemed to be far more comfortable with their meeting than Steve himself. Sitting back in a chair, the on-and-off again SHIELD director smiled genuinely. “You look good.”

Steve adjusted himself on the edge of his seat, doing his best not to wince. “Uh. Thanks.”

“I mean, I knew you’d land on your feet,” Coulson continued, bobbing his head toward Steve as if this was some secret between them. “But you look really good.”

“Well, they have been taking good care of me here,” Steve replied awkwardly.

Coulson nodded, as if in commiseration. “But you’re not really good,” he said. “Are you?”

Steve frowned, taken aback. “What?”

“You’re worried; that’s why you called,” Coulson continued, not missing a beat.

Steve found himself stammering. “Worried -- but--”

“Not about the shield or even the Avengers,” Coulson clarified. “You’re worried about Barnes.”

The way he said it, like it was some obvious, foregone conclusion, was not what Steve had expected. In fact, he’d had a whole monologue mentally prepared, walking Coulson through the current situation and why his concerns were valid.

But everyone knew it.

Steve was the last one to figure it out, it seemed.

He let out a short huff of disbelief. “How did you know that?”

“Oh, don’t worry -- our intelligence isn’t quite that good,” Coulson assured him.

Steve wrinkled his face. “But then--?”

“To be fair, Captain--”

“It’s just Steve.”

“Steve,” Coulson said. “Everything you’ve done over the last few years has been about Barnes. I mean, he’s the reason, more than anything else, that you put down the shield. Right?”

It was true, naturally, so Steve wasn’t sure why it seemed so strange hearing it spoken so plainly. Not bad. Just...well, Steve wasn’t sure what.

He shook his head, mentally forcing himself to put that issue aside. “Yes,” he said.

Coulson nodded along. “And you want to know if we have the science and technology to undo the brainwashing?”

Feeling hope buoy upward inside of him, Steve sat forward, unable to control how anxious he felt. “Yes.”

“I can tell you yes,” Coulson said conclusively. “The science is there. It’s still a prototype, of course. A little theoretic in spots -- we don’t exactly have any live subjects to test it on.”

It was so much the answer he wanted that Steve could scarcely believe it. Dumbfounded, he stared at Coulson in half-wonder. “You have it?”

Coulson gave a tight bob of his head. “It was developed in a SHIELD laboratory.”

“That’s great,” Steve said, almost laughing now. “I mean, which one?”

This time, it was Coulson who shifted awkwardly in his seat. “Well, that’s the thing,” he said. “I don’t have it.”

“Sure, not on you,” Steve said. “But a SHIELD lab. You have access to those.”

“I said it was developed in a SHIELD lab,” Coulson said with a slightly apologetic wince. “It’s not there anymore.”

The hope faltered in Steve. “But you can get it?”

“Technically, no,” Coulson told him. “It’s not under my jurisdiction.”

Steve drew a somewhat ragged breath. “But you’re the Director.”

Coulson made a face. “That’s actually kind of complicated.”

Adamant, Steve shook his head. “I know the pull you have in SHIELD.”

“Yes,” Coulson agreed. “But the data doesn’t belong to SHIELD. After the Accords, it was taken by its owner out of SHIELD into a private lab.”

At this, Steve actually gaped. It took him a long moment to compose himself enough to speak. “Who?” he asked, words dripping with incredulity.

Coulson tipped his head to the side. “I’ll give you three guesses,” he said. “But, I’m pretty sure you’ll only need one.”

For a moment, Steve’s mind spun with the possibilities. He’d met a lot of scientists in SHIELD; he’d met a lot of everyone. Geniuses, billionaires, powerful men, philanthropists--

He stopped, blinking hard.

And one who satisfied all of the above.

“Stark,” he concluded, almost surprised by the sound of his own voice.

“At first glance, I realize that seems pretty bad, considering how things went the last time you two talked about Barnes,” Coulson said. “But I have a feeling he’ll be more amenable this time.”

“You think?” Steve asked.

“He has explicitly asked us not to arrest you if at all possible,” Coulson pointed out.

“That doesn’t make him a friend necessarily,” Steve countered.

Shrugging, Coulson got to his feet. “It’s up to you,” he said. “I know he won’t take my call, but for you? He just might.”

“And if he doesn’t?” Steve asked.

Coulson smiled. “You’ll never know unless you try,” he said. “And if there’s nothing else, I think I better head back to the States.”

Steve woodenly got to his feet.

“I have to file a very creative report about why my expensive trip to Wakanda was worth it even if it accomplished nothing that was promised,” Coulson ventured, sounding vaguely bemused.

“I hope it doesn’t cause much trouble,” Steve offered lamely.

“No more than usual,” Coulson assured him. “Besides, I think you’ve got the tougher job.”

Steve smiled weakly.

Coulson offered his hand. “Captain,” he said. “It’s been a pleasure.”

Mechanically, Steve shook it. “I wish I could say the same.”

Letting go, Coulson made his way back to the door. “You know, this is still the best moment of my life,” he said, a boyish grin slipping across his face. “Being called to a secret, private meeting with Captain America? Under false pretenses? I think all my dreams have come true.”

“Well, you know me,” Steve said as the other man opened the door to see himself out. “Always glad to help.”

“I only hope I can really return the favor,” Coulson said, smiling politely to the guards outside the door. “Stark’s the key, though. Trust me. Call him.”

The key, Steve thought as he watched Coulson walk away.

If Stark was the key, then Steve had reason to fear the lock would stay sealed forever.

-o-

Find the key.

Open the lock.

How ironic it was that the key was the one thing Steve had thrown away irrevocably. To save Bucky on that HYDRA based, he’d had to cut all ties with Tony Stark and the Avengers.

And by doing so, he’d saved Bucky’s life and condemned his soul.

After Coulson left, Steve spent long, hard hours at Bucky’s side. He stood, he sat, he mostly ruminated in silence as he considered what he could -- what he should -- do next.

Bucky had never complained about how this had turned out, not once. He’d expressed regret over going into cryo, but Steve suspected it was only on his account. Bucky had never asked for him to save him; Bucky had never asked him for anything.

No, by many accounts, this was Steve’s doing. If he hadn’t bothered to track Bucky down in the first place after discovering his identity as the Winter Soldier, there was a good chance this never would have happened. If he hadn’t been so resistant to the Accords; if he hadn’t had to stick by his morals so damn bad.

If he hadn’t crashed into the ice.

If he hadn’t let Bucky fall.

If he hadn’t left Bucky to join the army that last night before Bucky’s deployment.

Bucky had always thought joining the army would end with loss, but Steve had been so adamant. The principle of the thing, after all.

Standing there, watching Bucky sleep in exile, he had to wonder what his principles were worth anymore. Would it still be okay if they lived as outlaws forever? Would it still be okay if Bucky languished in cryo forever? Would it still be okay if Steve sat here, doing nothing, while his best friend lay just beyond his touch?

It wasn’t fair. All they’d gone through, all they’d sacrificed. They’d earned a happy ending.

But now it was taunting him, like the keys to a prison cell just outside his reach.

He sighed. Did it have to be Tony?

He’d had issues with Tony ever since they first met in New York all those years ago. He’d disliked Tony’s attitude; he’d resented the brashness, the belief in an instant fix. Steve was used to making hard choices and living with those consequences, but when he’d seen Tony go up into the sky, carrying the bomb, he realized that he wasn’t the only one struggling to make the hard choices.

They had been friends after that, even Steve would admit that. Friends who respected each other enough to disagree, friends who trusted each other with just about anything.

But then Ultron had happened, and Steve had been too tired for reproach. In truth, though Tony was floundering, Steve had had his own issues to deal with. In short, Bucky.

He’d picked up the trail for Bucky, setting aside his concerns about Tony’s mental state after he nearly helped orchestrate the end of the world. And when things were spiralling out of control in the fallout, Steve had been more concerned with Bucky’s address than anything else.

He had a lot of reasons why he hadn’t told Tony about Bucky’s role in his parents’ deaths, but Steve knew more than anything that he’d just never got around to it. He’d been too busy.

To think, how much of this could have been avoided if they’d just talked like Steve knew they could.

In truth, he’d planned on giving Tony some space. He’d sent him a conciliatory note, and he knew that Tony had called off the worst of the attack dogs. It was a small, tentative sort of peace, that existed for their mutual goodwill.

But in person? In person they would have to talk about it. They would have to talk about New York and Peggy and Pepper and Ultron and Sokovia. They would have to talk about the Accords and Howard Stark’s legacy on both their shoulders. They would have to talk about the first punch and the last shot.

They would have to talk about the shield on the ground between them and the dying light in Tony’s armor.

They would have to talk.

Steve Rogers was many things, but he wasn’t a coward.

So why was he so terrified of this?

It wasn’t that he didn’t want to make it right -- he did -- but he had really wanted to focus on one relationship problem at a time. Naturally, Bucky had come first.

He stared at Bucky through the glass, the tension knotting tightly in his chest.

But he could open that door without the other first.

The resolve was forming, more decided than before. More powerfully set. Steve could be an immovable force when he wanted to be, and he wanted to be now.

He had to be now.

“I’m not going to leave you like this, not anymore,” Steve pledged. “I know what the key to this is.”

He knew; God help him, he knew.

He drew himself taller, squaring his shoulders to Bucky with unparalleled certainty. “And I’m going to get it, for both of us,” he said with a decided nod. “And then we’re going to open every damn lock left between us.”

-o-

Steve had a lot of ideas about how to find Tony. As a good strategic planner, he could have come up with any number of scenarios to meet Tony in a controlled and safe location. That took too much time, though, and Steve had sacrificed enough of that.

More than that, there was no more room for pretense when it came to Tony.

Or Bucky.

That was why he called Tony from aboard the plane, dialing Tony’s last known number while flying over the Atlantic. He wasn’t actually surprised when Tony himself answered.

“Hello?” Tony asked, although it sounded like he already knew the answer to his implicit question.

“Tony,” Steve said, heart thudding a little bit at the sound of his friend’s voice. “I wasn’t sure you still used this line.”

“I don’t, really,” Tony admitted, and although there was an air of nonchalance in his voice, he couldn’t quite hide all the anxiety. “It’s an old number I have forwarded to my latest account. In fact, it’s so out of date that it triggered all my security protocol. You’re over the Atlantic?”

Steve wasn’t actually surprised. “Reverse tracking the call?”

“It’s nothing personal,” Tony assured him. “I do it to everyone.”

“Right,” Steve said, and he paused to chew his lip. Knitting his brows together, he didn’t want to put this off anymore. “I was hoping I might come and see you.”

“That seems awfully brash,” Tony said.

“Considering the fact that I’m a fugitive, I know,” Steve said.

“And considering the fact that you tried to kill me the last time we saw each other,” Tony supplied.

It wasn’t exactly fair, and it was as one-sided as Steve might expect Tony to be. But he wasn’t going to rise to take the bait. If not for Tony’s sake, then for Bucky’s. “You got my letter, right?” he asked instead.

“Lots of feel good stuff,” Tony affirmed. “Although I got to admit, from the tone of it, I figured that you expected me to make the next call.”

That was true. Steve had left the door open for future communication, but he’d intended to defer to Tony for when and how.

Steve’s intentions didn’t always pan out.

“Yeah, I know,” Steve said. He sighed, drawing a long breath over the line. “If you don’t want to meet, I understand.”

“But you’re still asking me to,” Tony said.

“It’s about Bucky,” Steve confessed.

Over the line, Tony laughed mirthlessly. “Figures.”

“Tony--”

“No, I mean, I get it,” Tony said. “He’s the reason for all this.”

“Tony--”

“And you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do,” Tony continued, ignoring Steve’s attempts to interject. “You were willing to give up everything for him, after all.”

Steve closed his eyes. Maybe this was a bad idea after all.

“No, you know, that’s not fair,” Tony said, correcting himself with a hint of weariness. He audibly sighed. “I know I wasn’t innocent in that. In any of it. I just….”

He trailed off, and neither of them knew what to say.

They both just wanted to make things right, really.

For all their differences, they were the same in that.

They just wanted to make things right.

With another inhalation, Tony’s tone changed dramatically. “You want to do this in New York?”

“Wherever’s best for you,” Steve offered, feeling the tendrils of hope starting to form again.

“I have a private jet and like 15 Iron Man suits,” Tony said. “Getting somewhere isn’t really a problem.”

“New York is fine,” Steve agreed.

“Avengers Tower, then,” Tony suggested.

Steve cocked his head, skeptical. “Isn’t that a little obvious?”

“I own the place,” Tony reminded him. “If you’re worried about SHIELD or the local police, you shouldn’t be. You’re safer there than that palace T’Challa has you in.”

Steve chuckled. “You know about that, too?”

“Everyone knows about that,” Tony reminded him. “I’ll have a car at the airport. See you soon.”

Without waiting for a reply, Tony disconnected the call. Steve sat there for a moment, looking at his phone.

That had gone better than he’d expected.

He looked anxiously at the window, and he couldn’t help but think of Bucky back in Wakanda.

He had to hope the rest of this mission would go just as well.

-o-

When Steve got there, he had a vague sense of trepidation. Without his suit and shield, he could move with a good amount of anonymity, but walking right up to Avengers tower still seemed a little too on the nose, even for him.

Then, he was greeted by name and welcomed inside by security, who treated him like he was some kind of distinguished guest. At that point, his vague sense of trepidation had turned into a full-on terror, which he kept barely suppressed as he took the elevator up.

This wasn’t about him, after all. It wasn’t even really about Tony.

It was about Bucky.

If Steve remembered that, then everything would be fine.

When he got out on a secure floor, Tony was waiting for him with a smile. “Hey, you made it,” he said, although he didn’t actually sound surprised.

Cautiously, Steve exited, letting the doors slid shut behind him. Subconsciously, he scoped the room, looking for possible exits in case it came to that.

Tony, on the other hand, was going to the bar. “Can I get you something to drink? It can be nonalcoholic, if that matters to you.”

“No,” Steve said, advancing a few steps more. Things looked a lot like he remembered; in fact, it looked exactly the same. Almost like he’d never left.

He watched Tony, rummaging through the items with a shrug. “Fair enough, but let me know if you change your mind,” he said, pouring himself a glass. “Still, I think I’m going to need this.”

Except Steve had left. He licked his lips, trying to decide whether or not to smile.

Across the way, Tony sobered a little. “You sure you’re ready to do this?”

“To do what?” Steve asked.

Tony made his way to a couch, which was poised to overlook a spectacular view of the city. He chuckled. “I’m supposed to know? You did call me.”

Steve ventured forward. “Right,” he said, gathering a breath. He had a thousand thoughts, but none of them seemed right. With a small chuckle of his own, he shook his head. “You know, maybe you’re right about that drink.”

-o-

Steve took a few drinks, and he was actually relieved when Tony started making small talk.

“So, how’s Wakanda?” he asked. “I always envision it with lots of cats for some reason.”

Steve couldn’t recall a lot of felines running around the palace, but the striking statues were sort of impossible to overlook. “It’s nice,” he said instead, keeping it bland. “T’Challa’s been a really good host.”

“Nice guy,” Tony said. “I was always sort of surprised when he willingly signed the Accords.”

“How are those going, anyway?” Steve asked. “The news doesn’t say a lot.”

“The news doesn’t know a lot,” Tony said. “I mean, the Accords are kind of a mess, but it’s not like we’re going to tell reporters that.” He shrugged. “Still, we’re making progress. The Avengers are being rebuilt, and I think it’s coming together.”

“That’s good,” Steve said, trying to sound happy. He wasn’t sure what he felt about it. It wasn’t that he wanted Tony or the Accords to fail. But he’d also drawn his line in the sand over those regulations. Which probably wasn’t the best thing to bring up right now. “That’s really good.”

“What about you?” Tony pressed. “I mean, I know you’re in Wakanda, but what are you doing exactly?”

“Oh, you know,” Steve said, even though he wasn’t sure what he meant by that. He wrinkled his nose. “Just lying low.”

“Good, good,” Tony said, nodding a few times. “You know, that’s the advice I gave the others. I mean, I assume you heard: Team Cap’s out of prison.”

Steve’s stomach dropped a little, and he took a drink to hide how badly his mood soured on the topic.

“It took some work, but considering how new the Accords were, I was able to get their records expunged,” Tony continued. “Of course, they still have to make the choice to sign if they want to be active, but I figure they all deserve some time.”

Steve couldn’t help it; he gave a short, incredulous laugh. It was typical of Tony to posture like this, but when the others -- their mutual friends -- had spent several weeks in a top security off the books prison because of Tony’s action, it was hard to let it go. “In a perfect world, they wouldn’t have been in prison at all,” he said, trying not to think of the time that Clint had spent away from Laura and the kids. He wondered how Wanda had fared, back in a small cell without her brother to comfort her. And he’d barely known Scott, and to think he’d been so happy to be mostly abducted and dragged into a battle he had no pretext for.

He’d heard from Sam at least, who seemed to take it all in stride.

Somehow, that Sam had no regrets for helping Steve, just made things worse.

“Well, they shouldn’t have gone to prison at all,” Steve said, cloaking the criticism with a polite smile.

Tony returned his smile with equal fakeness. “Well, they probably shouldn’t have broken laws, no matter how new they were.”

“Laws you helped create only days before,” Steve countered, trying not to let his hackles rise even as his sense of justice flared nearly incontrollably.

“Laws that keep us in check, as our incident in Berlin proved,” Tony said.

“You started Berlin,” Steve said, a tinge of annoyance creeping into his voice.

“We’re not perfect, Rogers,” Tony told him flatly. “Maybe you are, but the rest of us….”

“This is still because you made Ultron and almost destroyed the world,” Steve argued.

Tony laughed, a curt, hard sound before taking a purposeful drink and swallowing hard. “And I’m the only one who’s made mistakes.”

“We have to learn from those mistakes, Tony,” Steve told him, shaking his head. “You and me.”

Tony’s eyes flashed. “And what do you think I’m trying to do? What do you think all of this has ever been about? Ever since I first put on the suit to try to do the right thing, what do you think I’ve been trying to do? You think I don’t get it? That I think I don’t make mistakes?”

Steve braced himself, teeth clenched together.

Tony gave an incredulous snort this time. “I know my judgment sucks, a lot of the time,” he continued. “And don’t think that I don’t wish I wasn’t like you. That I wasn’t good and pure and right all the time.”

Voice stuck in his throat, Steve wasn’t sure what to say. This wasn’t why he’d come, but he was still the kid who couldn’t walk away from a fight -- even one that didn’t need to be picked.

Bucky had always tried to talk him out of it.

But Bucky wasn’t here.

And that was only half the problem.

Tony sighed, the anger deflating visibly in his countenance. “I’m trying, okay?” he asked, smile almost tugging at his lips. “Some of us just have to learn it the extra hard way.”

His own anger subsided, and Steve smiled apologetically. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t come here to fight.”

“Well,” Tony said, and he paused to take a sip. His expression was wry. “You could have fooled me.”

“I’m serious, Tony,” Steve said.

“I know, I know,” Tony said, and he adjusted his position, sitting forward now. “You came to ask me for a favor.”

Steve wanted to look surprised; he wanted, instinctively, to deny it. Naturally, he couldn’t.

“With Barnes, right?” Tony asked, and he looked a little gratified to see how uncomfortable Steve looked at the question.

It wasn’t uncomfortable, exactly. This was why he’d come, and in many ways, this made it easier. But if Tony had known this was the reason, why had he taken the call? Why had he invited Steve in?

Cautiously, Steve straightened himself, half expecting some kind of reprisal even as he tried to explain. “You know what HYDRA did to Bucky. He’s a victim in this.”

“Funny, because I think I am too, where he’s concerned,” Tony pointed out. “Last I checked, there was extensive video footage of him killing my parents with his bare hands.”

Tony’s words carried venom this time, but Steve couldn’t exactly fault him. The video had been hard to watch for all of them, and it would be short sighted to say that Tony’s feelings were justifiably complicated where Bucky was concerned.

Still.

Right was right.

Wrong was wrong.

He drew a breath. “It wasn’t his fault.”

“Yet, it was still somehow him,” Tony reminded Steve.

Denying it was tempting, but it would also be a mistake. For all the things that Tony had done, it wouldn’t be fair to try to take away his grief. All he could do was validate it, and his role in it. “I know,” he said with a nod. “And I know I should have told you.”

“You should have,” Tony said. “And not just to protect Bucky.”

“We were friends, Tony,” Steve assured him.

Tony tilted his head, giving Steve a quizzical look. “And now?”

The question was pointed; it was purposeful.

With a thick swallow, Steve gathered himself. “Whatever we are now, I know it’s probably not fair for me to come here, asking you to save the life of the man who took so much from you.”

No doubt, this was the question Tony had expected, but he still seemed to take it hard when he heard it. “I’m not usually one for social formalities, but sitting here, hearing you ask me that -- man,” he said, shaking his head. “That’s brazen, even for a guy like me.”

“You were the one who said we were friends,” Steve said. “That was why you came to help back at the HYDRA base.”

“Sure,” Tony said. “And then you nearly slammed your shield through my chest.”

“I’m not going to pretend I did everything right, but...,” Steve said, voice trailing off. “I couldn’t let you kill him…”

“So you did what you had to do,” Tony concluded for him. He put his drink on the glass coffee table. “Sounds kind of familiar.”

At this, Steve sighed. “Maybe we all have our blind spots.”

Tony was silent for a moment. Then, he slapped his hands on his knees, pushing to his feet. “Come on.”

The sudden change in disposition was unexpected; Steve wasn’t sure what to make of it much less what to do with it. “What?”

Tony gestured to another room. “You came here for a reason, right?”

“Yeah,” Steve said slowly, mind going to Bucky in stasis halfway around the world.

Tony shrugged. “So come on.”

Steve wanted to trust Tony; a year ago, he would have. But a lot had changed. Steve’s priorities had been focused, and a lot had gone between them, most of it not good. “Where are we going?” he asked.

“For a walk,” Tony supplied.

Steve shook his head. “Tony, I don’t--”

At this, Tony groaned, rolling his eyes in obvious exasperation. “Come on, you came all the way here and you’re on the top floor of this place. Can you trust me?”

The question was plaintive, more straightforward than Steve had been prepared for. He’d come to make nice; he’d come to mend fences. He’d come to get Bucky the help he needed.

But had he come to actually make amends?

To reclaim a friendship he wasn’t sure he wanted?

They’d never been a likely partnership, that much was true. Ever since the Loki invaded New York, he had Tony had been at odds. But they had made it work, then. They had formed a bond over similar goals and the joint desire to do the right thing. They didn’t often agree about how that worked, but Steve had never doubted his intentions again.

Even on that HYDRA base, part of Steve had always understood.

Because Tony had trusted him, and that betrayal of trust had nearly destroyed him.

If he had to fix this relationship to fix Bucky, then Steve would.

God help him, Steve would.

He got to his feet, steadier than ever. “Okay,” he said, gesturing toward the door. “Lead on.”

-o-

During his tenure as an Avenger, he’d grown familiar with with the tower, though it had never quite felt like the home Tony clearly intended it to be. This wasn’t exactly Tony’s fault, though he suspected that Tony would never understand that the over-the-top amenities had been more of a problem than an asset as far as Steve was concerned. It wasn’t that he didn’t understand the technology -- he’d always been a fast learner, and in his time, he’d been cutting edge -- and it wasn’t even that he couldn’t appreciate what it could do.

No, it’d always just been that Steve liked things simpler.

Tony Stark, by contrast, was anything but simple.

So the fact that he had a top notch lab in his top notch apartment in his top notch building in the heart of New York wasn’t really surprising.

Still, Steve had to ask, “So, what are we doing here?”

Tony moved around, using his fingers to activate a holographic touch interface. “What aren’t we doing here,” was Tony’s flippant reply, and there was a hint of boyish mischief on his face now. “Seriously, this place has everything.”

“Sure,” Steve said, nodding as he watched the interface display a host of information. “But why are we here.”

“Well, I’m here because this is my private space,” he said. “It’s not my biggest workshop, but after all the mess last year, I wanted to section off some of the risks, so to speak. Plus, when Pepper moved out, I had all this space, and I needed to fill it with something.”

Tony, in typical Tony form, was rambling a little bit. Steve willed himself to be patient.

“Most of this stuff is backed up throughout my network,” Tony continued, scrolling quickly through a few files. “But some of it -- this is it, baby.”

He brought up a file and studied it for a moment.

“This is...what, exactly?” Steve asked.

“This is my dad’s actually,” Tony said. “The old man had a lot of stuff, and some of it I just gave to SHIELD since they had it all anyway, but my dad had a few side projects, things that never quite came to fruition. And he was so into secrets -- Peggy’s fault, by the way.”

Steve shook his head, feeling his patience falter. “I still don’t know what you want me to do here.”

“So my dad,” Tony continued, almost as if he didn’t hear Steve as he made parts of the file bigger and easier to see. “He retained all the right to his work. And no matter how much he trusted SHIELD, he always had his outs. That’s why I pulled his data when things went all haywire with the Accords. I mean, I didn’t honor my old man very much in life, but this is the least I can do for him now.”

Steve stepped closer, trying to get a better look himself.

“For the record, it’s not because I don’t trust the government -- it’s just that I don’t trust the government,” Tony clarified pointlessly. He looked entirely too bemused. “Not even Coulson’s friendly version of it.”

“Okay,” Steve said slowly. The file was heavy on chemical equations, some of which Steve could decipher, but enough to totally figure out what this was.

“So I did what I had to do, the only thing that made sense,” Tony continued. “I took the data and ran. No more joint collaborations without explicit permission, and one of the first things I got pulled was this.”

Steve sighed, his frustration starting to show. “But what is this?”

Out of almost nowhere, Tony produced a physical file. “This,” he said, handing it out. “Is why you’re here.”

A little nervous, Steve took it. But when he opened it, he felt his heart actually leap in his chest. “The Winter Soldier,” he read, flipping from one page to the next. A lot of the chemistry was here, but with more explanation. He looked up, not quite sure if he dared to believe. “Is this…”

Tony nodded. “I printed this copy off, just for you,” he said. “I had to look pretty hard to find an actual printer.”

Steve flipped through the pages, a little faster now. “So this will…”

“Undo the brainwashing? I think so,” Tony said.

Steve gaped.

“My dad put a lot of time and thought into mind control, and he had some really good theories about how the process worked on a chemical level in the brain,” he said. “Way beyond Pavlov, but the problem was that they were just theories. He never had any way to prove any of it until your friend Barnes came along.”

His friends Barnes; it was stupid and a little callous, but Steve was too dumbfounded to be offended.

Tony continued. “I got to say, I went over the data from what we collected on Barnes, and it checks out. I had to tweak a few things, but everything we saw on his tests validated my dad’s theories.”

“So this will do it?” Steve asked, trying not to sound too anxious. “This will fix Bucky?”

“Well, I can’t guarantee it,” Tony said. “But come on. This is me. Of course it will work.”

Steve was shaking his head, afraid of false hope. “Because I found the trigger words and HYDRA’s process already, but the scientists in Wakanda haven’t been able to do anything with it yet.”

“Because those triggers, that’s a key, right?” Tony asked. “And you don’t want to open the box. You want to blow the thing off the hinges.”

The metaphor was apt, and one Steve had learned all too well over the last few weeks. Locks, keys, problems, solutions. Steve looked at the file in his hand again. “So this is what I need?” he asked. “This is what I need to fix Bucky?”

With this question, Tony’s expression changed somehow. There was something softer in the lines around his face, but something darker in his eyes. There was no hint of malice, though. Just regret. “Fix is probably too strong a word,” Tony told him. “But this will give him his control back. The groundwork HYDRA laid, that’s always going to be there. But with the right psychological training, the right chemical cocktails -- and Barnes will have a choice again.”

That was what is, then.

All his searching.

All the fighting.

And the answer was back where Steve had began this journey.

He blinked rapidly, feeling his eyes well up unexpectedly. “Tony,” he said, voice somewhat hoarse. “I don’t know what to say.”

“You don’t have to say anything,” Tony said with an easy shrug. But then he hesitated. “Just remember: it’s not my formula.”

Steve, no matter how jubilant he dared to feel, felt his own regret churn in side him. “It’s your dad’s,” he remembered, smiling faintly as he looked at it again. He remembered Howard Stark; he remembered his energy, brilliance and enthusiasm. And he remembered the way he’d looked the night Bucky murdered him. “Bucky will be saved by the man he killed.”

“Irony’s a little heavy handed,” Tony said. “And I can’t say that it seems fair to me, that Barnes gets to live thanks to the man he killed.”

With Tony, most confessions were a power play, designed to gain some kind of emotional leverage in a conversation.

Not this one, though.

This one was honest.

A little boy who just wanted to know his dad loved him.

All that Tony had, he’d never have that.

Steve sighed again, more heavily than before. “I’m sorry. For what happened. For not telling you. For the way we left things.”

Tony nodded a few times. “I know,” he said. “I’ve known that since I left that HYDRA base, even if I didn’t want to admit it.”

“What happened there…”

“Was just as much on me as anyone,” Tony concluded for him with a faint smile. “And if you can forgive me for almost killing Barnes, then I can forgive you for not telling me the truth sooner.”

If Steve were being picky, it would be easy to point out that such things weren’t exactly comparable. Attempted murder did not equate with holding back an unconfirmed truth, but Steve couldn’t afford to be picky. Not if he wanted to salvage his relationship with Tony and the rest of the Avengers.

Not if he wanted to save Bucky.

“Of course,” he said, and he was a little surprised to find himself smiling. It was as if a weight was being lifted off him, and for the first time since putting the shield down, he was beginning to feel like the hero everyone thought he was. It had never been about the shield or being right. It had been about doing the right thing. The emotion that swelled in his chest was, for once, a welcome change. “It’s already done.”

Tony, though volatile and rash, had always been magnanimous. His smile was wider than Steve’s. “Then we’re good,” he said, rubbing his hands together with satisfaction. “And for the record, I do hope it works. For Barnes, I mean. I hope that file gives you the key you need to make him better.”

Steve nodded thankfully. “I know,” he said. He looked back down in the file, still a little disbelieving. “I don’t know how I’ll ever be able to repay this favor.”

Gathering a breath, Tony shifted with a tinge of awkwardness. “Also for the record,” he added, rocking on his heels a bit. “I am still sorry. Attempted murder is not usually my schtick. At least, not since I stopped selling weapons.”

Steve looked again, more empathetic than before. “I know. And, if we’re on the record, I understand why you helped make the Accords.”

“And I know why you didn’t sign them,” Tony said, his lips twisting up sardonically. “You were doing what you had to do.”

“That’s all any of us were doing,” Steve said, and it was funny how simple it seemed. It had torn the Avengers apart, it had pitted friend against friend. It had landed Rhodey in the hospital and forced Captain America to lay down his shield. All because they were different people, flawed people, trying to make sense of the hand life had dealt them. “And hey, I meant what I said in the letter. Maybe our paths will cross again someday.”

“Somehow, I think so,” Tony said with a fond tip of his head. Then, he extended his hand. “Steve.”

Steve accepted it. “Tony.”

“It’s been a pleasure,” Tony concluded, shaking his hand firmly.

Steve grinned back. “It really has.”

-o-

All the traveling over the last few weeks had been tiring, to say the least. The simple reality of so many international plane flights was one thing; the fact that it was a search to essentially save Bucky’s life had only made it that much worse.

But Steve was eager to hop on the plane this time, and he was awake the whole way back, poring over the file from Tony.

Something had unlocked in his chest; something he didn’t even know he had locked.

This file was the key.

Getting this file was the key.

For him, for Bucky, for Tony.

For all of them.

-o-

When he landed in Wakanda, Steve wasted no time in going back to the palace. He rushed through security, making his way along the familiar corridors to the science and medical wing. The lead doctor on Bucky’s case, who knew Steve well, immediately tried to make small talk but Steve just held out the file.

“I got it,” he said. “I got the answer.”

Polite but skeptical, the woman took the file. “You got it? Where?”

“From a source I’d trust,” Steve told her. “That’s all you need to know.”

She had reason to doubt, obviously, but she knew Steve; she trusted Steve. Looking back down at the file, she showed renewed interest. “I’ll start going through it right away.”

“Good,” Steve said, beginning to grin. “Keep me updated.”

“Do you want to help out?” she offered.

“In a little bit, maybe,” Steve said. “But there’s something I need to do first.”

-o-

No one had to ask what Steve needed to do.

Everyone knew it.

They had known it before Steve was even aware of it.

Outside of the statis room, Steve stood at the glass and sighed. It wasn’t misery this time, though. It wasn’t resignation or frustration.

It was the fact that he’d wasted so much time.

For a guy who had spent the better part of a century in the ice, you might think he would make the most of the time he had. But he’d let so much of it all just get away from him. On the job, he was so good at making things happen, but in his personal life?

He’d never given Peggy that dance. He’d almost forfeited his relationship with the Avengers.

And in all of it, he’d never told Bucky the truth about how much he meant to him.

No more.

“I found a healer,” he told Bucky through the glass, knowing that even if the other man couldn’t heard him, he’d know the truth soon enough.

On the other side of the glass, Bucky hadn’t changed.

But Steve had.

Steve had changed more than he could explain.

“I found a healer,” he said again, daring to smile this time. “For both of us.”

-o-

It wasn’t a quick fix by any stretch of the imagination. It would take a few weeks to master the methodology and account for other variables. Even then, Bucky’s return to the world of the living had to be handled with care. There would be a carefully managed drug therapy that would be combined with extensive psychological training. This combined therapy would effectively allow Bucky to regain control of his life.

Within six months, the doctors predicted, Bucky would be able to live independently.

Within a year, he could probably be released, free to leave the palace on his own.

Long term, he would have all the options available to him.

There would be no more locks, no more keys.

Just the happy life he deserved.

Steve smiled at the thought.

The happy life they both deserved.

-o-

Steve was confident.

When Bucky woke up, he was less so.

Scared, weak and confused, Bucky’s first instinct was to fight.

Circumventing the medical team, Steve positioned himself at Bucky’s side and grasped his hand.

“You’re okay,” he said, repeating it again and again until Bucky until the wild panic in Bucky’s eyes seemed to fade and he recognized Steve. “You’re going to be okay.”

Convulsively, Bucky swallowed. His eyes darted around the room, his mind clearly working out what had happened. “But my head,” he said, the words stunted and quiet.

“We know how to control it,” he said.

Bucky shook his head, eyes gleaming. “It needs to be fixed--”

“What they did to you -- we can’t take that out,” Steve admitted.

At this, Bucky’s expression turned pained.

Steve held his hand tighter, pulling it close to his chest. “But we know how to give you back control,” he said.

The doubt was written all over Bucky’s face. Every part of him wanted to reject what he was being told. But eye to eye with Steve, there was a truth that even Bucky, trained to be the Winter Soldier, couldn’t quite escape. “How?” he croaked.

“I found a healer,” Steve told him plainly.

Bucky’s fear hesitated for a moment, before something even more primal was unlocked on his pale features: hope. “You’re sure?”

“Yeah,” Steve said, thinking about all the places the journey had taken him just for him to end up right back where he started. “I’m pretty sure.”

With that, Bucky relaxed, and the medical team moved back in again.

It wasn’t much, maybe. But it was the start.

For once, Steve planned on being around to see how it ended.

-o-

It wasn’t fast; it wasn’t easy.

That was okay with Steve, however.

He and Bucky understood, better than just about anyone on the planet, that the best things are sometimes worth waiting for.

-o-

When Bucky finally got the all clear to move out on his own, Steve was the one who helped him. Steve had been there every step of the way, through every part of his physical and mental recovery. He was the one who listened; he was the one who encouraged him. He was the one who made him eat, made him practice his therapy, made sure he took his pills.

He was the one who held Bucky when he cried.

And he was the one who laughed at Bucky’s jokes.

Steve had always been selfless, but the last year had taught him a new level of lying himself down. He’d never walked away from a fight before, and he didn’t intend to start when the fight mattered to him more than any other cause in the world.

He was so wrapped up in it all that he was a little surprised when Bucky took him by the arm and sat him down on the couch in his new apartment. It was small, still close to the palace, but on the outskirts of the city. They had agreed -- he and Bucky and T’Challa -- that the next few years would be best spent under Wakandan protection. This would satisfy the security concerns that Bucky and T’Challa shared.

Steve didn’t have any concerns.

He knew Bucky was fine.

It wasn’t until Bucky looked him in the eye, fingers still wrapped around his, that Steve understood that he might be, too.

“Steve, I want to thank you,” Bucky began. The boxes were still piled; though Bucky had come to Wakanda with nothing, they’d managed to accumulate enough to live on over the past year in the palace.

Steve smiled. “Nothing you wouldn’t do for me.”

Bucky returned his smile. “That’s true,” he said. “But it’s more than that.”

Steve kept his smile, but he tilted his head. “What do you mean?”

“I know what you gave up to do this for me,” Bucky said.

“And I’ve told you before, I have no regrets,” Steve insisted.

Bucky nodded, but continued anyway. “The way you healed me--”

Steve shook his head to interject. “It was the doctors and the science team,” Steve told him. “And your psychiatrist. Not to mention Tony and Howard Stark--”

“I owe them all thanks, too -- especially Stark,” Bucky said. “But that’s not the healing I’m talking about.”

This time, Steve’s smile did falter. “I’m still not sure I understand….”

Bucky tipped his head knowingly, tightening his grip once more. “I think you might.”

Steve’s heart fluttered, his stomach turning over. He’d been so focused, so committed, so dedicated. He’d never taken the time to think, to hope.

“I know the apartment’s not big,” Bucky continued, a little shy now. “But I hate the thought of living on my own.”

“I’ve already arranged for a place next door--” Steve began, but his words trailed off at Bucky’s expression.

“Sometimes I’m still not convinced my head’s better, but when you’re with me -- when we’re together,” Bucky said, a rush of warmth reddening in his cheeks. “You’re the only healer I’ve ever needed.”

Dumbfounded, Steve found himself unable to speak.

“Stay,” Bucky said, a plaintive, simple request. “Just stay.”

Steve had put the shield down; he’d left the Avengers. He’d gone down in a plane and denied Peggy the dance she wanted.

Not this time.

His smile widened again, a little tentative at first but growing stronger. “Okay,” he said, letting the last of his feelings unlock inside of him as Bucky drew him close for the first time.

But definitely not the last time.

-o-

Another few months later, Steve found his way back to the far side of town. He’d only been there once, but he remembered it well. Given how much time had passed, he wasn’t sure she’d still be there, but when he knocked on the apartment door, he was pleased to see that she opened it herself.

She recognized him immediately. “Ah, Captain America!”

“Just Steve,” he corrected her.

She shrugged. “I am afraid this time you caught me unawares,” she told him. “You haven’t been in the news lately at all.”

“I’ve been otherwise preoccupied,” Steve admitted.

She raised her eyebrows. “Your friend?”

“Yes,” he said. “We found the cure; he’s awake, he’s out. He’s doing better, getting his life back.”

She smiled warmly. “You found the key, then.”

“Thanks to you,” he said.

At that, she scoffed. “You helped yourself.”

“I still remember, you know,” he said. “What you said.”

“Oh?” she asked, a little obtuse. “I say many things.”

“About the most important kind of healing,” he said. “The kind we do ourselves.”

“And did you?” she asked. “Heal yourself?”

“Yeah,” he said, laughing a little at the revelation. “I thought this was all about Bucky.”

“But the key wasn’t for him, now,” she said. “Was it?”

“No,” he said. “It wasn’t.”

“Well,” she said with a nod. “I am quite happy for you.”

“I still don’t know how I will thank you,” he said.

“I am a healer; this is my job,” she reminded him.

“Still,” he said. “If there’s anything…”

She actually rolled her eyes. “Just please, live your life,” she coaxed. “And don’t lock away parts of yourself again.”

He nodded at her, feeling emotion swell up in his chest. Bucky was waiting for him back home, and Tony had emailed him yesterday. T’Challa had requested them for dinner, and Steve had gotten a text from Natasha.

That was living his life.

No keys; no locks.

After all, Captain America has always been about freedom.

“Yeah,” he told her, the growing satisfaction settling within him. “I think I can do that.”

Comments

Posted by: kristen_mara (kristen_mara)
Posted at: January 7th, 2018 08:30 pm (UTC)
Grand


Love T’Challa’s reaction to Steve requesting he send for SHIELD’s director, and then Coulston’s reaction to Steve (I’m sure he had fun writing that report afterwards!).

I’m glad that Howard and Tony are the ones who are the final, vital pieces of the puzzle, and that Tony and Steve do manage to reach some common ground & understanding at the end of their meeting, that helping Bucky would end up helping all three of them.

Great that Steve healed so much too and I’m glad that they are going to stay in Wakanda for now – and have a well-earned rest. Nice bookend visits to the Wakandan healer as well.

Thank you for giving Steve and Bucky their future and unlocking everything standing in their way! I enjoyed these lines in particular:

“And that, right there, is your hope.”

He and Bucky understood, better than just about anyone on the planet, that the best things are sometimes worth waiting for.

Steve’s heart fluttered, his stomach turning over. He’d been so focused, so committed, so dedicated. He’d never taken the time to think, to hope.

as Bucky drew him close for the first time.

But definitely not the last time.

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