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I Had Strings But Now I'm Free

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"Buck. Buck."

"Nnnn," Bucky groans into the pillow; his eye cracks open and tries to blink away the bleariness. Waking up after a dosage of Asgardian sleep aid is usually a pleasant ordeal, but only when an actual eight hours of sleep has been accomplished. "What."

"We got a call." Steve is kneeling by the side of the bed, clutching the mattress for balance. "Sokovia's signed the Accords. We're going for Strucker's base."

That wakes Bucky up, though he tries not to show it too much. Sokovia had been one of the last holdouts; its former generalissimo had been a Hydra plant, but a popular one for swiftly disposing of the lingering Russian presence in the country and delivering on his promises of improved infrastructure, job growth, and a military that was finally slightly more than negligible. #hydragate had dealt a huge blow to the blossoming economy, and the interim government set up after the People's Leader absconded had faced calls from a particularly vocal contingent urging the country to withdraw from the UN or, at the very least, refuse to sign the Accords allowing the Avengers to operate within their borders.

"Okay," Bucky mumbles, trying to sound suitably groggy.

"Both of us are gonna go."

Now Bucky can't help but look alive. Steve and Peggy have both gone on missions throughout the past year, with increasing frequency as more and more countries signed the Accords, but never at the same time, let alone on the same one. Before last April, when there hadn't been someone at home who needed them, they'd been willing to risk dying on the same mission. Nowadays they don't even leave the Tower together unless Bucky accompanies them.

"Fury's contact says Strucker's got the scepter," Steve explains, looking a little apologetic for all his certainty. "If he does, then it's...kind of an all-hands-on-deck scenario. We called up Rhodey and Sam for this. Woulda called up Sharon, too, if she weren't in the wind..."

"Oh," Bucky breathes; from the corner of his eye he sees Peggy ghost back into the bedroom, fussing with her uniform. "All right. You kids have fun."

"You're sure, darling?" Peggy asks, coming to stand beside Steve. "You'll be all right?"

"Yeah, I'll be fine," Bucky says, clearing his throat as he attempts a grin. It's not like his mental state is going to change anything. If the mission needs both his beloveds, then both of them have to go. "Better than fine. I get to enjoy this California King without Steve's snoring..."

"Jerk," Steve teases, tussling Bucky's already mussed hair; Bucky moves to bat his hand away but ends up grabbing his wrist and holding Steve's hand against the side of his head. After a second Peggy sits on the bed and gently lays her hand on Bucky's shoulder.

"Be careful, okay?" Bucky finally says, his eyes staying tightly closed. "Don't do anything stupid. Either of you."

"I promise, we're leaving all the stupid right here in this bed," Steve says, scratching his fingertips against Bucky's scalp.

"Punk," Bucky mutters, squeezing Steve's wrist until he can tell that it's causing some minor discomfort, and then letting go so he can turn over onto his back. He raises his hands, inviting Peggy to slot herself between them and receive a few tiny kisses dotted across her face. She gives him a proper kiss in return, not slow but satisfying regardless, and isn't particularly hasty about extricating herself. Once she's out of the way Steve clambers up so he's draped clumsily over the bed, dropping his own good-bye kiss on Bucky's mouth.

"Go back to sleep, okay? Don't worry too much."

"Nnn." Steve rewards his complacency with another kiss, before finally straightening himself out.

"We'll be back before you know it, darling," Peggy promises, as Steve joins her in the doorway; Bucky lifts his head to smile at them and then flops back down, giving them his final permission for their departure.

"I feel like I just kicked a puppy," Peggy says regardless, after Steve shuts the door; on the other side Bucky curls onto his side and pulls the comforter a little tighter around him.

"He'll be fine. He's a big boy, Pegs; he ties his own shoelaces and everything," Steve says, with a weak, impish smile. Peggy makes a face at him and lightly steps her heel onto his toes; while she's distracted with preening he reaches around to pinch her butt, and then has to take off before she can retaliate.

"Oh God," Tony mutters once they make it, pink-cheeked and giggling, to the quinjet landing pad very quickly for having chased each other there. "We are still smack dab in the middle of the Ungodly Hours, people. Cheeriness is strictly prohibited."

Peggy makes sure to stick her tongue out at him extra jovially. Sam hands her a paper cup of coffee as a reward.

"Why so foul a mood, Stark?" Thor asks, his voice just a few decibels shy of booming. "Are we not on our way to glorious victory?"

"You better be," Maria says briskly. "All right, now that CapCarter have decided to grace us with their presence..." She presses a few buttons on the tablet in her hand, before lifting it up for the group to view. "Strucker's base is located about two miles due east of Novi Grad. Our contact says the scepter is almost definitely on site. Even if it's not, this place is the largest and most well-stocked of all known Hydra bases. Appropriating its assets is a goal, and the Recovery Team will be waiting to do just that once you take the castle. Beyond that..."

She taps the screen a few times, bringing up grainy surveillance photos of a pair of teenagers. "Leak says that Strucker's got two mutants at the base. Twins, Wanda and Pietro Maximoff. Orphaned at ten when a shell took out their apartment building. Bounced around between various foster homes and the streets for several years before being adopted," she balances the tablet on one hand, freeing the other to supply the air quotes, "by Strucker. Pietro's got increased metabolism, improved thermal homeostasis, and total transparency capabilities, meaning he can get up to around cheetah speed, maybe a little faster, and turn invisible. Wanda's gig is neuroelectric interfacing, telekineses, cognitive manipulation..."

"Flash Gordon and Matilda Wormwood, got it," Tony says.

"And it would appear they can communicate telepathically with each other, so long as there isn't any interference." She brings the tablet down. "Apparently Pietro's had his powers since childhood, but Wanda was put under...considerable stress by Strucker in order to activate hers."

"Like that Deadpool guy?" Clint asks.

"...Yeah," Maria says, with a wince in Steve and Peggy's direction. "Strucker joined SHIELD before Zola died, and they...worked together. Closely."

"Jeez, how many more wizard Mengeles do we have to deal with?" Tony mutters.

"Are these hostiles to watch out for?" Steve asks, briskly. "Or hostages to extract?"

"Um...uh-huh," Maria says; Steve snorts at her.

"All right then. Anything else?"

"Nothing beyond what you've come to expect."

"Great. Avengers..." He steps and sweeps his arm back, gesturing to the ramp leading into the quinjet. "Aboard."

"A~nchors aweigh~," Tony mutter-sings as he starts to shuffle up the ramp.

"Pedal to the metal, guys," Rhodey says, hustling in ahead of the others and heading for the cockpit. "It's not a secret that we're allowed into the country now. They're gonna be waiting for us."

Peggy fits herself into one of the seats and straps herself in, Steve and Sam doing the same on either side of her, and Thor beside Sam. Once Steve is settled she taps his hand, and when she has his attention she flicks her gaze across the floor, to where Natasha and Clint are sitting on opposite sides of their rows of seats, Bruce and Tony sandwiched between them.

Steve grimaces. Clint had mentioned that, since what happened in November, his and Laura's relationship with Natasha has been complicated but he hasn't seen them together to assess the situation himself. Deliberate separation like this, especially with both of them facing away from each other, seems indicative of a more dire situation than complicated.

"Everyone please return your trays to the upright position; we are clear for take off," Rhodey says, flipping a few switches, and beneath them the quinjet roars to life.

Bucky opens the blinds to watch the jet take off, and breathes deeply, with his diaphragm, like the counselor told him to.

*

"Shit!"

"What's going on?" Steve yells into his comm, over the roar of his motorcycle and Peggy shooting advancing Hydra soldiers.

Rhodey's assessment has proven itself true with a vengeance. Even landing the quinjet ten miles on the opposite side of the city hadn't afforded them the element of surprise, and the perimeter guard's onslaught had started immediately upon the Avengers entering the very edges of their reach. Tony, Rhodey, and Sam had taken to the air; Tony and Rhodey to attack the building, Sam to do his best impression of a carpet-bomber. A blast from the Iron Man suit bouncing harmlessly away from Strucker's fortress had prompted Tony's profanity.

"The central building is protected by some sort of energy shield," JARVIS reports dutifully, on Tony's behalf.

"Well, ain't that just the berries."

Sam lets go of Thor from a few hundred feet in the air; he lands solidly on the back of one Hydra footsoldier, kicks the one coming up behind him squarely in the chest, and sends Mjolnir flying to take out a third. "Loki's scepter must be here, then," he announces into his wrist comm, grabbing a fourth soldier by the head and throwing him facefirst into the snowy ground. "Strucker couldn't mount this sort of defense without it." He holds his hand out for Mjolnir to return to him, and then steps aside, letting her fly past him and into the face of another assailant. "At long last," he says gleefully, as Mjolnir returns to his hand.

Natasha picks up a grenade and lobs it at the vehicle that had dropped it by her; as it explodes behind her she leaps over an embankment, dragging a Hydra soldier down with her and snapping his neck on the landing. Another catches her by the waist and hoists her into the air; she twists in his arms, kicking her way free of him and the soldier approaching to assist him. "At long last is lasting kinda long, you guys."

An arrow flies into the skull of a Hydra agent who tries to make the same leap Natasha had. "Caffeine's startin' to wear off," Clint chimes in.

"I'm sorry, rewind. Ain't that just the what now, Cap?" Tony asks, swooping low over a staircase and blasting it out of its casing, collapsing it and at least twenty Hydra agents.

"The berries." Steve reaches back to tug on Peggy's sleeve; she immediately throws herself off the motorcycle, tucking herself into a ball to land safely as he stands on the pedals and flips the bike over himself. He lands on his feet as the motorcycle sails through the air, taking out the engine of a not-armored-enough vehicle, and covers his face with the shield as it explodes several feet away from him. "What, have you never heard that expression before?"

"No?" Sam interjects, over the gunshots he aims at the soldiers on the ground. "Berries means something else nowadays, Cap."

"...Sam."

"I'm sorry, why're we talking about berries?" Rhodey asks, aiming an unfortunately deflected blast at the energy shield around the fortress. "In any context?"

"The berries means something like fantastic or the best," Peggy says. "For instance..." She grabs an approaching soldier by the head and slams his face down into her knee; the rest of the Avengers hear the crack of his nose breaking and his grunt of pain. "That was the berries. Shit!"

The small battalion that had formed on the ridge above her and Steve is suddenly taken out in a roar of green; the two stragglers that had managed to dodge the Hulk's rampage are swiftly dispatched with Peggy's gun and Steve's shield respectively.

"So does the phrase include all berries?" Sam asks, as a well-aimed headshot fells another Hydra agent. "Or is there, like, a hierarchy? Cranberry being the lowest to blueberry being the highest, how would you rate that KO?"

"I will not tolerate this slander against cranberries," Rhodey announces, aiming for a low spot on the fortress in the hopes that it will prove a weak point; it doesn't, but it at least takes out the grenade launcher he no longer needs to dodge.

"You know I'm a Burberry man, myself," Tony chimes in, aiming for the first launcher's brother on the other side of the fortress.

"When I was in London last Jane introduced me to an establishment known as Pinkberry," Thor offers, as Mjolnir fractures a man's rib cage. "Is it named after a plant indigenous to this world? If so I offer it up as the berry worthy of highest esteem."

"I've created a monster," Steve mutters, throwing the shield so it bounces off of several trees and goes sailing into the stomach of the man leading three people in his direction, sending all of them flying back and landing in a heap.

"As amusing as this banter is, ladies and gentlemen, the city is taking fire," JARVIS interrupts, and indeed several of the projectiles missing Iron Man and War Machine are falling well outside the treeline.

"Send in the Iron Legion," Tony orders immediately, and back at the quinjet an array of robots whirs into life.

"If someone could take out that bunker over there," Natasha chimes in, as the sound of the Legion soaring over and descending into the city fills the air, "that'd be worth at least a honeyberry, I'm sure."

"On it," Clint says immediately; the white noise after he clips his words closed is slightly palpable even to those distracted by the fight. He's got a path clear of soldiers from this angle and he takes it, coming to hide behind a tree just wide enough to shield his back. A peek around the trunk shows no obstruction between him and the heart of the bunker, and he yanks an arrow from his quiver, positions it, lets it fly, and ducks behind the tree once more, waiting for the boom.

It never comes.

Clint allows himself to wonder what happened for a millisecond before he whips another arrow out and takes aim again. This time he doesn't even get the chance to fire before something plows into his right shoulder with enough force to topple him. He rolls to his feet as a young man's voice inquires "You didn't see that coming?" in a darkly amused whisper, and he has just enough time to see the black of his attacker's eyes before the boy disappears.

Then the bunker fires, and Clint can't register anything besides pain.

"Clint!" Natasha yelps, and as Steve turns in the direction Natasha is running something blows right by him, spinning him off balance and knocking him to the ground. Peggy turns on her heel, aiming at where she expects Steve's assailant to be, and is greeted with thin air.

"Mutant on the field," Steve groans, as Peggy's eye catches movement and she aims for it, only for her initial target to be replaced by another Hydra goon.

"Hawkeye's hit!" A missile flies over Natasha's head as she drops to the ground and slides through the mud to Clint's prone, struggling body. A bloody wound the size of two fists is burned into his side, and Natasha rips out a roll of guaze from one of the compartments of her utility belt, unwinding it around her fingers to create a pad.

"I remember this," Clint slurs deliriously, as he feels her hand press the dressing against his wound; his other drifts weakly towards hers, but doesn't quite make it. "This wasn't so bad, right?"

"Anybody wanna take out that bunker?" Natasha barks into her comm.

As if on cue, the Hulk bounds into her field of vision and takes two running steps into the bunker; the concrete shatters under the force, and the last few missiles shoot off impotently into the sky.

"Thank you."

"Guys, we really need to get inside!" Steve grinds out, smashing the edge of the shield down into someone's head; Peggy slides underneath him to knock a second attacker off balance, leaps to her feet, and shoots him before he can get back up.

"We're tryin'!" Rhodey yells back; his armor takes a hit from a thankfully not very powerful missile as he swoops low, and he retaliates with two shots that destroy the launcher and the people attending it.

"JARVIS, you got a power source on this shield yet?" Tony asks.

"There is a possible power source along the north tower," JARVIS responds.

"On it," Rhodey announces, and he takes aim. "He shoots..." The fortress shakes violently as the blast lands, and the sheen of transluscent blue that had been covering it flickers out of existence. "He scores!"

"Hawkeye's hit bad, guys," Natasha announces; blood is seeping through the gauze to stain her palm, and she ignores her heart dropping down to pound in her stomach. "He's gonna need evac."

"I'm on my way," Sam replies, swooping low and shooting three Hydra agents out of his way as he does. "I'll bring him back to the jet."

"Thor," Steve says into his comm, "you stay out here and finish this fight alongside the Hulk and Widow. Carter and I'll help Stark and Rhodes take the castle and secure the scepter."

The Hulk roars, acknowledging that Steve spoke at least, if he can't exactly understand what was said.

"Captain, if we might provide a thunderclap before you go?" Thor asks, and Steve can't help but grin.

"My pleasure." Thor is about thirty feet in the distance; Steve rushes towards him as Peggy covers her husband. As soon as she catches up to him she ducks under the shield Steve has raised up; Thor slams Mjolnir down against it, and the resulting shock wave knocks twenty advancing Hydra agents to the ground.

Pietro is thrown up against a tree with the force of the thunderclap, and he knows he's been freed by the immense pain radiating through his skull.

Wanda gets his message, and the man who's just unlocked her cell door screams as all the bones in his hands break at once.

Floors above her Tony and Rhodey smash through a window; Tony soars ahead towards an open door as Rhodey covers him, picking off the men firing uselessly at them. The doors begin closing, and Tony speeds through them just before they can shut him out. A mild repulsor blast knocks away what looks like a scientist from the line of computers he's standing at, and Tony drifts to the floor to the dulcet sounds of the Hydra soldiers behind him yelling and then going silent.

"Sentry mode," he orders, and the frontispieces of the suit peel away to let Tony step out, before it reforms and raises its right palm, repulsor ready. Tony fiddles with the left palm and, when it appears, plucks a flash drive out of it. "I want it all, JJ," Tony says, as he pops the flash drive into the biggest and probably most well-stocked computer. "And if you could do an infrared scan of the room while you're at it, that'd be aces."

"Don't you mean the berries?" JARVIS responds, as beams of red lights from the suit's eyes fan out around the room.

"If I could give you a high-five right now, I would."

"I appreciate that, Sir. Now, regarding the wall to your left, I'm reading steel reinforcement and an air current."

"Take care of that for me?" Tony asks, and a weak repulsor blast does just that. "I can always count on you."

The formerly hidden door opens up to a staircase, and a quick glance down it reveals a foyer leading into an alcove. The suit follows behind him to guard the doorway as he descends quietly down the steps and into the room.

"Shit!"

"Everything all right?" Steve immediately responds.

"...Y-...yeah," Tony replies as he stares up at the ceiling, willing his heart rate to slow back down. "You guys know the, uh, the whale room at the Museum of Natural History?"

"What about it?"

"Same thing where I am, except instead of a blue whale it's a...space whale. Loki's alien space whale just...hanging from the ceiling, chilling. It's still dead, don't worry, just...spooked me. Lemme see what else is here..."

He tiptoes his way to the side of the creature, a small part of him afraid of drawing its attention. He chooses to focus on the humanoid bodies lying on the tables around him--all of them metallic and mechanical, to his immense relief--and he picks the arm of one up for further inspection when a blue glint catches his eye.

"I have eyes on the prize, you guys," he says, glee and residual fear mixing to create something giddy-sounding as he heads for the blue light. "Scepter in hand in three...two...one..."

His hand wraps around the gold handle, and the creature above him stirs to life.

Tony whips around, yanking the scepter off its stand; the two clumsy movements combine to trip him up, and he lands on the floor, hard. The creature bellows and Tony, like a child, drops the scepter to cover his ears, yanking his knees up close to his chest and ducking his face behind them. The animal swoops low, and his scream catches in his throat when it soars up, high above him; he clambers onto his hands and knees and then stands up as he watches it fly away from him.

"Tony! Tony!"

"Pepper?" Tony calls out; the voice had echoed to him, close and far away all at once, and the creature's trajectory leads his eye to the distance, where Avengers Tower stands above the New York City skyline. "What the fuck, what the absolute fuck...Pepper!"

The animal screeches again, making Tony flinch; the movement jerks his attention to the ground, and after three seconds of staring his whole body begins to tremble.

Interspersed among the wreckage of New York City are the corpses of his teammates, and there is nowhere he can look where another one hasn't fallen. There, Sam, one of his wings torn off, the tip stabbed through his chest, standing straight up like a monument to his death. There, Bruce, draped over the side of a piece of asphalt that had been torn up from the road, his neck bent back at an impossible angle, blood dripping from his mouth. Clint slumped lifeless over Natasha's prone body, she with an arrow to the heart and he with a single gunshot wound to the head; Thor burnt beyond all recognition but for Mjolnir lying helplessly on the grounds inches away from his hand. War Machine is at Tony's feet; Tony drops to his knees and scrambles to tear off the bent faceplate, and when he does there's a mass of blood and skin tears where Rhodey's face should be; part of his skull has caved in, piercing his eye, revealing a peek of his brain.

Tony cries out, feeling bile rise from his stomach, but he's cut off when metal fingers close around his throat and lift him, onto his feet, into the air. Bucky is holding him up, strangling him with all the strength he has left; beyond the Soldier's convulsing body Tony can see Steve, body flat and spread-eagle and unnaturally still on the ground, and Peggy, on her side and curved almost elegantly backwards now that her spine is in three pieces.

"Why didn't you..." Bucky rasps at him, his fingers crushing Tony's windpipe and this is it, this is how Tony dies, grieving and suffocating just like his mother. "Why didn't you..."

Bucky's knees give out and he collapses onto them; Tony stumbles back once his feet touch the ground, putting up his hands defensively near his throat, but Bucky is no longer moving at all.

"Tower to Stark, come in," Maria's voice, covered in static, rings in Tony's ear. "Stark we need you, please, Stark--"

"Tony!" Pepper screams, over Maria and now Fury and now the chorus of voices joining them. "Tony, please! Tony!"

The creature smacks its tail against the Tower, and the building shatters into a dust storm of glass and steel.

Tony wakes up with a jolt that nearly makes him drop the scepter.

Wanda ducks further back into the shadows, her heart pounding nearly as hard as Tony's. She watches, not daring to smile and barely to breathe, until Tony is halfway back up the stairs, the scepter clutched protectively to his chest, and once he disappears the relief and elation makes a tear roll down her cheek.

She has to find Pietro immediately. She wants to tell him this news in person.