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From Winter's Cold

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Tony could wrap his genius brain around a lot of things.

He could wrap his brain around the fact that there was an assassin called the Winter Soldier, who was one of the most capable and feared assassins in the entire world. (That understanding was certainly aided by the fact that Tony now lived with two people who had, themselves, been counted among the most capable and feared assassins in the world for a time.)

It had taken him a few moments and some really furious calculation, but he could accept that this reputation held up even though the Winter Soldier had been an active threat for over fifty years.

It had rocked him, hard, to learn that the Winter Soldier had possibly -- probably -- been involved in causing the car accident that had killed Tony's parents. But Tony had no trouble grasping that there had been plenty of powerful people with the motive to want Howard dead.

Tony hadn't even thought to question Steve's identification of the Winter Soldier as Steve's old friend, Bucky Barnes, long thought dead. That information had, in fact, made some of the other pieces pull together a little more tightly.

And it meant that Tony knew why the Winter Soldier had taken to shadowing the Avengers, lately, when they were out on a call.

Everyone had pretty much given up trying to catch him, except for Steve. No one had even suggested that Steve stop trying, of course.

About half the time, the Winter Soldier brought a gun with him, however, and that made things... complicated.

The Winter Soldier wouldn't shoot Steve. Steve had made an easy target of his back for the Winter Soldier time and time again, and had yet to be shot for it. Steve thought that meant that the Winter Soldier was beginning to remember him, that it was a good thing.

And it should have been, really.

Except that the Winter Soldier didn't have any such compunction about shooting at the rest of the team.

He rarely fired at an Avenger more than once in a single fight, but that was rarely and not never, so it wasn't like they could ever let their guard down when he showed up at the struggle du jour.

He'd gotten Clint right through the bicep once. He'd parted Natasha's hair so closely that she'd needed three stitches to close the scalp wound after the fight. (They had taken three weeks to heal, and Tony was now sworn to take to the grave the secret of Natasha's natural hair color.) He'd shot Sam in the leg on two occasions, and on one more had managed to puncture a critical joint in the Falcon wings, rendering them unusable. Thor and the Hulk were largely impervious to the Winter Soldier's bullets, but some impressive holes had been punched in Thor's cape, and getting shot sometimes made the Hulk forget what he was supposed to be doing and tear off after the Winter Soldier instead.

Tony had been shot at more than any of the others combined, for reasons no one could guess at. Tony could just shrug it off as a minor distraction -- thank god for the armor -- but it was getting to be annoying.

Steve, being Steve, always pleaded with them all for understanding and patience. "He just doesn't know how to tell the difference between friend and foe," Steve rationalized. "Once he knows that you're part of my team, he'll stop shooting at you."

Tony had given up hoping that Steve would ever be swayed on this topic. Instead, he worked a few extra sleepless nights to develop better body armor for the members of the team that were not bulletproof, and he made sure to keep his helmet on until they were sure the Winter Soldier had cleared the area after a fight.

So the situation was annoying as all hell, but Tony had his genius brain wrapped pretty firmly around it. Right up until the Asgardians got mixed up in it.

God, the fucking Asgardians.

Asgardian tech was close enough to magic to make Tony really twitchy, even though Stephen Strange had sworn to him that Asgardian tech was, in fact, tech and not magic at all. Tony had some words with Strange about Arthur C. Clarke, and Strange had just given Tony that look he always got whenever Tony referred to books that were less than four centuries old.

Fucking magic.

Fucking Asgardian tech.

Fucking Asgardians.

Except Thor, of course. Thor was a stand-up guy. Tony liked Thor. Everyone liked Thor, really, except for the bad guys.

Only right now, Tony was looking at some pretty compelling evidence that even some of the bad guys liked Thor.

Specifically? Asgardian bad guys.

Even more specifically? Female Asgardian bad guys.

Tony had been around the block a time or two. He'd had a few pretty nasty breakups. He'd had to file a few restraining orders in his day, and there were a couple of crazy stalkers that he'd actually had to have arrested.

Tony's wacky stalker stories had nothing on Thor's, apparently.

Fucking Asgardians.

Because this crazy stalker Asgardian had managed to track Thor down, here on Midgard. Earth. Whatever. And she was trying -- as near as Tony could figure it -- to prove her worthiness, or something, by defeating Thor and his chosen comrades -- read, the Avengers -- in combat. Apparently.

And, okay, customs vary, and Tony had seen Thor in action, so he could wrap his genius brain around the idea of a warrior culture where that might have made sense. You know, leaving aside the fact that Thor's girlfriend had won his affection while being even more of a nerd than Tony and generally not all that much on the combat-and-ass-kicking front. But whatever, maybe Thor was whatever passed for queer among Asgardians, that he fell for the brainy types, and this suitor hadn't caught on yet. See, Tony could wrap his brain around that, and it would've been... "Fine" was probably stretching the matter, but it would've been just another damn fight, really, something to do with the afternoon. They'd handed Stalker-chick's ass to her on a platter, and that should've been it, right? Not worthy, thanks for playing, maybe try again in a few centuries, buh-bye now.

But no. No, of course not.

She'd come back. With a friend. They always had a friend, didn't they? And of course in this showdown, the Winter Soldier had decided to pop in for a visit. Of course he had. And if that hadn't been bad enough, it turned out that Stalker-chick's friend was pretty good at slinging Asgardian tech around like it was magic.

Fucking magic.

Fucking Asgardian tech.

It didn't really matter which one it was, did it? Stalker-chick had started shrieking something about the "regrets of youth" and the "changeable heart" and whatever, right, Tony had heard this line before, so he'd mostly been watching the friend, who looked like she was charging up some kind of weird weapon, and he had been flying wide trying to keep an eye on the Winter Soldier, too, who for a miraculous change had decided to shoot Thor today and was therefore ignoring Tony completely while lining up his shot.

And then everything happened almost too fast for even Tony's genius brain to keep up:

The friend shot her weapon thing at Thor. At the same time, so did the Winter Soldier.

And Steve, being Steve, shoved Thor out of the way. (Tony was impressed; Thor was not exactly a welterweight, especially when he'd planted his feet for battle.)

The two shots -- the Asgardian tech/magic thing and the Winter Soldier's bullet -- both hit at the same time, only now they both hit Steve.

The Winter Soldier's bullet went into the back of Steve's right arm. The bolt of light that had come from the Asgardian gun went straight through Steve's chest, and continued on out the back of him.

The Winter Soldier, realizing that not only had he failed to hit his chosen target, but had in fact shot the one person on the field of battle that was not ever a target, charged forward...

...and so the bolt of light went straight through the Winter Soldier as well.

Then, because Tony's physical reflexes were not nearly as good as his mental ones, the bolt of light slammed into Tony, right over the arc reactor in the chestplate of his suit. Instead of going through him, it exploded. Painfully.

Very painfully.

Fucking Asgardians, Tony thought.

And then everything went dark.