The Tradeoff

by Speranza

Author's Note: Beta thanks to Lim and Astolat: and be sure to check out the amazing art by Alby Mangroves and the entire podfic series - including this one! - by the awesome Revolutionary Jo.


Natasha bent low over the handlebars and swerved around a slow-moving taxi. Her earpiece beeped, and then Cap was saying, low and breathless, "I've got it, I've figured out what's—guys, it's the Tower. It's gonna be the Tower," which was ridiculous; that was the one target they'd eliminated after SHIELD called a Code Red for New York.

There was a crackle and then Clint said, "But Stark said that JARVIS is—" and Cap interrupted, "—monitoring every square inch of the building, sure, but they're sitting on top of the goddamned train station. The north wall of the Tower—" There was a crackle of static and then Cap's voice came back again, "—the main arch, and then there are tracks down the building's whole east side. All you'd have to do is send—"

More static, but Natasha thought she knew how that ended: —a trainload of explosives. All you'd have to do is send a trainload of explosives down the tracks and detonate them next to Stark Tower's poured concrete foundations.

"I'll call it in," Clint said, "and meet you there," but Cap said, "Negative, negative; I'm going to check out the Harlem River train yards," and Natasha said, "Roger that; we're right behind you," and kicked speed into her bike.

She raced up the FDR drive, weaving wildly between cars, but still, he beat her there: she found his abandoned Harley outside the train yard's chain link fence and pulled up beside it. Her radio crackled just as she yanked off her helmet.

"When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable..." Cap muttered in her ear.

"I understood that reference," Natasha said. "You found it?"

"Yeah," he said, and a moment later the soft beeping began; Cap had turned on his tracker so she could find him.

The fence rattled as she climbed it, then she locked her fingers around the wire and flipped herself over the spiked top, dropping onto the roof of a train car with a muffled thud. She crouched down and peered around to get the lay of the land. The rail yard seemed endless, trains as far as the eye could see and an enormous Y of converging track. She ran across the roofs, scanning for him. If she hadn't had the tracker on, she wouldn't have expected him to appear when he did; Barnes was one of the few men who could sneak up on her. He stepped out of the shadows and said, softly, "Here; come look at this," and she followed him carefully across the tops of two train cars.

He'd opened a trap door in the roof of a third; now he shone a flashlight down into it. Natasha squatted and peered down; the car was packed with explosive. The entire train was a bomb. Her heart slammed in her chest.

She looked across at the sea of trains and asked, "Are there more?"

"I don't know," Cap replied grimly. "But I think we ought to check all the—" and it was Natasha who spotted the guy, barely visible in black stealth gear against the black ground. He was running away, through the maze of trains, and she'd instinctively drawn her guns before stopping and turning, pleadingly, to Cap—who was already on it, shield flying through the air. It hit the guy and he went down—and suddenly there were more soldiers, dozens, rushing at them, though they weren't pulling their guns—well, of course not. They were standing on a trainload of explosives.

Natasha grinned savagely as she cracked her knuckles and drew her batons; even at 60 to 2 she liked their odds, and besides Clint would be here soon. They leapt into the fray, fists and feet flying, Cap's shield a gratifying blur of red, white and blue. Her earpiece buzzed—"Not now," she gritted out. "Call the bomb squad!"—and then she flung out her arms and shocked two attackers into unconsciousness. They crumpled to the ground, and she flung herself up and over them, palms braced against their sinking shoulders like pommel horses, and kept fighting.

"Stop!" a voice called, and Natasha did stop, then, throwing her attacker's body onto the ground, and saw a tall figure in a white lab coat pushing a short line of people toward them. They were wearing dark blue uniforms and stumbling together like a chain of paper dolls; handcuffed, she realized; the train crew, she realized. The first man in the chain was wearing a blue cap and what she took at first for a yellow safety vest. But it was glowing, pulsating in sickening flashes; it was some kind of explosive, she realized; alien; it was the trigger for the whole thing.

The tall man in the lab coat was too tall—enhanced, or maybe alien—and wearing protuberant green goggles. He gave the train crew a final shove—causing one of them to stumble and nearly taking the whole line of them down—and then raised his arms and shouted, "I shall grind you down beneath the wheels of—"

Cap's shield smashed into him and sent him flying.

"Hitler speech," Cap explained, almost apologetically, and then they were moving, because the pulses were still pulsing: speeding up. Natasha urged the man in the bomb vest and the man next to him down onto the ground so that Cap could smash the chain connecting them with the edge of his shield, and then Cap said, "Go," and so she went, dragging the rest of the hostages with her while Cap hustled the man in the glowing vest in the other direction. Would Cap get the vest off him? Would the vest itself blow up? Was it itself a bomb or merely a trigger for the larger—? It was no use; she couldn't help. All she could do was get these other people to safety as fast as she—

The blast, when it came, knocked them all down, though Natasha managed to roll over her shoulder and onto her feet in time to see the train cars around them teeter and shriek before settling back onto their wheels with an unholy metallic crash. She stayed low, tasting the burned air and waiting for a wave of smoke or fire, but there was none—they must be at the edge of the blast radius. Her earpiece buzzed and she heard a faint, tinny: "Natasha!" Clint, and she shouted, "I'm all right!" not aware that she was shouting, or that her ears were ringing, until she heard her own voice. "I'm going after Cap!" and then she was up and waving at the others to keep going, go! as she hurried back.

The damage got worse as she went along—things shaken loose, larger pieces of debris—though for a miracle, the train car they'd been standing on hadn't blown, though something obviously had. She ran past the battlefield—some of the soldiers had been killed, and almost all of them had been injured by the blast, bloody and groaning—but they were still far from the explosion. She followed the damage, which led off in the direction that Cap had taken.

The air thickened with smoke, and there was twisted metal, and train cars overturned, and dust over everything and Natasha ran on, turning up her uniform collar to cover her face and— She saw the shield first, lying on the ground and it took her a moment to see that there were bloody legs—a body—sprawled beneath it. "James!" Natasha called, dropping down and dragging the shield off him—but it wasn't James: it was the train conductor, who'd been shucked out of the bomb vest and who was groaning and disoriented, but very much alive. Natasha hauled herself up, fighting waves of dread, and went onward, taking the shield with her—he'd used it to protect the civilian, he'd—

It was the star she saw first—the red star painted on his metal arm—because his sleeve had been torn clean off by the blast, and his helmet was— "Cap," she breathed. "James," —and yes, he was bleeding from several places, cuts on his arms and legs and a really nasty wound from a piece of metal buried in his thigh, which was not bleeding yet—but she knew enough about bombs and blast injuries to be worried first and foremost about the cracked helmet: skull fracture, brain injury, neurotrauma. She crouched beside him, unsure of what to do next—she didn't dare move him—and then heard the whup-whup of helicopter blades and the soft but growing wail of sirens: a new problem entirely.

"Natasha." Clint appeared through the smoke. She looked up at him, brain ticking furiously. The sirens grew louder; they were going to be surrounded. She threw the shield to him and he caught it, and then he stared at her in surprise as she pulled out a pair of handcuffs and locked her left wrist to James's right, to his flesh hand in its shredded glove.

"Tell Steve," Natasha said. "Get Steve. Hurry," and Clint disappeared between the blackened and twisted trains.

SHIELD agents began pouring into the clearing, wearing thick mesh helmets and armor and carrying blast shields. "It's the Widow," one of them said, his voice distorted by the helmet's mouthpiece. "Is Cap hurt?" and then someone else said, darkly, "That's not Captain America," and Natasha quickly moved to interpose herself between James Barnes's vital organs and the array of gun barrels that had suddenly been aimed at The Winter Soldier.

Natasha stared them down. "Don't be stupid," she said. "Of course it is."

Chapter One.

Clint had never been to Coney Island Design and Construction. Steve had told him where it was—a confidence that Clint treasured—but Steve clearly thought of the place as a sanctuary, so when they got together, they did it at Clint's place in Bed Stuy and played cards and ate pizza, or drank beer on the roof. He was surprised at how big the building was: the garage door was enormous, with an apartment above. He pulled up behind a white van and hopped out of the Jeep, taking Cap's shield with him. There was a faint whine of machinery, and he followed the sound to the back of the garage, where someone in grey coveralls and huge white goggles was using a circular saw.

Steve looked up as Clint approached and pushed his goggles up; sawdust lined the creases of his face. The whine of the power saw died down. Steve was staring—not at Clint, but at the shield in Clint's hands, and Clint awkwardly offered it to him, realizing he should have prepared something to say in advance, because his mind was a blank.

Steve didn't say anything, just came around the sawhorses and took the shield from his hands. He turned it, sliding it through his fingers, then flipped it over and then back. The metal made a faint rasping sound against his skin.

"They've got him," Clint said finally. "He's hurt and they've got him. SHIELD has got him."

Something complicated and terrible flooded Steve's face. His lips moved but he didn't say anything.

"There was a bomb," Clint said; it seemed suddenly important to tell Steve this part of the story. "There was a plan—to bomb the Tower, Stark Tower. Barnes figured it out and stopped them. But he got hurt."

Again, Steve's lips moved but this time he managed to scrape out some sound. "But he's alive?"

"Yeah," Clint said, and hoped to hell it was true; he knew Natasha's every expression, and her face had been a mask of fear. That reminded him: "Natasha's with him," he said, and fumbled in his pocket for his phone. He held it up: there was a blinking blue dot. "Natasha," he said. "She handcuffed herself to him."

Steve took the phone from his hand and stared at it. "You should marry her," he said, after a moment. "Before I do."

"I'm not sure she wants me for keeps," Clint said, frowning.

"You should ask," Steve said, and then with Clint's phone in one hand and the shield in the other, he headed for the driver's door of the white work van.

"Wait. Steve. What's the plan?" Clint asked.

"There's no plan," Steve said. "I'm going to get him."

"But." Clint stared: Steve had the shield, but he was still wearing his construction clothes, he was still bearded—he still had his dusty safety goggles pushed up over his forehead for fuck's sake.

"But what?" Steve looked hard at him. "But what?"

"But nothing," Clint said. "I'll ride with you," and he slid into the passenger seat of the van.

"You haven't exactly been playing straight with us, Agent Romanov." Michael Hodge was the head of SHIELD's New York field office, and Natasha was grimly pleased that, because she was still handcuffed to Barnes, he'd been forced to come to her, to their tiny cell with its steel door and little round window.

The journey here had been difficult: she had managed to get the responding agents to see that Cap was hurt and had to be moved carefully, but still they insisted on treating him as a dangerous prisoner. She supposed that years of alerts about the deadly Winter Soldier would do that: they had acted like hunters carrying a long-hunted animal back to camp, a wild stag or a bear. Even now, despite being unconscious, James Barnes had been restrained, tied down to his bed by thick straps, limiting Natasha's own movement. They had deliberately not brought her a chair. But she had been able to ensure that Barnes hadn't been abused or beaten, as hated prisoners in custody sometimes were; in his condition, being even shaken or maliciously manhandled might have resulted in long-term damage.

Hodge jerked his chin at the handcuffs. "Where's the key?" Natasha smiled, shrugged; there was no key.

Hodge said, "CIA Director Cooper is on his way here from Washington; he wants to have you brought up on charges. You were part of the hunt for the Winter Soldier; hell, you were in charge of it. And yet here you are..." He gestured toward their linked wrists. "So tell me: were you always lying, or did the Winter Soldier turn you?"

"He's not the Winter Soldier," Natasha said. "He's Captain America," and when Hodge opened his mouth to protest she said, with a sigh and just the right amount of condescension, "Look, your security clearance just wasn't high enough," and that stopped Hodge cold; he seemed to be choking on his own spit. "Neither was Cooper's," she added consolingly, "if it makes you feel any better," and then: "Though I suppose they'll have to bring you in on it now."

Hodge was outraged. "Bring me in on...?"

Natasha said, "This man is James Buchanan Barnes," and Hodge's reaction was everything she could have wished, his anger immediately shifting to surprise and wonder, and then the first visible flicker of unease. "I'm sure you recognize the name; it's on the Wall of Valor down in the lobby," and Hodge's unease deepened into outright dismay. He stared at Barnes, who—while not looking his best; his head had been bandaged, but blood had pooled under his skin, leaving black patches on his face—was still recognizably the man whose profile was etched in marble at the Howling Commandos Memorial in D.C. and who was always posed at Captain America's side in paintings.

"Barnes was given the super serum the same year as Rogers: 1943," which was true, though it was eliding quite a bit of the story. Natasha raised her hand, lifting Barnes's as well. "Check his fingerprints if you don't believe me."

But it was clear that Hodge believed her; his face was now broadcasting the bureaucrat's most naturally-felt emotion: the desire to cover your ass. She kept her face neutral and said, "I hope Cooper gets here soon, for your sake; I wouldn't want to be the ranking guy in the building when this blows up. There'll be decisions to make: big ones. Oh, and by the way," she added, with sweet irony, "if I were you, I'd be expecting a visit from Steve."

There were barricades and a big NO STANDING zone outside of SHIELD headquarters downtown, but Steve just pulled up in front of the building and got out of the van. Clint quickly followed: Steve clearly didn't give a shit about illegal parking, and after all, Tony did it all the time. Steve went around the concrete anti-terrorism barrier and pushed through the building's enormous revolving door into the black granite lobby. Clint revolved through behind him and then deliberately fell behind to watch Steve's six; Steve wasn't taking account of his surroundings, not even to stop—as he so often did—at the Wall of Valor at the center of the lobby.

They'd spent a lot of time in this building, in the old days, usually coming in from underground but sometimes entering through the lobby, where the guards had smiled at them—hello, Avengers!—and waved them through. But now, all the security officers were tracking the determined stride of the tall, bearded guy in the coveralls and construction boots, converging on him: they didn't recognize him, even with the shield, because Steve wasn't carrying it like he usually did, high and proud; he was just holding it low at his side, like some old briefcase or bag. And Steve didn't seem to notice that they were coming for him, closing in on him in a V formation, or that their hands were moving to rest on the butts of their guns—or if he did, he gave no indication that he cared.

Steve didn't argue with the guards at the security checkpoint, just strode past it—and that's when the guns came up.

They surrounded him. The lobby went into lockdown.

A guard stepped up, his gun aimed at Steve's chest. "Stop," he said.

Steve stopped, but didn't lift his shield. Instead he said, gently, "That won't work, Tom," and then he curled his hand around the barrel of the gun and lifted it, pulling it to the center of his head before letting go. "That might."

Nobody breathed or moved. Clint took a step forward, unsure of what he would do if they opened fire. But he saw, then, that the guard's face was clouding with uncertainty; he was staring at Steve's face. "Captain Rogers?"

"Yeah, Tom, it's me," Steve said, and then: "I'm going up to see Michael Hodge now."

Tom hesitated. "Mr. Hodge has no appointments on his schedule."

Steve smiled, quick and sad. "He'll see me without an appointment," and Tom considered this for a moment and then nodded and lowered his weapon. The other guards followed suit, one by one.

She heard a gasp from the bed and turned to find James's eyes open and dilated, black with fear. She knew before he said anything that he didn't know her; she could see the terror and confusion on his face. "Who are you?" James scraped out, and then he realized he was tied down. He began to flex and twist against the thick leather restraints, then shuddered and groaned out loud, going pale, slightly green; it had obviously made him sick to move.

"It's all right; James, it's going to be all right," she said softly, trying to calm him, afraid that he was going to hurt himself, exacerbate his injuries. She touched his face. "It's me. I'm Natasha," she said. "I'm your friend—"

His skin was clammy; he'd broken a sweat; he was breathing in quick bursts. "I don't have friends."

"Yes, you do," she said softly. "And you have Steve; Steve will be here soon," and she could literally see the name fluttering across his face, across his brain. He blinked rapidly and then stopped, unfocused, and stared at nothing.

"Steve," he said.

"Yeah," she said. "He's coming," and then she frowned, because James's whole body was relaxing, sailing off on the tide of this new knowledge, his eyes rolling up in his head: but it was better that he stay awake if he could. "James," she said, and then more forcefully, squeezing his hand, "James?" but his head turned to the side; he'd drifted off.

The elevator opened onto the SHIELD bullpen and it was obvious that Tom-the-guard or someone had called up to warn them that Steve was coming, because the room was silent, with everyone at their desks but nobody working, though some people were pretending to: there were phones raised to ears and hands on keyboards. But every eye was on Steve as he strode to Hodge's office, a glass box in the corner of the room; every head turned to follow him.

The door to Hodge's office was open, but he had clearly made the decision to greet Steve from behind his enormous desk, which was piled high with briefing books and papers, two computers and three tablets: here was a man who was busy running the world. "Captain Rogers," Hodge said, standing up. "Steve," and he quickly took a defensive step back as Steve swung the shield up, proffering it, thrusting it over the cluttered desk at him.

"Is this what you want?" Steve asked. "Here, take it." He let go as Hodge tried to reach for it, bobbled it—and the thing was that Steve carried the shield so naturally and easily that you didn't realize what a big thing it was, how heavy and awkward. Clint knew this from personal experience; he'd used the shield himself once or twice; had carried it, thrown it. It wasn't as easy as some people made it look. Now the front half dropped, and Hodge fumbled to hold on to it, to not let it smash onto the desk. It looked enormous in his hands; he looked ludicrous holding it.

"Now give me my friend back," Steve said. "Give me James Barnes." He cut Hodge off when he began to protest.

"Now. Right now," and beard and goggles notwithstanding, he was Captain America, and righteous like fire.

Chapter Two.

When Natasha looked up, Steve was filling the doorway, looking like he'd come straight from a construction site, just dropped everything and run. He looked at James, lying there, all stitched up and with his head bandaged, blood pooled around his closed eyes so that his whole face was a bruise, and then he was coming forward and gritting his jaw and muttering, "No, no, no,"—and it was the restraints he was after, snapping the thick leather straps with his bare hands. Natasha looked warily at Clint as he came in: they sometimes forgot Steve could do that. Steve's face was like marble, but there was something wild underneath; he was angrier about the restraints than Barnes had been.

When the straps were all broken and Barnes was free, Steve took a couple of ragged breaths and said, "Did he—Has he—?" and Natasha quickly reassured him: "He came to, he opened his eyes. And he could move: he moved his hands, his arms." Steve nodded, relieved. "But his memory...he didn't recognize me, and he didn't seem to remember what happened. I'm not sure he knows who he is," Natasha said, and then: "You, he remembers."

"Yeah," Steve said softly, and perched on the side of the bed. He looked down. "Buck? Bucky?" He moved to touch Barnes's face, then stopped and reached for his hand instead, the metal one, and squeezed. But Barnes didn't wake.

The handcuffs opened if you manipulated them the right way: easy if you knew how, impossible if you didn't. Natasha opened them with a click and slid them first off Barnes's wrist, then her own. She handed the cuffs to Clint and began to rub circulation back into her hand.

"Oh, these," Clint said, with some fondness.

Natasha looked at Steve, who was still staring down at Barnes. "He saved a lot of people, you know," she said. "They were going to bomb Grand Central, bring down the Tower on top. He saved one guy in particular—a civilian conductor; a hostage in a bomb vest. He used the shield to protect him—and not himself. Hence..." She gestured.

"I don't doubt it," Steve said quietly, from the bedside. "I told you, Natasha: he's the best man I know. When we were kids—I started fights. He ended them. His folks were good people; he never wanted to disappoint them. He protected his sisters—and me; he was the oldest. And then the war came and he enlisted. And god...what they did to him. What they did."

Natasha said, low and urgent, "So what's the plan?" and Steve surprised her by laughing.

"There is no plan." Steve managed to smile and look sad at the same time. "It's a war. We go home or we die," and then a faint voice said: "That's the old plan," and Steve turned to Barnes and said, "That's right."

Barnes stretched up a hand, and Steve lowered his face so that Barnes could touch it. "When did you grow a beard?"

"When we ran away," Steve replied softly. "You told me to."

"I like it," Barnes said, running his fingers over it. "Do I kiss a man with a beard? I guess I'm really modern."

Steve bent to kiss him, very gently. "You are," he confirmed with a grin, and then he sobered and said: "How do you feel, pal? Do you think you can move? I want to get you the hell out of here."

Barnes stopped and took internal stock of himself, a systems check. "I can do it, I think, if you help me." He smiled wryly at Steve. "I can do anything if you help me." He frowned suddenly. "Hey, there was a girl..."

Steve sat back and gestured toward Natasha, who came forward a little. "Natasha," Steve said. "She's our friend."

Barnes's eyes moved over her. "Yeah, that's what she said."

"And Clint's here, too. Clint Barton. Hawkeye," and Barnes's eyes moved to him. "You've got lots of friends, Buck."

"Yeah, and you're going to need them," Natasha interrupted, crossing her arms. "They're not going to let you walk out of here. Well—you, Steve; maybe. But not him." She bit her lip. "I told them he was James Buchanan Barnes—"

"He is James Buchanan Barnes," Steve said forcefully.

"—but somewhere in this building, they're putting him together with the Winter Soldier, I promise you."

"They can't prove anything," Steve said. "The Winter Soldier's a ghost story: you said so yourself."

"Sure: when they wanted it to be. But now?" Natasha shook her head. "They're not just going to let you walk out."

Steve looked at Barnes and said, softly, "Are you all right with that?"

Barnes met his eyes. "Yeah," he said. "That's fine," and then Steve was bending down over the bed and Barnes was gritting his teeth and Steve was levering him up carefully, pulling the metal arm across his shoulders.

Natasha stared, feeling suddenly out of control; she didn't understand. "What are you...?"

"If that's how it is," Steve said, meeting her eyes, "then that's how it is."

For a moment, they none of them said anything. Then Clint said, "I'll get the van. I'll pull the van into the fucking lobby if I have to," and Steve nodded and threw him the keys. He caught them one-handed and went out the door.

They began to move, Barnes holding on to Steve but managing to walk on his own steam despite the wound in his thigh. "Steve," Natasha began, not knowing how to talk him out of it. Steve was having none of it.

"Natasha, I'm done," Steve said. "I made a mistake last time—we did. We ran. You start running and they'll—"

"— never let you stop," Barnes mumbled; he was white-faced but moving steadily, focusing. A spasm of pain crossed Steve's face and he said, "Yeah, Buck. That's right."

"Sir, you can't," one of the guards began, and then: "Stop. Sir, I need you to stop," but Steve just tightened his grip on Barnes and kept going, walking Barnes one foot in front of the other. Natasha, trailing behind, heard the beep of a radio and then, "Code 13, I've got a Code 13," which was the code for a prisoner escape, and that was a laugh, because if this was a prisoner escape, it was in slow fucking motion: shuffling step by shuffling step.

"We don't have any weapons," Natasha half-moaned as she trailed after them; they'd taken her weapons when they captured her; all of them—well, nearly all. "We don't have Tony or Thor or—we could have Tony here in a few minutes, he's just uptown, and Coulson's back from the dead, did you hear? Maria Hill would help us, if we called her," but they'd taken her communication devices too, and while they'd apparently just let Steve walk in off the street, he didn't have a phone on him; of course he didn't. "With just the tiniest bit of planning, we could—"

"That doesn't matter," Steve said, his other arm slung around Barnes's waist. "None of that matters."

That seemed to be true, because they were still moving forward. There were more guards and more guns, more chatter on the radios, but nobody stopped them–until Barnes himself stopped near the elevators, and said, thickly, "Wait, I need a—just to get my," and then, contradicting himself in one breath, "I'm all right; I'm going to throw up."

"If you need to, go ahead," Steve said, steadying him, holding him tight and waiting for the shivers to pass. Barnes turned so he could brace himself against Steve, his hands knotting in Steve's coveralls, and panted raggedly, eyes closed and sweating, obviously fighting down nausea. The room was still and quiet, and Natasha watched everyone who was watching them: the two Captains America, wounded soldiers clinging to each other; as surreal a scene as she had ever witnessed. She wondered if Barnes would throw up after all, and what would happen if he did.

"All right," Barnes said finally, and managed a nod.

"All right?" Steve asked, peering worriedly at him.

"Yeah," Barnes said, and Steve pressed the button for the elevator. It lit up.

By the time they reached the ground floor, word had clearly gotten out—the lobby was crowded not just with armed guards but with suited intelligence agents and other SHIELD personnel as well. The radio chatter had gone urgent, and Natasha saw hands on earpieces, hands raised to wrists—they were reporting to somebody, Hodge? Cooper? Whom? Steve ignored them and gently tugged Barnes forward; his face was a Rorschach blot of bruises and pale, clammy skin, but he was keeping his feet, putting one in front of the other with dogged and unexpected grace.

Slowly the crowd parted before them, the guards frowning, lifting their guns and lowering them, jaws clenching. Like everyone there, Natasha was well aware of the expected maneuver—surround them, push them down to their knees, cuff them—but nobody wanted to do it. She could see the nearest guard biting his lip. Patience was itself a tactic. Let them wear themselves out—and here, especially, there was a good chance that Barnes would collapse and give them an opening they could live with. Barnes knew it, too—she could see it in the tension of his frame—and she heard him mutter to Steve, "If they stop us, you'll take care of me first, pal, won't you? Break my neck."

"Yes," Steve said without hesitation, and Natasha's blood ran cold.

Barnes went still about halfway through the lobby and turned his head, wincing—to look for her, she realized a moment later, and came to where he could see her without straining. "Natasha," he said, and his eyes seemed clearer. "I'm sorry. I remember now," and she smiled at him and said, "That's good, James. You better."

They were almost at the wall of glass doors when they were stopped. A blonde guard nearly as tall and as well-built as Steve stepped out and aimed her gun at him, her unit fanning out around her. Her strong face was tense and a little sorrowful. People stepped back hastily. "Sir, they've asked me to stop you leaving the building," she said.

"Yeah," Steve said, sounding weary and not a little sympathetic. "I bet." He looked at her. She looked at him. Their eyes were at about the same height. They both of them ignored the gun between them; it was like it wasn't even there. Natasha took stock of how many weapons were within her reach if she moved fast; at least three, she thought.

"I'm sorry," Steve said in a low voice, "but you're going to have to."

The woman stared: a good soldier responding to a direct order. Natasha sighed: hadn't they all been good soldiers once?

Steve's voice was a shade above a whisper. "I can't live with it," he told her. "So." He sighed and secured his grip on Barnes. "I don't judge you," he said— and maybe that was what decided her, because all at once she was lowering her gun and muttering, "Stand down, everyone stand down. Open the doors for them. Now," she growled. "Hurry."

There was a rattling of keys and a clicking of locks. Barnes swayed and Natasha quickly went to his other side; she was prepared to drag him out to the van if necessary. They started off, and then there was an echoing shout and a rustle of movement in the crowd behind them—and Natasha wished she'd grabbed a gun after all, because maybe Steve was prepared to just crash the plane but she was damned if she wasn't going to take a few of them with her.

But it wasn't another SWAT team or special force. Instead the crowd behind them parted to reveal—Natasha blinked—Harry Perkins. She remembered him; he'd had the bad luck to start at the New York field office the week of the Chitauri invasion. He'd come straight from the Academy and had looked about fourteen. He didn't look much older now; his suit jacket was flapping and he was, Natasha saw, wearing a sweater vest underneath, which made him look like an errant schoolboy just escaped from chapel. He was darting through the crowd toward them, struggling to haul something along with him; it was the shield. He was carrying Captain America's shield.

Steve turned. "Cap," Perkins said, a little breathlessly, slowing. He managed to bring up the shield; it wobbled.

Steve stared at the shield; he looked ambushed by it, almost angry at it. He bit the inside of his cheek, made a face, shook his head. No. No. He turned away, but Perkins came forward, lifting and offering the shield to him.

"Cap, please," Perkins said. "Take it back. Please take it back," and it was like the whole lobby was holding its breath, waiting to see if he took it or refused it. Time slowed and grew heavy. Don't do it! Natasha wanted to shout. Steve, don't! and she could see the same look on Barnes's face, though he was holding his tongue: You don't owe these bastards anything, Steve. You've served your time. You're free—let's get out of here, but Steve just stood there, staring, his chest visibly rising and falling as he breathed in and out. He had planned to leave the shield behind, at Tony's, way back when; Natasha knew this, she'd seen it hanging on the wall. But he'd taken it with him in the end. A mistake—or at least Steve thought so. But it seemed a mistake he was doomed to repeat.

She took more of Barnes's weight as Steve raised his hand and took the shield—and there was an audible exhalation in the room, a palpable sense of relief among everyone but her and Steve and Barnes. Steve stared at the shield, looking numb—it was an albatross if there ever was one—and then she saw to her horror that Barnes had twisted his face toward her to hide it from Steve, because he was struggling to control himself: he was on the verge of tears.

Natasha lurched into motion. "Okay," she gritted out, "if we're going, let's go; let's get the hell out of here," and that brought Steve back to himself, and together they pulled Barnes through the glass doors and across the sidewalk to the white van. Natasha flung open the passenger door and hopped in, and together she and Steve hauled Barnes in and up. He was panting and gritting out little moans of pain, jolted, but they got him in, and then Natasha scrambled into the back behind the bench seat so that Steve could climb in and hold Barnes steady.

The door slammed. "Drive," Steve told Clint, and Clint did.

"Hang on," Steve told Barnes. "You'll be resting in your own goddamned bed soon," and Barnes looked at him and said, "We're really going back? We're going home?"

"Yeah," Steve said. "I mean, you want to root for the Cubs?" and that must have been some kind of in-joke between them, because Bucky laughed and then winced and said, "No. I don't. But Steve..."

"I won't run. Not again. If they want us," Steve said darkly, "they're going to have to come and get us." Natasha looked worriedly at Clint, but Barnes was nodding, hardfaced, and then he said, "Attaboy."

The End

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