“Fucking Hydra? Again?” Tony asked. From above, the seething mass of black-clad figures on the ground closely resembled ants escaping an ant hill, the armored goons rushing everywhere with no rhyme or reason that he could discern.
He did a quick eye-roll behind the cover of his mask. Fucking Hydra.
What was everyone's least-favorite Nazi spinoff even doing here, especially in such force? It kinda seemed like overkill for one Winter Soldier, even one with such a proven talent for bloody mayhem as James Buchanan Barnes, aka "Bucky."
Bucky. What a fucking stupid name.
"I'd rather not," Clint quipped over Tony's earpiece. Everybody ignored him.
“Hydra,” Steve agreed instead, sounding frozen-jawed, tooth-grindingly grim. Cap had hit the ground running, his shield already zinging out and about and back again, his spangle-suit (he'd changed en route, so much for subtlety) creating rare flashes of color in that sea of black-on-black-on-black.
"Keep chill, my friend. Keep chill," Sam Wilson chimed in. Like Tony, he was currently hovering, his big metal wings spread, as he scoped out the situation.
So faceless, the guys down there. So anonymous, in their identical black suits. So full of shit.
Tony didn't just hate them in a general, patriotic, "Yay, America!" kind of way, he hated them personally, for their lies and their perversion of science and their creepy Nazi origins.
He hated them for being in this particular spot, when he just wanted to rescue his guy and haul tail out of there, and for probably knowing exactly where Loki was, when he didn't.
"If you remain calm, sir," J told him--gently rather than snarkily, which was never a good sign, "You will be able to think more clearly."
"Not sure I can do it, J," Tony sub-vocalized, for J.A.R.V.I.S.'s electronic ears only. He didn't want the others to hear, didn't want them to realize how completely freaked-out he was feeling.
Of course, the aforementioned sea of black wasn't completely composed of flunkies of Hydra. It included two of their own number: Clint, who was firing arrows so fast his arms, hand, bow, and individual shafts had gone into a fuzzy gray blur of dark weapons and light skin, and Natasha, kickass as per usual, cutting through the crowd like a handgun-wielding force of nature.
Nat snapped out a single Russian word that was, undoubtedly, not only a swear, but a bad enough one to earn her a "Language!" from Steve--if he'd happened to speak Russian, which Tony knew for a fact he didn't.
Only Steve had let Tony's own recent f-bomb slide without so much as a murmur. Clearly, the poor man was distracted.
Just like you, Tony thought. Only you're trying to distract yourself by being an idiot.
Anything to keep his mind off the goon squad below, and how it related to his vulnerable and innocent Loki.
If Loki was even down there. Tony couldn't quite decide which was worse--for Loki to be in the middle of that clear and present danger, or for Loki to be entirely elsewhere, in some completely unknown place, forcing him to begin the nerve- and soul-shredding search all over again.
Tony didn't think he could take that.
Correction. He knew he couldn't.
Loki would be here. He would. Steve had frightened him too badly for Loki to go anywhere else except straight to Bucky Barnes by any means available (the fact that Loki had the wherewithal to remove himself half a world away in barely the space of a heartbeat would never stop being amazing to him).
Also, Bucky had been in possession, and actually used, Loki's credit card, which proved they'd been in contact. Had used it to buy a shit-ton of foods Loki liked, so far as Tony could tell from the store's grainy surveillance footage, which probably meant Loki had hit his new friend with one of his wide-eyed and uber-polite "Feed me, Seymours!" and sent the super-soldier-in-hiding running to the nearest grocery. A hungry Loki could be awfully hard to resist.
And so, enter Avengers. And Hydra.
Natasha's Russian word had clearly been different from the one that had been pronounced, seconds before, by a large guy wearing a shimmery and curiously unstealthy stealthsuit, that looked a lot like it had been sewn together out of the same material used to make movie screens. The big guy--undoubtedly a Hydra bigwig--repeated the word, his voice, this time, amplified in a weird way that made it seem to both hang in the air and niggle its persuasive self around every corner, into every nook and cranny.
Two seconds later, as the word continued to reverberate, Mr. Movie Screen winked out of sight.
At the same time, all Tony’s sensors (give or take), went crazy. As he bobbled in midair, his right repulsor--no longer in his control--blasted away most of the corner off a nearby apartment block before J.A.R.V.I.S. managed to shut it down.
“Jesus! Shit!” Tony snarled, already listing badly to port. "J, what the hell?"
All he got from the A.I. was something that sounded a lot like, "Szzt! Fzzt!" Meanwhile, Steve still appeared too distracted to “Language!” him, and Tony had totally lost track of Clint, Phil, and Nat in his intermittently-working visuals, which were mostly down to crackles and flashes, almost torturous to Tony's optic nerves. Now and then he got a glimpse of blue or red that might be either Cap or Kurt--who the hell knew? Sam Wilson had clearly soared off to somewhere Tony couldn't make out--hopefully he'd only landed to give Steve a hand with the battle below, and not been blitzed out of the sky.
Tony listed a little more, his gyros obviously fucked.
Yeah, just what I need--another baddie who’s learned to crap on my tech, he thought. It would definitely be temporary. Give him half an hour in the lab and Hydra would see who laughed last!
“Iron Man, you okay?” Bruce’s voice sounded in his ear, whiny and staccato with interference, like an overly-concerned mosquito, but at least marginally audible.
“Fucking Hydra!” Tony spat, struggling to reorient his slightly motion-sick self. He tried again with the repulsors and nearly succeeded in blasting off the toes of his left foot—though at the same time, he did manage to take out the better part of a knot of Hydra flunkies that Phil had been battling seconds before.
Phil staggered back a couple steps, one gloved hand pressed to the side of his helmeted head.
"Director?" Tony crackled at him.
"'m okay. They rang my bells a little. I'm okay, though." Phil didn't sound okay, he sounded shaken, which wasn't anything like the usual Phil the Unflappable.
"Dear God, so many..." Phil added, a second later, almost too low for Tony to hear through his distorted feed.
“Got him?” Clint’s voice snapped, beneath the whining in Tony’s left ear.
“J, maybe kill the mosquitoes?” Tony hadn’t the slightest idea what Clint was talking about. Got him? Got who?
The whining cycled higher, then abruptly quit, which left Tony’s ear ringing like alarm bells, all on its own power. Damn.
“Got nothing,” he answered, listing a few degrees more. He didn’t want to drop lower, for obvious reasons (many, many men with guns), but he also knew the effects of plummeting from a great height onto concrete, and preferred to avoid them if he could.
“J.A.R.V.I.S.? Any day now?”
“I am currently working on the problem, sir,” J informed him, sounding testy.
Clint--going on instinct, Tony guessed--fired one of his special ‘splodey arrows right at where Mr. Cinemax’s feet had been before he blanked out of existence.
The arrow did its thing. Bodies flew.
One of them—ha, take that, fool!--being the guy in the shiny white movie-screen suit, who rewinked into sight just long enough for Kurt (somehow also hurtling through the air, but in a controlled and, yes, undeniable sexy kind of way, to whip-crack his useful (and ever-sassy) tail around the dude’s neck and teleport him off to the gods knew where.
Hell. Siberia. Outer Mongolia. Off the top of Berlin’s tallest building. Tony wasn’t picky.
After all, he guessed he knew what Mr. Cinemax had been trying to accomplish: namely, to activate the Winter Soldier.
Which was pretty much exactly what their side didn’t need. Which meant they weren’t going to let it happen.
At any rate, Circus Skills-2, Hi-Tech-0—so much for his PhD in engineering and other advanced degrees. Clearly he’d wasted his time and his father’s money. He should have learned archery.
Tony’s opticals sizzled, farted and gave an overexcited-toddler kind of shriek. Tony drifted semi-sideways to the left a little more, briefly corrected to upright, and then started leaning to starboard instead. It wasn’t exactly what he’d call an improvement.
“J!” he bleated, with a little extra patheticness for good measure.
Dammit, he could feel Loki somewhere near. He could goddamn feel him, that weird feeling he'd experienced more than once in the past, like being surrounded by a vast night sky shimmering with stars, in a place without light pollution.
The feeling, Tony realized, of Loki amping up to do something major in the way of magic.
“J, pretty please?" he pleaded, desperate now. "Sugar on it?”
Lok? he called out inside his head. Loki, dammit, are you there? Can you hear me, baby?
Tony thought maybe he felt something, a shifting in the sensation of vastness, but that wasn’t the answer he wanted or needed. He wanted Loki’s real presence, warm and quirky and loved, inside him. He needed to hear Loki’s voice, to touch every centimeter of his body and make sure every last bit of him was okay.
“Goddamn it, J!” he yelled, which wasn’t exactly fair, but what was, in this world? J.A.R.V.I.S. would understand—none of Tony’s anger was actually directed towards him, it was the anger of frustration, and loss, and fear.
Five long seconds, a few zzzeeps and bzzzs and J had the whole shebang back on line. Tony had visuals and stabilizers and was poised to join the rest of the team in kicking a little covert operative ass.
“Apologies,” J.A.R.V.I.S. murmured, sounding, for once, almost actually apologetic.
“Not your fault. Worse things happen at sea,” Tony answered, panting, hyperventilating inside his helmet, knowing he needed to calm the hell down--he really, really, really needed to calm the hell down--already scanning for Loki down there in all the mess, with visuals and every single other tool at his disposal, overlapping screens of info flickering rapidly in his vision.
He glimpsed Kurt a second time, up high, sticking with both feet and one hand to the ragged corner of the building Tony had blasted. Kurt's long tail lashed, a thin indigo whip against all the grayness. His face turned skyward, where the gray winter clouds of Berlin had turned half a dozen shades of violet, each of those shades streaked with lightning.
“Nice of you to join us,” Tony muttered, trying to blink the after-flashes out of his sight.
The god of thunder had hit the ground running. Bolt after bolt sizzled down from the heavens, only to be caught on Thor’s upraised hammer-of-worthiness. He looked bigger than usual—if such a thing was possible.
He also appeared--no doubt about it--completely pissed.
Tony counted to ten as the biggest blast of all lighted Thor up like a Christmas tree, all that energy coalescing around him in an aura of jagged light. Tony was still blinking a whole new crop of purple after-images out of his vision when he caught the boom of the thunder god rising high above the surging mass of humanity, then flashing down again, his boots hitting the street with a noise audible even from on high, more forceful, even, than the roar of battle.
“Loki!” Thor bellowed. “Loki! Brother!”
The worse things that happened at sea now clearly included (from Hydra’s perspective, at least), “attack by Viking,” because Thor, who up until recent events had been definitely tending toward smiley, jolly and content (to go with his original flavors of sometimes-grim and frequently-confused), now appeared to have discovered yet another facet to his personality, one that could only be called, “Berserker Rage!!!”
Thor, it seemed, hadn’t received Steve-o’s nine million “Good Guys Don’t Kill” memos. The god of thunder cut, it could be said without exaggeration, something of a swathe through their enemies, heading in an unwavering line toward an alley that ran between the squat gray building that Tony had blasted and the equally squat gray building beside it. After which, it might also be said—again without the slightest need to exaggerate—that there weren’t quite enough Hydra goon scraps left to a stuff a single bockwurst.
Maybe a cocktail weenie, but certainly not a bockwurst.
Tony felt sicker than ever. The hammer, as it swung around Thor’s head, gave off a high, keening, desperate, panic-inducing sound, a sound that made Tony's arm hair, as well as the hair on the back of his neck, stand on end. The sounds Thor himself made—low, guttural and equally desperate, scared and alarmed him.
The Big Guy sounded crazy. How did a usually decent, good-humored--even placid--kind of guy come back from that sort of thing?
“Holy crap,” Bruce said in Tony’s earpiece. He’d been left behind to hover the stealthed-out Quinjet above them, with express orders not to go green unless absolutely needed, on the grounds that the Avengers, when traveling in a foreign country without permission from the government, could probably stand to miss out on the inevitable “Hulk Trashes Berlin” bad press.
"Guys…” Bruce continued, and his tone held conflicting notes of “I find myself unwillingly impressed” and “I’m gonna puke.”
“Guys…” he tried again. “Guys, Thor isn’t playing.”
“Fucking-A,” Clint chimed in, sounding sick too.
Cap yelled something might have been noble and heroic, but Tony couldn’t make out a word.
A second (shorter, fatter) guy in another Mr. Cinemax suit said a different word in Russian, his amplified voice, shrill with terror, rising above the noise of the battle. Despite Thor’s swathe, Clint’s arrows, Cap’s shield, his own blasts, Sam's... whatever, and Phil and Natasha’s big-ass guns, the bad guys kept coming, as if somewhere nearby was parked an endless fleet of evil Hydra clown cars packed chock-full of cannon fodder, resulting in a never-ending flood of faceless black-clad bodies.
Voices and shots rang off the sides of the buildings, Mjolnir kept up a droning vicious whine, and…
“Rusted,” J said crisply in Tony’s ear. Which Tony honestly didn’t think he was. In point of fact, he knew he wasn’t. Vibranium, of which his suit was constructed, wasn’t subject to oxidization, thank you very much, and maybe his left-hand repulsor seemed to be firing a little wonky, but everything else appeared A-1.
“Second word of the activation code,” Natasha snapped out, firing a never-ending stream as she simultaneously flung herself through the air, smashing faces and breaking balls. “If they get through the sequence…”
“Not something we need,” Phil finished, in his uber-calm Phil-voice. He wasn’t just wielding one of his regular big guns, but a size XXL special, like something that weirdo-from-the future Cable might have strapped to the stump of his arm. Tony would have made a crack about overcompensating, but didn’t have it in him.
Baby, he thought. Loki, where the hell are you?
His sensors weren’t fucked up again (at least, Tony didn’t think they were), but the intel he was catching from them appeared to be utter bullshit—temperature readings all over the place, abrupt energy bursts, light on spectrums even J.A.R.V.I.S. couldn’t interpret.
“It’s Loki, isn’t it?” Tony found himself gasping. “J, give me some good news—it’s Loki, right?”
He’d caught a flash of blue in the distance, between two close-set buildings. A flash of almost sky-blue, shades paler than Kurt’s indigo.
Kurt bamfed off the side of the building at the exact moment Tony began his downward swoop.
“I…” J began. “I seem to be having…”
Tony tried to scan the crowd for his German friend, watching for violet smoke and dark-edged flame, straining his ears for the dull boom of Kurt’s reappearance.
Suddenly, there he was, bamfing again at ground level, down where Tony had caught that barely-glimpsed flash of blue. Kurt’s voice rose to him, thin and unintelligible with distance. It sounded like he might be arguing, insistently, with someone in his native tongue.
Another flash, and Kurt was gone again.
“Uh, guys,” Bruce chimed in two seconds later, “I, um, guys… We have appear to have acquired a Winter Soldier on the QuinJet.”
“Activated?” Natasha snapped.
“Is he okay?” Steve demanded, sounding tense and more—emotionally shredded, nearly out of his head with worry. “Is he injured?”
“He seems a little groggy,” Bruce answered, in his doctor voice. Tony imagined him doing doctor-type things to go with it. “He seems… He seems okay, actually. Oh, here’s Steve!”
“Ja, I thought he would best know how to help his friend,” Kurt explained. “James didn’t fight me, Captain. Loki said he wouldn’t.”
“Loki?” Tony found himself shrieking. If Steve had sounded tense, he was pretty sure he himself sounded more-or-less deranged. “Kurt, what the fuck? Kurt…!”
“He’s okay,” Steve said, his voice shaky with relief, hoarse with emotion. “He doesn’t seem injured. He’s not… I mean, he’s just Bucky. Just Bucky.”
“Peachy,” Tony snarked. He couldn’t see anything, even though he’d hit ground level. He bulldozed forward, awkward in his armor, blasting or bludgeoning away any goons that blocked his path.
Damn, he could swear… Again, a patch of blue…
“Loki! Loki, baby, c’mon!” he yelled, knowing that brief blue flash could have been anything. A reflection. A dropped umbrella. The product of a jet-lagged middle-aged man’s imagination.
Anything in the world.
Baby, Tony thought, as hard as he could. Baby, where are you? I thought I saw you.
Abruptly, he hit something hard, immovable--Thor’s broad back, it turned out. The god of thunder’s swathe-cutting had stopped. Mjolnir lay, half turned over, dangling from the leather thong around his wrist.
Natasha breathed another Russian swear, which Clint chased with the exclamation. “Holy… Fuck. A. Duck.”
Which was a new one, even for him.
Loki, Tony realized, had parked himself on the edge of the sidewalk, just standing there—flying bullets be damned--barefoot, dressed in his skinny jeans and an incredibly ratty brown sweater that clearly wasn't his own, a garment simultaneously sizes too big and inches too short for him.
“Baby?” Tony said, shakily. His honey looked skinny and worn and like he’d just woken up, which given the hour—Loki never having been much of a morning person-- probably wasn’t far from the truth. He also appeared to be juggling about sixty fiery green hula hoops, of varying sizes, just above each hand.
“Loki,” Thor cried out in a choked voice. “Loki. Brother!”
Loki gave them both a big grin, delighted as a little kid, though his green eyes remained vacant, as if he was gazing at something Tony couldn’t see, located at an incredible distance from that Berlin street.
Tony couldn’t tell if the battle had suddenly and abruptly stopped, or if he himself had eyes and ears for nothing but Loki.
“I must concentrate,” Loki said softly. “It is difficult, and far away.”
“What is, Lok?” Tony asked, desperate now. He didn't get any of this, didn't understand what was happening, and J wasn’t currently helping. Maybe he didn’t get it either.
“The place is far away, Tony," Loki told him dreamily. "The Between.”
“Doesn’t really clarify things, baby.”
Loki’s mouth curved into a slight smile, though his look remained distant. He gave a casual wave with one hand, all black-polished claws and long blue fingers, the emerald circles whirling and sparkling until there was too much brightness for Tony to see clearly.
Far away, a terrified voice bellowed Russian words, gasping between each one, “Simnátsatʹ! Rassvét! Péčʹ! Dévjitʹ! Dabrasirdéčnyj! Vozvraščénije na ródinu! Adín! Gruzavój vagón!”
“Seventeen,” J.A.R.V.I.S. translated quietly, maybe for no better reason than he’d found himself at a total loss, and had nothing else to do or say. “Dawn. Stove—or possibly furnace? Nine. Kindhearted. Homecoming. One—or, perhaps, alone. Freight car.”
To Tony, none of it made the least fucking sense. Maybe the words meant something to James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes at one time. Maybe they hadn’t. Who the hell knew?
“Alone,” Loki repeated, in pretty much the exact tone J had used in his litany of nonsense. “Alone.”
The circles spun around him, their speed ever-increasing. Tony’s ears went dead, both ringing and physically numb, then alive again with a dull boom so low it lay at the very threshold of his hearing. Inside the helmet, he felt warm trickles flowing out of his ears, down across his lips.
Just like that, ten thousand black-ops Hydra flunkies and half-a-dozen guys in Cinemax suits just fucking disappeared, as if they’d never been.
Loki pressed his long, slender hands together; there went the flashing hula hoops, also as if they’d never existed. All that remained was a battered residential block and the still forms of Natasha, Clint, Phil and Sam Wilson, his wide wings spread, all four of them splayed out, motionless, on the concrete.
“Very much alive,” J.A.R.V.I.S. informed him. “Unconscious, yes, but very much alive. You, sir, were somewhat protected by your helmet.”
“May we go home now?” Loki asked. “I want to go home.”
He paused, his green eyes huge and sad, anxiety clear on every line of his face. “I did as your Captain asked, Tony. Am I safe now? Will you.. can you... make me safe from him?”