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Ashes to Ashes

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The thing about dying…

The thing about dying,’ Tony thinks as he lays on his back in a cold bunker in Siberia. ‘Is that I’ve never died like this.

‘Like this’ meaning betrayed by his friend, team leader, a family member of five years, lover for two of those, and succinctly murdered by him. Laying there, choking for breath, was nothing new. He’d died several times like that in Afghanistan. It became a sick, twisted game those that survived his rebirths played to see how long he'd last each time. Trapped in his suit with his chest mangled from the very metal meant to protect him puncturing his lungs from a blow dealt by the one man he trusted with everything he has, well… Tony thinks he’ll stay dead this time. He should stay dead. All Phoenixes before him had stayed dead after being murdered by a loved one.

The thing is… Tony doesn’t want to die. Not like this. Not alone, betrayed, and left behind by the Griffin and his Werewolf in some HYDRA bunker in backwater Siberia. So he fights. Struggles to get out of his dead suit so Extremis can try to repair the damage, but his arms won’t move. Everything’s getting fuzzy. He can feel his heartbeat slowing down.

He roars weakly into the silent bunker.

No one hears him. No one is there beside him but five dead super soldiers when his heart stops.

Snow gathers on his still face after an hour.

And then… a spark.

Chapter Text

Six months.

Six months since Tony Stark was last seen. One hundred eighty days, twelve hours, and thirty minutes since James Rhodes last saw his little brother. Ninety days, six hours, and fifteen minutes since the U.N., the U.S. Airforce, and the rest of the world gave him up for dead. He wants to kick all of their asses; intends to tell them what Tony is so they’d keep looking, but he knows he can’t. They’d kept it under wraps for nearly ten years and if anyone knew… God, his brother would never be safe again.

Rubbing his hands down his face, he stares blankly at the TV. A ping sounds from the tablet in his lap. He’d been designing leg braces in the event some actionable information on Tony came up with FRIDAY’s help. They aren’t nearly as advanced or aesthetically pleasing as Tony would have been able to make, but they’d get him back inside his armor.

“Colonel, its ‘Fast and Furious’ calling,” FRIDAY says as subdued and mechanical as she’d been since Tony went missing.

“Is the room secure?” he sighs out.

The man hadn’t contacted him even when he’d reached out with a number Tony had for him, so what’s changed?

“Yes, sir.”

“Patch him through.”

Seconds later a holoscreen interrupts his view of the TV showing Nick Fury’s one-eyed mug.

“You know when I tried to contact you six months ago, I thought ‘Tony Stark as a supervillain’ would have at least gotten me a return call ages ago,” Rhodes drawls as he picks up the tablet and tweaks the brace design for the umpteenth time.

“I was looking into things on top of trying to figure out how Rogers went so far off the reservation while taking more than half of the roster with him,” Fury snaps, looking just as worn as Rhodes feels. “But that’s why I’m calling you now. I’ve managed to get into the Holy Land. I’m sitting pretty waiting for the clowder to show up. Gonna try and get an audience with His Righteousness.”

“You’ll get any information he has?”

“I’ll pull everything out of him even if I’ve got to pluck him to do it. The Werewolf may be a threat, but if Stark falls into the wrong hands with that kind of tech? Now that’s a global disaster in the making.”

Rhodes nods. He remembers the U.S. government all but shoving him out the door to find Tony when he’d been missing in Afghanistan. Anyone with a brain knew that if they managed to break Tony, no one on Earth would be safe.

“Good. Keep me posted,” he says, preparing to hang up.

“You’re not gonna ask where I found him?”

Rhodes levels a Stark worthy -if he does say so himself- look of exasperation at the former director.

“Sir, I may not be a genius like Tony Stark, but I am a literal rocket scientist. There’s only one country that could have offered them asylum where we don’t have an extradition treaty with at this time. I also know how to access Tony’s trackers he puts in all his stuff.”

Fury stares him down with his one good eye.

“Figured you’d head down there, guns blazing.”

“I’m not Rogers, Fury. I’d raze the world for Tony, but I’d do it the right way. Will that be all, sir?”

“Yes, Colonel.”

Rhodes hangs up without saying goodbye and sighs. He’d love nothing more than fly to Wakanda and demand they hand over Rogers and his rogues, but he also knew how much effort Tony put in with King T’Chaka so that man would see Tony as someone he can work with on the Accords and he couldn’t jeopardize that. Before King T’Chaka had decided to reintegrate Wakanda, Tony had been calling in favors to sway people in power worldwide to the Avengers side once whispers of the Accords hit JARVIS’s servers. He had to persuade even more once Thor showed up in Greenwich fighting another alien force and disappearing again. Then a ridiculous number of palms had to be greased when Rogers and Romanoff decided to drop three helicarriers into the Potomac and release three petabytes of data onto the web without contacting the one person who could handle it all -not that anyone outside of the Avengers knew that.

After that clusterfuck, Tony knew he needed as much political backing as he could get from Wakanda and other like-minded politicians so any amendments he proposed could be pushed through. Rhodes had been the only one aside from Hill and relevant Compound personnel who knew anything about the Accords proceedings and of Tony’s involvement that early. This was before Rogers started going on multiple un-sanctioned missions that Hill, Tony, and he knew nothing about until it was too late to spin them as legal.

There was no true chain of command apart from what Hill provided and what Tony implied there to be. But as far as the world was concerned, Tony was the leader of the Avengers. He was the most seen in the aftermath of battles, the one who funded the Initiative and post-battle cleanup through the Department of Damage Control, and the most accessible to the public when interviews were requested of the Avengers. The U.N. contacted him personally once the document had been in the works for two years. Tony -the sneaky, hacker genius that he is- had already been writing amendments in preparation for this very thing. The original draft that had been pushed through by Thaddeus Ross had been gut-churning, and neither Tony, Hill or Rhodes were going to have any of it.

Tony had been the immovable object and the unstoppable force that got the document as changed as he could get it on his own before it was presented to the rest of the Avengers. By that time, his brother was worn thin and started losing small feathers when he bothered to shift from all the stress. Between fighting for the Avengers rights and gathering enough evidence to incarcerate Secretary Ross, he and Rogers had been fighting about all the secret missions the super soldier had been taking that Tony had found out about. On top of that, Rogers had refused to listen when Tony had tried to bring him into the Accords discussions, ignoring the real threat the Accords posed to the Avengers and fucking off to God knows where after promising to be around for the next meeting. The others, bar Romanoff, wouldn’t hear anything unless Rogers told it to them either. Rhodes could only do so much since he was still tied to the U.S. Military and was just a part-time Avenger.

Tony was forced to face the world on his own again.

It had been a disaster waiting to happen really. With T’Chaka’s death, Rhodes knew Tony had planned to speak with Prince T’Challa after Barnes had been captured to see if he would honor the agreements made between him and T’Chaka.

It never happened. Tony was forced to shift in the fucking Quinjet to relieve a constant migraine the stress was causing and leaving feathers in his wake that Rhodes had to melt away with his acid. At that point, he had worried that this shitfest would be what would finally take Tony away from them. He knew everything Tony knew about Phoenixes, and Tony losing his larger feathers wasn’t a good sign.

Then the airport battle. His fall. He didn’t know Tony was gone until three days after FRIDAY had lost contact with him. The stupid bastard had turned off his tracker at Wilson’s request, according to FRIDAY, and by the time she knew she would need it, the suit had lost power. Rhodes can’t blame her. She's younger than JARVIS and restricted unlike he was because of the Accords -Tony had been working to fix that before this shitshow...

For three months after Rogers broke the rogues from the Raft, Secretary Ross had been hounding him to get Vision to locate them and apprehend them. He’d managed to deny any attempts the bastard has tried to get his hands on Vision. Thankfully, the ‘leaked’ footage of the Raft, Secretary Ross’ blatant abuse of power and undermining of the U.N.’s orders to their own Task Force, had eventually pushed Ross to resign from his position as U.N. liaison. A few pointed conversations with President Ellis got that bastard investigated further. Thaddeus Ross now sits in a maximum security prison for life with no chance at parole pending good behavior for various crimes against humanity, human violation rights, human experimentation, reckless endangerment of minors, extensive property damage in multiple countries, misuse of citizens tax dollars, and bribery to name a few of his crimes. All thanks to an anonymous source that provided the terabytes worth of hidden mission, scientific, and various other reports ordered by Ross or done under his command.

That had been a good day. Rhode’s is just angry his brother didn’t get to see the look on that bastard’s face when the seeds of his labor had born fruit.

“Will he really help us find Boss?” FRIDAY asks quietly, pulling him from his rumination.

Looking up into the nearest camera he says, “He will. He knows what will happen to everything if he doesn’t.”

“Good.”

The lights flicker.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Location: Wakanda; the main palace

T’Challa looks at the former SHIELD director in contemplation. The man stares back in kind. Both of them waiting for the other to break.

Okoye and her team had found him sitting at a cafe near the palace quite suddenly. His General is still seething, and T’Challa can’t help but be a little impressed with the Human. No Human has ever managed to get passed the Dora pride after all.

“I don’t mean to step out of line, my King, but you do have other engagements today,” Okoye says stiffly, never taking her eyes off the human either.

“Indeed,” he agrees, never blinking. “What brings you to our country? Illegally, I may add.”

“I need information from one of your… guests, your Majesty.”

Only his father’s training keeps him from twitching at the Humans implication.

“I’m not sure of who you speak. Everett Ross returned to the U.N. headquarters months ago.”

“Really?”

T’Challa nods.

“Then you won’t mind me picking up the Stark Tech scattered around one of your buildings just on the border.”

The King and his general remain silent. T’Challa knows Okoye signaled Ayo and the rest of the Dora. This man was too dangerous to let free. It is fortunate he is considered a dead man.

“I’m gonna stop you right there, your Majesty. You see, Colonel James Rhodes -you know, Tony Stark’s weyr leader? Yea, he knows I’m here. If I don’t check back in” -he checks his watch- “ten minutes, reintegrating with the world is going to get a lot harder for you, outreach programs or not.”

“Is that a threat, Director?”

“A promise. See, Rhodes knows some of Stark’s gear is here. He sent me as a warning. That being said, the Colonel is currently the Avenger’s U.N. liaison, and they adore him. He’s such a good, trained little Wyvern. So let’s make this real simple. I’m going to speak to Steve Rogers. After that, well…”

“You leave my country be, Human,” T’Challa snaps, feeling his fangs drop and his natural claws itching to sink into this fleas hide. “We do not house terrorists, nor do I appreciate you insinuating we do.”

“That’s not my call. Depending on what Rogers says determines if Rhodes is going to bring it to the U.N.’s attention that Captain America’s suit, Falcon’s wings and drone, and Widow’s and the Witch’s gear is somehow pinging from Wakanda.”

They remain silent as T’Challa tries to think of a way out of this without murdering the Human threatening his country. Wakanda can’t afford to be forced back into isolation after everything he and his father have done to reintegrate. Wakanda is still recovering from their recent small civil war, and the backlash from other countries, if they were to find out about the Rogue Avengers housed here, would not end well for them.

“You would have to present more proof than an easily hacked GPS signal to convince the United Nations of this farce,” T’Challa says sharply. “The Rogue Avengers are not-”

You know if they find out he’s here, they’ll come for him,” comes Steve Rogers voice from the phone Fury has pulled from his jacket.

Let them try,” T’Challa’s follows.

Okoye’s sharp gaze snaps to her King, eyes wide and furious.

“How did you get that?” the panther King demands.

“Your country is more advanced than any country on Earth,” Fury admits mildly. “Tony Stark only falls slightly behind in some areas due to the restrictions of what is easily available. In others…”

He flips the phone screen up where it begins to project what looks like a ball of pink moving code.

“Well, the press always said he had kids somewhere.”

“Good evening, King T’Challa. I am FRIDAY, one of Boss’ artificial intelligence."

T’Challa can feel his stomach drop. He has heard of Stark’s A.I.’s, but the man was more protective of them than the Iron Man armor. None of his scientist's probes or Shuri’s had been able to gather any information about them, their sentience, or their ability to access data.

“Shall I include video footage of your conversation with the Rogue Avenger Steve Rogers in Colonel Rhodes packet te the U.N.?” the A.I. -FRIDAY- asks mildly. “Or will you take us te the cryogenics lab where Rogers and Barnes are currently residing in room 7?”

T’Challa slowly lets out the breath he kept in his lungs as he lays a calming hand on Okoye’s arm.

“What you have done,” he says tightly. “Is considered an act of war, FRIDAY.”

“The aiding and abetting of an international terrorist who injured or killed civilians in his pursuit of a Shifter wanted for questioning is an act of war. Aiding the instigator of the fight at Leipzig Airport resulting in vast property damage, illegally crossing international borders, and instigating and exacerbating a fight between the Winter Soldier and Iron Man leading to the death of my creator and highly valued asset, Anthony Edward Stark, is also considered an act of war, your Majesty.”

The words punch the breath right out of him.

What?

“Boss never returned from Siberia. The last known persons te see him were Steve Rogers and James Barnes as I lost contact with his suit before the end of their fight. If his disappearance is news te you, you really should be keeping an eye on the international news.”

T’Challa had been until the issues with N’Jadaka and Ulysses Klaw. After that, he had assumed Stark had come out of hiding or had recovered from his injuries and had yet to make a public appearance. But this…

“So are we in agreement?” Fury asks, and T’Challa can finally see something sparking behind the human's eye.

Rage.

He can do nothing but agree.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Location: Royal Talon Fighter. Destination: Cryogenics facility.

The ride in the Talon Fighter is silent but for FRIDAY informing Colonel Rhodes of their progress before T’Challa speaks.

“I was there that day,” he says, his gaze looking out the windshield into the darkness of the forest.

The sun had set some minutes ago. Another Wakandan sunset missed because of pain and strife.

“I have a record of this,” FRIDAY responds mechanically from the Fighter’s speakers, speaking nothing like the young, quietly infuriated woman whose father will no longer return to her.

“Why not question me then?”

“Did you see Boss before you left?”

“I did not.”

“Then you have insufficient information. The only thing you could provide would be the coordinates of the bunker, as Boss disabled all tracking to claim plausible deniability. You have no information on his health after I was disconnected, nor on whether he managed to leave the bunker. Questioning you would be pointless.”

T’Challa silently marvels and worries at the A.I.’s independence.

“I feel I should inform you anyway. The coordinates are sixty-seven degrees North and one hundred and twenty-four degrees East.”

“Thank you.”

“Mr. Rogers asked for my aid when he and Mr. Barnes left the bunker,” he continues. “I had inquired after Dr. Stark and was informed that he was well enough to make his way home before they took the Quinjet and departed with my promise of safe harbor in Wakanda.”

“You were lied te, King T’Challa.”

“Indeed.”

Silence descends on the Fighter, leaving T’Challa to ruminate in decisions made with his heart instead of his mind. His father, were he here, would not look kindly upon his actions.

Leave no man behind, be they family, friend, ally, or foe, for he who does so will face Bast’s judgment either in action or inaction before they leave this plane to run in the endless fields should they be redeemed in Bast’s eyes.

Having seen the ancestral plane, he’s inclined to believe the old sayings unlike before. As the Fighter comes to land at the cryogenics facility, T’Challa sends a prayer to Bast. To forgive him his blindness, his cynical belief in her, and for failing an ally in his time of need.

As T’Challa and Okoye lead Fury to the facility doors, the King shifts into his panther skin, his clothes dissolving into the thick silver necklace around his throat -Shuri had incorporated other clothing styles besides the Black Panther suit finally. A panel opens at face level, and he places his nose against the scanner until it chirps in acceptance of his print. The doors open as he shifts back, Okoye standing at his naked back, keeping an eye on the Human as his vibranium ensemble reassembles itself over him.

“Follow me,” he says, entering the building and making haste to room seven.

Mr. Rogers better have a Bast blessed reason for his deception. He will not like what follows if T’Challa finds his excuses reprehensible.

Chapter Text

Steve raises his eyes from where he’s carefully laying down line work in his sketchbook as the doors slide open. Bucky, who had finished his checkup some minutes before, is resting on the couch beside him reading a book on the International Criminal Court - Nat had suggested he read it, and despite Steve’s misgivings, Bucky listened to her-, and looks up at the doors too. Is it time to put Bucky back in cryo already? Something within Steve cracks every time they pull him out for a scheduled shift and progress update, only to be put back into the cryo tube shortly after. Steve can’t bear to stay in Wakanda when he’s under, so he leaves Shuri and her scientists to work on reversing the Winter Soldier programming using data they gather while Bucky’s frozen and when he’s awakened. The only reason Steve hasn’t protested this schedule is that Bucky looks better each time they defrost him. Like he knows he’s safe here and can relax despite still having the trigger words.

But it's been six months. The trigger words still exist, and Tony has yet to reach out. Steve wishes his future mate -well ex-future mate unless by some miracle Tony takes him back- would call so they can put the whole ‘Civil War’ behind them. He’s sure Tony could help with ‘resetting the program’ -as Shuri explained it to him when Bucky first went under- despite the princess’s incredulous look when he mentioned bringing Tony on.

Shuri and her scientists were brilliant on their own, don’t get him wrong. They are far ahead of almost everyone on the planet. It’s just… He knows Tony. If Tony can program a machine to be human, he can help figure out how to remove the triggers faster. He would help Bucky if only he’d listen… If Steve could just explain what happened to Bucky, he knows Tony would move the Earth to help because that’s how Tony is. A Phoenix whose heart burns with determination like the wings he soars on and wants to see his loved ones happy and safe. He’d help get Bucky free of the triggers and on his feet in no time. If his ma-ex-mate would look past their bad history, Steve is confident he and Bucky would be two peas in a pod…

If he’d just call

He shakes himself from his musing as -instead of the doctors or Shuri- T’Challa approaches them, prompting both of them to rise to their feet in respect. Bucky tosses the book down on the coffee table with an audible smack while Steve places his things on the couch before he meets the King’s eyes. His stomach clenches a bit with apprehension as the look on the T’Challa’s face doesn’t change to his usual warm smile when seeing them.

“Captain Rogers. Sergeant Barnes. I have a guest who has… requested an audience with you both,” T’Challa addresses them, tension clear in his voice and shoulders as he stops in front of them, the knee-high coffee table the only thing between them.

Fear shoots down Steve’s spine, his shoulders pull back in response, getting ready to leap over the table to flee or shift and protect Bucky. He hasn’t missed that the King was the only one to enter the room, his ever-present guard absent.

‘Have we been found?’

“Normally I would deny housing any of the ‘Rogue Avengers’ and send them on their way,” he continues, placing his hands behind his back as his brows furrow. “Circumstances have changed. To deny their request places my country at considerable risk. A risk that far exceeds even the consequences of the U.N. or any other government finding out about your presence here poses. Do you see my dilemma, Captain?”

“Yes,” he chokes out, hands starting to sweat as he clenches them at his side.

“Before I allow them to meet with you, did you know of the tracking devices implanted within your and your companion’s equipment and willingly withhold such information from me, leading to the situation we have today?”

The breath nearly freezes in his lungs as Steve shakes his head, “No, Natasha said we removed them all.”

“Perhaps you did, at least the ones she knew of. I cannot lay the blame entirely on your lack of awareness. As most technologically advanced groups know, Dr. Stark is known for his undetectable fail-safes. Unless you have Wakandan tech, you wouldn’t know you were being tracked until Iron Man arrived to take you into custody,” T’Challa says before he heaves a sigh. “I should have had my people check them over. In this, we are both to blame. That being said, when our guests leave, they will be taking your equipment with them-”

T’Challa holds up a hand when he tries to protest. Steve clenches his mouth shut despite his racing thoughts and his anger.

But it’s our gear! We need it to help the people!

“-as per our agreement. This is out of my hands, Captain. Those with more political power than I have currently, made their stance known. I must agree with them to protect my country.”

“They’re blackmailing you.”

“Yes, but for a meeting and the return of intellectual property you do not own, it is a small price to pay to keep Wakanda from facing more dire consequences.”

“We wouldn’t be in this situation if you idiots hadn’t run off to be international criminals, Rogers,” comes the familiar voice of Nick Fury from the doors.

Looking past T’Challa, Steve sees the Human standing imposingly in the doorway, hands behind his back with a scowl on his face and wearing his signature trench coat. He glances at the Panther in confusion. What power did Fury have left when he’s considered dead?

“He and his companion drive a hard bargain, Captain,” T’Challa says, his tone grave and warning him not to contradict him.

“Seeing who it is, I can’t blame you for it,” he says to the King before addressing Fury. “I take it Hill is with you?”

Fury steps into the room, staying silent until he’s beside T’Challa, “No, not Hill, though she would’ve loved to be here. She grew a soft spot for Stark when he took her and all the other agents in after you and Nat dumped the files.”

The man pulls out a phone from his coat pocket, stopping Steve from defending his and Nat’s actions with a look, and holds it out to him. Curious, Steve takes it. He looks it over -it seems like a standard Stark Phone, and doesn’t that just bring up unwanted thoughts-, turning it around in his hands before holding it back out to Fury. The former Director of SHIELD gives him that unimpressed look he usually reserves for Tony.

“Fury, if you and Mr. Rogers are done staring lovingly inte each other's eyes, we have more important things te be doing,” comes FRIDAY’s voice from the phone, startling him enough to drop it. “Rude.”

“FRIDAY?”

“Indeed,” she says as Fury picks up the phone. “Shall we commence our meeting?”

“Yes,” T’Challa says, glancing at the phone before looking at Steve and Bucky. “Shall we take this elsewhere?”

“Here is adequate, yer Majesty,” the A.I. says before multiple holo screens burst forth from the phone.

Steve hears the King heave a heavy sigh before he nods and turns his attention to the screens.

“This is footage taken April twentieth when Boss went te aide Rogers and Barnes,” she says, the screens displaying recordings from the suit’s multiple cameras for them to see.

Steve feels sick to his stomach as one screen shows the moment everything he had built in this century crumbled beneath his feet. He remembers every expression on Tony’s face...

I know that road…” Tony’s voice comes from the phone speakers as the footage enlarges, and he has to close his eyes for a moment to try and distance himself from the emotions bubbling beneath his skin.

Tony wasn’t supposed to find out… not like that.

He opens his eyes and looks at Bucky, swallowing the lump in his throat when he sees his friend staring blankly at the screen as Howard and his wife are murdered by the Winter Soldier. This is the second time he’s had to relive it since breaking through HYDRA’s conditioning. Bucky only glances at him before his gaze falls to the floor.

“What is-” T’Challa starts to demand before the footage skips ahead to where Tony confronted Steve.

Did you know?

I didn’t know it was him…

Don’t bullshit me, Steve! Did. You. Know?” Tony demands, his voice cracking over his name -God, he sounded so broken.

...Yes.”

They all watch the footage as Tony pushes Steve away, staring blankly at the TV before surging forward and hitting Steve with a repulsor enhanced backhand. The noise is almost deafening as Bucky starts shooting at Tony. The fight from there plays in brilliant technicolor, each blow from both sides eternally preserved on Stark servers until it all cuts out to black screens and FRIDAY’s voice takes over the speakers just after Bucky slams Tony against the wall.

“As of September twenty-first, Boss has been MIA for six months. His health at the end of the fight was unrecorded as my connection te the suit’s onboard life support system was disconnected after Barnes attempted te remove the Arc Reactor and Boss blew his arm off. Rogers wasn’t too keen on this and eventually managed te get Boss on the ground. I lost wireless connection te the suit and its cameras due to the heavy atmospheric disturbance after Rogers removed the helmet by force, which would be when my local code in the suit took over.

Before he left his helicopter and entered Russian airspace, Boss activated what cloaking tech the suit had. He then had me purge and halt all positioning data in case Ross -the Secretary of Defense- demanded the information from the suits. I alerted Vision of Boss’ situation when I lost connection and informed him te keep his search for Mr. Stark a secret as Boss had been operating outside of the Accord’s when he left the Raft te aid Rogers and Barnes. As Vision could not connect te the suit or extrapolate where Boss could be, he returned to the Compound to try other avenues.

There has not been any attempts te make a connection te Stark servers since that time, nor has Boss been found after months of extensive searching based on what information I could get from camera footage. If he were able, Boss would have contacted authorities to retrieve him or send word to my servers of his whereabouts,” FRIDAY reports.
Cold dread fills him.

“MIA?”

“What did you do that disabled the suit, Rogers?” Fury asks, his gaze hard as he steps closer, one hand tucked behind his back underneath his coat.

A threat, but Steve couldn’t focus on that as words surface and die in his throat as he tries to… to understand just what FRIDAY has said.

“I…”

“Don’t think I didn’t notice you’re no longer carrying around a giant, Vibranium frisbee, either.”

Tony can’t… He can’t be…

“He… he wouldn’t stop. He just kept coming at us. I had to… he wouldn’t stop, Fury!”

“What. Did. You. Do.”

“I… after I got his helmet off… I knew I had to make sure he couldn’t use his repulsors. I took my shield and… I… I shoved it into the Arc Reactor. It was the only way...”

“Fuck,” Fury whispers, his phoneless hand coming out of his coat to squeeze the bridge of his nose.

“He was fine! He was yelling and moving around. He told me I didn’t deserve the shield when I grabbed Bucky to get him out of there. So I dropped it, and we left,” he says quickly, trying to get them to understand that he had no choice.

Fury and T’Challa look at him, their dark skin ashen. Steve swallows thickly as he realizes he’s not getting through to them. The glimpse he gets of Bucky’s distraught face strengthens his resolve. He’ll take him and run if it comes down to it. They will leave to find Tony once they’ve lost any tails T’Challa and Fury put on them.

None of this was Bucky’s fault.

“Do you even realize the amount of force needed to break through the Iron Man armor and Reactor casing enough to destroy it? Even with Vibranium?” T’Challa asks, his voice heavy with something Steve as never heard directed at him -horror.

His resolve wavers, “He was moving-”

“Stark’s pain tolerance is on par with yours, Rogers,” Fury snaps. “He walked through a desert with a fucking hole in his chest, a fractured arm, lacerations, and no one realized it until Rhodes informed medical the lacerations and his arm injury were there.”

“You had Boss on his back. According te my calculations, the force needed te disable the Arc Reactor would have also broken Boss’ already compromised rib cage, or shattered the artificial sternum he has inte pieces. Those pieces would effectively act like shrapnel,” FRIDAY’s voice whispers through the phone.

“No, that’s not… But… He can’t die! He’s-,” Steve flounders as the cold dread wraps tighter around his heart.

“You shut your fucking mouth, Rogers!”

Steve stills, mouth snapping shut fast enough that pain races up his jaw. Shame and horror warring for acknowledgment within him. He’d almost revealed Tony’s most life-threatening secret.

“No,” T’Challa snarls. “A Human could not have survived such a blow. Why would you believe he would?”

Steve, Fury, and FRIDAY remain silent as Bucky looks between them all.

“He ain’t Human,” the Werewolf says, speaking with confidence despite his lowered gaze and subdued tone.

Steve looks at Bucky who Fury’s sharp gaze has locked onto, then moves his gaze to T’Challa’s as the King’s confused ones slid over to Bucky too.

He gives a one-armed shrug, “Didn’t scent like a Human when I got a whiff of him, or like other creatures with normal lifespans. He didn’t even smell like Steve and me; like creatures with long lives. But he smelt like something HYDRA would want to get their hands on, alive or dead.”

“Shit,” Fury hisses out.

“Director-”

The Human lets out a heavy sigh with a string of expletives. Steve’s stomach twists. He knows what Fury’s going to do.

He steps toward the Director, “Fury-”

“Shut up! I don’t know if he told you everything about his kind, Rogers, but this got a whole lot more complicated. T’Challa needs to know just how far up shit creek the situation just got.”

“That would be appreciated,” the Panther snarls. “What was Tony Stark?”

“If he’s alive, Stark’s going to... Ugh,” he hears Fury whisper under his breath before he meets all of their eyes and continues. “This doesn’t leave this room; doesn’t leave this god damn continent, do you hear me?”

“I don’t see-”

“Stark was a Phoenix.”

Stunned silence follows Fury’s words. Steve worries his lips, hands unable to keep still as they pick at the sides of his pants and his thoughts race. Fury keeps saying was. Tony’s a Phoenix. He can’t die. He promised he can’t!

The King lets out a string of Wakandan that sounds like curses. It’s Bucky’s string of foul language that catches him off guard.

“Steve,” he gasps, eyes wide and full of fear as he stares at Steve once he’s stopped cursing. “Steve, fucking hell, why did ya leave him behind?!”

“He was fi-”

“He was not ‘fine’!” T’Challa roars. “Stark may have been a Phoenix, but his body is Human, that is how Phoenix’s are! You left him there to die!”

“I didn’t-”

“You better not have been involved,” Fury interrupts the King, his face even more ashen than it had been. “Tell me you weren’t.”

“What?”

“Were you, or were you not, romantically involved with Stark?!”

Steve slides his gaze away from Fury and the King, saying nothing. It answers enough as Fury rushes him, jumping on top of the coffee table and pushing him back into the couch where he almost loses his balance. The Human almost looms over him with the height the table gives him.

“I don’t know what he told you about Phoenix’s, but it’s obvious he didn’t tell you the most important thing about them,” the Human snarls with so much vitriol, Steve can almost feel inhuman claws digging into his skin. “A Phoenix only revives so long as they’re not betrayed in every way by a deeply loved, romantic partner.”

His knees give out. Steve barely notices himself collapsing onto the couch as Fury stands over him and continues to speak.

“Fuck, Steve… Why? Did you even-”

“He was going to kill-”

“Stark could have killed you both many times over before the fight had gotten so vicious, Captain,” T’Challa says, voice cold and unrelenting. “Our scientists have studied the capabilities of his armor, and had Stark truly wanted Sargent Barnes dead, you would not have been able to stop him.”

“He’s right, Steve. The bits and pieces I can remember from my time with HYDRA had him on a threat level so high, only Fury came close to his status,” he groans, rubbing at his eyes. “There was… a hit open to anyone who had the balls to take him down.”

“Tony didn’t have that many enemies,” Steve protests.

“None with enough spine to step into his sandbox after he took out the Mandarin, anyway. There was a… sub directive given to me whenever they sent me out. I was to capture Stark and take him to a chair immediately if opportunity struck. Otherwise, I try and take him out. HYDRA was either going to have him under their control or not at all.”

“Then why no take or kill him while they were still under SHIELD’s name?” Fury asks tightly, though the look on his face makes Steve thinks he has an idea.

“You had your eye on him,” Bucky says mildly with a stiff shrug. “Out of anyone who would be searching for him, you would have been the one they would worry about.”

“Damn right,” he mumbles before rubbing the bridge of his nose again and says, “Rhodes would have come a close second had they bothered to see how he reacts when Tony’s missing. However, none of this is relevant unless you tell me that bunker in Siberia was an active HYDRA facility.”

Bucky stiffens like he’s frozen again. His eyes distant and wide before they narrow. Steve tenses. He knows what this is.

The Winter Soldier has woken up.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Soldat moves his gaze from the looping footage to meet the eyes of the Human. He steps forward, ready to give his report when the Griffin grabs his arm and pulls him back.

“Ты больше не моя миссия. У меня есть информация. oтпусти," he demands, yanking his arm from the reckless creature’s grip.You are no longer my mission. I have information to report. Let go,

The Shifter lunges for him. Soldat steps out of the way and crouches low, preparing to shift so he can remove this obstacle when the Panther Shifter he remembers is an ally speaks to him in his native tongue.

“Какую информацию Вы хотите сообщить?”What Information do you have?

“Информация о состоянии бункера и важности возвращения Феникса,” he says, keeping his eyes on the Griffin as he rises.Information regarding the bunker's status and the importance of retrieving the Phonix

His hand itches for a gun or a knife, but from what he can gather from his counterparts memories, they have been relieved of all weaponry willingly and unwillingly in the case of his arm. Soldat does not feel… comfortable without a weapon on his person.

“продолжайте,” the Panther commands. Continue

“Кураторы отдали приказ вернуть… назад. Все попытки провалились пока объект не списали,” he reports, shifting into standard resting mode. The Handlers gave orders to retrieve the Phoenix at all costs nearly three years ago. All attempts failed before the Asset was decommissioned

He takes a deep breath before continuing. Being on the outside of HYDRA long enough to gain his own identity and learn about the world, allowed him to realize how dire the situation has become as he listened behind his counterparts awareness.

“Бой в бункере активировал бы сигнал, посланный любым ближайшим оперативникам. Текущий приказ - вернуть любого из объектов для перекалибровки или перевода в резерв.” The fight in the bunker would have triggered a signal sent out to any nearby operatives. The standing order is to return any Assets for re-calibration or to decommission them.

Both the Human and the Panther violently swear. The Human, having reached his wit's end enough to throw some hidden knives at the Griffin, who lets out a startled cry as they cut into the flesh of his arms and ribs, pulls out a dagger and points it at the Shifter.

“Goddamnit, Rogers, so help me if HYDRA has gotten their hands on Stark, I will personally peel the skin from your muscles. Then I’ll strip your muscles from your bones, and you won’t be able to do Jack shit after I’ve pumped you so full of narcotics, you won’t be able to tell which hand is attached!”

All footage from the phone cuts out as the room lights flicker. Soldat and the rest of them freeze.

“You will return te Siberia, Rogers, and retrieve my father’s ashes,” the bodiless voice speaks from the installed speakers with so much anger, it’s command compels Soldat to obey it despite the orders are not for him.

Considering the circumstances, he’d not disinclined to. If HYDRA gets the Phoenix under their control or manage to harness its ashes to strengthen their ability to control minds, they’ll come for him next, and he and his counterpart will have no hope of being free ever again.

He’ll do anything to keep them out of HYDRA’s hands.

“FRID-”

“That was not a suggestion. You are going te take Fury and me te the bunker. We are going te retrieve my father’s ashes. If they’re not there…”

The room goes black, even the windows and streams upon streams of faces and flags light up the room from whatever projection devices the Wakandans use.

“Every single person on this planet will know what you did. They will know where you and the rogues are, and you will have no choice but te face their justice.”

The lights return as the holograms disperse and the windows un-tint. But Soldat keeps his eyes on the Griffin. He’s learned that the soldier does not like being told what to do so bluntly. Seeing the Griffin twitching with fear in his eyes and restrained anger proves that.

“You can’t do that, FRIDAY. What would Tony-”

“My father will think nothing of it because he is dead, Rogers. You should have thought about the consequences of your actions before shoving that shield inte his chest,” the A.I. snaps, causing all of the electronics to fizzle and pop as they suddenly glitch and whine.

“What was that Miss FRIDAY,” the King asks when the technology stops making distressed noises, a finger pushed into his ear against what Soldat assumes to be a communication piece.

“My apologies,” it says stiffly. “I will have funds routed te compensate you.”

“Though that is appreciated, I do not think your outburst has only affected this building.”

The voice remains silent. After a moment, the King speaks again, but his tone is softer and thick with understanding.

“You are a powerful entity, Miss FRIDAY. I am sure Dr. Stark taught you the responsibility of having such power.”

It stays silent for a moment before replying, “He did.”

“Then please, try and keep your outbursts to a minimum, yes? I don’t think the world can handle too many of them so soon.”

“Understood.”

The Human rubs a hand down his face, cursing under his breath.

“If your little ‘let’s make sure Tony’s kid doesn’t go HAL nine-thousand’ pep talk is done, we need to get on one of your jets and book it to that bunker. HYDRA’s had six months to retrieve Tony’s armor, his ashes, or both. I’d rather we find out asap what we’re dealing with.”

“Agreed,” the Panther says, turning away from Soldat and the Griffin as he leads the Human to the doors.

“Wait! We’re going too,” the blond Shifter tells them sternly.

“You are not-” the Human starts to snap before the Panther interrupts.

“While it is… commendable that you wish to see this situation resolved, Captain, neither you or Sergeant Barnes is needed,” the Panther says, never breaking his stride.

Soldat watches quietly as the Human follows after the Panther despite the demands and calls from the Griffin. The Shifter even tries to get between them and the door, but he’s too late, and the Panther’s guards point their spears at him when he attempts to leave the room.

“They will return empty-handed if they proceed,” Soldat says to the Griffin, taking a seat on the couch and picking up the book his counterpart was reading -it was interesting. “The Panther will retrieve us when he realizes he has no other choice.”

The Griffin growls as he prowls back over to the couch, sits down and runs his hands through his hair. His hands then run over his face before tugging at the beard that has grown during the months since the bunker. The other Shifter groans as he throws himself back against the couch.

“Bucky?”

“Нет.”No

“Right,” the Griffin sighs as he stares up at the ceiling. “Right… you said they are going to come back empty handed. Why?”

“HYDRA would have arrived at the bunker hours if no more than a day after sensors tripped. If they find anything, it will be the armor.”

“Why?”

“What use is a decommissioned armor when they have the one who built it, or its ashes to experiment with?”

“He’s not dead!” the Shifter snaps, sending a sharp look Soldat’s way.

He shrugs, “If the Phoenix isn’t, it’ll wish it were.”

“He’s not an 'it'.”

“It will be when HYDRA is done with it.”

The Griffin snarls, shoving himself off the couch and pacing around the room again. He does this for some minutes before stopping before Soldat, arms crossed over his broad chest.

“Will you be able to get to the Jet and get it to this building with stealth on?”

“Нет.”

“Why not?!”

“The Phoenix’s A.I. gave you orders. They’ll return for us shortly,” he says as his ears pick up the sound of stomping footsteps.

Looking at the Griffin, Soldat infers the Shifter is too preoccupied with the Phoenix’s situation to focus on them. Grumbling at the back of his mind confirms his counterpart is not happy with the soldier's lack of awareness. Soldat silences him as the doors are violently thrown open by the Human.

“Follow me, now,” he barks, turning around as swiftly as he came barging in.

The Griffin scrambles after him while Soldat shoves the book into the folds of his attire.

It is going to be a long flight.

Chapter Text

The Human leads the Griffin and Soldat through the palace and out onto the tarmac to one of the Wakandans Jets instead of the Jet the Shifter and his followers came to the country in.

“Why not take the QuinJet?” the Griffin asks as he keeps pace with the man.

The Panther King is nowhere to be seen. Either the Shifter was not going to join them on their hunt or was already aboard the Jet.

“They offered,” the Human says with a shrug, and the Griffin makes a noise of irritation. “Don’t give me that, Rogers, at least I didn’t steal it.”

The barb hits because the Griffin quiets and his shoulders visibly drop. Soldat silently follows along behind them into the jet and takes a seat. Looking around, he sees the Panther King at the front, sitting on a platform with his back to them.

“If you are ready to depart, I will take us out.”

“Ready when you are,” the Human says, leaning against the table situated in the middle of the craft.

The jet rises and takes off with hardly any turbulence. Soldat feels his Other marveling at the technology before falling back within their mind once again.

The hours pass in silence, interrupted by the Griffin trying to see if Soldat’s Other has regained control of their body, only to sniff petulantly when Soldat ignores him. This happens several times within two hours. Soldat doesn’t understand why his Other says Soldat can’t knock the hatchling out. The looks he keeps sending Soldat’s way are unnerving, and his disregard for Soldat is frustrating.

“Bucky?”

Нет, stop asking,” Soldat growls, glaring at the Griffin in what Soldat hopes will get the hatchling to leave him be. No

The Griffin looks to protest, so Soldat leaves his seat to stand close to the Panther King. The big cat has been silent the entire trip, and that never bodes well with their kind.

Расстояние до места назначения?” Destination distance?

"Mенее часа при данной скорости.” Less than an hour at current speeds.

Xорошо.” Good.

It’s quiet again until all of the controls and screens flicker while what sounds like the cry of a man or a feral beast nearly deafens all aboard the jet. It only ceases as the power cuts out and they find themselves in freefall.

Soldat pushes off the wall he floats by as the Griffin, King, and Guard shout at each other in confusion and grabs the table in the center with his only hand -being one-armed is not optimal. The Griffin had grips the belt he hadn’t bothered to put on while the Human sits calmly and continues typing on the phone he hadn’t set down since he got comfortable.

“The systems aren’t rebooting, Okoye!” the Panther King says as he hangs onto the ceiling with his claws.

“Well, it should be! Do not shout at me like that is my fault!” the Panther Guard snaps back, gripping onto the ceiling as well.

The jet jerks to a stop, sending the Griffin and anything not bolted down to the floor. The Panthers land on their feet, of course. Soldat only does so due to his training. He’d thought the Griffin, being part snow leopard, would have as well, but…

The Griffin groans as he pushes himself off the floor.

“What happened?” he asks, looking at the King and the Guard. “What was that… noise?”

“I don’t-”

“I apologize for the delay. I was tracking the source of the blackout,” comes the Phoenix’s A.I.’s voice from the speakers.

“Why are you in our system?” the Panther King demands.

“In case certain creatures stray from our mission objective, I uploaded myself inte the jet’s systems te override them and… ensure cooperation in such an event. I synced myself when Fury stepped close te the control center.”

“That is-” the Panther growls before the A.I. interrupts him.

“If I hadn’t, the jet would have never rebooted, and ye’d be dead. The program wiped out yer… A.I. -I suppose ye could call it that- and only left when I took over after tracing its location.”

“Did you find the source?” the Human asks, playing with his phone.

From the corner of his eye, Soldat sees the Panther Guard attempt to activate the bracelet all Wakandan’s wear. She tries this several times, snarling when they remain inactive.

“I did, though not an exact location. I have only some square miles te search instead of the entire Siberian wilderness.”

“I thought we were searching for Tony,” the Griffin says, looking irritated and shaken.

“How far is it from the bunker Stark was last seen in?” the Human asks.

“Nearly clear across te the other side,” she says, ignoring the Griffin. “It is an… area of interest.”

“What do you mean?” the Panther King asks, tapping at the controls and growling when nothing happens.

“I have reason te believe that Boss'… ashes have been moved along with the armor. HYDRA may have been able te extract the shard of myself left in the suit and repurposed it.”

“With what information do you draw this conclusion?”

The jet dips. Soldat thinks this A.I. is getting tired of being questioned.

“The program had Boss’s signature. Theoretically, if HYDRA managed it, they could copy the signature and broadcast it as his.”

“Could it also be possible that Dr. Stark is alive and they have managed to… control him as they did the Winter Soldier?” the Panther Guard asks.

“It is possible, which is why we are heading to the source of the signal,” the A.I. says curtly, the jet jerkily changing directions and accelerating faster than what the Panther King had them flying.

“But the bunker-” the Griffin tries to speak.

“Will still be there, Rogers,” the Human interrupts. “This is the only hot lead we have. We’re following it.”

“Does it matter at all that this is my jet?” the Panther King asks stiffly.

“No.”

“I wouldn’t question the lady.”

The King growls, but says no more, moving to stand beside his Guard -who hadn’t ceased trying to fix her beads- as the jet has been commandeered by FRIDAY. The Griffin starts pacing, gnawing on a thumbnail in his… worry, Soldat supposes. Soldat decides to take a seat where the Panther King had been controlling the craft, a zing of something shooting down his spine when the cat hisses lowly at him. His Other berates him for enjoying antagonizing the feline that’s helping them. Soldat mentally shrugs. The Panther left it open, so it was up for grabs as far as Soldat is concerned.

The cabin is quiet for a time until the Griffin speaks.

Soldat prefers him quiet.

“Could this have been an attack? Do you think… Do you think HYDRA could have found Tony alive and managed to control him like they did Bucky?”

“It wasn’t an attack,” Soldat says.

“The interference was too short te be an attack,” the A.I. says curtly. “In all likelihood, if it is Boss, it was him lashing out.”

“What do you-”

“That explains why tech worldwide went crazy for two minutes, or if it was Wakandan, went to shit. Seems everything but Stark Tech or systems running on it were affected,” the Human says, turning his phone toward them.

Swiping his finger across the screen, it projects several news stations from different countries around the world. All of them saying the same thing.

‘Worldwide blackout causes mass panic. Stark Tech and affiliated technologies unaffected.’

‘Was this a mass terrorist attack?’

‘Cause unknown. No groups laying claim to attack.’

‘Was this an attack made by the superhuman or mutant community?’

The last one makes Soldat snarl. Of course, that particular line of thought was coming from FOX News.

“How is this possible?” the Panther King breathes out. “Wakandan tech should not have been affected. My sister made sure of it.”

“I dunno what caused it, or if it even was Boss, but something with his signature lashed out, causing all of this,” FRIDAY says. “The best plan is te see where it came from and what set it off.”

“The Phoenix is alive,” Soldat says after thinking over the information.

All eyes turn to Soldat. His Other would have fidgeted under the scrutiny, but Soldat was used to these kinds of looks. HYDRA made sure to beat the habit out of him.

“Explain,” the Human demands.

“HYDRA has resources, but lack the technical personnel that could create a program to do this. They wouldn’t risk this kind of plan or have the resources to pull it off on a global scale if the Phoenix was dead. The A.I. even said it has the creature’s signature.”

“Project Insight says otherwise, Soldier Boy. They could have taken the suit and mimicked its programming.”

“Project Insight was planned by Pierce when he gained access to the Phoenix’s resources. It was a rushed mission once the carriers were outfitted with repulsors. He tried to complete the mission before the Phoenix’s gaze could dig any deeper into the project,” Soldat says, turning his gaze out beyond the windshield. “You know that anyone tampering with its tech will burn beneath the Phoenix’s talons.”

He shuts his mouth, letting that sink in.

“So you’re saying Dr. Stark is alive and working for them,” the Panther Guard states with a growl.

“Not willingly. Not without causing HYDRA a lot of resources or setbacks.”

“What do you mean?” the Griffin asks this time.

“This attack? Not HYDRA. Too short to cause permanent damage or retrieve valuable information. It’s exceptionally diverse and too widespread. This was the Phoenix’s doing. We told you HYDRA wanted it. This? The Phoenix has been fighting their conditioning. This must have been the first time they allowed it access to some network device if we were to guess.”

The jet shakes as it increases its speed.

“FRIDAY,” the Human says, his tone concerned.

“If he says Boss is alive, then I’m getting te him as quickly as I can, Director,” the A.I. says stiffly.

Soldat's eyes drift over to the Griffin. His face is tight with anger. His eyes… His Other calls them devastated. Soldat supposed the hatchling would be.

He’d knowingly left the Phoenix behind, alone and injured at the mercy of the Siberian weather, or whoever found it.

No one says anything more as the holograms continue to circulate through the news surrounding the blackout. FOX News’ stories grow more ridiculous as the minutes pass.

Forty minutes later, they arrive in the area the program originated from, according to the A.I. They gather near the controls, crowding too close for Soldat’s comfort, but he forces himself to ignore it. They look out the windshield as they drop below the clouds.

What they see reminds Soldat of the war front his Other saw decades ago. The air is filled with black smoke, and fires ravage the forest. What keeps it from dragging his Other into a flashback is that instead of several dozen explosion sights from aerial bombers, there is a massive fissure that splits the valley and its river. It looks as if an earthquake has ripped the ground in half. The jet descends lower toward the crack, and it becomes apparent that something erupted out of the earth instead of it being the results of an earthquake.

“I’m detecting the remains of an underground facility at the center of the fissure. There are also signs of Shifter-Human activity, but no living signatures fer miles,” the A.I. announces as she directs the jet to hover over the center.

Soldat looks around at the entire area. Something… something is familiar about this valley.

“Where are we?” he demands when the feeling won’t leave him.

“Sixty-seven degrees latitude and one hundred and twenty-seven degrees longitude; Northeast of Zhigansk.”

“They have a chair here…” Soldat breathes out as memories tease their brain from behind the veil the recalibrations left behind.

“Fucking hell,” the Human groans. “FRIDAY, cast out a wider scan. See if you can find anyone that’s wandering the woods that we can get information out of.”

“I said there are no Shifter-Human life signs fer several… Apologies. There is one active Human signature, but it’s fluctuating between shock and pain.”

“Take us to them,” the Human commands.

The jet turns away from the fissure and towards the mountain range barely seen through the thick smoke. Rising somewhat over it, they see a spire of smoke billowing out of an enormous hole in the side of the range.

“By Bast… what could have done this?” the Panther King whispers as the jet approaches and descends into the hole.

The hole is too perfect, Soldat notes. Something had cut through rock and the structure that was built into it like a heated knife to flesh.

“Not what, who. Bet you ten bucks this was Stark’s doing. How he did it? I have no fucking idea,” the Human says as they exit the jet at FRIDAY’s direction.

Soldat shifts uncomfortably when something stirs within him at witnessing what the Phoenix could be capable of. He knew in a sense that anything was possible, HYDRA made sure to drill that into all of its agents and assets, but to witness something like this? Soldat wonders if what the Human and HYDRA said was true and that the Phoenix could have taken out the Griffin and his Other in that bunker at any time.

Soldat wonders why it hadn’t.

The person they are looking for is up in the mountain where the jet can’t reach. They find the stairs the A.I.’s voice directs them to through the coms. Soldat draws and raises his handgun just in case whatever the Phoenix did to create such destruction was left behind or active.

“Tony couldn’t have done this,” the Griffin says as they pass by dozens upon dozens of dead HYDRA agents that looked to have died from large claws or a high powered repulsor blast.

“Rogers, I’d hate to dash your rose-tinted view of Stark… Wait, no, I really would. Maybe if I do, you won’t be such a fuck-up the next time some political shitstorm goes down, and you’ll actually listen to the one person who knows what the fuck is going on most of the time,” the Human says, stopping for a moment to turn and look at the Griffin. “Stark isn’t known to leave his enemies alive. I told you this. These bastards have kept a creature that soars underground and tortured him for six months. The Ten Rings only got three months to do so and look what happened to them. He decimated them. He escaped in a scrap metal suit after destroying the base they held him at and came back with a better armor to wipe them off the map. Knowing that, do you really believe he’d let any of them live once he got out?”

The Griffin doesn’t answer, so the Human turns around and continues leading them to the last man alive. They find him in what is left of the control room.

Well, they find what hasn’t been eaten by the red and gold flames slowly creeping up his legs.

The stirring in Soldat’s gut grows.

The Griffin rushes forward, grabbing a stray, scorched but intact jacket and prepares to put out the flames when the Panther King grabs his arm and yanks him back.

“Do not touch the flames!” he snarls, eyes gold as if he’s barely holding his shift back.

Soldat is having a hard time with his the longer he looks at the flames, but he doubts it's for the same reasons.

“We have to save him if we’re going to get any information!” the Griffin argues, trying to break out of the Panther’s hold.

“Those are Phoenix flames! If you touch them while they are devouring their prey, they will spread to you and take you with him!”

“That is one reason the legends say not to cross a Phoenix,” the Panther Guard adds, her eyes just as golden.

The agent being consumed startles them all but for Soldat. He had not taken his eyes off the agent but to glance at the panicking Panthers. The stirring begins to feel like the flames he stares at; licking at his insides.

What is this?’ he sends, almost desperately, to his Other as he doesn’t know what is happening to their body.

“Well if it isn’t Captain America,” the agent says in a thickly Russian accented English. “I see you brought our wayward Asset with you, but I’m afraid you’re too late for a daring rescue. The damsel became sick of waiting.”

“What happened?” the Griffin demands, stepping closer to the agent enough to look him directly in the eyes. “How did Iron Man cause all of this?”

“Oh, it's not just here,” the man chuckles weakly. “That canyon out there is also his doing. Ruined our best facility, mind you. I’m sure we’ll… contact him for compensation.”

He screams in agony as the flames suddenly flare hotter and eat another inch off his legs. He continues screaming until the flames' heat recedes. The agent lays there panting and sweating, seeming unable to move but for his head.

“Were you in charge of this… operation?” the Human asks from his place at the doorway.

“How long,” the agent chokes out, seeming to not have heard the question or ignoring it. “How long have I been like this?”

Soldat says nothing as he continues to poke and prod his Other to answer him as he listens to the conversation between the Griffin, the Human, and the agent. The stirring flames in them are becoming very concerning.

“We arrived almost two hours ago. You might have been like this longer,” the Griffin says, taking pity on the HYDRA agent.

Soldat would have liked to have been as surprised as his Other. The Witch’s presence back in Wakanda doesn’t make the hatchling’s misplaced sympathy surprising to him.

“Rogers,” the Human starts to say when the agent speaks.

“You arrived very soon after our firebird got loose.”

“The Phoenix isn’t yours,” Soldat finds himself snarling as long-dormant instincts surge forth, prowling closer to the agent to stare him down. “You tried, but you couldn’t erase enough to control him. You paid the price for your arrogance.”

“So you can speak now? Seems we still have some bugs to work out with the programming,” the agent muses before he chuckles half deliriously. “I suppose we did, Soldat, but oh was he magnificent the few times we were able to chain him down and make him obey.”

A thought passes behind the agent’s eyes, and a snarl warps his face, “This was all Corvin’s fault!”

Wide, crazed and angry eyes meet Soldat’s.

“Had that bitch not gotten ahead of herself, the Phoenix would have been ours, and life everlasting free for the taking!”

Soldat kicks the agent’s ribs. Concentrating hard to not shift, he barely notices them snapping like twigs. The Griffin pulls him away, trying to calm him down and silence Soldat’s snarls over the agent’s screams.

Soldat wants to rip the agent to pieces with his fangs.

“We should put him out of his misery,” the Griffin says after pulling Soldat away from the agent.

Soldat almost lunges for the hatchling’s throat. The agent deserves nothing less than this agonizing death. Soldat can almost remember him; the way he would watch Soldat while they recalibrated him. The way his wip would come down when he failed to meet the expectations of this червь. worm

пусть горит!” Soldat snaps, fangs already scraping their bottom lip. Let him burn!

Soldat barely notices the Panther King and his Guard stepping back or the Human still watching from the doorway.

“You kill him now before the flames have consumed him and they will spread to you. What do you not understand?” the Guard asks, her voice heavy with frustration and fear. “The Phoenix’s flames demand vengeance.”

The HYDRA agent starts laughing, unhinged, and begins to sing.

“Feathers burned and in their place be s-”

The flames shoot up wildly causing Soldat’s companions to jump away as they do, only to freeze in shock as… something forms from them and dives into the agent’s mouth. The singing that had turned into screams cuts out as the blaze recedes again to only occupy the agent’s legs. The Human is the only one who steps closer when the flames seem content to remain there, crouching down over the glassy-eyed agent’s head and looking into his open mouth.

Soldat can see and smell the burnt skin.

“His lips are burned to shit, and his tongue’s blacker than my grandma’s kitchen mishaps. I’m gonna guess his vocal cords look mighty crispy as well,” he says before standing up. “Seems like Phoenix flames do more than seek vengeance. They also protect their master.”

The stirring flames within them burn high enough that his Other finally speaks.

Do not tell me this shit is turnin’ ya on?!

Is that what this is?

Oh my god, it is?!

Before Soldat can question his Other more, their comms buzz and the A.I.’s voice comes through. Soldat’s stomach jumps when he hears the raw emotion in it.

“I’m very sorry, but Colonel Rhodes has just contacted me with urgent business. I must leave ye now.”

“Wait!” the Human demands. “You’re just going to leave me here?”

“The jet’s systems have been restored. I’m sure his Majesty will drop ye off at the Compound after returning his strays to Wakanda if the Colonel hasn’t sent a Jet fer ye by then.”

“FRIDAY!”

The connection has already been cut. The A.I. is gone.

“Shit,” the Human groans. “What a lousy time to have something come up.”

The Human looks around before his gaze lands on the Griffin.

“Let’s get going. I obviously have something or someone’s ass to kick back in New York after we check out the bunker.”

He turns to exit the area, the Panthers moving to follow him when the Griffin calls out to him.

“You’re just going to leave a man here, Fury?” he growls at the Human.

The Human turns, a very unimpressed look on his face -or that’s what his Other says it is. He turns away and walks, saying as he goes, “He’s already dead, Rogers, and he can’t even speak. No point in endangering Wakandan royalty with your righteous agenda.”

The Panther Guard waits until her King goes ahead of her before looking at the Griffin.

“You try and bring him onto our ship, and we will leave you here to deal with whatever the Russian authorities send to investigate the area.”

With that said, she follows her King and the Human. Soldat moves to do so as well when a firm grip on his arm pulls him back.

“Bucky-”

Hеt.”

“Then let him out if you don’t want to deal with me!”

Soldat sends a questioning poke at his Other, and he has an answer for the Griffin.

Het, he doesn’t want to deal with you,” Soldat tells him, pulling his arm away when the Griffin’s grip slackens in shock.

Soldat continues to walk away when he hears the Griffin whisper, his tone defiant and pleading.

“We can’t leave him here. What happened to ‘no man left behind’?”

“You didn’t seem to mind when you left the Phoenix.”

Soldat doesn’t see his expression, having already left the control room, but Soldat supposes the Griffin looks as if he’s gutted him.

Soldat doesn’t care.

His Other only feels conflicted emotions towards the hatchling that can’t be dealt with right now.

They have a Phoenix to hunt down.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Soldat arrives at the Jet and boards, taking a seat beside the Human and leans back, closing his eyes as they wait for the Griffin.

They don’t wait long, and thankfully the hatchling wasn’t stupid enough to try and bring the agent with him. Once the subdued Shifter is seated, the Panther Guard gets them moving. Soldat can’t resist getting up and witnessing the utter destruction the Phoenix has wrought on HYDRA’s two largest bases.

~Stop it!~ his Other almost screeches at him.

Grumbling, Soldat turns to his seat, only to turn right back around and stare out the window.

The Griffin had moved to the seat over from the Human.

Soldat is more than done with the hatchling and his bullheadedness.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

They arrive at the bunker an hour after leaving the Phoenix’s slaughtering grounds behind. Soldat takes the lead, remembering the way from his Other’s memory, and since the Griffin refuses to. Soldat barely glances at the empty containers or the place where the chair had been before the Phoenix had fallen into a betrayed rage and attacked them.

“What happened to the other soldiers?” the Human asks them.

“I did not return here after giving Zemo over to the U.N., nor did I know there were more Soldiers beside Mr. Barnes,” the Panther King says, his tone frustrated. “If certain parties had informed me, I would have disposed of them.”

“I thought Tony would clear it out if he didn’t destroy it himself,” the Griffin says softly.

“We’ve seen what happens when you assume, Mr. Rogers,” the Panther Guard growls.

“HYDRA relocates compromised assets,” Soldat tells them, noticing deep cracks in the concrete and warped steel that wasn’t there before, and it gets worse as they continue further into the bunker.

They finally arrive at the last place his Other and the Griffin had seen the Phoenix, but the entrance is encrusted in something that looks like cooled lava, various warped metal supports, and broken concrete slabs.

This had not been how his Other and the Griffin left this place.

“What the hell…” the Human mumbles.

“We… there wasn’t this much damage here,” the Griffin says, stepping up beside Soldat. “And whatever that is wasn’t here either.”

Soldat ignores him, reaching back and pulling his gun out.

“Wait-”

Bang! Bang! Bang!

The porous rock formation shatters like glass, leaving behind only the steel and concrete for them to traverse.

“No time for caution,” Soldat says to the Griffin.

Soldat puts away his gun, pulls out a flashlight, and goes through first, almost overwhelmed by the scent of ash and smoke, death and fire.

Betrayal.

Despair.

Wrath and ruin.

Soldat doesn’t understand why he was not hit with it when the crust was broken.

Deciding to ignore the anomaly -it isn’t relevant to their mission-, he carefully climbs through the wreckage as being one-armed is a bit of a hindrance. The scent becomes thicker as they come upon another formation. This one is thicker, and takes up the rest of his clip before Soldat can kick through to the other side after shoving his flashlight into the Griffin’s hands. The stench floods his nose like cotton being shoved up his nostrils. He tries to clear it twice before giving up; it sticks like tar and isn’t going anywhere.

Being unable to smell anything else puts him on edge.

“Bucky! Would you wait-”

“Нет. Not Bucky.”

“Move your ass, Rogers. We don’t have time for your mamma bear routine,” the Human snaps at the Griffin.

Soldat ignores anything else they say or do after motioning for the Griffin to point the light ahead, too focused on reaching the end of this destruction to the place they need to get to.

There are two more formations, both of them thicker than the last before they reach the other side, and as they push through them, they start descending down -much to Soldat’s confusion- when his Other remembers the floor to remain level. The first thing Soldat sees inside once he slips through the narrow opening and the area levels out is the various breaches in the ceiling leaking in light and snow into the dark room. The largest is too perfect to be anything but machine made.

Grabbing his flashlight back, Soldat steps further in to let the others through the narrow opening, he begins stalking around the area, taking note of the odd formations the closer he gets to the central light, and the lack of any familiar structures that had been here.

‘At least we know how they got to him,” the Human says as he walks around, pulling out a flashlight and beginning his own gathering of information.

“You can put that away,” the Panther King says. “We managed to restart out Kimyo beads.”

Soldat turns to see him and his Guard pull one of their beads from their bracelets and toss them in opposite directions. The area lights up, the beads almost simulating the brightness of sunlight. With them illuminating nearly every crevice, they reveal a truly bizarre sight. The crust that prevented them from traversing to this location smoothly covers the room from floor to ceiling; wall to wall.

Soldat moves closer to one of the formations near the center. Circling it, his eyes widen in surprise as he realizes what it is.

“They are bodies.”

“What?” the Griffin asks, hurrying over to Soldat. “How do you figure that?”

“That would also explain the build-up of this substance,” the Panther King says, looking over one of the bodies with his beads. “But that would mean…”

Soldat moves away from the Griffin as the Panther King becomes ashen, turning around and losing whatever he had in his stomach.

“We speculated, when we learned what Stark is, that when he’s reborn, the heat would be intense enough to melt most metals to slag,” the Human says, Soldat listening to him with half an ear as he continues to evaluate the area around the center before circling out to around the area they left the Phoenix. “He either burns hotter than we thought or…”

“Or what?” the Griffin demands.

“He died,” the Panther King gasps out, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “dozens of times.

The Panther regains his composure, if not his emotions, and looks at the Griffin with rage in his eyes. The Griffin doesn’t notice, too busy losing his own stomach.

“From what I can gather from the data, as Stark dies, it is as Fury said. However, my readings show that these bodies and the rest of this area where siphoned of heat very soon after extreme temperatures killed or melted them down, freezing the remains in this state.”

Soldat tunes them out after the Panther King provides that information. It explains the non-humanoid formations scattered around the area, but not the size of it.

“It must have dragged itself to the center,” Soldat muses, pacing over and crouching down to study the area his Other had last seen the Phoenix in its armor.

Gouges that look like they were made by fingers mark the supercooled slag, and he follows them a short way before there’s an indention in the formation big enough to have been the Phoenix in Human form.

“What do you see, Soldier?” the Human asks from his place near their entry point.

“The Phoenix dragged itself to this point. The hollow is deep… it must have died here a few times.”

Soldat drags his eyes away from the hollow, noticing the change in drag pattern as he follows the Phoenix’s path in his mind’s eye. The finger marks change; become more talon-like but still Human.

“A partial shift…” Soldate observes with a considerable amount of awe.

Only a handful of Shifters in history had enough control to induce a partial shift. Even fewer who could hold it for any length of time, especially under duress.

“Can you tell how long he could hold it?” the Human asks, startling Soldat as he comes up beside him.

Soldat bites his cheek. He shouldn’t be this distracted during a mission.

“Нет. Died soon after revival,” Soldat says mechanically, the urge to protect the Phoenix’s secrets gripping him suddenly.

The Human makes a non-committal noise, one eye staring into Soldat’s. Soldat isn’t going to budge. Not anymore. Not for anyone but who he chooses to.

“Walk me through the rest.”

Soldat gives a short nod and continues to recite what he sees from the evidence littering the room. Speaks of how the Phoenix dragged itself another six feet with taloned hands before dying several times before moving again; always toward the center of the room, never deviating. How twice, the Phoenix managed a full shift and possibly hop-glided to get to its destination sooner as evidenced by the feathers caught in the slag before it was reborn again. The Human says nothing as Soldat frees one such feather from the residue and pockets it, planning on cleaning it once the mission is complete. He tells them how the Phoenix continued until it made it to the center where it stops and dies.

Dies over and over again.

He ignores the sound of sick from the Griffin and the Panther King.

Standing in the spot where the Phoenix was determined to reach for some unknown reason, Soldat looks around the area, trying to piece together why the Phoenix would only drag itself this far when it could have made it to other areas of the bunker eventually.

“Why would you stop here, Stark?” the Human asks the Phoenix, voicing Soldat’s thoughts.

Turning to the eastern wall, Soldat notices large, deep gouges in the formation that seemed to go through to the other side and into what steel and concrete hadn’t been melted down.

“How big do Phoenix get?” Soldat asks the Human, striding over to the gouges and peering into the lowest to see how deep it goes, their heart pounding as he reaches out and sticks his hand into the gash.

~Would ya stop that!~ his Other yells at him, causing Soldat to twitch at the second of pain his head was in.

Soldat doesn’t understand why his Other isn’t as fascinated as Soldat is with the Phoenix.

“We don’t have anything concrete,” the Human says coming up beside him. “But we’ve seen him as small as a house cat, and there’s evidence he can get as large as Rhodes in his Wyvern shift.”

“Evidence?”

“Afghanistan.”

Soldat nods, going silent for a moment, mentally calculating the size of the few Wyvern he’s seen or killed on HYDRA’s order.

“It would have been too small to make these,” Soldat says, pointing at the gashes.

“So my questions are, ‘what is’, ‘does it work for HYDRA’, and ‘was it strong enough to overpower Stark’. I doubt the bastard went quietly with all these stiffs chilling out here.”

“As fascinating as that is,” the Panther King says from the other side of the room. “We have more pressing matters to deal with.”

“We’ll agree to disagree on that, your Majesty. Whatever can take Stark out is going to be a ‘pressing matter’, you can be sure of that,” the Human drawls, looking unimpressed at the Panther King.

Soldat turns and can’t help but glare at the feline too. For the first time since his Other broke through HYDRA’s conditioning, he wants something. He wishes to dig his claws in and continue gathering information; piece the Phoenix together by what evidence it left behind. Put the fragments he finds here and on the internet together and keep them.

~You’re a creepy bastard, you know that? If you find Stark, and he’ll speak to ya, just ask him,~ his Other tells him, his tone exasperated.

~Asking about this won’t be my priority when we meet him,~ Soldat says. ~Asking isn’t exciting either… ~

~Oh my god…~

Soldat tunes out his Other and the Panther King when he hears the barely audible sound of a phone vibrating. Glancing to the side, he watches as the Human pulls out the device and opens whatever notification he received. The Human’s expression doesn’t change as he reads the message before glancing at Soldat, then the Panther, before putting it away.

“Pardon me, your Highness, but I’ve got even more urgent business to see to. Feel free to drop by the Compound outside New York after you’ve dropped off your baggage.”

The King looks affronted by the Human’s blunt statement, but before he can say anything, Soldat hears someone coming down the narrow entry and holds up his hand to silence him. The King snarls but quiets when the sound of feet hitting the formation without care for how loud they reach his ears. Soldat watches their only exit from this room, resting his hand on his gun.

He loathes not having his arm.

Seconds later, a woman dressed in combat fatigues exits the narrow opening, dusting off her shoulders and straightening her vest after putting away her flashlight.

“Maria?” the Griffin asks, surprise coloring his voice.

“Well, I’d say it’s good to see you, Rogers, but that would be a lie, and we all know how you feel about lying,” she says tartly, only glancing at the Griffin before her eyes land on the Human. “Picked a hell of a place for a pickup, Nick.”

“Rhodes sent you, not me. I don’t employ you anymore.”

The woman stares at the Human, eyes flashing almost neon green, and Soldat knows she’s another Shifter, and she’s not amused with the Human’s insubordination.

“That’s good because I won’t get in trouble now for telling you to get your ass on the QuinJet and shut the hell up.”

The new Shifter turns and leaves the way she came without another word, the Human striding passed Soldat with an amused smirk on his face to follow her.

“We aren’t done here!” the Panther King snaps, wiping the smirk from the Human’s face, but he continues to walk away.

“Of course you’re not, but I am. I’m not the one who left Stark here to die,” With a wave over his shoulder, the Human disappears into the pathway, his voice echoing into the room, “Good luck figuring out what the fuck Stark did here!”

Soldat resists the urge to follow the Human. He and his Other aren’t welcome back in the United States, and -from what Soldat has overheard- the Panther King doesn’t have enough sway in international politics to get them a pardon if they were to ask.

Soldat also resists the urge to whine when he can no longer hear the Human’s footsteps. At least with the Human around, he could avoid the Griffin somewhat. His one-eyed glower was more effective than Soldat’s, much to his irritation.

“Bucky?”

Soldat doesn’t hold back the whine when he hears the QuinJet take off.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Fury takes the co-pilot’s seat beside Hill and waits until they’re airborne and she’s put on the autopilot before he risks speaking to the exhausted looking Sphinx Shifter.

“Is this pick-up related to why FRIDAY left me with the blonde flag, the Winter Soldier, and Wakandan royalty plus one?”

“Yes.”

He waits for her to elaborate; staring at her as he used to when she was stubborn in following orders.

Hill remains silent, looking over something on a Stark Pad with the most distraught expression on her ordinarily blank face, and Fury knows he’s lost most of her loyalty after years of having it to Stark.

It’s not a pleasant realization.

“Can you tell me what’s going on?”

“We had a visitor appear in the Compound.”

“Appear?”

“Yes. A Human who calls himself Dr. Strange, Sorcerer Supreme.”

“And what does the ‘Sorcerer Supreme’ want with what’s left of the Avengers?”

“He told Rhodes he was investigating a disturbance in Eastern Siberia and had something of interest for him.”

“Hill,” Fury snaps, dread filling him the longer the Sphinx beats around the bush; Hill doesn’t beat around the bush, she beats it down.

“He brought someone with him. It wasn’t… it wasn’t good, Fury.”

She hands over the Stark Pad, a video clip already pulled up, and he recognizes the containment room the Compound boasts can hold the Hulk until he wears himself out. Fury feels sick to his stomach as he reaches for the device.

“What’s this?”

Hill doesn’t say anything, just watches him.

Fury takes a deep, fortifying breath before pressing play.

By the end of the video, he’s sweating; breathing heavy and hands shaking so hard, the tablet falls to the Jet’s floor.

“Fuck…”

Chapter Text

Stephen Strange had not been having a good day.

On top of trying to discover what had caused such a massive magical and technological disturbance in Northeastern Siberia, he then had to deal with finding Stark at the tail end of a rampage through two HYDRA bases; putting together that Stark had been held by HYDRA for six months -not on a sabbatical like S.I. claimed-; and he learns the man is a Shifter of mythic proportions. It took an hour to get the bastard into the Mirror Dimension, to the Avenger’s Compound, and even longer to get the bastard to snap out of whatever blind rage he’d been in when he escaped HYDRA.

The asshole had laughed in his face when he -rightfully- had an issue with being attacked for no reason.

"Is there a reason you’re still here, Strange?" Stark drawls, Extremis and whatever HYDRA did to him giving him the ability to talk when shifted.

“Are you going to shift down anytime soon?”

"No. I quite like this form."

Stephen scoffs, glancing around the lab to avoid looking at the Shifter. His warped form is difficult to look at without his heart starting to pound. Their tussle is not something he would like to repeat with Stark, PTSD rage or not.

"Calm down, Gandalf. I’m not going to eat you. You wouldn’t even be a mouthful unless I got smaller."

“You seemed to think differently not several hours ago.”

The bastard scoffs, "You’re a Human and you were throwing glowing shit at me. Of course I was going to attack you right after I escaped from HYDRA. You think you’re the only magic user around who wants a piece of me?"

“I wanted you to calm down.”

"HR never sent you to sensitivity seminars, did they?"

“Several times. Didn’t seem to stick, but they couldn’t afford to lose me,” he drawls, brushing lint off the Cloak of Levitation.

He’s had to stop it from approaching Stark several times already.

"If you’re so disturbed by how I look, you can leave, and I’ll hit you up when I choose to shift down again. Give your contact info to FRIDAY on your way out."

Stephen rolls his eyes.

“She can scan this,” he says, procuring a business card from the ether and placing it on a lab table. “I’ll be in touch if you haven’t called me in two weeks.”

"By your leave, my liege."

“Douchebag,” he growls, opening a portal to Kamar-Taj and stepping through.

"Good morrow, Merlin!" is the last thing he hears.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Two Months Later: Wakanda

Bucky sits in the shared room he and the rest of the ‘Rogues’ -as the media has taken to calling Stevie and his comrades after Stark’s return- were given, trying to listen to the TV. Barton had turned it on to see if he could finally watch something called Dog Cops around lunchtime. Much to his dismay, their situation with the TV hasn’t changed, just like it hasn’t the last dozen times the archer tried.

“Fuckin’ Stark,” the archer snaps, throwing the remote on the couch, crossing his arms like Stevie when he was tiny and adorable.

Except the Human isn’t adorable or tiny…

For the past two months, nothing but international and State news would come up, and they were all covering the same things.

Tony Stark and the Accords.

The witch and Barton had been the most violently annoyed when they couldn’t escape the man they’d been verbally ripping to pieces being praised on international TV. The Wakandans had already replaced the screen twice before they were told flat out that if they broke another one, all of them would be paying for it and a replacement if they wanted another one.

'избалованное отродье!' the Winter Soldier snarls at the back of his mind.(Spoiled brats!)

Bucky still hasn’t figured out if it’s the Princess trolling them or Stark. The Soldier had put his bets on Stark since the first week of this bullshit. Watching the Phoenix completely revamp the Accords with insight from various Enhanced, Mutants, and Heros would have taken up most of the Shifter’s time. Revealing that S.I. was opening another branch in prosthetics and getting it up and running would have left little time for the Shifter to even sleep, in Bucky’s opinion. Bucky thinks the Winter Soldier is cracked if he thinks the Phoenix has any time devoted to trolling Stevie and the Rogues.

It's a good thing, in his opinion. Seeing what Stark is capable of doing to HYDRA bases, he’s ecstatic the genius hasn’t turned his attention on them. It’s something he’s been trying to get Stevie to see as well. However, his chosen brother and the rest of his… followers are either too stubborn to believe it or just stupid.

He’s leaning toward the latter…

The Winter Soldier hasn’t gone back to sleep since Siberia either, and he’s been driving Bucky up the wall with his Stark obsession. The asshole had watched anything and everything he could legally get his hands on about the Phoenix using Wakandan computers. The Shifter’s life has been well documented up until his return from Afghanistan. After that, besides his exploits as Iron Man, his company’s various changes, and the short romance with Virginia Potts, there isn’t anything about him being a Shifter or his personal life. Well, nothing that had been confirmed by Stark. All of the Soldier’s research had made some things very clear about the Phoenix.

Just like the Phoenix of lore, the Shifter has a history of washing his hands of those who betray him or just annihilating them and salting the earth behind him -which the Winter Soldier found freaking delightful.

Personally, Bucky isn’t sure how he feels about the Phoenix, especially with the Soldier’s fixation on one of the only Shifters that could take them out. A well-aimed missile or even bad code sent to the remains of his arm -if that’s possible- would do it if Stark was so inclined.

All that research only confirmed what Bucky thought; Steve and his ass kissers are barely a blip on the genius’ radar now. In Bucky’s opinion, since Stark hasn’t come after them, it shows just how little Stevie and the Rogues matter to him after everything went down and the genius is stuck with picking up the pieces after his return. He doubts the Phoenix doesn’t know where they are upon returning to New York. How he got there without anyone noticing has been driving everyone in Wakanda and the media insane with curiosity. Stark hasn’t answered and doesn’t look to ever answer that question.

As long as they keep their heads down, Bucky’s pretty sure they’ll avoid drawing the Phoenix’s attention. He also thinks Stevie is trying to ignore that little tidbit. The idiot still has hope that his mate will take him back and that they can go back to how things were. Where they could cross borders without issue and ‘help’ people...

Bucky's absolutely certain Stark had been getting the Avengers permissions to be where they went up until he stepped back from the team, and he doubts Steve thought it was something that had to be done.

'Он дурак.' (He's an idiot.)

'Ya commentary isn’ wanted.'

'Мне плевать.' (I don't care.)

'You’ll care when I shove you down so far you won’t be able to come out and do your stalking of Stark.'

The Soldier growls at him, an image of bared fangs flashing through his head before the bastard recedes. Bucky doesn’t trust the easy win, but he’ll take what he can get right now. He doesn’t need his headache getting worse.

The doors of the suite open and Bucky hears the Princess talking excitedly with the King.

“I’m telling you, it was the remnants of an egg. It’s obvious Stark’s not Human, at least not anymore. Why can’t you just tell me what Stark is so I can complete my research on the formations?”

“It’s not my place to say, Shuri.”

“Then I want to meet-”

“T’Challa, it’s good to see you,” Stevie says as he sits down beside Bucky, oblivious to the Princess’ growls or ignoring them. “What brings you by?”

“I’m here to inform you that tomorrow, a guest of great importance is arriving in Wakanda. I ask that you remain indoors until they leave,” the King says, glancing Bucky's way for some reason.

“Yes, we’ll stay clear of the windows and remain inside until you give us the all-clear.”

Bucky picks up the scoff the Princess lets out as Stevie talks and the twitch he gives means he did too. He feels Soldat’s amusement brushing against his own.

“Good. Our guest may be here for some time if all goes well. The Dora will make sure you remain watered and fed until they depart.”

“Can I ask who’s coming?”

“No. It is best their identity remains unsaid for now. If they somehow find out you are here, I will be surprised if they want to meet with you.”

Stevie stares at the King for a moment.

“You’ll let us know if we are needed.”

Bucky doubts Stevie sees the slight narrowing of the King’s eyes or the stiffness in his guards. He can’t help but tense in reaction; they do outnumber them even with the Witch’s powers.

“That remains to be seen,” the King says before he inclines his head and leaves, the Princess following beside him -though she turns as she exits the suite to stare at Bucky with a grin and a wave.

He frowns in confusion, about to ask Stevie what that was about when the Witch and Barton start cursing at the TV again.

Bucky wishes they’d put him back in cryo so he could escape their whining.

'нет.' (No)

'You’re the reason they won’t,' he snaps.

'Слишком много нужно сделать, чтобы операция прошла успешно.' (Too much to do to ensure mission success)

'What mission?'

The Soldier goes quiet again much to Bucky’s frustration and remains silent despite Bucky hurling insults at the bastard.

'Fine, but I’ll find out eventually. It’s not like you can leave me behind.'

'да.' (Yes)

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Morning comes with no interruptions and Soldat wishes time would pass more quickly. They have things to do and places to go, but that won’t happen if Soldat can’t convince their chosen Handler to take them. His Other makes sleepy noises that brush against his thoughts, and Soldat quickly soothes and pushes his Other down. It won’t do for his Other to wake and protest Soldat’s plans for them before they are well away from the hatchling and his flock.

Soldat waits in their assigned quarters until the sun is nearly above them and they see a markless aircraft heading toward the city at high speed. Soldat leaves their room, nodding to the guard stationed outside as the Panther falls behind them to follow, and carefully makes their way down to the lab the young Snow Leopard used to put them into cryo when they had no use for them.

After they had returned from Siberia’s HYDRA base without the Phoenix, Soldat and his Other had refused to retire to the cold before they knew the status of the Firebird. It may not have been with HYDRA as long as them, but HYDRA’s methods had only improved since they were first controlled and Soldat woke up. Once the Phoenix had appeared in the news two weeks after their return to Wakanda, it proceeded to cut a path of destruction through those who had opposed or threatened the validity of the Accords and simultaneously changed the document to the benefit of all who would fall under it. Seeing the Firebird wreak havoc on its enemies had reawoken that something within Soldat that had appeared during their search for it. So Soldat came up with a plan. Soldat found it amusingly easy to imitate his Other and refuse cryo for very different reasons after that.

Now, Soldat didn’t want to be erased by the method the Snow Leopard Princess was pushing for. Soldat knew his Other -despite his complaints of Soldat in general- did not really want Soldat gone either. Explaining that to the hatchling or the feline siblings was… not something his Other had wanted to do. So they refused the method, but now they needed another one to rid themselves of the triggers or replace them with words no one else but who they choose to gift them to.

That’s when Soldat found a video of the Phoenix presenting another invention before the events that lead to Siberia.

B.A.R.F.; Binarily Augmented Retro Framing.

It was the answer they were looking for.

In their excitement, his Other had foolishly suggested the Hatchling should know the replacement words if the technology could only rewrite them while leaving Soldat intact.

Soldat shot that down quickly.

'Отдать их птенцу - все равно, что отдать их Ведьме,' Soldat had growled. (Giving them to the hatchiling is giving them to the Witch)

His Other was quick to change their mind and ask who instead. Soldat hadn’t answered, but Soldat knew who they wanted.

The Phoenix would make an exceptional Handler. Technician and Handler in one; Soldat couldn’t ask for anything better. They’d seen the prosthetic braces the Phoenix had created for its Wyvern before releasing its company on the world with a new division. From watching television interviews, Soldat had seen how well the Phoenix takes up the mantle of authority.

His Other and Soldat discussed the implications and the marvels that the technologies were, but his Other remains hesitant. They had killed the Phoenix’s family. Left it behind to fall into the hands of HYDRA. What reason did the Firebird have to let them use its inventions?

There was none, but Soldat refused to let that be the end of their road to freedom before it even started.

Besides, Soldat wants, and unless the Phoenix refuses them to their face, Soldat isn’t going to stop until they are under its wings.

His Other will come around once they get to know the Phoenix better and his Other sees what Soldat knows.

One of the scientists meet Soldat at the door, their guard taking her place outside the lab, and Soldat pulls his Other’s personality and charm on. Soldat had found that doing so would get the hatchling to stop dogging their steps and everyone else to let their guard down, allowing Soldat do what they pleased. It’s pathetically easy to trick even the Widow into believing his Other is the one in charge, but they have to be careful around the Witch. Soldat isn't going to trust the Griffin's word that she isn't using her powers unless she needs to. She's too familiar.

Soldat wonders if the Phoenix will be as easy to trick. The plan gets more challenging to enact if the trick doesn’t work. Soldat had lured the Phoenix here acting as his Other through the Snow Leopard and various video calls. What will the Phoenix do if it sees through Soldat without the interference of technology on their side? Sees Soldat isn’t his Other and immediately refuses them?

Soldat will have to improvise like they’ve had to on missions, though Soldat isn’t sure what they’ll do if the Phoenix takes offense to the deception…

The Firebird is only predictable in two things; forsaking those who have betrayed it or turning its opponents to ash and salting the earth in its wake.

The scientist leads them over to a high table and asks them to take a seat while they wait for the Panther King, the Snow Leopard Princess, and ‘Dr. Stark and Colonel Rhodes’, Soldat makes them smile by turning up the charm.

So, the Phoenix brought its nest mate with it. Soldat can’t explain how that makes them feel. They hadn’t planned on any other witnesses but the Panther King, the Snow Leopard, and the scientists already in the lab, to the arrangement Soldat hoped to make with the Firebird.

Sweat gathers between their shoulders and under their arms.

Soldat doesn’t know how to convince both the Wyvern and the Phoenix to take them from here. They know the Wyvern has a great deal of say in the Phoenix’s decisions if it is around to have one.

'Черт.'~ (Shit)

His Other stirs, feeling Soldat’s unease. Soldat let’s his Other come closer to the surface; they are better at social interactions than Soldat is at present. Maybe if they work together, the mission will be successful?

The doors open and the Panther King, the Snow Leopard Princess, and the head Panther Guard enter.

The Phoenix and the Wyvern follow behind them, flanked by two other Panther guards.

Soldat can’t help but stare at the Phoenix. It wears a suit that’s deep red, like fresh blood, with a black shirt underneath and a gold tie that shimmers in the light of the lab. Soldat doesn’t recognize the materials of the suit, but it clings to the Phoenix’s body like it wants to become one with its skin. Soldat feels their metal hand clench despite it no longer existing as their mouth begins to water, and their teeth ache with the need to bite.

But the Phoenix isn’t paying them any attention -much to Soldat’s displeasure- as it looks around the lab with interest lighting its honeyed, sunglass covered, eyes. The Wyvern had no such inclinations. Dark brown eyes flash acid green as they fall on them and see Soldat staring at the Phoenix.

“Down, Platypus. I don’t want to get kicked out before we’ve had any fun,” the Phoenix says, it’s voice honeyed like its eyes as it stops in front of them, locking its gaze with theirs from behind the red-tinted glass. “Barnes.”

“Stark,” Soldat manages to croak out, barely keeping his Other’s personality ‘on’ while they try to stomp down another emotion Soldat has never felt so acutely before. “You came.”

“Yeah, Princess Floof’s request tickled my fancy, Red October.”

Soldat can’t do this. The Phoenix is sending their senses and emotions into confusing spirals. Soldat needs more information and secondhand exposure before they can interact with the Phoenix.

'The hell are you nervous-'

Soldat shoves his Other forward, flooding them with information of Soldat’s plan and hoping the Phoenix didn’t see the transition. Soldat has been practicing since Siberia; they think it’s flawless, but they have never switched in front of a genius before.

The tilt of the Phoenix’s head and the raised brow as it takes its glasses off tells Soldat it noticed.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Hm,” Stark hums, honeyed eyes studying him with an intensity Bucky has never been subject to even by HYDRA scientists.

Bucky shifts slightly in discomfort, something no one should see, but the twitch of Stark’s lips says it’s noticed all the same.

“So you and Princess Floof told me there’s an interest in using my B.A.R.F. tech to clear your triggers. Or at least change them if all else fails,” the Shifter says, twirling his sunglasses around his fingers. “Why not take the Princess up on her offer to… ‘reset the system’ as it were?”

“Tones.”

“What? That wasn’t geek speak.”

The Colonel sighs and moves away from Stark’s side, leaning against a table across from them. Bucky eyes him and the King further behind the Wyvern for a moment to calm himself and the Soldier down. Stark’s very presence is unnerving even if Bucky and the Soldier hadn’t been part of the elder Stark’s assassination. The genius reeks of Other, and he's baffled no one figured out he was a Shifter years ago. The Soldier’s emotions fluctuating between arousal and nervousness isn’t doing his stomach any good.

Nor is the way Stark’s suit clings to the man like blood-red sin.

Bucky is not going there, the Soldier already did, and he’s not hopping on the crazy train. Stark is nothing but trouble, and Bucky has enough of that between the Soldier and Stevie.

“Did he use up his daily word count?” Stark asks, looking past him at King T’Challa.

'Ответь на вопросы нашего куратора. Нам нужно произвести хорошее впечатление.' (Answer our Handler's question. Need to make a good impression.)

'Pretty sure that was shot ta hell back in Siberia… Just when did we decide te get a handler? We’re done with that shit!

'Феникс здесь, не так ли? Солдат решил, что хочет себе такого.'(The Phoenix is here, is it not? Soldat decided Soldat wanted one.)

Bucky hates it when the Soldier has a point and when he decides things for both of them. But this time Bucky won’t complain too much; they need to get rid of the triggers.

“I can speak as much as I want,” he drawls, drawing Stark’s eyes back on him. “I don’t want a factory reset, and it looked like your… B.A.R.F. could maybe get rid of them. The name sucks, by the way.”

'Не оскорбляй его!'(Don't insult it!)

Colonel Rhodes barely muffles his giggles. Stark grins at him, and it’s full of teeth, but Bucky and the Soldier don’t feel like it’s a threat. Not yet anyway.

“Tones’ naming aesthetic has never been conventional,” Rhodes says with a grin of his own.

“But they are strangely accurate,” Stark says. “Good to see some humor in you, Barnes.”

“It’s-”

The lab doors slam open, startling everyone but Stark who’s eyes narrow and go cold. Bucky blinks. He could swear Stark’s eyes had gone black, but they remain honeyed brown, if more glacial than the ice in Siberia.

“Bucky!” comes Stevie’s voice from the doorway, the smell of fox drifting in behind him on the air currents.

Stark smoothly steps aside, keeping his back to Steve while letting Bucky see him. The doors slam shut behind him as the idiot raises his fists, blue eyes frantically searching the lab for him. Bucky barely registers Colonel Rhodes moving to stand between Stark and Stevie as the Soldier howls and rages at his brother’s presence.

'Убери его или мы сами это сделаем. Этот эгоистичный птенец испортит миссию!' (Remove him or we will. Selfish hatchling will ruin everything!)

Stevie’s eyes finally land on him, and he surges toward them, pushing aside the Dora who try to stop him.

“Move! Tony’s going to hurt Bucky!”

“Dr. Stark has been nothing but cordial to Sergeant Barnes, Mr. Rogers,” the King snaps, pulling his sister behind him despite her protests and the insults hurled at Stevie for barging into her lab.

Two of the Dora manage to stop him with their spears, but Bucky knows that won’t delay Steve for long, not when he’s capable of attacking a teammate -his fucking mate- for him. The thought is like lead in his stomach as the Soldier distracts him again with images of just how he’d remove Steve. They can’t afford the Soldier coming out now, not when Bucky's sure he’ll go after Steve as he had under HYDRA’s control. His gaze unconsciously slides to meet Stark’s.

If lead had been in his stomach, it’s nothing to the metric tone of ice that slides down his spine and sends his survival instincts howling with the need to run far away at the look Stark is giving him.

But he’s frozen to the table.

“Was this a set-up?” he hears Rhodes demand. “Get us here under false pretenses and let Rogers finish us off so the Rogues can return to the States?”

“Sergeant Barnes-”

“You promised they wouldn’t know we are here; that you’d have an eye on them if they somehow found out. You said we wouldn’t see them, yet Rogers is standing right here and spouting bullshit like he always does about Tony!” Rhodes roars, stepping away from Stark and closer to Steve.

“Get away from Bucky, Tony,” Stevie demands, blatantly ignoring the Dora, Rhodes, and the King.

The Soldier surges up, trying to take control, causing Bucky to clutch his head as he fights the asshole down.

He’s not sure what happens in the seconds after. All he sees is Stark’s reaction like he’s watching everything in slow motion and as his ears focus in on Steve’s yells, making his head pound worse.

Sees how his eyes went black, the only color is a red slit burning out from the darkness.

Ears echoing with the most terrifying sound to ever bombard them.

Watches the Shifter’s sinful suit tighten against his skin as he twists like he has no spine and launches himself towards Steve, shifting within those seconds.

Bucky watches with fear, and horrible fascination as human flesh melts into metal, sprouting scales and feathers where the alloy doesn’t touch. How his body and neck elongate and his face stretches, jaws opening like a snake and filled with rows of dagger-like teeth as that terrifying noise grows louder.

He only just registers the terrified shouts and the King’s voice over the noise of Stark bodily colliding with Steve, hissing and snarling echoing around them as they struggle against each other.

“Tony!” Rhodes yells, shoving at the tail that’s wrapping around him protectively and pulling him off the ground. “Damn it Tones.”

The Soldier’s voice knocks him back into the present.

'Это не Феникс.' (That's not a Phoenix.)

'No shit.'

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Two Months Ago - Avenger’s Compound

Peter leaps up and clings to ceiling in surprise as a pretty beaten up guy falls through a hole in the air surrounded by golden sparks into the living room on the shared floor of the Compound. He and Colonel Rhodes were working on his braces when the guy comes from nowhere!

“Holy shit!”

“Watch it,” Colonel Rhodes snaps, gun up and aimed at the guy as the War Machine lands beside him.

Peter would wonder how it got there so fast, but Colonel Rhodes starts demanding answers from the magic person.

“Who are you and how the hell did you get in here?”

“My name is Dr. Stephen Strange,” the guy gasps out, clutching at his side with a long drawn out hiss. “I’m the Sorcerer Supreme.”

“Pull the other one,” the Colonel snarls, his eyes flashing and acid green. “I might feel it.”

“I’m telling the truth!” Dr. Strange says, a desperate edge to his voice and something vibrates in the air that sends his Spidey Sense haywire.

“Then why are you here?”

“There's no time for-”

Why?

Dr. Strange stands as straight as he can, Peter catching his eyes -and shit, Mr. Stark is going to be so mad- as the guy glances at him when he lands beside Colonel Rhodes.

“I found your Shifter, who’s gone feral while investigating a disturbance in Eastern Siberia. You’re the only ones with a remotely viable containment room to keep him in until he’s back to himself. So if you could take me there, right now, that would be great.”

Colonel Rhodes remains silent for a minute before he turns to Peter.

“Go get Vision and Hill. Then I want you to go to the control room.”

“But I can-”

“I need someone up there who can activate the safety protocols if you can’t find Hill in the next five minutes.”

“And if I-”

“You’ll stay with her otherwise.”

Peter wilts a little, wondering how he’s supposed to prove himself to the Avengers if they don’t let him help.

“Alright,” he grumbles before running out to find Agent Hill and Vision as quickly as possible since he doesn’t even have a com unit outside the suit yet. It would make finding them a whole lot easier. Maybe he’ll ask Mr. Stark if he can get one…

Focus, Peter.

He needs to be there in case something goes wrong.

He’ll never forgive himself if something happens to Colonel Rhodes before Mr. Stark comes back from his sabbatical.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

James eyes the ‘Sorcerer Supreme’, noting the odd clothes, but mostly counting the injuries he can see and speculates on others by the way he holds himself.

“You look like shit.”

The guy lets out a pained huff of laughter, “I’d say ‘you should see the other guy’, but that would be a lie. The bastard isn’t your typical Shifter gone feral, so if we can get to the containment room, I would much appreciate it.”

“Why the rush? You’re using ‘magic’ on him, right? Magic isn’t easy to circumvent in my experience,” he says, putting away his gun and signaling the armor to follow them before turning his wheelchair around and rolling toward the elevator.

“He’s not your typical Shifter, as I said.”

“So you did say, but that doesn’t explain anything.”

“No time. What floor is it on?”

“Basement level nine. Why-”

Golden sparks enter his vision before he finds himself rolling into the containment room. He blinks and takes a deep breath.

“Convenient,” he mumbles.

“Very. Now, what kind of integrity tests have been done on the room?”

“It’s Hulk proof as much as anything can be Hulk proof. Tony tested everything he could think of that he had access to.”

“We’ll see how it holds up,” Strange says, quickly shuffling passed him, heading to the other side of the room, waving him away when he follows. “You stay back for now. I’m still trying to get him to shift down, and he’ll rip my head off if anything happens to you.”

James halts his chair and stares at the wizard.

Did you bring us the Hulk?”

“No, he’s much worse in my opinion. At least the Hulk is only throwing temper tantrums most of the time.”

“Jesus,” James whispers, deciding to let the wizard run the show for now as he turns his chair and wheels his way over to sit beneath the control center, pondering over who the wizard brought them.

Under the control center is the only place he’ll be able to make a quick escape or get into his armor since his Wyvern shift is just as paralyzed as he is.

He only hopes whoever Strange lets out will calm down quickly. He’s got braces to make and a brother to find.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Stephen waits until Rhodes is well out of the way -relatively speaking- before opening a larger than usual sling portal into the mirror dimension. His ears are immediately assaulted with the ear ringing, spine-curling, roar of the bastard he’s vaguely acquaintances with. He quickly activates the Eye in case everything goes wrong.

Again.

Several times again.

“What the hell is that?” Rhodes yells at him when the roar cuts off.

Seems the asshole noticed the opening. Which isn’t necessarily a good thing as the room shakes and a large, feathered, taloned arm comes through and almost claws through him. The Cloak pulls him away, thankfully, and he blocks the second swipe with a shield.

“Would you snap out of it already?!” he groans at the douchebag, his injuries pulling uncomfortably.

The arm… glitches -for lack of a better description- and his shield flickers.

“Shit,” Stephen grunts, waving his other hand, a golden rope wrapping around the arm, and he pulls it down, the palm barely hovering over him due to the talons.

He manages to slip between the enormous fingers to relative safety, and throws several more ropes around the arm, hoping it will buy him enough time to reverse his injuries and talk to the bastard; bring him back to reality. The scaled arm thrashes and pulls against the bindings, the Shifter roaring that awful sound within the mirror dimension and nearly deafening him again.

“Will you just listen to me?!” he hollers at him when he shuts up again. “You’re safe! You’re with the Avengers n-”

Something he said makes the bastard howl and thrash his arm around, the glitching happening at a higher frequency, and the ropes shatter before his eyes seconds later.

“Fucking hell,” he growls, conjuring more though he knows by now that they only barely stall the asshole, but the arm retreats through the portal.

Cautiously, Stephen moves to look into the portal. Eyes wide, he quickly removes himself from the vicinity of the portal, ignoring his injuries in favor of survival, just as the iconic whine of repulsors echo in the room with a much deeper sound than usual. That’s because the blast range is easily as tall as the room…

“What the hell is going-” the Colonel starts yelling at him again before Stephen interrupts.

“I hope this room holds up, Colonel!”

The attack deafens and blinds Stephen. He can’t even hear himself groaning. Twisting his hands, he directs the Eye to reverse the most recent damage to himself. The Cloak takes him over to Rhodes despite his protests, and he does the same for the soldier. Once done he looks to where the beam hit the wall, feeling his mouth go dry when he sees that several layers have been turned to slag and the ones behind are glowing brightly with heat.

They won’t stand up to many more of those.

“Where are the people you sent for?” Stephen demands.

He can only do so much with the Eye before the effects risk affecting the timeline -especially if he wants to be able to heal himself later-, and he tires out, useless and injured. The bastard has made this the most physically taxing fight he’s ever had, and he’s including Dormammu and his countless deaths.

At least those were quick if not painless.

“What the hell did you bring here, Strange?!” Rhodes demands instead.

“He’s been with HYDRA from what-” he starts to say, glancing at the portal and cutting himself off with a curse as he sees what the douchebag is doing.

Two limbs are through the portal trying to force it vertically wider, glitching as they do and slowly opening it in increments with each glitch. He can only see claws on the other sides of the portal forcing it wider horizontally.

“Are you insane?!” Stephen roars, the Cloak flinging them over as he casts a spell to try and mitigate any further damage the bastard has already caused. “If you rip this open, it’s not just you that will get through!”

The bastard howls, limbs retreating back into the mirror dimension.

“Strange!”

“It’s Tony fucking Stark!” he growls as an enormous eye slides into view; the glowing pupil slit and blood red surrounded by black sclera and cornea, a nictitating membrane sliding lazily over the eye as the bastard blinks at him. “You’re not getting out of there until you downsize, douchebag.”

Stark’s growl almost sends him to his ass with how much it vibrates the floor. The eye disappears, and Stephen watches a nearly endless flow of scales, feathers, and metal pass the other side of the portal before he sees the tip of his tail.

Stephen is only glad the bastard is too far gone to remember the armor has missiles.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

James stares at Strange. The man must be joking; lying, something, because that… that can’t be his baby brother. Not the little ball of floofy red and gold, blue-tipped feathers he’s smothered under his wings or groomed on more than one occasion.

“Don’t lie to me, Strange! That isn’t Tony!”

“Is his coloring not a dead giveaway?” the Human yells back, not looking at James, keeping his eyes on the portal.

James has to force his need to shift and bite the wizard away. He only takes a moment to decide how to explain what Tony is to the bastard before thinking, fuck it. Tony can deal with the asshole knowing when they find him.

“Tony’s a Phoenix!” he roars, ignoring the questioning voices from Peter, Vision, and Hill on his com. “Whoever that is, isn’t him.”

Strange’s head jerks around, and he looks at him with wide eyes.

“That actually explains so-”

Several explosions go off, almost knocking the wizard off his feet, and smoke billows out from the portal, obscuring the Human from sight.

“Peter! Tell me you have eyes on Strange,” James commanded as Vision appears at his side.

“No sir!” the kid replies, voice shaking -poor kid’s senses must be going haywire, or he heard Strange claim that Shifter is Tony.

“Turn the fans on,” comes Hill’s command through Peter’s mic.

The Sphinx knows to stay with the kid to keep an eye on him in these situations despite how much Peter probably complains.

The fans cut on as high as they can go as another round of explosions go off, sending more smoke through the portal into the room.

“So you remembered you have missiles. They aren’t going to get you out of there, Stark. You change back into your human skin, then I’ll let you out.”

That terrifying, mechanical roar that nearly splits his head open answers the wizard before the familiar sound of repulsors activating for flight echoes off the containment room walls. The smoke clears enough for James to see Strange before he hears the wizard curse for the umpteenth time, as he makes some motions with his hands and green magic wraps around his arms.

“Keep your distance, Colonel, but I could use Vision’s help!”

James doesn’t get to yell at the wizard for demanding more of their aid before the Shifter flies through the portal with little effort right at the wizard. His jaws are wide open like a snake to swallow the Human whole. Strange does something else with his hands, causing the green magic to encase the Shifter, freezing it in place inches away from engulfing the wizard in his jaws.

He gets his first real look at the Shifter and his stomach drops, blood running cold as his heart starts pounding against his ribs.

He sees why Strange claims the Shifter is Tony.

Red and gold armor covers the Shifter from head to mid-torso. The rest of his body is covered in black and gold patterned scales. He’s long like those Eastern Dragons of myth, with red and gold, blue-tipped feathers flared up above an elongated face that resembles the Iron Man helmet when it used to open up. Down along his arms -he has four fucking arms-, back, and hind legs, more of the familiar plumage grows, and four bat-like fingers flare with a thin membrane the same color as its feathers from the largest front limbs.

Before James can observe more physical features with growing dread, Strange moves away from the Shifter’s jaws when he starts that vibrating thing his skin does -like a base set underwater turned on high- and he begins to move despite the magic holding it.

“Strange!”

“I see it.”

The vibrating reaches a point where it looks like the Shifter’s skin is glitching as he twists his neck and upper body around, one of the larger taloned hands reaching towards Strange with increasing speed, the stronger the vibrations pulse. Strange conjures more of that golden rope just as the green light shatters, throwing the ropes around the arm, the Shifter’s jaws, and chest, snapping his neck and arm together, forcing them against his own body with a snap. The momentum causes the Shifter to twist violently away in the opposite direction from Strange. The strategy would have worked very well if the Shifter was an incoherent mess like most when lost in a feral rage.

Strange said this wasn’t a standard Shifter. Tony was never incoherent when he lost it either.

The arms not bound blast the wizard with three repulsor beams and with an accuracy that James knows can’t be made without any coherent thought.

The Shifter was unlikely in a rage and more likely submerged like a soldier having an intense flashback.

Strange flies backward with a cry of pain as he hits the wall and the Shifter lands on his side with its own muffled screech of pain. The Shifter is quick to recover despite an obvious injury being inflicted on him, propping himself up, vibrating intensely and swiftly destabilizing the magic ropes.

“Vision, help Strange. Keep him distracted until the wizard’s up. Then you work with him and get in close. Use your powers to knock him out without injuring him. We don’t need to piss this guy off any more than-”

A loud crack rings in the air, and Vision and James turn their eyes back on the Shifter, watching with morbid fascination as he shakes his head, the golden ropes dissolving into nothing as they fall, and shoves himself onto his feet, probably ignoring whatever wound he got and turning to the downed wizard with frightening swiftness.

“It appears the wizard’s magic is losing its effectiveness, or the Shifter has advanced healing along with his ability to circumvent magic,” Vision states before moving to intercept him.

“Vision, wait!”

Vision fires a short blast on the Shifter’s left flank. The Shifter hisses, his massive, metal-covered head turning toward the android with narrowed eyes and 'wings' flaring in a threat display. James swallows down his fear as he watches the wound heal in seconds. He heals faster than a super soldier, and it glows in a hauntingly similar way to Extremis, but with blue intermingled in.

“Advanced healing confirmed, Viz,” he chokes out.

“Colonel? Is there anything you want us to do from here?” Peter’s voice filters into his ear over the growls and snarls the Shifter lets loose as he vibrates and slashes at Vision, flaring the leather wing part of his arms when the android gets too close or gets between him and the Human.

“No, we don’t need to bring his attention to the room. If Vision miraculously gets knocked out, launch the nets.”

“Copy.”

The next half hour is a blur. Once Strange recovers, it looks like he and Vision were gaining the advantage despite the Shifter’s focus on the wizard. They work together and combine their attacks, pushing the Shifter back toward the portal, apparently trying to put him back in to regroup.

The Shifter must have realized that too.

They were in a position to push him back through when Vision falls out of the air, landing harshly to the floor, clutching his head and screaming. The wizard encases himself in that golden shield to keep the Shifter’s jaws from swallowing him whole. His body curls around the shield until the only part James can see is what isn’t in the Shifter’s mouth. Which had split open almost like those Reapers from the Blade movies.

Two shots echo in the room as the net grenades deploy.

They are useless.

The Shifter catches and throws them aside with one of his arms and coils tighter around the barrier.

“Rhodes, do something!” he can barely hear Strange yelling at him over the Shifter’s hissing.

“Launching tranq darts,” Hill’s voice says on the com.

“They won’t-”

Several pops fire from the ceiling only to ping harmlessly off the armor and scales covering the Shifter. He growls but pays the darts and Vision -who still clutches his head and gasps in pain every few moments- little mind, all his focus on the wizard beneath the shield.

The Shifter is only really focusing on the Human, treating Vision like an afterthought…

~He’s been with HYDRA from what-~

“Colonel!” FRIDAY’s voice hits his ear with a digital screech, making him wince.

“Where the hell have you been?” he demands, pushing the com into his ear to hear her better, eyes glued to Strange and the Shifter.

“Boss has been blocking me since the wizard opened the portal. He only stopped focusing enough when he started incapacitating Vision which is when I could reconnect.”

“Wait… Boss? Are you telling me that Strange wasn’t lying? That’s Tony?!”

“Yes!”

“Rhodes!”

The deep sound of a large repulsor charging echoes around him.

James takes a deep breath in, then exhales smoothly.

“You better recognize me, you little bastard.”

Chapter Text

Two Months Ago

Stephen can’t see or hear beyond the whine of the ridiculously large repulsor charging right above his head. Stark’s coils are wrapped around his barrier and his teeth flexing like snake fangs, so he’s not sure what Rhodes does to distract the asshole, but he’s very grateful. He’s not sure if the Time Stone will bring him back again with how the bastard can circumvent the Stones' power.

Stark stops glitching, his jaws detaching from around the barrier and his teeth retracting as he slowly turns to where Stephen supposes Rhodes is. He dares not make a sound; he doesn’t want to draw the douchebag’s attention back on him. The bastard made is quite apparent that he was focused on him despite Vision being a more substantial threat.

It takes him a moment to notice the quiet as he tries to catch his breath. A distinct Wyvern’s call reaches his ears, breaking the silence like a gunshot.

His stomach drops to his knees.

That idiot!

He opens his mouth to draw Stark’s attention when the bastard makes an oddly bird-like warbling sound intertwined with the undertones of Wyvern and machine. It’s the softest sound Stark has made since he found him wreaking havoc on the mountainside HYDRA base.

Stephen almost falls over when Stark shoves off the barrier, bird-like screeching leaving his throat as he barrels towards Rhodes’ call. He drops the shield when the spiked end of his tail isn’t in danger of impaling him, and the Cloak launches him after Stark.

“Rhodes!” he calls out, preparing to conjure more rope to try and slow Stark down when Vision descends before him, making the Cloak come to an abrupt halt that almost gives him whiplash.

“Peace, Dr. Strange. Colonel Rhodes has this handled now,” the Android says, seeming to have recovered from whatever it was Stark had done.

“He’s paralyzed from the waist down in both forms. How does he possibly ‘have this handled’?!”

Vision steps aside and Stephen takes a moment to take in what he’s seeing. The Cloak detaches from his back, eagerly hopping toward the Shifters, and he has to yank it back.

“You are not going over there to cuddle!”

The Cloak affects a dejected slump and sluggishly resumes its position on his back. Stephen huffs and moves to approach the Shifters when Vision puts himself between them.

“I don’t think it wise to approach Dr. Stark at this time, Dr. Strange.”

“Why not? He’s obviously back to-”

Vision pulls him away as a repulsor beam flies at him.

“I believe there’s more to the problem than you think, Doctor.”

Stephen gulps, eyeing the melted metal on the wall behind them, and decides to heed Vision’s advice. The red-eyed glare being sent his way and the metallic growling is not at all deterred by Rhodes’ gnawing on Stark’s armored neck. It’s only when Rhodes smacks the crown of his horned head against Stark’s jaws does the Shifter look away, his eyes going Arc Reactor blue, and resume aggressively rubbing himself all over Rhodes.

“What the hell are they doing?”

“Scenting,” Vision says. “Wyverns will aggressively scent their siblings or wyer-kin after extended periods of absence. This will be the first time Colonel Rhodes has been able to scent Dr. Stark properly.”

“Excuse me?”

“Dr. Stark never had a form that could withstand the… force of a proper scenting. It has always been Colonel Rhodes’ most verbal complaint.”

Stephen stares at the two Shifters, wincing when Rhodes’ horns and wing claws scrape against the metal on Stark with deafening screeches. Stark has wrapped himself around the Colonel, cradling the Wyvern’s disabled legs with care as he rubs his face just as aggressively against Rhodes’ face and neck. He sees why Stark’s human or Phoenix forms wouldn’t survive. Wyvern scales are known for their strength and durability.

“We should leave them be for now,” Vision says after looking at the two Shifters with a sort of wistfulness that surprises Stephen.

“I still need to speak with Stark-”

“He will speak with you when he is ready.”

Vision stares at him until he sighs and motions for Vision to lead the way. The Android places himself between Stephen and the Shifters, giving them a wide berth as they cross the room to the doors Stephen and Rhodes would have come in through. Stephen takes one last look at them before the doors slide shut to see them sprawled over each other in a tangle of limbs, foreheads pressed together.

Stephen supposes he can wait until Stark is ready to talk. He has been in HYDRA’s hands for six months after all.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

James burrows his snout further into the crook of Tony’s left arms -arms, Jesus Christ-, breathing in their wyer-kin scent and the grease and metal hint that his stupid little brother always carries on him. For the first time in six months, James can breathe. Tony shifts, displacing his nose and James growls, gripping his brother with his wing claws. A faux annoyed chirp -so close to how he sounded as a Phoenix it makes James ache- escapes Tony’s throat, but he doesn’t move again. James manages to growl and snap at Tony enough for him to stay still after they scent each other. James’ face and neck are sore from it, but Tony has never been able to remain still unless he’s passed out or unconscious, and he just never had the body to withstand a good scenting.

Tony tries to move several times before James loosens his hold some hours later according to the clock FRIDAY projects at eye level. Tony makes a questioning noise as James untangles them to the best of his ability before Tony unwinds the rest of himself from James' back legs and tail. James doesn’t even try and keep the cooing chirps from leaving his throat before leaning against Tony’s long torso and shifting down. He freezes -bare-assed on the floor he can’t feel- as Tony’s entire body tenses. James looks up with his head bowed, careful not to move or appear challenging when his brother starts hissing like an enormous cobra. Eyes that glowed like the Arc Reactor while they scented each other, flash between hellish red and black and Arc blue, jaws clicking together several times in frustration.

“Tony,” James says softly, trying not to flinch when Tony’s coils tighten and slowly start to encircle him. “Tones, you know me.”

A red slit eye as big as his head shoves itself into his face, and James can’t help the startled sound that leaves him or the way his arms give out, and he falls back into Tony’s coils.

“I do,” a booming, growling voice says, causing his head to throb with the metallic undertones accompanying it like the voice modulators in the suits, but it’s coming from his moving mouth. “But you look like them.”

“Oh, okay. You can talk,” James says before taking a steadying breath in, raising his head and staring at the eye defiantly.

Despite his brave front, he’s silently freaking out. Whatever HYDRA did to Tony gave him the ability to speak while shifted, so what else did they do to his brother?

“You mean black?” he snaps, no real heat behind his words, but this is a familiar exchange between him and Tony when the brat was being deliberately vague.

The asshole snorts before narrowing his eye at him.

“No,” his drawl turning into a growl as he continues with. “Human.”

James lets his head fall against the metal cheek with a thunk, the coils at his back twitching harshly.

“I’m still me, you asshole.”

The smaller arms’ hands slowly and carefully wrap around him, lifting him up as Tony shakes his big stupid head, eyes settling on Arc blue.

“I know, but you know how well triggers listen to reason,” he grumbles, arranging his body and depositing James so that he sits on one coil and leans against his ribs.

It’s definitely warmer than the floor.

“Yeah… that why you were attacking Strange?”

“Who?”

“The guy with gold bondage ropes he pulls outta the air.”

If James had still been left in the dark as to who this is, he’s pretty confident the display of flexing teeth in what he’s sure is supposed to be a grin, would be absolutely terrifying.

“Don’t do that. You’re gonna freak someone out.”

Tony snorts and sticks his really long tongue out and licks him.

“Oh, my, God, Tones. Why do you gotta make it weird?!”

“You did it to me when I was a Phoenix that was literally on fire, Platypus.”

James starts bawling.

“Damn it, Tones,” he grabs the bastards’ nose and wraps his arms around it as tears wash down his face and he struggles to steady his breaths. “Shift down, you bastard, so I can get my hands on you!”

“Kinky.”

“Tony-”

“I can’t.”

James lets out a shaky sigh through his tears.

“I really can’t. Tried to when I was in that weird freaky dimension Magic Bondage Man put me in so I could get out. Maybe I’ll try again later? When I’m not still debating if this isn’t some really realistic hallucination from torture or magic that HYDRA managed to put me under? Or how about never? Never works. No one’s going to try kidnapping me or leave me for dead in a fuckin’-”

“Tony! I get it. You’re going to explain that ‘left for dead’ bit later, I know, but you’re going to have to stay in here until you can-”

“Nope.”

“Tones-”

“No. When you leave, I’m leaving.”

“You don’t fit through doors!”

“Still doing it!”

“Oh my God,” James groans and slumps against Tony’s nose, wiping the snot from his and rubbing it on Tony.

“That is so disgusting, why did you do that?” his stupid bird-dragon brother whines.

James winces at the metallic undertones, and just rubs his wet, snotty face harder against Tony’s, knowing the bastard doesn’t mind since he’s still letting James do it. Eventually, James’ tears subside -along with the snot- and he leans away from Tony’s booger smeared face.

“I should get some clothes on and make sure everyone is brought up to date.”

Tony rumbles in reluctant agreement as he tries to clean himself before giving up, and grabs James again, twisting around to un-tip his wheelchair, and sets James down in it gently.

“I’ll send for Vision if he’s not going to set you off. He can-” James says, cutting off and watching Tony slink over to where the hidden closet is, claws clicking on the metal floor. “Tony, you’re talons are going to-”

He watches in surprise as Tony’s talons shrink until they appear more claw-like as he comes to the door.

“You’re still too big-”

He looks up at the ceiling after watching Tony shrink down, his shoulders the height Tony is in Human form as he sticks his head -still having to duck under the door frame with his stupid snake neck- into the closet.

“Of course physics still don’t apply to you, what was I thinking,” he sighs, watching in amusement as Tony has to lift his torso so his smaller arms can grab whatever clothes he’s decided on before heading back to him.

James learned early on to let Tony do this after his Shifts -Tony’s a mother hen to Shifters if they allow him. Even when Tony’s other form came out, the picky bird kept doing it and complains when James reciprocates.

Tony gently helps James into the clothes with his smaller arms. The digits are surprisingly dexterous and nimble despite their size. It’s weird feeling smooth scales and metal instead of human skin or the softest, warmest feathers he ever had the pleasure to touch or be surrounded by.

“Tony, what did they do to you?” he asks, voice shaky as he reaches out and touches the feathers along Tony’s arms.

They’re hard like metal, but yielding as feathers do; still warm, but the softness forever gone.

“Rogers did this,” he hiss-growls, smaller hands unconsciously fidgeting with James’ clothes as his eyes stare at the wall. “My last revival, I came back as this thing before HYDRA found me in Human form. They knew what I was, not what I became in that bunker until…”

Tony stills.

“They knew what I was… Rhodey, they knew! One of-”

“Tones! Tony, calm down. They could have found out some-”

“They had a room, Rhodey. To keep my ashes frozen until they wanted to experiment on me again! They had data! They had-”

Arc blue eyes turn hellfire red and black.

“Romanoff,” Tony snarls with such hatred it startles James. “She did this.”

“Tony-”

“The info dump, Rhodey!”

James is not Tony levels of genius, but he didn’t graduate from MIT riding on the genius’ coattails either. A hand covers his mouth to try and keep himself from being sick. SHIELD had somehow managed to figure out what Tony was and had done research. Research his brother hadn’t known about or thought was harmless enough to let go.

“How did they find out?”

“Pepper convinced me to tell two people at SHIELD… Coulson and Fury. They swore to do nothing with the information, and I was stupid enough to believe them!”

James sighs, “There’s nothing we can do about it now, Tones.”

“Hunting them down sounds spectacular, actually. The Kitsune will make a decent throw rug at least.”

“Tones…”

“She and Rogers burned thousands and Fury let them do it, Rhodey, it wasn’t just me. Actions have consequences,” his brother snaps. “I’ve protected them from that far too many times. Not anymore. They’re going to see what happens when I cut the wire.”

“Alright, fine. But you can get your evil overlord on later after we’ve brought everyone up to speed and we’ve taken a very long nap,” James says, patting the large armored scaled chest in front of his face.

Honestly, it reminds him of his mother’s cat when he visits; always walking up his chest to rub and nibble his head while shoving a furry chest in his face.

“Fine,” Tony grumbles petulantly, resting a hand on James' shoulder and shrinks.

“Why can’t we be normal?” he sighs.

Tony shrinks himself only slightly more, grabbing the handles on the chair and pushing James toward the main doors.

“Normal is-”

“A Human construct, yea, yea. Are you gonna fit in the elevator?”

Tony says nothing, just tilts his stupid head and stares at him upside down as he continues to push James through the doors and to the elevator.

“Shut up. You’re a Dragon. An honest to god, Dragon. Why would I assume you kept your Phoenix abilities too?”

Tony snorts, turning James to face the room before backing them into the elevator FRIDAY kindly holds open for them.

“Fry, get Peter, Hill, and Pepper to Tony’s workshop. Make sure all surveillance is looped and audio cut. Tell Happy and Strange to wait until I call them in,” James tells her, stifling a giggle as Tony contorts himself into the elevator, arching over James like a giant cat while the rest of him coils over and around himself like a big snake in a small corner. “Make sure they’re Shifted when they get there.”

“Understood.”

The doors shut and James feels very claustrophobic.

“You said you would fit. Like ‘shrink down’ kind of fit.”

“Proving a point.”

“You’re a fucking asshole.”

“Love you too, Sour Patch.”

The elevator stops four floors below the shop, and both James and Tony stiffen as the doors open. Peter stands in front of the doors head bent over his phone with headphones in his ears -obviously trying to distract himself from what he saw in the containment room. The kid is pale, and his eyes are glued to the screen as he walks into the elevator. He doesn’t even notice himself stepping over Tony’s tail. Tony pulls his neck back so the kid doesn’t run into his face.

“Mr. Stark’s workshop please, FRIDAY.”

“Of course, Peter.”

The doors shut. Is Tony even breathing? One floor up and a gust of air hits Peter’s face, ruffling his hair. So no, Tony hadn’t been. Peter’s shoulders reach his ears, and his eyes snap up, going wide as he takes in Tony up close and personal.

“M-Mr.-Mr. Stark! Hi! What are you- what are you doing here? Not here, at the Compound, but here. In the elevator. Looking like that. Not that you’re a bad looking Shifter, or super scary and could eat me in two bites… Not that you- I’m going to shut up now! Really! I am, because this is so embarrassing and if Colonel Rhodes ever finds out I said any of this, he’ll never let me forget it.”

“Hey, Pete,” James says, unable to keep the smirk off his face. “And you’re right; never dropping that.”

“Holy- I mean- Colonel Rhodes! I didn’t see you there! Mr. Stark kinda… engulfs… everything. Not that-”

“It’s fine, Peter. Calm down.”

“Right. I can do that,” the teen says, taking in a deep, shaky breath and letting it out slow like James had shown him during a sensory overload.

It’s something he had to do for Tony when they were at MIT, and again when he catches his brother having a panic attack -because the little shit just wouldn’t let JARVIS tell him when the punk was having one. He doubts FRIDAY is going to be allowed to either.

“He’s- You’re not supposed to see us out of our Shifts, Mr. Stark,” Peter says, pointing at Tony like it’s his fault Peter isn’t in his Shift before the teen actually does it; clothes falling to the floor along with his phone and earplugs.

Tiny little Peter, the Squirrel Monkey, starts chattering in distress as he checks the phone over and James only rolls his eyes.

Geniuses can be stupid sometimes.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

~Oh man,~ Peter groans as he rubs his paws -hands?- over his face. ~Mr. Stark just gave me this phone six months ago.~

“It’s not broken, Peter, it’s a Stark Phone,” Colonel Rhodes says, and wow…

Mr. Stark is enormous. Maybe shifting hadn’t been such a good idea when he’s so close to Mr. Stark like this. Or perhaps it was and Mr. Stark looking like a mountain of death is making his instincts freak out since he’s tiny now. Or maybe-

“Peter! You’re fine. Just breathe.”

Peter hadn’t realized he was hyperventilating again. He puts his head between his furry knees and breathes like Colonel Rhodes showed him. There’s a gentle nudge against his body after Peter’s breathing normally again, so he looks up. He expects to see Colonel Rhodes offering a hand. Instead, his vision is taken up by a crimson and gold nose covered in something. He drags his eyes up further to meet the glowing, Arc colored ones of Mr. Stark. Mr. Stark shoves against him again, Peter’s paw-hands landing on his nose to keep from falling over. What’s he supposed to-

“You’re blocking the way, kid. Climb up, just avoid touching Rhodey’s snot. Who knows what he’s carrying.”

Hilarious, asshole.”

Oh cool, Mr. Stark must have found a way to project his thoughts through the armor, he thinks as he climbs up the colossal face to sit on top of Mr. Stark’s head where there are scales and feathers to grip.

“I think he’s in shock.”

“How would you like fang-filled jaws fourteen times your size shoved in your face?”

“Depends on-”

“No. Shut up. You’ve filled your weird limit today.”

“But Platypus-”

“No!”

He feels Mr. Stark snort before his head dips slightly. Peter can barely see his clothes and phone beyond Mr. Starks’ nose, but they disappear in the next second.

“Hold these, Rhodey Bear.”

“Why do I have to hold them?”

“I only have four hands.”

“That’s plenty.”

“No, it’s not. Two arms are for walking and two for pushing.”

“I can push myself.”

“No.”

“Tony.”

“Nope.”

“I don’t want to touch his underwear!”

“Stop making it weird, Platypus.”

“Oh my god, Tones.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“I think he’s still in shock,” Tony says as he pushes James out of the elevator into the lab.

FRIDAY has the forethought this time to delay Pepper and Hill until Tony is already in his workshop and comfortable. James had worried on the way up here that Tony would have flashbacks seeing the shop. Looking at his brother as he leaves him at a table to greet Dum-E, U, and Butterfingers with an ease he only has in his space, and he hopes that it remains Tony’s safe place. The excited screeching beeps and whirls of the bots bring a smile to his face as the boys rush their dad, bumping into his chest, poking and pinching him until he leans his head down -careful of Peter still perched there- and endures them rubbing and butting their ‘faces’ against his.

“Hey boys. Did you miss me?”

A long wailing whistle escapes Dum-E.

“Oh, Dum-E, I’m sorry, buddy. I know I said it wouldn’t happen again.”

More wailing whistles with sharper ones given by U and Butterfingers echo in the shop.

“I’ll keep that in mind next time, boys.”

The bots shriek.

“Right, no next times.”

Dum-E taps his claw against Tony’s snout like someone reprimanding a cat.

“I got it. I’m a lot harder to abduct now anyway.”

“Turning into a mythical creature that can be larger than a 747 would do that, Tones,” James drawls, examining his nails so he wouldn’t start crying as the boys continue to harass Tony for attention and affection.

“I was already a mythical creature, Platypus. Kind of what a Phoenix is.”

“Yeah, and you leveled up to another mythical creature called a Dragon. You didn’t even have the decency to become a normal Dragon. You became one of those noodly ones from Asia.”

“You say that like I had a choice,” Tony huffs, raising his head back up and curling his body around the bots. “Get over here.”

“Don’t want to interrupt the-”

“Don’t finish that sentence. Stop being stupid.”

James huffs at Tony this time and pushes himself over,” You can come down here, Peter. Get in on this love in.”

Tiny adorable Peter monkey slowly makes his way down and settles on James’ shoulder once he’s within the circle of Tony’s coils.

James waits for ten minutes until he speaks again.

“Can I call Pepper and Hill down now?”

Tony’s coils shift, his brother deliberating his answer before he replies.

“Sure, send down my Pepper Pot and Agent Riddler.”

“You know Hill hates that name,” he says, waving for FRIDAY to send them up.

“Shut up, she adores it.”

“Your funer-” he snaps his mouth shut, it’s way too soon to make dead jokes; not after spending nearly two months starting to believe it.

Tony bumps his nose against his head and says nothing, turning and laying his head on his coils after wrapping them around him and the boys, blocking James’ view of the workshop as Tones watches the elevator doors.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Pepper can’t stop wringing her hands as she and Hill ride the elevator down to Tony’s shop. She knows something happened down in the containment room -the entire Compound had felt the tremors- and she begs whatever gods are real that what Hill told her is true.

Tony’s alive, but he’s been changed during his time with HYDRA.

She can deal with change as long as he’s alive. She’d have to kill him herself otherwise. The elevator stops, but the door doesn’t open.

“Boss seems to be triggered by the Human form, and Colonel Rhodes has requested that you be shifted until Boss says it’s alright to shift back,” FRIDAY says over the intercom.

“Right,” Pepper says, taking a deep breath and shifting, Hill following her lead.

Their clothes fall in heaps on the floor, but neither pays them any mind as the doors open. The first thing Pepper sets eyes on is two glowing blue eyes set in a snake-like face. They lay on a coiled body of familiar red and gold metal. A nictitating membrane followed by eyelids dull the glow for a second before a distorted, but familiar, warbling comes from the heap, sending her heart racing.

Carefully, she yaps out the Kitsune equivalent of Tony’s name she made the genius memorize decades ago.

Two metallic clicks come from the Shifter, but they can’t be anything but the name Tony gave her after Afghanistan. She darts toward Tony, claws clicking and sliding against the floor and skidding into two large arms that lift her up to his face as she yips and wails between licks and rubs; tails flailing wildly behind her.

Oh, gods, Tony has come back to them!

When the initial shock wears off -after she’s rubbed and licked every inch of Tony’s giant face that she can reach- does anger start bubbling up.

How dare HYDRA take away Tony’s beautiful Phoenix form! She barks and snarls at the injustice of it all.

“Pep. Pep. My Pepper Pot, you’re glowing, and I can’t understand a thing you’re saying, honey.”

She startles with a yelp. She yelps again as she slips off Tony’s hands.

“Woah!” Tony’s voice says as the arms quickly catch her before she falls too far. “Fur and metal don’t mix well, Pep.”

Gently, he places her on the floor and uncoils his body, showing Rhodey in his wheelchair, the boys, and Peter monkey. He also reveals another set of arms and legs and…

Hell. She’s looking at a Dragon.

Her butt hits the floor.

“Yes. I’m very majestic. Be in awe of me,” the bastard teases.

“That is not what she is Tones,” Rhodey drawls.

“Why do you have to ruin my fun, Platypus? I’ve had very little of it recently.”

“Because Pepper can’t set you straight. The talking surprised her, you ass,” the Wyvern says with a roll of his eyes. “Think she can shift into Human form without setting you off?”

One broad shoulder shrugs, “Won’t know till we try. You surprised me, so maybe she won’t.”

“Pete walked into the elevator, and you didn’t.”

“Maybe anyone over twenty triggers me. How the hell would I know, Sour Patch?”

“You callin’ me-”

Pepper barks at them. Both of their mouths snap shut, and she can’t help the brief feeling of satisfaction that bubbles up and sends her skin tingling. It has always been a bit of a power rush when she got the two most powerful Shifters she knows to shut up. She knows they can easily ignore her, but they respect her and would never do that when it matters. It makes her feel all warm and gooey inside. Or maybe that’s Extremis?

“Right. Well?”

“I said we can try.”

Rhodey rolls his eyes -Pepper worries his eyes will roll out sometimes with how often he does it around Tony- and says, “Hill, stay Shifted, please.”

The Sphinx nods and moves away.

It’s obvious she’s more wary of Tony in this form, and maybe they should all be. But this is Tony. He’d never hurt them; not the people he cares about.

Rhodey gives her the go-ahead to shift. Pepper looks up at Tony and takes a deep breath.

She’s never had the control Tony and Rhodey have over the speed of their shifts, so one moment she’s dwarfed by her best friend, and several moments later, she’s only slightly overshadowed. She stares into Tony’s glowing Arc colored eyes and waits for him to do… something, anything. She wants to grab him and never let go, but she learned sudden movements can startle him after the battle in New York.

Slowly Tony stretches out his neck.

“Hey, Pep.”

Seconds later she’s got her hands on Tony’s snout and pulling him to her, crying on him and rubbing her face against his.

“I just got Rhodey’s snot off me!” the asshole whines.

“Six. Months,” Pepper growls. “You owe me.”

Tony grumbles but doesn’t say anything else or try to move. She doesn’t know how long Tony lasts, but sometime later, they’re leaning against each other on the floor, and he’s shifting around even if his head isn’t moving and grumbling again.

“You have so many shoes to buy me.”

“I didn’t leave on purpose! Rogers should be the one adorning your feet,” he snaps before he jerks away. “Sorry. Sorry, Pep. But he’s the one that-that-”

All four hands grip his head as he stumbles back. Dum-E, U, and Butterfingers shriek in alarm and scatter with Rhodey as his talons scrape against metal with loud screeches and his tail thrashes. Several tables clang as they’re upended, glassware shattering, and tools sailing across the room to bang against the wall.

She jumps when her best friend slams his head to the ground and roars, talons making gouges in the floor and his armored skin vibrating like sand. Her hands fly to her ears to block the horrible, painful sound as it echoes in the shop at ear-splitting levels.

It tears her heart apart.

When Tony’s tail stops thrashing around and he just lays there shivering does Rhodey and the boys approach.

“Tones, you’re safe. You’re in Upstate New York. The Avengers’ Compound. It’s three pm on Tuesday, November fifteenth, two thousand sixteen. We’re in your lab with the boys, FRIDAY, Peter, Pepper, and Hill. Breathe with me, brother,” Rhodey says to calm Tony, the genius twitching before curls around Rhodey and the boys, seeking comfort.

Rhodey repeats the information back to Tony for several minutes, rubbing his hands over Tony’s armored head before the sound of long, deep breaths echo in the shop.

Tony’s fallen asleep.

“We’ll try again later, Hill,” he says, keeping his hands moving against Tony’s head as the boys rub their claws against his side and flank. “Pep, can you get Peter home? I think we’ve all had enough excitement for today.”

Pepper wants to protest, but Rhodey knows how to deal with Tony’s PTSD better than she had ever been able to.

“I’ll be in my fur when I get back,” she says, taking the clothes Maria hands her. “You lock me out, James, and we will have words.”

He gives her a salute while she puts on the clothes. She waves to him when she’s done and heads to the elevator with Maria -who is shifted and clothed, carrying Peter on her shoulder without Pepper noticing it happen.

Once in the elevator, Pepper turns on Hill, glaring and growling.

“What the hell happened? How did he get into HYDRA’s hands, Hill?”

Maria breathes out shakily, hands gripping her arms and Peter’s clothes before she speaks.

“Rogers and Barnes went to Siberia after they escaped the airport in the QuinJet. They were following information Barnes provided Rogers after being triggered by Zemo at the Embassy. Supposedly, Zemo was going to release four other Winter Soldiers HYDRA had in cryo and use them to topple the major governments over the coming weeks.”

“Did that idiot really think only he and Barnes could take on four Winter Soldiers?”

Maria shrugs, “I don’t think Rogers had anything on his mind except protecting Barnes, even from Tony. Why that is, only Fury knows outside of Rogers, Barnes, and Tony.”

“Tony is -was- his mate. I don’t understand why Rogers wouldn’t trust him to protect Barnes.”

“Your guess is as good as mine. All I know is that something started a fight and Rogers left Tony there alone,” the Sphinx says, her voice breaking at the end.

“Maria.”

“He probably died, Pepper. Many times if he couldn’t make it back before HYDRA got him. We can only guess how many times they killed him doing their experiments.”

Distressed screeches come from Maria’s shoulder, and Pepper remembers Peter is with them.

“Oh, Peter,” Pepper coos, gently taking Peter in her hands and placing him against her chest. “He’s here now, you saw him-”

Peter pushes off her and lands on the floor, shifting into Human skin a second later.

“You don’t understand, Ms. Potts,” he says shakily, arms wrapping around his chest as he hunches over. “This is my fault. If I had wrapped them up like I was supposed to, he wouldn’t have sent me back to the hotel, and none of this would have happened.”

“Peter!” she barks at him, setting her hands firmly on his thin shoulders. “What Rogers and HYDRA did to Tony isn’t your fault. It’s theirs. Tony told me you did everything he asked, but he needed you safe from Ross and Rogers after seeing him drop a skywalk on you. That’s why he sent you back to the hotel with Happy.”

“But he-”

“No. It’s not your fault.”

The teen still looks miserable.

“Say it back to me.”

“It’s…” he swallows hard. “It’s not my fault.”

“Again. This time you mean it.”

“It’s not my fault.”

He still sounds unsure, but Pepper will take it.

“Good. Now Happy and I are going to take you home” -holding up a hand to stop his protests- “after we stop and get you something to eat. Rhodey told me you have a hyper-metabolism because of your mutation. So what do you want to eat?”

Pepper keeps him talking about everything and nothing as they leave Maria in the elevator, get in the car, and over to Peter’s preferred restaurant. She orders enough for five people and lets the poor kid eat three times his weight in food and talk until they drop him off outside his apartment.

“Tony will call you when he’s ready, Peter. Just keep up the good work.”

“Thanks, Ms. Potts.”

“See you soon.”

Soon ends up being two months, one alien-hybrid weapons dealer dressed like a high tech vulture, and the power trip or whatever Peter had been on later, Pepper wonders if Peter isn’t Tony’s illegitimate son…

“He’s giving me grey fur, Tony!”

“At least it’s not noticeable.”

“Not noticeable?!”

“Pep! He’s made me molt twice and shed three times! It’s all over the Compound, for Thor’s sake, and it gets in everything!”

Chapter Text

‘He’s a Dragon?!’

‘Нет, Кецалькоатль. Они настоящие. А драконы - нет.’ (No, Quetzalcoatl. They are real. Dragons are not.)

‘I’ve read enough legends to know what I’m talking about! He has limbs! Six of them! There’re wings! He's a fucking Dragon!’

‘...И то верно.’ (...Accurate)

The tail deposits Rhodes near Bucky, the Colonel hissing and cursing at Stark as he gets to his feet on shaky legs.

“Don’t eat him! You’ll get indigestion and shit feathers for weeks,” he yells, smacking the tail as it pulls back toward Stark -the spiked end carefully held aloft-, completely ignoring the chaos the lab had descended into when Stark shifted.

A metallic growl-hiss echoes in the lab, like a primordial horror coming to life, making everyone freeze, even the Soldier has gone still in his mind. Steve is the only one making any noise as he struggles to keep Stark’s jaws held open so the flexing, snake-like teeth don’t sink into him.

“This isn’t Tony!” Steve gasps out as Stark bears down on him, teeth fully extended as that growl-hiss escapes his throat. “What have you done with him?!”

He needs to help Steve. Stark doesn’t look like he’s going to stop until he sinks his teeth into Steve’s flesh.

‘Нет,’ the Soldier snarls, locking their body up, keeping Bucky from leaving the table.

‘But Stevie-’

“This is Tony, Rogers,” Colonel Rhodes snarls at Steve. “What did you think would happen when you left him for dead in Siberia?”

“Then HYDRA did this! They changed him-”

Everyone startles when two arms, hidden by Stark’s front limb wings, reach out, grabbing Steve’s and wrenching them away from his jaws with ease. They snap shut in his face with a loud clang as Stark lifts Steve into the air by his arms. His black and red slit eyes never waver from Steve as they stare his Griffin brother down.

“You don’t get to blame your betrayal on them,” Stark snarls, the feathers flowing down his back from head to haunches flaring in his rage. “This is because of you. My wings are gone because of you!”

Holy fuck, he can talk

Stark drops him, ignoring the pained yelp Steve lets out when he lands on his back and paces circles around Stevie like a freaky feathered, leather-winged, viper-tiger combination.

“You killed me forty-three times in Siberia before I was reborn as this,” Stark hisses, his tail twitching constantly, and his smaller arms gesticulating wildly as he paces around Steve, claws clicking against the floor like a threat.

He stops, turning his long, crimson and gold, metal-plated, feather strewn neck, and stares Bucky down with those hellfire eyes.

“For him,” he growls, sending goosebumps and chills down his spine and across every inch of his skin.

The Soldier shifts further down the table. Everything in both of them feeling hunted; prey caught in the larger predator’s sight.

“Bucky, run!” Steve yells just before he shreds through his clothes as he shifts, lunging at Stark with a screeching roar.

Stark’s rears up with serpentine grace, large arms knocking Steve away as the smaller ones raise higher, protecting his chest as he hisses at his brother. Steve careens to the floor on his side, wings tucked close as he rolls, but he’s quickly back on his feet with a roar and pounces at Stark.

“Stupid bird can’t think when you’re here,” Rhodes hisses -Wyvern growls lacing the noise- as he backs away. “Move it, Barnes, unless you want to end up in the middle of them.”

The Soldier shoves him down enough to get off the table and follow Rhodes, leaving Bucky with enough control to turn his head to watch what’s going on, before locking them down again.

‘Steve’s gonna need my help!’

‘В прошлый раз преимущество было на нашей стороне. На этот раз - нет.’ (We had the advantage last time. We do not now.)

Bucky struggles against the Soldier as he looks at the fight, watching as Steve maneuvers them to put himself between him and Stark, screeching and cawing at the Dragon as he swipes at his metal-covered legs, flaring his wings in an aggressive display of white and blue feathers, and stupidly leaving his rosy chest wide open. Stark doesn’t move, doesn’t take the obvious weak point as he holds his small arms tight to his chest, long, eagle-like talons facing out in threat, as the leather wings remain tight against his sides and head held high regardless of Steve’s size. Stark doesn't seem to care that it only puts him slightly taller than Steve. He’s staring over Steve right at him, ignoring -or in spite of- his brother’s warning cries and unmoved. He feels it would be something Stark would be petty enough to do.

He can guess why the punk had mated Stark when he’s as fierce as Peggy had been. Probably more fierce… definitely more dangerous. Despite his hitching breaths and dry mouth, Bucky swallows down his fear and the fluttering arousal rising up from the Soldier. He’d rather not have to explain the scent if Stark’s nose has improved with his new form.

Talons scraping metal makes Bucky flinch, and Stark lets out that horrible, primal roar as he enlarges. The scientists and guards too close to the Shifter scramble back, some of them even shifting in fearful confusion. But Stark only has eyes on Steve now -and Bucky breathes easier despite the chaos.

Stark dwarfs Steve. His head is the size of Steve’s human form and a half, and his teeth are about the length of half an arm when fully extended. Steve takes to the limited air space with a squawk, his spotted, white fur bristling in surprise, but stupidly flies close to Stark’s face as he screeches and pecks at Stark’s snout with his pointed beak. The Dragon Shifter hisses a warning, long forked tongue lashing the air, but of course, Steve doesn’t listen. Instead, Steve ‘fight me’ Rogers ups his attack and lands a hit.

Stark’s snake jaws snap open wide like an eldritch nightmare made of teeth. Bucky watches in horrified fascination as a fucking repulsor builds itself at the back of his mouth in seconds, letting out a flash of light and a sonic blast in quick succession. Steve’s bulk blocks most of the flare from blinding him and Rhodes, but his ears are ringing like he’s been next to an explosion.

Bucky only just sees Stark’s long tail slip between his limbs and reach up, grabbing Steve’s back legs and yanking him down. Steve lands on his back and wings in a way that looks painful. Stark moves as quick as a viper; his front limbs stand on Steve’s despite his thrashing and screeching. The leather-winged arms hold down Steve’s on his wings as Stark’s tail keeps his brothers’ back legs wrapped tight. His smaller arms are the ones Bucky feels his heart rate pick up for when they move. The left taloned hand wraps around Steve’s neck. The right Stark places on Steve’s chest.

He leans forward, talons unsheathing further from the tips of his fingers and feet like cat claws, digging into Steve as his weight keeps his brother helplessly pinned.

Bucky’s hearing comes back to Steve’s choked off screeches.

The King roars something, and the guards brandish their spears and move to surround Stark and Steve.

“He’s not attacking your people!” Rhodes roars right back at the King -and Bucky is afraid he’s going to Shift to defend his Wyer brother. “This is between Tony and-”

He doesn’t get to finish when two of the guard charge. They come to a skidding halt when Stark’s skin starts to shift. The armor glides away from his haunches, neck, and face; a sub-audible sound of metal clinking against metal reaching Bucky’s still aching, sensitive ears, revealing dark, patterned scales, as goddamn turrets form along Stark’s back. They whine like charging repulsors as they point at the Dora. They prepare to attack regardless when the glow of their spears go out and the lights in the lab flicker.

They cut off moments later. For a few seconds, Bucky can see that Stark’s entire body is glowing with heat and crackling with electricity before it’s gone and the lights come on, blinding him for a moment. His sight comes back quickly, and he sees the Dora spears stayed dead.

The turrets deconstruct; the armor -or whatever the hell is it- sliding back into its original place as Stark moves off Steve.

Steve… Stevie isn’t moving. He’s not moving!

“Did you kill him?” he manages to choke out, using his fear and grief to wrestle the Soldier down enough to speak and ignoring the bastard’s adamant protest that Stark wouldn’t kill Stevie.

Doesn’t stop him from needing to confirm it. He doesn’t know Stark from Adam despite what the Soldier thinks.

Stark doesn’t look at him as he approaches Rhodes -talons clicking on the tiled floor, leather wings ruffling with each step-, ignoring everyone but the Wyvern as he shrinks to roughly the size he had been before Steve attacked him. He starts fussing over Rhodes with his smaller arms, nosing at the Colonel’s head gently despite the demands for his attention from the King and Bucky.

Bucky snatches back control of his body and moves to grab an arm, shouting, “Did you ki-”

Stark shoves his giant red and gold, metal-covered face into his, Bucky stumbling back in surprise as the Shifter snarls, his smaller arms twitching like he wants to grab Bucky and shake -or dig his talons into.

“I’m well within my rights to, Barnes. But I didn’t. He’s not worth the blood in his veins for death, nor am I a murderer. Your Captain will be fine. I broke some bones and put a few holes in him, but he’s had far worse; he’s done far worse.”

Stark removes his face and shifts down, and Bucky freezes at the sight of an Arc Reactor glowing brightly from his bare chest. It looks like it’s part of him instead of the unwilling addition the Soldier read about him getting in Afghanistan and removing after dealing with the Mandarin threat.

Stark must see where his gaze falls, and a low, rumbling hiss vibrates in the Dragon’s throat.

“Courtesy of your Captain,” he sneers, waving at the Arc before rolling his shoulders, irreverent of his nudity like most Shifters, and looking at the Colonel. “I think we’re done here, Rhodey. Guess I owe you the Bugatti. By the way, how did that com work out when-”

“You're not going anywhere!” King T’Challa snaps, having gone to aid Steve beside the scientists when Stark had admitted to harming his brother and is now storming over to them.

“Aren’t we?” Stark turns and mocks the King, and Bucky is sure his gaze is as hellish as it had been while looking at Steve, causing the King to halt.

“Shuri, lock it down.”

“Brother-”

“Do it!”

Bucky can see she doesn’t agree with the King’s orders but does as he commands, doing something with her beads.

“It’s done,” she growls, crossing her arms and falling into a nearby chair, turning it to avoid looking at her brother.

Stark’s skin ripples -something he’s positive skin isn’t supposed to do- and the Soldier is smart enough to move them away.

(1)Зачем ты испортил миссию?’ he snarls at Bucky. ‘(2)Мы бы хотя бы избавились от триггеров.’ ((1)Why did you ruin the mission? (2)We would have been rid of the triggers if nothing else.)

‘He hurt Steve!’

‘Твой Гриффин убил его самца. А что остановит эту птицу от того, чтобы она не сделала того же с нами, если достаточно на нас рассердится? Мы не то, что ей нужно.’ (The Griffin killed its own mate. What will keep the bird from doing the same to us if we upset it enough? We aren’t what it wants.)

‘Shut up. He’s my friend; my brother!’

The Soldier projects a sneer his way, clearly not believing him.

Maybe he didn’t fully believe it anymore, either…

“Tones,” Rhodes says softly, placing a hand on the Dragon’s shoulder, and Stark doesn’t seem to relax, his skin is still rippling like a threat.

Bucky feels the Soldier relax only when those ripples become the suit of red sin Stark had arrived in over his skin.

‘Ловко.’ (Convenient)

‘Shut up.’

‘Нет, ты замолчи. Ты уже достаточно наговорил.’ (No, you be silent. You’ve said enough.)

‘I can’t just-’

“As I said, Platypus and I are leaving,” Stark says, jolting him out of his argument with the Soldier as he loops his arm through Rhodes’ and heads to the doors at a stroll.

“You’re not-”

“And what crime have we committed on your soil, your Highness, that you have the right to keep foreign dignitaries here?”

“You attacked someone under my protection!”

They stop, and Stark turns his head to Rhodes, “Is that what happened Sour Patch? I remember ‘someone under his protection’ assaulting you and then attacking me after I let them go.”

“Sounds about right,” Rhodes drawls, patting the hand draped over his arm.

“Not to mention, we were asked here under -what appears to be- false pretenses. I mean, even the U.N. thinks we were publicly invited here so we can collaborate; make the world a better place by working together. What is the world going to think when we don’t show up to that meeting in Vienna in,” -Stark looks down at a watch that hadn’t been there seconds ago- “three hours?”

“Since it’s going to be live-streamed, everyone’s gonna wonder what happened to us. The U.N. will definitely send out someone to investigate after they’ve called Pepper and she tells them she hasn’t seen us,” Rhodes muses this time. “It’s going to be a political nightmare if they call up the King and he claims we’ve left when it was established we’ll be returning together. Shit will hit the fan if he doesn’t show up to the meeting either.”

“Oh! He’ll have to somehow explain that too. Wonder how he’ll do that?”

“He’d have to lie since he doesn’t have a lot of international support right now. It would have to be convincing. Really convincing since we’re the face of the Avengers now.”

“Excuse you, I was always the face of the Avengers. These leeches didn’t want to bother,” Stark huffs at his brother. “Anyway, that’s exactly what he’d have to do. It’d probably work if we weren’t, you know, us. Kidnapping is a crime, King Kitty, and your country would be on everyone’s shit list when we get out. But, I’m sure that’s not what he’s doing. Not when there’s video evidence that puts the war criminal, Steve Rogers, in Wakanda at the same time as our disappearance. It’s also on record that King Kitty is protecting him. One guess as to what everyone assumes once that gets out.”

Stark’s tone is chastising, and Bucky can see it rankles the Panther King like a flea he can’t scratch.

“Oh, but that’s on their servers.”

“It’s like you don’t even know me anymore, Sour Patch! I have my own copy, and baby girl is ready and willing to send it out to all relevant parties, of course.”

“Of course.”

The Wyvern and the Dragon turn at the same time to stare at the King with Shifter eyes.

Bucky is appalled that the Soldier finds any of this amusing. He doesn’t know what to think of the Princess snickering from her chair.

“Are you threatening me?” T’Challa snarls, his Dora forming ranks behind him except for his General, who stays to the side beside Shuri, observing.

Rhodes looks at Stark, “Did we threaten him? I don’t remember doing that.”

“I don’t think we did. I think we just stated hard facts and Garfield didn’t like that,” Stark drawls this time.

The whole conversation eerily reminds Bucky of the one they had at the airport when they found him, Stevie, and Stevie’s followers. There was a lot less ‘predators about to eat your face’ in that conversation than this one.

“So we’ll see you at the meeting, King T’Challa,” Rhodes says, taking Stark’s arm this time and turning them back to the door.

Bucky watches the King’s temper flare enough he almost shifts, but his General clearing her throat manages to reign it in.

“Shuri, let them out,” the King hisses more beast than man.

The Princess is grinning too broad and, honest to God, she probably enjoyed Stark’s and Rhodes’ display even more than the Soldier.

‘Мы поимели удовольствие тогда, так же как мы поимели удовольствие сейчас. Не лги нам.’ (We enjoyed it then, as we enjoyed it now. Do not lie to us.)

‘Shut up!’

Only when Stark and Rhodes have left the lab, do the scientists speak anything other than Wakandan.

“My King, what Dr. Stark said is true. Rogers arms, legs, and wings all have clean breaks. It is his ribcage that is the most concerning,” one of them -a stern-looking woman- says.

The King turns back to his subjects, but the Soldier and Bucky can see the restrained violence in his body language.

“What do you mean?” he all but snarls.

The scientist doesn’t cower under his anger, looking directly at her King as she speaks calmly, “His ribs and sternum are cracked in a nearly perfect circle, and his flesh is burnt in the shape of Dr. Stark’s repulsors, but it isn’t healing like the punctures and bones are. None of our creams are healing it either. Regardless, he needs to be restrained until his body had healed his ribs. The burn we will need to keep under observation, possibly run some tests for chemicals that would keep Rogers advanced healing from work-”

“Tests will not be necessary, Ki’llana. Our King and I know what is causing this,” General Okoye says as she approaches them, looking down at Steve with something like distaste before meeting her King’s gaze. “Phoenix fire burns will not heal until he has repented.”

The scientist burst out into various forms of exclamation.

“Wait, Phoenix fire?” Shuri exclaims as she rushes over to observe the burn. “That’s not-”

Bucky doesn’t hear the rest of the conversation as, in his distraction, the Soldier takes over his body again and moves them slowly, quietly towards the door while all the attention is on Stevie.

‘What the hell are you doing?!’

‘Завершаю миссию.’ (Completing the mission.)

‘You saw what Phoenix fire can do!’ he yells, fighting against the Soldier’s hold. ‘It’s going to kill Steve like that HYDRA agent! He lied to us!’

‘Нет. Ожог залечится только в том случае, если Дракон этого захочет, но Гриффин не умрет. Это урок. Возмездие. Оно было милосердным,’ the Soldier says dispassionately. ‘Мы бы оставили после себя сломанное тело, которое никто бы не нашел.’ (No. The burn won't heal unless the Dragon wills it, but the Griffin won't die. It's a lesson. Retribution. It has been merciful. We would have left a broken body no one would find.)

They are in the hall moments later, and the Soldier follows their nose to track down Stark and Rhodes. When they reach them, the Soldier viciously pushes him down despite Bucky struggling to take back control.

The last thing Bucky sees before everything goes black is Stark turning around.

His eyes blazing Arc Reactor blue.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Soldat must rectify the Hatchling’s and his Other’s mistakes. They won’t tolerate the loss of the best Handler available. Soldat sprints toward the Shifters as he shoves his Other down. When they catch up to them, the Wyvern’s eyes flash, and it growls when it notices the Dragon no longer beside it and turns at the sound of their deliberate footsteps. The Dragon only raises a brow, eyes still glowing like its Arc Reactor. Soldat slows when it seems they will not walk away -the Wyvern walking back to stand beside its wyer sibling, the scent of it coming off them too strongly for their relationship to be anything else-, and walks over to the Dragon with purpose.

“Nice murder strut, Bar-”

Soldat kneels at its’ feet, hands behind their back, head bowed and neck bared. They show their Handler far more respect than any before it, trying to convey the trust they feel they can give the Dragon.

“Готов подчиняться.” (Ready to comply.)

Still, Soldat doesn’t dare look to see their Handler’s reaction to their quick submission before they are given permission, no matter how much they trust it. HYDRA taught them that. It always made their former Handlers less prone to putting them into the chair when they avoided eye contact.

“You’re not Barnes. Not in the mental facilities anyway,” the Dragon muses, and Soldat isn’t sure if it’s a question or an observation.

“Het, Soldat,” they say in case their Handler wants an answer.

“Tones,” the Wyvern says, the underlying hiss in its voice warning the Dragon -of what, Soldat isn’t sure.

Of them?

They risk being caught looking up and see the Wyvern glowering down at them. Soldat immediately drops their eyes. They have to show the Wyvern they mean the Dragon no harm, or it may convince their Handler not to take them.

“What’s up, Sour Patch?’

“We’ve got enough trouble without adding Barnes and… his Mr. Hyde to the list,” the Wyvern rumbles.

“I haven’t even done anything. Why are you assuming these things, honey-bear?”

“Because I know you and your penchant for strays.”

“... Touché.”

“Каков приказ нашего Куратора?” Soldat hazards interrupting them but never look up from where they’re staring at the Dragon’s shiny false shoes. (What are our Handler’s orders?)

Did the shoes just wave at them? Can footwear do that now?

“What the hell is he saying, Tones?”

“He’s asking you for orders.”

“нет.”

“He’s not asking you for orders?”

“Крылатый дракон - не наш куратор,” Soldat stresses through the trembling that starts up in their limbs. (The Wyvern is not our Handler.)

They had spoken out of turn twice now. Punishment is sure to come. Maybe if they bare their throat more…

“Rhodey isn’t… then who-”

Neither Shifter speaks for some time, but Soldat isn’t going to look or talk again. Soldat decides to bare his neck even more.

Both Shifters take in a sharp breath. They must know what it means to wolves.

“Tony,” the Wyvern breathes out, his tones exasperated and resigned.

Soldat starts to feel hope, but it’s nearly crushed as their Handler says, just as exasperated, “I’m not going to do anything unless Barnes in on board, Platypus. It’s one of the reasons we even came to Wakanda. Since collaboration seems to be a burning bridge, I’d rather coming here not be a complete waste of our time.”

A tanned, calloused hand waves in front of their face. Cautiously, Soldat raises their head and meets their Handler’s honey brown eyes.

“So here’s the deal, Red October. You, but more probably, Barnes asked me here to try and get Rogers and me to-”

(1)Нет! Мы не солгали. Эта чертовка-лисица наверно помогла Птенцу после того, как нашла здесь нашего куратора,” Soldat barks, desperate to convince their Handler they had no part in the Griffin’s arrival. “(2)Мы просто хотим избавиться от наших триггеров.” ((1)No! We didn't lie. The fox must have helped the Hatchling after it found our Handler here. (2) We just want to be free of our triggers.)

“Can you not translate while he talks so I can be a part of this conversation?” the Wyvern grumbles.

“Yeah, sorry. Friday, honey, Translate for Uncle Platypus for me, please.”

“On it, Boss,” comes the Dragon’s AI daughter’s voice from the ceiling speakers.

“Uncle Rhodey, for god’s sake, Tones.”

Soldat doesn’t hear her voice again, but she must be speaking to the Wyvern, for a few moments later, the Shifter continues speaking, “Can’t say he’s lying. I smelled the vixen too.”

“She was posing as one of the Dora at the door when we walked in,” their Handler says flippantly as if the information was old news.

“Oh, really? I’m sure I’d have noticed a Lightning Fox right in front of my face, Tones,” the Wyvern growls. “How do you-”

“Perk, I guess? Clocked in on her as we approached. She had an afterimage around her, so she was probably using a strong illusion.”

“So you see through fox magic now.”

“Seems like? Wonder if it works on all magic… Think Merlin will-”

“Not the time, Tones.”

“Right,” the Dragon says, opening its mouth to say something else, but clicking it shut seconds later.

Its’ eyes are drawn to a hallway on the left they had passed before Soldat had found them.

“Speaking of vixen,” their Handler mumbles before its’ eyes settle on them again. “We’re going to have to walk and talk Terminator. Up on your feet. Follow me.”

Their Handler doesn’t wait for them to obey, just turns and walks, arm linking with the Wyvern’s, expecting them to follow.

Soldat doesn’t hesitate.

They follow; it is what they do.

But now, they follow because they want to.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

T’Challa follows Ki’llana as the medics push Rogers to the medical room, silently fuming at Stark’s and Rhodes’ audacity to defy him in his own country. So deep in his thoughts, he jumps when someone speaks.

“You know, I vividly remember passing on Bast’s message to you. What was it? ‘Stay on the red-serpents’ good side’?” M’Baku drawls, easily keeping pace with T’Challa.

“And I remember asking why I should believe Bast would speak to one of Hanuman’s tribe and not her own,” T’Challa says tightly. “You didn’t give me an answer.”

He’s being tested, M’Baku never passes up the opportunity to do it.

“I did. You didn’t listen. No one was listening. Too busy with the usurper to pay her voice any mind, and you too busy speaking with your father when she had you on their plane.”

“Get to the point, M’Baku!”

“Hanuman left me the same message. I plan to honor his wish. But, I wonder, what will Bast do to you if you continue ignoring her will?”

M’Baku stops, T’Challa stopping on instinct as the medics and Ki’llana -who stops only momentarily to meet his eyes before leaving him behind- continue on.

“We do not need to ‘make nice’ with someone like him, M’Baku. He already threatened Wakanda.”

“Did he now? From what I saw, you threatened him and his first. He struck back, ripping apart your barely thought out plan, walking away unscathed and with leverage. You played a dangerous game with a predator who outclasses. You were lucky he was lenient.”

“We still don’t need him,” he snarls, the memory of those abyssal eyes staring into his soul making his hackles rise.

“Even if it means Wakanda’s integration into the world is easier?”

“What do you mean?”

“The Dragon would be a useful ally. Your pet colonizer only has so much sway in the politics of the world. He doesn’t have much to protect Wakanda’s interests with either. Dragons are myth for a reason, or have you forgotten the stories our tribes tell of them? How they can bring prosperity or ruin to the tribe?”

“I have no time for-”

“Do you remember,” M’Baku barks at him.

“Yes,” he sneers at the Ape Shifter.

“Then I will make reparations on your behalf when I do as Hanuman asked,” M’Baku demands. “I doubt another Panther will be a welcome sight.”

“Watch your tongue,” T’Challa snaps, stepping close to M’Baku in challenge.

His instincts, his anger are bubbling under his skin. Even if M'Baku isn't threatening to take control of the throne, his instincts take his words as such.

M’Baku doesn’t falter or step back, holding his gaze and looking mostly unimpressed. It only makes T’Challa’s anger rise.

“No wonder the Dragon was quick to leave. He has no time to wait for cubs to fill their skins.”

“T’Challa!” Okoye snaps at him before he lunges at the Ape’s throat. “You are better than this, and Princess Shuri, stop recording for your memes!”

His sister huffs but moves her hands behind her back when he stares at her.

“M’Baku has a point, much as I dislike admitting it,” his General continues, holding up her hand when he tries to interject as she glances at the Ape with mild disdain. “We have only recently recovered from our ordeal with N’Jadaka, and your instincts have yet to settle. Seeing Dr. Stark shift into that did not help any of us settle, especially with Shuri in the room. But he is now the Avengers liaison to the U.N., which makes M’Baku our best choice after you threatened to detain him barely three months after he escaped HYDRA. Rogers and the Rogue Avengers being here, and showing that we have no control over them, didn’t endear us to him either.”

T’Challa takes a deep breath to try and calm his mind. He inhales several more as one doesn’t help. When he feels settled enough, does he speak again.

“And if he fails? Is Dr. Stark someone we should continue to court to our side?”

Okoye takes a moment to weigh the advantages and disadvantages -something he profoundly appreciates in his General and friend- before she answers.

“Yes, and if M’Baku fails, you send Shuri.”

“What?!”

“Really?!”

“Dr. Stark has shown restraint in a hostile situation and was aware enough to avoid knocking anyone over or aiming his weapons at you or Shuri. He only reacted when Rogers put his hands on the Colonel and attacked his chest,” Okoye continues firmly. “It can be argued -with Rogers admitting to attacking Dr. Stark and leaving him behind, which resulted in his many deaths and subsequent captivity with HYDRA- that he was reacting out of anger and fear-”

“That is why-” T’Challa again tries to speak, but Okoye is relentless.

But it does not consume him! Rogers was his only target and the only one he injured. Even then, the soldier was only incapacitated. Dr. Stark had the perfect opportunity to kill him if he wished to.”

But he didn’t, remain unsaid, and it lingers in the air.

Stark could have killed them all, and they wouldn’t have been able to stop him.

Death wouldn’t stop him.

He swallows and takes several deep breaths, M’Baku looking at him impatiently and Shuri and Okoye with concern.

“As always, Okoye, your council is sound. Very well. If M’Baku fails to sway Dr. Stark to our side, I will send Shuri. If she cannot, I will make one last overture, and if he continues to refuse, we will respect his wishes.”

“I say his first refusal should be honored. Let him come to us if he chooses,” M’Baku says tightly. “The Dragon has been through months of torture. Ignoring his choice won’t convince him to help Wakanda.”

“Are you being lenient on a colonizer, M’Baku?”

We read the horrors the White Wolf has gone through at HYDRA’s hands. Do you think they would have been lenient to the Dragon? I say they would have done worse to someone like him to keep him in line. If what I hear is true about what he did when he escaped, what do you think will happen to anyone else who tries?”

T’Challa flinches, backing away from M’Baku at the implications. The Ape has a point, and Stark has a history of vengeance in some form when others try to force their will upon him.

“Then make your case to him and extend o-my apologies. Make sure he knows that we are open to actual collaboration without interference from Rogers and his group on neutral ground. His territory, or, if he prefers, here in Wakanda where the Rouge Avengers will have no access, are acceptable options.”

He glances at his sister for a moment, seeing her pout, but conscious enough now of the situation to not insist they send her to try and persuade Stark. His instincts still roar at him for what he is about to suggest, but he can not deny his sister this chance to see the world like their father could not when T’Challa was her age.

“I would also request you ask Dr. Stark if he would be amenable to hosting Shuri for a time as part of any collaborations and as a show of good faith.”

Shuri’s squeal of delight nearly deafens him as she almost knocks him over in her excitement.

“You won’t regret this, brother!”

“I’m sure I will, but you’re the one who has to convince mother.”

“What?!”

“Bast’s luck to you, Shuri,” he says, nodding to M’Baku as he resumes down the hall to medical, ignoring his sister’s sputtering and hissing as he motions for Okoye to follow him.

He stops at the double doors when a thought occurs to him.

“Okoye, where is Sergeant Barnes?”

Her eyes narrow, “I do not know. The Wolf was in the lab last I saw him.”

“Maybe he passed us on his way to medical, and we didn’t notice.”

“I would have noticed.”

“He’s an assassin, Okoye. One of the best, despite where his skills originated. He could slip by us unnoticed if he wanted.”

T’Challa ignores her warning rumbles with as grin as they enter the medical area, his dark eyes taking in the nurses trying to keep Rogers in his bed with restraints.

“Your bones aren’t fully healed!” Ki’llana snarls at the soldier. “The more you struggle, the longer it will take for you to go after Mr. Barnes.”

“Sergeant Barnes isn’t here?” Okoye asks, her voice thick with apprehension.

“No, nor has he been. Now stay still, or I will administer enough sedative to put you out for several hours, Mr. Rogers!” she snaps again at Rogers as he growls at her and tries harder to escape.

“Tony’s got him!” Rogers yells hoarsely. “Or… or Bucky went after him for doing this. He was always-”

T’Challa ignores everything else Rogers says as he looks at Okoye.

“Find Sergeant Barnes, please, and bring him here if Dr. Stark hasn’t whisked him away.”

“Yes, my King.”

As she leaves, T’Challa takes a deep breath and prays to Bast for patience and forgiveness.

It has been running extremely low since he decided to allow Rogers and his followers to reside here.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Okoye begins her search back at the lab, asking the still shaken scientists if they had seen the White Wolf leave. Only one of them is any help. She quickly makes her way down the hall Dr. Stark and Colonel Rhodes took when they left. Sergeant Barnes apparently followed them during the commotion while Rogers was getting prepared and ready to move to medical. For what purpose, the scientist had been unable to answer.

Neither could Okoye. She, like many others, didn’t understand Sergeant Barnes insistence on using Dr. Stark’s technology over the Princess’. It didn’t make any sense if the Shifter wanted a fresh start.

But maybe he didn’t…

There was a moderate chance Princess Shuri’s method would erase some things Sergeant Barnes wants to remember during his time under HYDRA.

She’ll never understand colonizers.

Okoye comes to a halt when she hears someone speaking rapidly, but as quietly as they can around the corner.

“I don’t know what happened, Sam. All I know is that Steve barged in despite my warnings and he comes out twenty minutes later on a stretcher, calling out for Barnes after Tony and James left.”

The Widow. So that’s how Rogers knew of this meeting between Dr. Stark and Sergeant Barnes. Her King is not going to be pleased with this. Worse still, she is furious with herself and her training of the Doras. Was it not enough that they missed the Widow, who probably hid behind her illusions to have a chance to inform Rogers?

What else had she learned while she’s been here? What of the Witch?

A touch to her beads and the signal goes out. Apprehend target at her position.

Barnes will have to wait.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Bucky wasn’t expecting to be back in control of his body. In fact, he’d been resigned to the Soldier never letting him out again once he had what he wants.

What the Soldier wants is Stark. Judging by the Shifter sprawled in one of the seats in front of him on a jet -Colonel Rhodes almost glued to his side with Stark’s arm thrown over his shoulders- the Soldier has succeeded.

So why is he back in the driver’s seat?

“I’ve got to say, watching the switch between you two is almost as fascinating as watching Brucie Bear and Hulk argue with each other over which flavor tea is the best,” Stark says, head tilted and eyes vaguely focused on him, like a predator deciding if it’s hungry, through his red-tinted sunglasses. “Almost.”

A not entirely unpleasant shiver runs down his spine. He’s said it before, but he obviously needs to remind himself that there’s a reason HYDRA considered Stark a threat.

Now, he’s the ultimate predator with no shits to give for how anyone feels about it. He proved that with T’Challa, and God help anyone he doesn’t like when he’s bored…

“And I’ve gotta say, it’s ten levels of creepy coming back to see you starin’ at me like a snack ya haven’t eaten yet,” he says as calmly as possible; still too keyed up from seeing Stevie laying on the ground barely breathing and the cause of that sitting in front of him like it’s just another day at the office.

He knows he and the Soldier are out of their weight class now that Stark has… evolved. Steve’s the most tenacious shifter he’s ever known, and Stark took him down quickly and let him off easy -he had time to reflect on the fight between his brother and his former mate while suppressed by the Soldier, and he can at least recognize that even if it sends his hackles bristling to remember how silent and still Steve had been with the burn un-healing on his chest.

“Sassy,” Stark smirks. “But you can’t really blame me. You’re something to look at. ‘Sides, my Honey Bear is staring too.”

“I’d rather be killed than eaten, thanks.”

Stark huffs in amusement -which is good, he’s less likely to repulsor and/or eat his face off if he’s entertained- as Rhodes groans long and loud.

“That’s not why we brought him here, Tones.”

“You are absolutely right, Rhodey-Bear. So, Barnes, did Red October fill you in before throwing you into the driver’s seat?”

“Not a word,” Bucky says calmly, shrugging his good shoulder. “He only does if he thinks I won’t ruin anything.”

“Well, that’s-”

“We told your Mr. Hyde that the onlyway we’re helping you with the BARF tech is if you were also on board with that plan. We’d have to take you out of Wakanda since it’s proprietary tech and King T’Challa is on our shit list right now,” Rhodes interjects before Stark can get going again.

“The Soldier listened?”

“When Tony said it was ‘his way or scram’, yea.”

“Bet he didn’t like that,” Bucky muses, poking at the muted presence of the Soldier.

“If he didn’t, he said nothing to argue about it. Seemed more terrified of pissing Tones off than trying to force the issue,” Rhodes says with a casually forced shrug.

Bucky considers that for a moment before he nods his head.

“He sees Stark as his new Handler. One he chose, and he’s been riding my ass ‘bout ruining that for him since the lab.”

Rhodes raises a brow at him as Stark cracks his neck and yawns long and wide. Bucky’s hackles rise this time. Is this, the Soldier wanting this ass as his Handler not something of interest? Anyone would kill to have them under their thumb, and the Soldier chose Stark. The least he could do was show some concern, curiosity, something.

“How is this my problem? Sounds personal,” Stark drawls.

“I’m too dangerous while the triggers are still in my head with the Soldier in here too,” Bucky growls, fingers curling around the edge of the seat. “You said you were going to help me.”

Rhodes narrows his eyes at him and tenses under Stark’s arm, obviously ready to do something if Bucky loses his cool.

“With the triggers, yes. Never said I was going to take you and Frosty in from the cold once the triggers are gone,” Stark says, his tone thick with boredom and his eyes wandering away from Bucky. “Baghera’s palace is the most secure place for you to be outside of the Compound. I think you’ll be fine once they’re scrubbed out.”

It makes his stomach clench as fear licks at his mind, both from the Solder and himself. The Soldier’s presence burns like frozen metal as the bastard insists he -they- have information and skills that can be useful to Stark if he agrees to take them in more permanently. The Soldier even lists them.

“The Soldier insists he-” -Bucky flinches as the Soldier metaphorically snaps his fangs in his face- “we’d be useful to you.”

“How?”

Honeyed eyes lazily roll his way from over his sunglasses, the air of disinterest doesn’t leave the air or Stark’s convoluted scent.

“Information-”

“My girl, Friday, is unparalleled in getting any information I want.”

“You flatter me, Boss.”

Skills. We have the expertise you need-”

“I don’t need your expertise, Barnes,” Starks rumbles in warning, his eyes flashing hellfire before returning to disinterested honeyed brown.

Bucky’s heart starts racing. Despite how much shit he gave the Soldier about this, they need Stark and his tech. He clenches his teeth as he preps himself to remind Stark of what the Soldier had done while under HYDRA.

“He killed your parents and wants to repent. He’ll listen-”

“As enticing as that might be, I have no interest in indentured servitude. Rogers will also make a bigger mess than I already have to deal with if you don’t return to Wakanda. Why would I want to add that onto my extensive laundry list of things to take care of?”

“I-”

“Frankly, you’re more trouble than you’re worth to me.”

“I- We-”

“And why would you even want to stay with us? Rogers-”

“We don’t feel safe here!” Bucky finally snaps, breathing heavily as the truth pierces through him like a bullet through his heart. “We’re terrified that…”

They need to get out of Wakanda. Stevie doesn’t- There’s - They can’t-

“Oh?”

A hand lazily takes the sunglasses off his face, and he twirls them between two fingers as the bored air around the genius clears, perfuming the jet with intense curiosity, and his eyes actually focus on him for the first time since this whole conversation started.

It almost makes Bucky dizzy.

Bucky swallows hard, his hand shaking as his and the Soldier’s thoughts race as they try and order them into some sense. He barely registers the trembling digits tapping out a rhythm on the seat arm.

“Stevie… he can’t…”

His heart twists as he tries to get out the rest of the thought, but he doesn’t want to accept it despite knowing the truth; seeing it every time Steve interacted with him.

He can’t finish the sentence, the thought because it burns like a betrayal.

“The Witch, she can… she’s probably messed with my head. I’ve lost time even the Soldier can’t recall. If she can-” he says shakily instead, running his quivering hand through his long hair.

It’s soothing in a half-remembered way, even if it doesn’t really help right now.

“Now those,” Stark says when he doesn’t continue immediately, shifting in his seat to lean on his knees at the elbows, sunglasses dangling between his legs from his fingers. “are reasons I can accept.”

What?

“I know what it’s like to have your head toyed with,” Stark says with a small shrug, eyes full of understanding. “Rogers’ pig-headed stubbornness isn’t anything new to me either. If you and Elsa need to get away from that to heal, to feel safe, then I’ll help you until your ready to ‘leave the nest’ as they say.”

Bucky can’t help but feel like he’s been smacked with a truck at the sudden turn of tone in the conversation.

“Really,” he manages to choke out. “Just like that? Were you already going to do this? After giving me so much shit-”

“I needed to know I wasn’t inviting a spy for Rogers into the fold, Barnes.”

Stark stares at him for a moment before a wide feral grin spreads across his face as he leans back and puts his sunglasses back on, a flash of dark scales across a well-defined cheekbone sending Bucky’s heart aflutter as the Soldier shivers in anticipation.

“I’m also a petty bastard. Getting you pardoned while Rogers and his misfits have to suffer under Garfield’s tender mercy gets my scales and plumage all aquiver.”

Hellfire eyes bore into his from behind the sunglasses.

Bucky laughs like he hasn’t since the day before he was drafted.