Title: Blink, Bleed, Breathe, Believe (first you save yourself)
Author: marcicat

Rating: T
Word Count: 2500

Summary: A potential take on some of the behind-the-scenes stuff between and around Iron Man 3 and Winter Soldier.

Author’s Note: Starts post-Iron Man 3, then jumps to Cap 2 and moves forward from there. In awesome news, one of Sam’s “comics canon” powers is that he can converse with birds. I wish that was actually important in this story.

Characters: Pepper Potts, Tony Stark, Maria Hill, Nick Fury, Bruce Banner, JARVIS, Clint Barton, James Rhodes, Natasha Romanoff, Bucky Barnes




PROLOGUE

She had probably two minutes before Agent Hill found her office. It was an interesting tactic — none of them were quite sure what was behind the highly public visit, but JARVIS was monitoring and Bruce was on call for backup, so they were letting it play out.

Director Fury was already on the penthouse level. She waved a hand to increase the volume on her screen.

“Stark. Let’s talk about your robot army.”

She raised her eyebrows. Tony just leaned back against the counter, keeping in full camera view. “Sure, Nick. What robot army would that be?”

“The one the President of the United States swears he saw you directing on the night of his rescue. He said there were — and I quote — ‘dozens of Iron Man suits acting independently, like a swarm of death in red and gold.’”

Tony whistled. JARVIS gave her a 30-second warning on Maria’s arrival. “The man has a poetic soul, who knew? Do you think he came up with that himself? Seriously, though — he was experiencing massive shock. Head trauma, impending death, the whole nine yards. The holidays are a stressful time for everyone. Are we really going to trust his count on this one?”

She muted the volume and shrank the screen. Took a deep breath. Prepped a for-the-press smile and leaned back in her chair, just in time for the knock on the door. “Come in,” she said.

“Ms. Potts,” Maria said. “Can we talk?”

On her screen, Fury and Tony were still several feet apart. JARVIS showed Tony still in full blue. “Officially, or unofficially?” she asked.

Maria closed the door behind her. “Officially, we’re here so Director Fury can question Stark about the existence of multiple Iron Man suits. Our conversation is off the record.”

She didn’t cross her arms, because defensive body language tended to make her temperature spike. Instead, she leaned forward. “In that case, where the hell was SHIELD last month? Because I wasn’t feeling much like a valued SHIELD ally when my home was being blown up around me, or when I was captured by terrorists, or when we had to rescue ourselves off an exploding tanker and didn’t get so much as a phone call afterwards.”

Maria didn’t flinch. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry. We don’t have much time, so I’ll make this quick. SHIELD has been compromised and we don’t know how deep it goes. Fury’s cutting loose what assets he can — you and Stark, Banner. Dr. Foster and her team. Thor, obviously.”

Spy politics always made her uneasy. “For what reason?”

Maria’s expression almost made her wish she hadn’t asked. “So that there’s someone left to pick up the pieces.”

As an answer, it was as vague as it was blunt. She tapped her fingers on the desk. “That’s not very comforting.”

“It wasn’t meant to be.”

And that seemed to be all. No mention of Extremis, or planetary defense, or arc reactor technology, all topics she would have placed money on SHIELD being exceedingly interested in. And no mention of the other Avengers. As Maria turned to leave, she said, “You’re the ones who made them a team — you should know they won’t abandon the others.”

“Fury’s counting on it,” Maria said, and slipped out the door without looking back.

Well. Interesting. Frustrating, but interesting. She split her screen — one side showing Maria headed for the central elevators, the other still focused on Tony, and turned the volume up again.

“That must be awkward when you shower. Which was a mental image I did not need.” She’d definitely missed something. Tony stood up straighter. “I’m not kidding, you’re reducing my zen just standing there. Tell the World Security Council to focus on something important, like, oh, world security? Maybe? Visiting hours are over.”

Fury tilted his head and gave what was probably meant to be a menacing stare; the effect was significantly reduced over video feed. Then he turned and left without another word. She waited until he had exited the building to ping Tony and Bruce. “That was weird, right? Tell me I’m not the only one who thought that was weird.”

“Definitely weird,” Bruce agreed.

Tony said, “I demand a lunch meeting. Can I do that?”

She eyed her schedule. “Give me ten minutes to clear some time, and then yes.”

“Fantastic. Food, talk, superhero shenanigans. Bring your temperature profiles and any and all SHIELD classified files; we’ll make it a study date.”


SOME TIME LATER: PROJECT INSIGHT LAUNCH

“Repulsor energy signal detected.”

JARVIS’ normally calm voice was tinged with urgency. “Whatever they’re planning, they’re running out of time,” Tony said. His fingers were flicking through screens faster than she could follow, with Bruce equally focused on the opposite side of the table.

It didn’t take a genius to figure out that whatever reason SHIELD wanted three new highly mobile, highly weaponized helicarriers, it was bound to be bad news. And that when there was bad news, it was bound to show up on their doorstep sooner or later. Probably sooner. It had been a calculated risk to hand over the repulsor tech, but at least they could track it.

“I’m evacuating the Tower,” she said, already moving to sound the alarms. “They can wait it out in the underground levels until you figure out what’s going on.”

Bruce tensed. “We’re being targeted.”

(She almost laughed. Because how else was this ever going to end? Put two indestructible science experiments and a man who refused to stay dead in one place; it was only a matter of time before someone stepped up and said ‘challenge accepted.’ But SHIELD was about to get an unpleasant surprise if they thought they could wipe the three of them off the map.)

“A lot of people are being targeted,” Bruce corrected, and that — that wasn’t a vendetta; that was a revolution. What was SHIELD planning? “Tracking now.”

“Come on, Cap,” Tony muttered. “Pepper, are we clear?”

She checked her display, and nodded. “The Tower’s empty except for us.”

They stared at the helicarriers rising up on the screen. JARVIS broke into the silence. “SHIELD is transmitting.” A second screen popped up, files scrolling in a seemingly endless string — photographs, blueprints, mission reports, threat analyses.

“JARVIS, who’s seeing this?” Bruce asked.

“Based on the twitter response, nearly everyone.”

Her phone pinged. “Text from Natasha. She says ‘find Clint.’”

“Is that really a priority—“ Tony cut himself off as the helicarriers started firing on each other. “Okay. That’s happening.” He shook his head. “Remind me to stop underestimating her. JARVIS, secure copy everything SHIELD is broadcasting. While you’re at it, find Barton. Track him, ping him, send a jet — whatever it takes.”

“Dr. Foster wants to know if she should send Thor.” Bruce looked to her when he said it. The reminder that none of them really knew what they were doing was inexplicably reassuring.

“Not yet,” she said. “If this is SHIELD self-destructing, a lot of agents are going to be left without resources or backup. They’ll need help; Thor may be more useful over there.” And if it was something else, it was probably better not to create a single target. She didn’t say ‘let’s not give them an excuse to send another nuclear bomb in our direction.’ But she was thinking it.

Everything was quiet, for a minute. The seconds ticked by as they watched the helicarriers fall. She flinched as one of them ripped through SHIELD’s D.C. headquarters on the way down. And then the firing stopped, and the smoke was thick enough that they couldn’t see much, but she was relatively sure it was over. So to speak.

“Agent Barton has been located,” JARVIS announced.

“Good, that’s good,” Tony said, still staring at the screen. “That’s — what do we do now?”

He wasn’t used to seeing chaos at a distance. (Usually he was right in the middle of it.) She said, “SI’s going to draft a public response; I’m calling people back from the evacuation. We’ll have a press release by this afternoon. Bruce, see if you can figure out what we’ll need for environmental containment and cleanup. I want our people there monitoring as soon as possible.”

“Colonel Rhodes and Agent Barton are incoming.”

Tony’s head whipped around to look out at the balcony. “Wait, what? That was fast.”

Rhodey bypassed the terrace and brought the armor in for a landing directly outside the door, dropping the last few inches with a metallic clunk. Agent Barton vaulted off his back and knocked on the glass.

“Rhodey!” Tony said. “I have no idea why you’re here, but it’s good to see you.”

Rhodey shook his head, but he was smiling when the faceplate went up. “Yeah, well, you’re lucky our neighbors to the north didn’t mind me bailing out of a mission to play taxi service. I wouldn’t mind knowing why, though.”

“You were in Canada? Why? Are the Mounties getting feisty at the border?"

Tony abandoned the displays to go poke at Rhodey. She focused her attention on Agent Barton, who had already made his way inside and was watching the screen. JARVIS was working backwards through the footage in sections, pulling out anyone identifiable and putting their information up on screen. It was impressive to watch — and slightly beyond anything SHIELD officially knew about JARVIS’ capabilities. Agent Barton seemed to take in the room with a glance. “So,” he said. “Why am I here?”

“Natasha texted me,” she told him. “She said to find you.”

He rocked back on his heels and said, “Huh,” but his eyes were on the main screen. “SHIELD’s been waiting for me to go mental like Selvig. Enforced leave. Natasha’s been keeping me up to date, mostly.” He frowned suddenly and pointed at a smudged figure. “Hang on, can you go back?”

“Certainly, Agent Barton.”

The footage tracked back frame by frame, to someone JARVIS had skipped over. “Right there,” Barton said. “That’s not an unknown. That’s the Winter Soldier. Or someone impersonating him, I suppose.”

“The who now?” Tony said, rejoining the conversation. “Rhodey’s headed back to Canada.”

Barton just nodded. “The Winter Soldier. Been around since the Cold War, works with Soviet gear. Never ages, always gets his target. Never been caught. He’s like — the sniper they warn other snipers about, you know?”

Tony squinted at the screen, where JARVIS was helpfully pulling up other fuzzy images that she assumed were the same person. He looked back at Barton. “Not really, but I’ll take your word for it.”

“Hey, just because there’s no official photograph doesn’t mean nobody’s ever seen him. Gossip’s currency, Stark. And I’ve got good eyes.”

Tony just nodded, already moving on to other topics. “Right. Winter Soldier it is. I’m pretty sure the real question here is: when are we leaving for DC?”

She held in the automatic ‘no’ on the tip of her tongue, and it was Bruce who said, “I think we should stay here, actually.”

All eyes were on Bruce, suddenly. Tony said, “Excuse me?”

“Think about it. Right now this is about SHIELD. If we go rushing in, it’s going to be about the Avengers. We might be able to do more good from the outside on this one.” Bruce shrugged, not looking as uncomfortable as she would have thought with all the attention.

Tony eyed him carefully for a few seconds. Then he said, “I’ll agree, but only because you said ‘we.’ Barton, how about you?”

He frowned. “Ms. Potts, may I borrow your phone?” She saw Tony’s eyebrows go up, and he mouthed ‘Ms. Potts?’ in Bruce’s direction.

“Pepper’s fine,” she said, handing him the phone.

“Clint,” he offered in return. “I just want to —” He typed something, and the phone buzzed with a reply text almost immediately. “‘We’re fine. Mostly,’” he read aloud. “Works for me,” he added, giving her phone back. “I trust Natasha. You don’t happen to have a spare room in this place, do you? I didn’t exactly have time to pack my suitcase.”


TWO WEEKS LATER

It took a week for the metaphorical dust to start settling. For Steve to be released from the hospital and send a (troublingly curt, she thought) group email that simply said, ‘Thank you for your good wishes. I am fine.’ For Natasha to walk out of a Congressional hearing and wind up at their breakfast table the next day with a story about Bucky Barnes and Hydra and a reassurance them that Steve wasn’t alone, exactly, just working with someone who thought flying into war zones with mechanical wings was a good life choice. Personally, she wasn’t convinced.

It took another week after that for Tony to stop following her everywhere — which is how she ended up completely alone in the coffee shop when Bucky Barnes walked up beside her.

She sighed. He didn’t say anything. She stepped up to the counter. He didn’t say anything. But he met her eyes when she turned to look at him, so she asked, “Can I get you something, Mr. Barnes?”

His jaw clenched, and he looked away, then turned back. “Decaf.”

Of all the things she’d been expecting… “Why?”

“I’m not going to drink it anyway.”

She ordered it regardless, and they collected their drinks in silence. He followed when she went to find a table. “All right. How exactly are you envisioning this going?” Surprising the man who had been the Winter Soldier was not high on her to-do list. Instead of an answer, she got a quick second of eye contact, like menace layered with weariness. She resisted the urge to sigh again.

On good days, everyone in the Tower managed to live together and work together (and scheme together, and go to therapy together) without any major incidents (there was a list). On bad days, they ignored each other. Texted instead of talking. Avoided common areas. And sometimes they went for coffee and got assassins instead. Or in addition to.

They sat in silence for a full minute. Finally, she said, “I’m going to need more than that.”

He sat up straighter. “I can’t hurt you. And you don’t want anything from me.” He said it carefully, like he was gauging her reaction as he spoke. “I don’t — know, what I want.”

“Most of us don’t,” she told him. “You know a few things you don’t want?” He gave a slow nod. “That’s where you start, then. After that it’s mostly—“ She tried to figure out what came next. Trial and error? Luck? “After that you don’t have to do the rest of it alone,” she finished.

Natasha and Maria picked that moment to slide into chairs at the table next to them. Both of them were holding drinks, which she thought was a nice show of faith. (And timing.) Still a show, but it was something. “Hi,” Natasha said. “Bruce is holding Stark’s hand; don’t worry.”

She wasn’t worried. She looked steadily at Barnes. “It’s a package deal or nothing. Just so you know what you’re getting into.”

He didn’t look any more spooked than he had at the start, and he said, “I get it.”

Trial and error time, then.

“Let’s go home,” she said. When all three of them fell into step behind her, she couldn’t help a smile. Whatever happened next, they would face it together.

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