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Dead Memories

Chapter Text

He spent a year searching for him. A literal year, not an exaggeration. It was not a constant search, being on the road and hunting down leads, of course not, but it was enough time spent to count as a full-time job. Which was why Steve did not expect Sam to dedicate his every waking hour to the cause. Now Steve though... he had time, plenty, he had all the time in the world. And he’s been told – repeatedly – by trustworthy sources, that there’s never been a more stubborn punk on the face of this Earth than him. A year went by with nothing but glimpses, trails gone cold, and dead Hydra agents, but Steve was nowhere near ready to give up. He wanted to keep going. He was disheartened on some days, desperate on others, sometimes numb, sometimes close to rage, but he was not about to stop. He... couldn’t just stop.

The world didn’t feel like letting him keep going though.

Not Hydra, not what was left of SHIELD, not the Avengers and the damn Maximoffs... not Ultron.

So here he was. Staring out of the window of his newest characterless apartment, back in DC, again. Months later than he planned to be. Months after any lead would be worth a damn. The faint trail completely gone.

It was a numb day. The sort where he didn’t feel like pretending to be anything or anyone. He was just a guy, standing quietly in his mostly empty apartment, being angry at the world and not having the energy to do anything about it. DC was grey outside, the air crisp and the sky cloudy. Perfect weather for his mood. A text from Sam was still waiting to be answered, but Steve knew that he had a few hours before his friend would have enough and just come over.

Steve appreciated his concern even when it frustrated him, especially then. He knew that Sam and DC were kind of a package deal, he could’ve avoided this, if he wanted to. But it was much better than staying in New York, where he would catch himself staring at the Tower from a distance, where Tony locked himself away like some self-exiled prince from a fairy tale. Not that Steve blamed him... well, no, Steve did blame him for a few things, but there was no point hauling more guilt on his shoulders. He was punishing himself enough. Nobody on this world blamed Tony more than he blamed himself. It was one of the things that made Steve remember that despite everything, he was a good man. Only a good man would do this to themselves.

Natasha gave him a call regularly, updating him about everything in New York. Not just about Tony, but everyone else. Steve always wanted to know how Clint and Bruce were doing, but he was not always interested in what Wanda and Pietro got up to. He was... not really warmed up to them, but he knew Clint and Natasha felt different. And Vision just plain unnerved him in some moments, he couldn’t help it, he was working on it.

His phone chirped again, another text, probably from Sam. He sighed and turned away from the window to take a look at it. It was not nice of him, ignoring Sam like this. When he looked down at the screen there was an unknown number there, not just the text from Sam. He opened that first. It contained another unknown number and a short message: “Call back ASAP. N”

Steve dialled and waited.

‘Natasha?’ he asked immediately. ‘What’s going on?’

Not even a “hello”?’ Natasha asked in return on the other end of the line.

‘Why the secrecy?’ Steve asked. ‘And hello.’

Natasha did not laugh, but Steve could hear it in her voice that she was smiling.

Well, I stumbled upon a little something you might be very interested in.

‘You mean...’

Bucky. It had to be Bucky. Natasha knew that he has not given up. What else...


Steve’s heart started pounding in his chest, his whole body preparing to launch into action.

‘Where are you?’


‘I thought you were in New York.’

Yes, but one of Clint’s contacts found something that stank like Hydra, so here I am.

‘Give me the exact location I can be there in a few hours.’

No, stay put,’ Natasha said firmly. ‘Nothing to do here any more. I’ll bring the intel to you.

‘Then why did you call?’

There was a short pause and Steve knew right away that something big happened, or something very bad.

‘Are you okay? Are you injured?’ he asked, shifting gears, he felt his brows furrowing with worry.

I’m fine, but Steve... this is not just some vague lead, a report from an unreliable source... I need you to be very sure about still wanting to do this. Before I show up.

That was... strange. She knew very well how serious Steve was about finding Bucky, how very much be did not want to give up.

‘I am sure,’ Steve said with absolute conviction. ‘What did you find?’

More corpses than I care to count,’ she said then and Steve felt himself go very very still. ‘Hydra... from the way I see it.

Bucky did leave some bodies behind since he dropped of the grid. Hydra agents in safe houses and hastily emptied SHIELD bases, but it was never more than one or two. Quick kills too, they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. This... this was something different.


And I’m trying to recover enough security footage for us to get some idea about what happened here... and what they took.

‘They?’ Steve asked in surprise.

I don’t know who else was here, but he wasn’t alone. It’s impossible, even for someone with his skills.

Steve took a moment to digest that. All this time, he was always alone. Drifting from one place to another, running, hiding, never staying in one place for long. Steve didn’t know what this meant, that he was working with someone now.

There’s also a vault here,’ Natasha continued. ‘Recently emptied... whatever was inside is gone. Hydra guarded it well.

‘Are you sure it’s him?’ Steve asked.

Natasha was silent for a moment and Steve could picture her clearly. Standing in full gear in a destroyed room littered with bodies, nimble fingers swiftly moving over a keyboard, trying to recover as much data as possible, her eyes intent on the screens, taking in all information presented to her.

I’m sure,’ she said then. That was good enough for Steve.

‘Bring all you can find, I’ll call Sam.’

Steve...’ She started again, but he interrupted.

‘Don’t ask me again whether I’m sure, you know I am.’

I know you are, but something changed, be ready for that.

‘Yeah, you got it,’ Steve said, his voice just a bit quieter.

I’ll be there as soon as I can,’ Natasha said and then she cut the line. Steve lowered his phone and tried to just breathe for a moment. He counted to five for every inhale and exhale, just like back when he had asthma. He had to make sure his heartbeat was steady. He allowed himself one moment of silent worry and uncertainty, then he squared his shoulders, lifted his chin, and dialled Sam.

Somehow Sam managed to keep him from vibrating out of his skin. He hated waiting around and he’s never been known for patience. Right now his head was hyper-focused and all over the place at the same time. He kept running the few scraps of information Natasha has given him over and over in his mind. Bucky was simply gone for so long now, for him to show up like this again, leaving a pile of corpses behind, working with someone (more than one?), taking something from Hydra. Something changed all right.

‘You’re making me dizzy,’ Sam interrupted his thoughts again. Steve was pacing. It was that or staring out of the window, which kind of always worried Sam, so Steve refrained.

‘It’s just--’

‘I know! Cap, I know, trust me. But you gotta get your head in the game without falling apart at the seams.’

‘I just thought it would happen differently. Some rumour from Eastern Europe, a strange intel from Argentina. Not a raided Hydra base in Delaware with an empty vault and a pile of bodies.’

‘Yeah, some comeback, huh?’ Sam folded his hands together and looked at Steve for a moment. ‘Any idea what it could mean? Kicking the Hydra killings up a big notch like this?’

‘Maybe he remembers more... from what they did to him. That... maybe that would explain it.’

Steve didn’t want to think of Bucky as someone so brutally vengeful, but he remembered his own oath, after Bucky fell from the train. How hunting down Hydra and Schmidt became the one clear goal in his mind, how he’s sworn to kill or capture them all. The anger and pain he felt back then was nothing compared to what Bucky was put through.

‘I don’t know whether that makes this easier or harder,’ Sam wondered.

‘I have absolutely no idea,’ Steve admitted.

Sam let him pace some more, without kicking up much of a fuss about it.

Natasha knocked on his front door exactly two hours after her phone call. Steve opened the door so quickly he could’ve sworn he heard the hinges protest with unpleasant metallic squeaks. She looked okay, uninjured, hair still short barely under her ear, most of her Black Widow gear hidden beneath a long black coat.

‘Get your computer,’ she said, walking inside Steve’s apartment swiftly. Steve went to do that while Sam and Natasha greeted each other.

Natasha sat down on the couch next to Sam, but Steve couldn’t imagine being able to sit still even for a second, so he just stood next to them while his computer powered up and Natasha inserted the flash drive.

‘Something damaged most of the cameras in the facility,’ Natasha said as her fingers moved on the keyboard. ‘So I don’t actually have that much footage, but it’s worth looking at it.’

It took only a few short moments for her to start playing the video. Steve stared at the screen, almost holding his breath.

The camera did not record in very good quality and something obviously damaged or disturbed the recording, because it occasionally jumped, shook, and sizzled. They all saw enough though.

A gate of sorts was wide open, white smoke swirling in from the outside. A completely nondescript strike team was lining up, preparing for a fight, but for defence, not offence. Then in walked the Winter Soldier. Steve’s breath really did catch in his throat and he had to swallow. The members of the strike team were falling to the ground, dropping like flies even before he was fully in the room. His clothes were only slightly different than what he wore the last time Steve saw him in DC. His metal arm was still uncovered, his vest was definitely kevlar and he wore goggles. No mask though. Steve felt ridiculously glad about that for a second. Somehow in Steve’s mind that mask, hiding his face and silencing his words, was like a symbol of the weapon Hydra turned him into.

He moved incredibly quickly, dodging Hydra agents left and right, taking cover in the right moments and exploiting every mistake and every second of hesitation from the strike team. Some members of the Hydra team fell even without Bucky shooting them and it took a moment for Steve to catch the metallic blurs. Knives or bolts, definitely some sort of a projectile weapon.

Bucky, because no matter how much he looked like Hydra’s most fearsome weapon in the footage he had to call him Bucky, made short work of the strike team and marched forward with confidence, deeper into the facility. Quick, efficient, deadly.

‘Now who the hell is that?’ asked Sam as a second dark figure walked in after Bucky. Steve guessed male from the width of their shoulders, their height, and gait. His clothes were less military, more... Steve had no idea how to categorize it. His overcoat was long, almost down to his ankle and his face was hidden by a hood. Steve couldn’t even catch a glimpse of his skin colour, he wore gloves as well. He carried no visible weapons, but was no less confident than Bucky as he walked inside.

‘Can we take a closer look at him?’ he asked.

‘Wait,’ Natasha said.

Soon the video switched to a different camera view, but some time must’ve passed, because Bucky was already stepping over fallen Hydra operatives, his unknown accomplice just a few steps behind him.

‘Not exactly standard military gear,’ Steve offered, staring at the stranger on the screen.

‘Neither is your suit,’ Sam added. He had a point there, Steve shouldn’t be surprised. The stranger wore some mask or had something wrapped around his head under the hood, because all Steve caught was a thin line where his eyes were. He still couldn’t be sure about the skin colour, it was light though, not dark.

‘And definitely keen on hiding his identity,’ Natasha said, with a touch of annoyance in her voice. She had no idea who it was then, Steve concluded. An unknown party always made her a little cross.

The screen switched again, this time the camera was behind some sort of a glass panel in a wall. Probably hidden camera. One Hydra operative was looking into it, then spun around as the door was kicked open. A second later there were two bloody holes in the glass, obscuring the view a little, and the man fell to the ground.

Bucky walked up to the glass and Steve couldn’t take his eyes off of him, especially when he removed his goggles. His hair was still long, maybe even slightly longer than before, but he wasn’t pale, wasn’t skinny, he even looked clean shaven. His eyes were firmly down on the switchboard before him, not looking up at the camera, so Steve couldn’t really take a good look at his eyes. That would have told him a lot. How empty they were, what emotions were hiding in them. He almost spoke out loud, willing him to lift his head a little. It didn’t happen.

The hooded figure walked up to him, talking to him maybe, but there was no audio feed. Bucky just nodded his head to the left, saying something in return, then lifted his metal arm to gesture at something. The other man nodded and walked away, straight to the huge metal door that must’ve been the vault Natasha mentioned. Bucky put down one of his gun, holstered the other one, and started typing on whatever was in front of him, not paying attention to the other.

The hooded man stopped before the vault door, raised his arms, gripped it on either side, then to Steve’s shock, he simply ripped it out of the wall.

‘Holy shit,’ Sam breathed out. ‘That’s not normal.’

‘Definitely not,’ Steve agreed as he watched the man drop the thick vault door to the floor. He was tall, but more lean than bulky, it made the whole thing all the more surreal.

‘Super-human, non-human, centipede soldier,’ Natasha shrugged, looking at the screen intently. ‘Definitely something.’

‘I’m not sure I could’ve ripped that door out,’ Steve added.

Bucky was still typing when the man came back out of the vault, carrying a heavy looking storage crate. The sort Steve saw SHIELD use as well.

The hooded man calmly walked up to Bucky, the crate in one hand, like it weighted nothing. He must’ve said something, because Bucky stepped back from the panel and said something in return.

‘“You better be right”,’ Natasha said.

‘What?’ Steve frowned.

‘I read his lips,’ she explained.

The hooded figure must’ve answered in return, but they could not see his mouth, then Bucky rolled his...

‘Did he just roll his eyes?’ Steve asked, shocked, incredulous, maybe, probably. He did roll his eyes, Steve caught it.

Sam and Natasha said nothing. Steve tried to focus on the screen again and watched as Bucky stood, waiting for something. The hooded man stepped closer to the panel and touched something on it. Then he reached up to the glass that hid the camera and drew a curved line with his bloody gloved fingers right under the two bullet holes in the glass, creating a bizarre, utterly disturbing smiling face.

‘They knew about the camera,’ Steve said, watching them walk away, leaving the room. This time the hooded man walked out first and Bucky covered his back, following him.

Natasha nodded. ‘They wanted to be seen, they left this footage to be found.’

‘For whom?’ Sam asked. ‘You? Us? SHIELD?’

‘Your guess is as good as mine,’ Natasha said.

‘No, I’m sure yours better,’ Sam countered.

‘But where did they go?’ Steve asked, still staring at the screen even though the video went dark already. ‘Where do we search for him?’

Natasha turned a little to look up at him and after a moment Steve looked back at her.

‘If they wanted to be seen, they won’t be hiding. We’ll find them.’

‘Well... I’m all for it,’ Sam said. ‘But that guy... I don’t feel good about that guy.’

Steve knew what he meant, and not just because of the display of strength. His whole presence put him on edge. Steve’s brain was bending over backwards trying to figure out what Bucky was doing with someone like that. He had so many questions. He wanted to know what was happening inside Bucky’s head. He did not look empty, or confused, but Steve couldn’t see much else either. He had to know, but again it seemed like that he would have to find him for that first. He would have to look him in the eye, take in his face, then he would know more.

And whatever was in that vault, whatever they took, it also probably meant bad news.

‘We’re gonna need backup,’ he decided.

Natasha smiled. ‘Way ahead of you.’



Chapter Text

Natasha knew that it would be hard to convince Steve to stay put more than it was absolutely necessary, even with Sam’s help, so she was a little glad about not having an exact location to go to. She wanted to find the Winter Soldier – Barnes – just as much as Steve, but she had completely different reasons and not even one tenth of the emotional investment. Waiting for the others and figuring out their next move was a good reason as any to stay in DC for now. But Natasha knew that if this went on for too long Steve was going to turn... unpleasant. You did not want to get on his bad side then.

Clint promised to get everything out of the informant who gave them the tip about the Hydra facility in the first place. Natasha also forwarded the recovered security footage to Hill. Even if Stark was unavailable, Hill could use at least some of their resources. It was nowhere near as good as it used to be, with the Stark satellites offline and JARVIS gone for good, but it did not hurt to try. Natasha would have to reach out to many of her sources and she had no idea how many of them would be able to help. But it was something to do.

She was not surprised about how eagerly she took the intel from Clint about the Hydra base. She needed something to focus on, some good she could do. Dealing with some Hydra hole seemed like a fine way to make the world just a little bit of a better place. But now James Barnes was back in the picture, and that turned this into a whole different game.

She couldn’t help much, when Steve first started his search. With all her covers gone, her identities exposed, she lost too many sources, informants, assets, and allies. But enough time passed now, even with everything that happened since, so she was ready to use everything at her disposal to get this done.

She let Wanda know where she was, but did not ask her and Pietro to join them yet. Steve was still a little hard-edged around them. But after watching the short footage from the Hydra base again she knew that they would need the extra help.

You called Thor?’ Steve asked in surprise.

Natasha shrugged. ‘We don’t know what we’re dealing with here. Even with Clint’s help it wouldn’t be easy to take down the Winter Soldier...’

Steve gave her a stern look.

Barnes.. unharmed,’ she stressed. ‘Non-lethal solutions are not the easiest. And let’s not forget the other guy. Maybe they even have more accomplices. Plus Thor seemed eager, probably needed an excuse to stay away from Asgard just a bit more.’

Not exactly the kind of guy you can use for a covert mission,’ Steve said.

I don’t know,’ Natasha smirked. ‘All those hunting stories, he probably has some stalking skills. But I could always get in contact with Vision...’

Thor’s fine,’ Steve said and Natasha just shook her head. Predictable.

I would have called Wanda and Pietro here too,’ she started, but Steve was already making that face.

No need, we can handle this.’

I just think they would be more than happy to help you get Barnes back in one piece.’

She didn’t need to remind Steve of the twins’ relationship with Hydra and why they would be willing to fight for Barnes when it came down to it. She wasn’t going to push though. Not yet.

But Steve was closing up again, just like after New York. Retreating into his head, his own little space, where it was him against the world. Natasha wasn’t going to just watch that happen. She knew Sam wasn’t going to either.

If there’s more of them,’ Steve agreed finally. ‘You can call them.’

There was a joke on the tip of her tongue, something to do with Steve’s firm Captain America face, but he was already turning around and leaving the room again. Not a good sign.

Clint arrived to DC first, but Bobbi had some more information about the facility in Delaware for him. So off he went, sending a quick text to Natasha that he would be late. SHIELD was still small, but its agents did not lose their touch just because they were freelancing elsewhere. Unsurprisingly, all of them were always happy to help when it came to Hydra.

Thor, hair and cape slightly damp from a rain-cloud he must’ve hit on his way here, landed right in front of Steve’s building, drawing more than a little attention to himself. This was not New York, people actually stopped and stared, taking out their phones. Thor waved and smiled, greeted everyone like he always did, even posed for a few pictures, not bothered by the attention. He never was, but again; prince.

As soon as he was in the apartment he wrapped his big arms around Steve, squeezing him so tightly that Steve let out a little huff as the air was forced out of his lungs, but he was smiling and hugging back. Natasha didn’t even pretend to protest when Thor leaned down and did the same to her, just much more gently. Sam looked a little giddy, standing there, despite the situation. He did not have the chance to meet Thor in person yet.

Thor, this is my friend Sam Wilson,’ Steve introduced him.

Sam smiled brightly, holding out his hand.

Ah, the Falcon you told me about,’ Thor smiled in return, grabbing hold of Sam’s forearm and shaking it. ‘Well met, friend. Glad you have been watching out for our good Captain.’

Well, I can try.’

Thor laughed as he let go of Sam’s hand, but then in a single second his face turned serious and he looked back at Steve again.

Captain, Natasha informed me about what has befallen your friend. Know that I will help you however I can. Perhaps now that there is more of us, we will be able to ensure his safe return to you.’

Yeah, I hope so too.’

So, where do we start then?’ Thor asked, looking around at them. ‘The sooner we give chase, the sooner Steve’s friend will be back in safety.’

Clint will be here soon, then the two of you will have to take a look at something. See what we’re getting ourselves into,’ Natasha explained. ‘Then we go from there.’

Very well,’ Thor nodded.

Drop the hammer and the cape, I’ll bring you a beer,’ Steve said as he headed towards the kitchen.

Thank you,’ Thor nodded with a smile and got comfortable. Natasha turned to Sam.

So, how does it feel? Getting in the midst of the Avengers?’

Great, you know, but why can’t it be just for beer and pizza?’

You can have beer and pizza, but then you’re going to get shot at later. Well, plausibly.’

Yeah, that’s exactly what I meant.’

And yet, you’re still not out of the door. We ought to make you official.’

Clint had more than just bits and pieces of information, but he wanted to see the footage first.

Well, he’s not getting rusty, that’s for sure,’ he said as the video ended. He seemed a little disappointed that no one appreciated his lame joke.

So what do you know about the Hydra base they attacked?’ asked Steve, face all business.

This is where it gets interesting,’ Clint said and leaned over the side of the couch, right over Natasha, to pick up his backpack. He fished out a stack of papers and dropped them next to the laptop. Natasha picked up the first file, the other two ended up with Steve and Sam.

Now that we know that this was a Hydra operated building I asked Bobbi what she can dig up about it. She got some SHIELD hacker to take a closer look at it and what’s been going on with it.’

Natasha was already scanning through the information herself, memorizing important details, but she let Clint explain it to the others, while she read.

Just the day before the attack a heavily armed convoy arrived in the middle of the night, very discreetly.’

The thing from the vault?’ Steve asked.

That would be my guess,’ Clint shrugged. ‘Whatever it was they picked it up from the Dover Air Force Base and did not stop until they were inside. They really didn’t want it out in the open for long.’

Sam bumped Clint’s elbow to get his attention.

Where did it come from?’ he asked.

Poland,’ he said, then pointed at the folder in Steve’s hand. ‘Zielona Góra Airport, it’s a small regional airport, commercial. The plane was classified as private when it took off, not military.’

Natasha finished reading the file and dropped it back on the table. She brushed Clint’s hand as she leaned back so he looked at her.

And before?’ she asked and signed at the same time.

Bobbi’s hacker friend had a few guesses,’ Clint said, gesturing at the file in Sam’s hand. ‘But nothing solid, we’re gonna have to ask around a bit more.’

It could lead us to another Hydra fort,’ Thor said, he was glancing at one of the files over Steve’s shoulder. ‘I assume it was something valuable, what they transported. Maybe they guarded it in a different location before now.’

Wouldn’t be the first time,’ Natasha agreed, her hands naturally making signs while she spoke. ‘If the previous storage location was compromised, they probably tried to move everything important to a new location.’

Or more than one location,’ Sam said.

We need to track down anything suspicion that took off from Zielona Góra recently,’ Natasha agreed.

Clind signed “I’m on it”, then stood up and got out his phone, texting someone.

You think this will lead us to them?’ Steve asked.

Might give us a possible target,’ Natasha said. ‘This is reconnaissance, we need to gather as much information as possible, and see where they lead us.’

And what about the hooded guy?’ Sam asked. ‘I’m kinda concerned about him, and where he fits in this picture.’

He is fighting our enemies,’ Thor said. ‘And on your friend’s side.’

I wouldn’t call that a letter of recommendation at the moment,’ Steve sighed.

Still, an enemy of our enemy could be a possible ally. We mustn’t assume him a foe until we know more.’

Natasha had some thoughts on that, but she remained silent. It bothered her how unexpectedly he showed up on the board. A new and unpredictable factor she had no information about, besides what little they saw on the security footage. In recent years the possible answer to superhuman strength increased significantly. She had never been trained for aliens and magic, but did have some knowledge of scientific experiments. AIM, Hydra, and everyone and their mother seemed to want super-soldiers at one point or another. Or the answer was something more extraterrestrial. The possibilities were almost endless, it might be even something completely new. Wouldn’t that be just tons of fun?

Natasha went over all the files Clint brought while he exchanged rapid-fire texts with someone. Steve and Sam retreated to the kitchen area. Steve would probably feel like a bad host if he didn’t offer some food soon. Natasha hoped Sam would convince him not to order from that Thai place he liked again. Their massaman lamb was horrendous, Steve just didn’t know any better.

Thor restarted the video on Steve’s laptop and he was intently watching the screen, his brows furrowed a little.

Could you have ripped that door out like that?’ Natasha asked, not looking up from the file she was going over.

Aye, easily,’ Thor said. ‘Most Aesir could, some Vanir too, not an elf though, they are fast and deadly, but not known for their physical strength.’

I thought those elves were extinct, especially after London.’

No, those were the dark elves,’ Thor said. ‘They are two very different species and are from different realms.’

Good to know.’

Those gloves though...’ Thor said thoughtfully.

Natasha put down the file and looked up. Thor stopped the video at the moment where the hooded figure drew his little smiley on the glass. Now that she looked at the black gloves with more attention, she noticed there were colourful lines twisting around the wrist area and little metal spots on the fingers.

What about it?’

I would need to take a better look at it to be sure, but I think I have seen craftsmanship like it.’

You mean it’s Asgardian?’

That would change a lot of things.

Nay,’ Thor shook his head. ‘I’ve only seen a similar design in my Father’s vault in Asgard, among the old armours and relics he picked up on his travels. I do not even know which realm they were from. I just remember them to be very old.’

Are you sure?’ Natasha asked.

Not at all,’ Thor shook his head. ‘It might just be similar. Maybe they would look very different in front of me than how they look like on this poor recording. But as you said, we need all information there is. If I’m mistaken, then we wasted a few thoughts on the matter, but if I am correct...’

Then he is definitely not human,’ Natasha agreed. ‘Any idea who? If they are really not from Earth?’

Thor laughed a little as he shook his head.

Lady Natasha, I might be a prince of Asgard, but I do not even know all living souls who reside in the realm eternal, let alone in all the other realms.’

Right. Anything you can tell me about it? If it’s the same type of armour?’

They’re not exactly like the one my Father keeps in the vault, merely similar. Not much else I can tell, they are light, meant for stealth. For spies... or thieves. Not the sort of armour I was interested in as a child.’

There was another sentence following the one he spoke out loud, but he halted the words abruptly before he could utter them. Not that Natasha needed him to say anything. There was a flash of grief on his face, a tightness in his eyes and a hardness in his jaw that was unmistakable. He never brought him up in front of them. Natasha knew none of them would laugh in his face in delight, but Thor could read people much better than most gave him credit for. He probably feared what he would see in his friends’ faces.

Two questions,’ Natasha said.

Ask away,’ Thor prompted.

How likely it is that someone from Earth could’ve gotten their hands on armour like that? And two; who would be able to come here from other realms without you knowing about it?’

Thor contemplated the questions for a few long moments.

Both is possible, I believe. I’ve been made aware that there were a lot more Aesir and other weapons and artefacts on Midgard than I ever imagined. In the past many visited your realm, and not just in time of war. Something like this could have been left behind.’

Yes, SHIELD found way too many Asgardian or Asgardian-like objects all over the globe. They never meant anything good.

As for travelling here. Nobody used the Bifrost, I can assure you of that, but I am well-aware that there are other ways to move from one realm to another, if one has the right knowledge and skills. But it’s a difficult endeavour. You see, if it would be easy, everyone would do it.’

He smiled a little solemnly, looking back at the computer screen, starting the video from the beginning again.

Small chance, but not impossible. She would’ve liked the impossible more. Superhumans are one thing, aliens were always bigger trouble.


Chapter Text

Festungsfront Oder-Warthe-Bogen,’ Clint announced in triumph with way-off German pronunciation, his hands up in the air.

Gesundheit,’ Sam smirked at him.

The East wall?’ Steve asked. ‘In Poland?’

That’s the one,’ Clint said.

Supposedly abandoned or just full with bats,’ Natasha added. ‘But we found a few things that might indicate otherwise.

Clint made a few quick sings in reaction to that, but Steve couldn’t even guess what it meant. Natasha gave Clint a look that was a little long-suffering, but mostly fond, then she signed something back.

Whenever Steve watched how Natasha’s hands moved when Clint was around he promised himself to learn more than the basic “I’m fine”, “Are you okay?” and others like it. Clint rarely went without his hearing aid, especially for missions, but to put it simply; if something could go wrong, it usually eventually did. Steve wanted to be able to communicate with him even if technology was not cooperating.

It’s been well over three years – almost four – since Clint suffered the damage to his ears that put him off active duty until Ultron came knocking. And Clint didn’t seem to expect people to start learning this stuff for his benefit, but Steve was pretty sure even Thor knew more signs than he did. Steve felt a little guilty about that, his search for Bucky consuming all his days notwithstanding.

Tell us more about this “wall”,’ Thor requested. Sam seemed to need the run-down too.

Steve took it upon himself to explain what he knew about it, while Natasha and Clint were preoccupied with their little chat.

It was built by the Nazis back in the 1930s. It was a fortified military defence line, there are tunnels, bunkers, barracks, railway stations. It’s pretty huge.’

Just the central section is 32 kilometres long and some of the tunnels are 40 metres deep,’ Natasha said, turning her attention back on them. ‘Not to mention all the other tunnels and underground buildings that are not directly connected to it.

Okay, you said something about bats?’ Sam wondered.

Most of the tunnels are empty, just a shelter for animals. Other locations are open to the public.’

So where’s the interesting part?’ Steve asked.

Bobbi’s hacker friend dug up all she could about everything that got in and out of the Zielona Góra Airport,’ Clint explained. ‘Every once in a while there would be one private plane taking off as quietly as possible, officially belonging to bullshit non-existent companies. Six in total, so far.’

All planes headed some place different,’ Natasha said as she took over. ‘Germany, Algeria, Argentina, China, Serbia and the last one to Delaware. Hill managed to pull some strings to search for anything in the vicinity of the airports they landed on that could be linked to Hydra.’

Let me guess,’ Sam said. ‘Same as Delaware?’

Clint nodded.

Five out of six was attacked within the same 24 hours,’ he said.

So there has to be more of them, not just Barnes and the hooded man,’ Natasha added.

What about the sixth?’ asked Thor.

Nis, Serbia,’ Clint said. ‘They were either very quiet or for some reason they did not attack yet.’

So where does the East Wall fit in all this?’ asked Steve.

We don’t have an exact location yet, but there is a hidden Hydra base somewhere connected to the tunnel system,’ Natasha answered. ‘Too many things point in that direction. I think that’s where the crate from the Delaware vault and all others like it were stored before.’

If Hydra is clearing up that place, we might not find much,’ Sam said. ‘It sounds like to me that they are abandoning it.’

That’s why we go to Serbia first,’ Steve decided. ‘If for some reason the package from Poland is still there, we might catch whoever comes for it. They could probably tell us more about all this.’

Natasha nodded at him, clearly she wanted to do the exact same thing.

We might even get our hands on it first. Then they would have to come to us.’

We have a plan, now we must leave most urgently,’ Thor announced.

Steve wanted to get moving immediately too. Hell, they might be already late, maybe they won’t find anything, but it was a pretty solid lead. They chased after less reliable ones back when they first started searching for Bucky.

We arranged a plane, we just gotta grab what we need and be on our way.’

Andrews Base?’ asked Steve. Clint nodded. ‘We leave in an hour.’

They got to Nis in the middle of the night. It was well after midnight and way too cold for early May. The small plane they switched over to after they landed on the airport was no quintjet, but it was better than having to drive. Steve did not know the pilot, but Clint did. He said he checked out and Steve trusted his judgement as much as he trusted Natasha’s.

The location of the Hydra facility was way outside the city borders. Officially abandoned, only used as a training ground once in a while.

Thor, Sam, I need you to land on the roof, clear it out so that the rest of us can land safely. Then take out all guards on the outside, cameras too, if you find any. Check every entrance and exit and watch the perimeter while Natasha, Clint and I infiltrate the building. Try to stay close to at least one entrance at all times, we might need back-up quickly.’

Neither of them protested against guard-duty. Steve briefly considered taking Thor inside and leaving Clint with Sam, but dismissed the idea soon after. No matter their skills, Thor and Sam were soldiers, not spies. They were much better utilized by trusting them to provide back-up and extraction.

I don’t think Thor here actually needs to stay close to a door,’ Sam said. ‘He can just punch through a wall.’

Aye, clever idea my friend, it would be much quicker,’ Thor nodded approvingly.

Sam grinned as he checked his gear one last time, his guns, all his ammo and his earpiece. His routine was relaxing to watch. Clint and Natasha were likewise second-checking their equipment. Steve’s done his routine four times already, so he forced himself not to repeat the motions again.

The satellite pictures Hill got her hands on did not show much activity around the building in the last days, but we can’t assume anything based on just that,’ Steve continued. ‘It’s Hydra we’re dealing with here, if you can take them out without killing them; fine, but you don’t need to be careful.’

Explosives,’ Natasha reminded him.

No matter where you are, explosions mean you leave the premises,’ Steve said firmly.

After I made sure you are all safely outside,’ Thor said. Steve didn’t even try to argue with him about this, he knew there was no point.

T’was a reminder for the regular humans over there,’ Steve said, nodding his head towards Sam, Natasha, and Clint. ‘They bruise easily.’

You are hilarious, Cap,’ Clint deadpanned.

The explosives are an absolute last resort in case we can’t get to the package,’ Steve reminded everyone.

Natasha made a quiet disappointed “Aww” sound, making both Sam and Clint crack up, even Thor grinned. Steve tried and failed not to smile as he shook his head. Natasha just smirked at him.

And if you see Bucky or the hooded man, do not engage unless they attack first.’

Trust me, I won’t go anywhere near them,’ Clint said as he pulled his quiver on his back. Steve gave him a look, but did not comment.

Steve was buzzing with energy. This was the first time in a long time he felt like he was close to Bucky again. Or at least getting his hands on some solid information. Plus he was never going get tired of making Hydra pay for everything they’ve done.

The light next to the back-door of the plane lit up.

Drop point,’ Clint announced and hit a button to get the door open. Cold wind filled the plane immediately.

Steve raised his arm to politely allow Thor and Sam to get to the back of the plane.

To battle, my friends,’ Thor said, his red cap swirling behind him in the draft. ‘And to victory!’

Then he spun his hammer and jumped out of the plane.

I really do like this guy,’ Sam smiled at Steve as he walked past him. Steve clapped him on the shoulder, then watched how he jumped out of the plane without hesitation too.

Oh good, you didn’t forget your parachute,’ Natasha remarked, looking Steve up and down.

I’m getting old, huh?’ Steve countered.

You are way past old, Methuselah,’ Clint told him. Then they jumped.

The good news was that it seemed like neither Bucky nor anyone else attacked this place yet. The bad news was that Hydra clearly expected to be attacked. They were welcomed with a hail of bullets once they got inside the building, even thought Thor and Sam dutifully took out all and every guard on the outside and no alarm was sounded.

I mean, I am not surprised,’ Natasha said as she shot down another guy, trying to sneak up on them. ‘But I’m still not happy about this.’

But Natasha, you were sooo bored,’ Clint told her. ‘You willingly drove down to Delaware to look at dead bodies.’

Of course you would enjoy this,’ she said.

I didn’t say that,’ Clint protested as he let another arrow fly.

Can we please focus?’ Steve interrupted, but he was ignored for the time being.

I was perfectly content lazing on my couch,’ Clint continued. ‘Some junk food,’ he shot another guy that appeared above them on an narrow metal overpass that had to lead to some other room. ‘Some trashy TV.’

You don’t watch TV,’ Natasha reminded him, then she dashed across the room, quickly taking out two guys who were taking cover behind a corner.

How you doin’ in there, Cap?’ asked Sam over their comm-link. Thor, as per usual, didn’t have his own. They always fried at the first hint of lightning that cursed through his body. Small electronics just did not go well together with god-like powers sometimes.

They’ve been expecting company, but nothing we can’t handle so far.’

Sure you don’t need any help?

Not yet. Just keep the building secure from the outside. We don’t need any surprises.’

You got it.

There was abruptly complete silence in the room and a moment later Natasha casually walked back to them.

Shall we?’

I noticed three possible directions to go from here,’ Steve said.

Four is you count the vents,’ Clint added.

Let’s take a quick look-around and tie up everyone who’s just unconscious,’ Steve instructed and the three of them separated to cover more ground.

They didn’t kill all of them, but Steve meant it when he said that they did not need to be careful. He did not enjoy killing, not even when it came to Hydra, but he accepted it a long time ago. These men and women who lied at his feet, dead or injured and unconscious, made their own choices. Because when it came down to it, the normal humans, who came at them with guns; chose to serve hydra. The doctors and the scientists, who implemented Hydra’s experiments, who put the syringe in the arms of others, twisted their bodies and minds; they chose to commit those horrendous acts.

It was always when it came to someone unusual, someone too strong, too fast, or possessing abilities no other human had, that they had to tread carefully. Hydra’s so-called “greatest weapons” were never as willing as all the “average” humans around them. Bucky was the first one Steve knew about, but he wasn’t the last. Hell, Wanda and Pietro were not going to be the last either.

I found some occult shit!’ Clint yelled from somewhere.

Natasha got to him just a few seconds sooner than Steve and she was already studying what Clint found. “Occult shit” seemed to be fitting. It was also definitely the way they needed to go.

The door and the wall around it was covered in... something. Symbols, letters, strange shapes in different colours. Some of it was definitely done with blood, now old and dry, while other parts were clearly spray-painted or just scribbled up with a sharpie. A lot of them were carved or scratched into the surface, probably in a hurry, because the lines were ragged and their depth constantly varied. Some of them seriously looked like as if some child got their hands on a knife or a pair of scissors and randomly decided to mess up the wall.

What in the hell is this supposed to be?’ he wondered out loud.

It’s Hydra... I mean, the Nazis dipped into magic and occultism, right?’ Natasha asked. ‘That’s how Red Skull found the Tesseract, he was following up myths and legends of gods.’

Freaky experiments seemed to be more to their style lately,’ Clint said.

Magic is just science we do not understand,’ Natasha told him, signing as well, now that she did not need to use her guns. ‘Thor always says so too.’

Then maybe we should ask Thor about this,’ Clint suggested, gesturing at the wall and the door.

He can take a look at it later,’ Steve said. ‘They know we’re here, we need to get what they are guarding here before they take off with it.’

I think if they could, they would have done it already,’ said Natasha.

We better not risk it,’ Steve told her and she didn’t argue. ‘Any idea how to get this door open?’

He looked at Clint first, but he just shrugged.

Maybe from the inside, there might be a main control hub somewhere. We could search for an alternative route in. Vents seem cosy. Or...’ he smiled. It was probably meant to look innocent.

Natasha’s eyes glinted in something akin to delight when Steve looked at her.

Don’t look at me like that,’ she said. ‘You want to blow this door up as much as we do.’

And okay, he couldn’t really argue with that.

You said explosives were the last resort!’ Sam questioned him through their comm-link.

Eh, it was just a small explosion,’ Steve reassured him.

Just a small explo--,’ he started, then he just sighed. Steve could hear Thor laughing in the background. ‘You’re gonna give me grey hair despite my young age, Cap,’Sam complained. Steve had to smile at that.

How are things out there?’

Well, they definitely don’t know how many of us are out here or they keep underestimating us,’ Sam reported. ‘A small team tried to come up to the roof. You should’ve seen how they just literally stopped when they caught sight of Thor. Comedy-gold, Cap, comedy-gold.’

Okay, keep me posted.’

Yeah, you too. Watch your backs.

They ran into surprisingly no resistance since they blew up the door. But Steve did not believe for a second that they were not being watched. He was expecting to be ambushed any second. Clint and Natasha were just as alert as he was, so they clearly expected the same.

Things got strangely... still, all of a sudden,’ Natasha said after a few long moments passed. They kept walking across small, but not completely abandoned-looking rooms and narrow corridors. Yet no bullets, no strike team, no nothing.

I’m gonna be that guy, okay?’ Clint spoke up. ‘I’ve got the tone down. Here it goes... it’s quiet,’ he said in a harsh dramatic whisper. ‘Too quiet.

Natasha groaned and turned to Clint. Steve couldn’t see her properly, so he didn’t know what sort of face she made, but it made Clint chuckle quietly. He went silent thought a moment later and Steve knew why. He noticed the stench too, almost at the same time. It was faint for now, but it was unmistakably the very distinct smell of days-old corpses.

Sure enough, they found some bodies as they ventured deeper into the complex. Steve was confused, he was ready to admit that. The strike team that welcomed them made them assume that the building was not attacked yet, but now it seemed otherwise. He looked over to Natasha, whose brows were furrowed as well.

‘Lock-down?’ she guessed. ‘Did they seal the building?’

‘No one in, no one out? Maybe.’

This place was starting to rub him in the wrong way and not just because of the now constant stench of death around them.

They heard gunshots. Not even just a few, and some of them were definitely coming from automatic guns. Nobody was shooting at them though. Steve started running towards the sound, Clint and Natasha were right on his heel.

When they reached a longer corridor Steve picked up his pace and ran faster. He knew the other two couldn’t keep up immediately, but he was confident they would catch up with him in time. Then the ceiling caved in not far in front of him, the noise, with the sudden cloud of dust and debris, made him stop abruptly. A body or two fell through, Steve couldn’t really see much of what was happening at first. It was hard to slow down from his speed, but he managed just in time before anything could hit him.

When he looked up again he saw that two of the bodies that fell through the ceiling were on the floor now. Hydra agents decked in kevlar from head-to-toe, heavily armed too, and on top of them, still in a crouch, was the hooded man from the security footage.

He noticed Steve of course and straightened up. Steve could hear Clint and Natasha running towards them in the tense seconds he was staring at the unknown man, who must’ve stared back through the dust that still filled the air.

Then he took off, so Steve did as well. He did not want to lose sight of him. This man could lead him to Bucky. Unfortunately, his speed was just as impressive as his strength, because while Steve could keep up, he didn’t manage to get closer. When the corners came, left and right and left again, Steve only caught glimpses of his dark overcoat, then he was gone altogether. Steve randomly picked corners after that, dashing through the building, jumping over dead Hydra operatives when they were in the way. He ran down a short flight of stairs and found himself on a different corridor. Darker, more narrow. He stopped then, because there was no point.

Steve, where are you?’ Natasha asked, finally activating her comm-link now that they were separated.

A floor below, stairs are on the North-West side, I think. I lost him.’

We’ll find you eventually,’ Natasha said confidently. ‘Keep looking, we’ll do the same.

It made sense. They couldn’t waste time searching for each other when they knew for sure that at least the hooded man was here. Steve started walking again with a brisk pace, straining his ears for any possible noise that might give him a hint where to go.

In the end, he saw some bloody fingerprints on a door-frame. He heard nothing from the other side, but he still gripped his shield tightly and opened the metal door as quietly as possible. He was a bit surprised that it wasn’t locked. Somebody must’ve opened it already.

It was a security room, the central hub Clint assumed existed. Inside was nothing but three pairs of dead eyes, the bodies as old as all the others they found. The monitors were blank or grainy with no signal, cameras disabled or damaged, none of them showed anything worthwhile. The room itself was pretty huge, maybe meant to be used for briefings as well. He walked closer to the bodies, two out of three were still in their chairs, the third one clearly carelessly tossed down on the floor between them. The smell was pretty bad, but Steve could deal.

Hey Steve.’

He stopped breathing, but just for a second, his body was already turning towards the familiar voice. A reflex maybe, not being able to ignore it, not even for the shortest amount of time. And it was his name, his name! He said his name, just like thousands of times before. Steve’s breath rushed out of him at once as they finally stood face-to-face, looking at one another.

A long moment passed, filled with nothing but the sound of his own blood pumping in his ears. He licked his lips and tried to speak. His voice came out quiet, almost gentle, he couldn’t help it.

Hey Bucky.’



Chapter Text

Bucky looked okay, healthy. That was the first thing that popped into Steve’s head again. Just like when he saw him on the recording. He looked tired though. Those dark rings under his eyes were unmistakable. His face was mostly blank, but his eyes were burning as he silently stared at Steve.

And he was holding a crowbar in his hand.

‘Do... do you know who I am?’ Steve asked, his whole body tense, ready to defend himself. Not that he thought Bucky would come at him with a crowbar, when he could see at least three guns on his person and at least one knife, but he had to ask. So much time passed. He had to remember... something.

‘Yes,’ Bucky answered quietly as he took a few steps closer.

‘Do you remember me?’ Steve asked then, because knowing him was one thing. He could’ve read a file or simply one of the thousand books or articles written about him. Hell, Hydra briefed him before they sent him out to kill him. So just knowing him and his name meant very little.

Bucky glanced up at him again, kept their eyes locked for a few seconds.

‘Yes,’ he said then, with the same quiet, basically empty tone. Then he forcefully wedged the crowbar into the floor and started prying open a floor panel.

Steve had a thousand questions. If Bucky remembered him, why didn’t he contact him? Or let himself be found? Why was he attacking Hydra now, when he left them alone for so long? How was he? Where was he staying? How much did he remember? Just... he wanted to grab him by the shoulders and demand answers. Or just lock his arms around him for a long moment, to make sure he was real.

‘What are you doing?’ he asked instead.

Bucky surprised him when he answered, sounding irritated. The tone reminded him of crisp dark mornings, when Bucky had to drag himself out of bed too early and he hated the world for it.

‘I’ve been trying to find this fucking door for three goddamn days,’ he said as he finally got the panel off. He grabbed it with his metal arm to pull it out of the way, then he immediately started working on a panel right next to it.

Steve figured it was safe to move a little closer.


‘Not now,’ he cut him off.

‘I’ve been looking for you... I...’ He swallowed and took a deep breath. ‘I’ve been...’

He’s been searching for so long. And this was really not the situation he expected. Not how he pictured their “reunion”.

‘I know,’ Bucky said, his voice was still quiet, neutral. He only stopped for a moment as he answered, then he got the second panel off.

‘Are you... how much do you remember?’

‘I said; not know,’ Bucky told him, still neutral, still quiet, but a bit firmer. Bucky’s never been quiet, not like this at least. It was off-putting.

‘You can’t expect me to not ask questions, Bucky,’ Steve said.

Bucky stayed silent as he tossed the second heavy panel aside. Steve saw that there was some sort of a trapdoor underneath, but a few panels still needed to be removed to access it.

Steve, you copy? Where are you?’ Natasha asked through the comm-link.

Steve hesitated.

‘I’m fine,’ he replied to her then. He had to tell them that he was okay. Bucky looked up at him again. ‘No sight of the hooded man.’

She must’ve caught something in his tone, she always did. Steve just couldn’t fool her.

And Barnes?’ she asked.

Steve took another deep breath.

‘I’ve got it under control,’ he answered firmly.

We’re coming,’ she said.

‘No, I’ve got this,’ Steve insisted. Bucky tossed aside another panel, it hit the floor with an unpleasantly loud clank. ‘The situation is not... hostile.’

Natasha was silent for a few moments. Steve wasn’t sure how Bucky would react if Natasha and Clint showed up, so he wanted to give themselves a little more time, just one-on-one. He was really dead set on removing the panels for now, his full attention was firmly focused on that, but he was definitely paying attention to what Steve was saying. And Steve... he was way out of his depth here. Bucky was... he didn’t even know, he just couldn’t tell. He thought he would be able to tell, once he saw him in person, once he could look at his face and into his eyes, but he had no idea. He was not hostile, he said he remembered Steve, but he was not... not reacting in a way Steve thought he would once he had his memories back. Sam always told him not to expect anything, because there was no way to tell how Bucky would be like, but Steve still kinda thought he had a pretty accurate guess about how this would go down. He was wrong as it turned out.

We’re going to secure the upper floors,’ Natasha told him in the end. ‘If the situation changes in any way, call us. Don’t be stupid.’

‘You got it,’ Steve promised.

We will join you shortly, make no mistake about that,’ she added. Steve was not even surprised about that. After they sort of put together how things went down between him and Bucky on the Helicarrier, they didn’t really trust him to handle any sort of Winter Soldier-related situation sensibly. Steve kinda wanted to remind them that his lack of common sense really did not just apply to things concerning Bucky, but he knew when not to work against himself.

Bucky tossed aside another panel and started working on the last one.

Steve wanted to reach out, lift his head to take a closer look at his face again, but he remained firmly in one place, resisting the urge to close the distance between them. He did not know what to say. He thought about it so much while he was searching, what he needed to say. But every time he pictured this scene, there was violence, confusion, or anger from Bucky. Something. He did not expect... whatever the hell was going on right now.

‘Bucky you need to answer me, just a few questions,’ he said. ‘Please.’

Bucky stopped again, straightened up, pulling the last panel free, and dropping it aside. A moment later the crowbar hit the ground too.

‘I think someone’s down there,’ he said.

‘What?’ Steve looked down at the trapdoor. ‘Who?’

Bucky shrugged, but the movement seemed forced, a little jerky, like he practised it a lot, but still couldn’t get it just right.

‘Prisoner, hostage, lab rat, whatever you wanna call it.’

‘What?’ Steve hurried closer, momentarily forgetting that Bucky might not react well to being approached so suddenly. Bucky did not attack or back off though, his eyes were firmly on the trapdoor and its opening mechanism. He crouched down and started inspecting it more closely.

‘You said you’ve been searching for this door?’ Steve asked.

Bucky seemed unwilling to answer questions about himself, but he was forthcoming with information when it came to their current situation. It was a start, at least they were talking. Maybe if they just started a steady stream of words, they would get to the more important questions.

‘Three days,’ Bucky confirmed. ‘Building’s been sealed off.’

Natasha was right about that then.

‘And most Hydra operatives rather popped their cyanide pills than risk being interrogated by me.’

Steve firmly pushed aside his questions about interrogations.

‘You’ve got locked in?’ he asked instead. Bucky grunted in answer, it was a “yes” sounding grunt. ‘Wait, three days? Has this trapdoor been locked since?’

‘Looks like it,’ Bucky said. ‘They hid it when we got here.’

Steve wanted to ask about the “we”, the hooded man, why Bucky was here, why he was in Delaware, why they let themselves be recorded, but he had to shove those questions aside too for the time being. Whoever was down there, they had been down there for at least three days. They had to get them out of there, quickly.

Steve crouched down too and felt relieved when Bucky didn’t react to his proximity. He seemed to be fine with Steve being this close, he was not weary or cautious. Well, if he really did remember Steve, he knew he was not going to be attacked.

‘Turn the levers there, I got these ones,’ he said.

‘No, I need to find the wire first,’ Bucky said.

‘It’s rigged?’

Again, just that grunt. Steve watched him as he searched, using the opportunity to take a closer look at his face. The stubble did look three days old and if he’s been here this long, it explained the apparent exhaustion as well. He was focused, his hands were steady, but he was still... off. He was obviously not the way Steve remembered him from before he fell, but he was also not like the ruthless assassin that attacked him. He acted calm, spoke softly and neutrally, but it felt like a lie. Like it was practised, like it was staged. It just... Steve was happy he wasn’t being shot at, or that he was not dodging knives and fists, but it still bothered him. He had the urge to grab him and shake him, just tell him to cut it out!

Bucky made a little curious noise and then Steve watched him as he expertly disarmed whatever explosives were rigged on the trapdoor.

‘Turn the levers, same time as me,’ Bucky instructed.

Steve was not an idiot. He knew very well there was a chance that he was aiding and abetting, so to speak. He knew he had no reason to take Bucky’s words at face-value, but... well, if someone was really down there and Steve hesitated; it could end badly.

Besides, he was pretty sure Bucky could get this thing open on his own, or he could have his unknown hooded accomplice help him with it. So there was no point not doing it. At least, that was what he was going to say to the others if this blew up in his face.

They turned the levers and opened the trapdoor. It was pretty dark in there, but Bucky did not hesitate at all. He grabbed the ladder and started descending right away. Steve did have a bad feeling about all this, but he was who he was, so he put his shield back on his back and grabbed the ladder too.

He was halfway down when dim lights came on below him, so he at least saw where he was going. The level below was a lot smaller than expected and the large drawers on the first wall he glanced at looked like something out of a morgue. Oh, let this not be a morgue.

There were doors too, but Steve’s eyes merely slid over them. And then he turned around and saw the glass. Bucky was right, there was someone down here. He activated his comm-link as he rushed closer.

Natasha, we’re going to need medical help,’ he said.

We’re already on our way, what happened?

Steve stared at the small figure curled up in the far corner of the little glass cubicle and didn’t have the right words to describe what he was seeing. The frame of the body was too small to belong to an adult. He couldn’t even tell whether it was a boy or a girl, the clothes they had on were a little baggy and nondescript, their hair was shorn and he couldn’t see their face properly.

‘We found a captive,’ Steve said in the end. ‘A... it’s a kid Nat, they kept a kid here dammit.’

The plane will be back in twenty,’ she said, her voice went incredibly hard and cold. ‘How bad is it?

I don’t know--

The door on the little cubicle slid open. Steve jerked his head to the side and saw that Bucky had his hands on a panel. Steve nodded his thanks and carefully stepped inside. The child didn’t move as Steve approached, from the size of the body their age had to be somewhere around 10 or 12.

‘Hey, you probably can’t understand me, but I’m here to help,’ Steve spoke as gently as he could. He heard some noise from behind him, but he focused his attention on the child huddled in the corner. He crouched down and reached out very slowly. The child did not react, not even to his touch. Shit. They seemed physically uninjured, but who knew what Hydra did to them. This was turning Steve’s stomach.

Every time he thought he saw all the horrors Hydra was capable of, every time he thought it couldn’t possibly be worse, they proved him wrong. Intellectually, he knew that Wanda and Pietro were young too when Hydra and Von Stucker got their hands on them. It was still different to see a child locked up like this.

‘It’s going to be all right,’ he murmured quietly, even thought he knew his words were empty and had little meaning at the moment. He hoped his voice sounded comforting, or at least not hostile.

The glass door slid shut behind him.

Steve spun around immediately and he saw from the corner of his eye that the child jerked in reaction to the sudden movement.

‘It’s fine, it’s okay,’ Steve tried to soothe them immediately, but since there was very little he could do for them, he turned around completely.

Bucky stood calmly on the other side of the glass, a dark metal suitcase in one hand.


‘I’m sorry,’ Bucky said. ‘Your friends can open the door. Panel’s right there, they’ll be here soon.’

‘Bucky, what are you doing?’

A dark shape dropped down from the hole that lead to the floor above. The hooded man.

‘They sealed us in, but we can finally leave with that big hole you blew in the line,’ Bucky said. ‘Sorry about that too, this place is tricky, not a two-man job.’

Steve frowned and added two and two together. It was for him then, the recording. Or for the Avengers in general, it didn’t matter. His eyes lingered on the dark suitcase for a moment before he caught Bucky’s eyes again. For the first time Steve caught some sort of emotion on Bucky’s face, even if it was still faint, suppressed. He avoided Steve’s gaze, he seemed guilty.

The hooded man was moving behind Bucky by the wall, his back to them, so Steve couldn’t see what he was doing.

‘Why? Why all this? Here, and in Delaware?’ Steve asked. His heart was beating heavily, his chest tight with emotions he could not even begin to identify. He just knew that it hurt. He needed answers.

‘I...’ Bucky paused, looked away and clenched his jaw. Steve couldn’t tell whether he looked stubborn or determined. It was somewhere on a fine line between the two. ‘Take that kid out of here,’ was all he said.

Steve opened his mouth to say something, but the wall behind Bucky cracked, and the noise silenced him. The hooded man stepped to the side as the crack grew bigger and chunks of the wall started to fall away. But there was no other room behind it. There was strange light and a noise Steve couldn’t recognize. As the cracks widened and more of the wall fell away, Steve realized that something completely unnatural was going on.

The edge of the rugged hole was turning black, as if shaded with charcoal, and behind was gaping darkness. No, not just darkness, there were distant shapes and tiny movements, like how dark and lazy water rippled. There were clouds or smoke and tiny blinking spots. Steve didn’t know what he was looking at.

When the pieces of the wall stopped dropping a strong wind picked up in the room, a draft coming from nowhere, and a deep humming noise itched at his ears and sent shivers down Steve’s spine. Bucky turned around.

‘No,’ Steve protested right away. ‘Bucky, no!’

Bucky stopped. The hooded man crossed his arms over his chest. Impatient, maybe. Steve paid very little attention to him.

‘Bucky... don’t do this, whatever this is, just... don’t go... please.’

When Bucky looked back at him, Steve could read the apology clearly on his face, but he said nothing. As he approached the hole, more movement swirled inside of it, crawling towards the edge. The blackness spread out even more. The way that dark colour extended and moved, it looked almost as if it were alive. And Steve was suddenly terrified, because Bucky was walking into this thing, this swirling, pulsing chasm of nothingness.

‘Bucky, don’t! No!’

But he did. He walked right into it, with the confidence of someone who either knew no fear, or did this a thousand times before. His whole body was swallowed up and he vanished in a blink. Steve stared at the vortex, abyss, he didn’t know what to call it. Then his eyes slid over to the hooded man. For the first time Steve was close enough to him to catch a pair of blood-red eyes. The man raised a gloved hand to his head, gave him a mock of a salute, then followed Bucky into the void. In less than a couple of seconds the colours and the darkness vanished and there was nothing left but giant cracks in the wall.

Natasha and Clint arrived literally minutes after. Steve told them where the panel to the glass cage was. But after that he did not know how to answer any of their questions.



Chapter Text

‘The girl’s name is Zora Đjurović,’ Natasha told them when she returned. ‘She went missing over a year ago, was assumed dead.’

‘So what did Hydra want with her?’ asked Sam.

‘She’s the daughter of a Serbian general, but so far we’ve got nothing from him. He’ll have to answer some questions later. He’s staying with his daughter in the hospital for now.’

‘So was she a prisoner or did they want her for anything else?’ Clint asked.

‘She’s still being examined,’ Natasha said. ‘They’ll call me if they notice anything unusual about her. She’s traumatized, she doesn’t speak, but she is relatively healthy, and uninjured.’

‘This is so messed-up,’ Sam sighed. Sick bastards, who would keep a little girl like that, locked up in some glass cage in a basement. They could only guess at the moment. Maybe she was used to control her father, if he even knew she was alive, or there could be something even more sinister about her abduction and imprisonment. Hydra was known for getting their hands on people with unusual potential.

‘They have paid for this dreadful crime,’ Thor said with a hard voice. ‘We have killed or captured all that have not been defeated by our Captain’s friend and his companion.’

Steve remained silent, even when almost all of them glanced his way. He’s been very tight-lipped about what happened after he ran into Barnes. What he said sounded like a very clinical report, very unlike Steve. He was still processing what happened, deep in thought, eyes far away.

‘My question is,’ Clint started. ‘Why did they lure us here, if that guy could make a friggin’ door to nowhere? I mean, I would get it if they suspected that the building would be locked down, and they needed someone to get in from the outside.’

‘I believe the building might have been sealed off in more ways than our eyes could see,’ Thor said.

‘You mean the occult shit?’ Clint asked.

‘I do not know all the symbols they have etched on the walls, but we mustn’t underestimate the knowledge Hydra has gathered through the years.’

‘We did find those freaky things on walls all over the place,’ Sam nodded. For a moment his world felt very surreal, discussing this sort of thing, but he marched onwards. Eyes on the ball, they needed to think, not freak out about weird Hydra magic defences.

‘So, we can assume that they did need us to get in from the outside. Does that mean there really is just the two of them?’ theorized Natasha. ‘Did the two of them attack every single one of the Hydra facilities?’

Under normal circumstances, it would have been impossible for two guys to raid that many bases all around the world in under twenty-four hours. Now they had to look at all of this differently. Sam did not see this door himself, but even just hearing Steve describe it made him uneasy. It sounded like something out of a nightmare.

‘We really need more information about this hooded guy,’ Clint said.

‘He had red eyes,’ Steve spoke finally. ‘I don’t think it was just the light from that... door. He had blood-red eyes.’

‘Well, that oughta narrow the search down,’ Sam said.

‘You’d think,’ Clint snorted, then signed something to Natasha. Sam only recognized the three-fingered claw he made out of his hand and moved it in front of his face. That was “weird”. The rest of it escaped him, but he was sure it was just some smart-ass comment. He really enjoyed signing those when Natasha was around. Like a kid who kept whispering jokes in their friend’s ear.

Natasha signed something back, a small smile at the corner of her mouth.

‘We should head to Poland,’ Steve said then.

‘Don’t you want to wait for more news about the kid?’ Sam asked.

‘I doubt she actually has anything to do with the packages,’ Steve said. ‘I’m glad we found her, and that she’ll be okay, but we need to get to the bottom of this. The more time we waste, the less chance there is that we will find anything at all by the East Wall.’

‘Do we know where the Hydra fort is on this wall?’ Thor asked.

‘Not yet, but after what we found here in Nis, I can probably convince more agencies to give us a helping hand,’ Natasha said. ‘I’ll make some calls.’

She left the room.

‘I still don’t get how they knew we would come here,’ Sam said after a few moments of silence. ‘They were already locked in for three days, I mean, what if we went to Poland first?’

‘No chance of that,’ Clint said. ‘They left a pile of bodies in what’s basically our backyard, and a video footage of Barnes. There was no chance in hell Cap wasn’t gonna jump right into this. No offence,’ he added.

‘None taken,’ Steve shrugged. ‘We’re exactly where they wanted us to be.’

‘Then they probably also know that we will head to the East Wall,’ Thor concluded. ‘Are we going to follow the road they paved for us?’

‘For now,’ Steve said. Sam thought about it for a moment. Maybe it was not the smartest thing to do, go where they were being lead. But if this base proved anything, it was that they could do more than just gather intelligence. If they wouldn’t have come here this soon, who knows what would have happened to the girl. He kinda wished it didn’t feel like some sort of a cruel incentive to move forward.

‘Never it be said that the Avengers refuse an invitation like this,’ Clint said. ‘Whatever they’re up to, they want us to play too.’

‘Well said, my friend,’ Thor agreed. ‘We know more than we knew when we came here. Soon we will have the whole truth. And we shall vanquish more of Hydra’s foul dens while we’re searching for answers.’

Predictably, they were en-route to Poland as soon as humanly possible. Clint passed out the second they took off with the plane, Thor also seemed to have the ability to sleep anywhere, while Natasha only just recently stopped going over data and exchanging information with Hill. Sam slept a little too, but when a little turbulence woke him up he saw that Steve was still just sitting in his seat, staring out of the tiny window next to him.

Sam rubbed his face and got up to walk over to him.

‘Cap, you haven’t slept since Nat called you from Delaware,’ Sam reminded him. ‘You need rest, super-soldier or no super-soldier.’

‘I tried,’ Steve answered. ‘Didn’t really work.’

Sam sat down into one of the empty seats close to him. This was a private plane, just big enough for a small team like theirs. Nobody else was on-board besides them and the pilot.

The thing was, he’s been trying to help Steve get prepared for the day they would eventually catch up with Bucky. Sam was not gonna lie, he expected everything from not so bad to catastrophic. And he knew, he was absolutely certain, that Steve was not prepared for some of the scenarios Sam had in his mind. Physically and strategically, sure, but not mentally.

Bucky Barnes died, well... went missing, not long before Steve went down with his plane. When he woke up in the 21st century, the loss for him was still fresh, the wound still raw. On top of that, he’s been told everyone else he ever knew was dead too. Then of course came SHIELD and the Battle of New York.

He was still not completely okay when Sam met him, but at least he had time to deal, to mourn, to accept the loss, and to adjust to his new life. The Winter Soldier changed all that. It’s like those whole two years of progress Steve had made was unravelled in a matter of days. And no matter how much Steve tried to get his footing back, how much he tired to be okay again, it just didn’t quite work. Not with all the battles Steve had to fight regularly. Not with Barnes missing.

And now this... Life just punched Steve in the gut again, Sam could tell. Steve always rolled with the punches, sure, and he always stood up and kept going, but that didn’t mean Sam had to like the look it put in his eyes.

‘Look, Cap, he’s gonna show up again,’ Sam told him. ‘And we’re gonna get some answers. We’ll understand more then.’

Steve took a deep breath and leaned back in his seat.

‘He said he remembered me,’ Steve said. ‘And yet... I don’t know. He said “sorry”... when he locked me in, said “sorry” for luring me there in the first place, but then he walked right into that hole.’

‘Cap, I’m not even gonna try to figure out what’s going on in his head, but this thing is growing bigger by the minute. This is not just some quest for revenge, he’s... they’re up to something.’

‘And what they’re up to might be something bad. Is that what you’re telling me?’ Steve looked at him, his eyes practically begging Sam to say “no” to that question.

‘I don’t know,’ Sam said. ‘Maybe, maybe not. We talked about this before. Yes, he was barely awake for the last seventy years, but what Hydra did to him is going to leave its mark. Nobody bounces back from something like that.’

‘I know that, Sam.’

Sam tried to gather his thoughts. He really wanted Steve to understand this, at the same time he did not want to crush all his hopes. Not that he probably could. But Steve really did not need Sam to argue with him on top of everything else.

‘Look, he’s not going around hurting innocent people,’ Sam settled on. ‘That’s good, I’m not saying it’s not. He seems to be strictly on a Hydra-only kill-streak.’

‘But?’ Steve prompted.

‘But he’s also not some lost little lamb here. He’s very well trained, and from what we saw of the Hydra bases he steamrolled through, he knows exactly what he’s doing. I know you had this picture in your head; him wandering alone, confused without his memories. But it’s pretty clear he knows how to take care of himself.’

‘If you’re trying to tell me again that he’s the kind you stop and not--’

‘That’s not what I’m saying,’ Sam put his hands up. ‘I’m saying he doesn’t need saving either. It doesn’t look like he does.’

‘I hope you’re not expecting me to just give up.’

‘Hell no,’ Sam smiled. ‘Your buddy needs to answer some damn questions. What I want you to do is look at this as it is. You’re not running after him to save him here, not if he’s all right enough in the head to make his own choices.’

‘How do we know that? I barely spoke to him. We can’t just assume that he’s doing this, any of this, willingly. Or that he’s clear in the head enough to know what he’s doing.’

Sam sighed, but he couldn’t really argue. There was no proof either way.

‘You’re right,’ Sam said. Steve visibly relaxed hearing that. ‘But both option is possible. So I want you to be prepared for both.’

‘I am.’

‘Are you sure?’ Sam questioned.

Steve nodded. ‘We need to know what’s going on here, so we get to the bottom of this. After that, if he’s really okay enough to make his own choices...’ he fell silent for a moment. ‘Well, I guess it depends on what exactly he’s doing.’

Seeing Steve this crestfallen was tough. It was like something horrible happened in the world. Sam really hoped Barnes knew what the hell he was doing, and that it wasn’t something they needed to stop. Sam didn’t think any sort of conversation about stopping Barnes would go over well with Steve. The guy was literally his biggest weakness, but damn, did Sam understand all too well.

‘Way too early to say whether he wants to stick around or not in the long run,’ Sam said, sliding over to the optimistic side of the conversation. ‘One step at a time, okay? Innocent until proven guilty.’ He knew Steve was grateful, and it was good to see him smile a little bit in reaction. Even if he still looked like crap.

‘And go to sleep dammit, or I’m gonna ask Natasha to sedate you.’ It was an empty threat, but Steve smiled again, so it was worth it.

‘Fine,’ Steve said, with the tone of a stubborn long-suffering child. He even huffed when he got more comfortable. Sam just shook his head and patted his shoulder as he stood up.

‘Hey,’ Steve called after him. ‘Thanks.’

‘Any time, Cap,’ Sam smiled back. ‘Go to sleep.’

Steve gave him a tiny salute.

Sam woke up again when someone nudged him in the shoulder. He groaned and rubbed at his eyes. He did not sleep nearly enough.

‘Are we there?’ he asked.

‘No, but there’s news,’ Steve said. Sam’s eyes popped open, because that tone of voice meant nothing good.

‘What happened?’ he asked, sitting up straight.

‘Looks like things are kicking up in Poland,’ said Clint. He was perching on the armrest of Natasha’s seat, Thor stood behind them. Sam got up and moved to Thor’s left while Steve to his right.

Natasha had some news video open on her laptop. The reporter was talking in Polish though, so Sam didn’t understand a thing. The video itself showed long lines of mangled and burning cars on a city street. There were ambulances, police cars, fire fighters.

‘What the hell?’

‘Poznań,’ Clint provided the location helpfully.

‘They’re still trying to figure out what happened. Witnesses reported colourful explosions,’ Natasha said, or translated probably. ‘And strange animal sounds, loud enough that windows were shaking from it, then all hell broke lose. So far they didn’t find anyone who actually saw anything, there’s just a lot of damage.’

That was an understatement. The news channel kept showing deep cracks in the road, and what seemed like large slashes on the side of a bus and some of the wrecked cars. Sam did not want to know how that happened, his mind was already coming up with horrible scenarios. He caught sight of some bullet holes too. Your life was weird when bullet torn windshields kept you anchored in reality.

The reported reached up to her ear in the corner of the screen, then started speaking rapidly. Something happened. A second later the camera switched over to a helicopter-view not that high above the city. The helicopter was slowly circling the rooftop of a tall building. It took Sam a moment to notice the thing up on the roof, cause it was the same colour as concrete. It looked dead, since it was partially stabbed through and wrapped up in... a fire-escape handrail? Holy shit. And it was huge! Enormous claws on all four feet (arms and legs?), a long bony tail, and a large slightly cone-like head.

‘Is that an alien?’ Clint asked. ‘Please don’t tell me we have aliens again.’

‘I have never seen such a beast before,’ Thor rumbled. And that... that was not a good sign.

‘Are you sure?’ Steve asked him.

‘I believe I would remember such a gruesome creature, Captain,’ Thor said. ‘Especially something this large. By the Tree, it has to be close to seven feet long.’

‘So it’s not an alien?’ Clint asked.

‘What else could it be?’ Sam asked. ‘It’s not native in Eastern Europe, I can tell you that much.’

‘Is this connected?’ Steve asked. ‘How far is Poznań from the East Wall?’

‘Right in the neighbourhood,’ Natasha said, then she turned a little to look at Steve. ‘And do you believe in coincidences like this?’

‘Not really,’ Steve admitted.

The news channel showed some people taking to cops, others being looked after by paramedics.

‘Casualties?’ Steve asked.

‘No deaths so far,’ Natasha told them. ‘The streets were basically empty this early in the morning. Some people say they heard a lot of gunshots too, not just explosions and... well, growling I guess, there were mixed reports about that. We know what made that sound though.’

‘This just turned into whole new ball game, people,’ Sam said. ‘Again. Hydra and its shit experiments and weird magic stuff... fine, but this... what the hell is this?’

‘Steve, we have to call Wanda and Pietro at the very least’ Natasha said. ‘If not everyone.’

‘She’s right, Cap, look at that thing,’ Clint agreed. ‘I mean, Thor could probably take one down, but we’re going in basically blind here, and I don’t like our chances.’

‘Bruce is still in Malaysia,’ Steve said. ‘And I don’t think Tony’s up for... anything.’

‘I’m calling it, Cap,’ Clint said. ‘We need Vision too. All in favour say “aye”.’

‘Aye,’ they all said in unison. Steve looked at Sam.

‘You’ve never even met him,’ he said.

‘Man, we’ve got weird giant alien-demon things, Hydra strike teams, occult shit and magic portals, not to mention your old pal and his new friend. Call your whole damn clubhouse, we’re gonna need back-up.’

‘Come on, Steve, he’s not so bad,’ Natasha coaxed.

‘He’s just... fine, call them,’ Steve relented.

‘Are we heading to Poznań then?’ Clint asked. ‘We should take a look at that thing.’

‘Might as well,’ Steve nodded. ‘Until we know where that Hydra facility is, we have nowhere else to go.’

‘Hill is working on it, so is Bobbi,’ Natasha promised. ‘We’re going to find it.’

‘Yeah, I know. I’m just starting to worry about what we’re going to find,’ Steve said.

Truth to be told, he really wasn’t the only one.

Chapter Text

It weighted heavily on Thor’s heart, to see his friend in such obvious pain. It was different, yet achingly familiar to him. He never would have dared voice this out loud, in fear Steve would believe it an insult to his friend, but Thor still thought that he understood what he was going through because of his own life experiences. He was not going to say it, because the situation itself couldn’t be more different. Steve’s friend Barnes was not to be blamed for anything that had been done to him, and therefore also not for what he had done.

Thor knew about the great wars that plagued this world in the past century, but he had never paid too much attention to it from Asgard. He had not cared, was the honest truth. If he remembered correctly, he heard about it mostly by catching bits and pieces of Loki and his mother discussing it. He never sought out Heimdall to ask how things fared in Midgard. He had only ever done that when he planned to visit the realm, which he did not intend to do at the time. So the first time he was faced with Hydra, he took it upon himself to learn more about the wars, in order learn more about their enemy. The extent of cold cruelty humans were capable of shocked him to his core.

He knew it even before, that there were men and women with wicked hearts who committed evil deeds on Midgard. But that great war, the second one, Thor had never seen such evil. He never even heard of such a thing, not even among the countless tales about the war with the Frost Giants. Since then, he’d learnt that the great war with its countless deaths was just one of the many horrible crimes humans committed against one another. Hydra itself proved time and time again that their evil knew no bounds.

Thor feared what the vile organisation had done this time. Midgardian science was quickly evolving, but the more Thor saw of the hideouts Barnes and his companion wiped out, the more he feared it was not science they needed to worry about. Hydra clearly ventured deeper into knowledge not yet meant for humans. The mystic and arcane arts of the Nine Realms, Thor feared, would bring too much destruction in the hands of the likes of Hydra. And yet, it seemed they were already using such knowledge.

They flew to the city of Poznań to look at the mysterious creature with their own eyes. Thor tried to think of all the places it could’ve come from, since he visited all of the realms at one point or another, but he just couldn’t place it. That probably meant that the beast came from somewhere different. If he took the body back to Asgard he could maybe consult someone about it. Then he would be able to learn more than the Midgardians with their undeveloped machines. He didn’t think there was time or need for a journey to Asgard though... not yet anyway.

‘What do you think?’ Natasha prompted as Thor examined the beast a little more closely.

‘It is certainly a fearsome creature,’ Thor said. ‘Its skin is thick enough to not be harmed by the bullets you have in guns. Probably most knives or swords would break as well instead of piercing through this thick hide.’

‘Oh, goody,’ Clint murmured.

‘Could you kill one?’ Steve asked him.

‘I do not know how strong it is, but I believe so. I have hunted greater beasts before. I would be mindful of the claws though... and the teeth.’

The creature’s mouth jutted forward, much like a canine’s. The four main fangs were as big as one of Thor’s fingers, but the rest were long and razor sharp as well, the teeth and jaw of a predator. The body itself was incredibly muscular, not an inch of fat, just hard edges. It had a long pointed tail. Then there were two slightly horn-like appendages coming out of the creature’s forehead, curving inwards and back along the long skull. When he pried back an eyelid he found lifeless red eyes.

‘Do you have any idea where it came from?’ Sam asked him.

Thor shook his head.

‘I am sorry my friends, but this is no creature of the Nine Realms. It’s... different. Feels different even, its smell is... unsettling. I do not know why.’

‘Yeah, it’s a big dead alien, course it smells bad,’ Clint said.

‘That is not what I meant. It does not smell like death, it’s too fresh for that anyway. It’s just... hard to put it in words. It does not feel like it belongs here, not in a world like this.’

Thor was sure he was still not explaining it right.

‘Then what kind of world?’ Natasha questioned.

‘If I knew the answer to that, we would be well prepared indeed for things to come. Sadly, I do not know yet. This is not my... area of expertise, if you wish.’

‘If it does not belong here, than who brought it here?’ Steve asked, focusing on the important questions, as always.

‘I do not believe them to be friendly, that is for certain,’ Thor settled on. ‘And I do not think it is an “alien” in the manner that you use that word.’

‘So magic. We’re talking about magic,’ Natasha concluded.

‘I know you use that word for describing impossible and unnatural things,’ Thor said. ‘And while it certainly may appear so at first glance, you need to understand that such ancient arts are just as firmly a part of existence as the other laws of nature.’

‘Okay, we don’t have time to talk about what magic actually means,’ Steve said. ‘We know that everything we found so far points in that direction. How does Hydra fit in all this? Did they bring this thing here? Did they create it?’

‘If Hydra is making things like this, then we have some serious trouble on our hands,’ Sam added.

Thor always admired how quickly his friends could accept something that was so very outside of their frame of reference. They accepted it and immediately started searching for ways to deal with it. They learnt and adapted fast, it was truly exceptional, and one of his favourite things about Midgardians.

‘I’d say it’s not likely that humans could create such a creature, but I have underestimated your kind before,’ Thor said. ‘We need to find their fortress on the East Wall.’

‘Agreed,’ Steve nodded.

‘Are we gonna talk about the fact that someone killed this thing?’ Clint spoke up. ‘I mean, you just said that it’s probably very hard to kill. So who did it?’

They were all in silence for a moment, contemplating the possibilities.

‘If it’s all connected...’ Natasha mused. ‘The hooded man? He definitely has extraordinary abilities; strength, speed, whatever he did to open that door.’

‘Or someone we don’t know yet,’ Sam said.

Thor nodded, it could have very well been someone they haven’t encountered yet. But much like Steve and Natasha, Thor did not truly believe in such coincidences.

In the end, they needed not to search, for they were lead to Hydra’s hidden fortress. They decided to stay in Poznań for another night, wait for their newest companions to arrive from America. That night Thor woke to the sound of the glass in his window shaking, and bright lights behind the curtain. He sprung up and yanked the heavy curtains aside. He immediately saw the strange and colourful lights outside of the city, they were close enough to fill the night sky with vibrant colours.

‘Rise my friends! Quickly!’ he yelled. Thor’s small room only had one bed, but Steve and Sam had settled right next to his. They would hear him. He was quick to pull on his trousers and boots, but did not bother with the rest, he could summon his armour on his way. He called Mjölnir to his hand and left the room in a hurry. He immediately pounded on the door next to his.

Steve yanked the door open a few seconds after. He was already half-way dressed in his uniform.

‘The lights!’ Thor hurried to explain.

‘I saw,’ nodded Steve. ‘Wake Clint and Natasha, if they’re not up yet. Then just go, if you’re okay to go ahead without us. We’ll catch up with you.’

Thor nodded and ran down the corridor to the room Clint and Natasha had taken. Sadly, there was no free one closer to the rest of them. The door was already open a few inches, so Thor just ran inside. The two of them were almost completely ready to go.

‘I will fly ahead, my friends,’ Thor told them as they were quickly gathering their things. ‘Steve and Sam are almost done, join them. I’ll meet you there.’

‘Be careful, okay?’ Natasha warned him. ‘If there is more than one of those things, it could get dangerous, even for you.’

‘Aye, I’m aware,’ Thor nodded and left the room. The window at the end of the corridor was the closest, so he opened it and climbed outside. He only needed to spin Mjölnir around a few times, then he jumped out, taking flight. He felt the wind pick up as he flew higher, and lightning sizzled around him as his armour returned to him on his command. Barely passed a few seconds and he could hear his cape billowing behind him.

He kept his eyes trained on the ground in search of the strange lights and possible explosions. He believed he was flying West, but he did not have time to orient himself properly, or look at the stars. He did flew over a lake before his attention was drawn to a forest underneath him. There were no more lights or colourful explosions, but he saw birds flying in panicky swarms, he saw trees toppling over. He landed right away.

He heard the sound of combat almost immediately. He assumed it was the growling or snarling of the grey beast. The treetops were too thick to see anything from above them, so Thor started running towards the fight among the trees instead of taking flight again.

Only his quick reflexes saved him from collision, when a huge body hurled towards him through the trees, breaking trunks on its way. Maybe it jumped at him, maybe it was thrown, but Thor was quick to roll aside and take up a fighting stance. The grey beast quickly got on its hind-legs, stretching up to its full height. It looked back in the direction it came from, but then its red eyes locked on Thor. It was an intelligent thing, that was for certain, no mindless animal. Thor adjusted his grip on his hammer. He knew his foe not, so he did not attack first.

They circled one another, the creature was seizing him up just as much as Thor was measuring his opponent. There was a low rumbling coming from the creature’s chest, something deeper than a growl. It raised its head suddenly, looking again in the direction it came from. It huffed and sputtered, then lunged at Thor. He had to dodge the enormous claws, the thing was fast! Thor could feel his heartbeat picking up, the heat of battle filling his veins.

Thor backed off two more times, evading the beast’s dangerous mouth and teeth, then he could finally swing his hammer and hit the thing on the side of its head. It went flying from the force of it; not that far, but hard enough to knock some trees down. Then it got up to all fours and shook its head, rumbling deeply again.

‘A tough one, eh?’ Thor grinned.

The monster was angry now, it charged at Thor quickly, so he was forced to evade again. He wasn’t certain about his chances if he tried to stand his ground. He used to be too proud (too stupid) to get out of the way of an attack like this, but now he knew better. He hit the beast in its side, then kicked at a hind leg, wanting to get it off balance. A sharp and bony tail smacked him in the face in return and Thor felt blood welling up on his cheek. Then the creature spun around and slashed at him with its claws. Thor dropped to the ground, because it was the only way to avoid getting badly clawed up, then he rolled away when the thing tried to bite him. He kicked it in the head, twice, then threw Mjölnir at its ugly face for good measure. The beast staggered from the blow, backing off, so Thor got to his feet again.

He was certain that he could defeat the creature, but he decided it would be wise not to waste too much time. So before the thing could charge again, he summoned lightning. Power lit up Mjölnir and Thor could feel it cursing through his body. The beast was not cowed by the power of storms, it charged again, but Thor was ready and released lightning at its body. It made a jagged, ear-splitting sound of pain as it abruptly dropped, its whole body electrocuted. It fell into the dirt with a heavy thud, twitching a little. Its skin was smoking slightly, no doubt its flesh burned from within. Thor walked up to it and brought down his hammer, smashed its head, just to be certain it was dead.

Thor wiped the blood from his face with the back of his hand. It would take a bit of time for the cut to heal, but it was no serious injury. It could have been worse, he was glad he only found one of these things. He looked around to pinpoint the direction the beast first came from and headed that way. He marched quickly, but did not run. Now that he fought one of these, he knew he ought to be careful in case more was around. Other enemies could be lurking nearby too.

He found two dead beasts not that far from where he battled one, and after a quick search he found where the one who killed them might have gone. The entrance was certainly well hidden by weeds and moss that had grown around it over the years. The door itself was almost down on the ground, surrounded by big rocks. There was an old rotten tree bark right next to it, recently moved. It must’ve fallen on it a long time ago.

Thor wasn’t certain his friends would be able to find where he’s gone if he ventured in. They would have to search the forest now that the fighting has ceased. They couldn’t have been far now though, so they wouldn’t lose much time if he waited for them. He spun his hammer and took flight again. He needed to lead them here.

‘Whoa,’ Sam breathed out when he descended down the stairs. He was the last one to climb down. Thor knew what had him in awe. After the long stairs they’ve arrived in a wide and tall hall. Empty and slightly dark, but still impressive. Especially considering that it was hiding underneath a forest.

‘Be cautious, my friends,’ Thor warned them all. ‘There might be more of those beasts lurking about.’

Normally Thor let Steve take the lead. He was an excellent leader, knew how to command on the battlefield, had an excellent eye for strategy. But considering their enemies, Thor felt better being the first to walk deeper into the underground fort, to be the first line of defence. The Captain was still right next to him, only a step behind.

‘Any chance there are lights in here?’ Clint asked.

‘Hydra had to use this place recently,’ Steve said. ‘We just gotta find the light switch I guess.’

‘This place doesn’t look like it was used recently,’ Natasha remarked.

‘Well, someone opened the door,’ Clint said.

‘Maybe this is a back entrance?’ Steve guessed.

They could still see a bit, but not all that much. Thor did not even see the other end of the room. It felt cold though, too chilly even for something this deep underground.

‘Let’s try find so--’ Steve started, but he fell silent when a deep rumble echoed in the hall.

Thor was immediately tensed for a fight, Mjölnir up and ready to strike.

‘Stand back,’ Thor warned them. ‘It’s one of the beasts.’

They only heard the sound of rumble for a few moments. The hall echoed so Thor couldn’t tell whether there was more than just one. Even if there was dozens of them, they were obscured by darkness.

Geh toltorg,’ came a deep and slow growl from somewhere.

‘Who are you?’ Thor shouted back.

Micma, zirenaiad!’ came the rumbling answer.

‘Do you understand that?’ Steve asked quietly.

‘I do not,’ Thor said with a frown. He should be able to. He should understand all living tongues. This was not right.

The next sound that came from the dark sounded like a laugh, it vibrated within the walls of the hall. The deep rumbling did not cease either.

Christeos cnila, gohus!’ it continued. The rumbling grew louder, it started to truly sound like growls, excited, blood-thirty growls.

The first grey beast lunged from the dark, came right from Thor’s left. He did not understand how it moved so quietly. The second came from the front, and two others were right on its heels.

‘Retreat!’ Thor yelled as he dodged and hit the first beast in the jaw. The second got its claws in his cape, so Thor quickly unclasped it, and threw Mjölnir at it in answer. He saw that the Captain has aimed his shield at one of them and while it did not seem to do much damage, the beast clearly felt it when the heavy vibranium disk slammed into its skull.

An arrow must’ve flown by, since it exploded right at the feet of the beast Thor first hit, making it back off for a second. Of course they did not retreat, why did Thor even bother? He heard gunshots as well, although all of them knew bullets might not be able to do much damage. It was good for a diversion though. Thor managed to slam his hammer twice into a beast’s legs after it got distracted by a rain of bullets. Thor heard at least one bone break, but then the creature snarled and threw itself at him. Thor stopped its mouth by shoving the head of Mjölnir between its teeth, but he still struggled to get free. He caught the uninjured arm with his free hand, stopping the claws from reaching him. A second beast was coming at him now that he was down on the ground, only to be slammed in the head by a flying shield. It shook its head and turned, definitely running to attack Steve.

That would not do.

Thor kicked at the thing’s belly, but it did not seem to be much of a weak spot. Then he felt a sharp stab at his side. He could only glance down for a blink and saw that the beast had stabbed its pointy tail into him. Thor bit back his grunt of pain and kicked at the thing even harder, finally getting it off of himself enough to swing his hammer. This time he hit it hard enough, because Thor’s face was sprayed with warm dark blood and the beast went flying.

He just rolled over to get up when a new one charged at him. Thor braced himself for the impact. The beast crashed into the floor when a bright blur hit him from above, then a second, then a third, and a fourth. It collapsed, trying to reach back with a clawed hand to yank out the things. Spikes?

But before it could reach even one, a quick and dark shadow pounced upon its back. The hooded man held a spear in his hand, the same slightly glowing blue as the spikes in the beast’s back. The man grabbed hold of one horn to force its head forward, then stabbed the thing in its nape, right under the elongated back of its skull. Ah, so that was a weak spot. The thin spear went through the beast’s throat, and the thing died with a bloody rattle stuck in its throat. Good riddance.

Thor was back on his feet immediately to continue the battle. He needed to see to his friends. He was stunned for a second when he saw that all the beasts stopped their attack on them, and were now slowly circling the hooded man, who was still crouched on top of the one he’s just slain. His friends were all well, maybe injured, but definitely well enough to hold their weapons and stand on their own feet. That was a relief.

The hooded man looked around at them and yanked his spear out of the thing. It looked as if it was smoking slightly, but it was not burning, it was a faint trail of fog. The spikes in the dead beast’s back were similar, they did not glow any more, they looked like glass, or ice. The man in the hood straightened up, but did not step down from the body. He stood upon it like a victorious hunter as he gazed down at the creatures eyeing him.

‘Useless beasts,’ he declared angrily. He spat the words at them and his voice rang loud and clear in the room, despite the mask or cloth that hid his face.

And Thor... Thor must’ve hit his head. It must be a trick of the echo in the room, or it was the rumbling of the creatures around them, because that voice... he knew that voice. He...

‘The only terror shall be yours,’ the man finished, challenged them all. Thor couldn’t be mistaken. He could recognize this voice anywhere, any time, he could pick it out of a thousand others.

His mouth was already forming the word, the shout, the name, but the creatures attacked. They charged with their sharp claws and sharp teeth, snarling and growling. So Thor threw his hammer, and then himself into the fight without uttering a word.

But he knew... that was his brother’s voice.


Chapter Text

Natasha stayed back with Clint and Sam as the grey things attacked them from the shadows. Her mind was still on the mysterious voice talking in that unknown language. She felt like that was a priority right now. Whoever it was, it had to be connected to these creatures. She memorized the words, wanting to be able to recall them as accurately as possible to do some research on it later. She might not find anything, she might get some answers.

She would’ve been worried about Steve, maybe even Thor, not that long ago, but the tables have turned with the hooded man being there. The creatures seemed to be focused on him for one, and he seemed to know how to kill them efficiently.

Clint took notice of their apparent weak spot as well, he aimed at the back of their necks as much as possible. Most of his arrows didn’t do much damage, much like Natasha’s guns, but they seemed to bother the things enough to give great openings for Thor and the hooded man. Steve was much more involved in the fight, but even he kept his distance as much as he could, playing it smart. He was a lot more reckless a few minutes ago, when he was the only one on Thor’s side.

It became clear rather quickly that there were only four creatures left, and Natasha liked those odds. The more they killed from these things the less of a threat they seemed, because they learnt more and more about them. Natasha took note of everything that caught her attention, not just the weak spot on their necks. They were just as quick on two-legs than fours, used their claws when they could, but started biting when they became agitated. The tail could be used for attacking, but the horns were just decorations, and could be used against them to grab hold of their heads, if you had the strength for it. They couldn’t reach their own backs, so if you stabbed something there, close to the spine, it would stay there, they couldn’t get it out. Now if Natasha only knew what the hooded man’s spear was made of. She didn’t even waste a thought on the spikes, those were definitely firmly in “magic” territory, since they appeared out of nowhere. The spear though, that was definitely worth keeping an eye on.

Thor seemed more brutal in the fight than he was not that long ago. Natasha really wanted to know what ticked him off. It had to be the hooded man, but... well, she was going to refrain from assuming too much just yet.

They disposed of the things surprisingly quickly. And just as the last one hit the floor the hall was flooded with dim lights.

‘Oh, who found the light switch?’ she asked out loud.

Nobody answered. They watched as Thor marched over to the hooded man like a charging bull, and grabbed him by the throat before anyone could say a word. But then he just stood there for a few moments. The hooded man did nothing in return, the spear was still in his hand, and his grip on it was firm, but he did not raise it to attack.

Then the Winter Soldier dropped down from the ceiling. Sam startled, Clint raised his bow in reflex. Natasha stopped herself form aiming her gun at him, but it was a close thing. Steve was already turning to him, but he seemed torn. He obviously wanted to keep an eye on what Thor was doing too. Barnes wore his tactical googles, and Natasha would bet anything they gave him night vision. His face was most impassive, he gave nothing away.

Thor did not pay attention to Barnes though. His face turned determined as he finally moved again, dragging the hood, then the mask off of the man’s head. Then he let out an angry sound. Natasha knew before she caught a glimpse of the face. In a blink, Thor had the other pushed up to a wall so hard it cracked.

‘You cruel... lying... why would you do this?! Why would you do this?!’

The pain in Thor’s voice was tangible, raw, like the words cut him open as they came out of his mouth. Clint went rigid from head-to-toe, muscles tensing. Steve was still torn between paying attention to them and Barnes, who stood silently a bit further away. Sam seemed slightly confused about what was going on. She would have to brief him later.

Natasha took a few careful steps to the side to get a better look. The surprise was that the face was familiar, and yet very different. Steve was right, his eyes were red, completely, red with darker red irises. His skin was ashen, it had an unnatural faint grey hue to it, and there were lines or scars all over his face. They did not seem accidental. There were curved lines on his forehead, straight ones under his eyes, a few on his chin. Almost... tribal. She wasn’t sure what they reminded her of, but even from where she stood she noticed that they were slightly raised, like old knife wounds. Again, she did not want to jump into conclusions.

‘You made me think you died!’ Thor continued. ‘Right in front of me! Right in my arms! How could you...’ he fell silent, restraining himself. Natasha was sure he was not shouting more by sheer willpower. ‘Fool me,’ he said more quietly, but there was still rage and agony in his voice. Natasha wanted to put some bullets in Loki just out of sheer principal.

‘You made me mourn you, right along with Mother.’

‘Like you mourned me the last time?’ Loki asked. Thor slammed him back into the wall again.

‘Is that it? You enjoy making me suffer? You want to see me cry for you, blame myself for you?! You’d go to such lengths just to see me in pain?!’

‘Yes, of course, everything is about you,’ Loki shot back angrily. A dark blue colour seeped up into his face, spreading up till it almost reached his eyes. Thor yanked his hand back from his throat with a hiss of pain. He shook it like something burned him. ‘You think you know what you saw? Believe me, you’re wrong.’

The blue colour receded, Loki’s face went back to grey. Natasha was not sure how to file this piece of information away.

‘I know that it’s been years, and all this time I thought you dead!’ Thor yelled. ‘Instead... what is it that you are doing here? Why Hydra? What did you took from them? Who sent these beasts?’

‘Really? Those are your most burning questions?’ Loki asked him. Thor remained silent. Loki pushed himself away from the wall. ‘Why Loki, dear brother, you look exceptionally dashing today, have you done something with your hair?’ Loki mocked.

‘I know of your heritage. I do not know your plans,’ Thor stated firmly.

‘My plans--’ Loki said as he took another step away from Thor.

Which is when Clint let an arrow fly. Three things happened at once in reaction. Loki caught the arrow and immediately tossed it away, Barnes pulled his gun and aimed at Clint, and Natasha lifted her gun and aimed at Barnes in return.

Then there was a tense moment of silence.

‘Whoa, okay, everyone calm down,’ Steve told them very firmly. But Clint already had another arrow drawn, while Barnes kept aiming his gun at Clint. And until he put that down, Natasha was not going to lower her weapon either.

‘That was real dumb of you,’ Barnes said after a moment.

‘Yeah?’ Clint asked. ‘I think it was pretty smart. I think now we know exactly where we stand. I think it tells a lot that you wanna shoot me for this piece of shit.’

Barnes tilted his head slightly and made a face. Natasha could not see his eyes, but even so she knew exactly what he was going to say.

‘If I wanted you dead, you’d be dead,’ he said plainly. ‘And I’m aiming at your shoulder.’

Which was true, but the gun was still up in the air, that was telling.

‘Oh, how nice of you,’ Clint snarked at him. ‘That makes me feel much better about the gun you’re pointing at me.’

‘I don’t know who the fuck you are,’ Barnes said, his tone still neutral. ‘You keep shooting around like that, and I will put a bullet in you.’ He was definitely dead serious about that. ‘You came here with Steve, that’s the only reason I’m not aiming at your head.’

‘Bucky,’ Steve said in a way Natasha wasn’t sure she could interpret completely. There was a warning in there, but also a bit of pleading.

‘I’m not concerned about Barton’s arrows,’ Loki said calmly.

‘You sure about that?’ Clint looked at him. ‘I’m sure I have something to blow your fucking face off with.’

He was really not helping the situation, but Natasha understood. Clint could be pretty dumb sometimes when it came to self-preservation. He was also known to make split-second decisions that bit him in the ass later. But this was Loki. This was different. Natasha couldn’t blame him.

Barnes seemed to ignore Clint’s comment and lowered his gun, but he did not put it away.

‘Clint, this is not the time,’ Steve said when Clint did not lower his bow.

‘So we’re just gonna stand around and chat with him? Really?’ Clint shook his head.

Even Natasha thought that was a good question.

‘Aren’t we supposed to try and... capture him?’ she asked. ‘Put him chains, then back to Asgard?’

For some reason that made Loki laugh. It was not a manic cackle, but an amused little sound.

‘You ain’t gonna do that with your bow, man,’ Sam said. He had a gun in his hand too, but he was pointing at the floor. And he was right, Clint couldn’t do much damage in Loki, but he would probably get shot if he did not put his weapon down. Clint seemed to have come to the same conclusion, because he lowered his bow.

‘Natasha,’ Steve said. She eyed Barnes for another moment then lowered her gun. That prompted Barnes to holster his own. Steve visibly relaxed a bit now that nobody was pointing weapons at anyone.

‘You do realize, that what Hydra did to you, and what this bastard did to me, is not all that different,’ Clint said then, staring at Barnes. ‘That’s the kind of guy you’re standing next to.’

‘Oh, please,’ Loki spoke before Barnes could react. ‘Don’t compare the two.’

So Loki knew about that, he had to be around for a while now then, or Barnes told him.

‘You played with my mind, made me kill, made me hurt people I never would have hurt,’ Clint said. His hand was incredibly tight around his bow, Natasha knew it took a lot of restrain to not aim an arrow at Loki’s head again.

Thor was quiet, he obviously thought Clint deserved to speak his mind.

‘I have not tortured you, mutilated you. I have not stolen your memories, the very person you are. I merely opened a door in your mind, and the Tesseract turned you into a different version of yourself.’

Loki moved as he spoke. He positioned himself right between Natasha and Barnes, obscuring her clear line of sight. That was surely deliberate.

‘Don’t compare a few days spent in my service to Hydra’s methods,’ Loki finished.

Natasha was just opening her mouth to tell the asshole what she thought of that, but Clint spoke first, so Natasha let him.

‘You could’ve done much worse to me, so I should be happy? I don’t care that Hydra’s worse, you piece of shit, it doesn’t make what you did to me better.’

‘Hmm well, you’re not wrong,’ Loki said after a moment, his voice was pleasant, almost conversational. Then he frowned a bit, seemingly thoughtful, like he never before looked at it this way.

‘But consider this,’ he said in the end. ‘I don’t care.’ And he smiled, sharp and dangerous. The red eyes, the strange skin colour, and the lines just made it look feral.

‘Can we muzzle him again?’ Clint asked with gritted teeth, looking over at Thor.

‘Oh yes, brother, your friends seem eager for your to beat me into submission, drag me back into Asgard in chains, like the animal I am.’

‘You had forced my hand, Loki,’ Thor was quick to answer. ‘You are not going to guilt me for the crimes you have committed.’

‘Am I forcing your hand right now?’ Loki asked. ‘You seemed very eager to lay violence upon me just now.’

He was getting into Thor’s head, or into his heart maybe, Natasha could already tell.

‘Maybe it’s the colours,’ Loki gestured at his face. ‘It makes it much easier, right?’

‘This is not about that!’ Thor protested. Natasha really should’ve asked more about Loki, but after the news of his death, she thought it would have been unnecessarily cruel to make Thor speak about him.

‘It was never about that,’ Thor added firmly. Loki’s whole demeanour went cold, that was the only word Natasha could use for it. His body went still, his face smoothed out into something hard as stone.

‘Not for you,’ Loki said. ‘But it is about that, and your so-called mourning. I always ask, whether you mourned, because it’s actually funny. It’s so really funny.’

He grinned, but it was a cold and empty grin.

‘Because if you’d come back to Svartalfheim, if you’d have bothered to maybe take my body back to Asgard for a proper funeral, instead of leaving it to rot in some Nornsforsaken wasteland, you would have known! You would have realized right away, that something was not right. That’s all it would have took!’

‘You are not going to turn this around on me!’ Thor yelled.

‘You didn’t bother,’ Loki said, like he didn’t even hear what Thor said. ‘For all your claims of grief, you didn’t think I deserved to be given even that much.’

‘You rage about a funeral you did not get, but you didn’t die!’ Thor shouted at him.

Loki looked at him for a moment.

‘Oh, how wrong you are,’ he said then.

‘What is that s--’

Loki turned his head suddenly, his eyes staring at nothing.

‘What?’ Thor demanded.

‘Shh,’ Loki put up a hand and seemed to be listening to something.

Natasha couldn’t hear anything, there was complete silence in the hall.

‘James,’ Loki spoke, his attention still far away. ‘Get the book... Now!’

Barnes turned and ran without a word.

‘Bucky!’ Steve shouted and took off after him.

The floor vibrated, that was the only reason Natasha didn’t run after him immediately. Then the room started to get brighter. There was a noise, and she recognized it after a moment. It was the same noise that woke her up in the hotel, the one that made their windows shake. She heard the sound of concrete cracking and when she turned her head she saw bright yellow light breaking through the floor. The light spread and started pulsating, it was so blinding Natasha had to cover her eyes,and turn her head away. She could still hear the concrete breaking. Then came the rumbling.

‘You have got to be kidding me,’ she said.

‘Run, my friends, follow the Captain,’ Thor spoke.

‘And leave you here alone with Loki?’ Sam asked incredulously, like Thor lost his mind.

‘My brother and I will have bigger things to worry about than one another,’ Thor said. ‘Your weapons cannot harm them. Go, quickly, before they get through.’

She hated this, she really hated this.

‘If he stabs you in the back, don’t say we didn’t warn you,’ Natasha told him.

Thor smiled at her.

‘I’ll keep that in mind.’

‘Let’s go!’ she said and took off running, Sam and Clint followed her without further arguing. She dodged the glowing cracks on the floor, tried to avoid looking directly into the light and hoped, she really hoped Thor knew what the hell he was doing. It didn’t feel right leaving him behind, no matter how much sense it made. It just wasn’t right.

Natasha could swear she could still feel the floor shaking, even after they ran deeper into the mostly abandoned underground fort. They had no idea where Steve was. Natasha was going to put a tracker in his suit. Steve did not want to be traceable in any way since Project Insight, but if he insisted on running off after Barnes in unknown Hydra facilities without waiting for any of them, he would just have to deal. He was already lucky Natasha did not consider kicking out a tooth and replacing that with a tracker.

She was supportive of him in all this, she was, but Barnes pointed a gun at Clint today, for Loki. That changed things, that changed things a lot. Steve was going to have to admit that as well. They did not know how these monstrous things and Hydra fit together with Loki, but Barnes was obviously right in the middle of it. It remained to be seen how willing he was.

They were running for a while, down an old nondescript corridor, when the familiar rumbling grew louder. They abruptly stopped, it did not come from behind them, but from in front of them.

‘Chances of the three of us being able to take down one of these things?’ Sam asked.

‘I’ve got a few hard-hitting explosive arrows,’ Clint said. ‘If I can shoot them in the back of their neck, it might even work.’

Natasha turned around to look at him.

‘Is it going to bring the roof down on us?’ she asked.

‘No,’ Clint shrugged. Natasha narrowed her eyes. He signed “Trust me”.

‘Also, got any better ideas?’ Clint asked out loud. Unfortunately, she did not. She took the lead and they moved forward, more carefully this time.

Of course as soon as they heard the rumbling turn into snarls they picked up their pace. A grey beast broke through the wall where the noise was the loudest. It was soon back on its feet, shaking plaster and dust off its body. There were all kinds of lights coming from the hole it made in the wall, but of course it turned its head to look at them.

‘Черт.’ Natasha cursed.

‘So how are you going to get to its nape?’ Sam asked.

‘Sheer dumb luck?’ Clint proposed.

‘How are you still alive?’ Sam wondered.

The thing approached slowly, and Natasha couldn’t help but think that it was assessing their threat level. Despite how animalistic they acted, there was more intelligence lurking behind those red eyes than one could expect.

Natasha could hear the sound of a fight from the other room, mostly just the rumbling and snarling sound of the beasts. She really hoped Steve was not in there.

The creature charged and Natasha heard the metallic hum of Mjölnir. So she ducked, just to be sure, grabbed Clint’s arm too to pull him down a bit. Sure enough, the hammer whooshed by above them, smashing into the thing’s head. It stumbled, then the hammer smashed into the back of its head when it flew back. Thor grabbed it somewhere behind them, then he charged forward to finish the thing off.

‘You said, you’d stay behind!’ It was not an accusation, but she needed him to tell her what changed.

‘Loki’s gone,’ Thor said as he got off the beast. ‘And so are the things that attacked us there. They scrambled back into their portals.’

Thor didn’t even bother trying to get the blood off his hammer, or his face, he looked like a mess. He went for the hole in the wall, so the rest of them followed. There was still a few of the things inside, but they did not seem to want to attack them any more. There were more of the yellow glowing cracks on the floor and the things were jumping right into them, getting sucked into it. The last one of the things eyed them for a long moment, it rumbled deep in its chest, but followed the rest. When it was gone, the cracks stopped glowing.

‘Where’s Cap?’ Sam asked.

The ventured deeper into the room. Natasha first noticed the open safe door, not torn open this time, but some small explosives were definitely used. There were a few dead beasts lying around in pools of their own blood, and of course there were the cracks on the floor. Then she noticed the one that was slightly different, on the wall. The same sort they saw in Nis. Loki.

Then she saw Steve’s shield, half-covered in the dark blood of the creatures, just lying on the floor, abandoned. Sam was already picking it up, looking around the room. But there was no sign of Steve himself.

Chapter Text

Steve followed Bucky without a second of hesitation. He followed him out of the giant room, and down the corridors, because he was not going to lose him again. Especially not now that he knew that Loki was the hooded man. Bucky was in deep trouble, being in the company of someone like that. Hydra he was not worried about. They were people, normal humans for the most part, he knew how to fight against them. He would’ve understood if Bucky’s reason for going up against Hydra was vengeance. But clearly this was not the case. His friend got himself in a lot bigger mess than that.

Bucky knew where he was going, so he must’ve memorised the building’s layout. They reached a small, mostly empty room rather quickly. There were a few wooden desks shoved up to a wall and old metal filing-cabinets. And one closed safe in the wall. Bucky went for that.

‘They just left that here?’ Steve questioned. ‘Was this a trap?’

Bucky was pulling things out of his belt and putting it on the safe.

‘They were afraid to take it out,’ Bucky said quietly.

Steve had about a million questions immediately, but the distant rumbling of the beasts grew closer and the floor started vibrating under his feet. Steve crossed the room to stand by Bucky’s side.

‘We need to get out of here,’ he said as he watched how cracks appeared on the floor.

‘Not leaving this here,’ Bucky said, his fingers moving quickly. Steve only paid little attention to what he was doing exactly.

Yellow light started pouring out of the cracks, pulsating so brightly Steve had to turn away.

‘They’re coming, we need to get out of here!’ Steve insisted.

‘No, they’re not gonna get it!’ Bucky told him angrily and kept focusing on the safe.

Steve wanted to ask who he was talking about, but the rumbling was getting pretty loud. He turned back towards the cracks and gripped his shield tightly. The grey monsters started to appear, they climbed out of too thin cracks, their red eyes immediately focused on Steve and Bucky.

‘Bucky, I don’t think I can fight them off,’ Steve said.

‘I’m almost done,’ Bucky said.

‘And then what?’ Steve asked. One of the creatures approached, but the rest of them were still just slowly inching forward. Steve just knew they would all jump them soon enough.

One of them charged from his right. Steve slammed his shield in its head and tried to dodge the claws without leaving Bucky’s back unprotected. They were so done for. The force of the attacks made it hard for Steve to stay in one spot, he was getting pushed back, away from Bucky. Just as he was about to stumble back, Bucky turned and shot the thing in the eye with his SIG. The creature roared back a bit. Steve managed to regain his balance, while Bucky turned back to the safe.

But more things were coming, not just the three already eyeing them, more were crawling out of the cracks, and there was literally nowhere to go from this place.

One of the things body-slammed him and he hit the floor even though he expected the attack. He held up his shield, but he could feel his arms straining from the weight. No wonder, even Thor struggled with them. Steve knew he wouldn’t be able to fight back for long. Some of the weight disappeared when a metal hand smashed into the thing’s neck. Then Bucky wrapped the same hand around a horn and yanked on the creature’s big head. The thing immediately focused its attention on Bucky, so Steve smashed its head with his shield again, then kicked it in the chin as hard as he could. Then he quickly got out from under it.

Bucky let go of the thing and backed off immediately. Steve noticed that he managed to get the safe open by now. Bucky reached inside and took something rectangular wrapped in a dark cloth out of it. A book. Loki said “book”.

‘Okay, and now what?’ Steve asked as he looked at the things. They were growling more vehemently now. They were seizing them up, that’s why only one attacked at a time, they were testing the waters, but he just knew all of them were about to charge at them.

‘Loki!’ Bucky yelled.

Steve was confused for one second, then Loki appeared out of nowhere. He literally materialized out of a dark swarm of... something. What the hell?

He didn’t have time to stare at Loki though, because one of the things decided to try and have a go at him again. So Steve had to dodge and step aside. He tried his best to avoid being shredded to pieces. He kept using his shield to hit the thing, but it really wasn’t doing much damage. It cut them all right, and they bled, but they did not slow down even a bit. Then the thing bit down on his shield and yanked it out of his hand, almost dislocating his elbow and wrist. Steve had to let go of it, unless he wanted to be dragged around like a chew toy.

He didn’t see what Loki did behind him, but he felt when Bucky’s metal fingers wrapped around his forearm. Bucky was dragging him back. He let himself be pulled, and suddenly the room and the beasts were gone. Steve only saw darkness, he felt almost dizzy, disoriented. Bucky’s hand was the only solid thing he could focus on. He lost his balance and he hit a cold stone floor. Bucky didn’t let go of him.

‘What in the name of sanity is this?’ asked Loki, he did not sound really pleased.

‘They would’ve ripped him apart!’ Bucky said. ‘I wasn’t gonna let that happen.’

Loki made an incredulous sound. Steve was glad though, hearing those words. Up until this point Bucky’s been hard to read, he kept his distance, hid his emotions. This though, this was very encouraging. Steve got to his feet and Bucky let go of him.

Loki had his arms crossed over his chest, his spear nowhere to be seen, and he was scowling at the two of them. He didn’t start arguing about it though, he huffed and visibly gave up without a fight.

‘If he catches someone’s attention, it’s not going to be on my head,’ Loki said firmly.

‘Noted,’ Bucky replied and handed the wrapped up book over to Loki.

Loki just shook his head and took it, then turned to leave. Leave... Steve looked around and just... he had no words. They were literally floating on a small piece of rectangle stone, floating in nothing. There was nothing, just darkness, the same abyss Steve caught a glance of in the portal Loki opened. This time he couldn’t even see weirdly shaped colourful clouds, no sluggish movements in the distance. They were literally surrounded by nothing. It was unnaturally quiet too. Their voices did not echo either, the darkness swallowed their every word.

Steve took a moment to just focus on his breathing and digest what he was seeing.

Loki walked to the edge of the platform they were standing on. For a moment Steve expected him to just drop off, or fly away, or whatever, but stone stairs appeared out of nowhere right beneath him, building up under his feet. Steve followed him with his eyes, but soon it was too dark to see where he went. The stairs remained though.

‘Ignore him,’ Bucky said. ‘He’s a drama queen.’

Steve turned to his friend just as Bucky walked to the edge of the platform. Steve was slightly less surprised when the stairs appeared this time. These stairs led somewhere down.

‘I didn’t kidnap you,’ Bucky said, turning slightly back. ‘We gotta wait until Loki can open a new door though.’

Bucky started walking down and Steve figured it was safe enough to follow. He still kept looking around though, trying to catch anything in the distance beside endless darkness, but there was nothing.

‘There’s not always anything to see,’ Bucky said. He didn’t turn around, but he obviously knew what Steve was looking for, maybe from experience. ‘It’s always different. Sometimes there’s stars, whole galaxies if you can believe that... sometimes there’s fog... it rained once, there were no clouds though. Now that was strange.’

At the bottom of the stairs was a single wooden door. No walls, no nothing, just a door. But when Bucky opened it there was a room behind.

‘This is hurting my brain,’ Steve admitted.

Bucky actually chuckled quietly as he walked inside. The room really looked normal. There was a desk, it had some dossiers on it, some scrap-metal and tiny bits and pieces of electronics, a few explosives, an empty mug. There was a table right across from it, covered with disassembled guns and rifles, ammunition boxes down on the floor next to it, a few knives and other blades on the wall above it. There was one giant wardrobe, firmly shut. A bookcase, filled with books of all shapes and sizes, but they were too far away to read the spines. A wooden chest, containing who knows what. A single bed in a corner, neatly made. And a door next to the wardrobe that probably led to another room... bathroom? Maybe. Except for the mug on the desk, there were no personal items in the room, or Steve just wasn’t looking hard enough. There was a window too, which ruined the illusion of normality. Because everything looked normal (even the guns and the explosives), except for the gaping void outside of the window.

‘Where are we?’ he asked. It felt like a safe question to start with.

Bucky walked over to the desk and started putting down the guns and knives he had on his person. Quick and efficient, he finally took his tactical goggles off too.

‘It’s like... a space between two different places,’ he said. ‘I don’t know how to explain it good, this is Loki’s thing. And I really try not to ask too much about it, guy loves the sound of his own voice as it is.’



‘Right... you gotta tell me what’s going on here, Bucky. With Loki and Hydra and those... things.’

‘N’Garai,’ Bucky said.


‘The things, they’re N’Garai. Demons.’

‘Demons?’ Steve asked. ‘You’re... how?’

‘Not the Bible-kind,’ Bucky shrugged. ‘I don’t think so. But Hell if I know what the Bible-kind is supposed to be like.’

Demons, okay, that was new, but he could deal with it. He just had to accept it and keep going. There were aliens, and there were demons, that’s just how the world worked. Moving on.

‘Are they after you?’ Steve asked.

‘Yep,’ Bucky said almost angrily as he tossed his last gun down on the desk.

‘Because of what you’re doing with Loki,’ Steve guessed.

‘Because they’re evil sons of bitches.’

Next Bucky was removing his kevlar and the rest of his gear.

‘What exactly are you doing with Loki?’ Steve asked, hoping to get an answer. Bucky just kept removing his gear for a few moments.

‘Your friends probably think you’re dead or something. You can reassure them when you get back,’ Bucky said then, totally avoiding the question. Steve was not going to let this go, not this time. They obviously had some time to kill.

‘How did you get involved in all this?’ Bucky was silent. ‘Just... tell me something, okay? Anything. I’m real worried here.’

‘Don’t be,’ Bucky said. ‘M’fine.’

‘It doesn’t look like it,’ Steve protested. ‘You’re raiding Hydra bases with Loki, to collect who knows what, while being chased by demons! Why?’

Bucky stubbornly looked away, avoiding Steve’s gaze as much as possible. Steve squared his jaw and took a deep breath, he was getting angry dammit.

‘Buck, you told me you remembered,’ he said, keeping his voice down. ‘But you still won’t tell me anything! What am I supposed to think of all this?’

‘I ain’t gonna drag you into this more than I already have,’ Bucky said then. Finally that bland neutral tone was gone. Finally Steve could detect real emotions behind the words.

‘I am going to get more involved,’ Steve said. ‘If you remember, then you know it. If you won’t tell me, I will find another way.’

Bucky sighed and rubbed his face, then tucked his hair behind his ear. It was such a familiar gesture that Steve’s heart ached. Bucky could say anything, but seeing his old mannerisms, even if subdued, was a better proof than anything he could’ve said. Steve actually felt like his best friend was standing in front of him, not just a dangerous man wearing his face.

‘I’ve been...’ but he seemed to reconsider his words as soon as they were out of his mouth. It bothered Steve, more than it probably should have. There were bigger things to be worried about, but Bucky’s hesitancy to just talk to him was the worst right now. ‘I made a deal.’

‘A deal,’ Steve repeated. It already did not sound good.

‘And until I’m done with my end, I’m gonna keep doing this,’ he finished.

‘What’s the deal?’

‘It doesn’t matter, I made it... willingly. Out of my own damn free will and all. So I’m gonna stick with it.’

Steve took another deep breath, gathering his thoughts.

‘And you think Loki’s gonna stick with it too?’ he asked then. ‘Because you might not know this, but he’s a liar. You can’t trust him. He’s going to stab you in the back.’

‘I didn’t make a deal with Loki,’ Bucky told him, and that stopped Steve’s rant right away.

‘Then with whom?’ Steve asked. Bucky just looked at him evenly, so clearly he was not going to answer that question. ‘Then what is Loki doing here?’

Bucky shrugged. ‘You gotta ask him about that,’ he said. ‘But if it makes you feel any better, I didn’t pick him. He probably didn’t pick me either.’

‘That doesn’t make me feel that much better,’ Steve admitted. He hated having to pry information out of Bucky like this, not having him offer anything himself.

‘Look, don’t worry about it. I can do this,’ Bucky said as he turned away from him, going back to removing his gear.

‘Oh, I’m not worried about whether you can. I’m worried about whether you should.’

Bucky nodded a few times, then dropped the kevlar vest and the leather jacket down onto his bed. The undershirt made it possible for Steve to finally see the metal arm completely, where it ended. There had to be metal underneath Bucky’s skin too, maybe the collarbone, or the shoulder blade too on that side. He saw some of the scars, but then he forced himself not to stare.

‘I’m guessing trust is a bit too much to ask for right now,’ Bucky said quietly.

And what was Steve supposed to say to that? He knew what he wanted to say, because this was Bucky for God’s sake. But then of course there was Loki, somewhere above them in this strange space between dimensions. And there were all his unanswered questions. He ended up helplessly staring at Bucky for a few moments, because he seriously did not know what his friend expected of him.

Bucky nodded again, then walked over to the door next to the wardrobe, and pushed it open. It really was a bathroom. Bucky even flicked the lights on.

‘Clean up, if you want,’ he said, then headed towards the entrance. ‘I’m gonna get some food.’

Then he shut the door behind himself firmly before Steve could say a word.

Even before Bucky returned, Steve realized that he had gone about things completely wrong. They never used to talk to each other like this, one-sidedly demanding answers, just hurling out questions after questions. That was not talking, it was an interrogation. Too many things changed, and not just around them, but within them too. Yet Steve still hoped that there was enough left for them to be able to just talk. Just talk, he would’ve been happy with just that, he really did not have high expectations here. He just wanted to talk to his friend, have him talk to him in return. It couldn’t have been too much to ask for, right?

So he went over to the bathroom, took off his mask and gloves, washed his face and his hands. He ran his wet fingers through his hair to get the dust and blood out of it. He didn’t want to take his whole uniform off, but he did remove his belt and the leather straps from around his shoulders. For the lack of better space to put it, he dropped them down onto the bed next to Bucky’s gear. Then he sat down and waited.

When Bucky returned he was carrying a tray in one hand and two bottles of water in the other. He shoved his leather jacket and kevlar vest aside, and put the tray down on the bed next to Steve, then sat down on the other side of it. He handed one of the water bottles over to him.

‘Where do you even get all this?’ Steve asked as he opened the bottle.

‘Oh, you don’t wanna know,’ Bucky said. Fair enough, he probably did not, not really. There were a lot of sandwiches on the tray, and fruit, a few power bars. Not much, but enough. He could practically picture Natasha’s disapproving stare as he took a sandwich. Sue him, he didn’t actually think Bucky was gonna poison him. And he was actually hungry, the last time he ate was the day before, a few hours before he went to bed.

Bucky started eating too, so they just sat there in silence for a while. Steve actually felt his muscles relax finally. The adrenaline from the fight clearing out from his system.

‘So, how are you?’ he asked quietly after a while. He grabbed an apple from the tray as he waited for the answer. He silently prayed Bucky won’t just tell him he was “fine” again.

‘Better,’ Bucky said in the end.

‘Good, that’s good,’ Steve nodded.

‘It could be worse, I mean,’ Bucky said.

‘Yeah,’ Steve agreed, just rolling the apple around between his palms. ‘I was getting better for a while,’ he said then. ‘But it’s like a roller-coaster. I keep plummeting back down.’

He saw from the corner of his eye that Bucky turned a little towards him, but Steve kept his eyes on the apple in his hands.

‘Nightmares, y’know,’ he continued. ‘About the ice... the train... once I dreamt I was still this sickly little kid when the aliens started pouring out of the sky above Brooklyn.’ He paused, pushing the memory away. ‘I had to change my alarm clock... and my microwave, cause at night those red lights reminded me of Ultron’s eyes. Stupid things like that.’

Stupid things, that’s what they were, that’s why he hated how they affected him.

‘Running helps sometimes, to shake them off. Sam comes with me when he can. It tires me out a bit, then I just stop thinking... but sometimes it just numbs me down... and I avoid punching bags now, cause I get real angry when I hit something... I don’t know. So yeah... I guess it could be worse, is what I mean... Could be better too though.’

Bucky was silent, but he was still looking at Steve.

‘I’ve got my memories blocked,’ he said then.

‘What?’ Steve turned to look at him.

‘It’s how I’m fine, the worst of it is locked away. So it can’t bother me, not in dreams or when I’m awake.’

‘But you said you remembered,’ Steve said.

‘I do, a lot of things. I’m just getting things back bit by bit, when I want to get them back. I don’t get overwhelmed like this. And smells and places can’t trigger bad memories.’

‘You let someone in your head?’ Steve asked, horrified. After everything that happened, Bucky actually let someone mess with his head again.

‘Well, it’s not like it could’ve gotten worse,’ Bucky said. ‘So that’s what I’m getting out of this. All this shit in my head is easier to swallow in small bites. So when I’m feelin’ okay, I get some of it back, and then I deal with it.’

‘So how much do you actually remember?’ Steve asked.

‘I remember you, that’s what I started out with,’ Bucky said. ‘I remember Becca now. Brooklyn, but not all of it. I try not to get all the good ones back at once, cause then there’s only gonna be the bad ones left to look forward to.’

‘You didn’t need to do this,’ Steve said. He finally put the apple down. ‘This deal. There are other ways.’

‘I was in a real bad place, Steve,’ Bucky said. ‘I was just functioning. I knew how to stay out of sight, how to feed and dress myself. I could take care of myself. I even got some fake IDs... left the US too, under the radar. But it was bad, when things were coming back, it was real bad.’

‘That’s why I was looking for you!’ Steve exploded, he had to stand up.‘I wanted to help you. I still do!’

Bucky was shaking his head.

‘No, no way I was gonna do that,’ he said. ‘Make you my keeper for the rest of our lives. Make you care for a violent mess day and night, every single day... I couldn’t do that... I couldn’t do that to you.’

‘I wouldn’t have cared!’ Steve said as he stood in front of Bucky. Then he lowered himself to a knee to be on the same eye-level. ‘It’s you, Buck, I just wanted you back. I wouldn’t have cared how bad things were.’

Bucky looked up at him. ‘I would’ve.’

They stared at each other for a few moments, then Bucky looked away.

‘And don’t go looking so guilty, dammit. It’s not about you... not... I didn’t just do it for you, all righ’? It’s for myself. I couldn’t stand the thought of being that broken thing around you.’

‘You weren’t broken, Bucky,’ Steve protested quietly.

‘Shattered... to pieces, trust me on that,’ Bucky said, then he stood up. Steve straightened up too and watched him walk towards the bathroom. ‘I’m gonna take a shower, then I think we should sleep. I’m tired as hell.’

Steve considered pushing the issue some more, but he couldn’t bring himself to.

‘Got any couch cushions for me to sleep on?’ he asked, tried to smile too, but he didn’t know how successful he was.

‘Got enough beds,’ Bucky said as he walked into the bath.

‘There’s only one--’ Steve started to say, he even turned around to gesture at the single, quite narrow bed in the corner, only to find two beds instead of one. The tray and the rest of the food was gone, and there was a second bed across from the first in the other corner. His mask, gloves and belts were on the top of the covers.

‘There are two beds,’ he said out loud to work through some of the weirdness of it.

‘There are now,’ Bucky confirmed.

‘Still hurting my brain.’


Chapter Text

‘Steve... wake up.’

For a moment Steve did not remember where he was. Or rather, he thought he was somewhere else. In a different place... and a different time, because Bucky’s voice was so familiar. The way he said his name. How he kept his voice down without actually whispering, spoke just loud enough to wake him up, because he knew exactly how loud he had to speak for Steve to hear him even in his sleep.

But then he opened his eyes and reality came rushing back to him. He blinked up at Bucky in silence. It was still good, being woken up by his best friend. His hair, his metal arm, the unusual room, it really didn’t matter. He already knew, even at the start of his search, that he wouldn’t care that Bucky was a different man. He didn’t care if he never remembered. Bucky was still Bucky, memories or no memories. Looking up at him now, his conviction strengthened. He really did not care even a little bit, because Bucky was alive.

‘Come on, you gotta see this,’ Bucky said, so Steve got up. He didn’t sleep much. Even when Bucky very pointedly went to bed and turned his back to him, Steve just laid awake in the other bed... thinking. Trying to figure things out. Because he had a hell of a lot to think about. Well, and there was also the fact that Loki was way too close to his liking. Sleep did claim him after long hours of listening to Bucky’s even breathing that came from across the room. Gave him a (false) sense of security. Right now though, he felt it in his bones that it was just a brief and restless slumber.

Bucky walked to the window and waved his hand to urge Steve closer. Steve already saw that the endless blackness from before was gone. It was replaced by orange and blue light that filled the room with colour. Steve rubbed his eyes and walked up to Bucky.

The sight kind of stole his breath away. It was space, but he saw no sun or planets. There were stars, too many to count. It was nothing like the night sky Steve knew and not just because he could never see this many stars in cities like New York or Washington. It was the colours, the blue and the orange, it came from what looked like two enormous clouds, meeting and intervening. It was enormous, motionless, and rather awe-inspiring.

‘Is that... a nebula?’

He looked at a lot of pictures taken by space telescopes when he did his research on modern science. Especially after the whole... alien invasion thing. So he was rather sure of what he was looking at.

‘Yeah,’ Bucky nodded. ‘I like it a lot better... than the darkness. It’s rare that you can see something like this from here.’

‘Is this real?’

Bucky hummed in confirmation. ‘We... get close to different corners of reality sometimes, things just filter through. You can catch glimpses.’

‘Wow,’ Steve couldn’t help but say. Nothing in his life was anywhere near close to what he expected when he was younger. His whole life was beyond unbelievable, to be frank. He saw many horrible and amazing things far too unreal for even his wildest dreams. But a sight like this could still shock him in the most positive way. He knew he would remember seeing this with his own eyes for as long as he lived. Especially with Bucky standing right next to him, staring at the very same sight.

Bucky brought them some food again and they ate silently for a while. Steve got dressed, put his uniform back on, while Bucky was gone, but his friend was still dressed a lot more comfortably. It was a good reminder that Bucky did not feel threatened or cautious in his presence. He was still a lot more quiet than he used to be, but Steve did not mind. The silence was amicable, pleasant even. Not at all like Steve would’ve expected silence between the two of them to be like, back when he was still on the search. Definitely one of the pleasant ones among all the recent surprises concerning Bucky.

After a while though Steve was itching to speak. He felt like it was the right moment to bring up some of their unfinished business again.

‘I can help you,’ Steve said. ‘To get you out of this deal.’

‘I don’t wanna get out of it,’ Bucky replied.

‘If you’d just tell me what you’re doing... or for whom.’

‘No,’ Bucky said, very firmly.

‘I want to trust you... that you’re not doing anything bad. Or even that you think what you’re doing is... acceptable, but...’

‘But you can’t,’ Bucky finished instead of him.

‘I need more than what you’ve told me. I’m... can you even promise me that this is not hurting anyone, or not going to?’

Bucky stood up and picked up the tray he brought the food in with. He started walking out of the room. Steve followed, even when Bucky opened the entrance and headed up the stairs. This conversation was so not over.


‘No, I can’t promise nobody is going to get hurt...’ Bucky said. ‘But I ain’t going to start putting bullets into random folks. That good enough?’

‘You almost shot Clint yesterday,’ Steve said. Well, he thought it was yesterday, he didn’t actually know how much he slept, this might be still the same day.

‘The archer? C’mon, you know what I mean. Civilians... innocents, call them whatever you want ‘em.’

‘Yeah, but Loki being involved does not invoke a whole lot of confidence in me, Buck.’

‘People who ain’t in danger from me, don’t need to be worried about him either.’

‘What does that supposed to mean?’


Steve took two long steps when they reached the top of the stairs to get in front of Bucky.

‘Answer at least some of my damn questions, okay? Please.’

‘I told you way more than I wanted to already,’ Bucky said. He looked away, maybe stared at the stars, the nebula, but he avoided Steve’s gaze.

‘Fine, you’re saying you’re not hurting people with what you’re doing,’ Steve started after a big pause. Bucky turned his head back and looked at him with slight suspicion. ‘Then I’ll help you.’


‘Your deal would be done sooner. And if I’m here, I can see for myself what’s going on, and I can watch your back.’

‘No,’ Bucky repeated.

‘Why not? What does it matter if I know more, if I’m staying?’

‘It matters, this... this doesn’t work like this. You... no!’


‘You just want information anyway,’ Bucky said, dropping the plate angrily. It bounced once on the stone floor with a loud clatter, then it dropped down and vanished into nothing. ‘You just wanna make sure I ain’t some murderous psycho any more.’

He started to sound real angry, so Steve tried to keep his own anger under wraps. Bucky knew him better than this, so Steve could only hope he remembered him better than this too.

‘I want to help you,’ Steve told him with absolute conviction. ‘And if I can’t drag you out of this, then I want to be on your six... to protect you.’

‘I already got someone protecting me.’

Steve was stunned into silence for a few heartbeats.

‘What? Loki? That’s the guy you trust at your back? Really?’


‘No, just really think about what you just said. You gotta know what sort of a man he is, you just gotta know that.’

Bucky frowned as he looked back at him, but not angrily. The expression on his face was more thoughtful, considering. Like he had to think about Steve’s words and make sure he understood them right.

‘But you don’t,’ he said.

And that... that left Steve speechless for a long moment. This was not even about Loki. He was not the one they should be arguing about. A lot more was at stake here.

‘You gotta let me help you, Buck,’ he said in the end. He might’ve sounded a little helpless, but he couldn’t help it. He just... Sam teased him about being able to give speeches from the top of his head, but right now he did not know what he could possibly say to convince his best friend. Bucky used to listen to him, even before the serum... things changed so much, but he should be allowed to watch out for Bucky. This one thing he should be always allowed to do.

He felt first a flesh hand, then a metal one settle on his shoulders. After a moment of hesitation both moved, closer to his neck. Steve realized he was staring at the floor, so he looked up. Then he had to blink a few times to focus, because Bucky was suddenly very close. But Steve did not tense up, he didn’t snap into a defensive position. His body remained as relaxed as it was a moment before. His non-reaction must’ve meant something good to Bucky, because there was a small smile on his face for a bit. Still, there was again a moment of hesitation before Bucky pressed their foreheads together.

‘Listen to me, okay?’ Bucky spoke, lot more quietly than before. ‘I know you wanna help me, but you can’t always swoop in and fix things.’

‘You never let me, dammit,’ Steve said, because wasn’t that the truth? It’s not like Steve could be of much of anything but a burden before the serum, he was the sickly one, he was the one getting into fist-fights Bucky needed to finish. And now, the one time Bucky could really need him, he wouldn’t let him help.

‘I let you plenty. You were Captain America and you had the bulletproof shield.’

‘Not when it matters,’ Steve said stubbornly, because when Bucky really needed him... the times Steve really needed to step up... those were the times he always failed. He failed at the train, and he failed after, when he did not search for him. Hell, even when he was ready to lay down his life again, Bucky had to fish him out of the Potomac.

‘It matters if you trust me that I know what I need to do,’ Bucky said, his fingers tightening. ‘And accept that I can’t just drag you into this.’

‘I’d rather you did,’ Steve said. He was not going to accept this... not this. End of the line, dammit. If Bucky refused to pull him along, then Steve would go after him on his own.

Bucky leaned a bit forward, pressing his forehead more strongly to Steve’s.

‘Don’t think I wouldn’t rather have you here,’ he said.

Steve took a breath and yeah... he believed that. He definitely believed that. So he nodded, wanting Bucky to know that he understood, even if he did not agree with the rest of it.

‘I’ll be seeing you,’ Bucky said then.

‘What?’ Steve frowned in confusion, but then Bucky pushed at him. Shoved... more likely, and Steve did not expect it, so he did not brace himself for it. He fell backwards from the force of it. For a moment he thought he was about to fall out into space... or into an endless dark void, but his back hit dirt and wet grass. When he looked up he saw the door, the portal, still open. Bucky was on the other side and... so was Loki, standing behind Steve’s friend. Then the door closed, leaving deep dark cracks in the side of some small abandoned house.

Steve slumped back on the grass and just stared up at the darkening sky for a bit.

It was true that he could’ve been dropped back to reality basically anywhere, so the fact that he was just at the outskirts of Poznań should have been a relief. But Steve still did not enjoy walking back to the hotel. People stared of course when he reached the city, some people probably recognized him, or maybe he was just some random crazy man in a ridiculous blue overall. He left his mask, his gloves, his belt, and his shoulder straps on the bed he slept on, but he had the rest of his uniform on at least. He assumed it was pretty late by the time he got back, because there weren’t that many people out on the streets. So yes, he was a little... miffed by the time he finally caught sight of the hotel building. He just wanted to take a shower and sleep a few more hours.

He got in the elevator after he found only a sleeping old man at the hotel reception. He really hoped the rest of the team was back already, because he didn’t have a key card for the room he shared with Sam. He knocked on the door a few times, but it was soon pretty clear that nobody was going to answer. He walked to Thor’s door next to try his luck, but he didn’t get an answer there either. With a sigh he walked to the end of the corridor to knock on Clint and Natasha’s door. Finally he heard some movement on the other side in reaction.

Only, it was an old Middle-Eastern woman who opened the door, staring at him with widened eyes.

‘Uhm... I’m sorry, I think I have the wrong door,’ he said and turned away. He knew he didn’t have the wrong door, but that was the first thing that came to his mind. He took the elevator again and went back down to the lobby. He didn’t even have his cellphone on him, so he went to the public phone next to the reception. Thankfully, he did not need to put money in it. Seriously, he didn’t even have money on him.

He wanted to call Natasha first, but he realized that he couldn’t recall whether the number in his head was her last number or the current one. She changed phones like every two weeks. So he dialled Sam instead. That was always a safe bet.

The phone rang for a while, but before Steve could hang up, Sam picked up.

‘Yeah?’ he asked.

‘Where are you guys?’ Steve said without even saying hello. He was not in the most cheerful of moods.

Sam inhaled loudly and stayed silent for a second. ‘Holy shit, Steve!’

He said that so loudly that Steve had to pull the receiver away from his ear. Steve knew that he was gone for a few hours, but he didn’t expect such a loud reaction. Sam must’ve been pretty worried. Before Steve could get a word out Sam started questioning him in rapid-fire succession.

‘Are you okay? What happened? Where are you? Do you need help?’

‘I’m fine, Sam,’ Steve reassured him, cutting off the questions. ‘But where the hell are you all?’ he asked in return. ‘Did something happen? You could’ve at least left me a note if you needed to leave.’

‘What are you talking about?’ Sam asked. ‘Where are you?’

‘At the hotel. You guys all checked out.’

There was a few moments of silence on the other end of the line.

‘Hotel... in Poznań?’ Sam asked. Steve was getting frustrated again.

‘Where else?’ he asked. ‘Seriously, why did you guys check out of the hotel?’

‘Steve...’ Sam’s voice was very careful and it immediately made Steve tense up, because that was Sam’s “bad news” voice, he recognized it right away. He felt his jaw clench and he forced his fingers to stay relaxed, he didn’t want to break the phone. Did the N’Garai attack the rest of the team? Was someone seriously injured... or worse? Dammit! He should’ve thought about this more. Loki left, so Thor was left alone to deal with the things. He was immediately so preoccupied with Bucky and everything he learnt, that he didn’t think about how his friends managed to get out of the Hydra base.

‘What happened?’ he asked again. He needed answers, not the worst-case scenarios his mind was coming up with. He would deal with his guilt after he knew what went wrong while he was away. ‘Sam, what happened?’

‘Steve... you’ve been missing for three weeks.’

Chapter Text

First there was the search for Steve. She used “search” as a gross exaggeration, since there was nowhere to look. Steve vanished into thin air, so there were really only two possibilities. Either he went through Loki’s portal with Barnes (whether he went willingly or not mattered very little), or he’d been dragged through one of the golden portals by the creatures. They all obviously hoped for the former, although that option didn’t give them much to be happy about either.

Loki was just one of the reasons. Sure, Sam kept repeating that Barnes remembered Steve, but Natasha wasn’t about to trust one of the most dangerous men on the world just cause he claimed to have regained some of his memories from the early 20th century. And he was working with Loki.

Natasha was absolutely certain Thor had not lied to them. He was a lot better at both subterfuge and deception than most people gave him credit for, but Natasha doubted he could’ve faked so much grief and raw pain. He did not know his brother was alive, Loki was just that good when it came to lies. Magic probably made things easier on that front.

They stayed in Poland for a few days, but they all knew there was no point. If Loki and Barnes could raid five Hydra facilities around the world under twenty-four hours, they could pop up with that portal wherever they liked. There was no way to tell where they would show up next, since the Hydra base in Poznań was their last and only lead. They didn’t even know whether they would go after Hydra again, or if they were done with them. It was frustrating beyond words how one-sided this conflict was. Barnes and Loki knew the board and the pieces, while the rest of them didn’t even know which game they were playing.

All in all, it was a unpleasant three weeks for everyone. And now Steve was back. Right as rain, not a scratch on him. He lost some parts of his uniform, but that was about it. Natasha was eager to get intel out of him about what happened to him in the past weeks, which is when a whole new level of frustration started.

‘I told you it was not three weeks for me,’ Steve said.

‘Yes, and that’s about all you said,’ Natasha told him as she leaned on the doorway. Steve was back in Washington, didn’t even consider going to New York. Not that she expected him to accept the offer of going back to the Tower. And it wasn’t even about Vision or the Maximoffs. She was rather sure Steve and Tony did not talk to each other since Ultron. If Steve needed help with anything he called Sam, then called her, and usually asked her to bring Clint along if she wanted to. When things went really bad he was happy to accept help from Thor, Hill, Bobbi, or Sharon, and reluctant to accept help from Wanda, Pietro, and Vision. He always argued that Bruce wanted to be left alone, and nobody ever tried to ask him to contact Tony.

The last three weeks helped the rest of them to build back some of the bridges – that while not burned – but were seriously damaged. Of course Steve was not around for that, since it was all for him. He brought them back closer together than they were in months, but somehow remained on the outside.

‘I told you about the N’Garai,’ Steve said as he started putting away his groceries. Natasha caught him coming home from the store.

‘Yes, they’re evil demons, very helpful.’

‘What exactly are you expecting from me here?’ Steve asked.

‘I’d like you to tell me everything you have not told me so far,’ she answered simply. Steve sighed.

‘It’s not relevant,’ he said.

‘You can’t know that.’

Steve turned around.

‘I told you he made a deal, but not with Loki. I don’t know who. I don’t know what the book was, I don’t know what else they took from Hydra.’ Steve took a deep breath and looked at the ceiling for a moment. ‘I know you think that’s not much, but I only had a few hours to actually coax some answers out of Bucky. I wasn’t going to start interrogating him... I just... I just wanted him to talk to me.’

‘Last time you said it was about a day, now you said it was a few hours.’

Steve looked frustrated.

‘A few hours when we talked,’ he said.

‘What else were you doing then?’

‘We ate some sandwiches... slept a bit.’

‘Really?’ She wanted to smack him on the back of his head.

‘Don’t start.’

‘You ate food that was given to you, and then just went to sleep? I don’t know why you’re not more worried about these three weeks you lost.’

‘Look, I didn’t lose three weeks. Time just probably passes differently there. We’re talking about doors to other dimensions here.’

Natasha let him get back to his groceries for a bit, knowing when Steve needed a few moments. The frustrating thing was that Steve did not look at all of this with the same amount of concern the rest of them did. They had three weeks to come up with probable scenarios, evaluate and re-evaluate the threat Loki and Barnes posed. They made plans, they prepared, they were all ready to go the second they caught sight of any of them. Steve though, he spent less than a day with the man he still called his best friend, had some tentative conversation with him, gathered some minimal intelligence, and considered it a good start. Well, “good” was a strong word. Steve was worried, and he obviously wanted to know more as well, but his entire being lacked that sense of urgency he wore around himself like a cape while they were hunting Barnes down before.

‘He said “I’ll be seeing you”, so they’re obviously going to show up eventually,’ Steve said when he closed his fridge.

‘Yes, and I wonder what they’re doing in the meantime,’ Natasha said. ‘We don’t know where to look, they could be in the middle of something right now, and we’re just sitting around. We only found them the last time, because they wanted to be found.’

‘We’ll find them. This is big, Natasha, they can’t move in the shadows indefinitely.’

‘Yes, this is big, that’s why we need to be prepared.’

‘We are prepared,’ Steve argued. ‘Everyone is aware of the situation, if we catch a trail, we’ll be ready to move. What else can we do?’

They could do more if they had more intel, but she was not about to bring that up again. There was no changing the past. Steve’s relative calmness with the situation worried her more.

‘You can’t trust him,’ she reminded him seriously. ‘I mean it. Not with Loki in the picture.’

Steve was quiet, putting canned goods into a cupboard. Natasha couldn’t see his face.


‘I don’t,’ he said.

Natasha pushed herself away from the doorway.

‘Next time I ask, try to be more convincing,’ she told him, and headed to the door.

Steve got out of the kitchen just when Natasha put her hand on the doorknob.

‘You can’t seriously expect me not to give him the benefit of the doubt here,’ he said.

She turned back to look at him. He wanted some sort of a blessing, someone to agree with him, give him a nod. Unfortunately, Natasha couldn’t be that person.

‘You’re going to do what you want,’ she told him, because that was the truth. ‘What you think is best... or right. I’m going to do the same.’

This was not the answer Steve wanted, obviously. But he trusted her to tell him the truth, so she did just that.

‘Barnes is not the problem,’ she added, even if she knew that Steve wouldn’t misunderstand her earlier words. ‘We all know that, but he is still a part of it. Try not to forget that.’

Steve didn’t argue, he knew all this already.

As Natasha walked down the stairs she thought about how completely useless it was sometimes to waste words on Steve, especially when he already made up his stubborn head. And yet, she did still trust him to do the right thing.

Clint was waiting in the car, sunglasses on, fingers drumming on the steering wheel. Natasha got in the car and turned to him.

‘You’re being childish,’ she said and signed. Clint looked at her over the rim of his sunglasses for a moment, then shrugged.

‘I’m not mad at Cap,’ he said, still drumming his fingers.

‘That’s why you waited here,’ Natasha continued, her voice was quiet, but she signed every word, so Clint didn’t have trouble following, even with all the traffic zooming by.

Clint took off his glasses and finally stopped tapping the wheel.

‘I just... He cares about Barnes a whole lot more than he cares about the rest of us altogether,’ he said. ‘I’m allowed to be a bit irritated about that, when we don’t even know whether the guy’s just a little bonkers or full-on psycho. He is prowling around with Loki.’

‘We don’t know Barnes’ plans,’ Natasha remarked.

‘You read all the files, Tasha,’ he said. ‘Neither Sergeant Barnes, nor the Winter Soldier were known for long cons. Even before Hydra got their hands on him he was the guy who finished fights, the one who put the bullets in the right brains. He’s not the guy with the plan, so my money’s on Loki. That scheming son of a bitch.’

Clint had great insight, as always, Natasha couldn’t even argue with him. Clint kept on talking, he wasn’t done just yet.

‘So I don’t care what he’s getting out of this deal he made, or why he made it. He’s--’

‘That’s not true,’ Natasha interrupted him. ‘You know it matters why he signed up for this. You know what he was getting away from. He probably took the first chance he got.’

There was a moment where they both stayed quiet, both of them just thinking in silence, shaking off bad memories, and past demons.

‘So what? We extract him?’ Clint asked. ‘How?’

Clint was basically reading her mind with how well their minds seemed to work together.

‘I don’t know yet, but I’m sure we’re going to need some help.’

‘Sounds good to me,’ Clint shrugged as he slipped his sunglasses back on and started the car.

When Steve vanished the rest of them stayed together, and after a few days they returned to the US to regroup. And while they could handle themselves just fine, and did not actually need any “designated leader”, there was still just one place they could think to go to. To think, to plan, to stay together in order to be able to move as a team at the first sign of Loki, Barnes, or Steve himself. That’s why Clint and Natasha drove straight back to New York, and did not stop until they reached 200 Park Avenue.

They could’ve arranged for a plane, instead of doing the four-hour journey, but they both liked to drive, and there was no reason to hurry and not waste a little time like this. Clint probably thought that the world was going to go to shit again very soon, that’s why he suggested it. And to be fair, there was no time but the present to do something pleasant. For Clint, a four-hour drive on a highway (without being chased or shot at), and stopping for half-decent diner food on the way, counted as time well spent. Natasha made fun of him for it, but still bought him a bunch of candy at a gas station. And Clint was all smiles by the time they got back to New York, so it was all absolutely worth it.

Stark knew they were coming even without JARVIS, but he paid them basically zero attention when the elevator opened. Natasha heard that he was in some heated scientific discussion with someone. When Natasha caught sight of the giant screen that person turned out to be Dr. Foster. Neither of them noticed that they entered the room, they were so immersed in the discussion.

There is no way he can just open up portals to different dimensions by himself, no matter the equipment, there just has to be more than what he can carry with himself!’ Jane was saying, rather loudly and enthusiastically.

‘Think outside of the box,’ Tony replied. ‘An arc reactor is not that big, and there’s plenty of juice in it. Not to mention something like the Tesseract. Or what was that thing in London?

The Aether,’ Jane said.

‘So, if there was only one precedent, I’d say it was pretty unlikely. But clearly that’s not the case.’

I’m going to have to get some more information out of Thor... he’s always very tight-lipped about advanced technology.

‘Can’t say I blame him,’ Tony said. ‘Whenever we get our hands on something powerful, we immediately try to blow each other up, and almost wipe ourselves off the face of Earth in the process.’

Yeah... bad track record, right there,’ Jane sighed. ‘Okay, what about any remnant energies?’ she asked. ‘Or... anything?

‘We scanned and labelled every square inch where portals opened,’ Tony said. ‘And besides the obvious cracks, we found nothing but some faint weird electromagnetic radiation, and quickly decaying plasmonic fields.’

What we’re looking for has got to be on the other side,’ Jane said.

‘But if it’s something like the Tesseract...’ Tony ventured.

Even so,’ Jane shook her head. ‘No matter what it is, I’m pretty sure Captain Rogers would’ve seen it, if Loki had it on him.’ Jane said. ‘These sort of things tend to be very flashy.

‘That’s certainly true,’ Stark agreed easily.

I need more data,’ she told him seriously. ‘This is quite different from my research, so this whole discussion is purely theoretical until I can actually make real-time readings, or have someone do it for me.

‘What does Selvig say?’ Natasha joined the conversation, which was the moment the two of them even realized that they were standing in the room. No greetings were exchanged, they stayed strictly on-topic.

He’s been... a bit all over the place since Loki’s name was mentioned,’ Foster said. ‘But he’s going to work on it too.

‘We’ve got a big pile of steaming nothing,’ Tony said, turning to them. ‘The portals they used on the Hydra bases were one thing, it could’ve been just a short-cut between two points in space.’

Maybe something similar to the Bifrost... or the Tesseract,’ Jane finished. ‘But with everything Captain Rogers said, this seems fundamentally different... I really need to talk to some theoretical physicists... not that flesh-and-blood people opening up portals to other dimensions is something anyone is an expert in.’

‘We’ve got you Foster, you’re the expert,’ Tony said.

Jane sighed, then nodded, looking determined. ‘Okay, but I’m still going to need some readings, or we’re just taking stabs in the dark.’

‘I can do that, or Vision,’ Tony nodded. ‘If we get the chance. But call if you have any new theories anyway.’

‘How’s Thor?’ Natasha asked. Thor decided not to stay at the tower for the time being, but with Jane. Of course they weren’t that far from New York, so he was ready to jump in if anything changed about the current situation.

Well, y’know... it’s Loki, he’s not okay. It’s...’ she put her elbows up on the desk she had her laptop on, taking a big breath. ‘He’s been dealing... both with what happened to his Mother and Loki, but this just... he’s more sad than angry right now. But I’m pretty sure we’re going to circle right back to angry real soon.

She fiddled with her hair and gave them a faint smile. ‘But he’s Thor, so he’s putting on the smiles, he doesn’t want anyone to worry.

‘Let me know if he’s brooding too much, and I’ll send birdie here over with a six-pack,’ Stark said, jerking a thumb in Clint’s direction.

‘What a horrible burden,’ Clint said, deadpan. Then he smiled up at the screen. ‘But I’m ready to take one for the team.’

That made her laugh, which was probably the point.

All right, send data, if you have data,’ she said. ‘I’ve got some phone calls to make, and e-mails to write.

‘Yes, work that big brain,’ Tony agreed. ‘Talk to you later.’

She said a quick bye, even waved a little, but they all saw that her mind was already somewhere else. That happened a lot with her. Tony turned off the screen and turned fully towards them.

‘Why does your faces make me think, that Captain America’s going to hate me even more for what you’re about to ask from me?’

‘That’s oddly specific,’ Natasha said with a frown. ‘And Steve doesn’t hate you.’

‘Not the point. You were in Washington, but now you’re here, which I suppose means you finally decided on a plan,’ Stark said. ‘I just assumed it’s not a “Steve approved” plan.’

‘Well, you’re not wrong,’ Clint shrugged.

‘You know what we need for this to actually work?’ Tony asked. ‘For them to show up.’

‘Steve was pretty confident that they will,’ Natasha said. ‘But it can be tomorrow or a month from now.’

‘Or never,’ Tony said.

‘I doubt what we saw was the grand finale,’ Natasha argued. ‘Seemed more like a prelude to me.’

Tony walked to his bar and poured himself a drink. Only when he emptied the glass did he look up at them again.

‘Okay, Loki is not going to do this cloak and dagger style all the way, I’ll give you that. He likes showing off, and make things big and spectacular,’ Tony agreed. ‘But what about Barnes? Where do you stand on him right now?’

‘He’s dangerous,’ Natasha said. ‘But he’s an assassin, and a covert operative, not a conman. I doubt he could actually fake remembering Steve.’

‘That doesn’t help the rest of us,’ Clint remarked.

‘And again, there’s Loki...’ Stark added.

‘Which is why we need to separate them,’ Natasha said. ‘Look, if Barnes just got himself into a mess, we can get him out of it. If he’s a threat, we will have him off the streets, and under surveillance.’

‘Win-win,’ Clint agreed.

Stark scratched at his beard, then poured himself another drink. Watching how many glasses he drowned was always a good indication of how stressed or uncomfortable he was. Two was not worrisome, but Natasha still kept an eye on the bottle.

‘And what about Cap?’ Tony asked. ‘You said he didn’t seem very gung-ho about capturing him since he got back.’

‘But he still wants him away from Loki,’ Natasha said.

‘He is not going to be happy with you two. With any of us,’ Tony said. ‘I don’t even get it why you’re not over in Washington, trying to convince him.’

‘If this would be about anyone but Barnes, I would try,’ Natasha said. ‘I would probably even succeed. But this is Barnes. Steve’s got a blind spot the size of Serbia when it comes to him.’

‘Well, I hope you’re prepared for the wrath of the star-spangled man,’ Stark shrugged, his nonchalance was just a little forced. ‘Because I am not taking the flak for all this, just so you know.’

‘It’s going to be a team decision,’ Clint said. ‘If we all agree, Steve will have to agree too.’

‘Right,’ Stark snorted. ‘And I’m going to nominate Stane for a port-mortem Noble peace prize.’

Natasha wanted to say that Tony was exaggerating, but she knew exactly how hard it was to change Steve’s mind once he decided on something as the right course of action. And Barnes of course, it all came down to Barnes. She did not doubt for a second that Steve still had the safety of people set as a firm priority, but beyond that, it was all about Barnes. It wasn’t even just about the files she read, the plain black and white evidence of how far Steve was willing to go for his friend, she just knew Steve. She knew he was not going to give up, and won’t do anything that could compromise rebuilding the friendship they had. But Natasha couldn’t give Barnes the benefit of he doubt in this situation, and she was not alone.

‘All right, I’m in,’ Stark sighed at last. ‘But you get to inform the rest of the team about all this.’

‘Oh joy,’ Clint murmured, taking the words right out of Natasha’s mouth, their minds really did work on the same wave-length.

Chapter Text

There was sixteen days of nothing after Steve came back. Literally not a damn thing happened. Sam knew everyone was waiting. He was nowhere on anyone’s speed dial, but Natasha did keep him updated and even Clint shot him the occasional text. Everyone was waiting for Barnes and Loki to show up somewhere.

Steve pretended to be patient, but Sam knew he reached the end of his rope since after the first week. He was not one for sitting around, it made him a bit twitchy. He ran way more than he usually did in the mornings. He frowned deeply every time there was nothing to distract him. And Sam had really nothing to tell him. He couldn’t tell him not to worry, he couldn’t tell him to relax and wait it out. He kept him company, helped him by being someone to talk to, but that was basically it. Sam even dragged him over to the VA Centre a few times, and while the people there were awfully happy to see Captain America, it did little to lift Steve’s mood.

In the end, they found the demons first, or the demons found them. It was hard to tell, cause they showed up in New York. Yeah, demons, that was his life now, freakin’ demons, plural. For the first time Steve regretted not taking up the offer of returning to Stark Tower, it was written all over his face. But they’ve arranged a pick up with Hill a long time ago, so they were in the city relatively quickly.

The police knew the drill by now, they focused on herding civilians away from the danger and staying out of the way of the Avengers. Sam and Steve were the last to arrive and they heard very little about what exactly was going on until they got hooked up to the comm-link.

‘How do we look?’ Steve asked the second he could hear the chatter of the rest of the team.

Nice of you to join us,’ Natasha said right away. ‘We spotted at least six of them so far, Thor killed one already, but more could be on the way.

‘Any sign of Loki or Bucky?’ Steve asked.

No,’ Natasha said.

The small quinjet put them down at Madison Square Park, the pilot bailing out of there as soon as possible. Sam saw the destruction the N’Garai left behind on the street in front of them.

‘So what are they after?’ he asked.

When they appeared they were circling and clawing up a building,’ Natasha said. ‘But they left it alone when we got here. They’ve been roaming since.’

‘They’re searching for something,’ Steve said.

Someone,’ they were interrupted by a different voice.

‘Wanda? Where are you?’ Steve demanded.

37 West 26th Street,’ she replied ‘They just attacked some studio. Thor and Vision are holding them off. I think they want someone from inside. I can’t... I can’t really harm them dammit, unless I want to level the building.’

‘Evacuate!’ Steve said.

We’re on it,’ Natasha confirmed.

‘We’ll be right there,’ Steve replied then turned to Sam.

‘Fly, it’s quicker, I’ll catch up with you.’

Sam nodded and took off right away. There was no time to waste. He knew Steve would be able to run over there pretty damn quickly, so he did not worry about him not getting there in time. He spotted a few of the N’Garai as soon as the twelve story building on the 26th appeared in his line of sight. They were trying to scale the building, sinking their claws into bricks and window sills.

As he flew closer he felt the wind pick up around him, and he knew immediately why when lightning struck down one of the things. He did not see Thor himself, but that mattered very little, he was there. Next he caught sight of Vision’s yellow cape. Steve was right about him being a little... weird, but damn. Sam kept his distance as Vision grabbed hold of one of the things, dislodging their claws from the building. Then he plummeted to the ground, dropping down like lead, with the beast underneath him. That was definitely going to leave a big hole in the concrete down below.

Hey people... we need a little help up here,’ yelled Pietro through the comms. Sam flew up to the roof, because even if he could not help Thor and Vision against the demons, he sure as hell could do more than just stare at others as they did the heavy lifting.

As soon as he touched down Pietro appeared right in front of him, too fast to even know from which direction he exactly came from.

‘You need to fly some people over to another rooftop,’ he said quickly. ‘The back entrance is screwed to hell.’

A moment later the door leading down into the building was pushed open and Barton marched out, some people followed him out as closely as possible. Most of them looked literally scared out of their minds.

‘You got it,’ Sam nodded and Pietro was gone in a blink, probably back into the building.

Natasha got out to the roof last, gripping the arm of a crying woman, who clearly hurt her leg.

‘Okay, you first then lady,’ he said as he rushed over to them.

‘No,’ Natasha shook her head. ‘We don’t know who they want, one of us needs to get over there first.’

‘Right, Barton!’

But before he could take a step closer some of the people started shouting and even screaming. A N’Garai popped its ugly head up to the roof, red eyes scanning the small crowd.

Barton let an arrow fly and Sam had no idea what sort of arrow it was, but the thing let out a god-awful wail when it hit it in the neck. It started shaking its head frantically, before it reached up with a big clawed hand to tear it out. It bought them enough time, because the next moment Thor dropped down on the creature from above, grabbing hold of a horn and yanking them off of the roof.

Some guy from the small crowd let out a relieved shout of “Yes!”, but the beasts were still growling, they were still coming. Sam grabbed hold of Clint and quickly leaped off the edge, smoothly gliding two buildings over to another rooftop.

‘We need to find out who they want,’ Clint said as soon as his feet were firmly down. ‘Cause we can’t protect them all.’

‘We’ll find out soon enough,’ Sam told him, then he took flight again. Sam had to carry them over one-by-one and the demons were bound to react.

I’m here!’ Steve announced through the comms.

Back entrance!’ Pietro yelled in return. ‘Now!

On my way!’ Steve shouted back.

Sam landed right next to Natasha and the injured woman. He picked the lady up gingerly, trying not to hurt her leg more. He kept looking around, waiting for one of the demons to jump at him, but they were still just climbing up the side of the building, trying to get to the top. It was safe to fly.

He put the woman down on the other rooftop, helped her sit down.

‘Sit tight, we’re gonna get you out of here,’ Sam reassured her. She nodded back, visibly gathering herself to not freak out even more. Sam leaped off the edge and flew back to the first building.

He made a few turns, keeping an eye on the N’Garai, listening to the others. Steve and Pietro managed to barricade the back entrance of the building, so the demons were not getting in from that direction, while Wanda somehow kept all windows intact. The glass surfaces were all shimmering with a faint red glow and did not break, not even when the N’Garai slammed into them with full force. Thor bashed open the head of another one of them, but he did not have much time to fight them one-on-one, because Vision just couldn’t pick them all off the building by himself. And they really needed to keep them away form the roof.

Sam also saw that the police closed down both ends of the street, keeping everyone away. It would have been nice to keep the battle to this one location. There were way too many civilians out on the streets this time of the day. He also caught sight of two news helicopters circling above them and he was pretty damn sure they were not going to be the only ones.

‘Okay, you next lady,’ Sam said as he landed. There were only six people left on the roof. Sam deliberately left those who looked the most composed last. He wasn’t sure whether it was a New Yorker thing, or they just felt safe with Avengers left and right, but the remaining people looked freakishly calm, considering the situation. The woman grabbed hold of his neck and Sam leaped off the building. Only to hear the demons start snarling with a lot more vigour than before.

It’s her,’ Natasha declared through the comms. Well, shit.

Fly higher,’ Vision instructed. ‘They’re after you.

Sam only glanced back for one second, but he already saw one of the things leaping off the side of the building in his direction. He aimed for the sky and flew until he was at least twenty stories high.

‘What’s going on?’ the lady shouted at him.

‘Where do I go?’ Sam asked the others, not having time to answer her just yet. He couldn’t just fly off in any direction, the demons would follow him through the streets. He also couldn’t just stay up in the air indefinitely.

Stark Tower,’ Vision said. ‘Keep flying high, let us worry about the rest.

That was such a shitty plan, but Sam did not argue. He flew higher.

‘Where are we going?’ the lady asked him. Sam finally took a better look at her. She was in her thirties, brown skin and long black hair, most likely Native.

‘They’re after you,’ Sam told her. ‘We’re gonna get you some place safe.’

‘What?!’ she exclaimed.

‘Do you have any idea why?’

‘No! I don’t know!’ she shouted back at him.

‘What’s your name?’ he asked and he very pointedly did not look back, he didn’t want to know how close the demons were.


‘Sara, hi, I’m Sam. They’re not gonna get you, okay?’ Sam told her. ‘And once you’re safe, we’ll figure out why they’re after you.’

‘Okay,’ she agreed, holding on a little more tightly.

Sam heard the sound of the fight behind them, heard the crack of lightning, felt the wind pick up, he even saw Vision from the corner of his eye. He saw that Pietro was down on the street, well, he saw a blue blur or motion a bit ahead of them. He was trying to clear the way, warn the pedestrians before the demons reached them. The things were not giving up, they were charging down the road, pushing cars out of the way, running up on buildings, and jumping from roof to roof in order to follow them. But at least as long as people got out of the way in time there would be no seriously casualties. At least he really hoped so.

Then he caught sight of something else. Someone else. Great.

‘Loki’s here,’ he announced through the comm. ‘Up on the roofs, on my nine.’

He had no idea how Loki was keeping up with them on foot, but he was. Every time Sam thought he was falling behind he just popped up again.

Watch out for Barnes then,Natasha warned him. He can’t be far.

‘I’m not really worried about him, to be honest,’ Sam replied, because he had demons on his tail. Barnes was maybe a big question mark, but the N’Garai were definitely out for blood.

But still, Loki was not following the demons, he was following them.

‘Okay, shit, I’m pretty sure they’re here for her too.’

‘Who’s here for me?’ Sara asked, only hearing Sam’s side of the conversation. Sam didn’t really know how to explain, so he just shook his head.

‘Later, let’s get you to the Tower.’

He tried to stay away from the buildings, but some of the streets were really narrow and he did not want to fly that high. He was above most buildings, but not the biggest skyscrapers.

Thor killed another one,’ Vision reported.

Sam tried to keep an eye on Loki, but he was still mostly worried about the demons. So he didn’t notice when exactly he vanished from his nine. He caught the sound of something strange just a second before one of his wings got pierced at a corner and he was yanked to the side. Sara gripped him tight and bit back a panicky shout as they almost crashed into a building. There was a grappling hook in his wing, a really familiar one. He managed to avoid the corner of the building, but they hit the rooftop of the building next to it. Sam took the fall, making sure Sara landed on him. It was not a big fall, but damn, it still hurt.

Sara’s weight was gone from top of him almost immediately.

‘What the shit, let go of me!’ she yelled. Sam shook his head and opened his eyes. Freakin’ Barnes, what the hell?

‘You serious with this bullshit?’ Sam shouted at him as he got to his feet. ‘We’ve got demons on our assess.’

Barnes definitely did not feel like giving him an answer, he backed away from the edge of the roof, keeping a firm arm around Sara’s waist. He must’ve said something to her, because she was not yelling or trying to get away from him. Not that Sam blamed here, Barnes was one scary bastard when he had that mission face on.

And sure enough, Sam could already hear the rumbling of a demon. He couldn’t get the hook out of his wing easily. He first had to cut the cable with the knife he kept strapped to his shin. The wing was still damaged, but it would have to do for now. At least Barnes was kind enough not to rip his damn wing completely off this time. Not that he felt good about his chances of flying safely like this. He folded them back into place, not being sure if he could use them again today. And that was just perfect.

Loki dropped down from a nearby building just as a N’Garai’s claws appeared at the edge of the rooftop. Loki was slowly getting closer to Barnes, keeping his red eyes locked on the demon climbing up. Sam was tense from head-to-toe, and he had no idea what exactly the right course of action was here.

‘I really could use some help here,’ he told the others through the comm, because it was the truth, he really-really needed some help.

We’re on our way,’ Vision replied, but Sam heard the sound of the fight around him, so he knew it could take some time.

The demon tried to charge at Sara and Barnes, but Loki got in its way, kicking it in the head and sinking a long knife into the back of its neck. At the same time Sam heard repulsor thrusters and he expected Vision, but got Iron Man instead. Just out of nowhere. Stark dropped down next to Barnes, or almost on top of him really. Barnes let go of Sara, who ran to get out of the way. Sam ran to her immediately. Only the N’Garai noticed her being alone too, and charged.

Sam got to Sara just a second sooner than the demon, and he wrapped both his arms around her, trying to shield her as much as possible. He knew he could do nothing against the claws, still he had to try. He expected pain, he expected blood, or just instant death really, but the thing was just snarling real close and fuck... Loki stood in its way, basically wrestling with the thing. They needed to get out of here.

He and Sara backed away from Loki and the demon. Sam didn’t want to risk flying. Maybe the damaged wing could take his weight, but not both of theirs.

What’s going on up there?’ Steve yelled through the comms.

‘I need someone to get Sara the hell out of here!’ Sam shouted back. ‘Loki’s got the demon, but shit, we are so not safe here!’

Stark was not connected to their channel, because he did not answer. He stood firmly in front of Barnes, while the other was circling him. Sam finally spotted a service ladder, but of course it was on the other side of the roof from where Sam and Sara were. They had to get to it though.

‘See the ladder over there?’ he asked her. Sara looked around, then nodded. ‘When I tell you to run, you run. I’m gonna cover you, you just run to it, and start climbing down. Understand?’

‘Yes, I got it,’ she nodded, her eyes firmly locked on the other side of the roof. Sam had to give it to her, she was holding it together quite admirably.

Loki and the N’Garai kept each other busy, so Sam waited for the moment Barnes was distracted enough. Stark was the first one to make a move, Barnes dodged him, keeping his distance. It was good enough for Sam.

‘Now, run!’ he yelled. Sara got to her feet and started running immediately. She was fast and ran without a moment of hesitation. Sam was right behind her.

Stark managed to grab hold of Barnes the next time he attacked, because the edge of the roof was right there and Barnes could not back away from him. But the second he was trapped he pulled a knife from somewhere and sank it to the hilt right into Stark’s right shoulder. It went through the armour at least a little, because Stark let go of him.

Sara was at the ladder, but she stopped abruptly.

‘I can’t go down there!’ she yelled at him. Sam looked down and saw that half of the damn thing was missing, fucking hell. They were sixteen or eighteen stories high and there was no point going down and getting trapped on a ladder if they could not reach the ground.

‘Help is on its way,’ Sam reassured her. ‘Stay behind me.’

Sam could hear the sound of Barnes’ arm recalibrating even from where he stood, then he watched as he turned and swung at Stark’s head. He had no idea whether the arm was sturdier or the helmet, but the sound of metal slamming into metal rang quite loudly. Then Barnes’ metal fingers went for the helmet’s eye socket, piercing right through it before Stark could push him away or dodge in any way. Barnes was wicked fast.

Barnes’ knife was still sticking out from Stark’s shoulder, and only one of the eyes was glowing in the helmet, and then Barnes pulled his gun. This was so not good.

The N’Garai let out a painful shriek, so Sam turned and saw that Loki finally finished the thing off. The creature’s head looked like it was steaming, covered in ice and frost, its grey skin was blackened in several places. Loki’s skin was more blue than grey for a few seconds, but it shifted quickly back to grey as he approached.

Stark stood right between Loki and Barnes. Not the smartest place to be, in Sam’s opinion.

The sky thundered above them, and they all heard another demon’s snarl. Thor and Vision had to be close now, but unfortunately the rest of the demons were too.

‘Go!’ Barnes yelled, he did not take his eyes off of Stark. Loki was opening his mouth, but Barnes cut him off. ‘Just fucking go!’

Loki ran right at Sam and Sara and seriously, hopefully nobody expected him to be able to stop him. Loki tossed him aside like he was a rag doll, and picked Sara up by the waist just as easily, then jumped off the roof. Sara let out a startled scream as they vanished over the edge. Sam got up again, he was going to be so damn bruised.

Stark went for Barnes again, caught the flesh arm that had the gun in it, forcing it down. Barnes’ metal fist smashed into his helmet again, Sam was pretty sure the face plate got dented. Stark head-butted him in answer. Barnes stumbled back for a second, a little dazed from the blow, then slammed his whole body forward, twisting both of them around as they went down to get his trapped arm out of Stark’s grasp.

Sam ran to the edge, but by the time he got there he only caught a glimpse of Sara and Loki as they vanished in a portal. Goddammit!

Barnes seemed to want to make a run for it, but Stark grabbed hold of his leg. Barnes twisted around and raised his gun. Sam had no idea whether he could actually harm Stark with it, but he did not get a chance to pull the trigger, because Stark burst forward and punched him right in the face, hard. And Barnes was tough, real tough, but he went down from the force of it.

The N’Garai are running,’ he heard Natasha say in his earpiece ‘Sam?

Vision finally arrived, landing on the roof. He was practically covered in the dark blood of the demons, his cape was torn to shreds, so Sam knew what kept him. Probably Thor did not look any better.

‘Loki’s got Sara,’ Sam told them all. ‘They’re gone.’

Stark straightened up, still keeping a very close eye on Barnes, but he was out cold for sure.

‘And we got Barnes,’ Sam added. There was a moment of silence from the other side. They probably all waited for the same thing.

You what?’ Steve demanded. And oh boy, he did not sound happy.

Chapter Text

Tony had to cut the helmet off his head, it dented that badly. He couldn’t even get to it right away, because he could feel the blood dripping down his arm from his shoulder wound, making the inside of his gauntlets wet and disgusting. So he sat around half-naked, wearing nothing but the bottom of his under armour, with the dented helmet still on his head, while the stab wound on his shoulder got stitched and bandaged by the resident doctor of Stark Tower.

And yeah, that shoulder wound. He was stabbed, through his armour. Barnes went and stabbed through his armour... with a knife. His gold titanium alloy suit. Stabbed through. With a knife. He was still trying to wrap his head around this impossibility. Because that’s what it was, what it should have been; impossible. And yet, he had eight stitches that proved otherwise.

So after he cut his helmet off his head, and shit his face was bruised like hell underneath it, he took the time to pry the knife fully out of his suit. He would have to repair it and get the blood out... well, maybe it was better if he just made a new right arm for this suit. When the knife was finally out, Tony had an inkling why it went through his armour so smoothly. Because it sure as hell was not the sort of military knife Barnes reportedly used. He considered doing a full scan on the thing, but then he remembered that he had the real-life expert on all things alien; Thor. Plus he couldn’t hide from Steve forever.

Barton caught up with him on his way to the elevator, eyeing the bandage on his shoulder.

‘Yeah, can you believe this?’ Tony asked. ‘A knife... right through my suit.’

Barton just pushed the correct floor button and didn’t comment on it. Tony turned the knife around in his hand. The handle looked really fancy, black and gold, tiny motives carved into it. It had a thick ring at the very end, with something like runes engraved on it. The blade itself shone with a metallic golden glimmer. Spear point blade, straight and double-edged, it was more of a dagger really, now that Tony thought about it. He really hoped Thor would recognize it, even though Tony could already guess where it came from.

‘I hope you and Romanoff are ready to put your heads out,’ he said then. ‘How deep is Cap’s scowl anyway? Cutting remarks level, or is it already at “punch in the face” heights?’

Barton sighed.

‘I see your lips moving,’ he said. ‘But you gotta stop talking at me when I don’t have my hearing aid in. I caught maybe five words from all that.’

Barton’s face was picturesquely unimpressed. Tony thought about it for a moment then put up his index finger to sign “Where?”.

‘Forgot to buy batteries,’ Barton shrugged. It was Tony’s turn to be unimpressed. Barton should let him improve that piece of plastic nonsense, give it a better energy source, improve the effectiveness, but no. He was so done trying to convince him.

The elevator arrived and they both stepped out.

‘HELEN, make a note,’ Tony spoke out loud. ‘I want batteries delivered to Clint here. To his floor, his apartment, I don’t know, someone break into his car and hide some in his glove box.’

That does not sound like an overreaction at all,’ HELEN replied with her expected exasperation.

‘Really, a new AI?’

Steve, here we go.

‘Yes,’ Tony answered plainly as he walked into the room where their merry band gathered. ‘This is HELEN. Say hi, hun.’

Welcome back to Stark Tower,’ HELEN said pleasantly. ‘If you’d like to take your floor again, let me know well in advance.

Steve still did not look happy.

‘I’d like someone to confirm what I’m about to say,’ Tony said. ‘It would be virtually impossible to manage this building without an AI. And I’m not even going to mention how difficult it would be to fly my suit. Vision, back me up here, would you?’

There was that face the android made. It was exactly the kind of patient, but slightly long-suffering look Tony always pictured JARVIS would make in reaction to Tony’s silly questions, if he had a face that is. He knew – he knew very well – that Vision was not JARVIS. Vision reminded him of that plenty of times (almost daily). But there was just no way he could stop associating them.

‘It would most definitely require a serious redesign for the entire building, including basic features like the elevators, camera feeds, and motion sensors,’ Vision confirmed.

‘Thank you,’ Tony said, and spread his arms, looking back at Steve.

I would be more worried about Tony’s ability to dress and feed himself without supervision,’ HELEN commented helpfully. Tony didn’t react to the comment, he was looking at Steve. He had his arms crossed over his chest, scowl in place, just as Tony expected.

‘Look, before you--’

‘No, I don’t care,’ Steve cut him off. ‘You went behind my back. This was not your decision to make.’

‘I don’t think it’s your decision to make either,’ Tony shot back. ‘You are not exactly objective here.’

‘Taking him in custody was not a priority,’ Steve told him angrily.

‘Excuse me, see this?’ he asked, pointing at his shoulder. ‘He stabbed me. And I imagine my face speaks for itself.’

‘Yeah, have you seen his face?’ Steve asked in return, the scowl darkening.

‘Steve, Tony didn’t act on his own, okay?’ Natasha interrupted. Nobody else seemed eager to interrupt their argument. Fucking fantastic, he really was going to take the flak for this.

‘Yes, that’s clear. Great teamwork everyone,’ he said and now he finally turned to look at the rest of them. ‘Clearly it was too difficult to see the real priority today.’

Natasha crossed her arms, but held Steve’s gaze.

‘What?’ Tony asked, since nobody else did.

‘Sara,’ Sam said. ‘The lady I was doing my best to keep out of demon claws. The lady Loki just snatched up, cause you were too busy with Barnes to fly her to safety.’

‘Whoa, hey,’ Tony protested. ‘I don’t know about any Sara.’

‘You would, if you’d bothered to connect to the comms when you arrived,’ Sam said.

‘There’s no guarantee Tony could’ve gotten her out,’ Wanda said firmly. Bless her heart for sticking up for him, Tony liked her even more now. ‘The N’Garai would’ve just followed them to the Tower.’

‘Yeah, and they were making quite a mess on the streets,’ Pietro backed her up right away.

Steve did not like to hear that, but before he could start arguing with them Tony spoke up again.

‘Which brings us back to why some of us thought Barnes was a priority,’ he said and lifted the knife.

‘Where did you get that?’ Thor asked. Not unexpected at all.

‘This is the knife Barnes kindly introduced to my shoulder,’ he said. When Thor walked closer Tony handed it over to him.

‘Let me guess,’ Natasha said, staring at it in Thor’s hand. ‘Loki?’

‘Aye, it belongs to my brother,’ Thor nodded. ‘He does not easily part with his finest daggers. I never thought I would see this one in anyone else’s hands.’

‘Is it special?’ Steve asked. ‘Y’know... magic stuff?’

‘Not that I know of,’ Thor said. ‘But I know it’s worth more than my weight in gold.’

There was a moment of reasonably shocked silence. Clint looked over at Natasha when he saw the looks on their faces.

‘What now?’ He asked and she signed it to him. ‘No way! How in the hell?’ he asked then, eyes glued to the blade.

‘It’s from Nidavellir,’ Thor said. ‘It’s Dwarven work, just like my hammer Mjölnir, and my father’s spear Gungnir. Although it has no unique powers, it is still relatively indestructible.’

‘And strong enough to stab through my armour,’ Tony noted.

‘Or even mine,’ Thor nodded.

Steve’s frown took on a whole new shape, less focused rage, more confused anger.

‘They must be real good buds then,’ Tony said. It was a low blow, phrasing it like that, but he couldn’t help himself. When Steve was on the offensive, Tony’s mind urged him to push right back.

‘HELEN, how’s our guest?’ he asked out loud. A few holographic screens appeared in view and they all turned to look at them.

Awake,’ she said. ‘But not very happy from what I can determine based on heart rate and body language.

The room Tony dropped him off in was sort of a cell. A small reinforced room with no windows, almost Hulk-proof walls, and a whole lot of cameras. It very carefully did not have anything that could be used as weapons. The bed was low on the floor, kinda Japanese-style, the single sink was built into the wall, and seriously, if anyone tore the toilet out of the floor to use it as a weapon, they deserved to have it.

Barnes was walking around. It was no furious pacing, he almost looked bored. Well, almost, he was clenching and unclenching his metal fist over and over again. The tense set of his shoulders also did not look friendly. He did not have his full body armour, just a thin under shirt, and all his weapons were taken from him. He still looked more than a little dangerous to Tony.

‘Hey HELEN, I think that arm should’ve been disabled.’

That would have required your expertise,’ HELEN said.

‘You are not taking his arm,’ Steve said.

‘It’s a weapon, Cap,’ Tony said. ‘Giving him a gun would be less dangerous.’

‘Yes, but it’s also his arm,’ Steve repeated.

‘Yeah, I don’t think we should do that,’ Wilson agreed with him, of course.

‘I agree,’ Natasha nodded. Tony looked at her in disbelief. ‘We want him to cooperate, not plan our slow and painful deaths.’

‘I’m pretty sure he’s planning murder already,’ Pietro commented, eyeing Barnes on the screen dubiously.

Tony finally saw his face when Barnes turned towards one of the cameras in the wall. That one was hidden behind a thick plastic panel. Stylish, and it helped surveillance. From the inside it looked like a decorative little square, one of the dozens scattered all around that wall.

And okay, Barnes face looked worse than his. He must’ve washed his face by the sink, cause there was no blood, but his forehead was bruised from where Tony head-butted him, and the punch left an even worse mark. That side of his face was swollen, including the eye, and the skin definitely broke over his cheekbone. Almost the entire left side was discoloured, but already black and blue though, so Tony was pretty sure he would be fine in a day or so. Yes, it looked bad right now, but he was a damn super-soldier. It didn’t stop Steve from side-eyeing him.

Barnes seemed to stare at the hidden camera for a moment, but Tony wasn’t sure whether he actually noticed it, or just liked to stare at random spots on the wall. He turned his back on it a second later.

‘I’ll go talk to him,’ Natasha announced.

‘Sure that’s a good idea?’ Sam asked.

‘I should talk to him,’ Steve argued, surprising no one.

‘No, we need answers, and you are not going to ask the right questions.’

‘He could attack you,’ Wanda said.

‘You’re all going to be right here, if I need any assistance. It’ll be fine.’

‘I won’t even try to argue with you if--’ Tony started to say, but they all heard a loud crack and turned back to the screens. Barnes’ fist was taking up one of the screens, because he just punched in the plastic panel, son of a bitch. When he pulled his arm back the view from that camera was almost completely obscured by the cracks he left.

‘I do not think he will be in the mood to talk,’ Thor remarked.

‘We’ll see,’ Natasha shrugged and headed over to the room.

Vision volunteered to stand outside the door while Natasha was inside, because he decided that it was more important for Thor to hear whatever conversation happened inside. And nobody wanted Steve by the door, not even Wilson. That frown was really getting darker and darker on his face.

When the door opened Barnes stopped and turned, but didn’t react in any other visible way. Natasha just looked at him for a moment while she closed the door, then smiled just a little.

‘Hello, James,’ she said. Barnes just stared back. ‘That name okay?’ No answer. Natasha was unfazed, she walked further inside the room. She asked Thor to give her Loki’s dagger, she was casually turning it around in her hand now. It didn’t look threatening, just absent minded. It drew Barnes’ attention, but he didn’t comment on it.

Natasha held up the knife, looking at how it gleamed under the lights in the room.

‘This must’ve been pretty hard to come by,’ she said.

Barnes sighed deeply. ‘I’m sure Thor can tell you a lot more about that,’ he said.

‘Probably,’ Natasha shrugged. ‘He was surprised though. So how come Loki was willing to part with it?’

‘I beat him at poker,’ Barnes replied. His voice was both flat and dripping with sarcasm.

Natasha huffed a small laugh, but Tony would bet anything it was just for show. He didn’t know her angle though. Natasha smoothly slid the knife into her belt, freeing her hands.

‘How are you feeling, by the way?’ she asked then. ‘We could probably get some ice for your face.’

‘Really?’ Barnes asked, tone still mostly flat, but now also a little annoyed maybe. Tony had a feeling he was not reacting to the ice. Natasha just blinked back at him questioningly.

‘You think this will work?’

‘This...?’ Natasha let the word draw out questioningly, raising her eyebrows. Barnes’ arm recalibrated, the plates shifted around as he curled up his fingers, not completely into a fist, but almost.

‘Я занимался этим задолго до того, как ты одела свои первые балетки,’ he said evenly.

Natasha turned her head quickly and stared at him, her whole body went rigid for a moment.

‘Was that Russian? HELEN, I need you to translate that for us,’ Tony said, eyes still glued to the screen.

I believe the correct translation is; “I have been doing this long before you got your first ballet shoes.” But the exact meaning escapes me, I’m afraid.

‘Why ballet shoes?’ Steve wondered. Good question.

‘What?’ Natasha asked quietly.

‘Oh, look at that; raw emotions,’ Barnes continued in English. ‘Just enough to glimpse your pain... but enough. More than enough to show how easily I can cause it.’

Natasha was still silent, just like the rest of them. The tension in front of the monitors was tangible.

‘I mean, that’s what you want me to think anyway,’ Barnes said then, a lot more casually. And that was an abrupt shift from the slow and deep tone he just used. ‘You’re hurting, so I’m leading, that it? Now you’re just a poor breakable girl, easily crushed under the boots of some big scary man... come on. Is this supposed to make me cocky? Overconfidence leads to mistakes or somethin’?’

He finally moved, walked a little closer to Natasha. He did not look like he wanted to be menacing, but somehow he was. Tony had no idea whether Natasha thought so too, but from where Tony was looking at him, he looked pretty damn intimidating.

He rolled his head to the side as he looked at her.

‘I ain’t Loki, doll.’

‘No, you’re not,’ Natasha answered, all signs of her previous shock gone, she was back to business. ‘So why are you working with him?’

Barnes did that sigh again, where his shoulders literally lifted, almost a huff.

‘Hmm... no dice,’ he said and turned his back on her, walking to the bed and dropping down on it.

‘Okay, and what about the girl? Sara,’ Natasha asked.

‘You can’t honestly expect me to answer any of your questions,’ Barnes said. He settled on the bed comfortably, back to the wall, legs spread lazily. How on Earth did he still look intimidating with that haystack hair and bruised-to-hell face? That’s what Tony wanted to know.

‘So that’s just for Steve?’ Natasha asked. ‘Sharing intel.’

‘Well, that was me talking to a friend,’ Barnes said. ‘Now I’m your prisoner, so you get my prisoner attitude, and it ain’t charming.’

‘Why though?’ Natasha asked. ‘You don’t have to be a prisoner. Whatever mess you got yourself into, you have to know that we can get you out of it. So why not?’

‘You really gotta try harder than this,’ Barnes answered.

‘I am trying not to treat you like a mark, you ought to have noticed that by now.’

‘And I’m trying not to use the whole damn lot of you for target practice, but I guess we are just going to keep making each other’s lives difficult.’

Now there was some real venom in his voice, no way was he acting. Steve’s clenched jaw confirmed that real nicely too. Tony really wanted to know what was going around in his head right now, looking at the screens, and listening to what was being said.

Natasha’s face remained blank and her body language did not give away anything either.

‘You’d really have no problem killing one of us?’ she asked. Barnes looked at her for one long moment in silence.

‘That dagger’s blade is eight inches long,’ he said then, apropos of nothing. ‘It can go through almost any Asgardian armour, so something like titanium gold... cuts it like butter.’

Tony deliberately bit his lips to not comment on that, because he wanted to know what the fuck the guy was getting at.

‘Just the tip reached flesh, it went about two inches deep. I didn’t twist it around, so that makes seven or eight stitches,’ Barnes continued. Tony uncomfortably rolled his injured shoulder without thinking about it and a twinge of pain shot through his arm.

Natasha held Barnes’ gaze as he talked, but did not interrupt him. She probably wanted to know as much as the rest of them where he was going with this.

‘Now that’s the shoulder,’ Barnes said easily. ‘The armour is at least 40% thinner on the side below the jaw and even thinner under the chin, for better neck flexibility and head rotation.’

How in the hell did Barnes know that? That’s not... no, you couldn’t just observe this in one fight. This guy had information from somewhere else.

‘So that eight inch blade,’ Barnes gave Natasha a meaningful look. ‘Well, that would go about five or six inches deep. Bye-bye little Stark Jr.’

‘Son of a bitch,’ Tony mumbled, then before anyone could stop him he activated one of the microphones on the screen so he could be heard inside.

‘Oh, so you didn’t stab me in the neck, you want a fucking cookie for that?’ he asked angrily. Barnes looked up in the direction of one of the hidden speakers and had the gall to smirk. Natasha looked annoyed.

‘He’s baiting you, Tony,’ she said.

‘It sounds like a threat to me,’ Tony said. He was surprised Rogers didn’t interrupt him already, but Tony didn’t take the time to look at his face, so he couldn’t even guess why not.

‘Perspective,’ Barnes said. ‘Just so you can rethink the severity of your injury.’

‘Okay, I bite,’ Tony told him. ‘Why do I need to rethink that? I’ve got the stitches and all, I’m pretty sure I know exactly what you’re capable of.’

‘Nah, you don’t, not really. Just words on a paper,’ Barnes said.

‘Enlighten me, Cyberboy,’ Tony prompted, he didn’t care how badly Natasha was glaring at him through the camera.

‘It means it took effort not to kill you, cause the throat would have been easier,’ Barnes said, his voice a lot harder than it was while he spoke to Natasha. ‘It means, I don’t like being locked up, it pisses me off. So next time... I won’t bother making an effort.’

Well then, that was crystal clear.

‘Next time?’ Natasha repeated. ‘You don’t expect to be here long?’

‘The answer to that should be obvious,’ Barnes told her, voice going back to casual.

‘Loki will come for you,’ she concluded.

‘Eventually,’ Barnes said as he leaned back to the wall again, his body shifting back to a relaxed sprawl.

‘Why not right away?’

‘He knows you won’t kill me,’ Barnes said.


‘Хорошего дня, Наталья,’ Barnes interrupted. The two of them stared at one another for a long moment again until Barnes turned his head away. Then he started to whistle. He literally looked like he was ignoring the hell out of the whole damn world around him.

Maybe Natasha thought there was no point pushing for more answers, or she just wanted to talk to the rest of them, but either way she turned to leave the room.

‘You still have a choice, James,’ she said before she opened the door. ‘But I don’t know for how much longer.’

Barnes just kept whistling the tune, not reacting to the words at all.

Chapter Text

Steve waited a corner away from Bucky’s “room”, a paper bag clutched in his too tight fist. The wall warmed up behind his back, he’s been standing there that long.

‘Gathering courage?’ someone asked and Steve turned his head to look at Maria Hill.

‘Hey, when did you get here?’ he asked.

‘Just now,’ she said as she walked closer. ‘I heard you still haven’t been in there.’

Bucky’s been at Stark Tower for about 30 hours now and Steve just... he couldn’t find the right moment to visit him. He felt really bad about it, and he wasn’t a coward, he was not afraid of visiting him. He just wasn’t sure what to expect.

‘Thor’s in there now,’ Steve said, not answering the real question.

‘Think he will get more out of him?’ Maria asked.

Thor probably only asked about Loki and frankly, Steve had no idea how much Bucky would tell him. Loki was one of the things he kept silent about. So Steve just shook his head and shrugged.

He thought he had a pretty good grasp on what this “new” Bucky was like, but that first conversation he had with Natasha proved otherwise. He knew the Winter Soldier’s single-minded focus and ruthless drive, how nothing mattered just the mission. The secretive, quiet Bucky he talked to before was strange, but Steve still caught glimpses of the man he used to be. That Bucky smiled when he told him he remembered Becca. That Bucky woke him up to show him the nebula outside his window, and easily pressed their shoulders together as they admired the view. Steve knew nothing of the Bucky he saw through the cameras since he got here. Coiled anger and calmly uttered threats. It was new and disconcerting, even if Steve understood his anger at being imprisoned.

‘I think he’s going to keep his mouth shut just out of principle,’ Steve said then. Bucky was angry, so he was not going to give them anything important. Steve was pretty sure Natasha agreed, but she did not say anything. She seemed a lot less bothered by her first conversation with Bucky than Steve thought she would be. Maybe she thought she could get something out of him eventually. They didn’t have that much time though. This whole plan was stupid. Bucky could’ve been reasoned with, Steve was sure of that, but not like this.

‘Something needed to be done, you know that,’ said Maria, but Steve just shook his head.

‘Yeah, but this won’t get us anywhere,’ he said firmly. He was absolutely certain of that.

‘This is his chance to speak without Loki breathing down his neck,’ Maria said. ‘That’s what Natasha wanted, to give him this chance. Remind him of that, will you?’

This was his chance to come clean, was what Maria meant. He could tell them everything he knew, and then they would help him. A conditional offer of safety. It left a foul taste in Steve’s mouth, even if he knew that this was how things were usually done. And Bucky did not want to be rescued, he made that very clear the last time Steve spoke to him. He also did not appreciate being locked up for his own good, that should have been more than obvious to anyone. Yes, something needed to be done, but not this. Steve did not know what, but definitely not this.

Maria walked away just as Steve heard the door to Bucky’s room opening and closing.

‘How did it go?’ Steve asked carefully as Thor got close enough to him.

‘He was less hostile to me than I expected,’ Thor said. ‘But I might be just too used to my brother’s scalding words.’

‘Did he say anything about Loki?’ Steve asked. Thor thought about that for a moment.

‘Not in so many words,’ he said, then he looked around the corridor to make sure they were alone. ‘Do not take offence, my friend, but I find it encouraging that someone like your friend is hesitant to break Loki’s confidence. My brother is not usually someone who ignites loyalty in others.’

Steve wanted to point out that Thor was the living example of how untrue that was, but he kept the comment to himself for the time being.

‘What does that mean to you?’ Steve asked instead, but Thor was already shaking his head.

‘It is too early to say,’ Thor said.

‘But you think it’s encouraging,’ Steve said.

‘I think it means something important, but it would be foolish to assume when we know so very little.’

Well, it certainly meant something, but Steve had no idea what. Bucky was loyal, or used to be, whatever, it was one of the first words that popped into everyone’s mind when it came to him. Even the history books remembered him like that, even when they missed other important things about him.

‘My brother is a dangerous man,’ Thor continued. ‘Until we know more of his plans, we either trust that your friend is of sound mind and is a good judge of the situation, or we don’t.’

‘He doesn’t seem to be under anyone’s control,’ Steve said.

‘What I mean is that your friend’s been through a lot,’ Thor said. ‘And I just hope Loki has not taken advantage of that.’

Steve wanted to deny that immediately, because Bucky was not the sort of man others could take advantage of. But then again, who knew what state he was in after he vanished from DC.

‘He has not rested since he got here,’ Thor said then. Steve knew that very well, because he’s been awake just as long. ‘Maybe you should talk to him. Convince him that he is safe enough to sleep.’

‘I’ll try,’ Steve said as he pushed himself away from the wall, no more excuses. Thor nodded and left him alone.

Vision did not stand guard by the door any more, but Steve knew they were far from alone. He didn’t even know how many cameras were in the room exactly. Bucky was sitting on the low bed, probably because there was nowhere else to sit in the room, unless he wanted to get down on the floor.

‘Hey,’ Steve greeted quietly as he closed the door behind himself. Then he just stood there for a moment, a little awkwardly, waiting for something to tell him how to proceed, whether he should keep his distance or not, what to say. He felt off balance, and the crinkling of the paper bag in his hand sounded way too loud.

‘Hey,’ Bucky said in return, finally looking at him.

‘Maybe it doesn’t matter,’ Steve started, because the silence was worse than anything. ‘But I just wanted to tell you that I didn’t know about this...’ he gestured at the room. ‘Plan, if you wanna call it that. I know it doesn’t really change the current situation, but...’

‘I know,’ Bucky said. Steve waited for him to continue. ‘If you thought I needed to be locked up like this, you would’ve done it yourself.’

That was true, Steve knew it without a doubt. Given the chance, he wouldn’t allow anyone else to do it. Bucky sounded pretty neutral so far, but Steve decided to take it as a good sign and walked closer to him.

‘I brought you food,’ he said, holding up the paper bag. ‘I went to a store a few blocks away, so... y’know, nothing funny about it.’

Bucky raised his eyebrows.

‘I wasn’t worried about being drugged up until this moment,’ he said, but there was something light and eerily familiar in his tone. He was joking.

Steve huffed and sat down next to him, handing over the bag. Bucky opened it and started looking over the few things Steve brought. He started with an energy bar, tearing it open and taking a big bite. Steve loved those things too, they were sweet and helped to keep his stomach full, which wasn’t always easy with his metabolism. It was probably the same for Bucky. Steve bought cookie dough flavoured ones, that was his favourite. Bucky seemed to like it well enough, or he just did not care as long as it was food.

‘So what’s the deal with the dagger?’ he asked. ‘And don’t say poker, cause you hate playing poker.’

Bucky hummed as he crumpled the wrapper.

‘There’s really no story behind it. I needed something better than my Gerber knives.’

‘Huh. Thor thought it was a big deal that Loki allowed someone else to use it,’ Steve said. Bucky was silent as he searched the bag again for something. He picked out the chicken wrap. Steve wondered if he was pushing for answers too strongly when Bucky remained silent for a while.

‘Well...’ Bucky said after swallowing his first bite. ‘Maybe he just doesn’t care about material shit any more.’

‘What does he care about then?’ Steve asked.

‘Power,’ Bucky shrugged, like the answer should’ve been obvious. ‘Chaos.’

‘Chaos,’ Steve repeated, leaning back to the wall. He didn’t really like the sound of that.

Bucky chuckled. ‘You can’t be surprised by that, c’mon.’

‘Last time he wanted to rule Earth, so I get the power bit. It’s the chaos part that throws me.’

Bucky finished the wrap, crumpling that packaging too. He immediately went to search for something else in the bag.

‘It sounds worse than it is, I guess,’ Bucky said.

‘How can chaos sound good?’ Steve asked incredulously. To be honest, he was just glad Bucky seemed willing to talk to him. He didn’t really care what they talked about.

‘This is gonna be like me explaining the space between spaces,’ Bucky sighed. ‘It’s... for balance there must be chaos first. Or, no... that’s not how it goes.’

Bucky looked away with a little frown on his face, thinking about it for a moment.

‘Chaos is the perfect and highest form of order,’ he said then. ‘That’s what it was.’

‘Sounds a bit like an oxymoron,’ Steve said. Bucky gave him a crooked smile, he always made that face when Steve used words he thought were big or fancy. The way Bucky’s lips curled sent a pang of nostalgia through him.

‘Think about how we ended up here, Steve,’ Bucky said then. ‘How the two of us are sitting on this bed, in this tower, after all this time... everything that happened. All the stupidly impossible random things that went down. I mean, what are the fucking chances, right? That when Hydra first captured me, my stupid pal got chosen for a secret military experiment, which didn’t fucking kill him, even though he was a ninety-pound asthmatic punk. What it took for you to get to me, to Europe first, then behind enemy lines, to get me out of there in time.’

Bucky’s voice went tense, but not hostile. It was pain Steve could hear with every uttered word, and he could basically feel the weight of their history settling down on them heavily, making both their shoulders hunch.

‘How are we sitting side-by-side more than seventy years after I fell from that fucking train?’

That memory stabbed Steve in the chest immediately, squeezed his insides painfully. He could still see it, if he closed his eyes, he could still remember the icy wind in his face, the sound of metal snapping... Bucky’s scream.

‘I fucking lived, only lost an arm, damn impossible. And you,’ he turned to look at Steve, but only for a moment. ‘You didn’t off yourself by diving into the Atlantic, and I ain’t even gonna talk about what a gigantic pile of bull that was, what you did there. It’s not the point right now.’

Steve had the urge to apologize, say the sort of “sorry” he always gave Bucky after fist-fights in back alleys. He was sorry Bucky was mad, worried, but he couldn’t be sorry about his own actions. It always made him feel guilty to say those kinds of apologies, because Bucky could tell that he didn’t really mean it.

‘So here we are. A hundred, a thousand random things led us here. Impossible things, chance... fucking chaos, but we are here... sitting right here. So it’s either a long line of random events... or we just meant to end up here.’

Steve would lie if he said he never thought about his life in such terms. How the serum gave him the strength, and the USO tour the chance, to save Bucky. That getting frozen for long decades made it possible for him to fight in the Chitauri invasion, how it meant that he was alive to be the one person on Earth to remind the Winter Soldier of who he really was.

‘That’s predestination, Buck, and you hated it when Father Garran talked about it,’ Steve reminded him. ‘You called it stupid shit, said that you were the only one who had any control over your life. You and maybe your Momma.’

‘Well, I ain’t that kid any more,’ Bucky said.

‘Still... that all sounds awfully religious,’ Steve said.

Bucky shrugged. ‘What do you expect from a god?’

And that stopped Steve short. ‘Loki’s no god,’ he said.

Bucky looked over at him, but his face was unreadable.

‘He’s strong and they live long, but he’s just an alien,’ Steve said.

There was a beat of silence before Bucky answered.

‘Okay,’ he said simply.

‘I mean it, Buck,’ Steve repeated. ‘He is not a god, no matter what’s coming out of his mouth.’

‘I said, okay,’ Bucky replied again and Steve really had no idea what to say. He should say more, but what?

He was still trying to figure out what exactly he was meant to do right now when he noticed the heavy way Bucky blinked.

‘You should sleep.’

‘I’m not in the habit of sleeping in enemy territory,’ he said in return.

‘This is not... you are not among enemies,’ Steve told him.

Bucky turned towards him then lifted a hand to gesture at the room at large.

‘Prison,’ he said, then pointed at himself. ‘Prisoner.’

Steve literally couldn’t argue with that reasoning.

‘I’ll stay here, how does that sound?’ he asked. ‘I’ll keep watch, and wake you up if anyone comes into the room, okay?’

He wasn’t sure whether his presence would be enough to make Bucky feel safe. Whether he trusted him enough for that. But after a few moments of hesitation Bucky nodded, and Steve felt lighter.

They were both silent as Bucky lay down, back to the wall, facing the door. Not exactly the picture of relaxation, but it was enough. Steve was tired too, but he just settled more comfortably by the wall. He would rest after Bucky slept, he had a lot to think about anyway.

Steve did plan to go to sleep immediately after he left Bucky’s room the next day, but he was intercepted by Natasha before he reached the elevator. Steve wasn’t sure how to act around her at the moment. He understood where she was coming from with this plan to separate Bucky from Loki, but he was still mad at her for going to Stark behind his back.

‘Well, Mr. Ruthless Assassin certainly turned cute and cuddly the second you walked in there,’ Stark said as soon as Natasha and Steve walked into the room. Only Barton, Maria and Thor were inside with him. Steve wondered where Sam was, but did not mind the absence of Vision and the Maximoffs.

Steve scowled at him, but it did not seem to bother Tony even a bit.

‘And he was so chatty too,’ he continued.

‘Your point?’ Steve asked.

‘My point is that you seem to be the only one with a real chance to get information out of him, and you just don’t bother asking important questions.’

‘I didn’t go in there to interrogate him,’ Steve said.

‘No, you’re just being a supportive friend.’

‘I ask again, what’s your point?’ Steve asked.

My point, Steve, is that you don’t have your priorities straight.’

‘You really wanna start throwing stones?’ Steve asked him, and he knew his voice dropped deeper as his face hardened. He and Tony butted heads, they always had, but things were more tense than usual. Maybe Steve should’ve made more of an effort to patch things up with him after Ultron. Maybe they should’ve sat down to sort their differences out, and let the past be in the past, but they didn’t. Steve didn’t try, and Tony sure as hell didn’t either. So here they were, past events casting shadows on their every word.

‘We found out who the woman is,’ Thor interrupted their staring contest.

‘Who? And where’s Sam? He would want to know,’ Steve said.

‘Sam’s asleep. He’s been up while you were in there with Barnes,’ Natasha replied. Okay, that explained his absence.

‘Her name is Sara Wolfe,’ Maria said.

‘So what’s so special about her?’ Stark asked. It looked like Maria waited for him before sharing her intel.

‘Nothing,’ Maria said as she walked closer to a screen in the room. The driver’s licence of a woman appeared on it. ‘She’s 32, Cheyenne, grew up in New Mexico, has a BA in Liberal Arts, and works as a social secretary. She was in the studio the N’Garai attacked to discuss an upcoming charity event. She’s single, no family in the city, and she has a bad habit of parking illegally.’

‘Why the hell was she chased by demons?’ Clint asked the obvious question.

‘And what does Loki want with her?’ Natasha asked. Steve could practically feel her eyes on him.

‘Yeah, that’s the sort of question I would have asked Barnes,’ Stark said. ‘Instead of philosophising about predestination and Loki’s art of chaos.’

Steve ignored him, it wasn’t easy, but he did. He kept his eyes on Maria.

‘Have you contacted her family yet?’

‘No. They apparently live in the Northern Cheyenne Reservation now,’ Maria said. ‘I didn’t want to inform them about her disappearance through the phone. I’ll head over to Montana today to ask some questions in person.’

‘Okay, so... do you think her... tribe will know something about what’s going on?’ Clint asked.

‘Even if they don’t, her family might be able to give us more information about her social life,’ Maria said. ‘Friends, acquiescences, anything that might connect her to this... whatever this is.’

‘They still have shamans, right?’ Clint asked. ‘Tribes, I mean.’

‘You think we should ask the shaman?’ Natasha asked in return. Clint just shrugged.

‘There are demons and magic stuff going on here, hell, they might actually know something about this. It can’t hurt to ask.’

‘Okay, that’s one lead,’ Stark nodded. ‘What are we going to do about the one-armed bandit?’

Steve had the urge to punch him, just a little, so he crossed his arms over his chest to fight off the urge.

‘Yes, he’s been rather sure my brother would come for him,’ Thor agreed. ‘We need to be prepared.’

‘You really think Loki’s going to just waltz in here with all of us here?’ Stark asked.

‘He doesn’t actually have to worry about doors,’ Natasha reminded him.

‘We could set a trap though,’ Clint said. ‘There’s gotta a be a way to stop him from opening a door like that. Hell, we could just knock him out or something.’

‘And we do have a perfect bait,’ Stark agreed.

‘Maybe we shouldn’t be on the offensive, not if they aren’t,’ Steve said.

‘It’s Loki, if he’s not on the offensive now, it’s because he doesn’t have everything set up for the perfect attack just yet,’ Stark said.

‘Thor?’ Steve looked over to the Asgardian. ‘You agree?’

‘My brother has given us no reason to assume otherwise,’ Thor said solemnly. ‘And forgive me, but I do not know how much we can trust your friend’s judgement.’

‘That is, not at all,’ Stark said.

‘Not completely,’ Natasha corrected him. ‘I can probably get a clearer picture of him and his motives with time, but he’s not easy to read at all, and we don’t actually know when Loki will show up.’

‘Better to prepare immediately then,’ Maria nodded.

Steve took a large breath, tried to get the tension out of his shoulders, but it didn’t work. So he turned to leave.

‘Steve,’ Natasha called after him.

‘I need sleep,’ he said sternly, not turning around.

Steve didn’t sleep. He wondered if he would be able to blame sleep deprivation later for what he was about to do. Probably not.

When Ultron took over Stark Tower and JARVIS was compromised, it fell on Steve to give the rest of the team an opening to get back inside. He was maybe not the best guy to handle complicated security systems monitored by an A.I., but he could follow instructions well enough. And he was the only one who could climb up about eighty floors without equipment in the vents, and still be battle ready when he got there.

He didn’t have to climb up eighty floor now, because he was already up in the top levels of the Tower. The opening was still an opening, and Steve still knew how to do it, even though this time he wanted to get out, instead of in. He was rather sure Tony kept the fail-safe in place despite the new A.I., because Tony Stark was many things, but stupid was not one of them. He would never allow and A.I of his to be compromised again, he would not make it impossible to shut it down, or blind it for a short time.

Bucky was on his feet, tense and alert, when Steve opened the door. He obviously noticed the change in his room.

‘C’mon,’ Steve nodded his head. Bucky didn’t ask questions, just followed. That trust, the lack of hesitation, it was almost enough to cancel out the guilt nagging at the back of his mind.

Bucky was silent as he followed Steve down the stairs, and then to the emergency elevator, which could only be accessed by their newly issued “Avengers Card”. Steve was surprised when Natasha gave him one a few weeks back, but not because he didn’t think he was part of the team, he just did not think Tony would want to give him one.

This elevator was faster than all others in the tower, and led to a small underground exit. It was one of the few places where one could leave the tower discreetly. Steve counted down in his head, so he knew that they still had time when he stepped out into the small alley next to a nearby parking lot. He clicked the door shut behind them and jogged over to the small bag he hid behind a container a few hours ago. He finally looked at Bucky again after he found it. He looked slightly confused, but focused.

‘I couldn’t get Loki’s dagger back,’ Steve said as he handed the bag over. ‘But I got your jacket, your SIG-Sauer, and your Derringer.’

‘What are you doing?’ Bucky asked him then, his voice quiet.

‘Probably something stupid,’ Steve said. ‘But it kinda feels like the right thing to do, so...’ He shrugged, he couldn’t explain it.

‘You didn’t have to do this. Loki will come for me,’ Bucky said. True, very true, but...

‘That’s not the point,’ Steve said. ‘It’s...’ he shook his head, not wanting to explain right now. They didn’t have time for that. ‘I know you’re good at vanishing, but you might wanna get going. You won’t get much of a head-start.’

‘Tell me why,’ Bucky insisted.

‘If you tell me if she’s safe,’ Steve countered. ‘Unharmed.’


‘Sara Wolfe.’

‘She’s safe,’ Bucky said. ‘And unharmed.’

It was ridiculous, because Bucky literally just repeated Steve’s words, but Steve believed him.

‘Tell me,’ Bucky repeated then.

‘Because... because you’ve been a prisoner for seventy years,’ Steve said. ‘Because I don’t think you’d hurt anyone for your own gain. Because... you’re Bucky Barnes, and Bucky Barnes stands up for the little guy, and kicks bullies in their teeth, because... dammit...’

It was so hard to explain. He knew it exactly why he did this, it was like an absolute conviction in his heart, but he wasn’t sure he could put it into words.

‘Maybe I’m naïve and it’s just wishful thinking, but... yeah, it’s because I believe you.’

Bucky stared at him, brows just a little furrowed, his eyes taking in Steve’s face. Steve wasn’t sure what he was thinking about, but there was just enough familiarity in the look to convince Steve that he was standing in front of his friend, and not a dangerous stranger with his face.

‘So if it’s a ploy, you got me good, pal,’ Steve added, smiling a painful smile, because he didn’t want to consider that possibility. Bucky’s brows furrowed some more. Steve quickly looked around, because any moment now he expected to be surprised by an Avenger or two.

‘A ploy...’ Bucky repeated quietly. ‘You think I’d do that to you?’ he asked. Steve was silent, because he wasn’t sure dammit. One moment he was, a second later he questioned it, because it always depended on how much warmth and familiarity he saw in Bucky’s eyes. Or how much cold anger.

‘Look at me,’ Bucky asked, his voice was hard, but it was not an order. Steve turned his head back to look at his friend again. ‘You think I’d use you like that?’ he asked.

Steve stared at him for a long quiet moment. Yeah, this was a moment where he was sure.

‘No,’ he said.

‘No,’ Bucky repeated with a nod, then he stepped closer and wrapped him up in a fierce hug. Steve lifted his arms to pull him close in return, because damn, when was the last time? He didn’t remember, it was too long ago. Bucky’s long hair tickled his nose and his metal arm was cold from the night air, but Steve didn’t really give a damn. Best of all, the embrace didn’t feel like a goodbye.

Bucky’s next words were very quiet, but they were close enough for Steve to still hear him.

‘Do you have any idea how important you are to me?’ Bucky asked in a furious whisper. It was a tone Steve knew well. It was the kind of whisper he heard when he was too sick to get out of bed and Bucky threatened to be mad at him forever if he died on him. It was the sort of whisper Bucky used when Steve got home with yet another black eye and a loose tooth. The last time he heard it Bucky was mad because a building blew up around Steve, and the rest of the Commandos had no idea whether he made it out in one piece.

‘I hear you,’ Steve answered.

He didn’t know how, but he recognized the sound that preceded the opening portal and it startled him. Bucky kept him close, so Steve couldn’t turn to look and he didn’t want to question how. Bucky must’ve called Loki somehow.

‘If you’re in trouble,’ Steve said, tightening his arms around Bucky, really not wanting to let go of him. ‘Come find me. I’ll help.’


‘Promise me,’ Steve insisted.

‘I promise,’ Bucky said, so Steve nodded, but he still didn’t let go.

Bucky did pull back a little though, even if his arms were still around Steve. There was a strange shift in the air around them. That’s the only way Steve could describe it. Something changed as their foreheads brushed together, and Steve became aware of dozens of little things at the same time. How Bucky’s scent had a hint of metal and gun oil in it, but his hair smelled of something different, something sweeter. How Bucky’s shoulders were almost as wide as his, but he still felt smaller. How his metal arm was warming up from Steve’s body heat, how tightly his fingers were gripping at Steve. How they were breathing the same air.

Bucky’s lips brushed his cheek as he moved just a little further away. Before Steve could protest about him letting go, those same lips were right on his, and the world rearranged itself around him. That’s what it felt like. Someone grabbed hold of this corner of the universe and turned it inside out. Bucky’s lips were much warmer than the night air, soft and sure as they pressed tightly to his slightly parted ones. Steve was lost for a moment, his mind blank, his body motionless, then he pressed back, pushed forward just a little to slot their lips more firmly together. It was chaste, it was brief, but it felt like nothing made more sense than this.

Steve just stared and breathed heavily as Bucky backed away slightly.

‘Strange,’ Bucky said.

‘What?’ Steve blinked.

‘Strange,’ Bucky repeated. ‘The doctor. Find him. You’ll get some answers.’

Then he stepped back, ready to go. Steve didn’t understand, not really, but he nodded anyway as Bucky moved to walk past him.

‘I’ll be seeing you,’ he said very pointedly, catching Bucky’s hand. He finally caught sight of Loki and the portal behind him, his red eyes barely visible in the darkness.

Bucky smiled. ‘Yeah,’ he nodded and squeezed Steve’s hand before letting go. Steve turned to watch him go, but his eyes kept drifting to Loki, who was much closer to them now.

‘Maybe we should make this look a little less like you’re an accomplice, Captain,’ he said.

He had absolutely no idea why Loki gave a shit about that, but he shook his head anyway.

‘I made a decision,’ he said firmly. ‘I’ll live with the consequences.’

Loki scoffed. ‘How noble,’ he said.

‘Quit it,’ Bucky told him warningly.

‘It’s the truth,’ Loki said. ‘And I very much disagree.’

There was a brief moment of silence before anything happened. The last thing Steve heard was Bucky, who said ‘Don’t you dare,’ with a very angry tone. But then things went black, and he could only feel the cold pavement, then nothing.

Chapter Text

The second the portal closed Bucky wrapped his metal fingers around Loki’s neck and pushed him two steps backwards. The heels of Loki’s boots were just off the edge of the platform, his whole body leaning slightly above the dark abyss, just slightly off-balance. Loki grabbed hold of his metal arm with a gloved hand, but did not counter.

‘Don’t ever touch him again,’ Bucky gritted out.

Loki did not even look surprised, nor intimidated, but this was more a matter of principle anyway. Loki lifted an eyebrow.

‘Are you sure you are in any position to threaten me?’ he asked.

Bucky let the expression on his face answer that question, Loki knew him well enough by now.

‘Come now,’ Loki said as he moved slightly forward to get back from the edge. Bucky let him, cause he was really not in the mood for this to turn into something worse. He let go of his neck too.

‘Still chained to your bright golden hero?’ Loki mused with a smile. ‘You ought to free yourself while you still can.’

‘Cause that worked out so well for you?’ Bucky asked in return and he knew the comment hit its mark. Loki was too easy sometimes. He leaned closer, eyes darkening with anger, but Bucky never backed off from him, so he stayed firmly in place.

‘Be careful,’ Loki warned quietly. ‘Careless words can cause a lot of misery.’

Bucky waited a second, let the moment stretch out, leaving the words hanging between them.

‘Get out of my face,’ he said then calmly.

‘Or what?’ Loki reacted immediately. Fine, they were playing this stupid game then.

‘Don’t think I can’t get my hands on a weapon I can gut you with,’ Bucky told him. There was no real anger in his voice and really, it was a familiar song-and-dance. He was almost absolutely sure Loki just wanted to amuse himself.

‘You know you can’t threaten me with death,’ Loki said. True.

‘But it would hurt,’ Bucky told him. ‘A lot.’

Loki kept looking at him for another moment, but then just smiled, sharp and pleased. Freakin’ child.

‘Aw, there you go making me like you again.’

Bucky resisted the urge to roll his eyes, because then he would be stuck here trading insults with this guy for who knows how long.

‘Ugh, this again?’ they were interrupted, and that finally made Loki back the hell off. Bucky took a step back as well and glanced up at Loki’s stairs.

‘Hello, Leah,’ he greeted.

‘James,’ she nodded back. ‘I trust that you are well.’

Bucky shrugged. ‘M’fine, Stark Tower, not exactly a Nazi prison.’

She nodded again. She didn’t look either pleased or bothered, it was more an acknowledgement of his words. She always looked a bit like a dispassionate school girl. Simple green dress, knee length and long-sleeved, her black hair put up in a nice bun. Plus she looked like she was in her teens, course Bucky knew better than that. And not just because of her disturbing habit of using bird bones as hairpins.

‘How did it go?’ he asked.

‘She is well,’ Leah said. ‘Dropped down at the right doorstep.’

‘She was irritating,’ Loki grumbled.

‘No lady likes to be dragged about like a sack of potatoes, Loki,’ Leah told him, then turned back to Bucky. ‘But she calmed down once I assured her that we had no quarrel with the Sorcerer.’

‘Good,’ Bucky nodded with a sigh, running his fingers through his hair. ‘We needed a little victory.’

‘It’s hardly our first victory,’ Loki argued.

‘Two out of three is not a damn victory,’ Bucky said firmly. ‘That Kinmont girl got her fucking soul ripped out of her.’

This one was a sour issue for him, mostly cause he was the only one who still brought it up. Loki usually did not give a damn about random humans beyond their role in this, and Leah did not seem to give a damn about anyone in general. Bucky knew there was nothing to be done, and that it was not their mistake in the first place, but still. That was a real nasty thing to happen to a girl.

‘I’m inclined to agree,’ Leah said. ‘But there’s not much point crying over spilt... milk? Is that how they say it on Midgard?’

‘Got it in one,’ Bucky murmured. He kinda wished they were still just collecting artefacts and magical weapons and other crap like that. Killing Hydra assholes was almost a pleasure, and even fighting the N’Garai was not too much bother. But he didn’t like the weight of people’s lives on his shoulders and their safety in his hands, especially considering how little Loki cared about anything but the bigger picture. He didn’t see people, he saw pieces on the board. Bucky sometimes wished he couldn’t see the individuals either. It would be easier.

‘Anyway,’ Leah shook her head. The topic was done then. ‘Welcome back. Loki, I need to speak with you.’

Bucky didn’t stick around a second longer, just headed towards his stairs. Leah rarely had anything to say to him, sometimes he didn’t see her for a long time. When she had information she gave it to them. What she and Loki talked about in person mattered very little to Bucky. She was not around for his sake anyway. He wasn’t sure she was around for Loki’s sake either to be perfectly honest.

Only when he was walking down the stairs did he notice the lights dancing around, light blue and green, stretching above him in long lines. It reminded him of northern lights in Siberia. Not the best place to be reminded of, but it was still better than complete darkness.

He undressed, cleaned up, and re-dressed into something slightly more comfortable with his usual prompt routine. He still couldn’t re-learn to enjoy something that was an everyday necessity, like a hot shower or a meal. That was also the reason why he had one nondescript room while Loki’s section could be easily called a palace. He only every saw a room or two, not the whole thing, and he very wisely did not try to guess what real place inspired all the golden decoration. Just cause Loki was easy to piss off, it didn’t make it a smart thing to do.

Next on his post-mission routine was cleaning his guns... but he didn’t feel like it. It was still not easy to give in to such faint little ideas about his wants and needs, but right now he wanted to make a point of giving in. So he put his guns down on the desk, then walked over to the bed to lie down. There, he changed up the routine. He will clean his guns... later. Somewhere in the undefined future. It actually felt pretty good. He’s been very... impulsive today. It filled him both with pleasure and unease.

He’s been very strict with his routine, the small rules that helped keep the world make sense. Because even if his mind was protected form the worst of his memories, he still rarely felt fully human. If there were no memories to bother him, his mind came up with other things to torture him with. The routine helped. The routine was reality, his life, his current life, very different from the one he lived before. He set up the routine himself, they were his rules, a crutch maybe, but his crutch, and he used it because he wanted to, not because anyone made him do it. He’s been throwing off the routine since Serbia... no before that, since Delaware. He simply knew that the moment they left those security footages untouched things were going to change.

It wasn’t like he never planned to see Steve again, he just never felt like he was ready for it. Hell, he probably still wasn’t... so yeah... impulsive. That wasn’t bad. Didn’t have to be bad. Of course there were all the secrets and half-truths between them. There was too much distance and too many questions. There was Steve’s confused frown and the pain in his blue eyes. Sometimes he still thought that he should’ve argued more with Loki about leaving the footage behind for the Avengers (Steve). It was done in preparation for the assault on the base in Serbia, but using someone without them knowing about it, let alone Steve, just didn’t sit well with him. But in the end, he did want Steve to be closer, to be more than just a dot on the map, a distant knowledge of where to find him. He wanted him to be the one to come for him.

He also wanted to keep him the fuck away from all this, but that ship already sailed. There was no way anyone could keep Steve Rogers, the patron saint of stubborn punks, away. Of course he couldn’t just tell him everything either, no, that would have made his life way too easy, he never had that much luck. He was left with leaving crumbs of information behind and hoping for the best. He knew he could trust Steve, but the rest of that colourful group of annoying assholes? Not so much. Loki thought even Steve was too big a risk, but screw him. If he could tell whether or not Thor checked out, then Bucky could damn well tell whether Steve was safe or not.

Bucky moved around on the bed, tried to get more comfortable. He grabbed a pillow and stuffed it under his head. He could just see the lights outside at the edge of his vision this way. He still wasn’t really comfortable, but he never really was.

Except the last time he slept... Most of the time he slept the bare minimum, which wasn’t much, cause he could go on for days if needed. But with Steve there, he simply fell asleep. He slept safe and sound, like he thought only the stupid kid he used to be could. He woke up feeling less jagged around the edges, less sharp and hard and angular. More stupid, maybe, but he didn’t regret it. He struggled with words... sometimes, about certain things, himself mostly. And he doubted the right words actually existed, so yeah, no regrets. Maybe it was inevitable. Steve was the only thing he have not lost... or well, he did lose him. He lost him for a very long time, along with himself. Steve just found him again, found him under decades of violence and countless wipes. When Steve was gone, he was gone... dead... deleted. And when he returned... now sometimes he felt human again.

It made him want to never be apart. And he actually thought Steve wouldn’t mind that. He did not pull away, did not tense up, he leaned closer. He allowed that intimate point of contact. He reached out and grabbed him, not wanting him to leave without a promise of next time. Maybe he did not want to be apart either. Maybe he also thought there would be no Bucky if he wasn’t around. Like, he only existed if Steve looked at him and said his name. There was something like this about a cat and a sealed box and existence, but Bucky couldn’t remember clearly.

Clearly, all this time with Loki made him waste his thoughts uselessly. Or maybe his mind used to spin around in circles all his life, he just didn’t remember enough to know it yet. Maybe his head only became a quiet place after the fall, maybe now it was always going to be filled with nonsense. And Steve. Missions, nonsense, and Steve. The thought made him snort out loud, a laugh tingling the corners of his mouth.

It didn’t sound so bad. Not bad at all.

Loki knocked on his door before he barged in, which was a miracle in itself. Bucky sat up in his bed. He and Loki worked just fine together, but he was not the sort of guy Bucky wanted to have a conversation with while lying on his bed. It felt too casual.

Loki was pristinely dressed, like always, still wearing his gloves as well. It was the skin of course. He was getting used to it, but he still covered every inch he could. It helped that the gloves damped down on the frost, kept the cold at bay. It would be pretty inconvenient if everything he touched froze solid. Well, they couldn’t turn his eyes back to green or his skin to pale and smooth, but functionality had to come before aesthetics, and personal comfort just had no place at all.

‘You lost my dagger,’ Loki said as soon as the door closed behind him.

‘Yeah, it got stuck in Iron Man’s armour,’ Bucky answered, it made Loki smile. Of course it did. Then he tossed something at Bucky, and he caught it without problem. A new blade, different from the one before. A lot less golden, which Bucky appreciated a lot, cause he hated how easily one could spot the previous one even from afar.

This blade was truly a knife and not a dagger. It was as long as his Gerber Mark II knife, a pretty sweet six and a half inches long one edged clip-point blade, with the back edge sharpened. The handle felt like bone, but it was black, and of course finely decorated. The tang was nondescript, but long enough to rest just outside of his palm, easily used as a blunt weapon. It fit him a lot better than the golden dagger.

Bucky stood up as he turned it around in his hand a few times, testing the balance, the shape of the handle, and how it fit in his grip. Of course it was perfect, Loki didn’t bother owning anything less.

‘Nice,’ he nodded after tossing it up in the air and catching it again with ease.

‘Try not to lose this one as well,’ Loki said.

‘I make no promises,’ Bucky said. But he planned on holding onto this one much more carefully. It would probably fit nicely in his bigger secure-ex sheath.

He knew this was not the only reason Loki dropped by though.

‘Leah’s got something for us?’ he asked.

‘No. Now is the time to wait for our enemies to make the next move,’ Loki said. Bucky made a face.

‘That never works out well,’ he said.

‘Believe me, I would much rather take initiative as well, but unless you have an army to invade the Other-Realm with, I don’t see how much else we can do.’

Bucky just grunted, because he knew this already.

‘An army wouldn’t do us much good,’ he said then, still twirling the blade, then switching it over to his metal hand. ‘I’m pretty sure we would both fail miserably at leading entire armies.’

‘I’ve led an army before.’

Bucky snorted. ‘My point stands,’ he said and he knew Loki was both insulted and amused, best combination. ‘You work best alone, or with very little people to watch out for. And me? Give me a squad, and I’ll get things done, alone if I have to. I’m as good as it gets when it comes to an NCO, but hell if I know how to be a general.’

‘This is a pointless discussion, since we do not have an army.’

‘I could do with a squad though,’ Bucky shrugged.

‘How would that make a difference? More bodies to drag out of harm’s way when things go wrong.’

Bucky put his new blade down on his desk next to his guns, then he turned back to look at Loki.

‘You had an army, Steve had a squad, and he sure as hell kicked your ass back to where it came from.’

He was a bit harsh, but alien invasion in New York, so fuck Loki very much.

‘The Avengers had Thor and the Hulk, your precious Captain hardly made a difference.’

Bucky actually huffed out a small laugh. ‘I know you’re smarter than that,’ he said. ‘Brute strength ain’t worth shit without someone to direct it, utilize it, lead it where it needs to go. You know what, you have no military experience, so I’m not going to waste my breath trying to explain this.’

‘I am a prince,’ Loki declared, with the sort of arrogance a declaration like that usually entailed.

‘And I am less and less impressed by that,’ Bucky said in return, because he was indeed very very unimpressed. ‘You and me, we ain’t leaders, but we’re good at getting shit done. That’s why we’re here anyway.’

‘We’re here for very different reasons,’ Loki commented. ‘Albeit equally selfish ones.’

Bucky shrugged, it was not a lie.

‘That’s why you keep sharing so much with your Captain?’ Loki asked then. ‘Because he’s still the one you wish to follow to battle?’

‘No, I tell him things, cause he ain’t gonna leave this alone, so he might as well make himself useful. If I don’t tell him shit, he’s going to charge in without even knowing who’s friend or foe. And I told him almost nothing, what’s the big deal? They were going to know about the Sorcerer Supreme anyway.’

‘Uh, “Sorcerer Supreme”, such a pretentious title to hold,’ Loki remarked. Bucky raised both of his eyebrows.

‘Really, Mr. Almighty God of Mischief? Son of Secrets and Lord of all Liars. You think “Sorcerer Supreme” is pretentious?’

Loki gave him a mean look, which just amused Bucky further.

‘I simply did not want the Avengers and the Sorcerer to be that involved with one another,’ Loki explained.

‘I’m pretty sure Strange is more likely to work with them, than work with us anyway.’

‘Yes, and I just don’t think it will be to our advantage if he decides to help out his new friends by coming up against us.’

‘I think he knows better than that,’ Bucky said. They’ve never come face-to-face with Strange yet, but the Sorcerer had to know about what was going on, especially after what happened with Casey Kinmont. Fucking demons.

‘So what are you really worried about?’ Bucky asked, because it was not Strange and the Avengers.

‘The N’Garai have been less than successful. And I am most certainly not the only one who might’ve noticed that.’

‘You think they’re gonna change tracks?’ Bucky asked. ‘Well, I guess they do say that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is insanity.’

‘Ha, unfortunately their insanity comes with some semblance of intelligence.’

‘So that’s why we’re waiting. We need to know who or what is going to replace the N’Garai.’

‘Or join them, you never know.’

‘Fucking great,’ Bucky grumbled. This wasn’t gonna end well. ‘That’s why I said I would be more happy with a squad.’

‘You just want your Captain to join you,’ Loki said. ‘But having some righteous hero on your side won’t make your chances better, no matter what child’s tales tell you.’

Bucky shook his head. This was ridiculous.

‘If you think that’s why I want him here, you don’t know a damn thing about Steve Rogers.’

‘Your affections for him are hardly a better reason.’

‘That’s not what I meant,’ Bucky told him firmly. Loki was really heading towards thin ice now, probably without realizing. Or he knew damn well and just wanted to annoy the heck out of Bucky.

‘Oh, please spare me your great odes about the wondrous and noble Captain America.’

‘I’m not talking about Captain America, you theatrical dickhead,’ Bucky cut him off. ‘I’m talking about Steve Rogers.’

Loki raised an unimpressed eyebrow, so Bucky continued.

‘Captain America is an idol, an icon, it’s fucking propaganda. Steve plays the role, but that ain’t him.’

‘What is he then?’ Loki asked. ‘He’s still the great hero beneath the mask, is he not? Or are you calling him a deceiver?’

Bucky was getting frustrated. He heard the servo in his arm whirring a bit, that sound always made Loki smirk.

‘I’m calling him a stubborn punk with a too big mouth and a bad tendency of not running away from fights,’ Bucky said. ‘Sure he’s got a pretty fail-safe moral compass and a frankly irritating amount of righteous fury, but that doesn’t stop him from being that same punk-ass kid he’s always been. But hey, you just ate up the boy scout persona and the all-American smile, like almost everyone else.’

Loki was insulted again, good.

‘Captain America makes speeches, you know, inspires soldiers to fight and all that crap. Being the perfect idol, good soldier fighting the good fight for the country,’ Bucky shook his head again, he wasn’t really talking to Loki any more. He was just on a roll, it felt good to talk about something else, something other than demons and girls getting their souls ripped out, something good.

‘But Steve. Hell, he does what he wants,’ Bucky said simply. Steve did what he thought was right, what needed to be done. ‘Screw rules and politics. Screw orders and obeying them if they’re wrong. Screw anyone who’s stupid enough to think they can stop him or change his mind. He’s the sort of idiot that can’t stop being a sarcastic shit even when he was punched in the teeth for it just a second earlier.’

He fell silent then, abruptly. He was no longer in the habit of talking this much at once. Well, it happened with Steve not that long ago. Huh, maybe he was the sort of guy who talked this much.

‘Your adoration of him is truly remarkable,’ Loki remarked dryly.

‘And fuck you too,’ Bucky replied easily. It was not worth getting angry over. Loki was an asshole. He should clean his guns now. So he walked back to the desk to start doing just that.

‘However,’ Loki continued. ‘I concede, that my information regarding him was not accurate. I suppose even SHIELD looked at him through the veil of nostalgia and hero-worship.’

‘Probably,’ Bucky agreed as he started arranging things on the desk. ‘Nobody was around who actually knew him.’

‘I will have to trust your knowledge on this matter,’ Loki said then. ‘Well, and make some observations myself.’

‘Observe away, if it makes you happy,’ Bucky shrugged, then sat down to his desk. He saw that Loki turned to leave from the corner of his eye. ‘Remember what I told you,’ he added in a much darker tone.

‘Yes,’ Loki chuckled. ‘Not a single golden hair on his head. You were very clear.’

Loki sounded like he was just humouring him, but Bucky didn’t take the bait. Loki liked pushing his buttons, but he never stepped over a line. He would one day, probably... most likely, but there was no point worrying about it just yet.

Loki left without a word and Bucky didn’t say anything either as the door closed. He started taking apart his SIG to clean it, his movements were precise, methodical. It actually relaxed him a bit. And his head was filled with only missions, nonsense, and Steve.

Chapter Text

The illusion of privacy at Stark Tower always bothered Sam a bit. There was no such thing as being truly alone in this building. He was not a loner sort of guy, but most of the time he still didn’t really like it. Right now though, with nothing but the sound of Steve’s breathing filling the room, he would’ve appreciated some company. Not the invisible kind.

He was concerned about Steve being asleep this long, but he kind of also dreaded the moment he woke up. There were a lot of unhappy people in the tower right now, so he could already picture the upcoming shitstorm. Sure, how bad it was gonna be depended on Steve’s answers, but oh man, he knew it was gonna end like this. And he was not the only one who was unsurprised. Natasha sure as hell looked like she expected this to happen. Thor was suspiciously nonchalant too. He was kinda glad Maria left before any of this went down. Because that woman’s death glare was a thing to behold for sure.

There was a knock on the door and Sam turned around in the sitting chair.

‘Come on it,’ he called out. He didn’t bother keeping his voice down. They literally couldn’t wake up Cap for the last 17 hours, no matter what they tried. Stark blared loud music, and Clint even poured ice-cold water on his head. Nothing. They all balked at using meds for now... the adrenaline was only going to come out after they passed the 24 hour mark.

Bruce popped his head in.

‘May I come in?’ he asked. Sam grinned and stood up.

‘Man, Bruce, when did you get back?’ he asked as he shook his hand. And then pulled him into a short hug just for the hell of it.

‘Just now,’ Bruce said. ‘I’m so jet lagged, you have no idea. Natasha called me.’

‘Steve didn’t want to bother you,’ Sam told him. Bruce wanted to be left alone unless it was an absolute emergency. Steve didn’t think this was an emergency just yet.

‘Yes, I heard about Steve disagreeing about a lot of things,’ Bruce answered, then he finally looked at the bed where Steve slept peacefully. HELEN was constantly monitoring him. He was in and out of REM stage, pulse and breathing all nice and calm. Okay, so he was more in REM stage than normal, but he was physically still fine.

Bruce walked closer to the bed, so Sam did too.

‘So, I heard bits and pieces form the others,’ Bruce said. ‘But you’ve been around Steve more than them. How is he really? Not now, in general.’

Sam sighed and walked back to the other side of the room to sit back down in his chair. Bruce took the other armchair.

‘Not bad, but... he had some real shitty days even before Barnes showed up again,’ Sam answered honestly. ‘Don’t know about sleep or nightmares, but he pushed himself with training he doesn’t need a lot. Gone real quiet too occasionally.’

‘Never a good sign with him,’ Bruce remarked. Understatement.

‘So now... I guess he’s been better, since this started, but this whole mess is complicated. And maybe Natasha thinks he’s not a good liar, but I’ve been impressed with the poker face lately.’

Bruce nodded a few times, then looked over to Steve again.

‘So James Barnes... heard about him too... quite colourful things from Clint and Tony, but...’

‘Oh, yeah there were weapons, stab wounds, and nasty bruises involved,’ Sam said.

‘Your thoughts on him?’ Bruce asked.

‘I don’t know, he did string me up like a kite again, made me hit a rooftop. Not sure I’m that unbiased.’

‘It’s one of the things you’re good at,’ Bruce smiled. Sam wasn’t so sure. He was worried, and not just about Steve, that made it hard to judge Barnes objectively. But he could make an honest effort, so he started talking.

They’ve been talking for a while, an hour or so maybe, when they were interrupted by a groan. Steve was waking up, finally seesh.

He was blinking up at the ceiling and frowning deeply when they walked over to him. He didn’t notice them at first, just kept blinking, his gaze was far away. Then he reached up to rub at his eyes.

‘Hey, Steve,’ Sam greeted him. That finally made him look over to them, but the frown was still perfectly in place.

‘What... Bruce... I... huh?’

Oh, this did not start so well.

‘I just got here,’ Bruce told him. ‘How are you feeling?’

‘Uhm... hungry?’ Steve said.

‘You’ve been out about 18 hours, probably more,’ Sam told him. ‘We don’t know how long you’ve been unconscious when we found you.’

‘Found me?’ Steve asked.

‘Yeah, passed out in an alley,’ Sam nodded. ‘No head-wound... or any wound really.’

‘What happened?’ he asked.

‘I was really hoping you could tell us that,’ Sam said.

‘Can you recall anything about what happened before you lost consciousness?’ Bruce asked. ‘Or in the hour before that?’

Steve frowned and looked away. His eyes were still kind of blurry.

‘Loki,’ he said then.

‘Yeah, we figured as much,’ Sam said. ‘With Barnes being gone and all.’

Steve looked at them again for a moment, then away.

‘Steve, you seem a little out of it,’ Bruce said. ‘Is there anything wrong? Can you tell me if you’re feeling strange?’

‘Strange,’ Steve repeated with an odd tone.

‘Cap, man, you are worrying me,’ Sam said. ‘We should look at your head.’

‘I think that’s a good idea,’ Bruce nodded.

‘No, I’ve... I’ve got a lead,’ Steve said and moved to get up, pushing the covers aside.

‘Whoa, easy big guy, sure you’re feeling okay?’ Sam asked as Steve got to his feet.

‘I’m fine, just hungry. I’ve got a lead... let’s go.’

He had his stubborn face on, so Sam and Bruce let him pass without further arguing. They did follow him closely as Steve headed straight to the elevator. He didn’t even bother with shoes.

‘Where are the others?’ he asked as he pushed the call button.

I have notified everyone that you are awake,’ HELEN said. ‘They will gather in the conference room on the 80th floor.

‘Okay, we’ll be right there,’ Steve said.

‘Don’t wanna grab a bite before we go?’ Sam asked.

‘I’ll eat later, I won’t fall over,’ Steve shrugged. Still with the stubborn tone, so Sam didn’t push it. Steve was a grown-ass man and Sam was not his damn nanny. They were all silent on the short elevator ride, but Sam shared a long look with Bruce behind Steve’s back.

Tony was standing on the other side of the elevator when the doors opened, looking serious like a heart-attack.

‘Hello, Sleeping Beauty,’ he greeted. ‘Having any treacherous urges at the moment?’

‘Tony,’ Bruce chided.

‘No, I have questions, important questions I need answers to,’ Stark insisted.

‘And I have information,’ Steve said. ‘That takes priority.’

He stepped out of the elevator and started walking towards the conference room, walking past Tony without a glance in his direction. Seriously, was Steve deliberately trying to piss him off more? Sometimes it really looked like it.

Everyone was just filling in the conference room, except for Thor. HELEN answered before Steve could ask.

Thor will be here in a few minutes, he’s on a coffee run,’ she reported.

‘It is good to see you awake,’ Vision said as they all got inside.

‘Yeah, it was freaky,’ Pietro added. ‘You were knocked out real bad, had us worried.’

‘Uh... sorry,’ Steve said, seemingly a little thrown by the concern. Sam shook his head a little. Only Steve would be still surprised by others actually giving a crap about him.

‘HELEN said you have some information,’ Natasha said, her tone even.

‘No, hold on people, we’ve got a much bigger issue here,’ Tony interrupted. ‘Or have we forgotten about the escaped assassin?’

‘We all knew Loki was going to take him,’ Wanda shrugged. ‘It was inevitable from how I see it.’

‘That’s not the point,’ Tony said. ‘I’m more worried about how exactly he left. Because there are two possible scenarios here. Either Cap let him walk, in which case he’s compromised... or Loki made him do it, and that makes him, surprise, just as compromised. I don’t even know which one is worse.’

‘Feeling any villainous assholes in your head, Cap?’ asked Clint.

Steve was silent for a moment, then Sam saw him square his shoulders.

‘I have information,’ he repeated.

‘Come on!’ Stark exclaimed. ‘We can’t just ignore this.’ Then he turned back to look at Steve. ‘And if it would be anyone else, you would be demanding answers. So why are you giving yourself a free pass?’

‘I’m not,’ Steve said. ‘I’m... look, if you don’t wanna hear what I have to say, then I’ll go after this lead myself.’

Natasha snorted. ‘How about no?’ she asked. ‘What have you got?’

Tony sent her a look, but Natasha just kept her eyes on Steve. Waiting. Clint sighed, but he uncrossed his arms and leaned forward in his chair. Everyone else started to settle down to listen to Steve. Sam always found it amusing how most people, especially the media, thought that it was either Steve or Tony in charge. It was true, for the most part, but any time those two started disagreeing everyone just looked at Natasha to make a decision. Sam didn’t doubt for a second, that had Natasha pressed Steve for a different sort of answer, this conversation would go very differently.

But Natasha didn’t seem to care about how compromised Steve was. She was not surprised when they realized Barnes was gone, not even when they noticed Steve was nowhere to be found either. Well, Sam’s been expecting Steve to do something stupid from the moment Barnes got put in that room, so Natasha had to know something would happen too. Oh, she would be keeping her eye on Steve for sure, but she wanted the intel first.

Stark was silently fuming about this, but nobody else objected. Sam decided to sit down and Bruce followed his example. The air was tense and it was hard not to fidget. Usually at the start of these meetings they were joking around and throwing insults at one another. It was very weird for them to be this silent and almost official.

After a moment Steve decided to sit down too. Thor walked inside a moment later, with two big paper cups of coffee in his hand. He looked around the silent room with a frown.

‘What has happened?’ he asked.

‘You didn’t miss anything,’ Pietro said, while Clint was making grabby hands at Thor until the big man handed over one of the cups.

‘So what’s the lead?’ Wanda asked.

‘A doctor,’ Steve said. ‘Bucky said he would be able to answer our questions.’

‘This might come as a surprise,’ Stark chimed in. ‘But there are a lot of doctors in the world.’

The way Steve ignored him was downright aggressive.

‘He said “Strange. The Doctor”,’ Steve said.

‘Doctor Strange?’ asked Natasha and Clint in perfect unison.

‘I was hoping you would have some idea who he was talking about,’ Steve said.

‘Who’s Doctor Strange?’ Sam asked, and he didn’t seem to be the only one without a clue.

‘Dr. Stephen Strange,’ Natasha said. ‘He was on SHIELD’s threat list. Well, Hydra’s too in retrospect.’

‘Who is he?’ Wanda asked.

‘Officially? Neurosurgeon... or he used to be. Very successful one at that.’

‘Rich, arrogant, big ego, and a bit of an asshole,’ Clint added helpfully.

‘O-okay, so what made SHIELD think he was a potential threat?’ Tony asked.

‘And where do we find this man?’ asked Thor.

‘That’s where it gets tricky,’ Natasha sighed. ‘A little over two years ago he lost everything. He was in a serious car accident. Police report said he lost control of the vehicle.’

‘Why did SHIELD look into the accident of a surgeon?’ Pietro asked. ‘I mean, it was a car accident, not...’ he shrugged and made a vague gesture at Bruce.

‘We didn’t. We pieced the backstory together after he became interesting,’ Clint said.

‘He suffered some serious injuries in the crash, the nerves in his hands were severely damaged,’ Natasha continued. ‘His career was over, so he literally spent his entire wealth on specialists and surgeries. But no luck, the damage couldn’t be undone. After he sold his penthouse he rented a small apartment over in Hell’s Kitchen. That’s his last known address.’

Wanda frowned and took her phone out.

‘Where in Hell’s Kitchen exactly?’ she asked.

‘HELEN, check Strange’s SHIELD record,’ Natasha instructed.

Doctor Strange’s last known address was on the 535 West 45th Street,’ HELEN reported.

‘The building the N’Garai first circled was Sara Wolfe’s building,’ Wanda said, turning her phone around to show everyone the map she was looking at. ‘531, right across the street.’

‘Anyone dares to call this a coincidence?’ Stark asked. ‘HELEN, call Hill, we might have more questions to Miss Wolfe’s parents. Let’s hope she’s still at the Reservation.’

‘So what happened to Strange then?’ Steve asked.

‘He couldn’t afford the rent and was tossed out on the streets,’ Clint said. ‘Then he vanished, assumed dead.’

‘And what happened really?’ Bruce prompted.

‘We believe he travelled to Asia,’ Natasha said. ‘Somewhere to Tibet or nearby, but SHIELD couldn’t find anything concrete.’

‘I’m still not getting what’s so special about the guy,’ Stark said.

‘There was... call it an epidemic, it started shortly before Strange’s accident,’ Natasha continued. ‘But got more and more severe. Children were falling into coma for no reason. No sign of illness, no brain damage, they just wouldn’t wake up. And the numbers kept increasing, so SHIELD got involved. Some of our top doctors and scientists worked on it, but nothing.’

‘I don’t remember reading this in the news,’ Steve said.

‘The whole thing looked unnatural, so SHIELD kept it under wraps,’ Natasha said.

‘Tell me this story doesn’t end with dead children,’ Pietro said, looking pained just having to think about it. Yeah, Sam knew exactly how he felt.

‘Surprisingly, it doesn’t,’ Natasha said. ‘They all woke up on the same night. A little grumpy and exhausted, but fine. They all complained about nightmares, but that’s all.’

‘How does Strange come into all this?’ Steve asked.

‘He was spotted at one of the hospitals just before the kids woke up,’ Natasha said. ‘Some nurses recognized him. Nobody talked to him, or knew why he was there. He was spotted, then he was gone.’

‘Once SHIELD knew whom to search for they went over everything that happened that night in the city,’ Clint continued. ‘Especially around the hospitals the kids were in. And guess who was seen on CCTV footages over and over again.’

‘And not just that,’ Natasha took over. ‘There were inexplicable weather phenomena that night, damaged cars, broken windows, electrical failures, but never affecting more than just a street or two at a time. One park looked like a hurricane went over it, but everything else around it was untouched. Trust me, there was a lot of weird to look into, and with Strange right in the middle.’

‘Then he was gone again,’ Clint said. ‘He was spotted in New York a few times, but SHIELD never actually managed to ask him questions. He’s good at disappearing.’

Agent Hill is on the line,’ HELEN interrupted.

‘Patch her through,’ Tony told the AI.

I hope you got something for me, because this here so far is a bust,’ Hill said. ‘And talking to the shaman was definitely a bad idea... or he’s just a really good actor.

‘We believe Sara Wolfe might be connected to Dr. Stephen Strange. Remember him?’ Natasha asked.

Sure do,’ Hill said. ‘I’m still wondering how some doctor can be as slippery as he is.

‘Well, Barnes dropped the hint before his escape,’ Natasha said.

There was a loud sigh from Maria on the other side.

All this time we were trying to figure out what secret experiments he might’ve been involved with, and now you’re telling me he’s dabbling into magic instead?

‘You don’t know how glad it makes to have someone to share my endless dislike for magic with,’ Tony said.

‘We need you to ask Sara’s parents about him,’ Sam spoke, trying to keep them on track.

Yeah, give me a sec. I’ll put you on speaker once I’m inside again,’ Maria said. Sam could here a door opening and closing on the other end of the line.

Natasha quickly signed for Clint what he didn’t catch in the phone conversation so far, but Sam was pretty sure they were discussing something else as well. They still waited for Maria to start talking again, so Sam leaned closer to Steve.

‘Sure you don’t want to get some food in you, Cap?’ he asked. ‘I’m being a mother hen, man, but you look real under the weather.’

Steve rubbed his face, but shook his head. Sam wondered how someone who slept for about eighteen hours could look so tired.

‘Are you well, Captain Rogers?’ Vision asked. ‘You’ve gone pale.’ Okay, so Sam was not paranoid, Steve did look worse.

‘Did the kids... did you ask them about the nightmare?’

Natasha shared a look with Clint, but before anyone could answer Maria was back on the line.

So, we have a few of my colleagues on the phone, so if you could repeat what you just told me.

Yes... uh, hello?’ a woman spoke. ‘My name is Elina Wolfe, I’m Sara’s mother.’

‘Hello Mrs. Wolfe, you’re speaking with... basically all the Avengers,’ Natasha greeted her politely. ‘About Stephen Strange.’

Oh, yes. Stephen,’ she said. ‘He’s... I’m not supposed to talk about this. Sara made us promise.

‘Sara has been taken, Mrs. Wolfe,’ Sam spoke. ‘My name is Sam, Sam Wilson. She was taken through a portal, by someone we... don’t trust. Knowing more about Doctor Strange and where he is could help us find her.’

Look, Mr. Wilson--’

‘Sam. Just call me, Sam, ma’am.’

Look, Sam. Stephen was not always a kind person, but he would never put Sara in danger, never. He is a great man who has done a great many things. People who think he deserved any of what has happened to him are plain vile. I mean, so much tragedy. He was a doctor, he’s been saving lives, even if he was unpleasant to people sometimes--

‘It was probably not Doctor Strange who got her in trouble,’ Steve interrupted her, his voice was kind and patient. ‘This is Steve Rogers, ma’am, and a friend of mine is also involved in whatever happened to Sara. And I do think Sara’s unharmed, and it looks like you trust Doctor Strange to look our for her too, but... if you know anything about where Strange is... or what he’s currently doing.’

Elina, call him,’ a male voice interrupted.

Mr. Wolfe, do you have a way of contacting Doctor Strange?’ Maria asked.

There were some quiet words exchanged between the couple, definitely not in English.

Sara’s safe,’ Mr. Wolfe said then firmly. ‘We know she is.’

‘How? Did she contact you?’ Natasha asked.

Call the number, Elina, these are the Avengers for crying out loud!

Fine,’ Mrs Wolfe relented, but she did not sound happy about it.

She’s dialling,’ Maria told them. ‘Put that phone on speaker too.’

Hello?’ a male voice answered after the phone rang three times. It was pretty hard to hear him, which was no wonder considering they had two phones on speaker.

This is Elina. I need to speak to my daughter,’ Mrs Wolfe said.

Silence was the only answer, and everyone just waited. This was... Sam has been definitely coming up with all kinds of horrible things that could’ve happened to her since Loki grabbed her. And now her mother was able to just call her like this. It didn’t make sense.

Mum, what happened?’ asked a faint female voice and Sam recognized it was Sara right away.

Sara! It sure is good to know you’re not dead somewhere,’ he said.

Oh,’ Sara said after a brief pause. ‘Well... I guess you’ve been searching for me.’

‘Yes, we have. Can you tell us where you are?’ Thor asked. ‘Last anyone has seen you my brother Loki has taken you captive, but now you are well... I assume he is not there, is he?’

No, no... he just... I’m fine. I’m sorry for making you look for me. I’m safe, I’m probably at the safest place on Earth right now.’

‘You’re not here, so where is that supposed to be?’ Tony asked.

‘Also, you sound very calm about all this,’ Sam said. ‘Did you actually know why those demons were chasing you?’

No, but I assumed it had something to do with Stephen,’ she said.

‘And you didn’t think that was worth mentioning?’ Wanda asked.

Well, I’m sorry. I wasn’t going to start rambling about my neighbour the sorcerer, you would have thought I was nuts!

‘Sorcerer... Stephen Strange is a sorcerer?’ Natasha asked.

Sorcerer Supreme, actually,’ she said. ‘It’s... don’t ask me what it actually means.

‘So the demons wanted you because of Strange,’ Sam said. ‘Do you know why Loki took you?’

Not particularly,’ she said. ‘Maybe he wants a favour out of Stephen... maybe the girl does.’

‘What girl?’ Natasha asked just a second before anyone else could.

On the other side of the portal... there was this space. Just this brick platform floating in nothing.

‘That’s where I was too,’ Steve added.

Oh, you’re familiar, good... so up the stairs was this big gold place, I mean... whoa fancy, and I’ve seen some fancy places in my life. So this Loki guy was sort of an ass, said he would drop me off at Kamar-Taj, not that I believed him.

Sam wanted to ask about that “Kamar-Taj” place, but he stayed quiet.

So then there was this white girl,’ Sara continued. ‘Seventeen maybe, pale, long black hair, green dress.

‘Thor, sound any of that familiar?’

‘Not at all,’ Thor said, shaking his head.

First I thought she was taken like me, but clearly not. She was so pleasant it actually freaked me out more than anything,’ Sara sighed, probably gathering her thoughts. ‘She said I didn’t need to worry, because they were not Stephen’s enemies, but you know... until they actually dropped me down here, I was dubious. Turns out she was telling the truth. And here I am... middle of nowhere, up in the mountains. It’s cold as shit... and no internet.

‘Where are you then?’ Sam asked.

‘And how do you have reception?’ Pietro frowned.

Uhm, Himalayas? No clue where exactly, but I’m with the sorcerers, so I’m safe. Don’t worry about me. Phone works... I probably don’t want to know how it works to be honest.

‘Do you know the girl’s name?’ Vision asked from her.

No, she never introduced herself.

‘Do you know anything else about the demons?’ Wanda asked.

I’m sorry, I am, but I don’t know anything else. I don’t actually get that involved in what Stephen does.

‘Then we need to talk to him,’ Steve said.

Uh, well...

‘Sara, this is important,’ Sam said. ‘Others can be in danger. Your mother just told us that Doctor Strange does great things... but maybe he needs some help with what’s happening now. We just want to keep people safe.’

Look, it’s not that I don’t want to help you, it’s that I can’t. I don’t know when Stephen comes back.

‘Don’t you have a phone number, or even a friggin’ owl to carry some letters for us?’Tony asked.

Normally, I do, but... Stephen’s some place now where phones don’t really exist.

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ Tony grumbled.

‘So there’s no way to contact him?’ Steve asked.

I can tell him that you want to talk to him when he gets back, but... I don’t know when that will be.

‘Well, at least we’re easy to find,’ Pietro pointed it out.

I’m sorry...’ Sara said again. ‘I am, and I’m safe, but I have to go now... I don’t think I should have told you any of this... I’m... bye.

Then the line cut off.

I’ll talk to you back in New York,’ Maria said, then she hung up too. All of them just sat silently around the table for a few long moments. This was a whole lot of new information, but also a whole lot of nothing at the same time.

‘So...’ Tony broke the silence. ‘Can we now talk about how compromised Capsicle is?’

Sam just groaned and leaned back in his chair. This was going to be a damn long day.



Chapter Text

‘I’m thinking about moving back to New York,’ Steve said easily as he closed the fridge. Sam put down his empty beer bottle and raised his eyebrows.

‘To the Tower?’ he asked. Steve shook his head and handed Sam his new beer, grabbing the two empty bottles from the table.

‘Definitely not,’ he said. ‘But you know. It’s home. It still feels like home.’

He sat back down and opened his new beer. Sam looked at him for a moment.

‘So why move to Washington in the first place? You lived in New York after SHIELD woke you up.’

Steve took a big gulp from his beer, and shrugged. ‘Brought up too many memories, then there was the Chitauri invasion, but now...’

‘Now Barnes is back?’ Sam guessed, he knew Steve too well.

‘That’s just one of the reasons,’ Steve answered. It was the biggest reason of course. Once everything was done and over with, once Bucky’s done whatever he needed to accomplish to fulfil his end of the deal, maybe he would like to go back to New York too. Maybe even to Brooklyn.

‘It’s your life, man,’ Sam said. ‘The Avengers will sure like you being closer.’

‘If I’m still an Avenger by then,’ Steve told him with a smile. Well, a grimace presented as a smile.

‘If they wouldn’t still trust you, they wouldn’t have let you walk out of there the way you did,’ Sam said.

‘Tony didn’t want to,’ Steve reminded him, and they left it at that.

And that was... that was an awful day. Steve was short tempered for days after he woke up, but that first day, definitely not one of his finest moments. He didn’t think any of the Avengers actually knew what he was like when he was too angry and too fed up to discuss anything. Steve always made an effort to talk about issues, he always did, but it didn’t come naturally to him, like for Sam. And some days, on that day in particular, he did not have the patience to argue his case. He did what he had to do, what he thought was right. Sara was fine, so as far as they knew, there were no non-Hydra victims of this. Even if Steve did not know exactly what was going on, Bucky was not out there hurting people. So as far as Steve was concerned, he’s been right so far. Not everyone agreed and well... words were being said, not particularly nice ones.

‘You’re basically a member too,’ Steve said after taking another swing from his beer. ‘Don’t you want to be closer to the action?’

Sam looked at him for a moment, then smiled. ‘Are you asking me whether I want to move to New York too?’

Steve shrugged and smirked in return. ‘Just a suggestion. Bet you could stay in the Tower too, if you wanted to.’

Sam laughed. ‘Typical... but I’ll think about it. My Mom lives in New York. She’d be happy.’

‘I didn’t know that!’

‘Yeah, fair warning; if you move back to New York, she will demand to meet you. She’s a fan, she makes Cap cookies for the 4th of July.’

Steve almost choked on his beer as he started laughing. Sam smirked into his beer.

‘You’re kidding me,’ Steve said, wiping his mouth.

‘Nope, they are tiny shields. She even makes tiny stars out of gummy for the middle.’

Steve couldn’t help it, he thought that was incredibly charming. Sam saw it on his face, cause he murmured, ‘Big softie.’

‘Can’t disappoint the fans,’ he smiled, then put his beer down. ‘Popcorn for the movie?’

‘I not watching anything made before 1990,’ Sam said. ‘This is a modern movie night.’

Steve stood up and made a face like Sam ruined all his fun. ‘Fine.’

He just ripped open the plastic cover on the microwave popcorn when his phone rang. It was a little late for social calls, so he immediately tensed a little as he walked over to it. Unknown number.


First there was just the sound of breathing, then one big sigh, then, ‘Steve?

‘Bucky.’ He looked over to Sam, who was now staring at him with a worried frown. Steve walked out of the kitchen area.

Bucky was somewhere outside, because Steve could hear the wind even through the phone.

Listen... ah, I...’ he grunted, maybe in pain. Or he was lifting something heavy. ‘I need a safe place for the night... or just a few hours,’ he rushed to continue. ‘Not for long.

‘What happened? Where are you?’ Steve asked.

Just answer me... I don’t got much time here. And if the answer’s no I gotta find another place.

Why would he say no when Bucky was obviously in tr--

‘Oh, just you or...’

Bucky sighed. ‘We,’ he said. ‘We need a safe place.

Shit. Loki. And yet...

‘Where are you? Do you need me to pick you up?’

No,’ Bucky said. ‘But... you can’t tell anyone, Steve. Okay? Just... you can’t.

Steve thought about it for a second. ‘Sam’s here, he knows you called me. Even if I send him away, he’ll know. But I trust him, okay? Can you get here? Are you injured?’

Is your building under surveillance?

‘The main entrance downstairs,’ Steve said. ‘But sweeping for bugs is almost part of my daily routine, so my apartment should be good.’

Bucky was quiet for a moment and Steve wondered whether he was going to hang up.

We’re on your roof, could you--

‘I’m coming,’ Steve said and hung up.

Sam was standing by the table, a dozens of questions on his face.

‘Stay here, don’t call anyone,’ Steve told him. ‘I’ll be back in a minute.’

Sam opened his mouth to ask some questions, but he shut it again and nodded. Steve nodded back and rushed out of his front door, and then to the stairway and up to the roof. He chose the apartment on the top floor when he moved here, because he thought it was the best, strategically speaking. If there was a serious emergency, he could jump out of a window, the five floors were nothing for him, but others would have to either come up from the ground floor or through the roof. Either way, Steve would know if more than one or two people were coming.

He almost slammed the roof door open as he stepped out, then he quickly looked around, the wind stinging his eyes. Bucky and Loki emerged from the shadows a moment later. Well, emerged was not the right word. Bucky had one of Loki’s arms draped over his shoulder, his metal arm firmly around his waist. He must’ve had Loki’s entire weight resting on him.

Steve only hesitated for a moment, then he ran closer and dragged Loki’s other arm over his shoulder to help Bucky carry the weight. It would have been easier to just pick him up in a fireman’s carry or something, since either of them could’ve easily carried him like that. But then something cold and wet started seeping into Steve’s t-shirt from where his side touched Loki’s and okay... that explained it.

‘Come on,’ he urged and Bucky didn’t need any encouragement. Loki did not seem to be conscious, or if he was, he was not really aware of anything.

It was late enough that Steve did not worry about his neighbours. There were only two other apartments on this floor, which was another reason why he picked this apartment. The hallway was not as dark as the roof, but Steve did not look down on Loki or Bucky to assess what shape they were in. It was best to be behind closed doors first.

Sam was standing in the doorway and Steve heard him curse quietly when he noticed them. He quickly got out of the way. Steve and Bucky dragged Loki inside and let Sam close the door.

‘Couch,’ Steve said. It was the closest flat surface besides the floor. They put Loki down a moment later. And damn, maybe it was the armour, but he was a lot heavier than he looked.

‘What in the hell?’ asked Sam, but he was ignored. Steve finally took a closer look at Bucky, then Loki too. Their hair was wet, not dripping, but still quite damp, clothes too. It was not raining outside, so Steve had no idea how it happened. Bucky’s metal arm was covered in something with a dark blue colour, and so was Loki. It was dripping down from his side and down on Steve’s couch. When Steve looked down on himself, he saw that his t-shirt was now also stained with it.

‘What’s the blue stuff?’ Sam asked, coming closer while Bucky knelt up on the couch to take a closer look at Loki’s face.

‘It’s blood,’ Bucky grunted. The “idiot” was heavily implied. ‘Hey,’ he said then and lightly tapped Loki’s cheek a few times to wake him up. Loki blinked open his red eyes and frowned at the room around him, then his eyes landed on Steve.

‘This supposed to be safe?’ he croaked, voice scratchy.

‘You were not exactly offering any alternatives,’ Bucky said, then went to pry some of Loki’s armour off to look at his side.

Loki gritted his teeth and hissed in pain. That was a lot of blood, even if it was blue.

‘What the hell did that?’ Steve asked, going closer.

‘An axe,’ Bucky said. Steve couldn’t see how big the wound was, because as soon as Bucky tried to remove some of the armour Loki bit back a pained cry. Bucky’s hands were immediately covered in blue blood, do he put the armour back in place and put some pressure on it.

‘Okay, shit... that looks too bad for a quick stitch,’ Sam said, going closer. ‘Steve’s got a pretty great med kit, and I used to be a pararescue, but that’s a freakin’ lot of blood. And he ain’t exactly human, so I guess we can’t just go to a hospital.’

‘Loki... Loki focus!’ Bucky said. ‘What do I do?’ he asked.

Loki just breathed a few times, mouth open, eyes distant. Even his teeth were all blue.

‘Don’t bother,’ he managed to say after a few deep breaths.

‘Don’t bother what?’ Bucky asked in return. ‘As in, it’s gonna heal just fine on its own or...’

‘Or my damn... armour is keeping my guts inside... so there’s no point,’ Loki gritted it out, then his head lolled back, his chest heaving.

‘Just let me take a look,’ Bucky said, lifting his hands again from the wound.

‘Doesn’t matter,’ Loki breathed out, shaking his head at the ceiling.

Steve just stared at the ever growing blue stain on his couch and had absolutely no idea what he was supposed to do.

‘Fuck, how old is this injury? How much blood did he lose?’ Sam asked. He was standing next to Bucky and Loki. He just simply couldn’t stay away with someone so badly injured right in front of him.

‘A lot... happened over an hour ago,’ Bucky said with a sigh, then stopped putting pressure on the wound. Sam looked back at Steve, like he could tell him what to do, but Steve had no idea.

Bucky gripped Loki’s forearm with his metal hand to get his attention.

‘Hey... you gonna die on me?’ he asked.

Loki just breathed heavily for a few seconds, eyes still on the ceiling. ‘Looks like it.’

Bucky cursed quietly, but Steve didn’t catch the words. Then he turned Loki’s forearm around, so that he could grip Bucky’s metal arm with his bloody fingers.

‘All right,’ Bucky said, taking a deep breath. ‘Fuck... just don’t fight it then... and it’ll be over soon.’

Sam took a few steps back to stand next to Steve. It’s not like he could do anything.

‘Real helpful,’ Loki croaked. Steve was sure his hand would have been shaking if he weren’t gripping the metal under his fingers so tightly.

‘You know me,’ Bucky said. ‘Always here to help.’

Steve felt like his feet were rooted to the floor. He couldn’t go closer, because what the hell could he do, but he couldn’t back away either. Was he really drinking beer and laughing with Sam ten minutes ago? It was surreal.

Loki’s breath stuttered a little, and his whole body locked up in pain as he coughed and choked on something... blood, probably.

‘Hey, easy... easy, just breathe, almost over,’ Bucky said quietly. Loki slumped back on the couch again, but didn’t say anything. Just kept sucking in shallow little breaths.

It hit Steve like a train then, he had to call Thor. He had to call Thor right now, because...

‘And hey,’ Bucky spoke again. ‘Give Mistress Death a smile from me.’

Loki’s lips actually twitched.

Bucky continued, still with that easy, almost playful tone. ‘And not just any smile... the charming one you only give the pretty ones. She’ll like that.’

Loki didn’t answer. A second later his fingers went lax, no longer holding on, and his chest stopped moving.

And Steve and Sam just stood there in silence. Bucky let go of Loki’s arm and closed his eyelids with a sigh.

‘Holy shit,’ Sam breathed out.

Bucky sat down on the couch and swept his damp hair out of his eyes with bloodied fingers.

‘We gotta call Thor,’ Steve said once he found his voice again.

‘No,’ Bucky said.

‘What... yes, we do, we have to call him,’ Steve said, his legs no longer feeling like lead.

‘And I said, no,’ Bucky repeated.

‘His brother is lying dead on my couch, covered in blood. We have to call him!’

‘Steve’s right, he needs to know,’ Sam added.

Bucky looked plain frustrated for a second, then he looked at them with a levelled look.

‘He’s gonna wake up.’

And that...

‘What, he’s not dead?’ Sam asked.

‘He is, as dead as it gets,’ Bucky told them. ‘But he’s gonna wake up. Give it a few hours.’

Steve frowned, while Sam looked plain confused, but Bucky looked very sure about what he was saying. Then Steve remembered something they talked about the last time they saw each other.

‘Buck, I told you before, he’s... he’s not a god,’ he said. ‘They can die... and it’s just as permanent as death for humans. We have to call Thor.’

‘He’s going to wake up,’ Bucky repeated. ‘But not cause he’s a god, but because he’s Loki. Trust me, give it a few hours... he’ll wake up.’

Steve was thrown and had no idea how to continue this conversation.

‘Whao, what’s the purple stuff?’ asked Sam suddenly. ‘I didn’t notice that before.’

Steve followed his gaze and saw that something, that indeed looked a little purple, was staining Bucky’s side and leg.

Bucky looked down on it. ‘Well... I didn’t go to art school, but that’s usually what happens if you mix blue with red.’

‘You’re injured?’ Steve asked. ‘How bad?’

‘I’ll live,’ Bucky shrugged.

‘No, dammit... let me see,’ Steve insisted as he walked closer to him. Loki’s still body was more than a little disturbing, but Steve kept his eyes on Bucky.

Bucky gave up after a moment and stood up, unbuttoning his leather jacket. He was not wearing any kevlar underneath it, just an undershirt of sort. That was strange. Steve noticed how damp that shirt was, so he didn’t immediately know how much blood covered the dark material, but then Bucky lifted up the shirt and Steve clenched his jaw.

The cut was not that deep, but it started a little above Bucky’s belly button and ended on his side. A fine cut, knife... or sword, definitely something sharp.

‘What did that?’ Sam asked.

‘Axe,’ Bucky said.

‘The same axe that almost cut Loki in half?’ Sam asked in horror.

‘Stitches, now,’ Steve said with a tone that meant he would not argue about this.

Loki’s body lying on the couch like that made Steve want to cover him with a sheet or something. Sure, they had been enemies first and foremost, but that didn’t mean looking at his body, dead and still, was pleasant. At least his apartment wasn’t filled with the stench of blood. It was probably because Loki’s blood was blue for some reason, but the scent reminded Steve of wet leaves. Not the pleasant fall scent, but the sort of leaves that were half-rotten under the snow, just a bit more bitter. It was still not something he wanted in his nose all the time, but it was slightly better than the normal smell of blood and death.

Bucky was sitting in a chair a little further away, half-naked so that Sam could clean and stitch his wound. He cleaned up a bit, so he didn’t have that many blue blood stains all over now. Steve wanted to sew the wound shut himself first, but Sam gave them both a look and reminded them who the actual professional was. Bucky only tensed up a little when Sam’s hand first touched him. It wasn’t that bad, but Steve stayed close, crouching right next to Sam, right where Bucky could see him.

‘That’s the real colour,’ Bucky said suddenly. He was looking at Loki, who looked a lot more blue now, not the grey he was... earlier. ‘He tried to damp down on it, but his skin wouldn’t go lighter than grey... He really hated it.’

Steve didn’t really know what to say to that. He still wanted to call Thor, but he decided to wait a bit before trying to convince Bucky again.

‘Almost done,’ Sam said. ‘Does the anaesthetic still work? I know Steve works through that stuff real quick.’

‘It’s fine,’ Bucky said, looking away from Loki... Loki’s body.

‘Not if it hurts,’ Sam said. ‘It’s local anaesthesia, I can...’

‘No more drugs. Just finish those stitches already,’ Bucky said, his voice suddenly harder. He leaned back in the chair and rested both his hands on the armrests. He was a lot more tense now.

‘Buck? You okay?’

‘Just... get it done,’ he said, staring ahead, looking at nothing. Sam definitely picked up on the change, because he worked as quickly as he could. Bucky was gripping the armrests really tightly after a few moments passed, and Steve was seriously starting to worry. That look on Bucky’s face was more blank by the second, closing off.

‘Okay, done,’ Sam announced. ‘Steve can do the bandage, okay? I’ll just clean these,’ he said. Then he stood up to head over to the bathroom, giving them some privacy.

Bucky was still tense, his fingers were curled up in a death-grip. Even his breathing quickened up.

‘Bucky?’ Steve called. He wasn’t sure whether it was smart to reach out and touch, but he had no other idea. He rested a hand on Bucky’s flesh arm, just gently, barely a connection. Bucky just tensed further.


‘Just give me a minute,’ Bucky said in a clipped tone.

‘What’s wrong?’ Steve asked.

‘Just give--’ he lowered his head a little, his hair falling to his eyes, hiding some of his face. His breathing picked up, quickening irregularly in a very familiar way.

‘Let me help, okay? Just breathe,’ Steve said, moving a little closer so that he was right in front of him. ‘Remember my asthma attacks? You could help me breathe real good, so let’s do that. Breathing.’

Bucky didn’t react, but he also didn’t lean back or push Steve away. That had to count for something.

‘Okay, let’s do this... one two three in... one two three out... follow my lead, okay? Can you do that for me? One two three in... one two three out, breathe with me, Buck.’

It took some time, but Bucky started taking deep breaths, in and out, slowly, just like Steve instructed. After some time Steve didn’t need to count, he just kept his own breathing deep and calm, and Bucky followed his lead. His fingers definitely broke the armrest of the chair, but he let go after a while, unclenching his hands. The plates on the metal arm shifted too, probably going back to a relaxed position.

‘That’s it, you’re fine,’ Steve murmured. ‘Feel better?’

‘It’s just...’

‘You don’t gotta explain, Buck,’ Steve said. God knew Bucky had more than enough reasons to fall apart sometimes. This was nothing. Hell, Steve was a big mess on a regular basis, and he had no asthma to blame it on any more either.

‘This was just a really long day,’ Bucky said then, sounding very tired and very defeated. Steve couldn’t keep the distance between them this big for a second longer. He got up on his knees and wrapped his arms around him. He was so glad when Bucky just leaned forward and rested his head on his shoulder, breathing evenly, relaxing into his hold.

‘You’re fine,’ Steve repeated. ‘You’re okay.’

Maybe he was reassuring himself too, but who could blame him? After a few moments Bucky turned his head and buried his face in Steve’s neck, so Steve reached up to run his fingers down the back of his skull a few times.

‘So what happened?’ Steve asked after a long moment of silence. He hated to break the peace, but he needed to know.

‘We were ambushed, we didn’t expect it,’ Bucky said. ‘Had to jump down a bridge to get away.’

That explained why they were damp, and shit. Who the hell could get a jump on both Bucky and Loki? Let alone... killing Loki. God dammit, this was bad.

‘Who was it?’ he asked.

‘Don’t know... if Loki knew, he didn’t have time to explain it.’

They were silent for a little while again, and Steve still didn’t feel like letting go, so he didn’t. Bucky seemed a lot calmer too like this, so really, there was no point. His knees were not exactly comfortable, but he didn’t give a damn.

‘Buck, I know you think Loki will wake up, but--’

‘I know he will,’ Bucky said. ‘This happened before.’

Now this time Steve had to lean back to look at him.

‘He died before?’

‘Not just once,’ Bucky answered. ‘I was only there for one, but... yeah, he’s gonna wake up.’

Steve just stared, first at Bucky, then he looked over to Loki’s still form.

‘How?’ he asked.

‘Not sure,’ Bucky said. ‘Also not my place to share what little I know.’

Steve just tried to wrap this whole thing around his head again. He thought this was complicated enough with Hydra, the demons, and then Strange, but this... oh boy.

‘You really got yourself in one hell of a mess here, Buck,’ he said then. Bucky smiled.

‘Yeah...’ he agreed, then bit his lips. ‘And thanks... for letting us come here.’

‘Thanks for keeping your promise,’ Steve said in return, because he really wanted Bucky to call him if he was in trouble, he was not blowing hot air. Steve gave him another smile. His knees were seriously uncomfortable now, but he enjoyed the moment too much to break it.

‘Before...’ Bucky said, looking at him, searching his face maybe. ‘Can I?’

Steve knew what he meant, and couldn’t find in himself a single reason not to, so he leaned forward instead of answering. Or well, this was his answer, this kiss. Bucky took hold of his head, to keep him in place, as if Steve wanted to go anywhere. He still didn’t know where this came from, not entirely. He never... they never, but... it felt good to be close, so good to be connected in a new way, to help heal what was broken, taken from them. He didn’t even need some deep reason behind it. This was Bucky. Why wouldn’t he want to do this?

‘Oh,’ he heard and uh, damn. Sam, of course. Steve leaned back, but slowly. He did not jerk his head away, because he didn’t feel like he was caught doing something he wasn’t supposed to do. Bucky let go of him and Steve stood up, his knees hurt a bit, but he knew it would pass in a moment.

Sam’s face was less surprised than Steve expected, but there was nothing hostile or wary in his look either. That was good enough for Steve.

‘Everything good?’ Sam asked.

‘Sure,’ Steve nodded.

‘So... what now?’

‘Now,’ Steve sighed. ‘Apparently, we’re going to wait for Loki to wake up.’

Sam looked dubious, and Steve didn’t blame him. He had nothing to say that could prove that it was actually going to happen, only Bucky’s insistence that it would.

‘Okay,’ Sam said carefully. ‘A little disturbing, but sure... let’s wait.’

And this right here was one of the reasons why Steve liked Sam so much, he could really roll with the punches.

This was the longest time Steve spent with Bucky in the 21st century, not counting the hours one or both of them were asleep. He wished it happened under different circumstances, but he also couldn’t help the amount of relief he felt. Bucky could’ve died tonight. From what little he told them about the attack, if the giant man with the axe hadn’t been focused on Loki so much... Steve didn’t want to think about. He knew what Bucky’s been doing was dangerous, but this was the first time he’s been reminded how dangerous exactly. But Bucky was fine and he came to him for help, so yeah, ridiculous amounts of relief.

Sam stayed, even though it was getting incredibly late, but Steve figured he didn’t want to leave Steve alone with Bucky and Loki. It should’ve been clear by now that Steve was in no danger, but he was pretty sure it was not his safety Sam was worried about anyway.

They were mostly silent. Steve wasn’t sure whether it was because Sam was there, or the situation in general, but he didn’t mind. This wasn’t like their first meetings. Steve knew he didn’t need to hoard every second, afraid that it would be the last. He and Bucky would meet again, talk again, he was sure of that.

‘Hey... uhm, guys,’ Sam called from the living room. He went to the bathroom a minute ago. Both Bucky and Steve were at the kitchen table. ‘I think Loki’s... glowing.’

Bucky was on his feet in a second, marching over to the couch. He put his shirt and jacket back on a while back, but he didn’t close the straps. It was like he was ready to go, but not particularly in a hurry to get going.

When Steve got to the couch he knew exactly what Sam meant. The light was faint, but it definitely came from under Loki’s skin, a faint golden glow. Bucky crouched down next to the couch, looking him over.

‘Body’s healing,’ he said. ‘You might wanna stay back.’

‘What, why?’ Sam asked, but he already backed off. Steve was not that close anyway, so he remained firmly in place.

‘Let’s just say that death is kind of traumatizing,’ Bucky said. Steve noticed his posture now, how his body was alert, like he expected an attack.

‘Yeah, that makes sense,’ Sam said.

‘But why do we need to--’

Loki sucked in a breath as the golden glow lit up brightly. Holy shit, Bucky was right. The next second Loki lashed out, rolled off the couch in an attack. Bucky was definitely expecting that. He rolled with the weight that was suddenly on him and Steve heard his arm recalibrate. There was some noise from Loki, almost like a shout or a grunt, then Bucky was on top and had the other pinned with his metal arm.

‘Hey, it’s me,’ Bucky said, but he was still tossed off from Loki, which was the moment Steve wanted to interfere. But Loki froze mid-strike, half on-top of Bucky, one arm raised in the air. Steve couldn’t see either of their faces, but they both stopped, that had to be good. Loki’s shoulder was rising and falling, and Steve could hear heavy breathing too.

‘It’s me,’ Bucky repeated. ‘Relax, it’s just me.’

There was a tense moment, but then Loki’s arm dropped down.

‘You should--’ Loki spoke, but what... the voice was. ‘What?’

‘Well... at least you’re no longer blue,’ Bucky offered.

Loki looked around and how on Earth did he... she? Steve was staring at a woman’s face. Well, he could still see... the high cheekbones and the nose was the same, but the lips were slightly fuller, the eyes a bit rounder. Why was he looking at a woman?

Loki started stripping down the dark gloves from his... her hands? Steve was lost.

‘Am I hallucinating?’ Sam asked quietly. ‘Because I am really tired, so that would explain this.’ Steve shook his head.

Once the gloves were gone, they all saw that the hands underneath were just as pale white as Loki’s face.

‘Bucky?’ Steve asked, because Loki looked a little shell-shocked too, touching his/her own face and scowling down at... well. The armour was definitely loose on the shoulders, but way too tight on the chest.

‘I was kind of expecting this,’ Bucky said.

‘This?’ Loki whipped... okay, “her” Steve was going with “her” for now, and if Loki didn’t like it Steve would know about it soon enough. She whipped her head around to stare at Bucky.

‘You were expecting this? In what realm is this something to be expected?’

‘Last time you woke up blue,’ Bucky shrugged. ‘I figured something would change.’

‘This is not the same,’ Loki hissed. The female voice did nothing to diminish the threat and the danger from that tone.

‘You really expecting answers from me?’ Bucky asked.

‘No, of course not,’ Loki relented, then finally looked up at Steve and Sam. Oh, if looks could kill. ‘Just brilliant. This still does not qualify as a safe place.’

‘Again,’ Bucky sighed. ‘We didn’t have any alternatives. And do you see any danger? We’re fine.’

Loki made some angry sound, but did not say anything as she got to her feet. She was still almost as tall as before, only lost a few inches maybe.

‘We’re leaving,’ she stated.

‘How about you wait more than five minutes after coming back from the dead?’ Bucky offered as he stood up too. ‘Unless you wanna pass out in a.... very unladylike manner.’

‘Another quip like that, and I will rip your tongue out,’ Loki warned venomously, but Bucky did not look concerned. Loki looked frantic and after a moment Steve started to suspect that it was not just about the sudden female body.

‘Loki,’ Bucky said. ‘Recall what happened.’

‘Once we are out of here,’ she answered, but Bucky took a step closer to catch her eyes.

‘How did you die?’ he asked. Loki was silent, breathing in an out for a few second, then she shut her eyes.

‘Bled out,’ she said.


‘Weapon... blade... no... axe,’ her eyes opened. ‘Skurge,’ she said in a much deeper tone, her anger basically tangible. She stared ahead of herself for a long moment, both hands clenched in tight fists. Maybe he just imagined it, but Steve could’ve sworn he saw green sparks for a second. ‘That bitch,’ she spat then.

‘Who?’ Steve asked before he could stop himself. Loki turned to look at him, like she only just remembered that Steve and Sam were in the room.

‘We are leaving,’ she said again and marched towards the door. Steve knew Bucky won’t argue again.

When he moved to go after her Steve stopped him for a second.

‘Take the stairs back up to the roof,’ Steve suggested. ‘No cameras there.’

‘Okay,’ Bucky nodded. He looked like he wanted to say or do something more, but... ‘I’ll be seeing you,’ he said.

‘Yeah, see you,’ Steve said in return. Bucky nodded at Sam too, then went for the door.

‘And thank you,’ Bucky looked back before he shut the door behind himself.

Steve let out a huge breath, his shoulders dropping... really, this night.

‘So I guess you gonna need help burning the couch,’ Sam said easily. Steve looked over at the piece of furniture in question, which was covered with dark blue blood, it long dried, especially on the pillows and... yeah, they’re gonna burn it.

‘Better not leave alien DNA lying around,’ he said. It was past 4AM now, but they still had to deal with it now. He did not look forward to it, neither did Sam, if the look on his face was anything to go by.

‘You so owe me for tonight,’ Sam looked at him meaningfully.

‘Yeah,’ Steve agreed. ‘And hey... about before...’

‘Oh, you mean the lip-on-lip action?’ Sam asked. ‘Man, trust me, I did not need to see you attached to the guy’s face to know how far you would go for him.’

No point denying that, so Steve didn’t. And it looked like that was all the comments Sam had about the topic. It made Steve ridiculously glad, even with the couch-burning coming up on his schedule.

Chapter Text

It should never be said that Loki did not possess a great sense of humour, but this... this was as far away from amusing as possible. This was useless, a humiliation, a spit in the face. Someone should pay a dear price for this. Loki should make them pay.

Leah sighed... loudly. Loki ignored her.

‘Let me do you hair,’ Leah offered, and got a scoff in answer. ‘You look like a mess.’

She stated that very matter of factly, and truth to be told, she was not entirely wrong. Loki glanced at the mirror on the far side of the room and was suddenly even more frustrated with this predicament. The hair grew long very quickly, it was curling in every direction, it was a bloody mane, that’s what it was. Loki was very tempted to chop the whole thing off, just out of sheer defiance.

‘In all the worlds I’ve never known a Loki who was not vain, so stop with the sulking,’ Leah said. ‘Come now.... or James will laugh in your face the next time he sees you.’

‘That would be the last thing he ever did,’ Loki glowered, but sat down on the chair Leah was standing next to. It was useless to argue. If Leah was so eager to play handmaiden again, who was Loki to stop her.

‘You can scowl as much as you like, but the “just rolled out of a haystack” is still not a flattering look for you.’

‘I will not be primped and pampered like a maiden,’ Loki growled, but the voice, curse the Tree and all the Nine Realms, this feminine voice ruined the tone entirely.

Leah sighed again as she picked up a hairbrush and got to work. She was tearing at the mess of locks, but Loki was not about to start complaining about a little hair pulling.

They remained silent for a while. Leah did whatever she thought needed to be done in order to make Loki presentable, while Loki... most certainly did not look at the mirror and the picture it presented.

‘I know you understand the importance of appearances,’ Leah said after a long stretch of silence, but Loki remained silent. ‘The rules are simply different when you are a woman.’

Just hearing that word was enough to make Loki snap again.

‘This is not what I bargained for!’

Leah sighed again, looking like she expected every word, it just infuriated Loki more.

‘This makes no sense,’ Loki continued, ignoring her calm silence and the hairbrush still held in her hand. ‘I was prepared to do a great many things for this, valorous or atrocious. And I have already given a great many things.’

Loki gave up the throne of Asgard for this, the perfect plan that was already set in motion. Was that not enough? Loki gestured angrily at the body, the breasts, the narrow waist, and the round hips.

‘But this... this gives me... us no advantage! This is a joke for others to laugh at! This... I don’t want this!’

Leah was still silent. She probably knew Loki was not done yet, it was uncanny how well she could guess such things.

‘What is the point of making me weaker?’ Loki asked finally.

‘If you truly think being in this shape makes you weaker, then I’m starting to understand why it was necessary,’ she said.

‘I am weaker,’ Loki said.

‘Really? You already tested out that theory?’ Leah asked. ‘I think not.’

She started moving things around on the little vanity. Loki mostly used for tending to injuries up until this point. Now there were all kinds of items scattered all over it, where did Leah get all of that?

‘It is strange that you are this bothered,’ Leah said then. ‘I think you would start enjoying it if you’d only let yourself. I have never known a Loki--’

‘Enough of that already!’ Loki snapped. ‘I care not for all these “Lokis” you supposedly know so well from all the worlds.’

Leah was unfazed, she continued as if Loki did not interrupt her. ‘I have never known a Loki who was not comfortable being a woman... quite the contrary. Although you are still young...’

Loki hissed angrily and had the urge to kill something... anything, bury a dagger in someone’s flash, sink long nails in their faces. Hack it, slash it, burn it... just destroy something... anything.

‘I have not led you astray yet,’ Leah continued. ‘Trust me when I say that this too will be to your advantage.’

‘What am I to learn from this? This... is useless. This does not make me stronger,’ Loki said again. It was worth repeating. Yes, the body was still almost the same height as before, but gone were most of the lean muscles, there was just soft flesh in its stead. Well, it was true that Loki did not take the time yet to test the waters... so to speak, but still, physically the body had to be weaker, there was no point arguing about that.

‘You sound foolish,’ Leah said easily. Not many dared speak to Loki this way. ‘You’d be surprised how much there is only women can accomplish.’

Loki made a disgusted noise. ‘I have no taste for playing such games.’

‘Ugh,’ Leah rolled her eyes. ‘New body, but your mind is still very much male. I was not speaking of seduction. The things you say should already make it obvious where your new advantages lie.’

Loki refused to start contemplating these so called advantages.

‘Sit back down, would you?’ Leah prompted. ‘You cannot enjoy that disaster on the top of your head.’

Loki didn’t, but the scissors resting on the vanity looked a lot more tempting than the hairbrush held in Leah’s hand. In the end, Loki sat back down, but made sure to glare up at Leah’s reflection in the mirror.

‘These new rules I’m talking about,’ Leah said. ‘I know what bothers you more than a pair of breasts... that others will look at you and think you weak. Warriors always tended to look at you like you were not much of a threat. Now you fear that once again none would be scared at the mere sight of you. And you do love to intimidate others so much.’

The knots were loosening, so Leah was not tearing at the messy curls as much now, but Loki still refused to look up at the mirror again.

‘You will have to present yourself differently now, obviously,’ Leah continued calmly. It felt like a lecture. ‘But different does not mean worse. And you can still very much strike fear in the hearts of others.’

Loki was tempted to argue again, but it was best to let Leah finish first. She usually had a point when she spoke this much.

‘What is her name again, the Avenger, some spider, wasn’t it?’

‘Romanoff,’ Loki supplied.

‘Yes, her. She obviously knows how to use all her tools perfectly.’

‘I thought you did not speak of seduction.’

‘It is hardly her only tool,’ Leah scoffed. ‘I don’t remember her trying to seduce you in any capacity in order to get what she wanted.’

She was correct, so Loki stayed silent.

‘But she still used your own mind against you. Used the very things you are spitting out of your mouth right now. You thought her weak, and not because she was human. Her seemingly fragile beauty is just as dangerous a weapon as any of her knives.’

Obviously the Widow was dangerous, well-trained like James. So Loki made a mistake... once. It meant nothing.

‘Or let’s take the Lady Sif...’

‘Let’s not,’ Loki growled and it made Leah laugh sweetly. She brought Sif up deliberately.

‘Or the Queen--’

‘No!’ Loki shouted and slammed her hand down on the armrest of the wooden chair.

‘Mistress Death.’

‘She is... not truly a woman.’

‘But she chooses to present herself as one. What does that tell you?’

It... that was not something Loki could explain, who could understand her mind, who could even grasp how she saw all the realms and the vast endless universe. It would be foolish to try.

‘Fine,’ Leah said firmly after Loki did not offer any reply. ‘But this pointless fit needs to end. And now. We have no time for it.’

Loki swallowed what words wanted to come out next, hands clenched tightly, eyes firmly on the scissors again.

‘Death and Rebirth,’ Leah spoke quietly. ‘You learn and grow stronger every cycle. This is not the worst you’ve been through.’

Loki took a deep breath. ‘This is not...’

‘Objects mean nothing...’ she continued. ‘And your blood means nothing...’

Loki felt like the magic now bubbling up around them would consume this new form and them both in its intensity. But Loki did not know whether it was anger still that fuelled it... or something else.

‘And the shape of your body and what’s between your legs most certainly means nothing either,’ Leah finished, her fingers tightened in Loki’s hair for a moment, smoothing out some more tangles. Then she started to braid a few locks of hair.

‘This only humiliates me,’ Loki told her.

‘You do need a lesson in humility,’ Leah answered without hesitation. Loki took hold of the anger those words caused and did not allow them to be unleashed.

‘How am I more in control of my fate than I was before?’ Loki asked instead and it made Leah pause for the briefest of moments.

‘Fine... why not stop then?’ she asked. ‘Why not leave and give up? I’m sure Thor would be more than happy to lay down his life for the cause... and for you, once you explained everything.’

The noise that came out of Loki’s mouth was close to a snarl, and the armrest snapped off the chair with a loud crack. Leah was unfazed, she didn’t even care about the green flames of magic lighting up around them. But then again, why would she care? It’s not like she had any true reason to be afraid.

‘The more you fight it, the harder it will be,’ Leah said then, walking in front of Loki. She had to notice the magic, the anger tightening the air around them, the look on Loki’s face, but she remained calm.

‘You will deal with this, or you will fail,’ she stated plainly. ‘Now lift your chin.’

Loki was a stubborn sort, there was no point denying it, so... she stared at the scissors for another long moment. Then she lifted her head, just as Leah asked. She saw her own face in the mirror again, and without the messy curls and tangles, she made a much more regal sight. She made an attractive woman, of course, but... no, this was really not the worst. This sight did not make her stomach coil up with nausea like the blue skin and red eyes did at first.

‘And I do think your magic might be stronger than ever,’ Leah whispered conspiratorially, like she was sharing a secret. She was smiling when Loki looked up at her.

‘We’ll see,’ Loki allowed, but she already realized that. The second the haze of anger lifted from her mind she could feel it.

Loki barely recognized the angles of her face by the time Leah was done. Gone was the ill-fitting armour as well. Loki changed it to something that fit her new form better, because no matter how much she hated that she was forced into this, she was not about to walk around looking like a sloven. She was still not fond of the curls, but at least they looked glamorous now. She tried very hard not to think of her mother’s golden curls... she couldn’t think of her. Not now, not...

She also did not to let her face be painted up like she was some harlot in a brothel. There might be need for it later... for disguise, but she was not about to allow it now. The nails... she would think about that, maybe that wouldn’t be so ill-fitting, if they were black... or dark green. And fine, she could see how if her lips were darker in shade they would draw the attention of anyone, but she didn’t need her lips to be noticed. No, she wasn’t going to do it. No. Even Leah had to admit that she had already endured all of this admirably so far.

‘Hey, look at you.’ She heard James’ voice as he sauntered into the room.

‘Not a word if you know what’s good for you,’ Loki warned as she glanced back at him. Leah was gone for now, but Loki was sure she was not far. She never was too far.

James raised both his hands defensively, but there was something mocking about the gesture and the slight curl of his lips, there always was.

‘You look good, relax,’ he said.

‘Fine, what do you want?’ she asked. James very rarely bothered to come upstairs to Loki’s quarters.

‘Dames used to be a lot happier than this to see me. I must be losing my touch,’ he said.

‘Thin ice, James. Very thin ice.’

‘Come on, not even a smile?’

‘I’m very glad you are enjoying this latest cosmic joke my life has become, but if you could get to the point.’

The man has been this insufferable since Loki woke up on Steve Rogers’ sofa. He never was outright insulting, but there was a shift in his behaviour... a teasing tone of sort. Loki wasn’t sure whether he was genuinely this amused or just tried to make light of the situation. Either way it was usually Loki who played the insulting game, trying to get a rise out of others – including James – but it seemed like he was happy to play as well now.

Loki wanted Leah to be here, just so that Loki could point at James and say that this was exactly what bothered her. Not that James was ever intimidated by Loki, but he acted differently now. Everyone was going to act differently, and not all of them would just make feeble jokes for amusement’s sake. To James’ credit, he took everything in stride, and acted like it was perfectly natural to see Loki in such a different shape. Now if only he could stop with his attempts at humour.

‘I think I know what Amora wants,’ James said. And that managed to capture Loki’s full attention. James’ been busy then, good.

‘I’m listening,’ Loki said.

‘I might even know where she will strike next,’ he continued. ‘But we gotta warn some people about a few things.’

Loki frowned, because they didn’t usually warn anyone, there was no point, it would risk giving away what they knew. So at first she didn’t understand why James suggested it in the first place, but than she took another look at his face and knew right away what he actually meant.

‘Ugh, Rogers,’ she said, because of course, who else.

Just because Loki was no longer throwing furniture around due to the new irritating female form, it didn’t mean she wasn’t going to take every opportunity to appear male again. So when Steve Rogers’ eyes popped open, and he sat up to look around in the darkness of his room, he saw a Loki that looked exactly like the one that invaded Midgard. Maybe it was not the best strategy, since Rogers was immediately tense and alert, but Loki cared very little.

‘I thought you were a woman now,’ was what the dear Captain opened with.

‘I am,’ Loki answered easily. ‘This isn’t real.’


‘You’re dreaming.’

He looked dubious, so Loki walked over to the window.

‘Take a look,’ he offered.

Loki was rather sure that if it weren’t for James, Rogers would have argued some more. Instead he just tossed his covers aside and got up to walk closer to Loki.

The view outside came from Rogers’ mind, so it was an unfamiliar sight. Loki knew though that it had to be from the time he and James were from. The look on Rogers’ face just proved that. He looked down at the almost deserted street with such fondness and nostalgia. Then he frowned.

‘I assume this is New York, before the two of you went to war,’ Loki mused. ‘I never visited the realm around this time.’

Rogers still just stared out of the window, taking in the sight.

‘I did visit at the end of that war,’ Loki continued, not certain why. ‘I wanted to see if it was true that humans built entire camps in order to kill one another in the most efficient ways.’

He was curious back then, and a little dubious. He knew humans slaughtered each other like barbarians all the time, but that sounded excessive even to Loki’s ears. Of course, once he arrived he knew that the rumours were more than accurate.

‘I’ve never seen a bigger pile of corpses in my entire life.’ And that was still true. He had known the stench of burnt flesh even before that, but what he saw back then was different. They didn’t just burn the corpses, they ground the teeth and bones, they boiled their fat. Loki still wasn’t sure why they did that, he might have to ask James about it some day.

‘Enjoyed it?’ Rogers asked in a sharp tone.

‘You don’t know me Rogers, don’t pretend you do.’

They were both silent for a few moments after that, but Loki didn’t mind lingering.

‘Why am I dreaming about you?’ Rogers asked, sounding genuinely perplexed.

‘Oh, you must be incredibly fond of me of course.’

The Captain gave Loki an impressive flat look. It was honestly amusing, it really was.

‘Are you in my head?’ he asked then. Smart. James wouldn’t give his unending loyalty and boundless devotion just to anyone, Loki learnt that by now. It made him curious, very curious.

‘In a manner of speaking,’ Loki answered, deciding to be honest. ‘I’m dream-walking.’

‘You can do that?’

‘If I want to.’

‘All right. I’m going to assume you are not just a figment of my imagination then. What do you want?’

Straight to the point, excellent.

‘It’s a warning of a kind,’ Loki said. ‘Not a threat, so no need for that frown.’

‘What warning?’

Well, James technically only wanted to warn his dear Captain about Amora and Skurge, but Loki was not about to pass up the opportunity to do something more. James was right, Rogers’ was going to be involved one way or another, so he might as well not work against them.

He held out a piece of paper wordlessly. Even dreams were not the safest places, even in dreams there could be someone listening, so Loki did not want to speak every detail out loud.

Rogers took the paper and started reading the list.

‘What is this?’

‘A list of all our currently known enemies,’ Loki said. ‘You probably don’t know any of them, but it would do you good to memorize their names.’


‘Because there is a chance that you will meet some of them. They will perhaps even offer help or an alliance to you. So you should know that if you befriend any of them, you will immediately land on the opposite side to where James is. Not that I think you would want anything to do with the likes of them.’

It was more a precaution than a serious concern. Rogers looked down at the piece of paper again, his eyes going over the names repeatedly. He was memorizing it already, good.

‘Why are you telling me this?’

‘Gift horses, Steven,’ Loki told him.

‘There are no simple gifts with you,’ the man shot back. ‘So why?’

‘Because James’ cannot switch sides, so if you decide to help anyone on that list, you will be enemies.’

It looked like Rogers was about to interrupt, so Loki continued.

‘And he will be more than useless if he has to fight you. In fact, he would probably just give up altogether... giving up tends to end bloody in this sort of business.’

Rogers’ jaw clenched and there was immediately tension in his shoulders. Good, it was best if he took this warning seriously.

‘Still doesn’t explain why you give a crap about that.’

‘I have my own reasons,’ Loki said easily. ‘But let’s just say things would get more difficult for me if James were to stupidly throw his life away for you.’

Rogers’ stared at the list again.

‘You know very well what would happen,’ Loki continued. ‘He wouldn’t fight you again, he would not allow his hand to be forced, he would sooner throw himself into certain death.’

‘You’re manipulating me,’ Rogers interrupted. Ah again, clever.

‘Of course I am,’ Loki smiled. ‘I am also counting on your considerable influence over the other Avengers.’

The Captain shook his head. He looked out the window again, down to the street, the reminder of the home he long lost.

‘They think I’m compromised,’ he said. ‘And the fact that I’m having this conversation with you actually proves that they’re right.’

‘And yet I have just given you more information than any of your ex-SHIELD spies were capable of gathering. Truly, it’s up to you whether you heed my warning. But maybe you are compromised. Call it that, if you insist.’

Loki knew that he did not know Rogers well enough to identify every emotion on his face, not even inside his dream like this, but he was still rather sure that he was on the right track.

‘James told me you are someone who will do what they believe is right, no matter what,’ Loki said. ‘And anyone who believes otherwise, or tries to stop you, is a fool.’

The Captain looked surprised for a second, but he quickly hid the expression.

‘He did?’

‘Yes, and I learnt to... believe the things he chooses to tell me.’

Rogers looked frustrated, torn, but at least he was giving it honest consideration. That was half a victory, he would remember, he would hesitate to get involved with anyone on the list.

‘I have no reason to believe any of this.’

‘I have not told you a single lie, you have my word on that,’ Loki said.

‘Right,’ Rogers sighed, sounding dubious.

‘It’s worth more than you’d think,’ Loki told him seriously. Maybe humans did not understand what it truly meant to give one’s word, but it was not something Loki did lightly.

‘Oh, and before I go,’ Loki continued. ‘You’re one of the guest of honours on this... party, is I think you humans call it.’

Rogers looked entertainingly confused immediately, staring at Loki with raised eyebrows, surprise written all over his face from the sudden change in topic.

‘Charity ball... but...’

‘I would accept the invitation, if I were you.’

With that Loki left, pulled back from this dreamscape. Rogers would wake up in his real bed soon, but he would remember, both the list and what Loki told him. And compromised or not, the rest of the Avengers were certain to follow their Captain to Loki’s side of the board, even if they did not realize it.

Chapter Text

Ever since the day Steve and Natasha knocked on Sam’s door, beaten and bloody, he’s been wary of unexpected visitors. Maybe wary was not the right word, he just always had a moment of foreboding, wondering whether he was about to be dragged into a life-and-death situation. Usually it was just a neighbour, girl scouts selling awesome cookies, or someone lost and needing directions. This time however... well, he wasn’t sure yet.

‘Uhh...’ he just stared, because the man standing outside his door looked almost normal. Almost. The suit was normal, sort of, but the big-ass golden medallion around his neck was less normal, at least for a forty-something slightly greying white guy.

‘Mr. Wilson?’ he asked, he sounded American at least.

‘That would be me,’ Sam nodded. He was sure his face made it clear that he was expecting some sort of an explanation. The guy noticed his confusion, because he chuckled.

‘My name is Stephen Strange. Sara mentioned you,’ he said and held out a hand. Sam shook it. Now it made sense... kinda.

‘Come on in,’ Sam gestured. The neighbours would probably notice the weird guy standing on his porch sooner or later. Strange walked inside.

‘I’m kinda confused why you’re here,’ Sam said after the door was shut. ‘The Avengers need to speak with you, and they’re in New York, you know.’

‘I was under the impression that you’re an Avenger as well,’ Strange said.

‘Well, I guess? I mean, it’s not official. I sort of just follow Cap around when he needs my help.’

‘I see,’ Strange said absent-mindedly, but he did not look like he wanted to turn around and go to New York instead.

‘Okay,’ Sam said carefully. ‘Want me to call someone? Steve Rogers is in Washington, he’s definitely an Avenger.’

‘I would wait, if you don’t mind,’ Strange said. ‘I actually have a few questions for you first.’

Sam was still very much confused. The guy looked out of place in his house, but Sam’s danger radar was not going off at all. He was not off-putting or intimidating, and hell, he used to be a surgeon, not a damn assassin.

‘All right,’ he agreed. ‘Want coffee or beer or somethin’? I mean, if you drink stuff like that.’

‘Coffee sounds great, thank you,’ Strange said.

‘Sure thing, come on then,’ Sam said, heading towards the kitchen. This was shaping up to be a surreal afternoon, but not the weirdest thing to ever happen to him. No, that was still Loki dying and then coming back to life on Steve’s couch two weeks ago. It was just really hard to top that.

Strange seemed to be really fascinated with everything in Sam’s kitchen as the coffee brew. It was a little weird, cause as far as Sam knew he was not an alien or anything. After a few moments of just watching him move his hands a few inches above most surfaces Sam just had to ask.

‘You looking for something?’

Strange looked up at him, a business-like smile on his face, charming, but fake.

‘I’m sorry, I should’ve asked first. Manners are not my strong suit,’ he said. ‘I was checking for residue energies, see if anyone unfriendly visited your home lately.’

Sam lifted his brows. ‘You mean like demons?’

‘Among other things,’ Strange said easily, continuing his circle in the kitchen.

‘Why do you think anyone was here?’

‘You’ve been quite involved in... recent events,’ Strange explained. ‘You’d be surprised how little is enough to draw unwanted attention.’

‘So what’s the diagnosis, Doctor?’ Sam asked as he switched off the coffee-maker. Strange’s next smile was both amused and little long-suffering. He probably heard this joke before, probably more than once.

‘Nothing sinister so far,’ he said. ‘And just milk, no sugar, thank you.’

Sam nodded and prepared both cups. Strange finally sat down when Sam walked to the kitchen table.

‘So, you said you’ve got questions for me.’

‘I do.’

‘I still don’t get why you’re not at Stark Tower for this,’ Sam admitted.

‘Sara mentioned you by name. And like you said, you tend to follow Captain Rogers around.’

‘Yeah, and?’

‘And that brings us to one James Barnes and one Loki of Asgard.’

‘Why not ask Steve?’ Sam frowned. ‘He can tell you more for sure.’

‘He’s also a lot more in the centre of attention, and I don’t just mean the media.’

‘Unwanted attention?’ Sam guessed as an uneasy feeling settled in his gut. ‘Is he in danger?’

‘More than you are,’ Strange said, which was not really an answer, and it did not make Sam any less worried. ‘I also tend to draw attention to myself. So if the two of us were close enough to speak personally, it wouldn’t go unnoticed. Let’s say you’re more under the radar.’

‘Okay,’ Sam nodded, thinking this over. ‘Look, I’m all for doing the right thing, but I don’t even know you. So I might be selective about what questions I answer. In fact, I know Steve and the Avengers have a whole lot of questions for you too, also about Barnes and Loki, and whatever the hell is going on.’

‘Yes, I expected as much from what Sara told me,’ Strange said. ‘But I’m afraid I don’t really know what Mr. Barnes and Loki are up to.’

‘Barnes gave us your name,’ Sam said. ‘And Loki took Sara to... your friends?’

Strange sighed and took a sip from his coffee.

‘I don’t suppose you’d believe me if I said that I have absolutely no idea what to make of that.’

Sam groaned. ‘Is there anybody who knows what the hell is going on?’

‘That would be Mr. Barnes and Loki,’ Strange said easily.

‘You kidding me? Barnes said you had answers.’

‘Some, I suppose, but it probably won’t be as much as you’ve expected.’

‘Great,’ Sam sighed and started drinking his coffee as well. Strange stayed silent. He looked so weird sitting in Sam’s kitchen, it wasn’t just the necklace-thing, he had a whole weird air around him.

‘Soo... that a fashion statement or...’ he asked, gesturing at the big-ass gold medallion.

‘Not particularly, but let’s not get into it,’ Strange dodged the question. ‘So, do you think you might be ready to decide whether you want to answer my questions?’

‘Will you answer our questions?’

‘I will tell you as much as I know. It’s the best for all of us,’ Strange nodded. How quickly he responded meant even more than the words themselves.

‘All right, shoot,’ Sam agreed.

‘Let’s start with the simplest one then,’ Strange said. ‘Where exactly does Captain Rogers stand when it comes to Mr. Barnes and Loki?’

Sam had the urge to sigh again.

‘That is literally one of the most difficult things you could’ve asked from me.’

Strange put down his now empty cup and reached up to rub his face tiredly.

‘I was afraid you would say that.’

‘Why? Why is this important? Steve’s not gonna abandon Barnes, but he’s definitely not friends with Loki, I can tell you that much.’

‘Because he’s involved now, more than any of you, but his loyalties are not set in stone.’

‘He’s Captain America, he’s gonna do what’s right, and he’s gonna try his damn best to protect his friend.’

‘You misunderstand, Mr. Wilson,’ Strange said. ‘I don’t question his morality or his dedication to protect people. I know he’s Captain America, I’m aware of all that he’s done, even if I don’t personally know him.’

‘So what do you mean then?’

‘I just mean it’s dangerous,’ Strange said.

Sam was starting to get very frustrated.

‘Holy shit, why is this whole fuckin’ business full with riddles and half-answers? Why can’t someone have some straight answers?’

‘Ask your friends who work in intelligence or espionage, they’ll tell you how the things you know can get you killed. That’s why I don’t have all the answers either. No one I asked was very keen to share.’

Sam wanted to knock his head on the table in frustration, at least a few times. How did his life turn into this? He liked to jog around the same time as Steve Rogers, that’s what got him involved in all this. That was all.

‘Okay, you know what? This is not working,’ Sam said. ‘First you gotta tell us what you know about this whole mess, then you can ask your questions. I just can’t help you further, you really need to ask Steve too.’

‘I told you it would be risky for me to meet him in person at the moment.’

‘Well, good thing I’ve got a webcam then,’ Sam said. ‘I can even call the Avengers, make it a fancy conference call.’

‘Oh, I should’ve thought of that,’ Strange said with a frown, and he actually looked annoyed with himself. ‘Not that I own a computer any more.’

‘Just sit tight, Doc. I’ll set this up,’ Sam told him. Seriously, his life. Unbelievable.

‘I gotta say, when I pictured meeting a guy who goes around calling himself “Sorcerer Supreme”, I imagined a more ethereal setting, some smoke, glitter, ominous lights,’ Stark said. ‘Wilson’s middle-class kitchen is kind of a disappointment.’

‘You know what a kitchen is?’ Sam asked, making it very clear how unimpressed he was.

‘I think you’re confusing me with David Bowie,’ Strange told him almost at the same time, equally unimpressed. Sam was starting to like him.

Natasha looked amused too. ‘This came a bit sudden,’ she said. ‘So we’re all you get.’

That meant Stark, Thor and Vision at the Tower, all sitting around that one round conference table Stark had. Natasha was in some other location. Stark called her the second Sam told him what was going on. Sam had no idea where the rest of them were, Barton didn’t even live at the Tower, right? Banner and the twins... no clue again. Steve was in his own apartment, his face also in a separate window. He offered to come over, but Strange was quick to decline. Nobody from the Avengers’ side asked yet why Strange was in Sam’s house and not Steve’s, but Sam was sure it was gonna come up sooner or later.

‘Doctor Strange, we were hoping you would make contact with us personally,’ Natasha said.

‘I don’t think we have the time it would take to explain why that would be a very stupid thing to do right now,’ Strange answered easily. ‘Besides, you are interested in what I can tell you and not in me personally, so this works just as well.’

‘Okay, the man wants to get to the point,’ Stark said. ‘Barnes name-dropped you, and he and crazy old Loki went to a lot of trouble to get your girl to safety.’

‘She’s a friend,’ Strange interrupted firmly. ‘But yes, she’s safe.’

‘So wanna tell us how you’re buddies with the deadly duo?’

‘I’ve never met them,’ Strange answers evenly.

‘Do you know why they intervened then?’ Steve asked before Stark could continue.

‘Well,’ Strange said as he smoothed his fingers down on his beard a few times. ‘There is a very real possibility that they want to ask some favour from me in the future.’

‘You do not seem very sure,’ Thor observed.

‘I’m not,’ Strange agreed. ‘It’s a debt in a way, but we hardly discussed the terms in advance.’

‘They would need to rely on your gratitude,’ Natasha said.

‘So what is the other option, if they do not hope for a favour?’ Vision asked.

‘They probably don’t want me pre-occupied with rescuing my kidnapped friends.’

‘Really?’ Stark asked, sounding dubious. ‘They wanna keep your dance card free? Why?’

‘Surely, you all realized by now that something big and dangerous is brewing,’ Strange said.

Yes, they were all profoundly aware of that, only they just had questions upon questions, and no damn answers.

‘Maybe they did not want me to be blackmailed by those who tried to take Sara,’ Strange added. ‘I’m truly not quite sure. But it was less a favour and more a... positioning of a game piece.’

‘You don’t seem very bothered,’ Natasha frowned, it made Strange shrug.

‘I’m a very self-aware game piece,’ Strange said simply. ‘And they did transport a friend of mine to safety, that makes me less antagonistic. Hmm, maybe that was the point.’

‘We were in the middle of doing the exact same thing,’ Natasha argued.

‘I don’t want to insult you,’ Strange said in a tone that made it clear that he didn’t actually care if anyone was insulted. ‘But none of you seem to have much experience with demons from other dimensions.’

‘Aye, we still do not know our foes,’ Thor agreed. ‘And whom Barnes and my brother are in league with.’

‘Yes, even if their actions do not seem hostile, we still do not know what they intend to achieve,’ Vision added.

‘Do you know what’s going on, Doctor Strange?’ asked Steve. ‘Who sent the demons? We heard a voice, but not even Thor understood what was being said.’

‘I don’t know yet,’ Strange answered, and he actually looked apologetic for a moment.

‘Oh, this is rich,’ Stark sighed. ‘Loki goes around doing you favours, Barnes says you have answers, but then you don’t.’ He looked over at Thor and Vision. ‘Do we have any reason to believe a word from this guy?’

‘You don’t,’ Strange answered swiftly. ‘But I don’t actually care if you believe me. I do not need to rely on you, and I do not require your help. I have accepted a duty and I will fulfil it, whether or not any of you are involved in this.’

He did not look like he was bluffing either, not one bit. Sam could absolutely picture him standing up and leaving without another word, never to be seen again. There were not that many people around who were not even a little bit impressed by the Avengers, but this guy, oh this guy was so very unimpressed.

‘Why are you talking to us then?’ asked Natasha.

‘Beneficial exchange of information?’ Strange offered. ‘I’ve been trying to figure out what this all means. You just happen to know two of the more prominent characters involved.’

‘You want to know about Loki and Bucky?’ Steve asked.

‘I know this might be shocking to hear, but I’m not actually a spy,’ Strange said. ‘I have my ways of gathering information, but not everything can be... illuminated with these methods.’ He absently touched the big medal around his neck after he said that.

‘Besides,’ Strange shrugged. ‘If I know more about them, I might be able to give you a more accurate guess as to what their role is.’

Man, he knew how to dangle the carrot in front of their faces. They were freakin’ desperate for information, Strange had to know that.

‘So what can you tell me about them?’

‘Barnes, AKA The Winter Soldier, is one of the deadliest assassins on Earth,’ Natasha said evenly. ‘That means he is an expert in everything that is involved with that profession. He’s an expert combatant, knows how to use almost any ranged or melee weapons. He’s also a super-human, enhanced with a serum similar to Steve’s.’

‘And the metal arm,’ Stark grumbled. ‘And Loki, y’know, not much to say, wanna be world-conqueror, strong like an Asgardian, has a penchant for drama and explosions, and sort of a colleague of yours, right? With all that... magic stuff.’

He made a weird little gesture with his fingers as he said “magic”, but Strange didn’t comment on it. He looked at the screen for a long moment, then shook his head.

‘No, that’s not relevant,’ he said then. ‘I don’t think you’re thinking about them in the right terms.’

‘Bucky was a Sergeant,’ Steve said before anyone else could ask what Strange meant. ‘Sure, he was our sharpshooter, but he did a lot more than that.’

‘Please, do continue, Captain Rogers,’ Strange prompted. ‘AP History has been a while, and you are the foremost expert when it comes to him.’

‘In a war, you really can’t get things done without a good sergeant,’ Steve said. ‘Sam probably knows what I mean.’ Sam huffed out a laugh.

‘Oh, boy, you can’t,’ he agreed. ‘Imagine all the greenie officers left on their own.’ Steve smiled at that.

‘Bucky was my sergeant,’ Steve said. ‘He helped me pick out the Commandos. And he got things done, that’s the best way to put it. I looked at the maps, decided where to go next, which was the best plan of attack. Big picture. But Buck, he arranged the transport, decided how much ammo and rations we needed for the trip, whether the guys needed extra winter gear, medical gear and... the hundred little things I never really thought about. I was, y’know, focused on Hydra and Schmidt.’

‘For all you civilians,’ Sam took over when Steve started to have that far-away look in his eyes. ‘A Captain like Steve keeps his eyes on the ball, head on the mission, while the NCO will make sure you don’t end up drinking your own piss cause you’re out of water, among other things. He’s the one soldiers know they can turn to with the stuff officers don’t have time to deal with.’

‘Yeah,’ Steve agreed with a faint smile. Then he seemed to snap out of his nostalgic thoughts. ‘And he was also our sniper, so he watched our backs from afar. Well, he’s been watching my back long before the war.’

Strange had a frown and a thoughtful look on his face.

‘Yes, I think we might be getting somewhere finally,’ he said. ‘So what about Loki then?’

‘What Tony Stark said about my brother was not untrue,’ Thor said.

‘Yes, but what Miss...’

‘Romanoff,’ Natasha supplied easily. Strange didn’t actually know her, or pretended not to know her, Sam wasn’t sure.

‘What Miss Romanoff said about Mr. Barnes was also not untrue. I just want to dig a little deeper. So what would you say are your brother’s strengths? Greatest skills? What comes first to mind? You must’ve fought side-by-side before, right?’

‘Aye, a great many times... all our lives, up until very recently.’

Strange made a “go on” gesture when Thor remained silent, he seemed almost hesitant. Yeah, people usually didn’t ask him to talk about his brother like this.

‘He was... good at all the things I didn’t always like to admit were necessary. He’s a master of all forms of deception. Illusions, tricks, lies... Loki Silvertongue, they call him even still. He got us both in and out of trouble many times.’

Ah damn, Thor’s far-away look was a thousand times worse than Steve’s. The pain on his face was raw. His shoulders were straight, but Sam could see the weight resting on them. Sam wanted to tell him everything he knew about what was going on with Loki, which was not a hell of a lot, but it was still more than what Thor knew. Steve said no, because Steve made a promise, and Sam promised Steve. He wasn’t going to go back on his word, but damn, he really wanted to.

‘He was our scout,’ Thor continued then. ‘If you want to call it that. He sneaked ahead to tell me what I was getting myself into. Most never realized that they had Loki nearby or right in their midst. His magic aided us many times as well, gave us an opening to attack, or a quick way to retreat. Once he veiled us in smoke in Nornheim...’ he huffed, it was a quiet and bitter sound. ‘I would have been cut down like a fool, both of us probably, if he had not hidden us from our enemies.’

‘Yeah, he’s the cloak and dagger kinda guy,’ Stark commented. ‘Wouldn’t call that shockingly new information.’

‘My brother is also very knowledgeable,’ Thor said. ‘He’s always been curious by nature, and he likes to know everything that is worth knowing. He was the one who told me about some of the hidden treasures and legendary weapons we ventured after in our youths.’

‘That is an unsurprising quality for a practitioner of the arcane arts,’ Strange nodded.

‘Okay, so how the hell does this help us?’ Stark asked. ‘Not that I don’t enjoy story time, but we’re no closer to answers.’

‘I think we are,’ Strange said. ‘I think it tells us exactly what roles they might be playing. Think about it,’ he leaned a little closer to Sam’s laptop. He looked a lot more excited all of a sudden. ‘But not the assassin and the conqueror... think of them along the lines of these skills, and the things you know they’re capable of. They’ve been put side-by-side for a reason, I think that tells us a lot.’

Even Stark seemed thoughtful now, joking gone for the moment.

‘Offensive counterespionage?’ Natasha said, but she made it sound like a question, so she waited for input, or for Strange to make his point.

‘No, they’ve been doing a lot more than that,’ Stark said suddenly. ‘I mean, this is not just about intel...’

‘No, but... oh, the demons were not around to stop them, they were around to stop the demons,’ she said.

‘That is how I see it,’ Strange agreed.

‘They got their hands on a lot of things when they raided those Hydra bases,’ Steve said. ‘That book, Bucky wasn’t going to leave it. He said he won’t let them have it.’

‘And yet,’ Strange exclaimed, voice going loud for a moment. ‘I have not found trace of a single event where they used what they’ve acquired.’

‘That can’t be right,’ Stark argued. ‘Hydra loved gathering anything that looked like it would be able to give them more power. They must be using the stuff they took from them.’

‘Loki had that spear,’ Natasha said.

‘And the gloves,’ Sam added.

‘Did those seem like the sort of objects you would qualify as weapons of mass destruction?’ Strange asked.

‘Most certainly not,’ Thor told him. ‘The spear looked remarkable indeed, but I felt no real power in the air emanating from it.’

‘All this time we have viewed their actions as an offensive,’ Vision said. ‘As attacks or preparations for an attack.’

‘But no attack came, not even after all this time,’ Strange said. ‘They are moving pieces on the board, gathering occult objects and artefacts before someone else can take it. They rescued Sara, just so I can focus my attention on the matter at hand. And they got all of you involved. These are preparations, but they’re not directly offensive in nature.’

‘They’re defensive,’ Natasha said. ‘Sabotage, gathering resources... but why?’

‘Steve, your friend said he made a deal,’ Thor said. ‘So he’s been instructed to do all this, by the one he made the deal with maybe.’

‘I’m still not convinced it’s not Loki he made that deal with,’ Stark argued.

‘I don’t know about you,’ Sam told him. ‘But Loki does not strike me as the type who would go to all this trouble, building up a solid defence against some threat, out of the goodness of his heart.’

‘No, it has to be someone else,’ Thor agreed. ‘My brother is a great strategist, but this does not feel like him. This is not how he would deal with a threat.’

‘And Barnes is being a sergeant,’ Natasha said, smiling a bit.

‘That makes Loki what... intelligence, recon?’ Sam guessed. ‘Special ops?’

‘And evac, he’s very good at that lately,’ Natasha said. ‘And I’d call both special ops.’

‘But who’s the CO?’ Steve asked with a grim looking frown. ‘Who’s calling the shots? Whoever Bucky made that deal with?’

‘Not necessarily,’ Vision spoke up. ‘That might’ve been only the one recruiting.’

‘Which is why I wanted to ask whether you have any idea who the girl is,’ Strange asked them.

‘The girl Sara mentioned?’ Sam frowned.

‘She said she looked like a teen,’ Steve added. He sounded just as disbelieving as Sam.

‘We know nothing of her,’ Thor confirmed.

‘Looks can be deceiving,’ Strange said pointedly. ‘And she... I found no trace of her presence on Sara. As if she didn’t exist. Loki and Barnes, yes, I could even trace back to Mr. Wilson, but not her... she’s an anomaly, and the biggest question mark.’

They were all silent for a few moments. Well damn, to be honest Sam thought of the girl as an odd addition, not someone who could seriously be involved... let alone be in charge? Was that possible? They knew nothing about her, literally nothing. If it wasn’t for Sara they wouldn’t even know she existed.

‘So how do we know if this threat is really a threat?’ Stark asked.

‘You can’t be serious,’ Steve said in return. Whoa, was this the first time they actually spoke to each other directly since Steve left the Tower last time? Sam really thought they were going to keep pretending the other didn’t exist during this call.

‘You think just cause your favourite cyborg is on one side, that makes it automatically the good side? Loki’s there too.’

‘I think anyone who sends clawed bloodthirsty demons after innocent women has to be bad,’ Steve said firmly.

‘I’m with Steve on this one,’ Natasha added.

‘Aye, I agree as well,’ Thor nodded. ‘Even if we cannot trust my brother, those demons are vile creatures, their master or mistress cannot be harmless.’

‘Yes, they are a definite threat, while Loki is only a potential one,’ Vision agreed as well.

‘If I get a vote too, I’m voting with Steve,’ Sam piped up. He mainly did it to see Stark roll his eyes, which he did.

‘Fine, I don’t necessarily disagree,’ Stark allowed.

‘And I believe with that we reached the end of what little we all had to share,’ Strange said.

‘Sure you have nothing more for us?’ Steve asked.

‘I’m afraid not, but I will continue my search for answers,’ he said.

‘And how can we contact you if we have something vital to share?’ Natasha asked. ‘You might not know us well, and frankly, we don’t know enough about you, but for now you are innocent until you’re proven guilty.’

‘Oh, you flatter me,’ Strange replied dryly. ‘Worry not, if something happens that is significant enough, I will know about it.’

‘That cryptic shit gotta stop,’ Stark grumbled. ‘This is not the middle ages.’

‘Mr. Stark, you have not heard me being cryptic just yet,’ Strange told him. ‘You should all be on your guard, and be prepared for unexpected dangers. I’m afraid the real battle is drawing ever nearer.’

Sam thought back on how Loki and Barnes looked like when they showed up on Steve’s doorstep, and realized the battle probably already arrived. It was only by chance that he actually knew about it. He really shouldn’t have promised Steve he would stay quiet about it.

‘We will be vigilant, Doctor,’ Thor answered sombrely, like he was making an oath, and Vision nodded next to him just as gravely. Wow, Sam was actually impressed with Strange being able to get this reaction, he really knew how to get people to take him seriously.

‘I’ll stay in Washington for now,’ Steve added. ‘But I’ll see you in a week on the... charity thing.’

Natasha frowned and even Stark looked back up at the camera in surprise.

‘You’re coming?’ she asked.

‘Yeah,’ Steve said. ‘It’s... y’know, good cause and all.’

‘That’s not what you said the last time,’ said Natasha. ‘I remember you complaining about politicians trying to grab your hand for photos and other things like that.’

‘I changed my mind,’ Steve said firmly, he sounded like he didn’t want to argue about this. ‘I gotta get out of my apartment sometimes for more than just missions.’

Sam laughed. ‘Amen that.’

‘Fine,’ Natasha smiled. ‘Wear your dark blue shirt.’ Then she signed off.

‘Yeah, see you in a week then I guess,’ Stark said, slightly uncertain. These two really needed to sort out their freakin’ issues.

‘Yeah, see you,’ Steve agreed with a nod. ‘I’ll talk to you later, Sam.’

‘Sure, I’ll call you later,’ Sam agreed, then finally closed his laptop.

‘This was enlightening,’ Strange mused.

‘This was the last time I played secretary,’ Sam told him very firmly.

‘I’m afraid until Sara’s stuck in Kamar-Taj you will have to remain my main contact to the Avengers.’

‘Really? Me?’

Strange stood up and smiled. It was sort of a business smile again, but Sam could actually see a hint of real humour in it, something honest.

‘Maybe you could invest in a slightly better quality coffee next time,’ he said.

‘I will hit you, man, sorcerer or no sorcerer.’

Strange’s smile widened for a moment then he turned and left, just like that. The front door opened and closed quietly a moment later, and Sam was left standing in his kitchen with two dirty coffee cups, and a slightly overheated laptop. He needed to buy a new one.

Chapter Text

It took Steve very little time to remember why he hated public events like this. It never bothered him when kids wanted to take a picture with him, or asked him to sign their toy or drawing. He actually loved the drawings. He was always happy to shake the hand of a soldier or a vet, or when people wanted to thank him for his service in the war or as an Avenger. He didn’t mind people, or being around people. Public events like this were a whole different thing.

He wore his dark blue shirt, just as Natasha requested, with a slightly darker tie. And he was also fine wearing a suit. He wore nothing but suits back before the war, people sometimes forgot that. So it wasn’t the crowd, or the suit, not even people sneaking photos of him with their phones, none of that actually bothered him.

‘Ah, Captain Rogers!’

This was what bothered him. Steve put on a reserved, but polite smile as some guy walked up to him.

‘I’m so glad you could make it,’ he man continued, he already grabbed hold of Steve’s hand and was shaking it vigorously. Maybe someone took a photo of them, maybe the guy actually just wanted Steve to get to know him. But he was definitely a politician. Steve got really good at spotting them.

‘Yes, no global danger to keep me away,’ Steve answered, and sighed internally. If only.

Well, that wasn’t strictly true. It’s not like he actually came here to help the Avengers’ public image. Not that he disagreed with the cause. Stark was very selective about what he attached his name to nowadays, especially when he was using the Avengers’ name too. The dinner cost a fortune for the guests, and there would be a charity auction later on. Tony donated a bunch of statues and paintings from his private collection, maybe even a vintage car he restored himself, Steve wasn’t sure. So altogether a lot of good organisations were going to get money out of this, but Steve still didn’t like the politics involved.

The guy was still talking, but Steve had no idea what he was talking about. He probably wouldn’t be able to recall a word, or even the general topic. Not that the man noticed. Steve used to feel bad about ignoring people on these events, but he learnt by now that it was either this or he ended up arguing with someone ten minutes after arrival.

He was also a bit worried about how the evening was going to progress. If this ball was on Loki’s radar, something was bound to happen. It put Steve on edge. He kept expecting everything to go to shit in a moment’s notice.

Then he spotted her. Long green and black dress (and really?), long curly black hair. He only saw the side of her face, but it was enough to recognize her.

‘Excuse me,’ Steve interrupted the man and immediately stepped away from him, not waiting for an answer. He didn’t want to act too suspiciously, not with so many people around, but he calmly made his way over to Loki. She was standing by the bar sipping a drink, while some man was enthusiastically talking about something to her. She didn’t even pretend to be interested, nor did she hide her annoyance.

She turned to look at Steve when he got closer, which meant that she probably spotted him long before he noticed her. As Steve approached he was trying to come up with a game plan. He had a lot of questions, mostly about why the hell Loki was here, or why she told Steve to be here. He was also real close to just alerting Natasha and getting the whole place evacuated right away. But he didn’t want to risk panic until he knew what was going on. So first... undercover, or something, he needed to tread carefully.

‘Hello,’ he greeted quietly, mostly for the guy’s sake. He looked up, slightly annoyed at being interrupted, but he didn’t say a word after he recognized Steve. ‘Excuse us,’ he told the man without explanation.

Loki lifted an eyebrow and seemed to consider him for a second, then she emptied her glass and left it on the bar. Then she walked away without a word. Steve followed her out to one of the corridors not far from the bar area.

As soon as they were away from prying eyes Loki seemed to drop whatever act she was playing. Her entire demeanour changed. It was nothing overly different, just the way she held her shoulders, how she walked. That air of danger and imminent threat was back right away, it put Steve even more on edge.

‘Ugh, the next mortal man to address my breasts with crude innuendoes is going to die a spectacularly gruesome death,’ Loki hissed, not even looking back at Steve.

‘You actually need a reason dishing those out?’ Steve asked in return. Loki finally turned around.

‘I always have good reasons,’ she said.

Steve could still hear the chatter of people from the ballroom, so he walked closer to Loki and lowered his voice.

‘So what the hell is going on here?’ he asked.

‘A ball?’ she asked, leaning against the wall, crossing her arms over her chest... or trying to. She tried to fold her arms over, then under her breasts, then she made an annoyed sound and let her arms drop back down. For a second Steve was reminded of the days following his transformation. He kept forgetting his height, the width of his chest, and the strength in his arms. He felt so surreal for a moment that he forgot what he wanted to say, but he quickly gathered his thoughts again.

‘Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t alert every Avenger and evacuate this place immediately,’ Steve said.

‘You won’t,’ Loki said firmly. ‘Not unless you want to get James killed.’

‘What? Where is he?’

‘Around,’ Loki answered vaguely.

‘Why? And don’t give me any cryptic half-answer. You wanted me here, so start talking.’

‘You have a lot of gall, Rogers,’ she scoffed. ‘Don’t let the body deceive you. I could still rip your arms off, if I wanted to.’

Steve didn’t react to that, just kept looking at her steadily.

‘I did not want you here,’ Loki said then. ‘James did. But fine, you might as well keep your eyes open. We’re looking for someone.’

‘The man that killed you?’

Loki’s face darkened for a moment, then she put on a very fake smile.

‘You know, I was quite surprised that you actually kept my little secret,’ she said. ‘I walked right past Agent Romanoff, and she didn’t even blink. Such a pleasant surprise from you.’

‘Just answer the question,’ Steve said. He was not going to let her change the topic this easily.

‘No,’ she gritted out. ‘Not exactly. What did James tell you about him?’

‘He didn’t say much, that he had an axe and that he was huge.’

‘And he doesn’t work alone,’ Loki added. ‘In fact, he’s just the muscle, not the one giving the orders. We’re looking for an Asgardian, her name is Amora.’

‘She’s on the list,’ Steve said, he remembered seeing her name. ‘Why would she be here?’

‘She has a very particular talent,’ Loki said. ‘James found a few things that made him believe that she’s looking to expand the number of her loyal followers.’

Steve had to think about this for a moment. Why would an Asgardian try to “recruit” here of all places?

‘Is she here alone?’

‘Skruge would be hard to miss, but I do not know if she has other allies,’ Loki said. Steve assumed Skruge was the man with the axe. ‘Or if she has anyone in her thrall yet.’

‘Is there a particular target?’ he asked.

‘I know not,’ Loki said. ‘But she only goes after men.’

‘You said “thrall”. Is this some mind-control thing?’

‘Close enough,’ Loki shrugged. She was not telling him everything, but really, what did Steve expect? He couldn’t trust everything that came out of her mouth. Still, he focused his attention on the other problem at hand.

‘Who am I looking for then?’

‘She can change her appearance,’ Loki sighed. ‘She will be a very attractive woman, but that’s about it.’

‘Are you kidding me? There are at least three hundred people on this thing, we can’t just let her walk around like that.’

‘I’ve been looking,’ Loki said, spitting the words angrily. ‘What do you think I’m doing here? You think I enjoy being ogled like a piece of meat by disgusting mortal men?’

‘Where’s Bucky?’

Loki turned her head and glanced up at a small camera that was sitting in an upper corner. ‘He can’t actually blend in after all.’

Steve thought about all the blue blood that soaked into his couch, the long gash on Bucky’s side and how many stitches it took to close the wound. This was bad, this was very bad.

‘We gotta get everyone out of here, it’s too dangerous.’

‘And let her slip away? No, we need to know what she’s up to, or we cannot stop her.’

‘You can’t risk hundreds of people for...’ he cut himself off before he finished, remembering who he was talking to. ‘If there are people in the way, it will be harder to capture her.’

‘If these useless cattle realize they are in danger, they will panic, and then she’ll be gone before we catch even a glimpse of her.’

‘Do you have any idea how important some of the people out there are?’ Steve asked.

‘No human is that important,’ she said simply. Steve was getting so angry, so damn angry.

‘How can you protect people from her?’

Her eyes slid to the side for a moment, like she caught the sound or sight of something, then she grabbed hold of the lapels of Steve’s suit and turned them around before he could react. She didn’t slam him into the wall that hard, but she was not exactly gentle either. She also stepped a little closer.

‘Avoid eye-contact,’ she said in a quiet whisper. Steve frowned in confusion. ‘If any attractive woman approaches you, do not look into her eyes.’

Someone cleared their throat, which made Steve look away from her. Clint was standing in the doorway leading back to the main hall. He couldn’t see Loki’s face with how they stood, oh, so that’s why she turned them around.

‘It was such an honour to finally meet you,’ Loki said loudly in a very different tone. She sounded a little starstruck, maybe even flustered. Then she smirked at him deviously. Steve had to try very hard not to let his annoyance show on his face. He hoped Clint would just assume that he was uncomfortable.

‘Enjoy your evening, Ma’am,’ he said. She immediately narrowed her eyes at him, looking a lot less pleased with herself.

Loki stepped away and gracefully strolled back into the ballroom without another word. Clint rubbed the back of his neck as she walked past him, then turned a little to follow her with his gaze. Steve wanted to cringe. He hated lying, he hated it, it had to stop.

‘Fan of yours?’ asked Clint then, smiling like a little shit.

Steve just shook his head and took a large breath.

‘Seriously Cap, if you keep acting like that around pretty women Stark won’t even stop with his ninety-year-old virgin jokes.’

‘I still don’t get why he would think that.’

‘Cause it’s funny, that’s why,’ Clint shrugged. ‘Natasha was looking for you,’ he said then. ‘Bartender tipped me off that he saw you leave this way.’

Steve made a decision. He didn’t really think it through, but to hell with that. Bucky was nowhere to be seen, and he wasn’t about to trust Loki.

‘You have a gun on you?’ Steve asked, which made the smile disappear from Clint’s face right away.


‘Just, do you have a gun on you?’

Clint’s frown was getting suspicious and a little worried. ‘Why would I bring a gun to a charity ball?’ he asked, crossing his arms over his chest.


‘Yeah, of course I have a gun,’ he admitted. He probably added “Duh” in his head.

‘Okay, that’s good,’ Steve nodded. Guns didn’t do much damage to Asgardians, but it was good for drawing their attention. And Loki didn’t know whether this Amora person had any other help. It was best to be prepared for everything.

‘Cap, why do I need a gun?’

‘Do you have a second gun I could borrow?’

‘No, I don’t, what the hell? Why do you need a gun?’

‘Does Natasha have a second gun I could borrow?’ Steve barrelled on.

‘Slow the fuck down for a second. Why? Answer me, why do you need a gun?’

Steve sighed. ‘Precaution?’


‘Look, something is not right. I need you to keep your eyes open for anything suspicious.’


‘Anyone acting weird, especially women.’

‘You need me to look out for suspicious women,’ Clint repeated.

‘Yeah, and don’t look them in the eye.’

‘You sound like a crazy person.’

‘Clint, I really need you to help me, okay?’

Clint stared at his face for a long moment. ‘Fine, I’ll look at their lips, nobody’s gonna think that’s weird. I do it all the time anyway.’


‘We’re looking for someone specific?’

‘Yeah, but I don’t have a description. She’s probably young and attractive.’

‘Cap, if there’s something seriously wrong, we need to get everyone out of here.’

‘I think things could turn a lot worse if she realizes we know something is up.’

Clint just stared at him again.

‘This is Barnes, isn’t it?’ he asked. ‘He warned you about something.’

That was... close enough. Steve didn’t answer, not in so many words, but Clint was really good at reading his face. That’s why Steve decided to tell him this outright, even if not everything. He would’ve realized soon enough that something was up, that Steve was too tense and too alert for a boring charity event. It was better this way. God knew he didn’t want to risk Clint getting his mind hijacked by some crazy Asgardian, not again.

‘Natasha has an extra gun,’ Clint said then. ‘And security has to have some emergency evac plan.’

‘Maybe we could ring the fire alarm,’ Steve said. ‘As soon as it looks like there’s actual danger. Then security will do their job automatically.’

‘I can do that,’ Clint agreed. ‘What counts as actual danger?’

‘I trust your judgement on that.’

Clint nodded and Steve clapped him on the shoulder. ‘Thanks.’

That was the best he could do right now. He didn’t think there was time to explain what it meant to him that Clint was ready to do what Steve asked without distrust, despite everything that happened lately.

‘Warn Stark too, if you can find him,’ Clint said as Steve turned to leave. Steve haven’t seen Tony since he arrived, so that could turn out to be tricky, but Steve nodded anyway before he entered the ballroom again.

It was a lot different, walking across the room like this. He kept his head strictly forward, sometimes on the floor when a woman or two was too close to his line of sight. He felt like an awkward ninety-pound boy again.

Last he saw Natasha, she was sitting at their table, idly sipping a drink, and he was relieved to find her still there. She must’ve immediately noticed from his face that something was wrong, because she frowned and her whole body went tense. Ready for action.

‘What’s going on?’ she asked.

Steve leaned down to her, putting a hand on the back of her chair, shielding their faces from most of the room.

‘I’m gonna need your second gun,’ Steve said. Natasha frowned, but reached under her dress and got a gun out. Steve had no idea how the holster was this well hidden, but he didn’t want to ask. She discreetly handed over her small Glock 29. It felt really tiny in Steve’s hand.

‘The other one is smaller,’ she told him. Steve put the gun in his pocket to get it out of sight. ‘Now out with it.’

‘We’re looking for a woman, not human. She’s dangerous,’ Steve told her quietly.

‘Who is she?’

‘Uhm, Asgardian, no description. Clint will pull the fire alarm if things turn bad, but if she realizes we know she’s here...’

‘We can’t take down an Asgardian,’ Natasha interrupted him firmly. ‘Thor’s not here.’

‘We just gotta find her,’ Steve said. Natasha’s eyes narrowed.

‘You’ve been in contact with Barnes,’ she said. It was not that astonishing how quickly both Clint and Natasha guessed that.

‘Kinda,’ Steve admitted.

‘Steve.’ Wow, she could really put a whole lot of disappointment in that one word.

‘I know, okay? Later.’

‘So what am I looking for?’ she asked after a moment of pause.

‘Someone attractive and suspicious, that’s literally all I know. And... she might be able to... take control of others, but she only goes after men.’

Her face said it all, so Steve quickly continued. ‘Clint should be okay, I warned him.’

Natasha was silent for a moment, still frowning a little. ‘I’ll keep an eye out,’ she agreed then. ‘But you are so not getting a Christmas present this year.’

Steve huffed out a small laugh and smiled at her.

‘I deserve that,’ he admitted. ‘Do you know where Tony is?’

‘No,’ she said. ‘He’s been... enthusiastic about parties since Pepper left, so...’ realization dawned on her face. ‘We better find him, right now.’

Steve realized what she meant, and he really hoped to God tonight was not when Tony decided that having some illicit private meeting with some beautiful stranger was a good idea.

‘On it,’ Steve nodded. He tried to stay casual as he walked, and he hoped he succeeded. The last thing he needed right now was to draw attention to himself. He was lousy at covert ops, Natasha told him that enough times already. He saw that she stood up as well, and she definitely looked a lot less suspicious as she searched. Well, at least if people were busy staring weirdly at Steve, she would have an ever easier time to do her own thing. That had to count for something.

The ballroom was pretty big, but not that enormous, but he still couldn’t find Tony anywhere. This was starting to worry him a little. Since if Tony was not stuck in a conversation, or giving an interview, or standing by the bar drinking, well... that made this a lot more difficult. Steve really hoped he was just outside on some balcony, hiding from his business partners.

A few people tried to stop him while he searched, but he always excused himself quickly. None of them insisted after they saw the expression on his face. He was sure that he was acting too strange now, that people were bound to notice something, but damn it. Tony should’ve been the first he looked for. Natasha would have been fine anyway, she knew how to get out of the line of fire. Tony was not completely helpless without his suit, far from it, but he was still an easier target. Steve should’ve warned everyone about this as soon as Loki dropped the hint. He wasn’t sure there would be danger, but he should’ve assumed. Dammit, where the hell was Tony?

Someone grabbed his arm tightly, stopping him in his tracks. Now that they were digging into his arm, he noticed that Loki had long black nails.

‘You warned your friends,’ she said quietly.

‘Of course I warned my friends, I should be warning everyone. Have you found her?’

‘No,’ Loki said, looking around the room quickly. ‘But most of the men stopped ogling me.’

Steve was thrown for a second.

‘Uh, congrats?’

‘No, you imbecile. It’s her, they’re already under her spell.’


‘I thought I would feel it if she cast any spells, but she is hiding somehow. She’s weaving her magic, but I am still blind to her presence.’

‘That was your plan? Hope you’ll notice when she starts mind-controlling people?’

‘It’s not mind-control,’ Loki argued.

‘That doesn’t matter, what are we--’

Loki looked to the side, her eyes fixed on something. Steve realized that most of the chatter around them stopped. People fell quiet. He looked around and found himself being stared at by several men. Their eyes were fixed on the two of them, while women of all ages were looking at the guys around them in confusion, calling their names, asking them what was wrong. The more Steve looked, the more hostile they seemed. Loki looked angry, her fingers were digging into Steve’s arm painfully now.

‘Don’t you dare harm anyone,’ Steve warned.

Loki scoffed. ‘Keep them out of my way, and they shall live,’ she said easily, letting go of him. Her eyes were still scanning the room, and more and more people started to notice that something was not right.

Then Steve was jumped. At least three or four bodies slammed into him, and even if they had normal strength, he still felt it. He dug in his heels and pushed back, getting them off. He didn’t know any of the men who were down on the floor now, and none of the others who were eyeing him aggressively. He thought he recognized one of them, maybe he talked to him earlier tonight, but it didn’t matter. This was not their fault.

He heard a woman scream when a few guys charged at him again, and Steve tried his best to be gentle. They couldn’t do him much damage, and he could knock them down easily enough. He still winced after he punched a guy, because he went down like a sack of potatoes. He felt bad, he really did.

He was surprised that Clint didn’t ring the fire alarm yet. Maybe he and Natasha had the same problem as him right now, but he trusted them to treat the guys with kid-gloves, not causing them any permanent damage. Oh, this was a mess.

He kicked out a guy’s legs from under him, then threw another one off his back. He was fairly certain that he didn’t cause more than a few bruises and strains so far. He didn’t feel anyone’s bones crack, so he was probably gentle enough. He never had to hold back like this before, it meant that he got hit and scratched a lot more than he was used to nowadays, but it was a small price to pay.

A lot of people, mostly women and older guys who were not under this spell, already started running away. Steve had no idea where Loki disappeared to, so he could only hope that no innocents got in her way. Steve grabbed another man and tossed him aside, he landed on the floor with a heavy thud, but he was otherwise unharmed. The problem with being gentle was that everyone kept getting back up on their feet. Steve was going to have to start knocking them out for real. A concussion was not that bad, they would be fine.

He didn’t dodge when he caught the sound of a repulsor, because he was used to hearing it. He was not used to the burning pain in his arm, and being slammed across the room into some tables from the force of it. It hurt real bad, and he could smell the scent of burnt cotton and skin. The sleeve of his suit was smoking a little too. Shit, oh shit! He stayed behind the overturned remains of the tables, out of sight. He was injured, but at least he could still move his arm, it just hurt like all hell.

This time he rolled away when he heard the repulsor blast, then he quickly got up. Tony was still wearing his suit, he literally just had one glove on. Steve recognized it. It was a small compact gauntlet Tony kept on himself for self-defence. He didn’t look different, that was the thing. There was no unnatural blue colour in his eyes, no dark circles, not even a paleness to his skin. He looked exactly like he always did.

‘Let’s not make this difficult, Capsicle,’ he said, almost casually.

‘I’m sorry I didn’t warn you,’ Steve said, body tense and ready to get out of the way. Tony didn’t have his suit on him, so if Steve managed to get close to him without getting a repulsor blast in the face, he could knock him out before he did something he would never forgive himself for.

But they were interrupted by shattering glass. They both looked up and watched as a dark shape of a man smashed through the skylight and landed on the long buffet table underneath it. Some big ice sculpture toppled over and shattered on the marble floor along with a tall pyramid of champagne glasses. The noise echoed in the hall loudly, it was almost deafening for a second.

Steve caught sight of the metal arm first, then Bucky started shooting. He had an assault rifle on him and it sounded like he was emptying the whole damn magazine at once. He was shooting at the ceiling, because while plaster and glass started raining down on them from above immediately. Someone was on the roof, there had to be.

Tony seemed to decide that Steve was not the best target any more, because the next time he lifted his arm he aimed at Bucky who was still lying on his back on top of the broken buffet table.

‘Buck, watch out!’ Steve shouted just a second before Stark fired.

Bucky immediately jumped aside and got up on his feet. Then he lifted his rifle and Steve’s blood ran cold. He was shouting no, but he was too far away, and he couldn’t get there in time... the ceiling cracked and more glass fell down on them before Bucky could pull the trigger.

Steve had no time to feel relief. The huge man landed on his feet, the marble floor cracked underneath him from the impact, or his weight. He was bald, large and wide, easily bigger than Thor, and he held a large axe in one of his thick hands.

‘Stop running you little insect,’ he grumbled as he straightened up, tightening his grip on the giant weapon.

Then the fire alarm went off... well, better late than never.

Chapter Text

Bucky had about four seconds to think about how he was going to survive this, with his guns being pretty damn useless. Then Skurge attacked and there was really no place to think. He had to act, so he let his body do the work. He was aware of Steve nearby, but was a lot more aware of Stark, who seemed to be a potential threat. There were still civilians on the floor, but only a few. He paid them no mind. There was no sign of Loki or Amora, so Skurge was his biggest problem.

He didn’t drop his rifle, in case it ended up in someone’s hand who had no qualms about shooting him. He ran thought, because it would take Skurge one hit and one hit only, and Bucky would be done for. Skurge charged through the remains of the table Bucky landed on, tossing it aside like it was some wobbly old chair instead of a big-ass rustic table. What Bucky hated most about this guy was not that he was strong, he could deal with strong, it’s that he was fast, and skilled, and way too hard to harm.

He heard the man’s heavy steps behind him, way too close for his liking. He glanced back and immediately threw himself to the side to avoid the edge of the axe. The second swing came right after the first, but he managed to avoid it by rolling twice instead of once. The axe crushed a few marble tiles where it landed.

Bucky quickly got to his feet and turned back towards Skurge, dodging the axe once more and backing off with every step. He couldn’t hit him back, not like this, not alone.

How long do you think you can run?’ Skurge taunted him. ‘My axe made you bleed before, and it cannot wait for another taste.’

Bucky stayed silent, and not just because he was wearing his mask and nobody would be able to understand him anyway. Instead he raised his rifle and shot at the guy’s head. He knew it wouldn’t do much, but at least Skurge was not attacking while he was getting 5.56 mm bullets in the face. Plus, it seemed to piss him off a lot, so it had to at least bruise him a little.

As soon as the magazine was empty he tossed the rifle aside. Skurge was already running at him again. Bucky jumped when the axe went for his legs, then rolled to the side to get out of the way. He was fast enough to dodge, but he couldn’t do this indefinitely. He crouched down to avoid getting his head chopped off, but Skurge swung his weapon right back as Bucky straightened up. He got him with the butt of his axe and sent him flying. Bucky twisted around in the air and landed on his feet in a crouch without a problem. The hit landed on his metal arm, so it didn’t hurt.

Skurge made an angry sound and ran at him again. But then something hit him from behind and he flew across the room until he hit the far wall behind Bucky with a force that left giant cracks all around him. Fucking finally.

Loki was still wearing that dress she spent hours complaining about, but hey, maybe that meant she was angry enough to kick this bastard’s ass right into Hell. Seeing that all civilians – AKA witnesses – were gone from this floor, Bucky took his mask off and tossed it aside.

Were you powdering your nose?’ he asked as he stood up and backed away from where Skurge was getting back on his feet.

Don’t test me, James,’ Loki said angrily. ‘I’ve been wearing this ridiculous dress and these heels for hours. I am not in a gaming mood!’

Skurge picked up his axe again and looked at them both. He didn’t recognize Loki, that much was clear. He knew she was strong, since he just got kicked across the room, but he was obviously assessing her threat level. Another thing Bucky hated about him, he was no mindless brute.

You keep complaining,’ Bucky said lightly, quickly glancing around the room. Stark was nowhere, neither was Steve. ‘But somehow you still know how to run in those things.’

Right on cue Loki kicked off her shoes and materialized her spear.

Another word,’ she warned, her eyes locked on Skurge. ‘And I won’t be held responsible for my actions.’

Are you ever?’

She didn’t seem to bother summoning her armour, but hell, they knew it did nothing to protect her from Skurge’s axe, so there was really no point.

Find Amora,’ Loki said, slowly walking forward.

You wanna take him on alone?’

I said find Amora,’ Loki repeated.

And normally Bucky did not like being ordered around, but he kept his mouth shut and left dammit, because what else was he supposed to do? Skurge paid him no mind, his focus was solely on Loki now. Just before Bucky left the ballroom he saw Skurge attack, axe up in the air.

He really hoped Loki knew what the hell she was doing.

Bucky ran, but he was still cautious, because he knew Amora’s been messing with people. Stark shot at him. Loki said she warned Steve, but hell, if that bitch got to him too, he was burying his new Asgardian knife in her, no questions asked.

The fire alarm was fucking annoying, he couldn’t hear a damn thing. There had been a few hundred people in the building when the alarm went off, and there was no way they were all gone this soon. He just had to find them.

He was jumped by two guys at a corner, but he noticed them before they actually threw themselves at him. They looked like security, so he didn’t know whether they were under Amora’s thrall, or they just thought he was a threat. To be fair, he actually was a threat. Not that their motivation mattered either way. He punched one in the face hard enough to make sure he hit a wall, so he would stay put. Then he dodged a punch from the other man and wrapped his flesh hand around his throat. He was good, he didn’t crush his throat or break anything else, he just waited until he passed out, and then let him go.

He found some other guys, passed out or dead, as he made his way forward, but no sign of Steve or Stark, or any of the other guests. Then he heard a really loud crash from the direction of the ballroom. They must’ve hit something huge to make this much noise, maybe they knocked down an entire wall.

Despite the blaring fire alarm, he still caught the sound of another person nearby. He pulled a gun, because if someone was smart enough to try and sneak up on him, then they couldn’t be just some average guy besotted with Amora. He waited around a corner for a heartbeat, trying to catch the sound of the other person again, but the fire alarm was too loud. So he quickly turned the corner and raised his gun. Only to find himself face-to-face with another gun, and Steve.

They looked at each other for a moment, then they both put the guns down. Steve was injured on the shoulder.

What happened?’ he asked.

Tony. It’s nothing,’ Steve said. ‘But I lost sight of him in the crowd.’

Where is everybody?’ Bucky asked.

All over the place,’ Steve said. ‘Turns out Amora started with the security guys, so nobody’s really around to help us evacuate.’

We need to find Amora.’

What about the big guy?’ Steve asked.

Loki got it covered... for now. Let’s go.’

Steve nodded and started moving down the corridor, Bucky followed. Calm settled over him right away, because walking right next to Steve was easier than breathing.

Where did all the men go?’ Bucky asked. ‘The ones under Amora’s spell.’

Ran out of the room along with everybody else,’ Steve said. ‘Tony too.’

Then Amora was in the crowd,’ Bucky said. ‘They’ll be protecting her, they can’t help it.’

So, if we find Tony, Amora won’t be far either,’ Steve concluded.

That’s my guess,’ Bucky nodded. ‘I saw Romanoff and Barton earlier.’

Yeah, no idea where they are either,’ Steve said. ‘Natasha was looking for Amora too before you dropped in. And Clint started the fire alarm.’

Bucky nodded again then pushed open the door to the stairway and headed down. They were on the top floor, which was mostly just the bar, the ballroom, and the rest-rooms, so everyone had to be on the floors below.

Were people smart enough to head to the ground floor?’ Bucky asked.

Who stays inside a building when the fire alarm goes off?’ Steve asked incredulously.

Bucky had some choice words about the stupidity of people, but he didn’t get the chance to speak, because the ceiling literally exploded into debris above them. Then with a loud screeching creak the metal railings of the stairway started bending and breaking.

Bucky plastered himself to the wall and looked up. He saw the edge of Skurge’s axe cutting through concrete before vanishing again, then he heard a very loud thud, and more cracks appeared on the stairs and walls. Loki and Skurge were right above them.

The ceiling’s gonna cave in,’ Steve stated the obvious, because the floor above had to be falling apart. It wasn’t safe to keep going down here.

Come on!’ he yelled and jumped down the rest of the stairs and hit the door leading out. Steve followed him before the stairs above them finally gave in and broke, falling down like an avalanche of broken rubble and bent metal. Even the stairway door fell out of its frame. It took a few moments for the dust to settle enough to see what was going on. Skurge landed on his back, while Loki was on top of him, her entire weight put on her spear, hovering right above Skurge’s neck, but the man had his axe up in protection, keeping the other weapon and Loki away.

They struggled for long moments, then Skurge found a better grip on his weapon and knocked Loki’s spear aside. Loki jumped back from Skurge’s swing, then leaped right back at him, kicking him in the side, then making a broad swing with her spear. Skurge actually backed off into a wall, cautious of the weapon. There were deep cuts on him, so Loki obviously wounded him a few times already.

There was not much space in the stairway, so the two of them were moving out to the corridor, and towards Bucky and Steve.

We need to go,’ Bucky said and started running again. Loki had this under control.

Steve easily caught up with him as Bucky headed towards the second stairway on the other side of the building. He didn’t trust the elevators, not with so many unknown hostiles around.

Do you know why Amora came here? Loki didn’t tell me shit,’ Steve asked.

I don’t know the exact targets, but I think she wanted to be subtle,’ Bucky told him as they ran down the corridor. ‘Cast her spells on the guys she wanted, then leave them alone until she has use for them later. Like sleeper agents.’

But she realized she was busted,’ Steve said. Bucky didn’t turn around to look at Steve, even though he really wanted to.

Well, you weren’t exactly subtle,’ he said though.

This is not my fault!’ Steve protested immediately, sounding both annoyed and offended.

That’s not what I said!’ Bucky told him. They finally reached the second stairway.

You implied it,’ Steve grumbled.

It doesn’t matter. Skurge was around too, right up on the roof, so we couldn’t surprise her either way. She’s way too--’

Repulsor sound. He stopped and ducked. Steve did too, but Bucky still grabbed hold of his suit to drag him out from the line of fire. He had his gun ready a second later, but Steve immediately put his hand on the weapon.

You’re not going to shoot, Tony,’ he said angrily. ‘This is not his fault.’

That ain’t gonna make me any less dead when he shoots me with that thing!’

Oh yes, I guarantee you, he’s going to be very dead,’ Stark spoke from somewhere under them. The stairway echoed... oh, the fire alarm was gone. He wondered when that happened, he wasn’t paying attention.

He knew Stark was somewhere underneath them, but he couldn’t pinpoint his location. And it would be stupid to just charge at him in a narrow stairway. Especially when Stark had the advantage of being able to just sit and wait for them to move.

Tony, you gotta fight this,’ Steve yelled down. ‘I know it’s tough, but you can still try.’

Really, Rogers?’ Stark asked in return. ‘There’s nothing to fight. I mean damn, it’s been too long since I had someone to fight for, someone real and important. Someone better than all my fucked-up flawed ideals.’

It’s not mind-control,’ Bucky told Steve quietly. ‘You can’t reason with him.’

They could get back out of the stairway and find and alternative pathway. They descended quite a few floors.

So where’s your lady love?’ Bucky asked loudly. ‘She abandoned you so quickly?’

She’s never going to abandon me,’ Stark answered with absolute certainty, but no, Bucky still couldn’t pinpoint his exact location. They didn’t have time for this. He yanked the gun out from under Steve’s hand and shot a few times. He didn’t aim at anything in particular, but everyone ducked instinctively when they heard gunshots, Stark would too. So after firing a few rounds he pushed himself away from the wall and ran back out to the corridor.

He wasn’t even sure if Amora was still around, but he needed to try and find her anyway. Skurge was still here, so there was a very good chance that she was too.

He realized after a few moments that Steve was not behind him. Bucky stopped and looked back towards the stairs. Shit. Did Steve stay to deal with Stark? Or was Bucky’s opening not long enough for him to get out of there too? He hesitated for a second. He needed to find Amora, but leaving Steve behind... dammit, dammit all to Hell.

Fucking Rogers,’ he growled and ran back to the stairway.

He couldn’t hear anything as he got there.

Steve?’ he shouted.

I’m fine!’ he yelled back. ‘He took off!’

Bucky pushed open the door and got back inside. He saw quite a few scorch marks on the wall, but Steve didn’t look more injured than he was before.

What the hell? I gave us an opening!’ Bucky told him.

No, you gave us a chance to run. I won’t run! Tony needs to be taken into custody before he hurts someone.’

We don’t have time for that,’ Bucky argued. ‘Who knows how long Amora will stick around.’

Steve’s face turned stormy with anger and he scowled at Bucky something fierce.

Well, I do have the time,’ he said, standing up. ‘So I’m going to make sure Tony’s safe.’

And he took off, running down the stairs, just like that. Bucky squared his jaw.

Fine,’ he said to no one, then turned and left too. He started running again as soon as he door closed behind him.

As Bucky was circling back to the stairway Loki and Skurge half-destroyed, the damage to the building became more and more apparent. There was a giant hole in the side of the building, which explained the whipping wind in the corridors, and even bigger hole one on the floor. Both were rather close to the stairs, but no sign of either Loki or Skurge.

Bucky really hoped that did not mean that the fight ended and Amora took off. No, probably not. Loki was strong, she was not going to let Skurge just take off like that. Bucky trusted her to keep that big fucker at bay, no matter how badly this fight went last time. Although, Skurge did jump them out of nowhere last time, surprising them both. Things were different now.

He made his way lower by jumping down the hole in the corridor, following the trail of immense destruction. And he did catch the sound of battle again soon, which was a relief, but it also made him spit out a long string of curses, because dammit he wasted too much goddamn time. Loki was wrestling with that fucking mounting with an axe, while Bucky was no closer to finding Amora. What was her plan anyway? A military leader, some politician... well, obviously they knew who was compromised now, so whatever she planned went down the drain... right?

He hated going up against Asgardians, they looked at things differently, thought differently, their motives were always complicated, and sometimes unexpected. Spending time with Loki did not help Bucky understand them more, and not because Loki was Asgardian only by name, but because Loki was Loki. A whole damn category on its own.

He noticed the blue and red lights flashing outside on the main street, so obviously the cops joined the party. Brilliant. This whole damn thing was so fubar.

As he descended to the ground floor he caught the sound of distress. They were mostly female voices, slightly panicky, trying to be quiet, but not quite managing. He approached carefully and peeked out from behind a corner. They were in the lobby. Not right at the front, but the entrance was still pretty close. And yet, they were still inside. The small group of women were huddled around a few couches, some of them sitting, some standing around nervously. They were all wearing dresses and such, so they were from the party. Bucky saw two guys in expensive suits, obviously also from the party, one guy in some uniform, and four armed security guys.

He eyed the women, one-by-one, because why would these guys take hostages? Was Amora among them? Loki and Skurge were close, Bucky could hear them. What the hell was Amora playing at?

Bucky quickly assessed the situation, he could easily take out four armed guys and three unarmed ones, then if Amora was within this group, she would reveal herself in the face of danger. If she was not here, he would just waste more time.

Then he caught the sight of some movement in the doorway at the other side of the lobby. He kept his eyes fixed on that spot until he saw her again. Romanoff. She noticed him as well, but nobody in the room did. Well, with her interference, he wouldn’t waste that much time.

He tilted his head in question, indicating the room at large. Her eyes did not dart around, she already knew exactly what was inside. She kept staring at him for a moment, but then gave a nod. Bucky even gave her the chance to be the first to move, because she was closer to the men than he was. She moved incredibly quickly and silently, then she grabbed and had one of the security guys on the floor in a blink. Everyone turned around towards her, so Bucky moved too.

One head slammed to a wall, then a second guy caught and quickly knocked out. A moment later one of the security guys started shooting and some of the women screamed, but the Widow took his gun away from him easily enough, and then kneed him in the head.

‘Don’t... don’t move...’ someone tried to command, but he didn’t sound really threatening. Bucky turned around and... really? The last fucker had one of the girls, a gun pointing at her head. He had a dress uniform on, air force, First Lieutenant, but too old to be active. The girl in question was weeping while the guy’s eyes were darting back and forth between Romanoff or Bucky.

‘Jamie... wh... what is going on?’ the girl cried. Oh, she knew him. ‘Please... please... why are you doing this?’

‘Shut up,’ the guy gritted out. He looked nervous. Bucky had just about enough of this, so he pulled his gun.

‘I am not joking!’ the guy shouted, pushing the gun even closer to the girl’s head.

‘And I don’t give a shit,’ Bucky answered calmly as he aimed, but his shot went flying because Romanoff kicked him in the back of his knee out of nowhere, making him lose his balance. The guy started shooting at him immediately, so Bucky had to roll to the side while the hall was filled with more screams because of the gunshots.

The guy was so focused on emptying his whole damn gun at Bucky – one shot grazed him in the leg, one bounced off his left arm – that he did not see the Widow coming. She was quick and efficient, even in that dress. She punched the guy in the face, disarmed him by twisting his arm, then pushed him away from the girl. The guy tried to take on a fighting position, and even raised his fists in challenge, but he was dazed and Romanoff had him in a chokehold in a matter of seconds.

Bucky stood up while Romanoff let the unconscious guy drop to the floor.

‘What the fuck was that?’ he asked. He had a clear shot at the guy’s head, the girl wasn’t even in the way.

Romanoff glared and had a gun pointing at Bucky in a blink.

‘You won’t shoot me,’ Bucky said easily, he was fairly certain of that.

‘These men don’t know what they’re doing,’ she said, her angry eyes locked on his face. ‘They’re innocent,’ she continued. ‘And I don’t care how much it would break Steve’s heart, if you kill anyone innocent, you’re fair game. You understand me?’

‘Just try and kill me, then you’re fair game too,’ Bucky replied. She did not seem surprised by his response, but lowered her gun anyway.

‘I’ll get them out of here,’ she stated. ‘Thor’s en-route to help us get the situation under control.’

‘Now that’s what I like to hear,’ said a pleasant female voice from the small group of women.

‘Get down!’ Bucky shouted and ran to find some cover. A moment later he felt like everything exploded into green around him. And not the golden green colour of the flames that flickered around Loki whenever she was angry lately. No, this was a poison green glow that slapped him in the face like hot desert wind.

Some of the women screamed again, then they finally started running away, or maybe Romanoff was herding them outside. Bucky couldn’t actually look around from his spot.

‘Oh, don’t run away,’ Amora said, but she was not talking to the women. Bucky still didn’t know how she looked like, because he was not about to get out of cover. And he was not stupid enough to look at her when she had nobody else to focus on besides him.

‘I have so many questions for you with Loki no longer in the way.’

So she didn’t know, she still didn’t realize it.

‘Real Asgardians are much kinder, you see,’ she continued in her pretty voice, slowly walking closer to him. ‘You wouldn’t know that with Loki being... I don’t even what sort of thing he was really.’

Bucky tugged down the leather glove from his left hand to find the small rune Loki carved into the metal there. It lit up with a faint golden glow when he swiped his thumb across it. He quickly pulled his glove back ion and listened carefully how close Amora was. She liked her games, liked acting like a cat that toyed with the mouse she caught. She could run her mouth all she wanted, it just gave Bucky more time.

‘Yours is a losing side, surely you realized that by now,’ Amora said. ‘Why not come to where the grass is greener? I could be so good to you.’

Those last words were dripping with promises. Bucky snorted, and he was pretty sure she heard it, because the sweet pull of her voice stopped.

‘Sweetheart, there’s nothing you could do that would ever be good for me,’ Bucky told her.

‘Fine,’ she said. ‘I’ll remind you later that this was your choice. Maybe when you’re begging for my touch.’

Bucky had a pretty good comeback to that, but there was no time to use it, because for the second time everything exploded into a bright green flash of colour. This was not Amora’s magic though, this way Loki. So even if it blinded him for a second, he was relieved.

Skurge’s battle roar? Not as good to hear.

Bucky risked standing up from his crouch to see what was going on.

Loki looked a little battle-worn. Her dress was torn, her hair was mess of wild dark curls, and she was covered in small gashes, cuts, and bruises. But the blue spear was still steady in her hand. She also looked incredibly pissed off.

Skurge was breathing heavily and was at least as injured as Loki. His pale skin was marked with shallow stab wounds and large cuts from Loki’s spear, while his head and neck were bruised quite badly. Bucky hoped it was his bullets that did some of that.

Amora was down on the floor, so she must’ve been hit with whatever Loki threw at her. She had brown hair and wore a tight striped dress, but the disguise shimmered away as she stood up. Her brown locks turned golden blonde, and the little dress transformed into Asgardian leathers.

‘You have still not crushed this meddling cunt, Skurge?’ Amora asked pleasantly.

‘Forgive me, Amora,’ the man answered.

‘So who you might be, to cause me this much trouble?’ Amora asked and Loki started laughing, even threw her head back. It was a loud, pearly, really mean laugh.

‘You didn’t think you got rid of me that easily, did you Amora?’ she asked, turning the spear around in her hand, getting a better grip on it.

Amora eyed the weapon, then looked back up.

‘Loki,’ she said, but she did not sound that sure at first. Loki just grinned, sharp and dangerous, which was more than enough to recognize her.

‘So why the disguise?’ Amora asked. ‘You make a sorry excuse of a woman.’

‘Oh, you would know all about being that,’ Loki countered.

Bucky couldn’t see Amora’s face, which was more than fine with him, but he definitely noticed how she clenched her fists. She was easy to bait and anger, apparently even more so than Loki, that was good to know.

‘Skurge,’ Amora spoke, using that sweet enchanting voice once more. ‘Kill her for me.’

Skurge roared and attacked again, but Loki was more than ready. She dodged the swing of his axe, stepping out of the way, then countered with her spear, making the big man back off before he could swing again.

Loki could take him... maybe... probably, but Amora’s hands were burning with magic and Bucky knew she wouldn’t just stand still and watch.

He thought he heard the sound of thunder in the distance, a deep rumbling that signalled the approaching storm, but he couldn’t wait, he needed to act now. So he slipped his new Asgardian knife out of its sheath and attacked.

Chapter Text

One good thing about being an Avenger was that the NYPD recognized her when she led the group of women out of the building.

Get them out of here!’ Natasha ordered as the women ran behind the line of police cars. ‘But any man who comes out of the building needs to be detained.’

On what grounds?’ one policeman asked.

Alien mind-control,’ Natasha said. It was not accurate, but it would have to do. The man’s eyes widened.

Why just the men?’ the other cop asked from the opposite side of the car.

It only affects men,’ Natasha said. She needed to make sure that nobody under the Asgardian woman’s control escaped, if she had to use the police to do that, so be it.

Is it contagious?’ the cop asked immediately, he seemed nervous.

No, but you could ask for more female colleagues as back-up. Just in case.’

The two officers looked at one another for a moment.

Everything clear?’ Natasha asked, just to be sure. You never knew it with cops, sometimes they just wanted to get the hell out, others tried to play hero.

All men coming out from the building need to be detained, yes ma’am,’ the younger of the two said. Natasha nodded and turned around to get back inside.

She had not seen either Clint, Tony, or Steve for a very long time now. So they were her priority at the moment. She got back into the building through a side entrance, because she was not about to get in the middle of whatever was happening in the main lobby. She could hear the sound of the fight even from this far away. But she called Thor, and he would be here soon enough.

She knew one of the stairways was good as gone, so there was no way to access the upper floors through there. The other one was far from her location, but she had no other choice but to head that way.

She prepared herself for a long search, but she needn’t have bothered as it turned out, because she stumbled upon both Clint and Steve as soon as she reached the first floor. Steve looked relatively unharmed, Clint though...

What happened?’ she asked as she hurried closer. Clint was not that bad off, but his face was a bit of a mess, bruised and swollen. Steve had Clint’s arm pulled across his shoulder. He probably insisted, because Clint had a stubborn look on his face. He always tried to walk on his own if people let him.

Tony’s compromised,’ Steve said.

Tony did this?’ she asked and signed the question too in case Clint’s hearing aid was damaged or he was too dazed to read lips.

He surprised me, okay?’ Clint said defensively. ‘I spotted him and wanted warn him, he seemed normal...’ he hissed in pain, talking pulled on some of the cuts on his face. He pronounced some words wrong too, so his mouth had to hurt a lot. ‘I guess I was too late. I turned around for one second, and he smashed a chair into my face... dammit, I totally had my guard down.’

A chair, yes, Natasha could see it now, the small ragged cuts that were caused by splintered wood, the bruises made by something blunt and heavy. He probably had a concussion... again.

Then he punched me with his gauntlet on,’ Clint added, gesturing at his jaw. ‘I think a tooth is coming loose.’

He could’ve killed you,’ Steve said sternly.

It wasn’t his fault,’ Clint insisted, his words were slurred now, either from his swollen lips or the knock to the head he got.

It really wasn’t,’ Natasha agreed, then asked about other injuries, but only with signs. Steve looked grim enough already. Clint brushed the question aside and just signed “OK” with one hand, since Steve still had the other one.

C’mon, let’s get you out of here,’ Steve said, and Clint didn’t argue.

There was another loud crash coming from downstairs, loud enough to hear through several walls, and Steve’s face turned even harder. He looked at Natasha questioningly.

It’s that big guy,’ Natasha told him, taking point to watch out for any danger while Steve and Clint followed her. ‘And one mystery lady.’

About that,’ Steve said, sounding apologetic. Natasha stopped and turned back around to pin him with a stern look.

Once this is over you are going to tell us everything,’ she said. ‘Everything Barnes told you.’

I will,’ Steve said. Natasha kept looking at him. ‘I will, trust me, I know I screwed up.’

This was not the right time to discuss the matter, so Natasha let it drop.

We have to be careful,’ she said as they reached the mostly undamaged stairway. ‘That Asgardian woman finally showed herself.’

Amora,’ Steve supplied helpfully. It frustrated Natasha how much he seemed to know, and how little he told the rest of them, but she did not comment on it. Not yet. ‘Bucky was looking for her.’

Yes, he’s downstairs as well.’

She was not even a little surprised to see the worry on Steve’s face.

Relax, Thor’s on his way,’ she told him.

He’s not exactly immune either,’ Steve said.

I couldn’t really think of anyone else strong enough to go toe-to-toe with that giant of a guy,’ Natasha told him.

Vision?’ Steve offered.

Oh, now you wouldn’t mind him getting involved,’ Natasha shot back. Truth to be told, she wasn’t sure Vision was even in New York at the moment, he sometimes went off exploring and vanished for days. Thor was a sure bet, he would be able to get here relatively quickly too. Of course now she knew that Amora might’ve been after him all along. That didn’t sit right with her.

Don’t argue, let’s just go!’ Clint interrupted them and he started pulling Cap towards the stairs.

Natasha took the lead again as they made their way down to the ground floor. This was a mess. They didn’t know enough, and they were unprepared in every possible way. Clint was injured and Tony...

Any idea where Stark disappeared to?’ she asked. ‘We can’t let him leave.’

I was on his trail, but then I found Clint,’ Steve explained. Natasha nodded to herself, trying to come up with something.

Steve, I want you to get Clint out,’ she said. ‘I’m going to head down to the lobby again and see how things are.’

Maybe it would be better if I--’

No,’ Natasha interrupted him. ‘You can get Clint out much quicker, and you’re also not immune to whatever it is this woman can do.’

You guys suck for not signing right now,’ Clint said suddenly.

Natasha turned back around at the bottom of the stairs. She signed “Sorry” and then added “Get out of here”. Clint seemed only mildly placated.

Natasha,’ Steve said.

I’ll be fine, stop wasting time,’ she said and opened the door. ‘Side entrance to the left, should be clear still.’

Steve did not argue, which counted as a small miracle. She was quite certain that Steve did not miss the sound of fighting, but he still left with Clint. That gave her hope that he didn’t have his priorities as screwed up as she feared. She never even would have doubted him having his priorities wrong, but this was Barnes, and a whole lot of secrets piling up very unflatteringly.

In any other situation, Natasha would have felt bad about not telling him that Amora went for Barnes right after she revealed herself, but drastic measures and all. And maybe she was still a little angry about Steve keeping this much from them. And there was also that tidbit she overheard about Loki not being in the way any more. This was a dangerous situation. The last thing they needed was Steve charging in carelessly right into the middle of everything, and getting himself killed or his head hijacked too.

Speaking of, with Clint and Steve accounted for, Tony was now her priority. With nowhere specific to look, and being in the need for more information, she headed back to the lobby as quickly as she could.

She was very careful about approaching the lobby, despite the on-going fight. Not everyone might be as busy as expected. Luckily, she found a relatively well-hidden spot from where she could observe without exposing herself to an attack.

The first thing that went through her mind was; how on Earth was Barnes not under this Amora’s control? Natasha did not know how her powers worked, but a lot of men have fallen victim to her. So how was Barnes slashing at her with a knife? Attacking her with a ruthless single-mindedness befitting of the Winter Soldier?

Amora’s hands lit up with a green glow again and again, but Barnes either got out of the way, or interrupted her before she could use that power for anything. She kept trying to grab him too, grip his face. Natasha watched how she actually managed to do so, after who knew how many tries, only to be head-butted with full force. Then she had to dodge Barnes’ knife once again.

But no matter how good it looked, Barnes was not winning. He was just keeping her occupied. It did not look like she was that skilled at hand-to-hand combat, at least not this kind of hand-to-hand, but she was still Asgardian, and that gave her a lot of advantage.

Then Natasha finally looked over to the main attraction in the lobby. She still had no idea who the woman was, but damn, she could clearly pack a punch. The axeman was huge, hell, maybe even as big as 7 feet, muscular, and heavy too. This woman was tall, but still couldn’t be much more than 6’. And yet, here she was blocking his axe with her spear with ease, kicking and punching him with a strength that made the big man stagger or back off. Asgardian too maybe, or just somehow strong. She was most likely in-league with Barnes, but she couldn’t be the “girl” Doctor Strange and Sara Wolfe mentioned. Or maybe she was, maybe she looked younger without make-up and an evening gown.

Steve knew who she was. The reminder of all the information he kept to himself sent a new wave of annoyance through Natasha. She watched the fight – or battle really – unfold. Barnes was clearly playing a dangerous game, but the dark-haired woman seemed evenly-matched with the big guy. Still, things were dragging on in a stalemate, which was never good.

She needed to find Tony, and this was not a fight she could personally get involved in. Well, maybe she could give Amora a run for her money, if she was careful. But Natasha was no super-human, so she didn’t think it would be smart going up one on one with an Asgardian.

Fortunately, just as she was about to stand up from her hiding spot to search for Tony, she heard a rumble from outside. The lobby’s walls were mostly large glass panels, only some of them broken, so she had a clear view of Thor finally landing outside.

He looked at what was happening inside only for a second, then he spun his hammer around and flew right in, smashing glass on his way, and slamming into the giant man with full force. The guy went flying from the unexpected hit and even Barnes and Amora backed away from one another as he hit a wall. Dust and debris flew everywhere.

The black-haired woman just stood in front of Thor, spear in hand, probably also surprised by his sudden appearance. Thor looked at her for a long moment when the big guy didn’t get up right away. Natasha was close enough to see Thor frown deeply. Then...

Loki?’ he asked, disbelief clear in his tone... and no way. Natasha kept staring at the woman, but she couldn’t see much from her face, but... maybe? Oh, Steve so owed her answers.

Hello Thor,’ Amora greeted sweetly as the big man with the axe got back on his feet, shaking debris off his shoulders.

Thor went tense, Natasha could tell. She even recognized the look on his face, even if it was not a look she was used to see on him. There was anger, but there was also fear. It was unsettling.

No!’ the woman, who was maybe Loki, shouted as she turned around to face Amora. That look of pure rage was more than familiar, so Natasha was quite ready to believe that this was indeed Loki in a new unexpected shape. Her spear seemed to glow slightly, and then she went for Amora, attacking her ruthlessly, not unlike how Barnes fought her earlier. She used her spear expertly, but Amora managed to evade the swipes repeatedly as she kept backing off, away from Loki.

Skurge!’ Amora screamed, which made the big man run at the two women with his axe up in the air, but Thor got in his way before he could reach them.

Natasha was wrong, that before was no battle. This was a battle.

Barnes cleverly got out of the way, but did not venture too far. He had his eyes locked on Amora and maybe-Loki, perhaps looking for an opening, a chance to strike, to help, Natasha didn’t know. Amora was certainly on the defence a lot more than before, she was mostly just trying her best to avoid getting pierced through with the long spear.

Skurge did not have the upper-hand earlier, and his chances looked even worse now. Despite his apparent advantage, Thor definitely didn’t underestimate his opponent for a second. He might have looked bold and careless to someone else, but Natasha knew he was focused on the fight with all his attention.

She spotted Tony then, a floor above them, right next to a railing, looking down at the lobby. Natasha made sure he didn’t notice her, but it wasn’t like he was even looking. His eyes were firmly locked on Amora. Natasha couldn’t identify the look on his face from this far away, but saw it clearly enough when he raised his gauntlet and aimed.

The repulsor blast hit the dark-haired woman. The hit was strong enough to knock her to the side a little, giving Amora an opening to attack with a long dagger she did not have in her hand a few moments ago.

Barnes started shooting at Tony, who avoided getting hit just out of sheer luck the way Natasha saw it. Barnes spared a glance at Amora and the other woman, then ran from the lobby. That was all Natasha needed to get going as well, because she was absolutely sure that he was going for Tony.

She had to use a different route than Barnes, even though she did not worry that much about being seen. The stairway was still clear, so she could easily get a floor up using it. She could already hear gunshots and repulsor blasts from above and it worried her, because Tony was good, but Barnes was better.

She ran, gun drawn, because she warned him, she damn well warned him earlier, and she was not in the habit of giving empty threats. A repulsor blast whizzed past her head, but it was a stray shot, she was not targeted. Then Tony shouted in pain when one of Barnes’ bullets hit the gauntlet. The thing died in a small explosion of sparks and grey smoke. Tony was quickly pulling it off, getting rid of it. He only ever used it for emergencies and it was not as bulletproof as his normal armour pieces.

Natasha kept running, because Barnes was still shooting at Tony, but then Steve appeared at a corner, ran full speed at Barnes, and knocked him off his feet with a body-slam. Then he kicked his gun away. Oh, he looked really angry as he glared down at the other man on the floor.

‘Get Tony,’ Steve told her as Natasha ran past him. She was already going for him.

Tony jumped to his feet to make a run for it, but there was no way he would be fast enough. Natasha jumped him, caught his arm to turn him around, then kicked one of his legs out from under him. Tony still tried to shove her aside, but he was unbalanced and couldn’t put weight behind the attack. He struggled as Natasha put him in a choke hold, he even managed to hit her a few times, but she didn’t let go.

‘Sorry, sorry,’ Natasha told him quietly. ‘You’re gonna be fine, just fine.’

She kept up a string of quiet reassurances as Tony struggled, because maybe he didn’t give a crap right now, but maybe he would remember later, when he was back to normal. His movements became sluggish as he ran out of air. In all honesty, it was quite an unpleasant experience for Natasha, but it was a lot better than having to dig bullets out of Tony... or arrange a funeral for him.

‘There you go,’ Natasha said as Tony finally went limp. She held onto him a few moments longer to make sure he was really out and not just trying to trick her.

It was only after she lowered him to the floor that she noticed that Steve was talking, his voice raised, clearly furious. She could hear it, because the noise coming from the lobby stopped. No fight.

‘Thor?!’ she shouted. She couldn’t see much from the lobby from where she was sitting on the floor, she was too far from the railing.

‘I am well, but Amora has escaped!’ Thor yelled back. Natasha breathed out in relief. Okay, they were okay. They survived another damn unexpected life or death situation.

Their little exchange made Steve fall silent as well, while Barnes got up from the floor and walked over to the railing to look down. He slammed his metal hand down on the wood in anger a second later, making it crack under his grip. Natasha got up as well, leaving Tony lying on the floor for now.

Thor and the woman were standing in the mostly destroyed lobby, alone. Natasha didn’t know how Amora and Skurge disappeared this suddenly, but of course it was probably magic to be blamed for it.

Barnes turned and headed downstairs without a word. That made the muscle in Steve’s jaw tighten in a very familiar way, but he did not follow him. Instead, he walked over to Tony to pick him up and throw him over his shoulder. Natasha gave him a look, that she hoped conveyed how much she was going to drill him for answers later.

‘I know, I know,’ Steve said as he headed downstairs as well. Natasha followed.

Steve was careful about putting Tony down on a sofa once they were back in the lobby, and Natasha stayed close to him in case he woke up sooner than expected. But she kept her eyes on Barnes and the woman, who seemed to be in the middle of yanking some knife out of her gut. Blood streamed down her side and leg as she finally pulled the blade out. She angrily threw it on the floor, cursing. She looked really beaten up, and Natasha could be wrong, but she seemed to rest some of her weight on her spear.

‘What the hell was this?’ Steve asked angrily as he marched closer to Barnes and the woman.

‘Not a total failure,’ Barnes said, but he was not talking to Steve. He was holding up his knife, it was covered in blood.

‘You stabbed her?’ the woman asked.

‘Nothing serious, but it’s her blood.’

The woman took the knife from him.

‘Well, at least that’s something,’ she said. ‘Could’ve gone worse.’

‘No, this could not have gone worse,’ Steve interrupted again, too angry to stay quiet. ‘What the hell sort of plan was this? Was there even a plan? Because I know a thing or two about bad plans, but this was a total clusterfuck even by my standards.’

‘There was not much to plan, we didn’t know what she was going to do,’ Barnes told him.

‘You could have planned a lot, maybe telling me more than just some cryptic bullshit about accepting the invitation. Maybe telling someone in advance that she would be taking over the minds of people from the second she arrived.’

‘She thought Loki was dead, that was our only advantage,’ Barnes said. Oh, so she really was Loki then.

‘No, that was not your only advantage!’ Steve said right away. ‘You could have had plenty of other advantages, you just didn’t think of using them! Was that the plan? Lay low until she or Skurge showed themselves, then just attack? Screw bystanders?’

Barnes’ face was clear as day. Yes, that was pretty much their plan.

‘We had the element of surprise,’ Barnes insisted.

‘No, that’s stupid, you didn’t! Amora already had the entire security under her thumb by the time you even realized she really was here!’

‘You forget yourself, Rogers,’ Loki warned, finally lifting her spear off the floor.

‘Oh, hell no,’ Steve said as he finally looked at Loki. ‘Last time you literally dragged your guts behind yourself. No, actually, you didn’t drag anything, we dragged you. What made you think it was a good idea to take Skurge on alone again?’

Natasha narrowed her eyes as she stared at Steve’s back. “Last time”, he said. So he’s been aware of a lot more even before tonight. This was more than just intel. Natasha was slightly angry, and very-very frustrated, also dead set on interrogating him the first chance she got. No more excuses. Steve was going to tell her everything he knew.

‘I would really watch my tongue right about now,’ Loki hissed.

‘Loki,’ Thor warned sternly.

‘No, I ain’t going to watch my tongue,’ Steve shot back without a pause. ‘I’m not afraid of you. And if you wanna take a shot at me, go right ahead!’

‘Don’t be stupid, Steve,’ Barnes said quietly. It was more than enough to direct Steve’s anger right back at him.

‘You! You have no idea how... I told you not to try and hurt Tony. I told you!’

‘He was in the way, he was attacking--’

‘No!’ Steve cut him off. He wasn’t outright yelling, his anger shimmered down into something calm, strong, and unmovable. ‘If you think putting a bullet in some mind-controlled guy is okay, just cause he’s in your way, then you’re not as okay as I thought you were.’

That shut Barnes up. Even as his face grew hard, he said nothing in return.

‘One of my friends too...’ Steve added. ‘And you either don’t even realize yourself how screwed up that is, or you’ve been lying to me.’


‘No, don’t even.’

‘I really do not have to stand here listen to this,’ Loki proclaimed.

‘Maybe not, but you will give us some answers, Loki,’ Thor said. Loki rounded on him immediately, the grip on her spear tightening.

‘Oh, you want to try and stop me?’ she asked, the threat was clear.

This was really getting out of hand. Natasha thought they were literally seconds away form a second battle... or more like a brawl this time around.

‘What did Amora do to all the men?’ she asked, drawing everyone’s attention on herself. ‘Are they going to be fine now that she’s not here?’

Loki looked at her, and visibly seemed to consider whether to answer or not.

‘No, lock them up,’ Barnes answered instead. ‘The spell’s not broken.’

‘Then break it,’ Steve said to Loki, who scoffed.

‘I cannot,’ she said.

‘Right,’ Natasha spoke up again. ‘Because you know nothing about mind control.’

‘This is not mind control,’ Loki answered airily. ‘It’s a love spell. Vastly different.’

‘Aye, that is the truth,’ Thor confirmed. ‘Amora has no power over the mind, but the heart.’

‘And you want us to believe you can’t undo it?’ Natasha asked, still looking at Loki.

‘I’m no practician of such things,’ she said with disgust, then nodded her head in Tony’s direction. ‘Keep him locked up, or he will run to Amora the first chance he gets.’

‘That’s not exactly a permanent solution,’ Steve pointed it out.

‘How is that my problem again?’ Loki asked, tossing her hair over her shoulder in a way that looked very pointedly careless and uncaring.

‘It is going to be your problem if she send him after you,’ Steve said.

‘Oh, please, I could crush him even in his suit,’ Loki answered. Steve glared.

‘It’s not the suit you need to be worried about,’ Steve told her. ‘This is the man who created some of the most powerful and destructive weapons of mankind. Are you sure you want someone like him at Amora’s beck and call?’

Now Loki actually seemed to consider his words. She kept her eyes locked on Steve’s face for long moments, then she glanced over to Barnes.

‘He’s got a point there,’ Barnes said.

‘Ugh, fine. I’ll look into it,’ Loki said then, not sounding happy about it. ‘Consult the Sorcerer, he might be more familiar with such things.’

Then she looked like she was about to leave.

‘Are we really just going to let them walk away?’ Natasha asked. Thor could take Loki, and if he actually tried, Steve could definitely take down Barnes. Natasha would be more than happy to assist with that.

Steve didn’t say anything, just turned to walk back to where he put Tony down.

‘We’ve got all these guys to worry about,’ he said, which was true, but still.

Loki was walking away.

‘Thor?’ Natasha prompted.

‘What does she want?’ Thor asked, turning to Loki. ‘Amora...’

Loki stopped and looked back at him. ‘A great many things, I imagine... And yes, you are one of those things. Does that surprise you?’

‘No,’ Thor said after a brief moment of hesitation. ‘You are going to chase her,’ he said then, not a question.

‘Oh yes, I am,’ Loki said, holding up Barnes’ bloody knife, smiling at it. ‘And the things I will do to her once she has nowhere to run...’ she looked back at Thor again. ‘Just stay out of the way.’

Barnes stared at Steve for a long moment, while Steve was very obviously ignoring him. It looked like Barnes wanted to speak, but he remained silent in the end, and just hurried after Loki. Natasha did not feel good about letting them walk away like this, not at all. It felt like a mistake, or a missed opportunity.

‘Was that the truth?’ she asked Thor as he walked closer to them. ‘About the love spell?’

‘Aye, Amora is powerful,’ Thor nodded. ‘I have only ever known my Mother to be able to break her thrall on the victim’s heart, but... she is no longer with us to help.’

Natasha looked down at Tony’s unconscious body and sighed.

‘I hope Tony installed some mind control protocol into HELEN,’ she said. ‘Because we can’t let him have access to anything.’

‘He did,’ Steve said. ‘But we’re going to need Rhodey... or Pepper.’

‘I’ll call them... but you owe us all some answers,’ Natasha continued, her voice much harder than it usually was when she talked to Steve.

‘I know,’ Steve nodded. Now that his anger seemed to settle, he only looked defeated. It was not a good look on him.

‘Let’s go then,’ Natasha said. Normally, she would have said something to Steve, but she was angry, and she had good reasons to be angry. Steve seemed to understand that without Natasha needing to spell it out for him. But he didn’t try to explain himself right away, just nodded again, and followed Natasha’s lead, picking Tony up.

Guilt. Also not a good look on him.

Chapter Text

Bruce felt a headache coming up. He rarely got headaches, but they were almost always stress related, and he couldn’t actually take the time to relax in their current situation.

I don’t think that’s a good idea, Pepper,’ Natasha said. ‘He’s not himself.’

Well, he is,’ Bruce said. ‘That’s what makes it the most disturbing. That he’s not acting like some brain-dead marionette following orders.’

If it wasn’t for some of the things coming out of Tony’s mouth, and Thor confirming how Amora’s powers worked, Bruce wouldn’t have believed that there was anything wrong with him.

Steve’s been visiting him,’ Pepper pointed it out.

Steve likes to punish himself,’ Natasha said. That hit the nail on the head, no one blamed Steve as much as he blamed himself for how things turned out.

On the night of the charity ball, once Pepper arrived and activated what Tony called the “Glowstick Protocol”, they were able to get Tony back to the tower and well... lock him up. In the same room the others put Barnes in when he was here. Then, despite the late hour, Natasha told Steve to sit down and start talking. And he did. He told them everything he kept silent about up until that point.

In Bruce’s opinion, he didn’t keep that much from them. It just turned into a lot bigger issue than expected with everything that happened on the ball.

Rhodey will be here tomorrow,’ Natasha spoke again. ‘He can take over the admin position for HELEN.’

No,’ Pepper shook her head. ‘I’m staying.’ Natasha lifted an eyebrow. ‘Just because we’re on this... break, it doesn’t mean I don’t care about Tony. I want to be here for him.’

Unfortunately, I doubt it matters to him much at the moment,’ Bruce said quietly.

That’s just one more reason to stay,’ Pepper said. ‘He’s not going to feel okay once he’s... once this is over.’

Yeah,’ Bruce agreed and they all fell silent for a few moments.

So are we just going to wait? Is there nothing else to do?’ Pepper asked.

I called Elina Wolfe,’ Natasha said. ‘She promised to call Sara and pass a message on to Strange. Hopefully, he’ll get back to us soon.’

And what about... about Loki?’ Pepper questioned. They all went over most of these things at least once, but Bruce knew why she had to ask and share every single idea that popped into her head. Sitting around made them all feel pretty helpless.

Natasha made a small dissatisfied sound. ‘I wouldn’t exactly trust Loki to come help us out, no matter what she said.’

Bruce had to agree with her there. It would be more than a little foolish to get their hopes up on that front.

And Asgard? Amora is from Asgard,’ Pepper continued.

Thor said his Mother knew how to undo the spell, but she passed away,’ Natasha told her.

Thor was kinda quiet about this whole thing,’ Bruce mentioned. ‘He didn’t even wait around for what Steve had to say.’

Natasha frowned.

I think there’s a history there, but I’ve been waiting for the right moment to bring it up,’ Natasha said.

We have to ask him sooner or later,’ Bruce said.

I know,’ Natasha sighed.

I’m so sorry for interrupting,’ HELEN spoke. ‘But Vision requests you all at the Surveillance Room.

What’s going on?’ Natasha asked as they all stood up.

I’m afraid Tony has injured himself and needs medical attention,’ HELEN answered simply.

Oh, dear lord, how bad?’ Pepper asked.

No need to worry, it is a minor injury,’ the AI replied and Pepper relaxed visibly. ‘Will Doctor Banner tend to the wound, or should I request a medic?

Oh, definitely me,’ Bruce said right away.

Tony acted like himself for the most part, so at least they could be sure that he wouldn’t be stupid enough to attack Bruce of all people. Still, this was more than a little disconcerting.

Hey Tony,’ Bruce greeted pleasantly, and didn’t care that Tony said nothing in return.

This situation was hard on them all. Steve was beating himself up about what happened, Clint was disturbed for obvious reasons, Natasha was aggravated, and Thor avoided the whole floor since he got back. Pepper was constantly on edge from worry, Bruce noticed that even Vision was more brusque with his words than usual.

Wanda was off searching for answers, because she didn’t want to wait around for Strange to get back to them. She was angry when she found out what happened, angrier than Bruce expected. Angrier than she used to be when they all first met her, which was saying a lot. She cared about Tony, they all knew that. He offered her and Pietro a place to stay, welcomed them with his usual jokes, sarcasm, and off-handed comments, despite everything that went down. Like it was no big deal. Like he wasn’t giving them the first real home they’ve ever had. So she definitely took the attack on Tony personally. Bruce was rather sure that she started to take this entire business with Loki and Barnes personally as well, and of course Pietro followed her lead as always.

Bruce walked up to Tony casually, and knelt down before him to take a closer look at the wound on his hand. When Barnes shot his gauntlet he hurt his hand, now the wound looked worse, he wasn’t sure what Tony did, but it looked maybe like blunt trauma. Bruce sighed.

That was stupid,’ Bruce said easily, grabbing hold of Tony’s hand to take a closer look and treat the wound. Tony tensed for a moment, but didn’t do anything.

You all think I’ve gone crazy,’ Tony said after a long stretch of silence. Bruce glanced up at him, then continued cleaning the wound.

No, we all know that you’re under some Asgardian magic whammy,’ Bruce told him. They already knew that there was no point telling him this, but Bruce wasn’t going to just ignore him.

I’ve had my eyes opened,’ Tony said. ‘She showed me there are better things to fight for.’

You’ve been fighting for the right things already,’ Bruce told him. ‘We’ll sort this out soon enough.’

Tony turned his hand around, pulled it out of Bruce’s grasp.

I don’t want you to save me,’ he said in a low and even tone. ‘I don’t need you to save me.’

Let me finish bandaging your hand,’ Bruce said calmly.

It took a few moments until Tony relaxed again and allowed his hand to be pulled closer. His face was still angry and tense though.

Why did you do this?’ Bruce asked. ‘It just... doesn’t make sense to me.’

Because it hurt...’ Tony said absently, the pain tangible in his voice. ‘Hurt not being where I’m supposed to be, where I’m meant to be.’

You’re meant to be here, with us,’ Bruce told him.

No,’ Tony shook his head, but the anger in his tone was gone for now, replaced with something much more bitter. ‘I’m letting her down, by being locked up in my own damn tower.’

We’re trying to help you, and I’m sure some part of you still realizes that,’ Bruce said.

Oh, please, none of you actually gives a crap about me.’

Now that’s just plain untrue,’ Bruce told him as he let go of Tony’s bandaged hand.

Oh, really?’ Tony questioned. ‘Like you didn’t all fuck off from here the first chance you got? Even Pepper. Well, except for a pair of homeless ex-criminals, who had literally nowhere else to go, and an android who made sure to remind me every single day that he does not like to be associated with me in any shape or form. So I kind of find it hard to recall all this “care” you’re talking about, when I’ve been drinking myself into a coma in my workshop for who knows how long now.’

We’ve all had our own problems to struggle through,’ Bruce said. ‘But we’re still your friends.’

Right,’ Tony snorted. ‘Let’s not beat around the bush, it’s not like I’m on your team any more. I’m the guy you all tolerated, because I’m the one with the money and resources. And that is the big damn nasty truth.’

Bruce opened his mouth to reply, but then closed it again, and reminded himself why Tony was speaking like this. It didn’t matter what he said, not now. They could talk after this was over. Tony always had issues, this seemed to have brought a few of them to the forefront.

Try to rest a little,’ was what he settled on in the end as he stood up. Tony just made a dismissive sound, not even looking at him. That angry glint was back in his eyes, so Bruce knew it was best if he left him alone for now.

This is just going to get worse,’ Natasha was saying as Bruce approached the surveillance room.

We can handle a few hurtful comments,’ Steve said.

That’s not what I meant,’ Natasha corrected. ‘The longer he stays like this, the worse it’s going to be when he’s all right again.’

He’s not going to forget any of this,’ Clint agreed.

He’s been through worse,’ Bruce told them as he put his small medkit down and walked further inside. ‘He’s going to get through this too.’

You know things are never that easy with Tony,’ Pepper said quietly.

Bruce sighed. ‘No, they’re not,’ he agreed.

But he also knew that the things Tony felt and struggled with right now did not come from an outside source, except for his devotion to Amora. Maybe he was more vocal and angry about his feelings, but Bruce couldn’t help but think that the current situation merely amplified some of his darker insecurities. God knew Tony always doubted everything good in his life. And it was not easy to admit, but most of them did leave him on his own for quite a while. But it wasn’t... of course he didn’t know everyone’s reasons, but Bruce didn’t leave because he did not want to be around Tony. He didn’t want himself to be around others, it wasn’t safe, it wasn’t smart, he just needed some time.

Of course Tony had a bad tendency of assuming the fault was in him.

It seems to me that this... spell has left him emotionally defenceless,’ Vision said evenly. Bruce was convinced he could feel real emotions, he saw him do and say things that could be considered empirical evidence, but he very rarely allowed them to come to the surface. Well, Bruce was no expert, he was sure Natasha could read him better.

I suggest that we minimize all and every contact with him until he is free from the influence of this,’ the android finished.

He gets kind of jittery, when he’s all alone for a long stretch of time,’ Steve said.

I’d rather he be... jittery, as you say, than having him speak of things he normally would never reveal to any of us,’ Vision told him.

I kind of agree,’ Clint said. He absently scratched one of the scars on his face until Natasha pushed his hand away. ‘Feels like a violation.’

We don’t know enough about this,’ Bruce said. ‘I know Loki was not really forthcoming with information, but we need to know more, even if we can’t get rid of it.’

He looked over to Natasha, who stared back for a moment, then nodded.

You’re right,’ she agreed. ‘I’ll talk with Thor. Steve, come with.’

I’ll join you, if you don’t mind,’ Bruce said. Not that Bruce doubted that Natasha and Steve would get enough information, but both of them had their own unique way of looking at things.

I would also like to know more about all this,’ Pepper said.

Excuse me, Miss Potts,’ Vision interrupted as she stood up. ‘But I don’t think it’s wise to make a... how do I put this? Make a grand presentation out of asking a few questions. Thor seemed rather troubled lately, even disturbed by the situation perhaps.’

One thing all of them had to admit, was that Vision was always observant. Always. It was probably as hard to get something past him as by Natasha. Natasha easily read people, because she had the skills and the experience. Vision had one of the most advanced computers to date for a brain, and he exchanged information with HELEN almost constantly without having to speak a word out loud. They never really done that many tests, but he had a vast amount of information stored in his mind which he could refer to at any time. He could probably analyse a huge amounts of data as rapidly as once JARVIS could. Of course it was probably not just data analysis that made him speak up, but empathy.

Bruce was always stunned into a profound sense of wonder whenever that happened, because it was the thing that made him into a person, instead of just a machine.

You’re right,’ Pepper said. ‘Me and Thor don’t talk that much, I should leave this to you. I have... meetings to re-schedule and phone calls to make. Please let me know if there is any news or... anything.’

We will, don’t worry,’ Natasha reassured her.

HELEN will inform you right away,’ Vision added. Pepper nodded in thanks and headed out.

Keep and eye on Tony, you two,’ Natasha said, then signed something completely different to Clint.

I think Clint learnt by now not to be too curious,’ Vision said to her, obviously understanding the signs perfectly.

You’re no fun, T-800,’ Clint said.

Bruce headed out after Natasha and Steve, but he still caught Vision’s dry reply.

Terminator again? You are getting very unimaginative, Francis.’

Aww dude, no. Total ban on the middle name, that’s so under the belt!’ Clint exclaimed so loudly Bruce could hear him from outside. It made Bruce chuckle, and that felt good, because he really needed a reason to smile a little right now.

Hey Thor,’ Natasha called out as soon as they stepped out of the elevator and sure enough, Thor came out of his bedroom to greet them. Bruce felt like he never would be able to get used to seeing him in a t-shirt. He was the kind of person you expected to walk around in armour and a cape. Not that Bruce begrudged him the comfortable clothes. He probably couldn’t wear many cosy clothing back in Asgard, being a prince and all.

How can I help you, my friends?’ Thor asked. ‘I would have come down, if there was need for me.’

We just want to go over some of the information Steve had for us with you, if that’s okay?’ Natasha said, which was not what they came for actually, but both Steve and Bruce stayed quiet. Thor gestured towards the couches and armchairs in the living room area of the floor.

Of course, I’m sorry, I should have stayed for your account of what happened,’ Thor said, looking at Steve apologetically.

It’s fine,’ Steve said right away.

We can discuss the important bits now,’ Natasha added easily. ‘HELEN, bring up the list Steve got from Loki.’

That was one of the most important pieces of information Steve shared with them. Natasha was still displeased about Steve not giving them all this immediately, and Bruce didn’t blame her, neither did Steve. Bruce looked over to the list of names that appeared mid-air in front of the biggest couch.

Most names still meant nothing to him, expect for Amora and Skurge now, but he was sure that Natasha already dug up what she could with the help of Vision, HELEN, and what remained of SHIELD. It was a very odd list of names, some were obviously human, but not all.

Loki said that this was a list of their currently known enemies. I’d like you to tell me if anyone is familiar on it,’ Natasha said.

Thor looked down the list of names. Bruce went over it again as well.

Amora, Skurge, Kierrok, Belasco, Isaiah Curwen, Whisperer, Arcade, Prince Gor-Tok, DeGuzman, Tony Hubris Jr., Clarisse Van Ripper, and Sean Grahl. It was a long list of enemies, especially if the other side of... whatever this was, only had Loki, Barnes, and the mysterious girl.

I do not know any of the Midgardian names,’ Thor said right away. Not that anyone expected him to recognize those.

Don’t worry, we dug up everything we could about them,’ Natasha said. ‘I can tell you, or you can ask HELEN to brief you later.’

I did hear about Prince Gor-Tok,’ Thor said. ‘Many-many years ago there used to be a kingdom beneath the surface of Midgard, a web of caverns lying miles deep, the home of many monstrous and deviant creatures.’

You have got to be kidding me,’ Steve said. ‘How many years is “many-many years”?’

Oh, do not be concerned, it was way over ten thousand years ago,’ Thor reassured them with a smile. ‘My great-grandfather King Buri ruled Asgard back then. That Kingdom exists no more.’

Well, that was a relief to hear. They did not need subterranean monsters on their plate, they really did not.

Gor-Tok is a thing of legends as well,’ Thor continued. ‘He and his Father lead an army to conquer this underground kingdom, but right in the middle of the war a great earthquake destroyed the entire civilization along with the invading army. We know of Gor-Tok’s name, he is mentioned in the tale, but he must’ve perished with the rest of them.’

But he’s on the list,’ Steve said. ‘So it’s just the same name, or did he survive all this time?’

I’m afraid we need to ask Loki,’ Thor said.

He’s the only one you know?’ Natasha asked.

Besides Amora and Skurge, yes,’ Thor confirmed.

We know they’re from Asgard,’ Natasha said.

Skurge is a great warrior from Skarnheim in Asgard, yes,’ Thor nodded. ‘Although it’s rumoured that he has the blood of giants in his veins. He was a hero in our war against Jotunheim, so no one ever dared to bring that up in front of him. He’s been absent from Asgard for a great many years. I have only met him briefly in my youth.’

And what can you tell us about Amora?’ Natasha asked. Now they reached the real reason they came here, not that everything else Thor told them was not important.

She’s a sorceress. Both her and her sister Lorelei committed great crimes in Asgard. Amora escaped, but Lorelei was captured eventually.’

Lorelei was on Earth not that long ago,’ Natasha said.

Yes, my friend Lady Sif had been sent after her when she escaped. She worked closely with SHIELD to recapture her form what I know.’

Yes, so we know what Lorelei did and how to capture her, was Amora involved in the same war as Lorelei?’ Natasha asked.

No,’ Thor shook his head. ‘They walked separate paths for as long as I can remember. Amora is much more powerful than her sister,’ he said, finally sitting down in an armchair as well. ‘She is much better versed in various forms of magic. It’s much more difficult to break her spells and contain her.’

But she’s a criminal then,’ Steve said. ‘No conflict with Asgard here, right?’

None at all,’ Thor said.

What did she do?’ Natasha asked.

That...’ Thor started then fell silent with a frown, obviously rethinking his words. ‘Amora and Loki used to be close friends,’ he said then. Bruce felt his eyebrows lift, because that was not what he expected to come out of Thor’s mouth.

She’s older than Loki and I, not by much, but her knowledge in the arcane arts was great even when she was younger. She was an apprentice of Karnilla, one of the most powerful sorceresses in all the Asgardian dimension. Amora had knowledge of things our Mother was unfamiliar with, and Loki was both curious and talented, so Amora shared some of this knowledge with him. Loki said she did it because she liked being able to walk around in the palace.’

Then... she and I, no that’s not the right way to put it, looking back,’ Thor fell silent again, thinking, and none of them interrupted. ‘She cast a spell on me, although I did not realize it at the time,’ he said in the end.

Bruce was afraid he was going to say that.

A love spell, just like the one she had cast on Tony now,’ Thor continued. ‘The troubling thing with her magic is that, if Tony had not attacked you, it would have been hard to tell that he was in her thrall. Almost no one realized I was bewitched for quite a while.’

Oh damn.

Not my friends, not my parents, or the court magi... it just seemed like we fell in love. That’s what I believed, that I was in love. It’s impossible to realize that it’s not real,’ he added. ‘Tony believes it right now, with his whole heart, that he is in love, more in love than he’s ever been.’

Thor took a breath, his shoulders were straight, but tense, his face sombre, yet his voice remained even as he continued after a moment of silence.

She was my whole world in those times. I did everything she asked of me, gave her everything she wanted without question. Most just thought it was young love that made me so foolish, that I would soon calm down. But Loki realized that something was not right. He knew both of us better than anyone else. None knew of Amora’s power back then, nobody knew she could cast such a spell, especially so seamlessly.’

Loki came to me first,’ Thor said with a sigh. ‘He asked me questions about Amora and when it was that I realized I loved her. When I told Amora, because I told her everything, she said to me that Loki was jealous that she’s been spending more time with me now, and not him. I believed her, of course, which lead to a few... let’s just say I was not kind to my little brother.’

Thor huffed out a bitter laugh, the memories obviously more than a little unpleasant for him. Bruce wanted to speak up and tell him he did not need to continue, if he did not want to, but Thor was not the sort of man who did anything he did not want to do. So if he continued, it was because he wanted to speak, get it off his chest maybe.

In the end, Loki convinced our Mother that something was amiss. I do not know how, I never asked, but she requested to meet me alone and she found the traces of her magic deeply embed into my heart and mind. I still remember how angry and horrified she was.’

Sif and other shield maidens were sent to arrest Amora, but she escaped from Asgard. All the while my father had to lock me up as my Mother undid Amora’s spell, otherwise I would have ran after her. My awakening was... well, I am glad Tony will have us once he regains his senses. And I am ever more glad that we could get ahold of him before Amora made him... whatever she wanted with him.’

What did she made you do?’ Natasha asked quietly.

Fortunately, nothing as horrendous as you might think,’ Thor said. ‘No blood on my hands because of her. She wished to be Queen one day, so she mostly just kept me in her bed.’

There was just one beat of silence before Natasha spoke again. ‘That’s horrendous enough,’ she said. Bruce couldn’t agree more.

It’s been many years ago,’ Thor said reassuringly. ‘She does not scare me, but I am wary of her power.’

I think we are all wary,’ Bruce said.

Loki hates her then,’ Steve said. ‘This is more than just what’s happening right now. This is personal.’

Aye, my brother... well, sister now, I suppose,’ he corrected himself with a frown. ‘Loki can hold a grudge better than anyone, and Amora was once a friend. It’s a betrayal Loki will not forgive, not ever, I’m certain of that.’

I don’t think it’s just the betrayal of their friendship Loki is angry about,’ Natasha said.

One should never assume with Loki,’ Thor said.

They all silently agreed with that.

Thor, I do think she was after you the other night,’ Natasha said then.

Aye, Loki was convinced of that as well,’ Thor agreed.

That means you’re a target,’ Natasha continued. ‘So you won’t fight this battle on the front line. And it’s not a coward’s way out, believe me.’

I’d like to think I’m wise enough to see that,’ Thor agreed easily.

Natasha nodded at him, pleased with the answer. ‘So, back to this spell of hers. If Loki doesn’t come through, any chance we can ask this Karnilla for help?’

She’s the Queen of Norns,’ Thor said. ‘She does not give out favours easily. Nornheim is a part of Asgard, but she is still a monarch in her own right. I doubt even my Father has any power over her. But if we have no other solution, I am willing to travel to Nornheim to bargain with her.’

Let’s wait for Strange to contact us before you go and make any deals,’ Steve said. ‘And if Loki hates Amora so much, she might find a way to undo her spell just to spite her.’

If she can find a way,’ Natasha added. ‘It’s not just Tony we have to worry about. We have twenty-six other guys under her control at the moment, all locked up safely for now. We don’t think anyone under her spell escaped, but we can’t keep this up indefinitely.’

We need to find a way to break her influence sooner rather than later,’ Bruce concluded.

A fortnight,’ Thor said. ‘Let us wait for Loki and Doctor Strange for that long.’

And Wanda, she started her own research on this too,’ Natasha added.

If after a fortnight none of them have answers for us, I will travel to Nornheim,’ Thor stated. Steve and Natasha shared a look, but they seemed to be in agreement about this.

Sounds good to me,’ Steve agreed, while Natasha nodded.

Bruce stayed silent, but he was pretty sure nobody waited for his input. Two weeks then. It was good to have a deadline, it was good to know that they had something concrete lined up if nothing else turned up, but still... it was going to be a very long two weeks.

Chapter Text

Steve had trouble sleeping... again. It didn’t even surprise him any more, he knew there were too many thoughts swirling around in his mind to be able to rest, too many emotions.

Guilt, was one of them. He shouldn’t have kept secrets. He should’ve known better, he did know better. Loki was the biggest warning sign one could ever get, but he still kept things from his friends, and it blew up in his face. Now Tony and over two dozen guys were under the control of an Asgardian sorceress, locked up so that they wouldn’t hurt their friends and family, or even more likely; their spouses. The whole team was suffering, scrambling to find answers, ways to protect themselves in the future.

They had reasons to doubt Steve now, and he could not blame them for a second. He brought this on himself.

It wasn’t just the guilt that kept him awake, it was more how stupid he felt, even naive maybe. He wanted Bucky to be all right so damn much. He wanted to believe that Bucky found some magical solution to fix himself, and soon everything would be just fine. He wanted to believe so badly that he could trust him the way he used to. Clearly that was a mistake. Bucky was far from all right, and Steve never should have assumed otherwise. He was just so desperate to have back what he lost. Too willing to hope, too eager to latch onto the smallest things.

Having hope is never foolish, my friend,’ Thor told him, understanding without words. ‘And neither is giving someone a chance.’

Steve kept turning those worse around in his head. He could acknowledge the truth in them, but he still felt... maybe stupid was not the right word. He was careless, and he was selfish, and now he was left feeling disappointed, raw, and angry.

He also worried about how they were going to free all the guys from Amora’s spell, so no wonder sleep eluded him.

And he couldn’t stop thinking about Bucky...

He got up from his bed, because he knew there was no point lying around in the dark. He didn’t like his floor in Stark Tower that much, and it had nothing to do with the constant surveillance of an AI, or all the electronics. It was how huge it was. Before the serum, before the war and everything, his apartment in Brooklyn was a two-room little hole. The first room being the kitchen and occasionally the bath, with a board thrown over the tub to be used as a table on most days. The second room was the bedroom itself, which was also his living room. It was a tiny place, the only thing he could afford, and even then he sometimes struggled with paying the rent in time. Bucky had chipped in to help him out with that way more than Steve had ever been comfortable with.

This whole floor was bigger than... definitely bigger then the entire floor of that old apartment building, maybe even as big as two put together. The bedroom was enormous, the bathroom was enormous, so was the kitchen, not to mention the giant living room, and his private gym. Because of course his floor had its own gym. Smaller than the main one, but still. Even the gym was bigger than his old apartment.

He could tell that Thor was used to having this much space. Hell, maybe the floor was even smaller than what he was used to back in Asgard. But for Steve it was strange to walk across the empty floor in the middle of the night, especially considering how long it took to get to his kitchen. Just... too much space.

It wouldn’t have been so bad, if he had anyone else staying on the same floor as him. But being this alone, especially at night, so high above the city to boot, he didn’t like it. The quiet just made the thoughts that much louder in his head.

He opened the fridge and stared inside for a few long moments, being put off by the sheer amount of options. He had no idea who stocked this fridge, but he really did not need six different kinds of juice. He picked one at random, some ginger pomegranate thing. He started drinking straight from the carton, not really giving a damn this late at night.

Then he closed the fridge, turned around, and promptly chocked, getting a good mouthful of juice on his t-shirt. Because Bucky was standing in his kitchen. How the hell?

He swallowed what he did not cough up from the juice, then wiped his mouth. He eyed Bucky with a frown, who stared right back.

HELEN, is there some silent alarm going?’ he asked.

No, should I activate one?’ the AI asked right away. ‘Are you in danger or require assistance?

Steve frowned again, because he was either hallucinating, or Bucky was somehow invisible to the cameras and other sensors.

No, thank you HELEN. Private mode, please,’ he added, putting the juice down on the table, still staring at Bucky.

Primary surveillance deactivated,’ HELEN reported. ‘The system will automatically restart at 0800, or in a case of emergency.’

Steve stayed silent for another moment, but Bucky didn’t say anything. He was in full gear, no goggles or mask, and not armed to the teeth, but he was still armed. He had a black leather jacket on that hid his metal arm.

What are you doing here?’ he asked. His voice was quiet, but still came out way too loud in the quiet of the night.

I... had to see you,’ Bucky said, but his tone was almost questioning, like he wasn’t sure what exactly was the best thing to say here. Steve should have expected this really.

Where’s Loki?’ Steve asked then, because he didn’t think Bucky could actually get into the Tower, and up to his floor, while being invisible to HELEN. Not all on his own.

She’s doing research, ways to break Amora’s spell, or how to bind her magic. She dropped me off.’

Huh,’ Steve said. Surprised that Loki was actually doing what she said she would.

Don’t be so shocked, you convinced her,’ Bucky said.

Right,’ Steve said, then fell silent again. He waited for Bucky to say something more. Because if he came here like this, he obviously wanted more than to just see Steve.

It took a little time though. Enough time for Steve to get a kitchen towel damp, and clean up some of the juice from this t-shirt, and anywhere else it went. Enough for Steve to put the carton back in the fridge.

I wasn’t gonna kill your friend,’ Bucky said then, carefully.

You shot him, you kept shooting at him.’

I was gonna shoot him, but I wasn’t gonna kill him,’ Bucky explained. Steve took a large breath. He needed to sit down for this.

He only headed back to his bedroom, because that was the only place on the whole floor that felt even remotely comfortable. He had a feeling that he was going to need that sense of comfort for this discussion. Bucky followed him without a word.

He only turned on the small lamp on the nightstand. He glanced at the digital clock; 2:13 AM, great. His t-shirt was damp and sticky from the spilled juice, so he pulled it off and opened a drawer to find a new one. He didn’t have that many clothes here.

You’re angry,’ Bucky said from behind him.

Yeah, Buck, I’m angry,’ Steve nodded, putting on the new t-shirt.

Bucky was a dark shape a few feet away from his bed. He was keeping his distance, but Steve wasn’t sure for whose benefit. He was unnaturally still, no fidgeting, no idle unnecessary movements.

I killed nobody,’ Bucky said then. Again, it was a statement that had a very question-like quality to it.

You don’t get why I’m angry,’ Steve concluded, that was the only thing he could think of.

Not really,’ Bucky said, and left it at that, obviously expecting an explanation of sorts. ‘I mean the plan was shit, I get that.’

Steve was frustrated, but he knew he was going to explain. It didn’t matter whether he was guilty, or angry, or felt damn stupid. This was Bucky, he was going to explain and... see where that left them.

You wanna not loom over there in the dark?’ Steve asked after he sat down on the bed, raising an eyebrow. Bucky walked closer and sat down too, without almost any hesitation.

Now that Steve saw his face up close in the light, he noticed how tired he looked. His stubble was a little thicker than the last time Steve saw him, while the rings under his eyes were dark and deep. Bucky noticed him looking of course.

New batch of memories, I can never sleep okay for a while,’ Bucky explained easily.

New memories,’ Steve prompted.

With Loki busy with this Amora mess, figured it’s a good time as any to get a few more back, cause it won’t matter if I’m off my game a bit.’

Steve thought about it for a moment. ‘Good or bad memories?’ he asked.

Bit of both,’ Bucky shrugged. ‘I remember Louise and Evelyn now,’ he added quietly. Bucky’s other sisters.

They’re... they’re alive,’ Steve told him, because maybe Bucky didn’t know. ‘Becca too, she lives in Indiana. She has two kids, and is a grandmother now, Proctor is the name, I think. And Louise is a writer, she wrote a whole lot of books, she lives in Maine. And Evelyn is here in New York, her family too, I don’t remember her husband’s name though, but...’

No,’ Bucky interrupted him quietly.

No, what?’

I’m not gonna see them,’ Bucky said. Then looked at Steve. ‘You didn’t... tell them... about me?’

No, I only met Becca once, but that was a long while back. Bucky... they’re your family, even if the girls got old, they’re still--’

No,’ Bucky repeated.


They mourned... their brother, who was this big national hero, I’m not gonna... I won’t take that away form them.’

Buck, you really think they would rather not see you alive?’

This is not why I’m here,’ Bucky said with a tone of finality. Steve wanted to push, but then he remembered that it was probably not the right time either way.

Okay, why are you here then?’

Bucky stared at him for a moment, then looked away.

I don’t want you to be angry,’ he said.

That sounded so simple, and yet it was not. Steve’s anger this time was not an easy thing to get ahold of. It was intangible, aimless, just darkening his every moment. He had no easy answer to how not be angry. But he tried to gather his thoughts.

Have you been lying to me?’ he asked. ‘About you... about anything?’

Bucky looked at him again, a frown firmly on his face. Steve was at loss what his expression meant.

It wasn’t... I just dammit, look... it takes time for me to learn. Memories are one thing, but acting like it takes practice, especially if I don’t want to make it obvious.’

It all became perfectly clear to Steve in an instant. He didn’t think of it in these terms, not even when he noticed small things that were odd. A slightly unnatural shrug, but a perfect Brooklyn drawl. Hearing words he was used to hear, but a ruthlessness that was familiar for completely different reasons.

Buck, you mean acting like you see yourself in your memories?’ he asked, just to be sure.

I’m getting there... I think,’ Bucky said. ‘I thought I was getting there, but now you’re back acting like...’

I don’t want you to pretend for my sake,’ Steve said right away.

It’s not just about you,’ Bucky said. ‘Not just when you’re around. I’ve been doing it even when I’m on my own. It’s not supposed to be a deception, but now you’re acting like it is. I’m trying, it takes time.’

He raised his voice as he spoke, his body getting tense, agitated.

Bucky, slow down, hey... calm down, all right?’

He was not okay, not nearly as okay as Steve thought. It had been too good to be true, that’s what he should have realized. He should have known something was not adding up, not even with the deal Bucky made.

Bucky was looking at him again, while Steve thought about how to proceed. He had to be smart about the things he said.

It’s not working, is it?’ Bucky asked.

You shouldn’t be pretending,’ Steve told him.

Because it’s obvious.’

No, because I don’t think it’s helping you.’

Bucky looked away with a frown.

I thought... it would work, with practice,’ he said. The expression on his face closed off, went slightly blank, while his voice turned quiet. ‘But I guess I was deluding myself.’

That tone of finality did not sit right with Steve.


I should go.’

No, you most definitely should not,’ Steve said firmly.

I have not lied about any information I’ve given you,’ Bucky said, standing up, his entire body language screamed “defensive”. He was putting distance between them.

That’s not what I want to talk about, and sit back down, would you? Bucky... c’mon. Hear me out,’ Bucky was still standing so Steve added, ‘Please.’

Bucky sat back down on the bed, his back straight, his whole posture tense, but not aggressive.

I really need you to understand what I mean when I say I don’t want you to pretend.’

You want your friend back,’ Bucky said. ‘Not a bad imitation.’

No, forget about me.’

I can’t forget about you, you’re the first thing I remembered!’ Bucky burst out, the blankness from his face gone immediately. ‘You can’t... you can’t imagine what that was like, recognizing someone, when you have literally nothing, when you didn’t think it was possible. They tried to make me forget, wipe it out... so don’t tell me to forget about you.’

Steve’s heart ached, hearing those words. No, he couldn’t imagine, it was impossible. It was one of the reasons Steve really needed him to stop pretending. When Bucky acted like he was fine, it was harder to remember that he was not, it made Steve careless with his words.

What I mean is, that yeah, I wanted my friend back. I missed you like crazy, you know, it was impossible not to, but you’re here, I already got you back. You’re not an imitation, no matter how you act, you’re 100% real, Bucky Barnes in the flesh. I don’t need you to try and act the way you used to. I just want you to be okay.’

You won’t like the way I am,’ Bucky said.

You don’t know that,’ Steve said. ‘And you don’t get to decide that either.’

I do know,’ Bucky insisted. ‘Because you’re angry.’


Steve licked his lips. He once again became very aware of how important it was what came out of his mouth. Especially when he saw that Bucky was just staring at a random spot, mostly lost in his own thoughts.

Cause I didn’t expect that of you, okay? I didn’t know what to expect of you. I couldn’t know if you were going to hurt someone. How could I have known? One moment, you’re acting like the guy I remember, then you’re suddenly different. See what I mean?’

Bucky stayed silent, so Steve put a hand on his right arm to get his attention. Bucky didn’t react to the touch, other than turning to look at Steve again.

I need to know you,’ Steve told him. ‘That’s the only way I can trust you.’

You won’t trust me, if you know me,’ Bucky said. ‘You probably shouldn’t anyway.’

Now you’re just talking nonsense,’ Steve told him.

You don’t know that.’

You don’t know either,’ Steve countered. ‘Hey, listen to me, no more pretending, and we’ll see where that takes us, okay?’

Bucky pursed his lips and looked away, shaking his head once.


You have no idea what you’re asking from me,’ he said.

Tell me then.’

Bucky took a deep breath. ‘It’s simple to just think about what that guy would’ve done.’

Steve assumed Bucky was referring to himself before his fall as “that guy”, it didn’t feel right to refer to his past as a separate person, but that was a discussion for another day. One step at a time.

Doing all this shit from scratch is... I won’t know! I won’t know whether it’s okay... how am I supposed to? It’s damn fucking hard, you have no idea how bad it was... you have... dammit.’

Steve tightened his hold on Bucky’s arm for a moment, just to remind him that he was right there. Maybe he also hoped that it would ground him a little. Steve still felt guilty about what happened, but not angry. He also felt a lot less stupid.

I guess I understand how after everything you’ve been through,’ Steve started. ‘Everything you’ve been put through. Why you’d wanna take the easy way out... I do get it, Buck. God knows you deserve things to be less difficult for you.’

Bucky was silent.

And I know sometimes it’s hard to do the right thing, especially when the world keeps screwing you over.’

It’s not hard for you,’ Bucky said. ‘You don’t think putting a bullet in someone is the most straightforward way to get them out of the way.’

Sometimes I do,’ Steve said. ‘Depends on who’s standing on the other side of the barrel.’

Well, it doesn’t for me.’

I don’t believe that,’ Steve shook his head. ‘You just told me you weren’t going to kill Tony.’

Cause he’s your friend,’ Bucky said.

What about all the other guys? I mean, I know there were a few cracked bones, but you didn’t kill any of them either.’

They were not real threats, the was no point wasting ammunition.’

There was something strange in Bucky’s tone, but Steve couldn’t really put a finger on it.

Back when you didn’t remember,’ he said. ‘When Hydra sent you after me...’

Bucky’s arm tensed under Steve’s fingers, so he gave him a reassuring squeeze. He also turned towards him more fully, pulling one leg up on the bed. He kept his body language open, it was not much, but it couldn’t hurt.

You didn’t care about threat levels, bystanders, or wasting bullets back then.’

Because there was... no time, I just...’

Buck, you trust me to tell you the truth?’ Steve asked.

Yeah,’ Bucky said. ‘Even if you beat around the bush a whole damn lot when you’re uncomfortable.’

Steve huffed out a quiet laugh. ‘I’m telling you right here; you’re a good man. You’ve always been.’

I’m really not,’ Bucky shook his head.

I believe you are,’ Steve told him.

Bucky was not okay, he was so not okay yet, but Steve believed this. Bucky didn’t, it was clear from the look on his face. But Steve was convinced, he firmly believed, that no amount of brainwashing, conditioning, or any other horrors could carve out the very core of a person. And at his very core Bucky Barnes was brave, loyal, and good. The best guy Steve’s ever known.

And I believe you are flippin’ your friggin’ wig.’

Steve chuckled, and smiled at him. He finally let his hand drop from Bucky’s arm, but he didn’t turn away again.

The silence between them was less tense now, which was a relief, even if they solved very little from the huge pile of problems lying ahead in their future.

You mind if I ask you a question?’ Steve asked then, breaking the silence again.

You know there’s stuff I can’t tell you,’ Bucky replied right away.

Not about that.’


The kiss... kisses,’ he corrected himself. ‘Was that... also something you did, cause you thought it was what I wanted?’

Bucky turned to look at him, but his face was damn unreadable. Steve needed to relearn his face, get to know his tiny tells, because the old ones were rare to find. At least when he turned towards Steve, the light from the lamp filled up his eyes with colour. They looked blue now, and not grey as they were in the darkness.

No, that was selfish,’ Bucky said. ‘I like being close to you.’

I... like it when you’re close,’ Steve told him in return. Hell, if he thought there was even the smallest chance Bucky might listen, Steve would’ve told him to never leave his side again. But... but.... He sighed and glanced away.

But not like that?’ Bucky asked.

That’s not it,’ Steve shook his head. ‘I just need to get to know you. I need to know you’re okay enough to... I don’t want you doing something you’ll regret later.’

Why would I regret it?’ Bucky asked, not sounding too concerned about the possibility. ‘You’re.. you.’

That made Steve smile, he couldn’t help it.

I don’t know how we’re gonna end up, you n’ me,’ Bucky said. ‘But I really don’t think something like this of all things could drive a wedge between us. I mean I shot you... multiple times.’

It was the worst possible joke ever, truly. Goddammit. Not even Bucky looked happy about making it.

Wow, suddenly you’re the reasonable one, huh?’ Steve asked, not commenting on the other part.

I’m always the reasonable one,’ Bucky said.

Steve scoffed. ‘Debatable.’

Shut up and kiss me, Rogers,’ Bucky said, his voice suddenly deeper than a second ago. Steve went still.

And maybe I’m not okay in the head, I’ll give you that,’ Bucky continued. ‘But I’m all right enough to know what I want... What do you want?’

That’s a goddamn stupid question,’ Steve told him with a smile he wished were perfectly happy, but he just knew things were not suddenly perfect. They couldn’t be that lucky.

But he still closed the distance between them, put his lips firmly on Bucky’s and kissed him, instead of just allowing to be kissed. Bucky parted his lips and leaned closer to him, closing the distance between their bodies, as if it was the easiest thing in the world. For a moment Steve did not know where to put his hands, or if he should just leave them where they were. Bucky gave him a good enough clue when he put both his hands on Steve’s neck, cradling his head. One hand was warm and calloused, the other cool and smooth. Steve rested one hand on Bucky’s side, his fingers spread on his ribs, the other was a little farther down on his waist.

Steve was only in a t-shirt and sleeping pants, while Bucky was still wearing his jacket, but it was fine. Well, it would have been better without the jacket in the way, Steve was ready to admit that, but the kiss... oh, the kiss itself. That made up for the wardrobe difference. His lips tingled, his breath quickened, and he just knew that a blush was crawling up his neck. No amount of super-soldier serum could save him from his pale skin. Bucky’s warm hand slid down his neck, over his collarbone, and rested on his chest now, while the metal fingers moved back to his nape, keeping him close. As if he would want to go anywhere.

He almost surprised himself, but he was the one to deepen the kiss some more, licking Bucky’s full lips, then into his mouth. He didn’t think he ever kissed anyone like this. It was not the act itself, a kiss this passionate, but everything it made him feel. It lit up his brain, his body. It was more than just the kiss. It was the smell, and sound, feeling Bucky’s hands on his body, being able to touch him in return, have him this close, so very close.

He almost fell back on the bed when Bucky leaned even closer and it made Steve pull his lips away. Bucky remained exactly where he was, not backing off an inch, which meant they were close enough to share air, and that Steve was kind of diagonal.


What?’ Bucky asked.

Planning on staying?’ Steve asked. ‘And by “staying” I mean something that includes breakfast?’

Bucky frowned.

Cause if not, then maybe ease up on getting me horizontal.’

Bucky looked down at Steve.

I mean, I could,’ he said.

Really?’ Steve asked in return.

No, not really,’ Bucky admitted as he pulled back, although he still looked slightly confused. Steve sat up straight and gestured at Bucky’s jacket, then boots.

You being ready to bail any second doesn’t really set the right mood,’ he said.

Bucky hummed, then shrugged.

Fair enough,’ he said easily. He ran his fingers through his hair a few times, smoothing down some strands. Bucky always paid close attention to how he looked like, Steve wondered if that was still true, or if the longer hair was just more troublesome.

So... what now?’ Steve asked.

Like a switch was flipped, Bucky was serious again, his posture not as loose, his eyes more sharp. Back to business, really quickly. Steve was pretty sure this was something he needed to get used to. Bucky’s lips were red and swollen though, so that sort of ruined the whole image. Steve licked his own lips, yeah, he was kinda proud of seeing that.

After Loki finds a way to counter Amora’s spell,’ Bucky told him. ‘We’re going to use her blood to track her down. I’m not sure what exactly Loki plans to do to her, but it probably involves pain in some capacity, and death.’

Is that smart?’ Steve asked. ‘I mean, I get Loki’s probably immune to her power now, but you’re not. And what about Skurge? You can’t take them down on your own, you know that. Skurge probably won’t be her only defence either.’

We don’t exactly have help lining up,’ Bucky told him.

Right here, lining up,’ Steve said, gesturing at himself.

Doesn’t help us much,’ Bucky said plainly. ‘You’re also a guy, and Skurge could kill you just as easily as me or Loki.’

The Avengers--’ Steve started, but Bucky cut him off right away.

I ain’t going to make promises about working with the whole damn lot, especially without Loki knowing about it. We ain’t going after her yet, so there’s no point talking about it.’

To be fair, there was no point talking about it without the rest of the team either. Steve wasn’t really in a position to make big promises on the Avengers’ behalf, not really.

Fine, but just so you know, I gave the list Loki showed me to the rest of the team, so they have all names now too. I had to.’

What list?’ Bucky asked.

The list of your currently known enemies,’ Steve said. ‘With Gor-Tok, Arcade... Van Ripper.’

Bucky’s jaw clenched, then he sighed, visibly forcing himself to relax.

She was only supposed to warn you about Amora and Skurge,’ Bucky said.

Well, she gave me a longer list.’

I told her I did not want to drag you into this further.’

Tough luck, I’m involved, we needed to know all those names... and I can’t believe I just sided with Loki in something.’

She ain’t so bad all the time, you’d be surprised.’

Steve shook his head, he didn’t really have anything to say about the matter.

I’m going to tell the others that you were here,’ Steve added then. ‘I can’t keep secrets from them.’

Bucky huffed, and gave Steve a smile. ‘No dirty little secret?’

Steve leaned closer to peck him on the lips, and said, ‘None.’

Bucky looked at him for a moment. ‘Promise Natalia that I’ll give you some dirt on some of those names on Loki’s list, things she couldn’t dig up, not even with SHIELD’s help. That should be enough to appease her.’

Well then.

Promise Loki we won’t get in the way of whatever she plans to do with Amora,’ Steve said after a moment. Bucky was surprised, he could tell. ‘That should be enough to make her consider including us in this chase.’

Why?’ Bucky asked.

Thor told us about the things she did,’ Steve said. ‘And I don’t think we have anyone else who could actually take her down, unless we get help from Asgard.’

It’s a plan,’ Bucky agreed.

Steve wanted to be involved from the very start, but now he knew that he was not alone. After what Amora did to Tony, they were all pulled into this. It wasn’t just about Bucky and Loki, this was their business now too. Bucky seemed to have given up on talking Steve out of this, for now at least. That was good enough for Steve. And Loki? Well, she just had to learn to deal with it, one way or another.

Chapter Text

Natasha was keenly aware of the fact that she and Clint were staring down at Steve like disappointed parents. It was mainly Steve’s face that made her feel like that. But seriously. This was getting ridiculous.

‘You don’t learn, do you?’ she asked.

‘I’m not a child, Natasha,’ Steve said. He was getting stubborn. Natasha resisted the urge to sigh.

‘Did it even occur to you, that maybe he just said the things he knew would placate you?’

Steve crossed his arms over his chest. Maybe it occurred to him, maybe not. It didn’t seem to matter all that much.

‘You are beyond compromised, you’re aware of that, right?’ she asked then.

‘I told you he was here,’ Steve said.

‘Yeah, a day later,’ Clint said.

‘We already knew Loki could get in and out, no matter how good the security is,’ Steve insisted.

‘And now you’re telling us to work with them,’ Natasha added.

‘You want to take down Amora too, don’t tell me you don’t,’ Steve argued. ‘I know the twins and Vision want to. I’m damn sure Tony will too, once he’s back to normal. And what about Thor, huh? He’s in danger... I mean dammit, what this woman does to people... yeah I wanna take advantage of Loki co-operating. This is an “enemy of my enemy” situation.’

‘No, it’s not that simple, because we can’t trust Loki,’ Natasha told him very firmly.

‘And what if she comes through? Helps Tony like she promised?’ Steve asked, challenged really.

‘Steve, we know this is not about Loki for you,’ Clint said. ‘You just wanna work with Barnes. But can you really look me in the eye, and tell me I should work with Loki? With Loki?!’

‘No, sorry, you know you wouldn’t have to.’

‘Yes, but you want the team to agree to this,’ Natasha said.

‘Look, personal feelings aside--’

‘You are not putting aside your personal feelings either,’ Natasha cut him off, almost angrily. ‘Maybe having Barnes around is enough for you to look past Loki, but it’s not enough for me.’

‘Why are you even bothering with us?’ Clint asked then, he looked angry, and the still healing bruises, scraps, and small bandages on his face made his glare appear that much darker.

‘Like you said, Wanda won’t care about either Barnes or Loki, cause she’s mad as hell at Amora, and Pietro always follows her lead. Vision probably thinks Amora is a more imminent threat, so he will want the help and information. Thor knows Loki’s dangerous, but he has a nasty history with Amora, while Tony’s down for the count. We could ask Pepper and Rhodey about what they think, but I’m willing to bet they would rather have Tony fine first, and then deal with the repercussions after. I’ve no idea about Bruce, but you’re usually pretty good at convincing him.’

‘So here you are, talking to us in private,’ Natasha added. ‘You knew we wouldn’t agree.’

‘I wanted to hear your reasons for not agreeing,’ Steve corrected. ‘If you had other reasons than our history with Loki.’

‘Our history should be more than enough,’ Natasha said. ‘Loki should be sitting in an Asgardian prison right now.’

‘If there’s anyone who understands why we shouldn’t allow our past to dictate our decisions, it’s you,’ Steve said. Now he was just being unfair. He turned to Clint. ‘I know what Loki put you through is atrocious.’

‘Understatement,’ Clint said.

‘And I won’t ask you to even be in the same room as her,’ Steve said. ‘But they are going after Amora, even if it’s just the two of them. So we can either turn our backs, or demand to be a part of it and make sure she is actually taken care of.’

Natasha sighed, then she looked at Clint to gauge what he was thinking.

‘I don’t like this,’ was what he said of course. ‘But Wanda found jack squat, Strange does not bother getting back to us, and I don’t feel good about that Queen lady.’

‘What, you think it’s a trap?’ Natasha asked.

‘Maybe?’ he shrugged. ‘If Amora expects Thor to go to her, I don’t know.’

Natasha considered this possibility as well. The death of Queen Frigga was probably well known all across the Nine Realms, so it would be reasonable to expect Thor to go to Karnilla instead in a situation like this.

‘So?’ Steve prompted.

‘So, I’d rather have Loki in a dark cell somewhere very-very far away from me,’ Clint said. ‘But I kinda hate being this vulnerable to Amora slightly more at the moment.’

‘Okay,’ Steve nodded.

‘But I doubt Loki’s actually going to help us,’ Clint added with a pointed look. Natasha had to agree.

‘No matter what Barnes said, I don’t see why she would do us a favour. Only if it’s for the same reasons she did Strange a favour. To put us where she wants us, basically in her debt.’

‘We’re not going to be in her debt if we help take down Amora,’ Steve said. ‘Loki is many things, but not stupid. They can’t take down Amora and Skurge on their own, and she knows that.’

‘And what are we going to do when she turns on us?’ Natasha asked.

‘We won that fight before,’ Steve said easily.

‘And what will Barnes do if it comes to that?’ Natasha pressed on. Steve didn’t have an answer to that questions, like she knew he wouldn’t.

‘I don’t know,’ Steve admitted quietly. Natasha didn’t ask Steve what he was going to do, because no way was he going to give her a straight answer. Considering what shape he was in after Project Insight and his fight with the Winter Soldier, Natasha feared his true answer was something she would rather not hear.

‘So if Loki helps Tony...’ Steve asked, getting them back on track.

‘That’s a very big “if”, let’s leave it at that for now,’ Natasha said. ‘And if Barnes infiltrates the Tower again, he better give us the information he promised,’ she added.

Barnes did infiltrate the Tower again. He probably didn’t do it alone the first time either, but this time he was not the only one to stay.

Intruders in the containment room,’ HELEN announced everywhere at once a few days after their talk with Steve.

‘Oh, this has got to be a joke,’ she told herself as she made her way up to the right floor, because she knew immediately who their unexpected visitors were. She couldn’t decide whether her surprise was justified, because as far as she was concerned there were still no logical reasons why Loki would lift even a finger, none. Well, unless her help came with conditions. That was Natasha’s new line of thought as she stepped out of the elevator.

Everyone vacated the containment room,’ HELEN told her after just a few steps, so Natasha changed directions.

‘Everyone?’ she asked in return, wanting to know what to expect.

Vision and Bruce were the first to arrive, but Steve is also present now,’ HELEN supplied. ‘They moved over to the conference room together, they have Tony with them.’

‘And we are here as well,’ Thor called from somewhere behind Natasha. She glanced back as Thor caught up with her, the twins right on his heels. He had his hammer on him, good.

Miss Potts is on her way,’ HELEN reported.

The first thing Natasha heard was Bruce’s calm, but very pointed voice.

‘...and I think you should appreciate the fact that my skin is not turning green right now,’ he said.

‘You asked for my help, Rogers,’ Loki said in return. The female voice was still unfamiliar, but her tone was not. ‘But we can just leave, if you’d prefer.’

Thor moved forward to be the first to step into the room out of the four of them.

‘Oh, brilliant,’ Loki scoffed immediately.

Loki and Barnes stood on one side of the room. Loki had Tony pinned to the table easily with nothing but a hand on his throat. He was struggling a bit, but didn’t put any real effort into it. It didn’t seem like Loki was hurting him, but the sight put Natasha on edge nonetheless. She understood the warning in Bruce’s voice now.

Steve was closer to Barnes and Loki than Vision and Bruce were, but they didn’t necessarily need to be close to someone in order to attack them. Their very presence counted as a warning.

‘You came,’ Thor said to Loki.

‘I can be generous,’ Loki said, she was probably going for sounding magnanimous, but it didn’t really come across as such. It sounded more like a deal with the devil. And that smile on her face, it was anything but kind. ‘And I would have already started, if you would stop interrupting me.’

‘How do we know what exactly she’s going to do?’ Bruce asked.

‘Yes. Maybe you could explain how you found a way to break Amora’s spell,’ Natasha prompted as she walked around Thor to have a better look at everyone in the room. Tony started struggling some more hearing those words.

‘Because I’m brilliant, and a master of all arcane arts,’ Loki said, then looked down at Tony with an angry scowl. ‘Stop moving around.’

‘You wanted help, you’re getting it,’ Barnes said. ‘Stop wasting our time.’

‘Wanda, can you monitor what she’s doing in any way?’ Natasha asked.

‘I’ll notice if it’s something that harms him,’ Wanda said, keeping her eyes on Loki and Tony. Loki immediately locked her green eyes on Wanda, assessing her. Wanda was not unnerved the least bit by the sharp gaze, she even crossed her arms leisurely, lifting an eyebrow. Natasha wanted to smile at her approvingly, but now was not the time.

‘Oh my God!’ she heard from the door. Pepper finally arrived, with Rhodey in tow. ‘What’s going on? Tony!’

‘Oh for the Norns’ sake, how many of you are there?’ Loki asked, sounding more irritated by the second.

Clint was the only one absent, because he was back in his own apartment. He left after their talk with Steve. He told Natasha to call him if they needed him.

‘What is going on? Who is she?’ Pepper demanded. The armour should have been obvious maybe, since it was almost exactly the same Loki wore before, only sleeveless and shaped to fit her new form. There was no make-up on Loki’s face, like at the charity ball, so her features were also easily recognizable. Natasha would have taken her for a sister, if she hadn’t known better.

‘You are all wasting my time,’ Loki said. ‘I have yet to find Amora, so I won’t be--’

Tony started struggling, a lot more than before. He trashed and tried to twist away from Loki’s grip.

‘You’re not gonna get her, you won’t get her,’ he was saying angrily, trying to twist away or hit Loki. Natasha was not the only one who wanted to go to Tony immediately seeing that, but Loki made an angry sound and reacted before any of them could intervene.

‘You’re infuriating,’ she said, slamming Tony back down on the table, knocking the breath out of him. His head made a dull thud as it collided with the wooden surface. Then Loki easily climbed up on the table and pinned Tony down with a knee on his stomach. Her long hair almost hid Tony’s face from the rest of them.

‘I am very close to strangling you,’ she hissed at Tony.

She didn’t hurt him, not really. Natasha focused on staying calm and collected, not allowing her thoughts and emotions to be plainly written on her face. Barnes was still watching them all.

‘Lady, you are way too straightforward for my taste,’ Tony managed to squeeze out after a moment despite Loki’s fingers on his throat. ‘And I’m taken y’know, so if you could get off of me.’

‘Why am I doing this again?’ Loki asked, looking back at Barnes.

‘Cause we don’t want Amora to have an Avenger as leverage against the other Avengers,’ Barnes said plainly. He was probably the calmest person in the room.

‘There are easier ways to achieve that,’ Loki said, almost absently.

‘Loki,’ Thor warned, his voice loud and commanding. ‘No threats.’

He said nothing more, but probably Loki knew him well enough to understand.

‘If you’re here to help, then help us,’ Steve said firmly. ‘You’re smart enough to know what will happen if you hurt him.’ He didn’t even need to gesture at Bruce or anyone else in the room.

‘Let’s get this over with then,’ Loki said.

‘What are you going to do?’ Pepper asked. Loki ignored her. Pepper got that incredulously angry look on her face and she marched over to her and Tony before anyone could hold her back. It was kind of like watching a train-wreck. Natasha felt a spike of nervousness run down her spine when Pepper grabbed Loki’s arm, just above the armguard she wore.

‘I asked; what are you going to do?’ Pepper repeated. Loki pulled on her arm, and seemed surprised for a second. Yes, she most definitely did not know about Pepper and the Extremis up until this point. Now she would, great.

‘Aren’t you supposed to be an average human?’ she asked, finally looking directly at Pepper, only now acknowledging her existence that she proved to be something more than what she appeared to be.

Natasha glanced over to Barnes, but he did not move, he just observed.

‘Answer my question,’ Pepper insisted.

‘Free him from Amora’s spell, what else?’ Loki answered. She made a face to make sure they all understood that she was only humouring Pepper. Tony tried to wiggle his way out from under Loki at those words, but he was pinned.

Pepper looked around the room, the worry clear in her eyes.

‘How do we know?’ she asked. ‘What if she makes it worse?’

Maybe it was just the light, but Natasha was rather sure that Pepper’s eyes were already starting to glow amber. That said a lot about her emotional state.

‘What could be worse?’ Loki asked before anyone else spoke.

‘Being your lapdog?’ Natasha asked, drawing Loki’s attention away from Pepper for a moment.

‘I have no such powers, and I don’t have the sceptre,’ Loki said. ‘Now... if you don’t mind.’

She pointedly looked down at Pepper’s hand, still gripping her just below her elbow. Pepper hesitated, and she was right. Natasha wanted more answers too before they let her anywhere near Tony’s mind. This was too risky.

‘Looks like the lady here doesn’t want help from the likes of us, princess,’ Barnes drawled.

Loki made a considering hum, but didn’t react otherwise. Not even to the “princess” bit. Natasha found that odd. She was either used to hearing it, or she was simply not aware of the negative human connotations.

‘Yes, maybe we should just let Stark join his lady love,’ Loki said to Pepper, but also to the room at large. Then she looked down at Tony. ‘You’d like that, right Tony? If you could join your dearest Amora.’

‘Yes,’ Tony managed to say, maybe Loki eased up on his throat to let him speak. ‘Yes, please, let me go... please.’

Natasha knew what they were doing, knew exactly, they all knew. That didn’t make hearing Tony speak like this any easier.

‘Aww, look at that, poor thing,’ Loki mocked, clearly finding a lot of amusement in the situation all of a sudden, because her anger was gone right away. ‘So miserable without her.’

Pepper let go of her arm. Natasha saw that there was a hand-shaped burn on Loki’s pale skin where Pepper gripped her. Loki looked down at the marks and watched as they faded away.

‘I can literally light you on fire,’ Pepper said. She sounded angry, but also as helpless as Natasha felt, especially when Loki just smiled at her words.

‘And I can freeze the blood in your veins,’ Loki said. ‘Is this a competition? Are we done?’

‘Just do what you need to do,’ Steve interrupted.

‘HELEN, monitor Tony’s vitals constantly,’ Vision instructed. ‘Wanda, if you would...’

‘I got it,’ Wanda said, her entire focus on Tony.

‘Bruce, doing okay?’ Natasha asked.

‘I’m as calm as you’d expect,’ Bruce replied.

‘Only I’m freaking out then, good,’ Pietro commented a little too loudly. He didn’t like stressful situations where he couldn’t punch anyone, but Natasha knew better than to suggest he leave.

‘Work your magic, Loki,’ Thor said. The words sounded more like a polite request than a demand.

Loki turned her attention back on Tony.

‘Let me go, please let me go,’ Tony pleaded.

‘Not just yet,’ Loki said, moving her hand up from Tony’s throat to his jaw, holding his head still. ‘But I want you to think of her. Your love... Amora. Think of her, it shouldn’t be hard.’

Then Loki’s free hand lit up with a soft glowing light, swirling and shifting between gold and green, dancing between her long fingers like flames.

‘Think of her,’ Loki repeated as she brought the glowing hand down on Tony’s forehead.

‘No... what are you doing? No, let go of me. Let go...’

Natasha crossed her arms and let her fingers dig into her biceps. This felt wrong, even if Loki was helping. Wanda and HELEN remained silent, so far so good.

Loki’s eyes glowed a little, the same light that surrounded her hand. They shone bright enough that her pupils were almost completely gone. Tony tried to trash and fight her, but he didn’t have the strength to move her even an inch.

Thor hovered close-by, and so did Pepper, while the rest of them stood back and just watched. Natasha really hoped this was not a mistake. It took everything in her to stay still and let it happen.

‘No, no, no, no...’ Tony kept repeating, but his words were soon slurred, then he stopped struggling. There was a flash of bright green under Loki’s hand, different than the light of her own magic, but it vanished in a blink. Loki pulled her hand back.

‘Stark,’ she said, then smacked him a little, when he didn’t react. Natasha dug her fingers harder into her arms, but stayed firmly in place. It was just to wake him up, she didn’t hurt him.


‘Look at me, Stark,’ Loki demanded, turning Tony’s head by the chin to capture his eyes.

‘Is it done?’ Thor asked, but Loki ignored him.

‘Stark,’ Loki repeated, louder.

Tony blinked up at her after a moment and frowned deeply. Natasha saw the moment he realized what was going on. The expression on his face spoke louder than any words, showed her the shock, the confusion, the fear. Tony was quick to try and hide it all behind something less revealing.

‘Uh... well, you are definitely not the first woman I regret having on top of me,’ he said.

‘Oh, you wound me, Stark,’ Loki answered in perfect monotone. ‘Think of Amora,’ she instructed again. Tony went silent as his face paled. Natasha took that as a good sign, he basically lit up every time someone said Amora’s name until now.

Loki kept looking at Tony’s face, into his eyes maybe. Natasha didn’t know what she was looking for.

‘I’m... she...’

‘Just think of her and keep your mouth shut,’ Loki told him, and Tony didn’t argue. Strange, but perhaps not unexpected.

Another long and tense moment passed, then Loki dropped Tony’s head. His skull made a dull thud again as it landed, while Loki got off of him, leaving him lying on the table.

‘Tony!’ Pepper said as she rushed to him, Rhodey right next to her. They pulled him up into a sitting position.

‘How you doing, Tony?’ Rhodey asked. ‘Besides that bump on the head.’

Tony stared forward, his expression now stormy, but also a little lost.

‘Tony,’ Pepper repeated again, trying to get his attention. He finally looked at her.

‘Hey Pepper,’ he greeted.

‘Hey,’ she said in return.

‘You didn’t need to come,’ Tony said.

‘Of course I did,’ Pepper insisted with a watery smile, moving closer and touching Tony’s face. Then they just stared at each.

‘Ugh,’ Loki groaned, breaking the moment. Tony glanced in her direction, but quickly looked away again.

‘I gotta... I gotta lie down for a sec,’ he said quietly. ‘Somewhere else.’

‘That’s the smartest thing you said in a long while,’ Rhodey joked. He kept his hand on Tony’s arm as he slid off the table.

‘I’m... tell me stuff later,’ Tony said then, obviously addressing them all without looking at any of them. It didn’t go unnoticed by anyone, but they did not comment.

‘Keep him under observation for another few days,’ Loki said as the three of them reached the door. ‘Just to be sure.’

Tony stiffened for a second hearing that, but said nothing, neither did Pepper or Rhodey, they just left.

Natasha breathed out slowly and dared to hope that this nightmare was actually over. Of course they needed to keep a close eye on Tony for now, but still... maybe this actually worked.

‘Normally, I’d expect praises, but I suppose a simple thank you will do,’ Loki said. She had to be deliberately infuriating, she had to be.

Natasha looked over to her and found her sitting on one of the chairs around the conference table, boots up on the tabletop, ankles crossed, very pointedly comfortable, instead of alert. Barnes stood not that far behind her.

Natasha calmly walked closer to the table and sat down opposite of Loki, leaning back in the chair, crossing her legs casually. Loki smirked at her from across the table.

‘How do we know you truly freed Tony of Amora’s spell?’ Vision asked as soon as everyone sat down. Everyone except Barnes, who was standing in the space between Steve and Loki, and wasn’t that just symbolic as hell.

‘You don’t,’ Loki said easily. ‘But it won’t matter once Amora’s been dealt with.’

‘Amora is not that easy to get ahold of,’ Thor said. ‘What if she escapes and we don’t see her for centuries again?’

‘She won’t run far, she has a job to finish,’ Barnes said.

‘So this is not just personal?’ Steve asked. ‘Is she involved in what you’re doing? Is she connected to the rest of the names on the list?’

‘I don’t know why you think I will answer your questions,’ Loki told him, picking at her black nails

‘Yes, she was recruited,’ Barnes answered. ‘No, we don’t know any details.’

‘How do you know she’s involved then?’ Natasha asked.

‘We know,’ Loki said firmly.

‘And you have a way to track her down, but you know you can’t take her down alone,’ Steve said, steering them back to what they really needed to discuss.

‘I only need Skurge out of the way,’ Loki said. ‘I can deal with Amora on my own.’

‘Unless she has others to protect her,’ Natasha said. ‘Which is likely.’

‘Some humans are hardly a big obstacle,’ Loki said.

‘And what if they won’t be humans,’ Bruce said. ‘Or not just human.’

‘There are more people like us than you’d think,’ Wanda added.

‘People like you,’ Loki repeated thoughtfully. Natasha should have warned the twins not to draw Loki’s attention on themselves that much, but she knew Wanda wouldn’t have listened anyway. She didn’t scare easily.

‘Or someone from your list,’ Thor added. ‘You have named them as threats, you had reasons for that.’

‘They are hardly the sort to run to each other’s aid,’ Loki said.

‘HELEN, bring up the list,’ Natasha instructed. ‘But they are mostly men, so it’s not just really about their willingness to help.’

Natasha knew she had a point, and Loki didn’t seem inclined to try and win a lost battle.

‘Van Ripper’s dead now,’ Barnes said casually when he looked at the list. ‘Delete her name.’

‘Dead, how?’ Steve asked.

‘I killed her,’ Loki said with a smile. ‘Slowly and painfully,’ she added for dramatic effect.

There was a moment of silence. Natasha saw that Bruce and Thor went tense, but for different reasons. Pietro’s legs were getting more and more restless, and he started to have that uncomfortable claustrophobic look on his face. Wanda was stern and kept looking at Loki, so did Vision. Steve just frowned darkly.

Natasha couldn’t dig up much about some of the names on Loki’s list, Clarisse Van Ripper was one of them. She knew there had to be something about her, if she ended up on the list, but on the surface there was nothing.

‘And what exactly did a 64-year-old woman, who’s been in a wheelchair for forty years, did to deserve that?’ Natasha asked.

Loki gave her a slow and sly smile, and didn’t look like she wanted to explain herself. Barnes sighed behind her.

‘She used to invite all these kids into her house,’ he said. Loki rolled her eyes. She probably wanted to keep them guessing. ‘Fed them, let them play, that sort of thing. Then she started murdering them. She ended up in that chair when she was chasing one of them and fell down some stairs.’

‘Oh, God,’ Pietro groaned, rubbing his eyes.

‘And then?’ Natasha asked, there had to be more. Loki wouldn’t go after some murderer, that made no sense.

‘And then since she could no longer just drown them in the bathtub, or drag them down into her basement, she started using other methods to continue,’ Barnes said.

‘Magic,’ Loki said.

‘Demons, well a demon,’ Barnes added.

‘She summoned and bound herself to one, she could possess it, and humans through it. Lately, she’s been using this talent to gather information for some of the others on that list,’ Loki said.

‘Good to know it’s not the murders that bothered you,’ Natasha said.

‘It was a nice bonus,’ Barnes told her.

‘Are all the people on that list like that?’ Steve asked.

‘Not all of them,’ Barnes said.

‘Arcade is an assassin,’ Natasha said, it was the only name she recognized immediately. ‘His real identity is unknown, but he’s for hire.’

‘Yeah, one of them is paying him, we just don’t know which one,’ Barnes confirmed.

‘And Amora works with these mortals?’ Thor asked.

‘Not directly,’ Barnes said. ‘They’re just on the same side for now, for their own reasons.’

‘Maybe that’s why Amora got Tony under her spell,’ Vision said. ‘Those humans on the list would know very well what it would mean to have Iron Man and Stark Industries on their side.’

‘Maybe Amora promised more than just Tony,’ Natasha added, looking at Loki. She understood whom she meant.

‘In which case she’s likely to have help and protection,’ Steve said. ‘Especially if she knows you’re coming after her.’

‘She knows,’ Thor added, looking at Loki as well. ‘You’ve been searching for centuries, she knows to fear you.’

Centuries. Thor was not kidding about Loki being able to hold a grudge like no other. It just made Natasha confident that she wouldn’t risk the opportunity to take her down. Unfortunately, she wasn’t sure whether they could trust Loki’s anger, or if she would sacrifice them in a heartbeat to achieve her goal. She probably would.

Loki turned her head and looked at Barnes. He made a face, then lifted his eyebrows and shrugged. They probably discussed this well before they arrived.

Loki turned back to look around the table after a moment.

‘So... what do you propose?’ she asked.

This was it, they were actually doing it, they were going to work with Loki. It was definitely one of the stupidest things they’ve ever considered, and more than a little risky. They had nothing more to rely on than Loki’s centuries old grudge. And maybe on however important Steve actually was to Barnes.

It was not much, but Natasha made do with less in the past. She was also convinced that they could still kick Loki’s ass back to Asgard if she got any funny ideas. That thought reassured her a lot more than any words or promises could.

Chapter Text

Am I a fool to hope?

That was the question running around in Thor’s mind. He told Steve it was never foolish to hope, but he wasn’t sure he was ready to believe that himself. Could he afford to believe again?

He had so many questions for Loki, most of them painful, others just to help him understand and clear up his confusion. He had no idea if he was ever going to receive any answers. In the years since their family fell apart, Thor only ever got answers through angry words or broken whispers. But those were only just fragments of the whole truth, tossed at him in the middle of bloody fights. It’s been a while since he last hoped there was a chance to talk... just talk.

He did not even know whether he would be too angry to just talk. Because he was very angry. Angry and betrayed, and wondering if he mourned for nothing but a lie again. No, he did know the answer to that last one, since Loki was alive and well, right in front of him. He watched his brother fade away not even a day after their Mother was taken from them, and it torn his already battered heart apart. A lie... just another wretched lie.

Twice now... twice now he was forced to watch... twice now it was a lie... he was more than angry. He could see the sky through the great windows of the conference room, saw it darken with storm clouds to match his mood. He knew thunder would come soon enough.

‘That’s a stupid plan,’ Steve said.

‘Your plan is not any better,’ Loki shot back.

‘Both of your plans is shit,’ Natasha interrupted, again.

‘This is not helping us anywhere,’ Thor said before they could go over the same song and dance once more.

‘God, thank you,’ Wanda sighed in relief.

‘Is it even possible to construct a plan if we don’t know where she is?’ Vision asked.

Bruce was the only one who left, he wanted to check up on Tony, see how he was doing. Thor also believed that the good doctor could not stand to remain in the same room as Loki and her sharp tongue any longer, unless he let the Hulk take over his seat.

‘It takes very little intelligence to understand why it would be catastrophic if anyone vulnerable to Amora would accompany me beyond a certain point,’ Loki said.

‘How does it even work?’ Pietro asked. ‘The love spell stuff?’

‘Who are you and why are you talking to me?’ Loki asked.

‘Rude, and it’s a simple question,’ Pietro said with a frown. ‘Does she need to touch a guy or something?’

‘Eye-contact,’ Barnes supplied helpfully.

‘Okay, so she won’t be able to touch me or look at me, so it’s okay,’ Pietro said with an easy confidence.

‘And why is that?’ Loki asked.

‘Because I’m too fast,’ Pietro said slowly, he probably forgot already that Loki knew nothing about him.

‘Amora is Asgardian,’ Loki sighed. ‘Humans are not--’

‘I’m too fast,’ Pietro repeated, leaning on the table next Loki’s chair now. He crossed the room quicker than a blink. Then he was back in his seat next to Wanda on the other side of the table immediately. He spread his arms a little, not saying anything, since he already proved his point.

Loki’s eyes were narrowed on the twins again, carefully assessing them both.

‘Yeah, I think he’s okay to come,’ Barnes said after a moment of silence.

‘Yes, James, that’s been made perfectly clear,’ Loki replied, the irritation clear in her voice. Thor noticed Steve smiling at Barnes.

‘Why are women immune?’ Natasha asked.

‘Amora is not attracted to the female form,’ Thor said. ‘She cannot entice what she does not want.’

‘I should be able to approach her without problem as well,’ Vision.

‘What is this thing again?’ Loki asked, turning to Steve out of everyone in the room.

‘I am not a thing,’ Vision said sternly, but he did not allow the comment to distract him. ‘And I wouldn’t exactly call myself “male” either, not in the traditional sense of the word.’

‘He’s synthetic,’ Wanda said. ‘Pretty immune to magic, it’s impressive.’

She knocked the android in the side with her elbow and smiled, just like she always did when she said that.

‘Vision’s strength is great,’ Thor added. ‘And he has many other outstanding skills as well.’

‘Strong enough to handle Skurge?’ Barnes asked. He did not sound dubious, merely curious.

‘If he actually puts his mind into a fight for once,’ Thor said, teasing a little, but it was true.

Much like Thor himself, Vision was profoundly aware of the fragility of mortals and rarely used his true strength. But unlike Thor, he held back with all flesh and blood beings, he only ever unleashed his full potential when he fought machines. “I am not to be used as a weapon against living things,” is what he told Thor when he asked him about it. Thor remembered how powerful Ultron was, so maybe he did not blame their android friend for this aversion. There was no shame in avoiding bloodshed.

‘I can protect others from him,’ Vision answered diplomatically.

‘How can we prepare for anyone else on the list?’ Natasha asked.

‘We can’t really,’ Barnes said. ‘We’ve never met most of them. Not sure what they can do.’

‘Where do you get your intel then?’ Natasha frowned.

Barnes shared a quick look with Loki.

‘That’s unimportant,’ Loki said.

‘Does it have something to do with the girl?’ Natasha asked right away.

‘A girl?’ Loki prompted.

‘Sara Wolfe told us about her,’ Natasha replied.

‘Of course she did,’ Loki smiled dangerously. ‘Forget about her.’

‘Really?’ Steve spoke up. ‘Because I think--’

Loki slammed her hand down on the table, green and gold magic flaring up under her palm for a moment.

‘I said forget about her,’ Loki repeated, her voice taking on a very dangerous edge. Thor felt himself tense from the spark of magic and power in the air. It was unusual, Thor could not remember ever feeling this sort of power around Loki, not to this extent at least. Something changed, well, something besides the obvious.

‘You might not want to push this,’ Barnes said, he spoke calmly, but it was a very clear warning.

Loki’s anger made Thor wonder. The girl had to be important, there was no doubt about it now. But it was just one more question to add to all the others swirling around in his mind.

‘So how are we doing this?’ Steve asked.

‘Well, you and Thor are obviously not going to be very useful,’ Loki answered, and her words did not fail to make Steve clench his jaw in anger. Thor decided to pick his battles wisely, and ignored the comment.

‘And if you think even for a second that I’m going to stay behind, then you’re out of your mind,’ Steve said.

‘Steve can stick with me,’ Barnes said before Loki could retort. ‘We can take down anyone Amora throws at us while staying in a safe distance. Thor can do whatever, I don’t really care.’

Thor was not used to being dismissed in such a manner and it sparked some anger in him, but he already observed that Barnes was an endlessly practical man when it came to accomplishing tasks. Amora wanted him, and if she succeeded in weaving her magic around him again, Thor would pose a great danger to everyone. He understood that very well. He would have to stay away from her, but he would not hide like a coward, and he was not going to let his friends fight his battles.

‘I will accompany you all,’ Thor said and continued quickly before anyone could object. ‘I will keep my distance from Amora, rest assured, but I will not hide from her. Amora should learn that she is not as fearsome as she believes.’

Thor never ran from a battle, never, and he won’t start now. Amora had no control over him. He feared her power and what she could make him do, but he did not fear her. He was slightly surprised that Loki did not object, but Thor was willing to take any and all small victories in their current situation.

‘I could get some extra hands on deck,’ Natasha said then. ‘I know a few female agents, well ex-agents, who wouldn’t mind helping out.’

‘Anyone particular?’ Steve asked.

‘Maria would want to come for sure,’ Natasha said. ‘I could call Sharon and Bobbi, maybe May, if she’s not busy. Ali Morales is back in the States for now, and Tia Senyaka is freelancing, so I bet she’s got way too much free time.’

Most of those names meant nothing to Thor, but Steve looked thoughtful.

‘I doubt that will be necessary,’ Loki said.

‘You’re saying no to back-up, really?’ Wanda asked incredulously. ‘The more the better, right?’

‘They’re just going to get in the way,’ Loki answered.

‘Highly trained SHIELD specialists... getting in the way,’ Natasha repeated. ‘You don’t believe that... Barnes?’

Barnes gave the question a few moments of consideration.

‘I don’t think I can trust them not to shoot me in the back,’ he said then. ‘They were SHIELD, they know who I am. I would be tempted if I were in their place.’

‘But you’re not worried about me?’ Natasha asked in return.

‘I don’t think you’d betray Steve’s trust like that,’ Barnes said easily. ‘Other agents might not care all that much.’

‘That’s a no,’ Loki said firmly.

‘I’d offer to call Sif to aid us...’ Thor started.

‘No,’ Loki said right away, as expected.

‘So, just us?’ Wanda said. ‘What if she has a whole damn army surrounding her?’

‘Then I will mow that army down for standing in my way, and step over their corpses,’ Loki said, her anger spiked suddenly and she stood up. ‘We’re done here.’

Steve and Natasha were on their feet right away, and Thor stood up as well.

‘But we barely know anything, when exactly are you planning to launch this attack?’ Steve asked.

‘Loki, if you want to capture Amora once and for all, we need to have a battle strategy, we cannot to be taken by surprise,’ Thor told her, hoping against hope that she would listen to reason, no matter how hard it was to expect that from Loki sometimes.

‘Your only task is to take down anyone that tries to protect her, Skurge included. Plan as much as you want, I do not care. And if you all do your part, then I will do mine, which is defeating her.’

Thor stood between Loki and the door, so she would have to go past him to leave. Thor wasn’t sure whether he should step aside... yet or at all. He knew though that Loki won’t wait around for too long before she did something to get him out of the way. He could see it on her face.

‘We can’t plan more, because we don’t know where she is yet,’ Barnes added.

There was another moment of tense silence in the room and rain started hitting the windows heavily. Most of the time Thor was able to not let his emotions manifest in such a manner, but with Loki... he just couldn’t. He felt the storm brewing the moment Loki first showed up, and it finally arrived, giving away everything he felt. He didn’t want her to walk away before Thor got some answers, any answer.

Loki shifted her stance as her face hardened and Thor... didn’t want to fight, he just didn’t, so he got out of the way. Loki kept looking at him for another moment, then she walked out without a word. Barnes followed.

‘Bucky wait,’ Steve called after him, and hurried after the two.

‘We should monitor them until they’re gone,’ Vision said.

‘I’ll do it,’ Thor said, picking his hammer up and leaving the conference room as well. Maybe it made his heart ache, but this was still Thor’s responsibility, or even his duty, keeping an eye on his sibling.

‘James,’ Loki said impatiently.

‘Ten minutes, it won’t kill you,’ Barnes said. Loki did not look happy.


‘Ten minutes,’ Barnes repeated. Loki stared at Barnes, glanced over to Steve, but then seemed to give in. Well, she turned and walked away without demanding that Barnes followed her, so that was probably as good as giving in. Thor looked at Steve, but followed Loki. It was clear that Steve wanted to have a word with his friend in private.

‘Why are you following me?’ Loki asked almost immediately, without looking back at him.

‘I'd like to keep an eye on you,’ Thor said.

‘You think I’m up to no good?’

Thor did not dignify that with an answer, Loki probably did not expect him to.

Loki did not go far, she stopped at the large floor to ceiling windows at the end of the corridor. The rain was still falling heavily, so water was pouring down on the glass in small rivulets. Thor stopped several feet away.

‘You’re in a rotten mood,’ Loki commented, looking up at the stormy sky.

‘I should take you back to Asgard,’ Thor said.

‘You are welcome to try,’ Loki said, glancing back at him. ‘I will resist, of course. Want to settle it right now?’

Thor knew he wouldn’t do anything, probably Loki did too. Thor wasn’t going to attack, not like this. Loki always had to force his hand in the past. So there was just silence between them instead.

‘I have a question,’ Thor said then.

‘Which I won’t answer,’ Loki snorted.

‘Why do you... look like this?’ Thor still asked. The question made Loki frown.

‘Rogers surely told you more than enough,’ she said.

‘I did not ask him about you,’ Thor shrugged.

‘You should have, you are unlikely to get information in any other way,’ Loki told him promptly.

Thor sighed. ‘Very well.’ It was not like he actually expected an answer.

Thunder rang outside and Thor knew the storm won’t calm for a while yet, it couldn’t be helped. Another flash of lightning illuminated the hallway. Thor saw the reflection of two of them on the glass. The few feet distance might as well had been light-years.

‘How easy it would have been,’ Loki said absently.


‘If I’d always looked like this,’ she said, tapping her reflection on the glass with a single black nail. ‘No one would have compared me to you... there would have been no false promises of a throne I would never get... Hmm, oh how they would have complimented the King and Queen for a daughter so much like her Mother... in magic... and all else... even mischief would have seemed charming to them instead of troublesome.’

She fell silent and Thor was speechless for a very long moment. He was not quite certain of what to say, but he knew he had to be careful with his words, as always with Loki.

‘You... wish you had been like this always?’ It was a strange thought, but Thor had to ask about it anyway. He didn’t think Loki had been unhappy with the shape of his body before the truth about his heritage came out, but maybe Thor just had not known. There was much Thor missed over the years, he knew that now. Did he really miss something enormous as that? She just said that, right?

‘Not particularly,’ Loki said, and her answer just confused Thor further.

‘Then what do you mean?’ he asked.

‘Just what I said, it would have been easier,’ she said with a shrug. ‘Don’t break your mind over it. It’s a stray thought... an observation. Nothing more.’

It had to mean something, Thor was sure of that. But the way Loki stood, tall and rigid, it was not the right time to demand answers. Maybe there won’t ever be a right time.

‘For what it’s worth, it matters not to me what shape you are in,’ Thor said, because he wanted to say it. It had to be said.

‘I do not care what matters to you,’ Loki said coldly. Lightning flashed again outside. Despite the answer, Thor still thought that was not quite true.

‘You enjoy it when I’m hurt,’ Thor said. ‘Especially if I am hurt by you, I know that, and I wish I knew why, but I won’t ask. No, I won’t, because you will have nothing but poison for me in answer. But I wish I knew why, Loki, I really do. Why you made me think I lost you too, right after we lost Mother...’


‘You didn’t think I was in enough pain? You wanted to make sure I suffered more? Or was it just a convenient way to slip away and it didn’t matter--’

‘Not everything I do is about you!’ Loki snapped. ‘I told you this before. And I think you’ve been quite happy here on Midgard with your friends and beloved.’

Thor laughed bitterly. ‘If you still do not believe that I mourned you, then you are truly blind.’

‘And no, I was not happy,’ he continued. ‘I just tried to survive... because there was really not much left for me in life besides pain and grief... So if that’s what you wanted, I congratulate you. You made me suffer in ways no one else ever could.’

He was a fool to hope. There was nothing to hope for.

He walked away and Loki did not stop him.

Barnes walked past him on the corridor a minute later, giving him a nod. Steve had not left either, so Thor found him where he left him with Barnes not that long ago. He seemed loose-limbed and had a healthy red colour on his cheeks. Hmm.

‘So that’s how it is, I did wonder,’ Thor said to him.

‘What do you mean?’ Steve asked in return, blinking at him innocently. Well, Thor knew Steve’s “innocent” face well enough.

‘I am no Natasha Romanoff, but I am observant, my friend,’ Thor said. ‘Your lips are red and you do not have a bad habit of biting them.’

He did bite them now, a little self-consciously, giving himself away even more. He also rubbed the back of his neck as he looked away. He was bashful maybe, or embarrassed. Thor was not used to seeing him like this. It was amusing no matter Thor’s dark mood.

‘I did not mean to make you feel uncomfortable,’ Thor told him. Midgardians were sometimes bothered by the oddest things, and Thor never really talked much about such things with Steve.

‘I’m not, just, sorry... could you not tell this to anyone?’ Steve asked. ‘I don’t want them to think... whatever they would think.’

Thor did not in fact know what everyone else would think, but he assumed Steve was concerned about what they would think of him. Natasha kept using the word “compromised”, which Thor heard a lot from Agents like her. It always sounded like it meant that the person could no longer be trusted for one reason or another, but Thor did not think it applied to Steve. Thor had no problem trusting him.

‘Secrets never stay secrets,’ he told him as a mild warning, because it was the truth.

‘I don’t want it to be a secret,’ Steve said. ‘But I want it to be misunderstood even less.’

‘Yes, I think I understand,’ Thor nodded. It was a private matter, but some of their friends might not consider it as such. It could be hard to understand love given to someone seemingly undeserving. Especially when you had reasons to fear that their love could be used against them.

‘I know I’m not handling this perfectly,’ Steve sighed.

‘Because you are not perfect, you cannot be. You should stop demanding it from yourself.’

Steve gave him a small smile.

‘We all know love has many shades,’ Thor said then. ‘And the depth of your love should not come as a surprise to anyone, even if it’s in a different shape than what they expected.’

‘I don’t want to give Natasha one more reason to think that Bucky’s manipulating me,’ Steve said.

‘She’s worried about you,’ Thor said. ‘She fears that you will be hurt. You should talk to her.’

‘I know, but Bucky won’t hurt me,’ Steve said. ‘Not... intentionally.’

‘Your belief in him is unwavering, I know that,’ Thor nodded. ‘And I trust you enough to believe that your faith is not misplaced.’

‘You do?’ Steve asked, sounding surprised.

‘You’ve earned that,’ Thor said as he clapped a hand down on his shoulder.

‘Thank you,’ Steve said gratefully, so Thor gave him a smile and another nod. No matter his mood, it was no hardship to give a friend some encouraging words.

‘Did you talk to Loki... at all?’ Steve asked then. Thor knew his face darkened, but there was no helping it.

‘As always, Loki had nothing for me but silence and sharp words,’ Thor said.

‘I wish I could tell you something... wise, but...’

Thor laughed. It was not a completely honest laugh, but it was no lie either.

‘Do not worry about it,’ he told him. ‘Our situations are very different.’

Steve scratched his head as he thought for a moment. Thor knew right away that he still had something to say, so he waited instead of saying goodbye.

‘You didn’t ask me what I knew about this business Loki and Bucky are involved in. And I’m sure you have your reasons for that. If you want me to tell you, just ask.’

‘I will,’ Thor acknowledged.

‘But the thing about Van Ripper made me think again,’ Steve continued. ‘I mean the demons were bad enough, really bad, but that list... And I don’t just mean Amora and Van Ripper either. One of them is some religious fanatic, that Arcade guy is an assassin. And you told us about Gor-Tok, who led an actual invasion against some ancient Earth civilization.’

‘Aye, not the finest of companies,’ Thor agreed.

‘God knows what the others on that list committed,’ Steve said. ‘And I know, I know... one side being bad, does not make the opposing side automatically good, but... it makes it something, right?’ he asked, but continued before Thor had a chance to speak.

‘I know Bucky got involved in this by making a deal with someone, he implied it was the same for Loki, but still... they’re not standing with the likes of those demons and Amora. That’s gotta count for something.’

‘Maybe so,’ Thor agreed. ‘But can we really trust that Loki is not planning something more sinister for the future?’

‘You would know best,’ Steve said. ‘But Thor, Loki’s deal... whatever it is, it’s something much bigger than what Bucky gets out of all this. And I have a feeling the way Loki’s appearance changes has something to do with it.’

That was not a bad guess, Thor himself saw no real explanation for why Loki would be changing in such a way. The female form was one thing. After what Loki just told him, he would be willing to believe it to be deliberate, but the Jotun shape... after all the pain the truth caused Loki. No, Steve was right, it couldn’t be Loki’s doing. But who could be powerful enough to weave such magic? And what did they promise Loki in exchange for the work they are to accomplish?

‘You still do not know who stands behind them, right?’ Thor asked, just to be sure.

‘No clue, that’s one of the things Bucky never speaks about.’

‘A precaution perhaps,’ Thor guessed. ‘This is Midgard, there are eyes and ears everywhere.’

Thor often marvelled at how easily SHIELD or Tony Stark found someone on the realm using the many cameras all around the globe, or the satellites orbiting the planet. It was very hard to keep a secret on Midgard, unless you kept something completely to yourself, and never put anything in a computer, and moved to some distant Nornsforsaken land where no humans lived.

‘That’s true,’ Steve agreed. ‘It won’t stop me from wanting to know, or trying to figure it out.’

Thor smiled. ‘Yes, but you are spectacularly stubborn, my friend. So I would not expect anything less.’

Steve smiled as well.

‘Now come, Captain, we have much to plan and Loki has given us very little to work with.’

‘Yes, I can’t wait for Natasha to veto half my ideas and call me a prehistoric idiot for even suggesting them.’

‘That’s always lovely to watch indeed,’ Thor agreed, making Steve laugh again. That was a good feeling, seeing a friend laugh and smile in dark times. Maybe the storm clouds would disappear with enough laughter in his ears, even if it was not his own.

Chapter Text

‘This is definitely not a situation where booze is going to help,’ Rhodey said.

Tony still pulled the bottle out of the bar fridge and got himself a glass.

‘Really?’ he asked in return. ‘Because I think this is exactly the kind of situation where I deserve to have a damn drink.’

Rhodey put his hand on the top of the glass before Tony could pour his drink out.

‘Tony, I mean it,’ he said seriously.

‘Sure you can have one too, you didn’t need to hijack my glass,’ Tony said as he picked up another glass and poured right away. Rhodey was doing that face that was somehow between pissed and worried and disappointed... Tony so did not need this right now.

‘Look, I know this--’

‘No, you don’t know, you have absolutely no idea!’ Tony cut him off angrily, slamming his glass down on the bar.

‘I know that drinking yourself under the table won’t help,’ Rhodey answered, keeping his calm.

Tony looked away from him, because he really hated that expression on his face. His fingers were tight around his glass, but he didn’t lift it just yet.

‘I don’t want to think about it,’ he admitted after a moment of silence. ‘And I can’t turn my brain off, and there’s nothing to distract me, because I’m still a fucking security hazard, and I still feel...’ he cut himself off and drowned the glass before Rhodey could stop him, because he deserved a drink goddamit. It was strong, and it burnt as it went down, but Tony was so used to it at this point that he didn’t even blink.

Rhodey’s face didn’t change, but Tony could practically feel him judging him. Yeah, he had only one coping mechanism, so fucking what.

‘You gotta give yourself some time here, Tony,’ he said then. ‘Thor did say the... feelings might linger for a couple more days.’

‘He had no clue about how to knock me back in order, but he’s suddenly an expert,’ Tony grumbled.

‘Going from how he said it, I think he knows from experience,’ Rhodey said.

Tony went for the bottle again.

‘They don’t even know if it worked. You... all of you let Loki mess around with my head, and you don’t even know for sure if it worked.’

‘It will be a non-issue once Amora’s taken care of,’ Rhodey said. ‘And I can stay until then.’

Tony shook his head. He poured another drink, before Rhodey could take away either the glass or the bottle.

‘You’re gonna be fine, Tony,’ he said quietly. ‘You feel like shit, I get it, but at least--’

‘At least what? I got lucky?’ Tony asked, walking away from his friend. ‘Lucky that at least I didn’t murder anyone? Lucky that I didn’t actually kill Clint... or Steve?’ Some of his whiskey spilt out as he ranted, the amber liquid sloshing around in the glass. So he drank it. ‘Lucky I wasn’t fucking raped by a psycho Asgardian... Lucky that she didn’t get to parade me around like her newest pet?’

The funny thing was that he knew he was lucky. He knew how much worse it could’ve been. He knew that he should have been fucking grateful how easily he got through this... but he didn’t feel lucky. He felt like someone peeled back his skin and touched him everywhere underneath it. Then now, it was put back on wrong, but everyone expected him to act like nothing happened. Well, no, that wasn’t true. They didn’t expect it. He didn’t know... All he knew is that he felt naked in the worst possible sense. Exposed.

‘I really don’t want to think about it,’ Tony repeated.

Rhodey looked so damn worried and understanding that it was staring to get on Tony’s nerves. He only ever stopped with the jokes, and meeting Tony’s snark with snark, when things were really fucked up. Well, things were really fucked up right now, so Tony should have braced himself for his sombre face.

There was a knock, which was weird cause there was no actual door. When he turned around he saw Pepper. She knocked on one of the decorative wooden panels on the wall in order to announce her presence. She never used to do that, she always just walked right in, but well... things were different now.

Tony saw her eyes slide down to the empty glass in his hand. It made him want to hide it behind his back, like a naughty kid who’s been caught snacking from the cookie jar.

‘I wanted to check up on you before I went to this meeting,’ she said.

Tony cleared his throat and looked away from her. ‘I’m fine,’ he said curtly.

‘It’s barely past eleven, Tony,’ she said.

Why did everyone had to be on his back about one or two fucking drinks? It was always just about that, always, every god damn day.

‘I didn’t sleep so I wouldn’t know,’ Tony answered, snappy and dismissive. He knew he was doing it, getting all prickly for no reason, with people who didn’t deserve it. That was him, Tony Stark, well done sport. He didn’t look at Pepper, because she was either going to look hurt or disappointed, and Tony couldn’t stand to see her like that any more.

‘You don’t have to come back after the meeting,’ he said instead. ‘Rhodey’s gonna stay to be the admin until I’m all clear.’

‘I wanted to--’

‘Just... we’ve got it covered, and you’re busy,’ Tony added, cutting her off.

Pepper only stayed silent for a moment, then Tony heard her sigh. He still didn’t turn around to look at her, he just kept staring out the window.

‘If that’s what you want,’ she said, phrasing it as a question.

‘We’re fine,’ Tony repeated.

‘Okay, I’ll see you later then, you too James,’ she said.

‘I’ll walk you to your car,’ Rhodey offered, which was code for “I need to talk to you in private”. A surge of irritation washed through Tony, so strong that he wanted to smash his glass on the closest available surface. He resisted the urge until Pepper and Rhodey were gone.

Watching the glass shatter was not nearly as satisfying as he thought it would be. Especially not with the heavy weight of silence that followed.

‘Well, that answers my question about how you’re feeling.’

‘I’m not really in a chatty mood, Vision,’ he said.

‘Yes, I am more than aware of that,’ the android replied.

‘Are you here to keep an eye on me?’ he asked, turning around. ‘HELEN’s live feed not good enough for someone?’

He knew he could be frank, because Vision was not in the habit of lying about things.

‘No, I have my own reasons,’ he said. ‘You said something a little while back that made me... reflect, in a way.’

Tony groaned and headed back to the bar.

‘I’m really not up to be held responsible for the shit that came out of my mouth while I was obsessed with an Asgardian criminal.’

‘Actually, I wanted to apologize,’ Vision said, which made Tony stop abruptly. He turned back around to stare at the android with a frown. ‘I have given you the wrong impression about certain things. I am sorry about that.’

‘O-okay?’ This was weird. So Tony just stayed put to wait and see where this was going.

‘You said at one point, that I made it clear that I did not like to be associated with you,’ Vision said.

Tony resisted the urge to groan, but only just barely. ‘Let’s not... not this,’ he said. He was so not in the right state of mind for this.

‘It won’t take long,’ Vision said, his tone slipping from even and distant to something more... real. It was hard to describe it, but Tony could tell the difference. He always noticed the shift between the tone of voice Vision copied from others to appear more human-like, and the one that was purely him. It also never failed to make Tony give in and listen.

He rubbed his face and made a “go on” gesture, it was best to get it over with.

‘You still call me “JARVIS” sometimes,’ Vision started. ‘Especially when you’re tired or not paying attention. It’s the voice, I know. And I always correct you.’

‘We’ve been over this a few times, y’know,’ Tony reminded him, because he was really not in the mood to have this conversation again.

‘Yes, but you clearly misunderstood the reason why I dislike when you call me that,’ Vision said. He started walking around in the room, idly. That was a new thing. He used to stand completely still all the time at the very beginning, not really having the need to fidget or pace around.

‘It has nothing to do with you,’ Vision stated clearly. ‘And I’m aware that losing the last reminder you had of Mr. Jarvis must’ve been...’

‘No, we are not talking about him,’ Tony shook his head right away.

‘I understand that this is not just about the hardship of breaking a habit,’ Vision said. ‘But... I am not JARVIS.’

‘I know that dammit, you do not have to repeat it over and over--’

‘Because I am a person,’ Vision continued, silencing Tony easily. ‘Not just a program pretending to be one. Or at least I like to think I am.’

‘You are, we all know you are,’ Tony said. Vision proved that, proved that in ways that were undeniable. Tony was going to be the first to argue if anyone said otherwise.

‘But it’s easy to forget, even for me,’ Vision said. ‘With everything that’s in my head despite how... new... young I am.’

‘Yeah, we’re gonna have to do something big for your next birthday, it’s right around the corner. A jumping castle, a clown, balloons, cake, that’s your standard party for a two-year-old, right?’

Tony’s voice was kind of off, but Vision smiled anyway. It was small and subdued, but still.

‘Do you understand what I mean?’ Vision asked then. ‘Maybe I was not clear again.’

‘No, I got it,’ Tony nodded. He finally decided to sit down on the sofa, because he’s been awake for far too long and it was finally catching up with him. ‘JARVIS was awesome, but yeah AI, machine, and you’re... not, hell... I get it, I get it.’

‘Thank you,’ Vision said politely. He stopped pacing around the room. He didn’t have his cape, Tony noticed. Actually, he never wore his cape in the Tower, only for missions. Tony should pay attention to stuff like this more.

‘So, should we find a way to get Barton to stop with his robot references?’ he asked then.

‘It’s fine,’ Vision shook his head. ‘Those are jokes, and he wouldn’t make them if he thought they would fly over my head.’

A sense of humour, also a part of personhood, Tony got it, so he just nodded again. His eyes landed on the glass shards on the floor, which was a bad reminder of what sort of mood he was in when Vision showed up. He was not much better now, but at the same time, he kinda was. Maybe?

‘You came up here just to tell me this?’ he asked then. It didn’t seem that important, especially with everything else going on.

‘You were upset about it,’ Vision said plainly. Oh, he was not pulling his punches, damn. Tony winced and Vision must’ve noticed it, because he sat down in front of him.

‘I do care about your well-being,’ Vision said. ‘And it’s not just some residual protocols still influencing me.’

‘That’s...’ This was not the right time to be hearing this, definitely not. Tony felt himself tense, because he couldn’t do this talk right now, he couldn’t pull down his hastily put up walls. Not now. This sense of wrongness, the phantom touch under his skin, was not exactly ideal for an honest conversation. He was too busy trying to hide all the ugly broken pieces of himself he exposed so carelessly. He couldn’t do this right now.

‘I may not be your JARVIS, and I’m definitely not your butler,’ Vision said, voice light. Tony remained silent. He was so close to standing up and walking away.

‘But I do want to be your friend.’

‘I really... I’m not--’

‘You’re tired, I suggest you rest,’ Vision said, interrupting him smoothly.

‘Not sure I can,’ Tony admitted, despite feeling very-very tired.

‘Don’t try to sleep, just lie down and relax, the rest will sort itself out.’

That... actually sounded good. And hey, the sofa was big and wide enough, so he didn’t even need to stand up. So he nodded and lied down, pushing a small cushion under his head.

‘Thanks, Vision,’ he said when the android stood up.

‘I’ll tell everyone not to disturb you,’ Vision said.

Tony had no idea how much time passed before he managed to nod off, but he did doze off eventually. That was all that mattered.

It was almost dark outside when Tony opened his eyes, and as soon as he rubbed his face a few dim lights automatically turned on.

‘How long was I out?’ he asked.

Eight and three quarter hours,’ HELEN reported dutifully. ‘I’m so proud.

‘Shit, new record,’ Tony agreed.

He was thirsty and his mouth tasted something horrible, so he got up from the couch and slowly made his way over to the bathroom. He was not used to sleeping this much. All his muscles felt like heavyweight jello, it was weird. The lights in the bathroom were way too bright at first, but after he washed his face he he could actually open his eyes. He even started to feel human again.

The lights were a little brighter when he walked back out from the bathroom. The floor was silent, which was a little strange considering how closely either Rhodey or Bruce were watching him in the past few days.

‘So where are all my babysitters?’ he asked.

Almost everyone is on Captain Rogersfloor,’ HELEN answered. ‘Loki and Mr. Barnes showed up twenty minutes ago. I believe they will be ready to launch an attack on Amora within the hour.

‘Son of a bitch,’ Tony breathed out. He didn’t actually feel like facing the whole merry band, but he sure as hell wasn’t going to bury his head in the sand either. He could fake it, no problem, he was the master of faking it. So he got in the elevator.

‘Did anyone plan to wake me up?’ Tony asked as he made his way up.

I don’t believe so, no,’ HELEN said. Great.

Rhodey stood right outside when the elevator doors opened again, so HELEN obviously gave them a head’s up.

‘Hey Tony,’ he greeted. ‘Doing good?’

‘Just peachy,’ Tony told him, walking past him. No Cap, no twins, no Natasha or Barton, but there was Bruce, Vision, Thor, and of course the dodgy duo. Loki stood a little further away from everyone by the window, looking outside with her back turned on them.

‘What’s with the limited numbers?’ Tony asked, announcing himself.

‘Tony, hey, you’re looking better,’ Bruce said with a smile.

‘The other’s are getting their gear,’ Vision said, answering his question. Loki and Barnes just eyed him for a moment.

‘He’s not coming,’ Loki said then, already turning back to the window.

‘Oh, and why is that?’ Tony countered right away.

‘Because you would be of no use to us,’ she said... and that was weird, looking at her made Tony’s brain hurt, because he could see Loki’s familiar features on an unfamiliar face.

‘Hey, just cause Amora caught me by surprise last time, it doesn’t mean she can do it again. For example, I was not wearing my suit. Can she even do her weird mumbo-jumbo when I have my suit on?’

‘Yes, she can,’ Barnes said right away and that... was not really reassuring to be honest.

‘But she gotta do... the eyes... thing,’ Tony said. His memories about that moment were hazy, but he could remember her eyes, green and bright. He was lost in them in a matter of seconds.

‘Yeah, and you can still see her eyes, even if she can’t see yours,’ Barnes added. ‘You ain’t coming nowhere.’

Tony tried to look at Thor or Vision for back-up, but it did not look like they wanted him along for the ride either.

‘Oh, you don’t think I’m back to normal,’ he concluded.

‘I am no petty dabbler of magic,’ Loki objected right away. ‘She has no control over you, but that does not make you any more useful.’

‘Thanks, Wicked Witch, no one asked you, and I don’t actually care about your opinion.’

‘And since I take only whom I want to take, I care not much for your words, Stark,’ Loki said in return.

‘Who made her boss around here? That’s what I want to know,’ Tony said, getting pissed. ‘Because this is as far from okay as it gets.’

‘Tony, we all agreed that you and I should stay behind,’ Bruce said quietly. ‘You were probably a target from the get-go. We also have no idea what would happen if I were affected, let alone the big guy. I don’t even want to think about it.’

‘And what about you, big and blond?’ Tony asked, turning to Thor. ‘Isn’t it too big a risk to have you anywhere near her?’

‘I won’t go near her,’ Thor said. ‘And she won’t be able to come near me.’

Tony took a deep breath, but it did not help with his anger.

‘This is such bullshit,’ he said.

‘We considered all options,’ Vision said. ‘We need you to trust us that this is the best course of action.’

‘Oh, I trust you guys plenty. These two on the other hand...’ he said gesturing at Barnes and Loki. ‘Not one bit.’

‘Tony, good to see you back on your feet!’ He heard then, so he turned around to see Steve walking in the room in his full Captain America get-up, shield and all.

‘Cap, I’m going to assume that you also agree with this “Keep Tony away from the fun stuff” decision.’

Well, at least Mr. All-American Dream had the decency to look at least a little apologetic. The load of good it did Tony.

‘Look, we’ve got this, okay?’ Steve said ‘And I’m kinda glad that you, Bruce, and Colonel Rhodes will be here to hold down the fort while we’re away.’

Tony wanted to argue, he wanted to argue so damn badly. Not because he actually wanted to see Amora, but because he felt like he was sidelined, and that was a very shitty thing to feel, especially right now.

‘You get to be the cavalry if things go south,’ Vision offered.

Tony just made a considering hum. This was still bullshit. He turned back towards Barnes when he heard a soft thud, which turned out to be a big black rifle case that Barnes put up on the table. With his curiosity piqued he couldn’t help but walk closer. Steve did the same.

He only needed to glance at the thing inside the case.

‘Is that a Barrett M107CQ semi-automatic sniper rifle?’ he asked. Barnes and Rogers turned to look at him in sync, wow weirdo twin thing right there, not even the Maximoffs did that.

‘I mean, it’s nice,’ he continued. ‘Should have gone for the new A1 though, I mean it has a new titanium muzzle brake and barrel key. It’s neat.’

They were still staring, so Tony rolled his eyes dramatically to let them know how annoying they were.

‘What? Ex-weapon’s manufacturer here, I know my stuff,’ he shrugged. He was not in the business any longer, but he kept his eyes on certain thing. Especially on things like long-range anti-materiel rifles that could damn well shoot him out of the sky in the right (wrong) hands.

‘Where do you even get that?’ Rhodey asked with a frown, then he shook his head right away. ‘No, I probably don’t want to know.’

That seemed about right. Barnes started putting the rifle together.

‘No clue how a gun, no matter how big, is going to help you against an Asgardian,’ Tony said, still looking at Barnes.

‘Well the rifle’s pretty standard...’ he agreed, then he picked up a magazine from the case and popped a cartridge out, holding it up. ‘This however... this is home-made.’

At first glance it looked like a normal .50 calibre cartridge, but the colour was a little off. The standard .50 calibre for long-range sniper rifles was olive green, this was bright gold, and the tip had a red coppery shade to it.

‘What’s so special about it?’ Bruce asked.

‘AP shell, but you wouldn’t be so proud of if just cause of that,’ Tony said.

‘That’s not brass or steel, is it?’ Vision asked.

‘It’s Asgardian metal,’ Barnes said with something that almost sounded like glee. ‘With a little something special, for an extra kick.’

And no... no way.

‘What?’ Thor asked, his voice was just a little shocked. ‘How did you--’ then he looked over at Loki.

‘Quite the weapon smith, huh?’ Barnes said.

‘Please, they were hardly a challenge,’ Loki scoffed.

‘And they work, they’re actually lethal?’ Tony asked, barely stopping himself from snatching the bullet out of Barnes’ hand. That probably would have been a bad idea, with the whole ex-Hydra master assassin thing.

‘If you have good aim,’ Barnes said. ‘Which I do.’

‘So what happens if you shoot someone like Amora?’ Steve prompted.

‘Depends, I can definitely injure or incapacitate. The bullet lodges in pretty deep, so it has to be pulled out or the wound just keeps bleeding. If I aim for knees or shoulders or other weak-spots, then it’s not just gonna be the blood she needs to worry about.’

‘Are you absolutely certain of that?’ Vision asked.

‘Sure, we tested it out.’

‘Tested?’ Tony frowned, then it clicked. ‘You... you shot Loki?’

‘Nowhere lethal,’ Barnes said with a shrug.

‘Oh, I would have paid to see that,’ Tony said, which earned him a vicious glare from Loki.

‘What about armour?’ Thor asked carefully. He kept glancing back at Loki, but Tony was pretty bad at reading Thor when he did not want to be read.

Barnes looked Thor up and down slowly. Tony recognized that look, he saw it on Natasha’s face sometimes. So he could literally see Barnes taking note of all possible weaknesses.

‘That’s a pretty good armour,’ Barnes said then. ‘It can probably catch or slow a bullet down enough to prevent serious injuries. Most common weak-spots are reinforced... well, except if I went for your head, that’s a kill-shot. So... you know...’ he let the words trail off as he put the cartridge back into the magazine.

How casual he was about is just made the whole thing sound all the more disturbing. He said it so easily! He could snipe down Asgardians, and he said it like it was the most natural thing in the world. Shit, that fucking Barrett rifle. Even this lighter CQ version had at least an 1800-1900 yard range. If he had bullets he could goddamn kill an Asgardian with, then that... that was kinda scary. That was all kinds of scary and worrying.

Tony looked over at Loki.

‘And you literally gave this guy a way to kill you... really?’ he asked.

Loki smiled, it was wide and cruel, and it kinda made Tony want to look away, but he kept his eyes on her.

‘You callin’ me a turncoat, Stark?’ Barnes looked up at him. His tone went from casual to dangerous in a blink, just like his expression.

‘Buck,’ Steve said lightly. Barnes kept his eyes on Tony for another moment, then he looked back down to finish assembling the rifle.

‘So are we ready to go, or what?’ he barked then, slotting the last pieces in place.

Wanda and Pietro are already in the elevator,’ HELEN said helpfully. ‘And Clint just entered the building. I’m sure he will be up on your floor shortly.

‘He’s coming?’ Steve asked in surprise.

He’s been informed of your imminent operation and decided to accompany you,’ HELEN said.

‘Any objections?’ Steve turned towards Barnes and Loki.

Barnes shrugged and made a non-committal grunt.

‘I won’t say no,’ Loki said. ‘I do like that little bird.’

And that just sounded so wrong, especially coming from Loki. Which was probably why she said it.

‘Tony!’ Wanda greeted, bright and loud, Tony couldn’t help smiling at her. ‘So good to have you back,’ she added and immediately pulled him into a hug that squeezed some of the air out of his lungs.

‘Hey, Little Red, ready to kick some alien ass?’ he asked as he pulled back.

‘Am I ever,’ she said meaningfully.

‘Well, some people voted me out of the boy band...’ Tony said, glaring back at Steve and Vision and the rest of them.

‘I voted too, sorry,’ she said, not sounding sorry at all.

Tony put a hand over his heart to signify the utter betrayal he felt. Wanda punched him in the shoulder.

‘Ouch, abuse, I could sue you,’ Tony said, which made her smile again.

‘So, how are we doing this?’ Tony heard Steve ask.

‘Portal,’ Barnes said. ‘Loki’s gonna pinpoint the location, then we ambush.’

‘Can we arrive a little farther away?’ Steve asked.

‘Sure,’ Barnes confirmed, understanding what Steve wanted right away. ‘We’ll make it nice and quiet.’

This... This was way too much trust in Loki, in Tony’s humble opinion.

‘Is everyone actually aware how ridiculously risky it is that you’re trusting this... you know what, you don’t even deserve my name-calling skills.’

Loki flat out ignored him, literally, like she didn’t even hear him. But Barnes heard him all right, because he gave him one of those long and measured stares again. He was weird.

‘We’ve got this, Tony,’ Steve said again.

‘Your confidence doesn’t actually reassure me,’ Tony said. Thor was opening his mouth right away, so Tony cut him off. ‘Yours neither.’

Tony was no wise strategic leader, he was very far from it, but Steve and Thor could’ve used Recklessness and Overconfidence as middle-names, and they damn well knew it.

‘We’ve got this, Tony,’ said Natasha as she strode into the room with Barton on her heels.

‘You totally timed that,’ Tony accused.

‘HELEN let me eavesdrop,’ Natasha said easily. ‘And believe me, everything you think that could go wrong, I already thought of it.’

She waited for a moment, waiting for Tony to say something, but he just nodded. He was not up for an argument with Natasha, he was falling apart by the seams and she would know it. She nodded back at him.

‘I’m glad you’re back,’ she added, then walked past him.

Clint still had some bandaids on his face, which did not fail to make Tony feel like shit. He didn’t actually see the extent of the damage, but he could guess.

‘Sorry, for the face and all,’ Tony said.

‘Don’t worry about it, totally falls under the mind-control excuse,’ Clint said, even gave him a small grin.

‘Let’s not waste more time,’ Loki announced and the window where she stood immediately started shimmering with unnatural colours, first green and gold, then it turned so dark and black that it was basically absorbing light. A moment after it came alive, little shifts of movement, tiny dots in the distance. It looked ominous.

‘That does not look safe,’ Rhodey commented dryly. Tony just hoped HELEN was scanning like crazy.

Barnes swung his Barrett over his shoulder, picked up his extra ammo and headed into the portal, no hesitation. Steve picked up his shield and followed him right away, and after a moment so did Thor.

Clint clapped him on the shoulder as he hurried after Natasha, while Vision waited for Wanda and Pietro. Wanda walked confidently towards the portal, but Pietro caught himself like he just remembered something. He was standing right in front of Tony in a blink.

‘Hey, so... y’know, you’re back, great,’ he said. ‘Just...’ he hesitated for a moment, then he put his arms around Tony in a very quick and very awkward hug. Then he pulled back and was in the portal before Tony could react.

Wanda turned back around and gave Tony an excited grin and two thumbs up, because yeah hell, that really happened. Pietro didn’t touch people, he just didn’t, only in emergency situations, and never for anything that could be labelled as “affection”, that was only for Wanda.

‘Watch out for everyone, kid,’ Tony told her.

‘You got it,’ she promised, then she was gone too. Vision followed her.

Tony’s eyes slid over to Loki, who glanced back at him.

‘Always a pleasure,’ she said. Tony never heard this much sarcasm crammed into just a few words. It was almost impressive.

‘Yeah, let’s do it never again,’ Tony agreed. Then she was gone too.

Tony, Bruce and Rhodey stood around in the silent room for a long moment after the portal vanished.

‘I totally forgot to ask what was up with the boobs,’ Tony said then, just cause he felt like it was the moment he should say something. It earned him two very identical-sounding groans.

Fine, it was fine. He was fine. He was always fine.

Chapter Text

‘Where the hell are we?’ asked Clint the second he stepped through the dark portal. It was morning, wherever they were, so the change in light was startling for them all. They barely spent any time inside the dark ever-changing space between the two portals. Steve recognized the floating platform from his first visit, but this time there were no stairs leading up or down, and Loki was quick to open a second door, so they could leave. She probably did not want them to linger around in their “hideout” for two long.

So here they were, right by the ocean somewhere (probably) on Earth where it was chilly morning. It also didn’t take any of them much time to notice the abandoned buildings towering over them, neither the tall wall that was blocking their way.

‘Wait, I know this place,’ Pietro said. ‘No way, we’re--’

‘In Japan,’ Natasha said, looking down at the map she pulled up on her small GPS. Japan, huh... that was unexpected. Still Earth though, that was good.

‘This place looks so haunted,’ Clint said, not sounding too excited.

‘It’s the Battleship Island, it’s really tiny... Hashi-something,’ Pietro said.

‘Hashima Island,’ Natasha said, then put her GPS back into her belt.

‘What is Amora doing in such a place of ruin and decay?’ Thor questioned.

‘Hiding with all the other rats,’ Loki hissed.

‘Okay, let’s get the comms up,’ Steve said, already putting in his earpiece. Bucky held out his hand, so Steve gave him his spare one.

‘You got another one?’ Bucky asked, jerking his head in Loki’s direction. Yeah, it would probably be smart to be able to keep track of her too.

‘Natasha, you got a second earpiece?’ Steve asked. She didn’t look all that happy about the request, but she didn’t argue.

Bucky was the one to take it over to Loki.

‘Really?’ Loki questioned dubiously.

‘If someone spots Amora sooner than you...’ Bucky started, and he didn’t even need to finish, Loki took the earpiece.

‘If there is too much useless chatter, I’m getting rid of it,’ she warned.

‘Pietro, search for an entrance, be quick and quiet,’ Steve instructed. He barely finished speaking when Pietro vanished.

‘Okay, so here’s how this is gonna go once we’re up there,’ Steve continued. ‘Widow, Vision, and the Twins will stick with Loki.’

‘I’m not going to follow her lead,’ Natasha stated immediately.

‘She’s not your leader, she’s your tank,’ Steve reassured her. Natasha thought about it for a moment, then gave a nod in agreement.

‘Thor, stay with Clint,’ Steve continued, turning to the two of them more fully. ‘The two of you should find the highest spot you can, keep an eye on things from above. I’m with Bucky, we’re going to follow the ground team from a little higher up, as quietly as possible.’

Pietro was back with a blur of blue.

‘Some stairs, that way,’ he reported, pointing left. ‘And there’s an old harbour in the other direction, but it’s really wide and open. Anyone would be able to see us coming. Saw a coastguard boat too, but nobody was on it.’

Abandoned coastguard boat, lovely.

‘Stairs it is then,’ Steve said.

Loki was already walking down the rocky coastline. For someone who was known to enjoy the sound of their own voice, she was almost disturbingly silent. She also had a cold determined air around her. She was clearly dead set on dealing with Amora once and for all. Steve really had no problem with that to be honest, because they all wanted her being dealt with. Looking at Loki marching forward like this made Steve realize that his tank comparison was more accurate than he first thought.

‘Pietro, you said you know this place?’ he asked. He might as well get some information before they parted ways.

‘Yeah, not that much though, it was an undersea coal mine of sorts. They built almost a whole town for the workers and their families. But then the mine shut down and people moved away, so now it’s like this.’

‘There are underground caves,’ Vision added. ‘But I doubt I can find a map in the databases accessible to me from this location.’

‘Let’s cross that bridge later,’ Steve told him.

‘Do they let civilians here?’ Natasha asked.

‘No clue,’ Pietro said. ‘They probably need permission or something. They shot a few horror films here though.’

‘Yeah, I wonder why,’ Clint mused, looking up at the moss-covered wall and some of the buildings they could see from here. Broken windows and giant holes in the walls were gaping down at them darkly. It was unnerving to walk below them, he had to give Clint that.

‘Tourist access had been suspended for two months now,’ Vision said, probably getting information as he spoke.

‘Why?’ Bucky asked him.

‘Structural collapse hazard,’ Vision said. ‘Some buildings were deemed too unsafe to allow people to walk around freely.’

‘Doesn’t sound too unreasonable,’ Natasha said.

‘The timing though,’ Bucky said.

‘My thoughts exactly,’ Loki agreed.

So they thought Amora had a hand in it. Considering her powers, it was not that much of a stretch. It would have been easy for her to make someone lock the island up completely like this.

‘If you need to go down into the mine, you have to wait for us to catch up,’ Steve said. ‘Or you’ll be on your own.’

‘We will be fine on our own, relax,’ Wanda said.

‘Still, give us time to get in position,’ Steve insisted.

‘Abandoned mines are dangerous places to enter,’ Thor added solemnly. ‘You must be wary of cave-ins.’

‘Yes, old caves can cave-in... groundbreaking, Thor,’ Loki remarked form the front.

‘That was the worst pun I have ever heard,’ Bucky said with a snort.

‘Earth-shattering?’ Loki offered instead.

‘Just as bad.’

Steve was never going to get used to listening to interactions like this between them, it was just too surreal. It didn’t make him feel uncomfortable, but it did make him feel a little strange.

‘So, the island’s not so big, where are you going to start looking?’ Steve asked.

‘There is magic in the air,’ Loki said. ‘It might as well be a written invitation.’

‘Oh, that’s what it was, I wondered,’ Wanda added.

‘Won’t she know we’re coming? With the way we came here?’ Natasha asked.

‘Please, I know what I’m doing,’ Loki answered off handed.

They reached the narrow stairway. It was just as old and worn as the walls, covered with cracks, and overgrown with weed. Loki took the lead, while the rest of them followed. Steve did not feel good about going up such a narrow stairway, but everything was quiet. They heard nothing but the ocean, a few birds, and the sound of their own footsteps. If it wasn’t for the reason they came here, Steve would have found it almost peaceful.

Loki didn’t wait around when she reached the top of the stairs, she immediately headed towards some of the buildings.

‘All right, this is where we part,’ Steve said. ‘Keep an eye on any guards or patrols; take them out quietly if you find anyone. We have to assume that anyone we run into is hostile, but non-lethal takedown, all right? We don’t know if they’re here willingly or if they’re under Amora’s control.’

He received a series of nods in answer, and then they split up.

Bucky was quick to pick a building that had stairs on the outside. The metal was old and rusty, but the stairs were stable enough and easily took their weight as they made their way up. They stopped a few times, trying to keep an eye on Loki and the rest of the ground team.

‘What do you say… roof?’ Steve asked. Some of the buildings had entire walls missing, so maybe they could make their way through them too.

‘Yeah, these are not the tallest buildings,’ Bucky agreed. ‘I don’t want to go higher than three or four stories.’

‘We can still jump down from that height without a problem,’ Steve said.

‘Exactly,’ Bucky agreed.

The more Steve saw from the island the more dead and deserted it seemed. It was hard to imagine that an Asgardian would be hiding at a place like this. Sure it was remote and easy to defend, but there were no actual defences on the coastline. It had a mine, but again, he found it difficult to picture someone like Amora hiding in an old coal mine. Of course it was even harder to believe that Loki and Bucky would make a mistake this big.

Bucky put out his hand to stop him just before they reached the roof. He made the hand signal for enemy in sight; up on the roof, two of them. They were definitely in the right place then. Bucky waited for a second then peeked out, slowly climbing up the rest of the way. He motioned Steve to follow him.

It took Steve just a second to assess their situation. Their targets looked human, but looks could be deceiving. He pointed at the closer one for Bucky to take, while he eyed the one who stood a little further away. Bucky was carrying his rifle and while Steve did not doubt that he could move quickly with it, it was still a big gun and not the best to carry around in a hand-to-hand fight, not to mention his ammo-belt. Steve could reach the other guy quickly enough, so they could take down both of them down at the same time.

They moved in unison. Steve only saw Bucky from the corner of his eye, but he was very aware of his presence. He may have looked different, things may have changed irreversibly, but it was familiar and reassuring to see him, no matter what happened since the last time they walked side-by-side like this on the field.

The second Bucky reached the first guy Steve made a run for the other one. He did not use his full strength, since if they were humans, and just Amora’s victims, then he really didn’t want them to suffer any serious injuries. The man took down was Asian; probably Japanese, considering where they were, and he wore a dark blue uniform. He was easy to knock down, which confirmed that he was definitely human.

He looked back at Bucky, then down at the body lying on the rooftop.

‘Alive, relax,’ Bucky said quietly.

‘Found two guards,’ Steve reported to the rest of the team. ‘Locals, I would assume.’

‘Coast guard,’ Bucky added. ‘So they came here with that boat. We might find more of them, or more will come.’

‘Yeah, they will be missed for sure and soon,’ Steve added.

All quiet down here,’ Natasha reported back to them. Steve couldn’t actually see them right now.

‘We have no visual of you ground team,’ Steve told them. ‘Thor, do you or Hawkeye see them?’

Aye, we are keeping our eyes on them from above,’ Thor answered. Steve looked around quickly, but he did not see Clint or Thor either. Thor could be astonishingly stealthy when he really wanted to be, and not even his red cape could stop him.

‘Let’s move,’ Bucky said.

Steve looked back at the two unconscious guys, but didn’t see the point restraining them. They weren’t even really armed, so they were more like sentries than guards. And by the time they woke up, Amora was probably going to be aware of their presence anyway.

They kept walking on the rooftops, keeping their heads down. Steve saw glimpses of the ground team, but they wandered a bit farther away from them, so it was not easy to spot them between the buildings. The alleys were narrow and did not give a clear line of sight most of the time.

We have just encountered a sentinel as well,’ Thor told them then. ‘But we had not harmed him too badly of course.

‘Human?’ Steve asked.

I’m not quite certain,’ Thor said. ‘He appears to be, but I rarely see humans wielding swords as big as this.

You’d be surprised,’ Natasha commented drily. She said it in a tone that meant there was a story there. This was unfortunately not the time or place to ask about it. It did put the vivid image of Natasha beating up some sword-wielding maniac in Steve’s head. He had to ask about it later.

‘Any sign of Amora or Skurge yet?’ Steve asked.

We’re getting close,’ Wanda said. ‘This place makes my skin crawl, I don’t know what she’s been doing, but damn, it left a mark.’

Good news, you are not going towards the mine,’ Clint said. Maybe he couldn’t hear them over the comms, but he still loved to talk their ears off sometimes.

No, we’re not,’ Loki said simply and did not elaborate. She was really not a team player. Steve was completely unsurprised.

Where are we going then?’ Natasha asked.

Silence, all of you,’ Loki ordered. Yeah ordered, it was not a suggestion or a request, not with that tone of voice. It rubbed Steve the wrong way, and more than just a little.

‘There,’ Bucky whispered and pointed down between two buildings where Steve could clearly see most of their ground team, Vision was out of sight, but he was probably just a few steps behind.

Then they stopped abruptly.

‘What’s going on?’ Steve asked.

I said silence,’ Loki said again, but this time she sounded distracted, her attention was elsewhere.

Bucky looked around on the roof they were standing on, then jerked his head in the direction of the building next to them. His head-tilt had a questioning flare to it, so Steve considered their options. If the ground team stayed in their current position, it would be smarter for them to move over to that roof. They would be much further away, but they would have a better view. So Steve nodded.

Holy shit, am I seeing that right?’ Clint asked, but Steve didn’t have time to look down on what he meant, because Bucky already leaped over to the other roof and Steve needed to keep up with him. As soon as he caught up he zeroed in on the empty area between the buildings.

He knew what Clint meant right away, and he fully agreed with his earlier sentiment. The empty lot was a ruin a moment ago, covered in weed, rusty old railings, and broken things. Right now it looked like a beautiful garden. It looked unrealistically beautiful, like a painting. The grass was full and perfect, there were little flower beds, butterflies, and slender fruit trees. Loki must’ve done something to reveal it, because there were still green-gold flames and lights slithering around at the edges of the garden.

So this is what she did,’ Wanda concluded.

Landscaping?’ Pietro asked.

‘Shit, it’s a joke we didn’t find her sooner,’ Bucky said as he got down on one knee and took his rifle off his shoulder.

Not a place we would normally search at,’ Loki answered.

‘So where is she?’ Steve asked.

Right here somewhere...’ Loki said. She moved a little away from the rest of the group, searching, looking around carefully.

The anti-materiel rifle was not something that was designed to be used the way Bucky used it, but weapon designers rarely counted on enhanced strength or cybernetic arms. Bucky didn’t need to lie down, he did not need support for the gun, he could easily lift it to his shoulder and look through the scope. He handled it with ease, as if it were a normal rifle.

‘Got you in my scope, princess,’ he said after a beat of silence.

I feel so special,’ Loki drawled as she continued forward slowly. ‘Now remember what I told you about Amora.

‘Don’t worry, I won’t aim for her head,’ Bucky told her.

Why do I feel like we’re about to be ambushed?’ Wanda asked.

Because they’re already coming,’ Loki said.

‘Who’s coming?’ Steve demanded immediately, but his question was answered almost right away. That noise, that godforsaken shrill, that made the windows shake everywhere around them, then came the bright light and the cracking sound. And then he heard the familiar deep rumbling. Not this again, dammit.

‘Watch out, N’Garai!’ he shouted down the comms, as if everyone didn’t realize it already.

Steve spotted two of the demons advancing on the others down below on the ground and he was ready to jump down and join the fight straight away, because these were tough bastards.

But a loud shot echoed among the buildings before he could move. Steve watched from afar as the head of the N’Garai on the front basically exploded. One second it was snarling and moving forward, preparing to launch an attack, then Bucky pulled the trigger and the beast collapsed on the pristine green grass. Its dark blood stained the ground all around the body.

The second beast growled loudly in reaction, charging forward in an instant.

I must aid them!’ Thor declared.

‘Easy,’ Bucky said evenly as his empty shell flew out of the rifle. ‘She won’t have that many.’

‘One is too many,’ Steve told him.

We’re fine,’ Natasha said through the comms. ‘Everyone stay where you are.

‘Stay out in the open,’ Bucky instructed the ground team. ‘Looks like my little magic bullets work.’

That was you?!’ Pietro shouted incredulously. Right, he was not there for Bucky’s little show and tell.

Loki dodged the snarling N’Garai, which gave Vision the chance to slam into it with a force that knocked the beast back and away from the rest of the team.

‘Well, we didn’t test them on demons,’ Bucky said calmly, still looking down at the others through his scope. Steve knew that tone he used, quiet and measured, a sniper’s calm. Some sharpshooters were loud and cocky, like Clint. But Bucky had never been like that behind a rifle, he’d always been cold and calculating, even on the battlefields of Europe, long before his fall.

There! Another one, coming from behind you!’ Thor shouted. Steve tried to spot it, but it must’ve been behind one of the buildings.

Behind you too, Steve!’ Clint yelled.

Steve spun around just in time to see the demon leap at them from the edge of the building where it climbed up silently.

He raised his shield, but did not jump aside, because Bucky was right behind him. So instead he ducked and slammed his shield into the thing’s head, because that seemed like a good strategy last time. Of course he didn’t do that much damage, but at least the demon didn’t knock him off his feet. He did stumble back a little when he was forced to block the swiping claws with his shield. He hated these things so damn much.

‘Get down!’ Bucky yelled and Steve did. He let himself fall backwards to the hard rooftop, while he lifted his shield to defend himself in case the demon lunged at him. But before the demon could react another shot rang, making Steve’s ears ring. Although he still heard how blood and wet sounding pieces splattered on his shield. The demon was down. Luckily, it did not fall on Steve completely, so he could pull his legs out from underneath the dead demon with relative ease.

He quickly got up, but no other attack came.

‘Thanks,’ he told Bucky, adrenaline was still pumping in his veins.

‘You look disgusting,’ Bucky said as he turned back around into his previous position. Steve looked down at himself. His head and upper-body were clean, since his shield caught most of the mess, but his legs were sprayed with blood and his shield itself was covered with lots of dark and sticky chunks of flesh and bone. Fantastic.

‘You’re the one who shot it right above me,’ Steve complained.

‘You’re welcome,’ Bucky said, then aimed again, this time at something down on the ground. Steve focused on the fight again, ignoring the mess. He was good at compartmentalising... occasionally.

The first thing he noticed was that Loki was nowhere to be seen. Wanda was firing red beams at one of the demons, making it back away. The beast was shaking its head, it was dazed or confused. It didn’t look seriously injured, but it didn’t advance either, it kept moving away from Wanda cautiously.

Natasha stood a few feet behind Wanda. Her guns were in her hands, but she did not engage, because she knew there was no point wasting bullets.

Vision was keeping another demon in line, using his strength and speed to keep it away from the others. He kept grabbing hold of its horns and forcing it to the ground, but the demon kept twisting away from him.

‘Vision, let it go,’ Bucky said and the android listened, immediately leaping back from the demon, sliding up into the air smoothly. Bucky let another bullet fly, and the demon hit the grass, just like the other one did before. Nice and easy.

Oh, I think I got this one,’ Wanda said, she sounded a little breathless. Steve realized why when he noticed that the demon she kept hitting with her blasts was now twisting and turning on the ground, red glow surrounding its head. Whatever it was that Wanda was doing to it, it looked painful.

What the hell are you doing, girlie?’ Clint asked.

Something I should have tried sooner,’ Wanda said. Her voice was a few tones too deep, and there was a little more static on her end of the line than there should have been. Then the demon stopped moving and crumpled to the ground in a twisted heap.

Now that was impressive.

‘Where did Loki go?’ Steve asked.

We do not see her,’ Thor answered right away.

We did not really keep an eye on her,’ Vision said. ‘With the demons at our throats.

‘Loki, you copy?’ Steve asked, but there was only silence. No reply. ‘Buck, what do you think?’

‘If she could or wanted to answer, she would have already,’ he said. ‘Keep going forward.’

‘Widow, wanna take the lead down there?’ Steve asked.

I won’t know where to go, Wanda will lead us,’ Natasha answered.

This way,’ Wanda said immediately. She walked past the corpse of the demon with easy confidence. Oh, she could be scary sometimes, Steve was man enough to admit that.

Bucky got up to follow them from afar and Steve was right beside him.

We need to change our position,’ Clint reported through the comms. ‘Might take a bit.

‘Thor, make sure you two are out of sight,’ Steve instructed.

Aye, Captain,’ Thor confirmed.

Steve and Bucky continued their way up on the roof of the smaller buildings as long as they could, but then they reached the bigger ones. Apartment blocks, ten stories at least. Steve quickly looked around for an alternative path. Well, the alley was narrow, the buildings were old, and the walls looked quite thin. They could maybe bust through the outer wall of the apartment building, then they wouldn’t have to climb down to the street.

Hello, Skurge,’ said Loki though their comm-link unexpectedly. She was obviously not addressing any of them, but it still had to be a message or a warning, and not just a mocking greeting.

We found them,’ Wanda added gravely. Then something exploded down there, it was not fire and heat and debris, but light and sound and green flashes. Their comms sizzled with static, deafening them all for long moments. And Steve did not wait around to ask questions. He picked one of the paths he eyed earlier at random and ran. And Bucky ran too, right beside him.

Chapter Text

Natasha did not know what the things were. She only saw Skurge, then a dark swarm of... something, bird-like or insect-like, it didn’t matter. The cloud barely started descending on them when everything exploded into green. It was not a real explosion. Natasha did not feel heat on her face, there was no shock wave, and she did not feel pain as it engulfed her. It tingled her skin, blinded her eyes, and made her earpiece shriek with static.

‘Useless tricks… don’t insult me, Amora,’ Loki said as soon as the light ebbed away. The swarm was gone, but Skurge was still standing in front of them.

Wha-- yo-- kay?...’ came Steve’s voice through the comm-link in fragments, but the rest was only static. A moment later there was no static either, just dead silence. Natasha would have loved to know whether the blocked signal was an unfortunate side-effect or something Loki did deliberately. Or maybe it was Amora, even if they could not see her.

‘How arrogant of you, Loki,’ Skurge said. ‘To show up here with nothing but a handful of mortals to aid you.’

They did not know Thor was with them... maybe they had no idea about Clint, Steve and Barnes either. That sounded more than perfect.

‘How foolish of you to think that a few N’Garai would be able to stop me,’ Loki said in return. ‘Stop hiding, Amora!’ she yelled then to the room at large.

‘You should be more concerned about me,’ Skurge said, swinging his giant axe idly.

Loki scoffed. ‘I would have killed you already if you’d not have run like a coward.’

‘Is he under a spell too? Or is he doing this for kicks?’ Wanda asked as she walked closer to Loki.

‘You dare insult our love, mortal,’ Skurge said, his voice a dark threat.

‘I don’t know and I don’t care,’ Loki said.

‘Well, I care,’ Wanda told her. ‘We’re not gonna kill him if he’s just another mind-fucked guy.’

‘Kill me, ha! What a joke you are, the so-called champions of Midgard.’

‘Nobody calls us that,’ Wanda said dryly.

‘You shall be one of the firsts to taste my axe, lass,’ Skurge grunted at her in return.

Natasha saw Wanda’s eyes flash red, and it wasn’t just a blink, the glow remained and pulsated beneath her irises. She always tried to be fair, tried to do good. She wanted to help people, and not harm them, but she did not take kindly to being threatened. Natasha knew very little about magic, but she was willing to bet that you could sense her very presence in the air when she was channelling power like this. Natasha has been paying close attention to her, so she knew that Wanda has been getting stronger since she escaped Hydra’s clutches.

‘I will ask only once, Skurge,’ Loki said, turning her attention back to the giant man. ‘Where is Amora hiding? She’s close, I know it.’

Natasha had no idea where exactly anyone could hide in this place. Whatever it was that Amora did, it changed everything about their surroundings. The building had to be just as old and abandoned as the rest of the island, and yet what she saw in front of her was pristine beauty. The walls were white and golden, heavy drapes enveloped tall windows, catwalks led to a flower adorned gallery above them, and there were even carpets, furs, and rugs on the floor. She even spotted some damn statues and vases. She assumed it was an imitation of how things looked in Asgard.

‘I won’t ever betray her,’ Skurge said confidently, shifting his stance, getting ready for a fight.

‘Then you shall die for her,’ Loki answered, her long staff materializing in her hand.

Skurge gave them a big and nasty grin, and he turned his axe around lazily one more time.

‘I am not her only guardian,’ he declared.

They all reacted even before the first hostile popped their heads up. Natasha drew her guns, Pietro vanished in a quick blur, while Vision leaped up from the ground. Wanda’s hands lit up with sizzling red hexes. That’s what she always called them. And Loki… Loki charged at Skurge, not wasting any time, and not giving a damn about anything else around them.

They had to be humans, these guardians, because they started shooting at them, at least some of them. So Natasha ducked out of the way to take cover, while the air lit up with a red glow around Wanda, protecting her from the bullets.

‘If anyone copies this outside, we’re under fire. We don’t have an exact location on Amora, so keep your distance.’

She received no reply. Brilliant. She had an inkling that the boys ran into some playmates too, otherwise they probably would’ve charged in here already. Not the most thoughtful bunch, their outside team, also not the most patient.

She spotted a guy up by a glass door, which had to lead out to a balcony. Natasha quickly looked around and spotted a tall pillar that looked easy to climb. She approached it while sticking close to the walls, out of sight. She did not worry about the rest of the ground team. She doubted anyone could actually aim at Pietro, while Vision was as bulletproof as someone could possibly be. Wanda could look out for herself and frankly, she did not really care about how Loki was doing.

She was hard to ignore though, because she and Skurge were wreaking havoc all around them. They seemed evenly-matched, just like at the charity ball, but Loki was even more furious this time around. Maybe it was just how much time she spent hunting Amora down. Natasha would’ve been pissed too, and Loki was not known for her serene disposition.

Natasha got to the pillar and quickly made her way up, trying to say hidden. The pillar itself was heavily decorated with deep grooves and floral patterns, providing her with perfect grabs. It was as simple as climbing up a ladder, really. And it seemed like the gunmen were more occupied with uselessly emptying their guns at Vision and Wanda.

Once she reached the top she leaped over the small railing, kicking the guy with the gun in the chest. He stumbled back out to the balcony, so Natasha quickly ran after him. He was half-way back on his feet when Natasha grabbed his gun and twisted it out of his hand. Then she kicked his leg and quickly moved to get behind him. Putting him in a choke-hold was a child’s play after that.

‘Does anyone copy?’ she asked again once the guy was down, hoping that maybe being out on this balcony would help her get in touch with Clint and the others, but nobody answered. Maybe the balcony counted as “inside” still, maybe it wasn’t even a real balcony. Magic was weird like that. Natasha picked up the guy’s gun and threw it out over the railing. Then she glanced at his face again, and the sight made her stop.

He was unnaturally pale and had dark circles under his eyes. But it didn’t look like the paleness she remembered seeing on the faces of Loki’s mind-control victims. The guy’s lips were strangely blue in the middle, so Natasha crouched down and carefully pulled back his lower lip. His teeth and the inside of his lips were blue too, like he was sucking on a pen. She pulled an eyelid back up as well, since she didn’t have time for long observations while she was taking him down. His eyes were blood-shot, and the pupils were slightly greyish instead of completely black.

The men under Amora’s control from the charity ball were still in their custody and none of them looked like this. It seemed unlikely that this was her doing, unless she started doing something very different, something much worse. Natasha looked the guy over quickly for more clues. She was eager to get back inside, but she needed to gather information just as much. The man’s nails had an unhealthy colour, his skin was clammy, and the blood vessels on his wrist were bulging bizarrely. Natasha just couldn’t fathom what has been done to him. Her first thought was some sort of an experiment, drugs and chemicals, but she dismissed the idea almost immediately. Magic seemed the most likely, considering their lives recently, and considering this was Amora’s hideout. Or hell, it was maybe something demonic, as ridiculous as that should’ve sounded.

Not wanting to waste any more time, Natasha left the balcony to assess the situation inside. Skurge and Loki were still laying waste on the once beautiful interior. Loki was fast and she swiftly evaded every swing of Skurge’s axe. The giant in return blocked Loki’s spear with his own weapon over and over again, backing down when he needed to instead of fighting mindlessly. Loki was a lot less coordinated, but somehow it did not give her a disadvantage. She kept lashing out with a snarl on her lips, but her strength and skill made up for her lack of control. If she actually found a way to not allow her emotions to compromise her this much... well, it was best not to think about Loki no longer having her biggest weakness.

Natasha spotted Wanda dodging bullets left and right and decided that she needed assistance the most, but as she was about to swing back inside the room she heard a small noise from behind her back. She spun around just in time to dodge the guy she just took out. What the hell?

The man did not have any weapons, but he kept attacking anyway. Natasha’s mild hits did not even faze him, her harder punches made him stagger, but he kept straightening up and trying to attack again. There was something lost and glazed over in his eyes, despite the twisted look of anger on his face. Natasha didn’t want to hurt him, she really didn’t, but something was wrong. Humans felt pain. Normal humans did not get up right away after a kick from Natasha. Humans didn’t attack wordlessly and soundlessly with their distant eyes not even properly focused on their opponent.

When the man finally went down again Natasha pulled out his belt and tied his hands together behind his back. She had to get out of his sight. She had a strong suspicion that he would start attacking again when he woke up, tied hands or not.

Natasha climbed back down on the pillar and remained close to the wall again to stay out of the way of Loki and Skurge. There were green flames appearing randomly around them. Under Loki’s feet, at the tip of her spear, they followed her every move. It looked like she kept catching on fire spontaneously. Natasha knew it was magic and not real fire, but it did not look any less disturbing.

‘There’s something wrong with them,’ Wanda said the second Natasha reached her.

‘I noticed. Any idea what?’ she asked in return. Wanda pulled up another glowing red ward just as bullets rained down on them again.

‘No, but I can’t take them out from here, unless I want to kill them,’ she said.

‘Keep them occupied, I’ll do the rest,’ Natasha said.

‘No problem,’ Wanda nodded.

Natasha had more than enough experience dodging bullets, so she mostly kept her eyes on Loki and Skurge, because that fight could take an unexpected turn any time, and she did not want to be caught up right in the middle of it. She was almost surprised the two of them didn’t knock down at least one wall already.

Skurge launched a rapid-fire attack, forcing Loki to back off and dodge his axe with her spear. The green fire appearing so frequently now that there were always some flickering flames around Loki. That’s why Natasha almost didn’t notice the glimmer of poison green. Then there was Amora herself with a drawn blade.

Natasha opened her mouth to shout a warning automatically, not even thinking about it, but Loki dodged Skurge’s attack and turned around in the same motion to kick Amora in the stomach so hard that she went flying across the room. Then she rolled to the side to evade Skurge’s next attack.

Vision took Amora’s appearance as his cue to slam into Skurge from out of nowhere, making them both slide across the floor towards the other side of the room. Loki only gave them a cursory glance over her shoulder then she charged at Amora.

Amora’s hands lit up with energy and she sent beams flying towards Loki. Natasha knew very little about magic, Loki either dodged the attack or absorbed it, but they did not slow her down.

Skurge tried to fight his way back to his mistress, but Vision was not so easy to get rid of. He was stronger than the giant expected, and also very hard to hit. Natasha only kept her attention on them for a handful of moments , but she saw Skurge’s axe phase right through Vision’s body, much to the Asgardian’s surprise. Yes, it was not easy to harm someone who could turn intangible.

The fight was worth paying attention to, but Natasha had her own problems to take care of. She took note of the rest of the men that were still shooting at Wanda – and occasionally Pietro – and quickly figured out the best way to take them down. It would have been much easier to just shoot them, but of course she wasn’t going to do that. Lethal force was the absolute last resort.

‘Pietro!’ she shouted when she saw a glimpse of blue from the corner of her eye. And sure enough, he was running right next to her in the next moment.


‘Far wall, stand there and give me a boost,’ Natasha instructed. It took less than a blink for Pietro to do as instructed. He stood ready by the wall, his hands already folded and prepared for Natasha’s foot. He had no super-strength, but he was still a fit guy and strong enough to give her the extra inches she needed to jump up and reach the bottom of the catwalks above them, where the last of the strange overly pale men were. If Amora expected these guys to be able to take them out, she miscalculated greatly. Or maybe she just had that low an opinion of them, arrogance was, after all, a very Asgardian weakness.

Natasha pulled herself up to the catwalk and ran at the guy who seemed to be emptying the entire magazine of his semi-automatic gun at Wanda, despite seeing that the bullets were bouncing off a red shimmering ward. Mindless; that was also a word Natasha could use for these guys. The bodies moved, but it did not seem like anyone was home. Clint would’ve made some zombie quip by now. Natasha really hoped Clint was not doing anything stupid outside.

Natasha kicked the guy’s gun out of his hand then knocked his head to the catwalk railing. Of course he did not go down that easily. Natasha had to hit him three more times before he toppled over and stopped trying to punch the living daylights out of her. She pulled out his belt, like she did with the other one, tying his hands behind his back with the sturdy leather.

As she looked around to find the next gunman the wall on the far side of the building exploded. It was a small localized explosion, it didn’t do much damage. It also came from outside, so Natasha was willing to bet that it was one of Clint’s explosive arrows. She knew those really well. Natasha quickly jumped down from the catwalk to get out of the line of fire.

A moment later her earpiece crackled back to life.

Can anyone hear me?!’ Steve yelled.

‘Loud and clear,’ Natasha said, while Pietro and Wanda gave a firm yes at the same time.

Hold your position,’ Barnes instructed quietly through the comm. And Natasha knew that when a sniper said that, you damn well listened. A loud shot rang next and Skurge immediately yelled in pain. Natasha looked over and saw him stumble back from the hit, blood gushing from his shoulder. He angrily looked around; trying to find the source of the attack, but Barnes had to be far away. He was sitting on a roof outside, shooting through the big hole in the wall that Clint just made.

Another shot rang and this time Skurge dropped his axe, because his right arm was hit. Vision was quick to dash over to the weapon, phasing it into the concrete floor until only the tip of the blade was visible. Skurge was not pulling that one out.

Amora did not seem to pay any attention to the sounds of pain her loyal bodyguard was making, but maybe she was just too preoccupied with keeping Loki in line. Indeed those green flames were a constant presence now around them. Amora’s blade clashed with Loki’s spear again and again as they circled one another, attacking and evading.

Loki, freeze,’ Barnes said and she did, she abruptly stopped just as another shot rang through the air. Amora hit the floor from the impact and there was immediately blood staining the front of her armour. Barnes got her in the chest, but far up enough that it was probably not lethal. Loki dropped her spear and was on her in the next blink, taking her blade away and pinning her to the ground as the other yelled and struggled.

‘What have you done? What have you done to me?!’ Amora shouted. She was clutching at her bleeding wound until Loki pinned her arms. Right, first time being shot, it had to be a lovely experience for an Asgardian.

Skurge made a run for them, but injured as he was – bleeding heavily from two wounds – he was no match for Vision. The android stood in his way, then literally pinned him to the floor after a short struggle.

Natasha quickly looked around in search for the last of the gunmen, but Pietro was standing above the two unconscious figure, giving her a thumbs-up. Natasha gave him an approving nod. The kid could use the confidence and he did very well today.

‘The perimeter is secure,’ Natasha reported to everyone. Barnes put a very swift end to what started out as a long and tiring confrontation. Natasha had to admit, although begrudgingly, that it was an impressive display.

We’re on our way,’ Steve said.

Thor literally smashed through the remains of the wall Clint blew up not even a second later.

‘No more running, no more hiding,’ Loki said. Amora struggled still, green bursts of magic flaring up in her hands, but Loki kept her pinned and her flames burnt up every flicker of Amora’s magic.

‘You knew this day would come,’ Loki said to her.

‘Is that why you’re here? Revenge? A petty child, that is what you still are,’ Amora spat back at her. ‘You think I fear you, Loki? You think I ever truly feared you?’

‘You fear me right now,’ Loki said as her green flames flared up even more brightly, it made her hair float around her head. That was also something Natasha was used to see from Wanda. Loki did not use to be quite this flashy with magic, but she also used to have a male form, so Natasha was not about to start questioning the strange and abrupt changes about her.

Thor walked a little closer. He stood in Skurge’s way in case he somehow escaped Vision’s hold, no matter how unlikely that seemed right now. But he wisely did not walk any closer than that to Amora.

The sorceress kept trashing around, trying to twist away to no avail.

‘What are you doing?’ Amora asked, but Loki didn’t answer. She seemed very focused.

‘Loki... wait, you’ll need me... what I know...’ Amora said, and Natasha did hear some fear in her voice now. Maybe it was that expression on Loki’s face, or maybe the bright flames flickering on Loki’s skin.

‘What are you doing?’ Wanda asked.

‘No!’ Loki turned around to pin them with an angry look. ‘We made a deal, your Captain and I, you will not intervene. She is mine!’

‘Steve?’ Natasha asked.

I kinda did promise that,’ Steve confirmed after a beat of silence. Natasha had some choice words for him on making promises like this, but this was not the right time.

‘No, Loki, I can help, I can help you,’ Amora continued, but Loki was unrelenting. So Amora switched tactics. ‘Thor...’

But as soon as the word was out of her mouth Loki wrapped her fingers around her neck and silenced her with a hard squeeze. The green flames grew and twisted around them and Natasha could’ve sworn she actually felt heat on her face now.

‘Don’t you dare beg him for mercy,’ Loki hissed in Amora’s face, then pressed her free hand over Amora’s eyes. Green flames enveloped them both and hid them away from their sight, all they could hear was Amora’s scream. Skurge yelled and struggled even harder than before, clawing his fingers bloody on the floor trying to get to her.

Thor gripped his hammer tightly and moved closer, to intervene probably, but as quickly as it began it was over, and all of Loki’s flames died away. Skurge slumped back to the floor as the fight went out of him.

Natasha turned when she heard footsteps and saw that Steve, Barnes and Clint finally got to them. They were climbing in through the damaged wall.

Amora was making small sounds, her voice hoarse from her screams and from Loki’s hand still gripping her throat.

‘Utter his name again, and I will rip your tongue out too,’ Loki warned with soft words and a razor sharp tone. Then she stood up, letting go of Amora. Natasha tensed immediately, but the Enchantress didn’t get up.

‘All these years,’ Skurge said.

‘Help me, Skurge,’ Amora croaked in return.

‘I have loved you... I have cherished you...’

‘Skurge... help me,’ Amora repeated, then Natasha finally saw her face. The eyelids looked burnt, just like the skin all around it, and her eyes were nothing but a mess of red and grey smudges. She couldn’t see.

‘You cast a spell on me,’ Skurge said, his voice turning dark and angry. ‘The one thing you promised you wouldn’t do... The one thing I have ever asked from you!’

‘No, Skurge, my love...’

‘Silence!’ Skurge yelled back. ‘Halt your treacherous lips! I wish I could kill you, I wish my hands were capable of such a thing. I wish I did not love you so.’

‘Her spells are broken,’ Loki said pleasantly, walking closer to Thor. ‘Take her back to Asgard, leave her in a ditch, I really do not care.’

‘You’ll pay for this!’ Amora yelled. ‘Loki, you will pay for this!’

Loki looked back at her, stared at her lying on the floor with her burnt and blind eyes, and smiled. Then she picked her spear back up and made it fade into nothing.

‘Farewell, Amora,’ she said, and turned away from her, deliberately walking away.

Amora screamed in rage, but her magic was barely a flicker at her fingertips. Loki must’ve done more than just blind her, even if Natasha did not know what it was.

‘You think you have won?’ she screamed. ‘You think this will matter at all? You will lose, you will suffer, you will rot in the ground! You think anyone will thank you for this? Even those Jotun animals tossed you away. You think you can play hero?!’

Loki stopped, but did not turn back around.

‘What did he promise you?’ she asked instead.

Everyone else was silent and Natasha hoped they will continue to keep their mouths shut. Let them talk, let them give away some of their secrets, let them argue. They were giving Natasha more information to work with.

‘Asgard? The golden throne you always thirsted for...’ Loki asked. ‘...Thor?’

‘All of it, and more,’ Amora declared. ‘You are a fool, Loki! You will have nothing but pain and death, you will be torn apart, you will beg to betray every promise you’ve made.’

Natasha wanted them to keep talking, give her even more information, but of course it didn’t happen.

‘If you wanna take her alive, do it now, cause I’m about to shoot her,’ Barnes said, marching closer confidently, his rifle still in his hand. He interrupted the flow of the conversation, and he did it deliberately. Loki seemed to compose herself right away, the angry glint in her eyes shifted into something more calculating.

‘Aye, she needs to be taken back to Asgard,’ Thor agreed.

‘Odinson,’ Skurge said. Thor turned towards the giant man right away, but Natasha saw that Loki moved as well. She caught herself in time, but she reacted to the name just as Thor did.

‘Speak,’ Thor told him. ‘But know that you are to return to Asgard, whether you are willing or not.’

‘I have committed great crimes across the Nine Realms, but I am still a Warrior of Skarnheim. I will return to Asgard, and shall do so willingly,’ he said. ‘I will not run from my sins.’

‘I have your word?’ Thor asked.

‘Aye, my prince, you have my word,’ the other said.

‘Vision, my friend, let go of him,’ Thor said. Vision didn’t argue, he rarely argued with Thor. Well, nobody really argued with Thor most of the time.

Amora spoke quietly, trying to get Skurge’s attention again, but the giant ignored her, did not even look at her again.

‘I shall return to Midgard, as soon as I can,’ Thor said to all of them.

‘Don’t you think you should take back someone else too?’ Clint asked.

Loki made an amused noise, which made Natasha want to shoot her multiple times, no matter how useless normal bullets were against her.

Thor’s face turned dark and he stared at Loki with his stormy eyes for a very long moment. Loki stared back, but not even Thor’s anger could diminish the cruel satisfaction on her face.

‘Do not think, even for a moment, that your crimes are forgotten,’ Thor said then.

‘Oh, I wouldn’t dare, brother,’ Loki said with a smile, then her lips stretched even wider. ‘Give my greetings to the King of Asgard.’

Natasha thought about that one for quite a long while. That last sentence and the wide smile, the glint in Loki’s eyes, it meant something. It was more than just mockery, a gleeful remark, it meant something more. It was something to be worried about, and she hoped Thor thought the same. She couldn’t help it, she kept thinking about it, even long after the Bifrost swept Thor away.

Chapter Text

Thor had been away from his home for a long while now, but the pull of the Bifrost was as familiar and exhilarating as always. Skurge offered to hold onto the injured and blind Amora despite being injured himself, and Thor did not fight him on it. He had no desire to carry the treacherous sorceress in his arms.

As soon as his feet touched the floor of the observatory he opened his mouth to greet Heimdall, but his eyes landed on someone else and he abruptly fell silent.

‘Brunnhilde,’ he said after a moment. He glanced around but Heimdall was nowhere to be seen, only the tall blonde Valkyrie stood in front of them. She pulled Heimdall’s long sword out, shutting the Bifrost down. No, it was not Heimdall’s sword, it was Brunnhilde’s own blade.

‘Greetings Son of Odin,’ she said. ‘Welcome home.’

‘Greetings to you too, good Brunnhilde,’ Thor nodded in return, remembering his manners.

‘Some warriors will take the prisoners off your hands shortly,’ she said then, standing in front of them. Her gaze was not as unnerving as Heimdall’s, but it made Thor stand taller nonetheless. He doubted there was any warrior in all of Asgard who did not straighten their back when standing in front of the great Valkyrie.

‘Where is Heimdall?’ he asked then.

‘He has been relieved of his duty,’ the Valkyrie answered, much to Thor’s shock.

‘What? How can that be? What happened?’

For Asgard’s guardian to be replaced, it was unthinkable.

‘You must ask the King yourself,’ she said. ‘I’m just fulfilling the duty I have been given.’

‘How?’ Thor wondered out loud. ‘Without Heimdall’s all-seeing eyes...’

‘I brought you here when you called. Have I not?’ Brunnhilde asked in return, her voice hard.

‘I meant no disrespect,’ Thor quickly reassured her.

‘I am more than just Asgardian, Odinson,’ she said. ‘Forget that not.’

No one would be foolish enough to forget that. She did not always stay in Asgard, but Brunnhilde was still the leader of the Valkyrior, the Choosers of the Slain, in name and spirit. She was one of greatest warriors of the Nine Realms and more than powerful enough to defend Asgard in Heimdall’s stead. Thor just did not understand why. Heimdall had always been Asgard’s guardian and all-seeing sentinel. Thor could remember no time when it had not been so.

But Brunnhilde was right, he had to ask his father about this.

He heard footsteps approaching from outside and he was relieved to hand Skurge and Amora over to the Einherjar. He could not stand looking at the sorceress, even though she was silent now. It was maybe the defeat she had suffered, her injuries, or Loki’s threat, but she kept her lips firmly shut.

But then it was not the Einherjar that entered the Observatory, much to Thor’s surprise. Instead of golden armour, shields and spears, these warriors had blades and axes. They wore dark brown leathers with white furs thrown over their shoulders, all adorned with the same gold seal. They were all Warriors of Skornheim. Thor’s brows furrowed even deeper. He had not been away from Asgard that long.

‘Greetings to you, Thunderer,’ the red-haired man on the front said, raising a fist to his chest.

‘And to you,’ Thor said in return with a nod, still frowning. He wanted to ask about their presence right away, but he had a feeling that he would receive the same answer Brunnhilde gave him. Usually, it was only war that justified summoning the warriors. They couldn’t be in war, his father would have summoned him back if that were the case.

‘Take these two to the dungeons, and fetch healers for them,’ he instructed instead.

‘Aye, Prince Thor,’ the man nodded right away.

‘Let it be known that Skurge has come to Asgard willingly,’ he added.

The man on the front glanced over to the giant warrior. Skurge stood behind him, but Thor did not mind turning his back on him. He did not have his axe, but Thor had his hammer, and Brunnhilde her sword. He would be mad to attack, especially as injured as he was.

‘That is but one less stain on the Executioner’s honour,’ the man said. Skurge was from Skornheim as well, maybe he even knew these warriors personally. The man on the front gestured with his hand – Thor should have asked for his name right away – and the other warriors moved to escort Skurge and Amora back to the city.

Thor decided to speak with my father in the meantime. The sooner he flew back to the palace the better, he had quite a few questions he needed answered.

It was easier said than done to have a word with his Father. Two other Skornheim warriors stood guard right outside the throne room. They told him that an Ambassador from Vanaheim was with the King and that they were not to be disturbed. Thor did not insist on going inside. He arrived back to Asgard unexpectedly after all. And his questions, while urgent, could wait until he was summoned.

So he decided to retreat to his room to change his armour and wash off the dust of battle. He noted the lack of Einherjar as he walked down the palace corridors, but everything else seemed to be in order. Even the damage from the dark elf invasion was repaired for the most part. His mind became restless as he walked, bothered by too many questions. He considered searching out Heimdall and his friends to ask them what happened in Asgard in his absence, but in the end he deemed it wiser to speak to his father first.

He was also torn about Loki. He had to tell his father, he had to. Thor remembered how angry Odin was after he brought Loki back from Midgard. He remembered his hard eyes and his silence well. And yet, surely he would want to know, both as a King and as a father. Thor had to tell him. He feared his Father would order him to retrieve Loki at once, by any means necessary, so Thor had to be careful about explaining the situation on Midgard. He agreed that Loki had to be brought back, but they had to tread carefully.

He had also not forgotten that Loki armed Barnes with a weapon capable of harming, and even killing Asgardians. Whatever it was that Loki was involved in, it was a dangerous matter, and it was not to be taken lightly. He just hoped his father would agree with him.

He washed quickly and put on a new armour once he reached his chamber. It did not take that much time, but even still he was barely done when he heard a knock on his door. He expected someone that would to let him know that his father was ready to see him, instead he found Eir. His return to Asgard has brought him nothing but surprises so far.

‘Welcome home,’ she said, smiling mildly.

‘It’s good to be back,’ Thor smiled in return. ‘How may I help you?’

‘Walk with me, if you would,’ Eir requested. Thor shut his door and gestured her to show the way.

‘My healers tended to the prisoners,’ Eir started. ‘We could not heal Amora’s eyes.’

‘I expected as much,’ Thor nodded.

‘Someone quite powerful and knowledgeable must’ve done it,’ Eir told him pointedly. It was a request for more information.

‘You are quite correct,’ Thor said, but did not elaborate. Eir lifted her eyebrow, but did not press for more answers.

‘We also removed these... things from their bodies,’ Eir said then and held out her palm. Thor recognized the mangled bits of metal easily. He witnessed his comrades on Midgard digging bullets out of their bodies after a battles more than once.

‘The metal I identified easily,’ Eir continued. ‘But I am still quite baffled.’

‘They’re bullets,’ Thor explained. ‘Midgardians shoot them with their guns.’

‘Yes, but...’ Eir looked at him. ‘Midgardians caused these wounds?’

‘Only one. And as far as I know, no other has a weapon quite like his,’ Thor said. He did not want to get into lengthy explanations. Many humans had guns like the one Barnes wielded, but it was true that only he had the right bullets to do serious damage.

‘It is still rather surprising,’ she said. She did not seem worried. But then again, she never seemed worried about anything. Thor always admired her strong will and clear confidence. No wound, injury, or sickness ever managed to daunt her.

She closed her hand around the three bullets and smiled at Thor again.

‘Let me accompany you to the King,’ she said then. Thor found the request strange, but agreed nonetheless.

His mind remained restless even as they chattered pleasantly. Something was amiss, he could feel it in his bones. Brunnhilde, then the Warriors of Skornheim, now Eir’s request, they all just made Thor more certain that something had changed in Asgard in his absence. Thor needed to find out what.

The warriors that stood outside the door stepped aside easily this time. Thor looked up to the throne and froze.

‘Who are you?’ he demanded right away, marching forward with purpose. Because he did not find his father on the throne of Asgard, but a young man with short brown hair, and a long white fur coat. He held Gungnir in his hand, but Thor was ready to swing Mjölnir just the same.

The man from the Observatory stood left to the man and the throne, and a few other Skornheim warriors stood around them. Thor did not fear them either.

‘Peace, Thor!’ Eir called as she ran after him, putting a hand on his shoulder as soon as she caught up with him.

‘Who are you?’ Thor demanded again.

The man walked down the stairs towards him, and the closer he was the more unsettling his features became for Thor’s eyes. His eyes, the shape of his nose, and his chin... he...

‘I ask you to listen to what I have to say before you try to get answers with your hammer,’ the man said. The warrior that stood next to him followed him down the stairs.

Thor took a deep breath to get his temper under control.

‘I asked you twice already, and I will not ask a third time,’ he said evenly, but he knew there was an entire storm in his eyes. The man did not seem afraid. He just looked at Thor for a long moment.

‘My name is Balder, and I am your brother.’

He said it so simply, but Thor was stunned into silence.

‘What?!’ he asked then, his hand tightening on his hammer, and by the Tree he could taste lightening on his tongue.

‘It’s the truth,’ Eir said before either of them could get another word out. ‘Thor, it is the truth, I examined him myself. I was very thorough and investigated in all ways possible.’ Thor finally looked back at her.

‘Blood does not lie,’ the red-haired warrior said. ‘He is a son of Odin.’

Thor felt light-headed despite standing on his feet so firmly. The more he stared at Balder’s face, the more his mind willed him to believe it. His face was softer than Thor’s, but his features were easily recognizable. Thor knew them from mirrors.

‘I do not understand,’ Thor said quietly. ‘How? How did we not… speak, you were eager to talk, so speak now! Where have you been all these years, and how are you standing in front of me now? If this is true, how had I not known?’

‘I had not known myself,’ Balder said.

‘But why would my father and mother--’

‘I am a son of Odin,’ Balder interrupted. ‘But I am not the son of your Queen Mother.’

The sky thundered with an approaching storm outside and Mjölnir hummed in Thor’s hand. He was angry. Fury was trashing in his chest, waiting to be unleashed. Balder must’ve seen it on his face, because he shifted his stance, maybe expecting to be attacked. The Skornheim warriors showed no fear, but they kept their eyes on the two of them.

‘You dare--’

‘That is also true,’ Eir told him quietly.

‘My own birth is no sin of mine,’ Balder said with a slightly louder voice. ‘And I won’t be blamed for it either, so calm yourself, Thunderer.’

‘Who is your Mother?’ Thor asked. He did not know why this was the first question out of his mouth, but he wanted to know.

‘I do not know,’ Balder said. ‘I was not raised by her and to this day I do not even know her name. I was raised by a good man, but he was clear about not being a parent of mine.’

‘Skornheim,’ Thor said, because it suddenly made sense. ‘You grew up in the Skornheim Mountains.’

‘Yes,’ Balder nodded. He did not wear the gold seal of the warriors, neither their brown armour, but the fur cloak was just as clear a message.

Thor had so many questions, and so many things he wanted to know about the man standing in front of him, but there was someone he wished to talk with much more urgently.

‘Where’s my father?’ he asked and he knew that his anger was once again tangible in the air.

‘The Allfather is on a journey and left Balder to guard the throne in his absence,’ the warrior spoke again.

‘You name?’ Thor asked finally. He had a feeling that he would be seeing him a lot.

‘Cosak, my Prince,’ he said. ‘I am a sworn Warrior of Skornheim. Lady Sigyn honoured me by making me the leader of the warriors who accompanied Balder here.’

‘Why did she send you all here? Or did my father request your presence?’

‘All kings need an honour guard,’ Cosak said simply.

‘The Einherjar have always been the guards of the King,’ Thor said.

‘The Einherjar do not know Prince Balder like we do,’ Cosak said in return.

‘You question their loyalty? If my father left Balder to rule, then they would serve him with the utmost respect.’

‘If?’ Cosak exclaimed. ‘Ask anyone in Asgard! The King announced him, claimed him as his son, gave him his name, all in public!’

He was protective, that much became clear immediately.

‘That is enough, Cosak,’ Balder said mildly. ‘This is a lot to take in at once. Prince Thor has every right to demand answers.’

Cosak did not look happy about Balder’s words, but he did not argue.

‘The people of Asgard have also been informed that the Allfather has left on a personal journey,’ Balder said then, turning back to Thor. ‘And that I am Prince Regent until he returns.’

And yet most of the warriors called him King. Brunnhilde did too.

‘Why you?’ Thor asked.

‘I had not known about my heritage up until very recently, so do not ask me to know Odin’s mind. But if you care to hear my opinion, it was the lack of options that led to the reveal of my parentage.’

‘You are so calm about this,’ Thor remarked. He was angry, would have been ever angrier in Balder’s place.

‘Oh, you had not seen me in the first few weeks,’ Balder said pleasantly, then he looked over to Eir.

‘Thank you for coming here,’ he said to her. ‘I do not wish to keep you from your duties any longer.’

‘Thank you, my liege,’ she said and turned to leave right away.

‘And now I believe Thor and I have much to discuss in private,’ Balder said.

‘As you wish,’ Cosak said.

‘I have much to tell you,’ Balder said to him. ‘So please, come with me.’ It was a request Thor could easily refuse; for what did he care about who held Gungnir in their hand? But he followed the man, while the Warriors of Skornheim stayed behind.

His chest felt tight and his heart was heavy. There was no emotion he could grab hold onto, just a storm inside him to match the weather he summoned outside. He stared at Balder as he followed him and willed himself not to make him the target of his rage.

Thor quickly realized that Balder was leading him to his parent’s… his father’s personal chamber. He really did not mind following him. He of course planned to visit his friends and Heimdall to ask them more questions, but it did not hurt to hear what Balder had to say. Thor was still trying to wrap his head around his existence. He believed Eir. If she proved that Balder was truly Odin’s son, then Thor saw no reason to demand to see evidence as well. Especially not if it was his father himself that brought him back from Skornheim. Balder’s existence was not the thing that puzzled him. It was everything that surrounded it.

Even if his Father had been unfaithful, why keep him a secret? It did not sound like him to abandon a child of his own flesh and blood. At least he left him in good hands. Had his Mother known? Thor could not imagine her not willing to accept another child into their home, even if it was a child of another. She had always loved Loki just as much as she loved Thor after all. He could see her being angry at Odin, but not an innocent life. Was it his Father who did not want him?

‘How old are you?’ Thor asked with a frown. He didn’t even think to ask this before.

‘Younger than you,’ Balder said. ‘Younger than Loki even,’ he added.

‘So tell me then,’ Thor said then. ‘How did this all happen?’

‘Soon, but first I must tell you the truth,’ Balder said as they reached the door leading to his father’s room.

‘The truth?’ Thor asked, tension seeping back into his bones. Balder just hummed and opened the door.

Thor was not sure what he expected to find on the other side of the door, but it was not his father lying in his bed, surrounded by golden protective light. He rushed to his father’s bedside without a word, kneeling down to look at him.

‘What happened?’ Thor asked. ‘I thought...’

‘Odinsleep,’ Balder said as he closed the door. ‘Happened not long after I came here, he probably felt it approaching.’

‘Why did Cosak say that he left on a journey?’ Thor demanded.

‘Because that is what the people of Asgard believe.’

‘You are lying to the people, keeping the truth from them?’

‘Eir knows. She watches over him almost every day,’ Balder said. ‘And a few chosen others are aware of the truth as well.’

‘Why the lies?’

‘You must understand,’ Balder said as he slowly walked closer. ‘I arrived here in difficult times. The invasion of the dark elves, then the death of the Queen... the people need to feel safe. If they knew the King has succumbed to the sleep...’

‘They would know that he still sees all and will return to them.’

‘But it was always the Queen that guarded the throne when it happened before... then Loki. Now all they have is me. You were gone!’

That was the truth. Thor left even before the clean-up in the city could begin.

‘Father could have called me back...’

‘You left for a reason, and he decided to come to Skornheim instead. That was his decision, not mine.’

Thor stood up from his father’s bedside to look at Balder more fully.

‘But if the Allfather has claimed you as his son, entrusted you with the throne...’

‘Loki was entrusted with the throne, and from what I heard he was betrayed within a day,’ Balder declared with a hard voice.

‘That was a very different affair,’ Thor said, but he had no idea how much Balder knew about the events that transpired.

‘That may be so, but the gist of the matter is, Thor, that even if the people of Asgard accepted me as a third son, as a prince, accepting me on the throne is different. I’m but a stranger to most of them... if they believe that Odin can return any moment, that he is still watching over them, they do not worry... and truly, he could wake up any time.’

‘No lie stays hidden forever,’ Thor warned him. ‘The trust of the people must be earned.’

‘They would have never given me a chance to earn their trust,’ Balder said. ‘And a Regent the people doubt cannot go very far.’

‘I still believe that you have taken the easier path.’

‘Easy? You think this is easy for me?’ Balder asked. Now Thor saw a glimpse of his temper. ‘I would have long returned home if I cared not for the people. Do not forget I was not groomed and prepared for this all my life, but I was needed, so I accepted. I will do all I can to guard the peace in the realm. If that means the people cannot be told about this, then so be it. And if the lie catches up to me, I will also take responsibility for that.’

It was not even the words that convinced Thor, but the fire in Balder’s eyes, the passion in his tone, and all the emotions that bled through his every breath. He didn’t even need to think too hard about why his father had not called him back, not with the way Thor left, not with all that was said between them. And now here stood Balder in front of him, another unveiled secret... a brother who wore a face so similar to his, a son his father hid away, but now found worthy to sit on the throne while he slept.

‘You are right, people fear uncertainty. They must know you in order to trust you, and for that you need time.’

Balder seemed surprised for a moment, but he quickly gathered himself. He probably expected Thor to argue with him some more.

‘Yes, uhm... thank you, for understanding my reasons.’

Then he stood there, almost uncertainly. His confidence ebbed away a little now that he no longer had to defend himself so vehemently. Thor still did not know how he felt about him, but he was quite certain that he at least wanted to get to know him.

‘I would stay with my... with father here for a little while on my own, if you do not mind.’

‘Do not correct yourself on my account,’ Balder said, lifting Gungnir up from the floor, preparing to leave. ‘He is my King and I respect him as such, but that is all.’

He smiled, but it was not a happy expression.

‘If he cared not being my father all these years, then I care not being his son now,’ Balder said. He did not wait for an answer, but headed towards the door. ‘But worry not, Prince Thor, I need not love him in order to rule. My duty is to the people.’

Then he left, closing door behind himself quietly, leaving Thor alone with his sleeping father. Thor took a deep breath, walked back to the bed, and sat down on the edge heavily.

‘I hope you know how much I would yell if you were awake,’ Thor said as he looked at him, but of course there was no answer.

Thor remained with his father for some time, he did not know how long. He spoke to him some, but not much, since he knew he could not get any answers to all the questions swirling around in his mind. He left when he actually started to feel hungry.

At first he wanted to eat by himself, but then thought better of it. He and Balder still had a lot to discuss and talking over a meal might make it easier for both of them. He caught up with the first servant he saw to find out where to look for him.

‘Oh, he eats with the guards,’ the young lady said quickly, some fine drapes in her arms. She was quite young, and Thor did not know her personally.

‘The guards?’

‘From Skornheim, my Prince, they all came here with him. He’s got friends among them, I’m quite sure of that.’

‘And where do the fine warriors of Skornheim dine?’

‘Oh, in the hall the Einherjar used to eat in,’ she said. ‘Do you want me to accompany you?’

‘No, I know the way well, thank you.’

‘You’re very welcome,’ she smiled and went on her way. Her dark green dress seemed a little plain, even for a servant, but what did Thor know about court fashion.

Before he could return to Midgard he had to talk with the people who worked at the palace as well. They would be able to tell him a lot about what sort of a person Balder was. He couldn’t well leave Asgard until he knew more about him, no matter what his father decided while Thor was away.

He approached the hall, and heard the sound of talking and laughing long before he stepped inside. He was also not really surprised when the noise subdued at the sight of him. Balder was indeed sitting with the warriors.

‘Thor!’ Balder greeted. ‘Were you looking for me perhaps?’

‘In a way,’ Thor answered. ‘Thought we might share a meal this evening.’

Balder did not hesitate with his answer. ‘Join us then, if the company is to your liking.’

He gestured at the men and women sitting around the long table, young and old, all looking at him. It’s been many years since Thor visited Skornheim, maybe he would even get the chance to hear how things fared in the mountains.

‘Gladly,’ Thor answered with a smile. Cosak stood up from Balder’s left and moved over to a different seat, freeing up a place. Thor thanked him with a nod.

‘Let’s drink then, for your return,’ Balder said, raising his cup. All the warriors followed his example. ‘Welcome home, Thunderer.’

The warriors raised their cups in answer and drank to his health. Thor smiled and drank as well.

‘To the Allfather and his safe return!’ Someone else called, which made everyone drink again. Thor drank to his father’s health, hoping he would wake up again soon.

Another warrior stood up, this time a dark-haired woman with a scar down her long neck. ‘I raise my glass to the memory of our beloved Queen, who was wise, kind and powerful. Her spirit shall guide us in times of need.’

The noise around the table was more solemn, but they all drank to Frigga’s memory. Thor felt his heart clench, because he missed her still, he was always going to miss her.

‘To our lost prince Loki,’ someone else exclaimed, surprising Thor. ‘Sharp and strong, like the finest blade, gone but not forgotten.’

‘Well said, Skoval,’ Balder said after he put his cup down. Then he looked over to Thor with a small smile on his face. ‘You seem surprised.’

‘I have not heard anyone raise a glass in Loki’s honour in a long time,’ Thor said.

‘He was our prince for a thousand years,’ Balder said. ‘No matter what happened, that should not be forgotten.’

Thor wondered if he should tell him about Loki. He was not convinced it was the best idea, so he had to think about it. This was also not the right time of course.

‘And I raise my cup to our Prince Regent,’ Cosak said. ‘To Balder the Brave!’

‘Balder the Brave!’ the warriors echoed. Balder laughed and raised his cup at Cosak in return.

‘That is very a fine title,’ Thor said. The warriors of Skornheim bestowed titles only upon the finest men and women. Like Skurge, the Executioner and Thor himself was called the Thunderer.

‘And a very well deserved one at that,’ Cosak said again, pride in his every word.

‘That is a tale I have to hear,’ Thor said.

‘I can tell you right now!’ Cosak said.

‘Later, my friend, we do not need to hear it every day,’ Balder laughed. ‘I’m sure Thor will stay with us for at least a little while.’

‘I will,’ Thor confirmed.

‘Tomorrow then,’ Cosak said. ‘I will tell you the whole glorious story.’

‘Or maybe you should finally let someone more talented with words tell the tale,’ one of the women called, making the whole table laugh.

They ate and drank and Thor himself was silent for a while, just watched the warriors and Balder. He did not just have their respect, but also their love, that was obvious even after such a short time. Balder himself seemed much more relaxed in their company.

‘What of Amora and Skurge?’ Thor asked after a while.

‘Amora is imprisoned,’ Balder said. ‘Just like Lorelei. But Skurge will be taken back to Skornheim. I will leave it up to Lady Sigyn to decide on a suitable punishment for his crimes. Skurge himself has accepted the verdict.’

Thor nodded in agreement. Skurge had been gone from Asgard for a long time, but he was of Skornheim still, so it was only right to let the Lady Sigyn be his judge.

‘What do you think she will do? She must be told that Amora had cast a spell on him.’

‘She will be told, but Skurge had broken his oaths long before that. I imagine her marking him so that he will be reminded of his sins forever, but beyond that... I do not know. I trust Lady Sigyn’s wisdom. She can be harsh, but she is never cruel. Justice will be served.’

‘His greatest crime is turning his back on us,’ one of the older men at the table said. ‘It is only right that he will be judged by our Matriarch.’

Many other warriors voiced their agreement.

‘How is the Lady Sigyn then?’ Thor asked. ‘It hasn’t been that long since she became the Lady of the Castle of Skornheim, has it?

‘But already she has proven to be an even finer leader than her father used to be,’ Balder said.

‘To Lady Sigyn!’ one of the warriors shouted and a new round of toasts started. Thor felt himself smile. He truly liked the company. It reminded him why he enjoyed visiting the Skornheim Mountains in his youth.

‘I must say, I am still surprised you are here,’ Balder said. ‘I thought you might visit your companions.’

‘Tomorrow,’ Thor told him as he started putting food on the new plate that was put in front of him by a server. ‘They’re not here in the palace.’

‘No, not any more,’ Balder confirmed.

‘I assume that is for the same reason why Heimdall is no longer at the Observatory, and also why I have not seen any Einherjar.’

‘The Einherjar guard the city,’ Balder told him. ‘The people know them, trust them, while I have my own protection and do not require their services.’

‘So should I take the presence of our current company as Lady Sigyn’s support of you?’

‘Partially,’ Balder answered. ‘She certainly does not mind someone with ties to Skornheim on the throne, but these men here, these fine valiant warriors...’

Some of the warriors started laughing in reaction to his words, and their laughter made Balder smile in return.

‘I grew up with most of them... was mentored by others.’

‘We were happy to accompany him,’ Cosak said.

‘Are you also one of Lady Sigyn’s sworn warriors then?’ Thor asked.

‘No,’ Balder laughed. ‘My guardian, Holvar, told me time and time again that I was not meant to be bound to such service. Now, of course, I know why he said that.’

‘He’s the one who raised you?’ Thor asked.

‘Aye, the old Holvar of the Single Eye,’ Balder agreed, then gave Thor a look. ‘It’s the other eye he’s missing, mind you, not much resemblance.’

That made Thor huff out a laugh.

‘He fought on Odin’s side in the war against Jotunheim,’ one of the dark skinned shieldmaidens spoke up. ‘He was one of his trusted generals.’

The name did sound familiar to Thor, but Odin had many generals over the years, several even in the great war against Jotunheim.

‘I understand you feel more comfortable to be guarded by warriors you know. But so many changes at once might cause unrest, don’t you think?’ Thor asked.

‘That may be so, but I need to trust those around me,’ Balder said.

‘Heimdall has...’

‘Heimdall has betrayed two of his lords, one of them being Odin himself. And your companions are even more likely to go against every oath they took.’

Thor felt anger stirring in his chest on his friends’ behalf.

‘They have always been loyal servants of Asgard.’

‘No, they have always been loyal to you! I need warriors that are loyal to me and the throne, men and women who won’t turn their backs on me the second you so wish.’

‘When the dark elves attacked...’ Thor tried to explain.

‘I am not just talking about the invasion,’ Balder interrupted him. ‘I’ve been keeping my ears open. I listened to both proudly declared words and quiet whispers. I will not have warriors on my side who are waiting with their every breath for your return.’

‘Odin has chosen you,’ Thor said.

‘It matters not,’ Balder dismissed his words right away. ‘If they were all willing to betray Odin himself for you, then how am I to trust that they won’t do the same to me the second they think I’ve made a mistake. Tell me that, Thor. Can you truly expect me to have faith in their loyalty?’

‘What they have done, has always been for the good of Asgard,’ Thor said.

‘Yes, but they also think that it would be for the good of Asgard if you were on the throne instead of me.’

‘And you disagree?’ Thor asked.

‘I think you do not realize that being king is not just a prize at the end of the road. The reward for when you have learnt all your lessons. A king is a servant of his people, not just their ruler. The crown is not something you pick up when you please, only to toss it away again when you fancy an adventure on Midgard.’

‘I left, I know that,’ Thor said.

‘You left after you have forfeited the throne, so I’m here instead. I have not been raised a prince, I was not prepared for this, but I have accepted the responsibility. I have accepted to serve the people of Asgard to the best of my abilities. So if you believe, that you can demand the throne now, after you’ve already given it up, then be prepared that I will not give it to you easily.’

‘It was not my intention to do so,’ Thor told him honestly. ‘I still do not think that I am ready.’

‘This is not about you,’ Balder said, almost harshly. ‘This is about what the realm needs. You may think you are entitled to the throne, but I don’t believe you are willing to put down your hammer and serve Asgard as its king instead of its wandering hero. Maybe you thought the throne would be always waiting for you, but Asgard deserves better than that.’

Thor felt all eyes around the table on him, but he kept his own eyes on Balder. There was that fire in his gaze again, compassion and conviction. And Thor did not doubt even for a second that he was willing to fight Thor on this. The warriors did not name him Balder the Brave for no reason. Thor smiled, he really wanted to hear the tale of how he received his title now. He seemed so calm, gentle, even serene, then in just a heartbeat he was ready to fight.

His smile made Balder relax, and the tension broke around the table. Some of the warriors even started talking quietly amongst themselves.

‘I have no intention of fighting you,’ Thor said. ‘I may not know you that well yet, but I can already see why my father believed that you would make a fine Regent, even King.’

Balder stared at him for a moment, then just like before, the fight went out of him almost instantly. His face softened and his voice was gentle again when he spoke.

‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘Things might change, when Odin is back on the throne, but for now we must do what is best for all. I will guard the throne and Asgard, and you can continue to protect the Nine Realms, as you have done all this time.’

‘Well said,’ Thor agreed, making Balder smile again.

He still had much to do before he could return to Midgard, but for now he was convinced that his father made the right choice. He looked around at the great warriors of Skornheim, with Balder sitting at the head of the table, and he believed that Asgard would be well protected while his father slept.

Chapter Text

Steve hadn’t seen hide nor hair of either Loki or Bucky since they took down Amora and Skurge on the Hashima Island. They didn’t even left together. Loki was of course eager to get going, while Natasha insisted they remain until the men who were attacking them could receive some help. In the end they decided to stay and get back to the US on their own.

Not that there was much they could do for the pale-faced men as they died one-by-one in the hospital. Organ failure mostly, sometimes a stroke, or a heart-attack, all very natural ways to die... normally. There was nothing normal about how those men died, not with the way they acted and looked like. Not with the way their insides were after the autopsy. That inky-blue colour around their mouths spread everywhere inside them. They had dozens of questions, and no one to give answers, as usual.

That was weeks ago and nothing happened since then. Not a word from Strange, no unusual events on their radar… nothing. It was kind of infuriating and put Steve in a rotten mood. He was still at Stark Tower too, since he considered it too much of a risk to be far away from everyone else. If the events on Hashima proved anything, it was that they needed to be able to move together as a team, sometimes at the drop of a hat. And it was good to be back in New York. Even with all his bitter-sweet memories, it was home in a way Washington never was.

He hoped that the reason for Bucky’s radio-silence was that nothing worrisome, but he was not naïve enough to believe that. It was much more likely that Loki and Bucky went back to doing things on their own, not involving anyone. Most of the team agreed that they would eventually find something that would tell them what was going on with this whole mess, but Steve was so tired of waiting. Tony’s gym was the victim of his frustration… and anyone who was willing to spar with him.

Of course he should have known how it was going to happen. He should have expected this very scenario from day one. The scenario being someone stabbed, shot, or otherwise injured, bleeding all over his floor in the middle of the night. Steve wanted to be annoyed at the sight in front of him, but it was Bucky…

‘What the hell happened?’ Steve asked. He got out of his bed when HELEN informed him that he had intruders on the floor, only to find the very unpleasant sight of an injured Bucky and a very pissed-off Loki arguing in his living room.

He noticed the blood first, because Bucky had his hand pressed to his abdomen and his fingers were crimson, but as the lights came up he finally saw the whole picture. His face must’ve looked horrified as he ran closer, because Bucky’s metal arm was completely trashed. It was mangled and twisted, the fingers bending in unnatural angles, some of the plates were bent and curving away from the rest of the arm. And Loki was in the middle of pulling out some thin metal rod from it.

‘Shit what… what do we do?’ he asked, hands hovering above Bucky.

‘Bullet wounds are kinda a priority,’ Bucky gestured at his abdomen, then looked over to his broken arm. ‘I can’t feel this one.’

‘Be grateful for that,’ Loki said as she pried away a panel to get to the rod that pierced through the whole arm.

‘Grateful?!’ Bucky snapped. ‘I have two bullets in my gut and my arm is fucked to hell, otherwise I would have punched you in the fucking mouth already.’

‘Oh, don’t be so dramatic,’ Loki said.

Bucky gritted his teeth, looking pissed as hell, but he turned to Steve instead of saying anything.

‘Bullets, Steve,’ he reminded him. Shit, yeah.

Do you require medical assistance on your floor, Steve?’ HELEN asked as he ran to his bathroom to get the well-packed first aid kit he had there.

‘No, HELEN. Everything is under control. Did you ring any alarms?’

It would have been irresponsible not to,’ HELEN said. Steve almost froze for a second, but HELEN continued. ‘You are hereby reminded that if your “guests” attempt to leave your floor there will be consequences, which include, but are not limited to the use of blasters and calling for the intervention of the Hulk.

‘Tell Tony not to worry,’ Steve said.

Also, Natasha wishes you good luck,’ HELEN added.

‘Is nobody asleep in this tower?’ Steve wondered out loud as he headed back out of the bathroom. ‘Privacy mode, please.’

Privacy mode is subject to the reduction of the current threat level,’ HELEN informed him. ‘But I will be the only one watching.

‘Thanks, HELEN.’ It was the best Steve was going to get, so there was no point arguing. He also knew that the only reason they were left alone was that the others all believed that Bucky (and maybe even Loki) was more likely to give out information with just Steve around.

‘Stop moving around so much,’ Loki was saying when Steve walked back into the room. She was still trying to get that piece of metal out of Bucky’s arm

‘I’m gonna stab you in the throat,’ Bucky said through gritted teeth.

‘You will try, James,’ Loki told him with a smile.

‘I thought you couldn’t feel that,’ Steve said as he knelt down on the couch next to Bucky.

‘I don’t feel the arm, but I feel it when someone is pulling on my fucking nerve endings,’ Bucky said, glaring at Loki. Loki just hummed and pulled on the thin rod again, which made Bucky’s mangled metal fingers twitch and click in weird and disturbing ways.

‘Steve… bullets,’ Bucky said… again.

‘You don’t seem to be dying,’ Steve said easily.

‘Don’t you start,’ Bucky warned.

‘There,’ Loki said, then she finally pulled out the piece of metal that was lodged between the plates of the metal arm.

It was Steve’s cue to get working.

‘Let me help getting these off,’ Steve said, gesturing at the leather vest, and what was probably Kevlar underneath it. Fortunately, they were mostly just straps and snaps, so getting it off was relatively easy. Not even the Kevlar was difficult to remove, although all the moving around made Bucky grit his teeth again.

‘How the hell did they shoot you through all these layers?’ Steve wondered out loud as he cut into Bucky’s undershirt, the last of the clothing in the way.

‘Yeah, I fucking wonder how that happened,’ Bucky said very pointedly.

‘It was hardly my fault,’ Loki said. She stood up when Steve started to pry Bucky out of his clothes, but she did not walk too far.

‘If you could stop running your mouth off at every ancient being who could snap you in half, we wouldn’t end up in this much shit!’ Bucky said.

‘Not… snap me in half,’ Loki protested.

‘That is so not the point!’ Bucky told her.

‘As if I could let them have the last word like that,’ Loki declared. Her words made Bucky let out a sound that was kinda like a growl.

‘I grew up with that reckless stupid punk,’ he said, jerking his head at Steve. ‘And that still did not prepare me for your level of idiocy. Unbelievable.’

Loki just scoffed and looked away.

‘Not sure if I was insulted or complimented there,’ Steve remarked.

‘Fucking bullets in me, Steve,’ Bucky said.

‘They’re not in that deep, you’ll be fine, and you gotta stop moving around first if you want me to get them out.’

That finally made him stay put, but it probably helped that Loki didn’t continue the argument. Steve sprayed the wounds with analgesic first. He knew it didn’t do that much for the likes of him and Bucky, but it was better than nothing.

‘So…’ Steve started, maybe a little conversation would distract Bucky from the fact that Steve was going to be digging around in the wounds. ‘Who shot you then?’

‘Arcade, that piece of shit.’

‘The assassin?’

‘That’s the one,’ Bucky said. He did not wince or react at all when Steve pushed the pliers into the wound, Steve wasn’t sure whether he liked that or not.

‘They must be paying him some big money,’ Steve said.

‘I think it’s more about fame than wealth,’ Loki said. ‘After all, killing the infamous Winter Soldier would be quite an achievement for someone in his profession.’

‘Well, that ain’t good,’ Steve said. ‘That’s a much better motivation than money.’

Those who only worked for money gave up more easily than those who had a more personal agenda.

‘It won’t matter either way when I rip his head off,’ Loki spat angrily.

Steve pulled the first bullet out and immediately went to work on the second one.

‘But I guess he was not the “ancient being” Loki pissed off,’ Steve prompted.

‘No, Gor-Tok,’ Bucky said.

‘And they’re working together?’ Steve asked. Bucky nodded.

‘That’s kind of copying your MO, don’t you think?’ Steve wondered out loud.

‘That did not escape our notice either,’ Loki agreed, not sounding too pleased. Steve was also not happy about it.

‘There, done,’ he announced as he got the second bullet out. ‘We bandage it and you should be right as rain, but I have no idea what to do with the arm. I mean, I guess Tony could…’

‘No, let’s not,’ Bucky protested.

‘Just finish that up and I’ll do the rest,’ Loki said. Well, that did not sound ominous at all, even if Bucky looked really relaxed about it. Steve would have to trust him on this, it was his arm after all.

Trust did not include standing up from the couch though, not even after he was done helping putting on the bandages. Maybe he was paranoid, maybe he was unnecessarily protective, but he wanted to be within reach during whatever was about to happen.

Loki got back to the couch and straightened Bucky’s metal arm as much as possible. Bucky made a face, but he did not seem to be in pain because of it, maybe it was just because of the strange sharp noise the arm made as the plates rubbed together in weird angles. Steve watched as Loki ran a finger over a few of the plates.

‘How do you… I mean, even if you know how to fix it, don’t you need tools or something?’

‘Silence,’ Loki said simply. Green energy started pulsating on Loki’s fingertips and soon it was seeping into the metal under her hand, slipping between the plates and deeper inside. Steve was tense as he watched and Bucky must’ve noticed.

‘Hey relax,’ he said, drawing Steve’s eyes away from the arm.

‘Sorry just…’ there was a click and some of the plates started coming off from the arm, glowing with pulsing green light. But instead of falling off they started floating, hovering around the rest of the arm, just out of the way.

Loki kept moving her hand and more and more bent plates detached from the arm, revealing more of the delicate parts and wires inside. Steve wasn’t sure what he expected, maybe something that looked like the arms of robots, a mess of wires twisting around a metal endoskeleton like the inside of Ultron’s bots, but this looked nothing like it. There were wires, but they were thick and glowing blue… well, some of them a greenish-blue at the moment. And there were a lot more tiny parts – moving and shifting, interconnecting with each other – than Steve expected.

‘You can leave if it’s weird to see it,’ Bucky said, obviously noticing Steve’s staring.

‘No, that’s not it… it just doesn’t look the way I expected. On the inside, I mean.’

He could see almost everything now, since most plates were floating… no, they were not just floating, they were straightening out, returning to their original shape. Damn, magic was handy.

‘It’s not as crude and unsophisticated as Midgardian inventions,’ Loki mumbled distractedly.

‘But… it is Earth-tech,’ Steve frowned. ‘Hydra made it.’

‘Hydra always had more than just human technology at their disposal,’ Bucky told him.

‘Are you telling me your arm is alien technology?’ Steve asked.

‘Hybrid,’ Bucky said simply. ‘A bit of this and a bit of that, mostly not human.’

‘That’s why you know what to do with it,’ Steve said, looking up at Loki. ‘Is it Asgardian or something?’

‘Please, it’s nowhere near that advanced,’ Loki scoffed. ‘And I would be able to figure it out even if it were just simplistic Midgardian technology.’

‘Don’t try to get into that argument,’ Bucky warned Steve. ‘So not worth it.’

Steve took his advice and stopped asking questions. Loki’s sense of superiority was one of the things Steve knew all too well.

There was still an urge to talk, but he stayed silent sitting next to Bucky, who still seemed completely relaxed. Steve hoped his presence contributed to that. They sat close to each other, touching almost everywhere from shoulder to hip, and their legs bumped whenever Steve moved a little. If not for the strange magical repairs going on at the same time, it would have been completely peaceful.

Watching the arm reassemble was just as fascinating as it was to see it fall apart with magic. And once Loki was done and the green light of magic ebbed away, Bucky’s arm looked new. Steve could’ve sworn it looked even shinier than before. He still stopped himself from saying “wow” out loud when Bucky started to move the arm and his fingers, testing it out.

He was sure that Tony could’ve fixed it too – if Steve managed to convince him to do it – but it was good to know that Loki could do this so easily. Of course that also made Steve wonder how many times this happened before.

‘Stay put,’ Loki said as she stood up from the couch.

‘Where the hell you think you’re going?’ Bucky asked

‘I’m going back, we were hardly done,’ Loki said. ‘But you’re no use to me like this, so stay put.’

‘The hell you’re going alone, that’s goddamn stupid.’

He moved to get up, but Steve was faster and put an arm across his chest to stop him.

‘You are not going anywhere,’ he told him. ‘I dug two bullets out of you not even an hour ago. You don’t heal that quickly.’

Bucky was going to argue, Steve knew it just by the look on his face.

‘You can either stay here, or I take you back to the hideout,’ Loki said, her tone hard as stone, leaving no room for arguments. Normally, such a tone would not stop Steve from arguing anyway, but this time he happened to agree, as weird as it was to agree with Loki.

‘He’s staying,’ Steve said before Bucky could open his big stupid mouth again.

‘Very well, I’ll be back,’ Loki said as she turned her back on them. The movements that led to the opening of a portal were familiar to see at this point.

Steve’s face must’ve been very easy to read, because Bucky didn’t even try to get out of his hold. He knew better than to expect back-up on this from Steve.

The threat level has been reduced,’ HELEN said the second Loki’s portal vanished. ‘Do you still want to activate private mode?

‘Yes, please, HELEN.’

Primary surveillance deactivated,’ HELEN reported. ‘The system will automatically restart at 0800, or in a case of emergency.’

‘Make that 9 o’clock, thanks,’ Steve said, and then turned back to Bucky, who still looked both pissed and a little sullen.

‘This is bullshit,’ Bucky said.

‘You need to heal, come on, you know that,’ Steve told him.

‘I was on field with worse injuries,’ Bucky argued stubbornly.

‘Well, this ain’t Hydra and I’m not going to let you torture yourself,’ Steve told him.

Now that Bucky was relatively fine, and his arm didn’t look like it came out of a metal shredder, Steve felt some of his anger return. He tried to keep a lid on it for now, but the shift in his tone was obvious.

‘Come on, let’s get you cleaned up,’ he said, changing the subject. ‘You’re still covered with way too much blood.’

Bucky stared at him for a moment, then just made a quiet agreeing sound. Again, he did not wince or make a sound when he stood up, but Steve felt his muscles tense.

‘You don’t have to pretend you’re not in pain.’

‘Habit,’ Bucky said simply, just shrugging it off.

‘Bad habit.’

Bucky wasn’t that injured, so Steve didn’t have to carry him or anything, but he still stayed close, keeping a hand on his lower-back. Bucky didn’t seem to mind.

‘Wanna sit down or...’ Steve asked once they reached the bathroom.

‘I’m good,’ Bucky said, leaning against a wall.

‘Okay, so the shower’s out for now, because of the bandages, but I’ve got plenty of wash cloths and towels.’

As he talked he moved over to one of the cupboards and pulled out a handful of them, then got out two towels too just in case. Bucky’s hair was still long, maybe he wanted to wash it.

‘You get started and I’ll get you some change of clothes, all right?’ he said and headed out, but Bucky grabbed hold of his t-shirt before he could leave.

‘You’re mad,’ he said simply, frowning at Steve’s face.

‘No, it’s fine,’ Steve protested. This was not the time, Bucky was shot, he looked beat as all hell, Steve wasn’t going to...


And that tone of voice just made it impossible for him to leave.

‘Is this how it’s going to go?’ he asked, turning back to Bucky, who was still gripping his t-shirt, not convinced that Steve was not about to take off. ‘I have not heard from you since Japan, and that was over three weeks ago,’ Steve continued. ‘And I know you have a phone, but still not a beep, Buck, not even a goddamn text message to let me know you’re alive. So is this how it’s going to go? Am I only going to know what the hell is going on with you when you need a place to lay low, or someone is bleeding all over the place?’

Bucky kept looking at him, then his fingers loosened and he dropped his hand.

‘We shouldn’t have come here,’ he said absently.

Steve was so... ‘No! That’s not what I mean. That’s the opposite of what I mean. I want to help you, and I’m always going to be here when you need me, but you can’t just leave me hanging for--’

Bucky grabbed his t-shirt again, this time with both hands, and pulled him closer for a soft kiss. That was one way to shut him up, but Steve did not know how he felt about it just yet. His body relaxed almost automatically, but he couldn’t just let this go.

‘I’m sorry,’ Bucky said as soon as they parted. He did not let go of Steve. He pressed a kiss to Steve’s cheek next, then kept his head there, repeating the words, his lips close to Steve’s ear. ‘I’m sorry... I’m sorry, don’t be mad.’

Well, that did it.

‘I’m not mad,’ Steve said, pulling back to be able to look at Bucky’s face. ‘I’m scared to death.’


‘That’s what I mean... I’m terrified of losing you again. That one day you’ll leave without ever coming back.’


‘Yes “oh”, you jerk, I worry about you.’

‘I don’t know why I didn’t think of that,’ Bucky said. ‘I guess I’m just not used to it... any more.’

It was Steve’s turn to kiss him, just as soft and gentle as Bucky kissed him before. It broke his heart a little, to hear Bucky say that. It was the same as him hiding his pain. He did it out of habit, because he was used to nobody giving a damn. This was not something that returning memories could fix, this could only get better with time. Steve just had to remind him until then. Had to tell him over and over again that he was here, right here for him.

Their kiss deepened as it went on, so when they parted again, Steve felt his lips tingle, and he was sure they were red too.

‘I’ll call you, all right?’ Bucky said. ‘Or text, whatever.’

‘It would be also nice to see you when you’re not covered in blood,’ Steve said.

‘I don’t know...’

‘Yeah, I get it,’ Steve sighed, because he did. While this shit was going on, Bucky couldn’t just come and go as he pleased. God, Steve really wanted this to be over, for Bucky to be done with his deal once and for all.

‘Are you really okay?’ he asked instead., not just meaning the injuries.

‘Long fucking day,’ Bucky said, which was fair enough, since he was shot twice, plus whatever the hell happened to his arm. ‘I’m tired.’

‘You should lie down and sleep once you cleaned up, okay?’ Steve said, moving to pull away, but Bucky didn’t let go.

‘Tired of this whole goddamn mess,’ he continued, making it clear what he meant.

‘Things are not going well,’ Steve concluded.

‘Tarfu,’ Bucky said with a huff. “Things are really fucked up.”

‘If you need help you know...’

‘I know... just this... okay... just...’ Bucky said as he literally dragged him close again until they stood chest-to-chest, then he even put his arms around Steve, keeping him close.

Okay,’ Steve agreed easily as he wrapped himself around him as tightly as he dared, considering Bucky’s injuries. And damn, it felt good to hold him close. Bucky let out a large breath and relaxed after a moment. Steve didn’t even notice how tense he still was until now. It made him want to never let go of him. He left one of his hands around Bucky’s lower back, but slid the other one up to his hair, stroking it. Bucky leaned forward, letting Steve take his weight. And then it only took one small movement to slide their lips together again.

It started out soft and light, like all their kisses before, but the way Bucky kept gripping his t-shirt, the way he pressed himself close to Steve, they both felt that there was more lurking underneath it this time. Something much deeper. And sure enough, Bucky moved his hands to grip Steve’s head, prying open his lips with his own. Steve made a surprised sound at the urgency of the gesture, not expecting such a sudden shift, but he followed Bucky’s lead.

He knew Bucky needed him, and that it was not just about comfort or safety. He knew that there was something new between them, something that’s been building, shifting and changing ever since Bucky started regaining his memories. And the way Bucky kissed him now, hard and demanding, he was more aware of it than ever before.

Steve made another sound when Bucky leaned back to the wall, pulling Steve with him, keeping them close. It was not a sound he made out of surprise, it was something breathless and excited. He kissed Bucky back, matching his fervour, and he just knew he never kissed anyone like this before. His hand kept rubbing Bucky’s waist, his fingers sliding back and forth on his bare skin.

‘Now you’re getting it,’ Bucky said, when they parted for a moment, still breathing the same air.

‘Buck... we talked about this, I don’t know...’ Steve said, breathing hard. He didn’t want to screw this up.

‘Yeah, and I told you,’ Bucky said as he slid his fingers into Steve’s hair, gripping it just enough for Steve to feel it, but not cause any pain. ‘That I’m all right enough to know what I want. It’s you, it’s... I want you right here. I want you to kiss me the way you just kissed me, like you want me as close as I want you.’

‘Of course I do,’ Steve told him, pressing their foreheads together. He moved his right hand again, sliding it up and down on Bucky’s waist and back. It felt good to be allowed to touch him like this. After everything that happened to Bucky, for him to feel this comfortable around Steve still, it was nothing short of a miracle. He didn’t shy away, flinched, or tensed, it made Steve almost dizzy with emotions. Bucky didn’t just trust him close, but wanted him close, wanted his hands on his skin, his lips on his.

‘I’m so happy you’re here,’ he blurted out without thinking, because it was the goddamn truth. He’s been drifting, since he woke up in this day and age. Everything was just a blur of duties, responsibilities, and missions. He was not truly back, not truly alive, not until the moment he saw Bucky’s face again.

And the way Bucky looked at him now, it just made him want to say more, tell him exactly how grey and muffled the world had been without him. But he didn’t get the chance, because Bucky kissed him again, answered without words, pulled him as close as he could, not caring, or completely forgetting about his injuries. Steve kissed him back and let his hands roam, just a little at first, just rubbing Bucky’s skin under his hand, but he became bolder after Bucky made a pleased groan, pulling on his hair again.

It made him hard, hearing those sounds from Bucky. It made him want to kiss him harder, deeper, touch him everywhere, because Bucky felt good, Steve made him feel good. And his hands on Steve, his kisses, his heavy breathing, all of him demanded more. And Steve wanted to give him everything, he really did.

He dragged his lips away from Bucky’s red mouth, followed the line of his strong jaw with kisses, right up to his ear. Bucky’s bionic hand slid under Steve’s t-shirt, and the feel of smooth metal made him shiver and breath out a moan. Bucky kept moving his metal hand up and down his back, but he slid the other one back down to Steve’s hip and gripped him tight, pulled him close until their pelvises pressed together. It made Steve’s breath catch.

‘Oh God, Bucky,’ he breathed out, feeling a hardness just as eager as his own. It made his blood pump heavily, even with two layers of clothing between them.

‘Tell me, if you wanna stop or something,’ Bucky said as he leaned in to kiss and suck on Steve’s neck.

‘No,’ Steve replied immediately, turning his head to kiss Bucky again.

Bucky had enough of Steve’s t-shirt, but he didn’t go as far as tearing it off, although it was a close thing. The way he scowled at the piece of clothing before he tossed it away made Steve laugh before he leaned in for another kiss.

Bucky’s hands felt so much better now that they could roam Steve’s upper-body without anything in the way. Steve could also feel it when his stomach touched the bandages on Bucky’s abdomen. It made him pause and look down in worry.

You really think I’m able to feel two already half-healed wounds with how fired up I am?’ Bucky asked. Fair point, but Steve still made sure not to touching him anywhere around the bandages.

Bucky literally laughed into their next kiss, the bastard, so Steve bit his lips in revenge, but Bucky just made a deep groan and thrust his hips forward. Steve was not proud of the broken noise he made, but he also did not give a damn about it. He rolled his hips forward in answer, finally making Bucky moan as well.

They were nowhere near fully naked, but this already felt like it was going to burn him up from the inside. Then Bucky slid a few fingers under the waistband of his sweatpants, a tease, a question, whatever it was, it made Steve want to tear all their clothes off. He nodded vehemently, pressing into Bucky’s touch encouragingly, then dropped both his hands to Bucky’s trousers, tearing at the belt and buttons.

Their eyes met for a second and Steve slowed down just a little to press forward gently, kissing Bucky deeply and thoroughly with open lips. Their kiss ended when Bucky touched him, rubbed his warm hand over Steve’s hot length. Oh god, he was going to explode, and it was going to happen way too quickly.

His fingers worked fast and he got Bucky’s trousers open as quickly as he could. They were not as convenient as Steve’s sweats, but he still managed to push them down a little, along with Bucky’s underwear, to get to him. And fuck, it felt good to grip him, wrap his fingers around his dick and make him moan, just like Bucky made him moan.

They lost their minds a little after that. There was not much room for thinking, they just kept driving each other higher and higher with their hands and mouths. Bucky pushed their hands out of the way after some time, gripping Steve’s hips and pulling him closer until their naked cocks lined up and touched. Steve started rolling his hips forward, rubbing them together, while Bucky urged him on with his hands on his hips.

And the noises, damn. Bucky’s mouth was constantly on his neck, because they were almost too breathless to kiss properly. He was so close to Steve’s ear that he could hear every noise, every gasp and moan and... whimpers, god. He never wanted to stop making Bucky feel this good.

Steve,’ Bucky gasped out, both in bliss and urgency, he had to be close. So Steve reached between their bodies and wrapped his hand around both of them, stroking them fast, gripping them tight enough to make them both moan loudly. Bucky let go of his Steve’s hips and let his hands grip at his back and neck. Sometimes he even slid his hand up to pull at his hair again. He couldn’t keep his hands in one place, he had to keep digging his fingers into Steve’s skin. It made Steve hope for marks, bruises, anything.

Steve trust forward into the wet heat of his hand and the movement made Bucky gasp his name out, throwing his head back. The long line of Bucky’s neck was his undoing. He knew he moaned Bucky’s name, maybe he even repeated it over and over again, he didn’t pay attention. He was so close he could taste it on his lips. He kept kissing the skin under Bucky’s ear, his neck, then his jaw. He loved the taste of him on his tongue.

He let himself go when Bucky gripped the back of his head to crush their lips together again. Steve moaned into the kiss as his hips stuttered and warm come covered his hand and both of them. Bucky followed him over the edge with a groan that made Steve’s spine tingle with excitement.

God... he was so gone, so gone for him.

He kept stroking both of their softening cocks until it became too much, then he just leaned forward into Bucky, slowly getting his breath back under control. Bucky put his arms around his shoulders and held him close. It felt so good, so damn good. He didn’t even care about the mess, he just wanted to stay like this, the two of them wrapped around each other, for as long as possible.


Hm?’ he asked, not moving.

I’m happy to be here too,’ Bucky said. ‘With you...’

Steve pulled back a little to give him a smile, it must’ve looked really goofy, because Bucky huffed fondly and pulled him in for another kiss.

Steve didn’t care about looking sappy or silly or anything else, because it’s been way too long since he felt this happy, so he was going to enjoy it dammit, for as long as he could.

Chapter Text

Bucky slept like four maybe five hours, and it was a lot more than what he usually managed. No nightmares either, which was a rare gift. He contributed both the number of hours and the lack of horrible visions to Steve lying next to him. And what a sight that was. Bucky woke up a little earlier than him, so he had a chance to just stare. It probably looked a little disturbing from the outside, but only because nobody would have been able to see the things that were going through his head.

He wanted to stretch and move his limbs, but he was sure it would wake Steve and he didn’t want that yet. So he ignored the urge and stayed still, kept his breathing steady and even relaxed a little. That was not something he did a lot nowadays, but last night… well, he felt plenty relaxed after that. He couldn’t even recall the last time someone touched him like that. Maybe it was still back in the war. He doubted it ever happened on any of the Hydra missions he couldn’t yet remember.

He didn’t really touch himself either since taking back his own life, it didn’t feel… it didn’t feel much like anything. It was a physical release, but it didn’t do much else for him. It was kinda like those long hot showers he still couldn’t bring himself to take, because it was hard to be kind to his body, hard to take care of himself. But he had not felt any of that cold detachment when Steve touched him. His body was his own and it felt like that even in his own mind. No wonder he was so relaxed. Maybe he could take a long shower too, if Steve were with him. That was a brilliant idea.

Steve stirred about an hour after Bucky woke up. Watching him blinking up at the ceiling sleepily filled Bucky’s chest with warmth. When he noticed Bucky watching him there was a flicker of surprise, then a bright warm smile.

‘You’re here,’ he said.

‘Told you I would be,’ Bucky reminded him, but he didn’t blame Steve for being sceptical. Bucky’s been real shitty about keeping in touch with him, or even just plain being around. He wished he could take the time. He wished he could say “screw it” more often and spend a day or two with Steve. Of course his life didn’t work like that right now.

Steve’s smile widened a bit and he moved closer to pull Bucky in for a kiss. And oh, Bucky was ready to forget about the whole wide world when he had Steve’s lips on his like this. He used to be such a sweet-talker, he remembered that, but he didn’t have the words to tell Steve how much this actually meant to him. He just hoped that he was being obvious, that his every touch and every kiss spoke louder than any words. He hoped Steve understood.

They kissed for long moments, like they had nothing else to do. It was a lie, but it tasted sweet enough to make them believe it for a short while.

Of course they had to end their kiss eventually and reality was right where they left it, cold and merciless as always.

‘Did Loki show up?’ Steve asked after he flopped back down on his pillow.

‘No,’ Bucky shrugged. He was not surprised about it. He didn’t expect her back this soon, although now that he thought about it, he remembered why it was monumentally stupid of her to go alone.

‘You’re frowning again,’ Steve remarked as he reached out to touch him between his eyebrows, trying to smooth the skin out. ‘Are things really going that badly?’

‘Don’t worry about it.’

‘Not an option, Buck,’ Steve told him firmly. Bucky really didn’t know what to say to that.

‘We’re one step behind lately,’ he said after a second of silence. ‘It used to be the other way around, but we’re always behind now.’


‘We wasted way too much goddamn time on Amora,’ Bucky explained. ‘I don’t think she was that important.’

‘But it was personal,’ Steve said. ‘Loki would have gone after her no matter what.’

‘And they knew it,’ Bucky agreed. ‘Maybe Amora told them, maybe someone else, it doesn’t matter now.’

‘So what now? You can still catch up to them, right? Gor-Tok and Arcade, they’re the new targets.

Bucky frowned and thought about it. No, that was too obvious.

‘They’re not Darkholders either,’ he said. ‘Stopping them won’t matter that much.’

‘Darkholders?’ Steve asked.

‘Ah, dammit,’ Bucky sighed, rubbing his eyes. That’s what happened when he was too relaxed. ‘I forget being cautious around you.’

‘Good,’ Steve smiled. ‘So the Darkholders…’

‘Later,’ Bucky shook his head and sat up on the bed. ‘I need to talk to Natasha.’

‘Why?’ Steve asked, but he started getting up too.

‘Because it wasn’t just Loki’s big mouth that got me shot,’ Bucky told him. ‘Someone else was there… I got… distracted.’

‘Who?’ Steve asked, his voice getting worried now.

‘Natasha first,’ Bucky said, standing up. ‘She… she should hear this.’

Steve didn’t argue, but Bucky didn’t like seeing his smile disappear. He looked so good before, without that frown, without that squared jaw. Bucky knelt back on the bed and dragged Steve back down for another kiss, pushing him on his back and leaning over him. Steve reached up and buried his fingers in Bucky’s hair as he kissed back.

His smile was back when they parted, just as planned, and Bucky took a moment to admire it, engraving it in his memory. God, the things he would do for him...

‘You know what?’ Steve asked.


‘I think I like your hair,’ he said with a playful smirk. That was such an odd thing to say, but Bucky smiled back at him nonetheless.

Bucky was indifferent about it, never really thought about it either, just in terms of whether it was getting in the way or not. He knew he used to care a lot about what he looked like, but that wasn’t him anymore. Maybe he could learn again to be like that, but he wasn’t sure yet if he wanted to. Steve sure didn’t look like he expected it of him, which was reassuring. He said he didn’t want Bucky to pretend and he meant it, of course he meant it, his every word was proof of that.

Bucky didn’t like dealing with Natasha. She was too observant, too hard to get a read on, and well… everything else. She was Steve’s friend, Bucky knew that, but that didn’t make him any more willing to let his guard down around her. The change in his demeanour must’ve been obvious to Steve, because he was giving him that look again. The look that said that he understood what was going on, and he didn’t like it. But he was also not going to speak up about it… yet.

It was always a “yet” with Steve when it came to things like this. And Bucky wished he could do that, trust someone just because Steve trusted them, but he just wasn’t there yet, maybe he won’t ever be.

It seemed like Stark still insisted on the rule that Bucky was not to leave Steve’s floor. When they notified the AI that they needed to speak to Natasha they were told to wait for her. Unsurprising, but Bucky had absolutely no problem with staying in a familiar environment. It did wonders for his composure.

Natasha wore civilian clothes when she stepped out of the elevator, she looked almost casual. Of course she was armed, and even without a weapon she was not someone to mess with, but still, even the illusion of friendliness was a meaningful message. Or she just really wanted some new information and was willing to pay along to get it… yeah, probably both.

She looked at Steve, then at Bucky (in Steve’s clothes), and considered them both for a few seconds.

‘Fun night?’ she asked casually. Her tone didn’t give away what exactly she was referring to. Now Steve’s face on the other hand showed perfectly well where his mind went; right down the gutter. Bucky resisted the urge to snort.

Natasha lifted an eyebrow at Steve.

‘Good to know,’ she said after a moment of silence. She headed further into the room, but refrained from sitting down. That was fine with Bucky, because he did not plan to sit down either.

‘So, here I am,’ she said then. ‘What’s this about?’

How to even start? In his head it seemed simple, he just had to start talking. Reality proved to be very different of course. Now that he was standing in front of her, her watchful eyes completely focused on him, the words did not want to come easily.

‘So Bucky and Loki ran into some trouble last night,’ Steve started speaking after a few moments passed and Bucky was nowhere near closer to make his mouth work. ‘With Arcade and Gor-Tok, but something else happened too. Bucky said you needed to know about it.’

She probably assumed it was Steve that wanted her here, because there was a genuine flicker of surprise on her face, and she allowed them to see it.

‘And what is that?’ she asked conversationally.

‘It’s…’ sometimes it sucked to be human. ‘We’ve met before.’

‘Yes, you shot a bullet through me,’ Natasha said right away, understanding what he meant, and well… not understanding at all.

‘Before that,’ he said. She did not let her surprise show this time.

‘We haven’t,’ she said simply, to move the conversation along. Steve looked uneasy and he didn’t bother to hide it at all.

‘You wouldn’t remember,’ Bucky said.

‘Then we didn’t “meet”, you just saw me,’ she said.

‘No, you wouldn’t remember for the same reason I couldn’t remember anything about myself.’

That came out a bit harsher than Bucky intended, and he blamed his own discomfort for it. Natasha was unfazed of course, her expression unreadable, and her eyes sharp.

‘Why don’t you tell me then,’ Natasha said after a moment. ‘If you think there’s something wrong with my memory.’

‘28 юных балерин были в Большом театре,’ Buckysaid. ‘28 Черных Вдов были в Красной Комнате.’

Natasha stared at him, probably deciding on the best way to approach this. Her need for information won out.

‘How do you know about that?’ she asked.

‘It’s where I got this,’ Bucky explained, pointing at his left shoulder.

‘The arm?’ Steve asked with the frown.

‘No, the red star,’ Bucky said.

‘You were there… is that what you’re telling me?’ she asked. ‘That you were there when I…’ she composed herself in a blink and levelled Bucky with a hard look.

‘I’m sorry, Natalia,’ Bucky told her. He didn’t feel like speaking in Russian again, the words tasted wrong in his mouth. And even these words, regardless of the language, mattered very little. But it had to be said, no matter how pointless it was.

And it was not the words that threw her, but the meaning behind it, that Bucky had something to apologize for.

‘When and where?’ she demanded.

‘Moscow, and I don’t imagine there are a lot of people whose face you can’t remember,’ Bucky said.

Natasha didn’t visibly react, but Bucky had a feeling that she already suspected, so it was best to confirm it now.

‘Come on, you know, Natasha. I’m not a scientist…

‘So you’re a trainer,’ Natasha finished.

‘And I’m not Ivan Petrovitch,’ Bucky finished.

She had her gun in her hand and pointed at Bucky’s head in less than a second. Impressive, even if it meant that he was now staring down at a barrel.

‘Natasha!’ Steve called, moving closer. He barely stopped himself from reaching out to her.

‘If you had no reason to point a gun at me a few minutes ago, then you still have no reason,’ Bucky told her calmly.

‘I already had plenty of reasons,’ she answered.

‘Put the gun down, Natasha,’ Steve asked. ‘Whatever this is… this is not the way to…’

‘You have no idea, Steve. No idea!’ she said to him, her eyes not leaving Bucky’s face for a second.

‘Maybe not, but I know that no matter what Bucky did in the past, it was no his fault,’ Steve said in return, standing up for him without question.

‘The American,’ Natasha said. ‘That’s what they called him… and I remember you… I just…’

‘It’s unclear,’ Bucky said. ‘Faded… and you can’t remember a face.’

‘I never could,’ she said, still pointing the gun at Bucky’s head. ‘I should have remembered the voice... I once watched you beat Niko until he almost stopped breathing.’

She was not pulling her punches, but her words hurt Steve more than they hurt Bucky. He knew all this already. He’s been wrestling with these demons for some time now. He could still picture Niko Constantin’s face, beaten into a bloody mess, his chest heaving, every breath causing him agony because of his broken ribs...

‘I know,’ he said simply.

‘They made us watch,’ Natasha added. ‘I was young.’

‘You were,’ Bucky agreed. ‘The youngest of the 28.’

‘Natasha, put the gun down, please,’ Steve asked quietly, and she listened. There were a thousand things in her gaze, emotions Bucky felt like he had no right to witness.

‘Why did you tell me now?’ she asked. ‘Something happened last night, and it made you tell me this, so what was it?’

‘Yelena,’ Bucky told her. ‘Yelena was there.’

Natasha walked out of the room without another word.

Bucky was almost impressed by how long Steve managed to stay silent. He expected him to start asking questions immediately. And even his first question was a surprise. Bucky thought he would ask about Natasha, about their shared past, and everything that happened... but he didn’t.

‘So who is Yelena?’ he asked. He obviously wanted to know more about him and Natasha too, but he focused on the present.

‘She’s a Black Widow, just like Natasha,’ Bucky told him. ‘They were trained around the same time... Yelena is older. She was already in her late teens by the time I got there.’

Steve frowned. Bucky knew what the question on the tip of his tongue was (“Then how young was Natasha?”), but once again he asked something different.

‘What is her connection to the Darkholders?’

That was not something easily explained and Bucky did not know everything. He still gave it a try.

‘Black Widow agents have been around for a very long time. They changed to course of important events over and over again, but when the Soviet Union crumbled they became a dirty secret, a stain on a new democratic nation’s reputation, evidence of past sins... Department X, the ones who created the Red Room and Black Widows in the first place, wanted them gone. Guess whom they called to get the job done...’

‘I thought you were Hydra all along, so why were you involved with the Russians?’ Steve asked.

‘I don’t know the specifics, but Hydra was involved on both sides of the Cold War. Don’t ask me why I was on the Russian side for that long, cause I have no answer for that.’

Steve looked at him for a long moment and asked his next question very carefully.

‘So they wanted all Black Widows gone, so they sent you to...’

‘Kill them all,’ Bucky finished his sentence plainly, because there was no sugar-coating this one. ‘And I did. I killed one after another... except for two.’

‘Natasha and Yelena,’ Steve concluded.

Bucky nodded. ‘Natasha was picked up by SHIELD, so obviously Hydra had no reason to dispose of her.’

‘And Yelena?’

‘She vanished,’ Bucky told him. ‘It’s always been one of her strengths.’

‘So you have no idea what she’s been doing all this time?’ Steve asked.

‘Freelancing, probably,’ Bucky shrugged. ‘I’d rather not jump into conclusions.’

‘But now she’s with the Darkholders,’ Steve said.

‘I don’t know,’ Bucky told him honestly. ‘She was there, but I barely caught a glimpse of her. I have no idea how she’s involved. I didn’t even know she was alive until last night.’

‘She’s someone from your past,’ Steve said absently. ‘Like Amora was from Loki’s...’

Not a bad theory, but it was fundamentally flawed.

‘It’s different,’ Bucky shook his head. ‘We had good reasons to go after Amora... I have no reason to hurt Yelena.’

Bucky huffed and looked out of the window, because he couldn’t stand looking at Steve any more. Not now, not with his past looming so darkly over him. It just reminded him why he did not deserve Steve’s loyalty, trust... or kindness.

‘But Yelena has plenty of reasons for wanting to kill me.’

‘It wasn’t your fault!’ Steve insisted with absolute conviction. On most days Bucky would’ve believed him, but this was not one of those days.

‘I know you mean that,’ Bucky told him. ‘But things are not that black and white… especially when people see my face in their nightmares.’

‘So you think she’s only with them to take you down?’ Steve asked.

‘I don’t know,’ Bucky repeated. ‘It’s a possibility. I mean, people like her… like Natasha, they don’t easily believe. I just can’t picture her actually being a Darkholder, buying the crap they’re selling.’

‘So being with the Darkholders is like being with Hydra?’ Steve asked. ‘There’s a whole…’ he gestured vaguely with his hand. ‘Belief-system involved?’

‘It’s a cult,’ Bucky said. ‘A secret society, a fucked-up little club with fucked-up members.’

‘Like Van Ripper?’ Steve guessed.

‘Exactly, being a Darkholder just gave her powers, but she was one sick bitch even before that.’

‘So who’s actually a Darkholder from the list?’ Steve asked. ‘They’re the ones we should be focusing on.’

‘Easier said than done,’ Bucky sighed. ‘The Darkholders don’t do frontlines; they have ways to hide, even from Loki. Instead we have to deal with the likes of Amora, Arcade, and Gor-Tok.’

‘And what about the rest?’ Steve asked with a frown. ‘There are still a lot of names left.’

Bucky tried to think of all the reasons why he should shut up and not tell Steve anything else, but in the end it mattered less and less how much Steve knew. Loki was going to be so pissed at him though.

‘Belasco, Kierrok, and the Whisperer are demons,’ he said in the end. ‘Not like the N’Garai, lot smarter, older, and human-like. Kierrok we don’t have to worry about, he’s the master of the N’Garai, but he won’t show up himself, it’s impossible. He’s just lending out his pets.’

‘And the other two?’

‘Hopefully Strange will take care of them,’ Bucky shrugged. ‘He has a history with them, with Curwen too, so they might already be out of the picture. I don’t know.’

The Whisperer stole Casey Kinmont’s soul. He put that poor girl through so much suffering. Both Bucky and Loki were pretty damn sure that Strange was not going to rest until he tracked that demon down and made him pay for what he did. He probably wanted to free Casey’s soul as well, but it was hard to tell how much hope there was left for that.

Belasco could be a problem, but Bucky doubted he would do anything drastic. Loki agreed on most days. He wanted power, especially power over others, so he was either going to wait for his moment to strike, or slither away like a snake if things didn’t look that good for his side.

And Curwen… they didn’t even know whether he worked with or against the Darkholders, he just knew too much, was too involved, and got in the way more than once. He also had no problem with spilling blood, innocent or guilty, so he was important to keep an eye on.

‘And the rest are all Darkholders,’ Steve concluded, and Bucky nodded. DeGuzman, Hubris, and Grahl, they were the three fucking bastards pulling the strings on the Earth-side of things. They hired Arcade, they woke Gor-Tok from his long sleep, they definitely made a deal with Amora, and now they got Yelena involved somehow. Bucky wished they had a way to track them down, just like they tracked Clarisse Van Ripper down. Blowing their heads off would be so damn satisfying.

‘You have your scary face on,’ Steve commented. Yeah, thinking about violent murder kind of showed on his face, so he tried to calm his anger. He didn’t want to be like that around Steve. He already showed more than enough from how screwed up he actually was nowadays.

‘Hey,’ Steve said after a moment, stepping closer to touch his right arm. ‘It’s okay to be angry at them. Hell, I’m angry too.’

‘Yeah well, my anger’s kind of a whole different animal now, Steve,’ Bucky told him.

‘I know,’ Steve said, squeezing his arm. ‘It’s still not gonna make me run.’

‘You were always too stupid to run,’ Bucky said with a wry smile, but Steve answered with a real smile.

‘Do you think Natasha will come back?’ Steve asked then. Bucky shook his head.

‘She has a lot to think about, and probably a lot of information to dig up. But I’m sure she’ll have plenty of questions for me once she’s done with her own investigation.’

‘It’s good that you told her,’ Steve said. ‘I mean, since she knows Yelena.’

‘I told her, because if Yelena is with the Darkholders I might have to kill her.’ The words did not shock Steve that much, but his eyes went a little tense in reaction.

‘So now that she knows, she can plan,’ Bucky continued. ‘She can either turn her back on this, or she can try to stop me. I just gave her extra time to make this decision.’

She deserved that much, not to be caught off guard about this in a middle of a fight.

‘And what are you going to do… if she tries to stop you?’ Steve asked, his fingers now too tight on Bucky’s arm.

Bucky sighed and looked back at Steve. He wanted him to see the sincerity in his eyes.

‘I don’t know,’ he told him, because that was the truth. He had absolutely no idea.

Bucky liked being around Steve, he didn’t mind his questions, especially since Steve seemed to sense it well enough when he was asking about things Bucky was not yet ready to talk about. He very pointedly didn’t ask about Loki... or Leah. Not that Steve knew anything about Leah besides heresy. As far as Bucky was concerned that was for the best. He did not look forward to the day Leah no longer remained in the shadows.

He didn’t expect Loki back right away, so he was not worried as the day dragged on. He showered, then Steve even made them food and they ate together. After that they both sat around in the kitchen almost all day. And a few hours after Natasha left Bucky was able to relax again too. And it was nice, peaceful.

He could reach out and touch Steve, his hand, his shoulder, his arm, whenever he wanted to. Steve always welcomed his closeness. He could capture Steve’s lips, leave soft kissed on his face, and get smiles in return. And whenever he stood too close, Steve would reach out and put an arm around him. He always gave Bucky a fond look while doing it, because he knew that Bucky invaded his personal space for this reason in the first place.

But then the hours just kept ticking and by the time the sun was going down even Steve realized that Bucky was getting tense and edgy again. He also guessed the reason.

‘So... Loki was supposed to be back by now?’ he asked, being careful.

‘Something’s wrong,’ Bucky told him.

‘It’s been less than a day,’ Steve pointed it out. ‘Plus it’s Loki.’

Bucky gave him a look. ‘You already forgot what happened the first time we ran into Skurge?’ he asked.

‘No, but that’s what I mean,’ Steve said. ‘If Loki can just... come back, then...’

‘Yeah, I’m sure the body would be perfectly safe with the Darkholders... or with demons.’

‘I still don’t know how it’s possible... what’s going on with Loki...’

‘Not my story to tell,’ Bucky told him simply.

Steve sighed and it was both unhappy and frustrated.

‘Yeah, the deals are off limits, both Loki’s and yours.’

‘I can’t tell you,’ Bucky said.

‘Can’t or won’t?’ Steve asked in return.

‘Can’t,’ Bucky stressed. ‘I told you way more than I should have already.’ He’s given up a lot of information without much coaxing, and yet Steve was still asking for more. Bucky shouldn’t be surprised. Steve never did things halfway.

‘You’re feeding me scraps and you know it,’ Steve said, crossing his arms over his chest. ‘Yeah, I know about the Darkholders and Yelena now, but I still don’t know what the point of all this is. What are the Darkholders trying to do? What are you and Loki trying to do while we’re at it?’

Bucky shook his head and looked away, out of the window.

‘You have no idea what I’m risking even by telling you this much. You have no idea how much danger I’m putting you in.’

‘I don’t care about the danger!’

‘Well, I do! Especially when it comes to you… if you get hurt and it’s my fault, how do you think I’m gonna feel then?

Some of the fight went out of Steve, but he still looked stubborn.

‘And if you get hurt, because I’m not there, or because I have no idea what’s going on, how do you think I’m going to feel? Losing you once was bad enough, Buck.’

Bucky had to pull him close for a kiss, smother his own anger with everything else he felt. Steve gripped him and held him so tightly that Bucky could almost feel his bones creak, but he didn’t mind at all. Their worries and his frustrations were all poured into the kiss, so their lips mashed together harder than usual. But it was good, it still felt so good. The rest of the world just faded to nothing when Steve was this close to him.

‘I’m not going to stop asking,’ Steve told him when they parted.

‘And I’m not going to stop trying to keep you safe, at least a little.’


‘The one I made my deal with,’ Bucky said quietly, as if the volume of this voice mattered. ‘They want the Darkholders stopped, that’s it. That’s all I need to do, there’s nothing more to it. Stop them by any means necessary… that enough?’

He didn’t know whether Steve believed him, but he still gave Bucky a nod and pressed his forehead to his.

That’s when they got interrupted by a large crash coming from the living room. They both tensed right away and were immediately ready for danger, a fight, anything.

Bucky didn’t have any of his weapons on him, since he was still wearing Steve’s clothes and he left most of his stuff in the bedroom, but he did grab a knife on his way out of the kitchen. Steve followed him closely, only just a step behind.

The sun was going down, but it was still bright enough to see. And really, Bucky only had to take a few steps into the room to spot the cause of the racket. Loki… of course.

‘I goddamn fucking told you,’ Bucky said angrily, dropping the knife, because of course Loki came back bloody and unable to stand on her own damn feet. That’s why he told her not to go alone.

‘Miss me?’ Loki said, head tipped back to rest on the wall, lying half on top of the coffee table she broke, probably by falling on it.

‘Lights, HELEN,’ Steve instructed as Bucky walked across the room to get down next to Loki. There was a metal rod sticking out from her stomach with a ring and a chain attached to it. The chain was broken, and it was probably Loki herself that snapped it from the looks of it. Bucky reached out to pull her a little further away from the wall, to look at her back. And sure enough the tip of the rod was sticking out on the other side. It looked like a damn barbed harpoon, wide and covered in blood.

‘Break the end off. I can’t reach it,’ Loki said, which explained why she still had the thing stabbing through her. They could either push it through, if they broke off the ring and the remains of the chain, or they could break off the tip and pull it back out. Either way, there was going to be a lot of blood.

Steve was kneeling next to him a moment later.

‘What they hell did they shoot that with?’ he asked.

‘Crossbow,’ Loki informed them. Bolt, not a harpoon then… not that there was much of a difference in this case.

‘Gor-Tok,’ Bucky guessed, because that was the most obvious answer. Loki nodded. That prick shot Bucky too, just the night before, right in the arm. Although, that was a much smaller bolt than the one in Loki.

‘Just Gor-Tok?’ Bucky asked as he tried to get into a better position to grab the bolt with his metal hand.

‘Belasco,’ Loki said, sounding a little breathless.

‘You’re lucky you got out of there,’ Bucky told her very pointedly. Loki chuckled, which was not actually a good sign.

‘Not everyone was so lucky,’ she grinned with bloody teeth.

‘Who?’ Bucky asked.

‘Belasco,’ she said, still smiling. It was a very disturbing smile.

‘Where is he?’ Bucky asked. A demon, no matter how injured, could be a huge pain in the ass once it was pissed off.

Loki laughed again, it was a little wet-sounding form the blood in her throat, and it was too sharp and too cruel to sound pleasant.

‘Which part?’ she asked, laughter still in her voice and that…

‘One less thing to worry about,’ was all Bucky said. Then he gripped the thick metal bolt tightly, forcing it to bend. Loki tensed, her hand moving to grab onto something, but there was nothing to grab, so she just curled her fingers into a fist. It must’ve hurt, but she only made a small grunt.

The damn thing bent all right, but it would not break. Bucky tried again, putting as much force behind it as he could, but it was no use.

‘I can’t break it,’ he said, letting go of it.

‘Break it,’ Loki insisted, hissing the words out angrily.

‘I can’t, we need someone stronger,’ Bucky told her. ‘Thor should do.’

‘No!’ Loki protested immediately, as expected.

‘That thing’s gotta come out and I can’t do it, so Thor… and suck it up.’

Loki made an angry sound, weirdly close to a growl. There was again that wet sound form the blood in her mouth and throat, but Bucky worried about the wild furious look in her eyes more. She’s been cornered no doubt, fighting off both Gor-Tok and Belasco, and now she was still riding the high of the battle that apparently ended with her ripping or cutting some demon apart. Bucky suddenly really wished Leah was around.

‘Thor’s not back yet, relax,’ Steve interrupted them, drawing Loki’s attention on him. ‘Vision can phase it out. HELEN, call Vision, it’s an emergency.’

He’s on his way,’ the AI told them a second later.

Loki kept staring at Steve, but she said nothing to him, so Bucky said nothing either.

‘Any other injuries?’ he asked instead, but Loki just made an annoyed sound. He was going to take that as a “nothing noteworthy”.

It took less than a minute for the android to fly through the floor, phasing in without disturbing any of the furniture. He landed right in front of them.

‘I admit this was not the sort of Loki-related emergency I expected,’ he said as he walked closer and lowered himself to one knee next to Steve.

‘Can you get this out?’ Bucky asked him, gesturing at the big bolt still in Loki’s gut.

Vision eyed the piece of metal for a moment. ‘Certainly, but this might not be the best location. Once the metal is removed the wound will bleed profusely.’

‘Just get it out,’ Loki grunted, she tried to sit up into a more vertical position, but in the end she had to use Bucky’s shoulder as leverage.

Vision did not look convinced.

‘I know you have a much superior healing factor than...’

‘Just get it out!’ Loki yelled, green flames flaring up on her skin, even her eyes glowed.

‘Do it,’ Bucky agreed, looking at the android. Vision still looked over too Steve and waited for him to nod before reaching out. The exchange made Loki bare her teeth in anger, and Bucky really started to hate this whole damn situation.

Vision grabbed the bolt and after a moment of pause he started pulling it out. It sank through Loki’s flesh without problem, but she started bleeding just as heavily as the android said she would. Loki pressed her hand to the wound on her stomach, a green glow of magic seeping into her body. It was a quick fix, like a stitch, or a bandage, it won’t heal her, just keep her from getting worse.

Vision held the bloody bolt in his hand for a moment longer, observing it. Only Loki’s laboured breathing disturbed the silence.

‘It was so goddamn stupid to go alone,’ Bucky breathed out after a few moments of listening to that. And really, he wasn’t even that surprised when Loki launched at him in anger, grabbing him by the throat before he could react.

‘You keep forgetting who I am... and how disposable you are,’ she hissed.

Steve and Vision both moved to intervene, but Bucky was quicker and hit Loki in the stomach, right where the wound was, with his left. It probably didn’t hurt that badly, but it was enough to get her to loosen her fingers, enough for Bucky to back off.

Loki put one hand back on the wound, while she kept the other on the floor, resting her weight on it. He hair hid her face from the rest of them, which made it pretty hard to guess what she was thinking.

‘You done?’ Bucky asked, his muscles tense still. He resisted the urge to rub the skin on his throat. It would bruise, but it would heal quickly. Steve’s angry face was a lot bigger issue, so Bucky really needed to keep this whole thing under control.

‘I’m done,’ Loki said, sounding a lot less disarranged now.

‘Don’t go losing your shit on me,’ Bucky told her. ‘I ain’t good at being the sane one.’

‘Oh, my sanity has long slipped from my fingers... ‘ she said in return, sounding distant. ‘With the ashes of the past I’ve burnt to nothing.’

There was really not much Bucky could say to that, but he kinda wished again that Leah was around. Somehow she always knew what to say, especially to Loki... which meant that they needed to get back, as soon as Loki was up to it.

He only just glanced up at Steve, but the other immediately knew, he was just too damn good at reading Bucky.

‘And now you’re just gonna take off, huh?’ he asked, still looking angry.

‘What do you want me to say? Apologize?’ Bucky asked quietly in return. Steve looked thoughtful, then...

‘I want you to say yes,’ he said, looking determined. Bucky has a bad feeling about his tone.

‘Say yes to what?’ he asked with a frown.

‘I’m coming with you,’ Steve said, his voice hard, unwavering, and utterly stubborn.


‘Things changed, you know it, I know it, I bet even Loki does. The Darkholders are sure as hell done playing around. They’re going after you now.’

‘You told him,’ Loki glared.

‘It doesn’t matter,’ Bucky said in return, sounding just a bit too defensive to his own ears. But Loki was the one who gave Steve the list in the first place, so she could just shut the hell up.

‘Don’t blame me if you live to regret it,’ she said, sitting up to lean her back to the wall.

‘You two had to drag your bloody asses back here two nights in a row,’ Steve continued. ‘So yes, I’m coming with you.’

‘Oh, what do I care,’ Loki said with a tired shrug. Bucky did not just hear that.

‘No, you are supposed to say no!’ Bucky protested. ‘Steve, no.’

Steve just raised his eyebrows, giving him his “We’ll see about that look”, and headed towards his room.

Vision hurried after him, probably not agreeing with Steve’s plan any more than Bucky.

‘We can’t take him with us,’ Bucky turned to Loki.

‘Are you regretting being so chatty now?’ Loki asked.

And goddamn it, she was right. He should’ve known that Steve would not stay put, not after hearing about Yelena, not after knowing about the Darkholders. Bucky should’ve kept his damn mouth shut, he never should have let Steve’s worried face and hurt eyes loosen his tongue.

When Steve marched back into the room less than a minute later, he had a sports bag in one hand and his shield in the other. He was already prepared... maybe he packed while Bucky was in the shower, dammit.

‘Steve, I really don’t think this is a wise idea,’ Vision was saying as they came closer.

‘Wise or not, I’m doing it,’ Steve said. ‘If we get in a real sticky situation, I will call in.’

‘But if you are in a place we cannot reach, you either won’t be able to call, or we won’t be able to come to you.’

‘Vision,’ Steve stopped and turned to the android. ‘I know what I’m doing, trust me.’

‘The others will not like this either,’ Vision said.

‘Yeah, I know,’ Steve sighed, but it was not the sort of sigh that meant that he changed his mind. Steve never changed his mind.

Loki wasn’t protesting, and Bucky was never able to talk Steve out of anything stupid. He wanted to. He wanted to say or do something that would make Steve turn around and walk back out of the room, but his mouth remained firmly shut. He couldn’t do it. No matter how good his reasons, he couldn’t bring himself to try and push Steve away, not again.

So when Steve looked back at him, face still hard and jaw still squared stubbornly, Bucky knew that he lost this fight. Hell, he lost this fight a long time ago.

Chapter Text

Silence made thoughts scream louder, so Loki came to despise silence. She despised being left alone with her thoughts. And yet here she was… surrounded by silence, slave to the ideas swirling around in her head. It was always the same, questions, memories, doubts, and anger turning and shifting in vicious circles. It only took a couple of hours for anger to turn into a constant shimmering force beneath her skin.

She spent almost all day lying on the sofa in the darkest corner of her quarters. It was not the dim light that made her like this spot, but how defendable it was. Walls stood behind her back, a pillar hid her from the doorway, and she had an almost perfect view of the rest of the room. Her wound still ached, albeit it was mostly healed, so she was not very keen on moving around.

James was of course down in his own sparse room, now with his dear Captain to give him company. He was no doubt pleased about it, despite his loud complains. Love was most foolish and inconsistent like that. Loki did not envy this weakness from him, it was a chain as much as the source of strength.

She could claim it was a moment of madness that made her agree, but in truth they were no longer in a position where it was worth turning down someone like the Captain. It should have made Loki sneer and spit in anger, but she was remarkably tranquil about it. That was something still quite new. Something she was not very used to.

Something shifted within her when her body reshaped into a new form. It didn’t feel like that much of a difference at first, but soon it became obvious. Her anger was both colder and more vicious than before, but also a lot harder to ignite. Trivial things no longer mattered, she could easily not care about them. It was a power that did not come from muscles or magic. It was a strength of character not familiar to Loki. She kept thinking of her mother, how she smiled even in the face of pain and anger. How difficult it was to get a true rise out of her – very unlike Odin – but once she was angry, oh... the Realm Eternal knew to cover from their Queen.

The “Son of Odin”... a name surrounded with bitter fury, crushed hopes, jealousy, pain and a thousand other things too complicated to sort out. The “Daughter of Frigga”... now that brought great reservoirs of grief, but also something warm and unquestionable. Frigga never gave up, never turned away...

Loki really shouldn’t be thinking about this.

‘We have a guest I see,’ Leah called and Loki wanted to curse herself for not noticing the flicker of magic that signalled her arrival.

‘He was insistent,’ Loki said.

‘I’m sure he was,’ Leah smiled as she walked closer.

‘You’re late,’ Loki told her. She was not actually late, as they did not specify a time for her return, but she was still away longer than expected.

‘I remained in Asgard for as long as Thor, it was for the best.’

Leah held out a scrolled-up piece of paper towards her, but Loki just eyed it dubiously.

‘What is that?’

‘A letter from Balder,’ she answered, wiggling the scroll in front of Loki’s face, like it was a shiny toy Loki would pounce on with the right stimulation. It should have angered her, but the twinkle in Leah’s eyes was simply amusing.

‘Fine, I’ll read it to you then,’ she declared as she sat down on the sofa by Loki’s feet. She tucked her legs underneath her skirt and got comfortable. It was still such an odd sight. Nobody’s really been comfortable or relaxed around Loki in a long time. Even before it was mostly just Thor and Frigga. Odin... he always acted like he knew not how to talk to Loki, which was probably true, in retrospect.

Loki, greetings to you from the fair and golden Asgard. I trust your battles on Midgard have been grand and victorious... so formal, isn’t he?’

‘That’s his way of being polite,’ Loki remarked.

I heard the news from your dear friend that I appear to have a sister now. Truly, the surprises never cease with you.

Balder grabbed hold of the title of being Loki’s brother with both hands and refused to let go of it, like a pup stubbornly sinking its teeth into a favoured toy. Loki did not pretend to understand, but also did not fight it. It would’ve been a waste of time.

Maybe, if you have the time, you should pay a visit to Lady Sigyn in Skornheim. I believe she would be rather fond of your new shape.

‘Best idea I’ve heard in a long time,’ Loki huffed.

Loki was a young lad when he first visited Skornheim and his childish infatuation with Lady Sigyn at the time was well known to everyone, unfortunately. Sigyn herself liked Loki well enough, but her preferences leaned more towards women. Loki did not quite understand back then what it meant to have such a strict preference, as most in Asgard cared not for such things. Indeed even Loki’s preferences could be described easily as everyone was either “attractive” or “non-attractive”. Loki as an adolescence thought Sigyn’s claims of a “preference” to be mere rejection. Sigyn forgave the ignorance, as she was not one for grudges. It was one of the reasons why she made such a good matriarch for the Warriors of Skornheim.

Loki learnt and Sigyn never brought up the youthful insults and mistakes. Others were not that willing to let Loki forget about the whole ordeal. Thor and his friends were particularly fond of “teasing”, reminding Loki of the lady who was so swift with her rejection. Despite the unpleasantness of it all, Loki still thought of Sigyn fondly. It couldn’t be helped.

Now as for the things you are no doubt more interested in,’ Leah continued Balder’s letter. ‘Thor’s visit went rather smoothly, as Leah will inform you. He was quite willing to believe the truth, after Eir’s reassurances of course. Truly, he is not as hot-headed as you made me believe. But perhaps it is merely just that the two of you have not been close in quite some time. Everyone changes, after all.

Loki did not comment on that, but noted the way Leah glanced in her way.

You might not be pleased to hear, but despite your advice, I have told Thor the truth about Odin.’

‘He did what?’ Loki asked.

‘I’m getting there, patience,’ Leah chided. ‘...not the entire truth of course. But I believed that if Thor saw that the Allfather was peacefully asleep, well-guarded and safe in the palace, it would placate him more than the unknown. If he thought Odin was away for a journey, he would have just demanded to know more, or even would have set out to go after him... he’s a clever one, Loki. Maybe you should’ve put someone dumber on the throne.’

‘I have neither time nor patience for puppet kings,’ Loki said simply.

‘You’re probably right,’ Leah agreed. ‘I believe that being in the company of my friends and I also helped things along. He’s a warrior at heart, the sight of camaraderie between soldiers, a fine meal and some great mead, put him at ease and made him more willing to listen.

Loki was never going to understand this sort of brother-, and sisterhood. Loki always had one brother and that was Thor, which made it hard to swallow all the brothers-in-arms Thor claimed over the years. Loki became just one of many, while Thor was the only one in return. Balder grew up in Skornheim, where the warriors were brothers and sisters in ways not even the warriors of Asgard were. He already understood this part of Thor more than Loki was ever going to.

She firmly pushed down on the surge of bitter jealousy in her throat. Balder was merely doing what she asked of him. He deserved more than anger and spite as his due.

Thor seemed at peace with leaving the throne to me,’ Leah continued to read. ‘But of course he just left to speak with Heimdall, Sif and the Warriors Three. I have no way of knowing what they will say to him, but so far he has not marched back into the palace demanding my head. I’d say that’s a good sign.

‘They will put doubts in his head,’ Loki said.

‘I’m sure Thor had plenty of doubts even before,’ Leah said. ‘He’s very good at keeping up a cheerful thoughtless façade.’

‘Playing dumb,’ Loki said. It was something she only realized recently. Thor always bragged about his strength and prowess in battle, but he seemed quite witless otherwise. Even Loki believed sometimes that Thor was as big an oaf as he looked like, only to be surprised by how much the Thunderer truly noticed and observed.

It was something Barton said during the invasion of Midgard. “If people think you’re just muscle, they’re not gonna expect complicated plans from you. It makes them careless.” The moment of clarity about Thor regarding this came much later, in Asgard’s dungeon. Loki had time to reflect about a lot of things during that long year of isolation.

Leah continued reading then. ‘Asgard is at peace, the people seem to have accepted my presence, and my warriors and I are ready for any danger that might appear. I wish you told me more about the threat lurking on Midgard, as I would be quite willing to grab my sword, or my spear, and aid you in battle. Something that threatens one realm can easily become a danger to all realms. I could easily justify my intervention... he’s eager.’

‘Yes, to prove himself, to me, to Asgard, even to Thor,’ Loki said, again thinking of the pup sinking its teeth into something precious. Balder never had a family, just the warriors of Skornheim, so he was eager to prove that he deserved a place in one. He was young, clever yes, but still a little foolish in such matters. Although Loki had to admit there was something charming about him being so insistent on proving he was deserving of being Loki’s brother.

Still, I know that not every battle can be won with swords and blood, so I will trust that you know what is best for the Nine Realms.’

‘Stupid boy,’ Loki mumbled.

‘Isn’t it nice though... to have someone believe?’ Leah asked.

‘He doesn’t know any better,’ Loki said.

‘Maybe... still, it’s nice.’

Loki had nothing to say to that.

I know your strength, your power, your magic, but still there is always a greater foe, it’s simply the nature of things. And one’s back is vulnerable, unless one has a brother or sister, so the one thing I ask of you is to not march into battle alone. I look forward to the day we can meet again. Balder.

‘Sentimental too,’ Loki remarked.

‘He has a big heart,’ Leah shrugged. ‘And he’s brave enough to give you a place in it, despite everything he knows about you.’

‘Brave or idiotic.’

‘A true Odinson indeed,’ Leah laughed. Loki did not find it that amusing, but some similarities were undeniable.

‘So with that business dealt with, maybe I should say hello,’ Leah said. ‘The Captain and I have not been properly introduced after all.’

‘You might want to leave that for a later time,’ Loki commented drily. Leah looked at her for a moment, and then she understood.

‘Ah, young love… no matter, we have other things to take care of.’

‘Such as?’

‘Patience, Loki, I’m getting there… first, you must tell me how that big hole in your stomach came to be.’

Loki sighed, of course Leah would notice.

Leah carefully listened to Loki’s summary of events that lead to her injury. She sat quietly by Loki’s feet, relaxed and thoughtful, didn’t offer any comments up until Loki was done.

‘This woman… have you seen her as well?’ she asked then.

‘The other Widow? No,’ Loki shook her head. ‘I was a little busy at the time.’

‘And she had not shown up when you fought Gor-Tok and Belasco?’

‘No,’ Loki repeated. She would’ve mentioned it already if that had been the case.

‘It is most strange, don’t you think?’ Leah asked.

‘Why would it be? They simply found another weakness to exploit.’

‘That may be so, but she is still an unexpected addition.’

‘She’s a mortal, no matter how formidable,’ Loki said. ‘She will hardly cause problems.’

‘And what did I tell you about dismissing mortals?’ Leah asked in return.

‘James will deal with her. I should focus my attention on bigger things.’

‘The bigger thing would be to put an end to this once and for all, but we are no closer to achieving that, are we?’

Her tone was almost mocking, so it sent a spark of irritation through Loki.

‘We have done plenty already,’ she insisted.

‘It’s not enough.’

‘Maybe we could do more if you bothered to share everything you know,’ Loki snapped, glaring at her.

Leah just smiled as she stood up.

‘Knowledge is a dangerous thing… especially when it comes to you.’

Loki stared at her evenly, trying to read her face, but she was no easier to decipher than a marble statue.

‘You still don’t believe that I am no longer on my old path,’ Loki accused. ‘After everything I’ve done, everything I’ve sacrificed, you still think it changed nothing.’

‘Loki, it is not about what I believe… your fate is not so simple to escape.’


‘There’s no law, no rules set in stone. You know that.’

Loki scoffed and looked away from her.

‘I know that everything I’ve done appears to have been for naught.’

This was how fate laughed at Loki. This was how fate spat in her face, told her that she was still bound by chains.

‘You have done much, do not doubt that, but it is one thing to prevent events that appeared very likely to happen, and a different matter to defy fate and go against your nature.’

‘My nature,’ Loki sneered. ‘So we are back treating me like some base creature.’

‘You are twisting my words and I will have none of that,’ Leah told her firmly.

‘Tell me then… oh wise one, you who know past, future, and worlds beyond my reach. What else could I possibly do to escape these shackles?’

‘You have to finish this,’ Leah said. ‘And when the moment comes, you will have to decide…’

‘Decide?! Decide what? I could strangle you when you speak in riddles.’

Leah was unfazed by her threat, like always. And Loki made no move to stand up from the sofa anyway, so both of them knew she was just hissing empty words.

‘If I told you, it wouldn’t be much of a decision, now would it?’ Leah asked.

Loki silently fumed for long moments, while Leah just looked at her, patient enough to wait. She didn’t have to wait long as Loki still had too many questions.

‘I abandoned a path, because you showed me a future I do not want to come to pass… but I cannot see the path I walk now. I know not where it leads, I know nothing. How am I to keep walking?’

Leah sat down again.

‘That might just be the greatest challenge in all of this. I never thought that it would be pain and blood to discourage you. Uncertainty has always been a bigger enemy of yours.’

‘What if this new path leads to something even worse… makes me something even worse?’

‘You must believe that I won’t lead you astray,’ Leah said. Loki huffed out a faint laugh.

‘You always ask for too much.’

‘But I give much in return.’

‘You won’t even tell me who you really are to me.’

Leah stayed silent for a heartbeat, then smiled.

‘I am your friend, Loki, first and foremost.’

Loki did not know whether she believed that wholly, or at all, it always depended on the day. Today she was inclined to believe it, but she was still convinced that it was not the complete truth. But Leah was not going to tell her more.

‘Tell me then, what is our next most urgent task?’ Loki asked.

‘I think it’s time Curwen and the Whisperer stopped getting in our way,’ Leah said.

‘I thought we will leave them to Strange,’ Loki frowned.

‘Yes, but apparently he needs a nudge in the right direction… or we need to make it easier for him.’

‘But what of Gor-Tok?’ Loki asked. ‘What of Arcade and the second Widow? They are hunting us already. It would be easier to strike them down.’

‘No,’ Leah shook her head. ‘They’re throwing them at us, so they want us occupied, chasing the dogs instead of their masters… so no, we’re not going to waste our time on them.’

‘The Whisperer is hardly as great a threat as Gor-Tok,’ Loki argued.

‘I did not stop you when it came to Amora, because I understood… but this time we will not be distracted by petty personal grudges. Gor-Tok defeated you, that’s why you want to take revenge on him first.’

Loki wanted to deny it, but there was no point lying to Leah. Loki took things personally, it couldn’t be helped.

‘Curwen and the Whisperer,’ Leah repeated. ‘They might even lead us to the Darkholders.’

‘And how exactly are we going to hunt down such an elusive demon? How are we to face Curwen, when that wretched mortal is more slippery than an eel?’

‘Let me worry about finding them,’ Leah said. ‘You just need to figure out the best plan of attack.’

Loki sighed, prepare for the unpredictable, of course, easily done. Leah really did have a great tendency to ask for the whole sky and all the stars from Loki, and then act like it was the simplest of requests.

‘Fortunately, we seem to have gotten ourselves a great strategist to aid you,’ Leah added with a meaningful eyebrow lift.

Of course she still wanted to meet Rogers too.

‘He’s not bound by any vow, or any magic,’ Loki reminded her. ‘That could cause trouble.’

Leah looked aside as she thought about it, but she seemed to come to a decision almost right away.

‘We’re running out of time, so that’s a risk we’re just going to have to take.’

‘James won’t like it,’ Loki remarked.

‘The Captain will have to decide for himself,’ Leah said, which was certainly true.

‘Very well,’ Loki agreed.

Loki was not yet healed, and she was in no mood to deal with James’ annoyance at being interrupted, so she left the two soldiers alone for almost a day. Leah needed to get things started as well after all. Finding either Isaiah Curwen or the Whisperer was not a simple task.

Hopefully they would be able to just meddle a little, either chase them in Strange’s direction, or weaken them enough to render them unimportant. The best would be if they could simply kill them, but Loki had an inkling that they won’t have much luck with such a straightforward solution.

She banged loudly on James’ door, while Leah shook her head at her. She looked amused though. It had the desired effect as James practically tore the door off its hinges when he opened it.

‘Oh good, you’re dressed,’ Loki said in lieu of a greeting.

‘What?’ James barked in annoyance.

‘We have things to discuss,’ Loki said simply. James glanced behind her and noticed Leah standing on the stairs. He frowned and his face grew serious right away. He also stepped out of the way to let the two of them inside.

‘Steve,’ he called.

‘Almost done,’ the Captain called form the bath as James shut the door.

‘I will never understand your decision to have this space be so small,’ Leah remarked.

‘It’s a hideout, I need it for sleep, that’s it,’ James answered.

‘Still, you should treat yourself sometimes,’ Leah said.

‘Moving on,’ James said pointedly, which made Leah smile.

Rogers walked out of the bath a moment later, dressed as well, but his hair still wet. He stopped after he entered the room. He obviously expected Loki, but he stared at Leah for a moment longer.

‘You’re the girl Sara mentioned,’ he said then.

‘That would be me, yes,’ Leah agreed as she walked closer to him. ‘But I think I heard more about you, than you about me.’

‘Probably,’ Rogers nodded.

‘I’m Leah, it’s very nice to meet you,’ Leah said then, lifting her hand for a proper Midgardian greeting. Rogers reached out and shook her much smaller hand. He seemed a little bewildered.

‘Steve,’ he said. ‘But you already knew that.’

‘Indeed,’ Leah said as she let go. The Captain had questions, probably quite a lot of them, but he seemed to have decided that this was not the right time to voice them.

‘So what’s up?’ James asked.

‘The Whisperer,’ Leah said. ‘He bothered us for for too long.’

‘A; I thought we were gonna leave that one for Strange,’ James said. ‘And B; how do you even plan to find the guy?’

‘We’re going to summon him,’ Leah said. Loki watched how James’ eyebrows lifted almost comically, and for once she very much understood his shock. This was such a bad idea.

‘That sounds like a very bad idea,’ Rogers said, echoing Loki’s thoughts.

‘If we summon the Whisperer, he’s gonna be able to take a goddamn “sacrifice”,’ James said. ‘That’s how that bastard stole the Kinmont’s girl soul.’

‘He won’t take anything if we kill him,’ Leah answered calmly. ‘Or incapacitate him.’

‘Why not Gor-Tok?’ James asked.

‘You can’t honestly tell me that you believe he’s important,’ Leah said. Loki really wanted to stab Gor-Tok with her spear, but he did not matter, they would just be wasting time with him. James knew that too.

‘And do we have a sure-fire way to take him down?’ the Captain asked. ‘And how do you know he’s gonna appear with this summoning? I mean, won’t he know he’s walking into a trap?’

‘Well, he won’t appear for Loki or James, but...’

‘No,’ James interrupted her right away.

‘He’s not marked, the Whisperer won’t know it’s him just from the summon,’ Leah explained.

‘We are not putting Steve and his soul on the line,’ James said sternly.

‘Wait, what now? Explain this one to me,’ Rogers said.

‘The Whisperer answers questions in exchange for human sacrifices,’ Loki answered. ‘So technically it wouldn’t have to be you...’

Rogers made an angry face, which was expected.

‘So this girl...’ he prompted.

‘Casey Kinmont, a friend of Doctor Strange,’ James told him. ‘She’s got involved in a bunch of messy demon businesses, and she made the call to save others, had a plan and all, but she still didn’t make it out. So she’s not just dead, her damn soul belongs to the Whisperer and it got dragged to whatever demonic plane that bastard dwells in.’

‘So if I summoned him he could do that to me?’ Rogers asked.

‘Technically,’ Leah started, but James was having none of it.

‘It doesn’t matter, because we are not doing it,’ he said firmly. ‘This fucking thing has been doing this for who knows how long, he can’t be tricked, and he can’t just simply be killed.’

‘But if he’s really that dangerous, does things like this to people, then something needs to be done,’ the Captain said, not surprising anyone in the room that he was already considering it.

‘No, Steve, we are not doing this. There’s other things we can do.’

‘Actually, there are not,’ Leah said. ‘Things are changing, swiftly and dangerously. If we do not act now we might lose our chance. We never had a high chance of victory, but lately our odds turned even worse.’

James was already shaking his head again, crossing his arms stubbornly.

‘No, I’m not doing it,’ he said.

‘Actually you do not have to do anything,’ Leah reminded him. Even her most pleasant tone could be so cold. And Loki saw the anger flare up in James even more when Leah looked over at Rogers, waiting for him to make a decision.

‘We need a better plan than just “summon an attack”,’ the Captain said. ‘We need something solid here.’

‘No!’ James yelled. ‘You two, get out!’ he pointed a metal finger in Loki’s and Leah’s direction.

It was predictable, both his anger and the reason why it reared its head so quickly. Normally, Loki would have been very unimpressed with such a display, but she already knew that the Captain was the one thing James won’t ever bargain with. He was fierce in his love, it burnt in his eyes like a forest fire. He would kill, he would destroy, he would gladly bath himself in blood to defend this one thing that mattered to him more than anything else. Loki found it hard to dismiss such violent passion.

So she pushed herself away from the wall she was leaning on and turned to leave. Besides, she was rather sure she knew the Captain well enough by now. The two might argue, might battle with words, but in the end Rogers will make a decision, and James will follow him. It was best to leave them to work out the details.

‘Come now, Leah,’ she said. ‘The birds have a quarrel to settle.’

She listened, which surprised Loki a little, but pleased her nonetheless. The door barely closed when she heard James’ loud and furious voice. Maybe it was very obvious, or Loki just knew him that well, but she could hear the fear underneath the anger.

Long hours later when James stormed into Loki’s quarters, it only took one glance to see that he lost the argument, as expected. His whole body was tense, posed for a fight, his face hard with anger.

‘You goddamn brought this shit up right in front of Steve deliberately,’ he said right away. He was scowling down at Loki, who once again took her place on the sofa in the dark corner.

‘He insisted on coming here, so he might as well hear everything first-hand too,’ Loki said.

‘Don’t try to feed me bullshit. You knew he won’t say no, not when it came to someone like the Whisperer.’

‘It was a reasonable assumption, yes,’ Loki nodded, because she was not about to insult James even more by denying such an obvious thing.

Honesty was rarely enough to tame James’ anger though, and indeed the scowl was still firmly in place. He kept a tight lid on his fury, so he did not lash out with words. He clenched his fists and kept his voice composed.

‘Leah?’ he asked curtly.

‘Preparations,’ Loki said. ‘As your dear Captain said, we need a better plan than just “summon and attack”.’

Unsurprisingly, this also did not manage to calm James down. After a moment he put his metal hand on the sofa’s armrest and leaned down to be on eye level with Loki.

‘If I lose him over this, I’m going to kill you,’ he said calmly.

Loki sometimes envied this calm. Her anger burnt brightly, and her emotions always came much closer to the surface than she would’ve liked. The recent changes in her had little to no effect on this. It was true for Loki the man, the Jotun, the woman... all her shapes and forms.

James’ anger was cold. His heart may have beaten loudly in his chest, but his voice remained even, his eyes calm and dry. Loki was much older, but her self-control was nowhere near this good. Although, she would rather never experience what James went through in order to gain such control.

‘Fine,’ she said simply.

‘You think I’m not serious?’ James questioned.

‘Oh, I know you are,’ Loki answered, looking back up at him. There was no need to debate whether James would actually be able to do it or not. Considering the situation they were in, their so-called partnership, the intention would be more than enough to bring this whole thing down on their heads.

They looked at each other for a few moments and whatever James saw in her face, it must’ve been enough for him, because he straightened back up, and turned to leave.

‘But James,’ Loki called after him. ‘No matter what happens, especially between you and I... Leah is off the table.’

James stopped, then answered without turning back.

‘You know I wouldn’t,’ he said.

Loki did know, even if trust did not come easily to her. She liked to think she knew him. She also liked to think that a human, no matter how skilled, could never actually harm Leah in any way.

Still, it was best if the two of them understood each other in matters like this. They needed to know where they stood, when and how much they could trust one another. Death treats aside, they were both honest, which was enough. James seemed to agree, because he left without another word.

Chapter Text

There was nothing that could make Bucky less angry about this. In fact, he was downright murderous, which was maybe not the bad sort of mood going into this mess. Maybe he would even get a chance to take it out on someone.

‘Buck,’ Steve said quietly.

‘I’m real tempted to just repeat “fuck you” over and over again,’ Bucky said. It was not that far from the truth. Steve and his goddamn heroism, Loki and her… everything.

He still didn’t pull away when Steve stepped behind him, and he didn’t move either when Steve put his arms around his waist and plastered himself to Bucky’s back. He even put his head on Bucky’s shoulder like a sad overgrown puppy.

‘It’s going to be fine,’ Steve said.

‘No, it’s a shitty plan. You think it’s a shitty plan, even Loki thinks it’s a shitty plan, but you’re still doing it. It’s bullshit!’

‘It’s not the best plan, but we can pull it off,’ Steve said. ‘Look, you’re worried, I get it, but I came here to help you, not to stand at the sidelines.’

‘You never once stood at the sidelines in your damn life.’

‘Exactly,’ Steve agreed. ‘It’s going to be fine, you’ll be there to watch my back, right?’

‘If you’ll let me,’ Bucky said with a sigh.

‘I’m counting on it,’ Steve answered, tightening his arms around Bucky.

‘I just don’t…’ Bucky started, but the words stopped before they could tumble down his tongue. It made him tense just thinking about it.

‘Trust me, Buck. I’m not going anywhere,’ Steve told him quietly.

‘You don’t know that,’ Bucky argued.

‘Well, I will do my damn hardest,’ Steve promised. He was shifting his weight from one foot to the other, and it made them sway slowly. Like the world’s smallest and strangest dance.

‘I remember you flinging yourself at danger, no matter the odds, like you didn’t even care if you would get back up.’

‘Buck, that’s not what this is...’

‘I thought you’d be different now… I thought… you still act like you don’t care if you don’t make it.’

Steve was silent for a long moment, keeping hold of Bucky tightly. Maybe he didn’t want Bucky to turn around. It made sense. It was a lot harder to put these thoughts into words when you had to look someone in the eye, witness all their reactions.

‘I don’t want to die… don’t think I do,’ Steve said, his voice was so quiet it was almost a whisper.

‘Not anymore you mean,’ Bucky said. He felt like he said it harshly, despite his voice being as quiet as Steve’s.

Steve sighed and moved to rest his forehead on Bucky’s shoulder. Bucky reached up to cover Steve’s hands with his own. This was all he could do unless he twisted out of Steve’s arms, and there was no way he was going to do that.

‘Hey… Steve… It’s okay, you hear? I didn’t say it to--’

‘I was not okay, Buck,’ Steve said. ‘Not after you fell, especially not when I woke up again… I felt like I should’ve been long gone… but I never… I just…’

‘I know,’ Bucky murmured.

‘It’s different now,’ Steve continued. ‘Sometimes I still wake up feeling like they should’ve left me in the Atlantic… but it’s easier now to get up, it’s...’

‘It’s easier to remember the good things,’ Bucky finished.

‘Yeah,’ Steve agreed.

‘Hey, I wanna look at you,’ Bucky said, no longer able to resist.

Steve loosened his arms and let him turn around. He looked smaller than he actually was, and his eyes remained firmly somewhere around Bucky’s shoulder. It was never like Steve, to pour his soul out. Oh, he could shout rousing speeches from the top of his head when it came to his ideals, to the things he believed in. But when it came to Steven Grant Rogers, he never had much to say. That’s why it was always Bucky’s job to say it instead of him.

He reached out to pull Steve back close, held his head in his hands and left a kiss on his cheek. Steve closed his eyes and let himself be pulled, allowed Bucky to do whatever he wanted. And what he wanted was to kiss Steve breathless. It was to remind him that Bucky was here, remind him that he cared, and to thank him for trusting Bucky still, not just with his life, but with everything he was.

Bucky was still not happy about this and he made sure his face showed that as he walked up the stairs. Of course Loki was not going to call the whole plan off just because Bucky glared a bit more than usual. In fact, it just made her smirk at him in amusement.

‘No armour?’ Steve asked as he reached the top. Loki wore human clothes, tight trousers, long leather boots, a dark shirt, and a leather jacket. Steve and Bucky on the other hand were both decked out in their full gear, shield included in Steve’s case.

‘Of course I’m wearing armour,’ Loki said. The clothes flickered and it took but a second for a golden glow to transform the clothes into Loki’s usual Asgardian armour. Then just as quickly she was back in the normal clothes, although it was hardly “normal” for Loki.

‘Why?’ Bucky asked simply.

‘Leah found us a perfect location, but it will take a quick look around to find it, and we don’t want to draw attention to ourselves.’

‘You could’ve said so in the first place,’ Bucky told her, gesturing at his gear, which was anything but subtle, not to mention Steve’s Captain America get-up. It was not the bright blue striped suit, but the dark navy stealth suit he used, but still, it was more than a little conspicuous, then there was the shield too.

‘Nonsense,’ Loki said.

Bucky caught the golden glow and looked down to see it surrounding him. The change was instantaneous and he didn’t even feel anything. The clothes looked pretty standard, exactly like the sort of things Bucky wore nowadays. He could still feel the weight of his guns, the heaviness of his kevlar, but it looked like he was in plain civilian clothes.

‘What if I want to grab a gun?’ he asked. ‘Or a knife?’

‘The illusion will shatter, so keep your hands to yourself,’ Loki said.

‘Yeah, not happening,’ Steve said, which made Bucky turn to look at him. He gave up keeping a straight face only after a moment and huffed out a laugh. Steve had a blue suit on, just as bright as his usual Cap outfit, red shirt and red shoes, and a red and white tie with little stars to make the whole look perfect.

The glare on his face just made the whole picture better. He was also a bit baffled probably. He did not know Loki’s absurd sense of humour which usually popped up in the most inappropriate moments.

‘I’m not sure what you mean,’ Loki said with a frown, looking serious. Butter wouldn’t melt in her damn mouth. ‘I think it’s suitably… patriotic.’

‘You’re not wrong about that,’ Bucky murmured.

Steve made a face and just kept staring at her until a second flash of golden light replaced the bright outfit with something more similar to Bucky’s.

It was stupid, childish, and bizarre in a way only Loki managed to be, but it somehow broke the tension that was building between them. Bucky could breathe again. Worry was no longer gnawing on his insides, dread no longer made his limbs feel like lead.

He still hated this, he was still afraid, and he was still ready to start throwing punches at the earliest opportunity, but he was ready to go.

The portal opened up in a dark alley, but the sound of traffic and nearby people immediately told them that the place was nowhere near abandoned. That explained the clothes, of course, but it also put Bucky on edge. It just never ended well when they were too many people around. But he understood that it was not always possible to fight their battles in the middle of forests and long abandoned Hydra bases. Their enemies didn’t really care about casualties. Bucky was pretty sure Loki didn’t either.

The buildings around them were tall, but also old. Bucky noticed the smell of piss in the alley, the stench of garbage, but also cigarette smoke. There was loud music playing in one of the buildings around them, Bucky could feel the deep pumping bass in his chest.

‘Follow me,’ Loki said. ‘But try to be subtle.’

‘I’m good at subtle,’ Bucky said.

‘I’m really bad at subtle,’ Steve said at the same time.

Loki just shook her head, and probably rolled her eyes, but Bucky did not see that, then headed out of the alley.

‘Just act natural,’ Bucky told Steve.

‘That’s what I’m not really good at,’ Steve said in return.

Bucky gave him a smile. ‘If it makes you feel better, I’m also a lot better at staying out of sight than blending in.’

‘We’re gonna do so great,’ Steve remarked, some sarcasm slipping into his tone.

They followed Loki, sticking together for now. Once they were out on the street Bucky realized that it was not going to be that difficult to stay unnoticed, because the sidewalk was filled with people waiting to get into some club. There were a lot of drunks, while others were too busy talking to their friends to notice anyone else.

Steve was looking at the buildings around them, reading the street signs, probably trying to figure out where they were, since Loki did not bother mentioning that.

‘Is this... Detroit?’ he asked with a frown. Bucky looked around too, then spotted a manhole on the road, which yes, said “Detroit Waterworks”.

‘Looks like it,’ he agreed. Steve followed his line of sight and spotted the text too.

‘Well, at least it’s not Jersey,’ he said with a sigh. Bucky snorted and started walking to not lose sight of Loki. Steve followed him.

The long line of people waiting to get inside the club were mostly standing by the wall, so it was easy to walk past them without bumping into anyone. They were nondescript enough to not draw attention to themselves, even with their height. Loki though...

‘Hey don’t be like that baby, c’mon stay for a chat!’ a guy yelled a little ahead of them. And like the big dumb herd they were, one of them spotting a woman walking by was enough for others to react too. There was a whistle, then a few other comments.

Bucky had no idea how garden-variety assholes like this were unable to see the danger surrounding Loki. It was so clear that she was not to be messed with, you only had to take a good look at her. And it wasn’t just that he knew that she was not human. But maybe Bucky could no longer think with the mind of a civilian, especially not a drunk one.

Loki kept walking, and Bucky wanted to breathe out in relief, because they did not need a damn bloodbath in front of a nightclub with dozens of people watching. But then one guy had to be really descriptive about what he would do if he had “those long legs wrapped around his head” and Loki stopped, dammit.

‘Keep your distance,’ he whispered to Steve and picked up his pace. He did not run, he kept it casual, but he knew he had to intervene. A lot could be said about Loki’s vindictive streak, and dishing out a swift punishment for an insult was definitely one of its main characteristics.

She was already turning around when Bucky caught up with her and put a hand on her lower-back, giving her a slight push.

‘Keep walking,’ he said quietly. Loki’s green eyes were definitely murderous, but Bucky’s presence was enough to remind her of what they were doing here. She started walking again.

‘Aw sweetie, ditch the punk, come on!’ the guy complained loudly, his words slurred.

Seriously, having to deal with this meaningless shit on top their crap demon-hunting plan was putting Bucky in a very trigger-happy mood.

Then the guy started shouting, almost screaming behind them, and Bucky quickly glanced back. He saw nothing that was actually hurting him, but he was freaking out about something, because he was jumping around, shrugging some of his clothes off as he kept swatting at his chest and arms, like he was trying to get something off. The people standing in the line kept staring at him, while his friends were hovering nearby, trying to get him to stop.

Bucky glared at Loki.

‘You call that not drawing attention to ourselves?’ he asked.

‘Everyone will assume that his mind is off its hinges,’ Loki shrugged. ‘Humans are fond of filling their heads and veins with poison.’

‘Not the point,’ Bucky shook his head as he took his hand off Loki’s back. ‘It’s risky and you know it.’

‘The Lady Sif never let insults like this go unpunished,’ Loki said.

‘Last I checked, you didn’t even like this Sif chick, so don’t pretend she’s your damn role model.’

That shut her up for now. They walked in silence and Bucky had the urge to glance back again to check where Steve was, but there was nothing more suspicious than someone constantly turning around on a street.

Loki was finally focusing on what she was supposed to be doing, and she turned down the next corner onto a smaller street. They passed two buildings when Steve joined them, coming out of a side-alley.

‘Found a short-cut,’ he said easily. ‘What did you do to that guy?’

‘Illusions only he could see,’ Loki said as she kept walking, touching the brick wall next to them again and again, probably searching for traces of magic.

‘And what did he see?’ Steve asked.

‘The biggest and nastiest critters I could think of,’ Loki answered, sounding pleased with herself.

‘I guess that’s as good as a punch in the face,’ Steve decided. Up until this moment Bucky wasn’t even worried about Steve punching random assholes for running their mouths, which was stupid in retrospect, because it was Steve, there was always a risk of that happening.

‘It’s like I’m herding children,’ he grumbled quietly. Loki ignored him, but Steve gave him a little confused frown, like he didn’t get it. It was bullshit, he knew exactly what Bucky meant. He was just playing innocent. It was an old game, this back and forth, so even though Bucky looked away and shook his head in annoyance, the familiarity made him feel comfortable in his own skin.

‘There it is,’ Loki said and headed towards an old four-storey building, which looked a lot more run down than the others around here. She walked straight up to a rusty old cellar door behind a bunch of trash cans. She crouched down and simply crushed the lock and opened the door leading down.

‘So what is this place again?’ Steve asked. ‘You said we needed a specific place to summon the Whisperer, why here?’

Loki started walking down the stairs, Steve followed her, Bucky went last.

‘Because if I do all the preparations for this summoning, the Whisperer will know I’m here,’ she said. ‘So we have to settle for second-hand groundwork.’

Bucky shut the trapdoor behind them and didn’t feel good about not being able to lock it.

‘So someone did a summoning here?’ he asked then.

‘Something like that,’ Loki said, which was way too vague. Bucky didn’t like it when Loki got vague, it meant that she was withholding information, usually gruesome information.

‘Something like that,’ Steve repeated dubiously.

The stairs went on and on, so this basement was a little deeper than an average cellar. Maybe it used to be an underground parking garage. The illusions Loki placed on them vanished as they descended. They were no longer needed.

The basement was cold, damp, and dark when they finally reached the bottom of the stairs. And Bucky knew he won’t be able to see a thing if they ventured deeper inside.

‘Ugh, this smell,’ Steve spoke up. ‘This place leads to the sewers or something?’

‘I would not rule out the possibility,’ Loki said, then she flicked a hand and made the lights flicker to life above them. It was not a garage, but it was big, and one of the walls was knocked down on the far end, leading to somewhere dark. The draft was pretty strong, so wherever that hole lead, it was connected to the outside.

‘Oh, Jesus,’ Steve said and Bucky turned to see what he was looking at. The left side of the large underground hall was still mostly surrounded by darkness as most of the lights were out, but he could clearly see the large dark patch on the floor, some chalk, chains, melted wax... it explained the smell too.

‘What the hell happened here?’ Steve asked as they walked closer. The chains were relatively new in comparison to everything else, but they were still starting to get rusty from the old dried blood that covered them. There were more blood stains on the floor, long dried too. Whatever happened here, it happened a long time ago. Months at least, maybe longer.

‘A ritual of some sort,’ Loki said, idly walking around the large stain of blood, assessing their environment, probably contemplating whether this was a suitable place or not. ‘It hardly matters.’

‘Someone was murdered here from the looks of it,’ Steve said. ‘I’d say that matters a bit.’

‘Someone was murdered here months ago, obviously in secret,’ Loki said. ‘You want to run off searching for the culprits? Good luck with that.’

‘Well, the police could still check the blood, find out who it was maybe,’ Steve said.

‘If you want to play investigator after we’re done, feel free,’ Loki said. ‘The blood won’t go anywhere.’

‘How did you know to look for this place anyway?’ Steve asked.

‘Stuff like this leaves a mark,’ Bucky said. ‘A signature or something, you know, like a nuclear bomb leaving behind radiation, just the magic version of it.’

‘And you can find these signatures?’ Steve asked from Loki.

‘I can, if I’m nearby,’ Loki said, still walking around. ‘Ugh, rats,’ she interrupted herself and Bucky heard the frightened scattering of the rodents in the dark. ‘Leah narrowed it down for me in advance, she has a particular talent for finding things.’

‘Why Detroit?’

Loki crouched down and touched one of the burnt out candles on the floor, examining it for a long moment.

‘Places of decay are always favoured by those looking to dabble into the darker side of the arcane arts. Suitable locations, easy targets.’

Steve was already opening his mouth, and Bucky knew what he was going to say, so he answered before Steve even uttered the first word.

‘In a neighbourhood like this, nobody is going to kick up a fuss if someone anonymous goes missing,’ he said, staring at the blood stain. ‘Someone homeless, a drunk, a working girl... ain’t nobody’s going to search for them.’

He knew that made Steve think of their old neighbourhood. Maybe Brooklyn was not the worst place to be in New York, but it was also not exactly the district of the rich and powerful, definitely not back in the 30s. They always heard about boys going out for a drink and never getting back home again, stabbed in an alley over a few dollars, their heads bashed-in for looking at the wrong dame... or the wrong fella. It also reminded Bucky why he used to be so damn scared of Steve getting into fights in dirty back-alleys.

‘This will do,’ Loki decided.

Bucky chased away the memories from the forefront of his mind and focused on the task at hand. This was not the time to be distracted by the past.

The giant hole in the wall lead to the sewers just like Bucky suspected, but then he found another smashed wall which lead right into an abandoned section of the Detroit subway. It worried him. Someone made these passageways for a reason, turned them into easy escape ways. Indeed, if he wanted to run from here, he would pick the sewer or the old subway line instead of heading back up to the street.

Loki said it did not matter who did this... thing here, a ritual whatever, but Bucky disagreed. He wanted to know who these people were, who spilled so much blood and knocked down so many walls without anybody noticing. Detroit had plenty of abandoned buildings, but this was still fishy as hell.

‘Steve, you good?’ he asked on his radio. They used something a bit more old-school than the digital communicators of the Avengers. Sure, it was an Analog channel, but it’s not like they had a whole team they needed to keep in touch with, and this worked better with their noisy signal. Bucky wasn’t sure what interfered with their frequency, but it was just one more annoyance on the long list of things he did not like about this mess.

I’m good, Buck,’ Steve answered. ‘I’m almost done.’

‘Don’t forget, you can’t ask any questions,’ Loki leaned closer to Bucky so that Steve could hear her. ‘He will be able to take what he wants if he has given you information.’

I know, we’ve been over this,’ Steve answered.

‘The information might sound tempting,’ Loki warned. ‘Maybe he will offer knowledge of things you are desperate to know, but believe me, you do not want to pay the price.’

I’m not easily tempted,’ Steve told them confidently.

‘Yeah, that’s the one thing I’m not worried about,’ Bucky said. Steve was not stupid, and he wasn’t going to fall for the Whisperer’s words. Bucky was more concerned about how the Whisperer was going to react once he realized that there was no deal to be made. Bucky needed to be fast, as soon as the demon showed his ugly mug Bucky’s going to be on his way back to Steve. He would have preferred to stay closer than this in the first place, but it was too risky.

‘I need to go even farther,’ Loki said. ‘I don’t want him to know I’m nearby.’

‘You’re gonna sense it if he appears, right?’ Bucky asked.

‘I will know even before he fully materializes,’ Loki told him. ‘Relax already, James. Your Captain can take care of himself.’

Then she turned and walked even deeper into the abandoned subway line. Bucky waited until he could no longer see her and took a deep breath. He let the air out slowly and braced himself.

‘Okay, Steve, we’re ready,’ he said.

All done here, too,’ Steve answered back. ‘So, here goes nothing I guess.’

Bucky wanted to say something more, but there was nothing else to say. He already told Steve everything he wanted to, there were no more words worth saying. He could not hear what Steve was doing in the blood-stained basement, so he just waited and waited, his body tense and his mind running through bad scenarios over and over again.

Then he heard a thump, but it did not come from the direction of the basement Steve was in. It was a little distant, but Bucky felt the vibrations through his boots. He turned around and listened carefully. There was a metallic clank, like the sound of a chain, then another one of those thumps, this time closer. Bucky stood up and stepped back into the shadows as much as he could, hands ready to reach for a weapon.

Something flew through the air. Bucky caught the sound of it a moment before it hit the ground a few feet before him. Grenade... he ran and leapt to get as far away as he could, but the explosion still made heat flare up in his side and right arm, his ears also started ringing. He didn’t hit the rails, which was lucky. That would have hurt like a bitch.

He knew one thing for sure; demons did not use fucking hand grenades. He grabbed his gun and rolled to the side to get to the wall. In fact, there was only one damn fucker who would throw goddamn grenades at him in a place like this.

‘Arcade!’ he yelled angrily. He knew it gave away his location, but at the same time...

‘Oh boy, I should feel real honoured that you remember me,’ Arcade replied, giving away his location too, so Bucky raised his gun and started shooting. Maybe he didn’t hit him at all, but that was not the point, it just gave him the opportunity to run and find a better cover.

How? How the hell did he know they would be here? How did he find them? How could this be a trap?

Arcade shot back, he had a rifle, but Bucky couldn’t tell what sort from sound alone. It didn’t matter how this happened. He just needed to get back to Steve immediately.

‘Don’t think this is personal, it really isn’t,’ Arcade said. Great, he was a monologuing one. ‘Sure it’s something to brag about, but damn, it’s really more the big paycheck.’

He was a jerk with a big-mouth, Bucky was going to kill him out of sheer principle. He didn’t say anything, because he suspected that Arcade didn’t see where he ran while he covered from Bucky’s shots. Maybe Arcade was stupid enough to fall for something like this, but Bucky was not about to announce his exact location again.

‘And if you think about it, I’m kind of the good guy in the set-up too,’ Arcade continued. ‘I mean, I have an impressive kill-count, I really do, but oh, I’ve got nothing on you,’ he whistled and even laughed a little, sounding impressed. ‘But I am little disappointed to be honest. The Winter Soldier, the ghost no one ever sees twice, the killer from the shadows... I guess people do love to exaggerate when it comes to scary stories.’

If Bucky truly were the Soldier still, Arcade would be long dead. Not that Bucky had any doubts about killing this annoying fat-head, but he was not nearly as reckless and single-minded as before. It was easier to hunt someone down and kill them when they were your sole purpose, your only objective. When nothing else mattered but their death, it was easy. Now Bucky had so many other things to worry about. Like the fact that he couldn’t even try contacting Steve right now, and that Steve also did not contact him.

Arcade stopped talking for now, but he couldn’t have moved without being heard, so his location was still firmly in Bucky’s mind. Now he just needed the right moment to end this.

‘Come on! You’re boring me!’ Arcade yelled, like a spoiled brat, so Bucky stood up and let a bullet fly. There was a grunt of pain and a quiet thud as Arcade probably stumbled back into a wall. Bucky started running. He doubted that the bullet actually hit anything vital, because he only had Arcade’s voice to aim at, and he only shot with his pistol. He did not want to waste the bullets he loaded into the Colt Commando on his back.

Sure enough, he was being shot at after a few moments passed, but it was dark, Bucky was quick, and Arcade was probably bleeding, so he dodged the bullets well enough. One ricocheted off his metal arm, but he barely paid attention to it.

Then he dropped to the ground when something metallic flew at him. The long bolt lodged deep into a wall behind him. Bucky quickly got up, but Gor-Tok was not shooting at him, it was just a stray bolt Loki dodged somewhere further ahead in the darkness.

Loki would be fine, Bucky needed to get to Steve. He started running again, but he almost stumbled when the ground shifted under his feet, the metal rails bent and broke as a large crack split the ground in two. The walls were shaking too and Bucky could hear and feel small bits of concrete falling down from above. Old pipes and electric lines were breaking and falling down, dislodging from their places with loud metallic crunches.

But there was no light, no sound, so it was not the N’Garai. The ground kept shaking as the cracks widened, and smaller ones spread all over the walls and the ceiling.

Where there Earthquakes in Detroit? Bucky couldn’t remember.

He spotted Loki, running towards him, jumping over the rift easily. Bucky did not see Gor-Tok anywhere, but he must’ve been close behind.

‘Run!’ Loki ordered, grabbing hold of Bucky’s arm.

‘What the hell is going on?’ Bucky asked, standing his ground.

There was a loud crack from above them and Bucky knew that the tunnel was going to cave in, maybe in a few moments, maybe in a few minutes, but soon. The ground was still shaking, almost pulsating, some waves were mild, some almost made him lose his balance. One large metal pipe cracked in half and fell down right behind them, and soon more followed.

Shit, Steve.

‘I said, run!’ Loki repeated. She was damn strong and managed to pull Bucky in the other direction a little, but no! Bucky twisted out of her grip and grabbed his Colt Commando rifle to start running, Gor-Tok be damned, but Loki grabbed him again.

‘I need to get Steve,’ Bucky said.

‘If Gor-Tok won’t kill you, than this damn tunnel will!’ Loki told him angrily.

Screw that. ‘I’m not leaving without Steve!’ he yelled.

Loki should have known better, because he did not fucking care how dangerous it was, he was not leaving Steve behind, no way in hell.

‘Someone showed up, but not the Whisperer,’ Loki told him, staring at his face.

‘I don’t care!’ Bucky shouted.

Loki glared at him, then turned back to where the passageway back to the sewers and the basement was.

‘I’ll get him, go,’ Loki said.


‘I said; I’ll get him, so go!’

Bucky hesitated. On most days he trusted Loki with his life, he did, but Steve’s life... that was different. And Bucky didn’t know if he could trust her with that.

Finally Gor-Tok’s tall frame showed up on the other side of the wide crack. He still looked like a walking seven feet tall armour to Bucky. It was impossible to see his face, there was just a dark shadow and two burning spots of orange inside the helmet. His black armour covered him from head to toe and only a few locks of long dark blond hair spilled over his shoulders.

‘Go,’ Loki repeated, her spear materializing in her hand, her eyes firmly on Gor-Tok. ‘I’ll get him.’

A goddamn leap of faith, that’s what it was, and Bucky hated it. He ran.

If he got out quickly enough, he could circle back to the other entrance above on the street, then go down to the basement through the stairs they originally used. He wanted to believe that Steve would just take the stairs and run outside at the first sign of trouble, but he knew better than that.

He would have liked to know the layout of this old subway line, because then he would’ve known where the next possible exit was. The tunnel probably led to some of the still in-use lines of the underground, in which case he would be able to get back up to the street at the closest station. But shit, he had no idea how far that was.

The damn ground was still shaking, making it difficult to run at full speed, and dust and dirt was raining down on him constantly too. He even had to dodge falling pipes. He heard the sound of metal bending and concrete breaking from far behind him. He did not know whether it was the sound of a fight or the tunnel collapsing. He really hoped it was the former.

A metallic zing caught his ear and he dodged out of reflex. He threw himself to the side, twisting around in the air and landing on his back to aim and shoot with his rifle. He didn’t even know what the thing was, he just pulled the trigger and watched as the little orb exploded into sparks.

‘I was gonna make this nice and easy,’ Arcade said from somewhere farther away. ‘Clean and painless, a bullet to your head... but you just had to be difficult, so that’s off the table.’

He heard that sound again, but he didn’t see anything. The things had to be hovering in the air somewhere still out of sight. He didn’t have time for this. He jumped to his feet to get the hell out, but a bolt of electricity sizzled through the air and the rails underneath him, bright and blinding, and he was too late to dodge that one.

He felt it in his bionic arm first, how the current run through it, then pain jolted into his neck, where metal connected to flesh, then it sizzled down into his legs and made him stumble. His muscles clenched and tensed, locking his whole body up for a long moment. His mind jumped back to the chair, the smell of his burnt hair, the taste of rubber on his tongue, the leather biting into his right wrist, and the muffled sound of his own scream. He tried to shake the sensations away, get rid of the images and clear his mind.

‘I should’ve opened with that one,’ Arcade said casually. That tone, the way he talked while Bucky could still feel the electricity in the tips of his fingers and the roots of his teeth just made the memories clearer. The doctors were always so casual about it. It was a routine, strapping him down, putting in the mouth guard, even Bucky’s screams, it was all so damn natural for them.

Bucky felt rage, hot and burning rage. He knew the electric shock should’ve kept him down longer, but he got his muscles to work, got his arm to obey his command. Arcade walked closer while Bucky writhed on the ground, confident in his handiwork, which made the shock on his face all the better to see.

He clearly did not expect Bucky to get up, let alone cross the distance between them in a handful of seconds. He still managed to avoid Bucky crushing his throat with hit metal hand. Bucky was uncoordinated, his muscles were stiff, and his arm was sluggish, but he still kneed the bastard in the gut and punched him so hard he flew a good ten feet through the air.

But those damn flying orbs started shooting at him. He didn’t know whether they were shooting bullets or something else. Arcade was lying on the ground, and Bucky didn’t care whether he was dead or alive. He wasted enough time.

He started running again, not caring about the orbs still flying after him. He kept changing directions to avoid being shot, but he was still hit. They were not bullets, the wounds burnt and stung, but there was no metal burying itself into his flesh, so he ignored the pain and kept going.

He picked up the sound of a subway train, just on the other side of the wall, so he kept his eyes open for any old service doors or other passageways. He grabbed his pistol again, because he did not want these fucking things following him up to the street. He turned and shot down one of them, then ducked when another one flew right at his head. He turned after it and shot that one too. Then he ran again. There couldn’t be that many left, two, maybe three.

He finally saw a metal door a little farther ahead in the tunnel, so he stopped and turned fully around to face the things. One he spotted right away and managed to take it down, but another one shot him in the neck. The pain made his vision blur, and he had to use all of his remaining bullets to hit it. Then the sound stopped, that was the last one.

The ground beneath his feet and the wall behind his back started shaking violently again, then there was a loud crash from somewhere further away in the tunnel. It collapsed... Bucky knew that even before the large cloud of dust reached him. He turned his head away and buried his nose and mouth in the crook of his elbow to avoid breathing it in.

Then there was silence again, even the quakes shaking the ground stopped. He reached for his radio, but it was still silent, maybe even dead, fried from the electric shock. He showed it back into his belt with an angry grunt.

He holstered his gun and went for the door. It was locked of course, but the hinges were visible, so he quickly twisted and tore both of them down, then pulled the door out of its frame. He found hard plastic and some dim light behind it. He had no more time to waste, so he just broke it with a few hard punches. The plastic cracked then broke, and sparks flew everywhere as the lights went out. He had to pull a larger piece off to make a big enough hole for himself.

He was about to squeeze himself through when a subway train sped by, blasting him in the face with hot air and deafening noise. He waited until it was gone to stick his head out. The door was hidden behind some digital advertising board and yep, there were a few people standing on the platform staring at him as he climbed through. Great.

He watched out for the rails as he jumped down, then he quickly made his way up to the platform, then towards the stairs. People jumped out of his way like scared little birds, which was nothing surprising.

He ran up to the street, and as soon as the cool night air filled his lungs he knew things were bad, because he heard sirens. He saw police cars speeding by, he heard ambulances and fire-trucks too. He even saw the red and blue lights in the distance.

The streets were not really crowded, so he didn’t have to dodge many people as he ran back towards the club and the abandoned building not far behind it. He was only a few blocks away, he could get back in time.

Then he started noticing the cracks on the road and the pavement as he ran, he saw that most shop windows were shattered. He saw a car, half sunken into a large crack underneath it, the alarm blaring and blinding him for a second with the flashing headlights. Then he noticed the larger holes on the road, and a fire hydrant that was spewing water everywhere. Then the sound of people reached his ears, confused shouts, crying, a man talking on a megaphone, screams of pain. Dammit!

He ran, but he stuck to the shadows as much as he could, he needed to get past the club. He found an alley, probably the same one Steve used as a short-cut earlier. The fire escape fell down from the building, there was glass and mangled metal everywhere, almost blocking the entire back alley. Bucky had to squeeze through between a dumpster and a twisted piece of the metal stairs.

The smaller road around the corner looked even worse, about a hundred yards collapsed from it, and Bucky saw that the sewer was down below. He knew that the ground shook, and he knew that the old subway collapsed, but this was not what he expected, this was so much worse. He turned and ran, then abruptly stopped when he caught side of the building, the one with the entrance to the deep basement.

It fell down, it collapsed... his ears started ringing and he no longer heard the sirens. The air was still filled with dust, it filled his nose and scratched his throat with every harsh breath he took. His legs decided to move again, so he ran closer, but it was no use, barely two walls were up, the rest was just a pile of rubble, bricks and wood, steel beams and glass.

‘Shit,’ he breathed out. His mind was frozen and he didn’t... he couldn’t go back through the tunnel, he couldn’t go back down from this way either. His metal fingers creaked from how forcefully he clenched his fist.

How was he going to...

Ha started running back towards the police cars. He didn’t have his phone. Steve was the only reason he even had it, and he thought there was no need to carry it around when Steve was with him. So fucking stupid of him.

He ran right up to the first car, making a girl that was talking to an officer let out a small shocked scream. Both policemen spun around to stare at him.

‘I need a phone,’ he said.

‘Sir...’ one of them started, taking in the sight of Bucky, quickly noticing his arm, his guns, his holstered knives. His eyes widened a little and his hand was already twitching towards his pistol.

‘I need a phone, now!’ he demanded, his voice was uneven and way too loud.

‘Sir, I need you to step back,’ the officer said, putting up a hand to motion him to back off.

‘No, listen to me, I need a phone, now!’

He didn’t notice that he slammed his hand down on the hood of the police car, and he also didn’t notice that it bent under his fist. But he did notice when two guns were suddenly pointed at him. Shit, he was screwing this up.

He sucked in a deep breath and unclenched his fists.

‘Listen to me... The Avengers, I need to call the Avengers,’ he said. Trying to keep his voice as quiet as he could, as calm as he could, but the policemen were still just staring at him, guns up in the air.

‘Please,’ he added.

It was the girl that moved, twitchy and scared, but a pink Starkphone held out in her hand. Her eyes were big as she stared at Bucky, she also kept glancing at his arm.

The cops didn’t shoot him when he reached out for the phone, they just stood there frozen as Bucky entered the number he memorized. He just hoped it would connect him to the right people.

Thank you for calling Stark Enterprises, if you know the extension number of the person you are trying to reach, you may dial it now. Press 1 to...

‘HELEN, this is Barnes, you better be listening to all incoming calls,’ Bucky said, impatient. He had to be careful not to crush the phone in his hand.

The automatic message cut off after a second and then there was a click.

Sergeant Barnes, this is Vision,’ the voice on the other end said. Shit, thank god.

‘I need help,’ he said, his voice sounding way too scared even to his own ears, and the android immediately realized that something was wrong.

Where are you?

‘Detroit,’ Bucky said and opened his mouth to explain, but Vision cut him off.

It’s on the news already, we’re on our way,’ he said.

‘Thank you,’ he said in a scratchy whisper, his mouth was still filled with dust... and blood, he didn’t even notice that before.

He hung up and wordlessly held out the phone for the girl. She took it back with shaking hands.

Bucky just stood there for a moment, just breathing, then he ran again. He didn’t care about the cops calling after him, he just had to get back to the building and do something while he waited for help... anything.

Chapter Text

Steve was standing in the dark basement, confused. He strongly suspected that he somehow failed to follow Loki’s overly simplistic instructions. The summoning did not involve any fresh blood besides his own, and even that was barely a few drops. (Steve was so grateful for that.) And he was sure that he did everything right. But then nothing happened. He felt a chill run down his spine, but everything else remained exactly the same. There were no noises, no flashing lights… there was nothing.

So he was just standing there, staring at the dark stains on the concrete floor, when the floor and walls started shaking. He tensed instantly and readied himself to face whatever was approaching. He needed to focus on keeping his balance when stronger waves shook the floor, but he stood his ground despite the spider web cracks spreading on the floor everywhere.

But there was nothing. Nothing in this room at least.

‘Buck? I don’t see anyone. What’s going on?’ he asked on the radio, but received only static as answer. Dammit. He put the thing back in his belt, because he had an inkling it won’t suddenly start working again.

There was no point sticking around in the basement, so he turned to run through the giant hole Loki and Bucky used to leave. Maybe they didn’t get far enough. Maybe the Whisperer sensed their presence and went immediately after them instead of appearing in front of Steve. There were too many possibilities. One thing was for sure, this thing went to hell in a handbasket a lot quicker than Steve expected. He really wanted to know where exactly they miscalculated, but there was no time to contemplate. He needed to find Bucky first.

The water in the sewer was splashing around from the vibrations in the ground, and it was frankly disgusting, but Steve ignored it as much as he could. The hole leading to the old subway line was just ten or so yards away from the basement “entrance”, so he didn’t have to bear the smell for long.

Then something exploded right in his face just as he was about to dash through the opening. He was tossed back into the opposite sewer wall from the blast. It was a bomb, a grenade, or something else more magical, he had no idea. He shook his head to get the ringing out of his ears and got back to his feet quickly. He wasn’t seriously injured, just a little banged up.

The entrance to the subway line collapsed from the explosion, so now blocks of concrete and metal pipes blocked the way.

‘Dammit,’ Steve cursed as he looked at the blockage. His mind was immediately trying to come up with alternate routes. It would take too long to find a different entrance into the old subway line from the surface, and Steve doubted he would be able to knock a hole in the sewer wall with nothing but his fists and shield. Besides, he had no idea how much he would compromise the structural integrity of the tunnel if he just started punching holes in the wall. He really didn’t want to knock down some supporting beam by accident.

He had to get through here. He grabbed one of the metal pipes to bend it out of the way, then his ear caught the sound of shooting. First he heard the sound of a pistol in the distance and then a rifle, a little closer to where Steve was. This was not the Whisperer, or if it was, they brought company. Shit.

Steve put his shield down and grabbed the metal pipe with both hands, pulling it towards himself to get it out of the way. The pipe bent, then broke with a snap. Steve tossed the broken pipe away and was about to grab another one when the ground started shaking again, a lot more violently than before. Steve had to press himself to the wall next to the hole to stay on his feet. Dust and other bits and pieces were falling from the ceiling, but the noise coming from the other side of the wall was much worse. It sounded like the whole tunnel was warping, twisting... maybe even collapsing.

As soon as this wave quieted down Steve was back to clearing out the opening, pulling more pipes out. The concrete blocks were much easier to roll and shove back into the subway line once most of the pipes were gone. Steve still felt sweat sliding down his temples by the time he was done.

He quickly picked up his shield again and squeezed himself through the small opening he managed to make for himself. There was a noise, the sound of distant voices, but Steve couldn’t for the life of him figure out whether one of them was Bucky or not. It was the only direction that made sense thought, so he ran and hoped that it was the right way.

He came to an abrupt halt right after the first bend in the tunnel as a tall dark figure was standing in his way. The lights were dim and he only saw the figure’s back, so he couldn’t make out much, but his first thought was The Whisperer. They were at least seven feet tall and massive in width too. What else could they be but a demon?

They didn’t hear Steve, or at least it didn’t seem like they did, so Steve shifted his weight and made his steps as light as possible as he moved closer.

‘I’ve been eager to put an end to you, Gor-Tok,’ Loki spoke. She had to be close, but Steve couldn’t see her with Gor-Tok in the way. It was not the Whisperer, which just confused Steve even further, because he just couldn’t for the life of him figure out what the hell went wrong so quickly.

‘You court death like a rutting cockerel,’ Gor-Tok said in return, his voice sounded scratchy, seldom used.

Loki laughed. Steve could still not see her, but he easily pictured her throwing her head back, lips stretched wide and sharp, dark curls spilling over leather and metal covered shoulders.

Steve expected her to say something back, because Loki always tried to have the last word, but instead Gor-Tok took a step back to block an attack. The big guy was pretty quick for his size – although Loki was quicker – and he was like a solid fort, strong and almost immovable.

He had no idea whether Loki knew he was there or not, but Gor-Tok definitely did not. He could slip away maybe, while the two of them were busy fighting one another, and continue his search for Bucky. But dammit, he remembered what Loki looked like the last time she fought Gor-Tok. He came here to help Bucky, and no matter whether he liked it or not, Loki was on his team for now.

He didn’t know why Bucky wasn’t here with Loki, but he hoped to god he was safe... or someone was going to pay.

He waited for the right moment. Gor-Tok and Loki were circling one another, attacking with a force that shook the whole tunnel around them, the ground cracked, metal rails bent, and they just kept going at one another. Steve waited, and when Gor-Tok had to back off or lose his balance he let his shield fly. It struck him right in the back of his knees. Gor-Tok stumbled, and Loki took advantage, sinking her spear into his chest. It was a little off for it to be a deadly strike, but it made the giant roar in pain. The shield flew back as it ricocheted off the armour and Steve caught it easily. Gor-Tok struck Loki and she smashed into the tunnel wall, shaking everything around them again.

Gor-Tok then pulled out the spear from his body, his deep growl of pain echoing around in the subway. Loki climbed out from under the rubble, her eyes immediately landing on Steve.

‘There you are,’ she said, then she charged at Gor-Tok again without another word.

Steve was no longer hiding, so it was time for him to join the fray. Gor-Tok was mostly focused on Loki, but he did keep Steve on his toes, surprising him with sudden attacks. Steve was fast enough to get out of his way, and Loki was always quick to strike whenever Gor-Tok’s attention shifted away from her.

‘Where’s Bucky?’ Steve couldn’t help but yell at the first chance he got.

‘Sent him out!’ Loki yelled back, dodging one of Gor-Tok’s fists with her forearms.

‘And he listened?’ Steve asked incredulously as he charged at Gor-Tok and kicked him in the back with both feet. Loki grabbed the giant’s gauntlet covered hand, spun him around, and threw him towards the gaping hole next to them. Gor-Tok caught himself on the broken rails and did not fall in.

‘I can be convincing,’ Loki said. Then she ran for her spear as Gor-Tok started to climb back up.

‘Any weaknesses I should know about?’ Steve asked, eyeing their opponent.

‘You should get out of here,’ Loki told him.

‘Yeah, I don’t take orders from you,’ Steve said easily. As far as Steve could tell, Loki had no reason to lie about this, so Bucky was safe. He had to be okay if he got out from here already.

‘Fool,’ Loki said quietly.

Maybe he was, but this guy was obviously not going to stop being a problem unless they deal with him. Retreating from a fight was one thing, but both Bucky and Loki ran from Gor-Tok more than once. Now they tried to avoid him, and he still got in their way. They were at an impasse, strategically speaking, they could either win this fight once and for all, or keep running. They couldn’t afford running from small battles when they were already losing a war. This had to end now.

An orange glow surrounded one of Gor-Tok’s gauntlets and a second later he held an enormous crossbow in his hand. Both Loki and Steve ducked before he lifted his weapon to shoot at them. The bolts had to be more than just mere metal, because Gor-Tok just kept shooting without having to reload. They simply appeared out of thin air, glowing orange rods that turned into metal mid-air. Steve remembered how Bucky’s arm looked like after one of these bolts pierced it. It made him wary and furious at the same time.

Gor-Tok obviously decided that Loki was the greater threat, as he kept shooting at her. This left Steve with more time to search for any weaknesses. The armour covered him completely, but it was probably possible to injure him at the joints where the metal was no doubt thinner. His face was also unprotected... well, if he even had a face. Steve only saw darkness and two glowing orange dots. But no, he yelled in pain when Loki stabbed him with her spear, so it was possible to injure him. The trick was to figure out how.

Loki was quick and dodged the bolts flying at her, sometimes knocking them out of the air with her spear. Steve resolutely did not find this impressive. She also managed to move in the opposite direction as Steve, which in turn made Gor-Tok slowly turn his back on him. Perfect. Steve waited until it would be almost impossible for Gor-Tok to turn around quickly enough, then he let his shield fly, right at the giant’s head. Vibranium collided with the hard metal of the helmet perfectly. There was a resolute clang and the black helmet went flying. The collision threw off the shield’s projectile, so it flew in a different direction than Steve expected, but luckily it didn’t fell in the gaping hole not twenty feet away from them.

Gor-Tok’s head was pale and only a few chunks of long hair hung from his otherwise bald head. Bulging blue veins covered his skull and neck, dark bruises and deep red welts. Loki wasted no time and attacked the huge man while he was still slightly dazed. Gor-Tok easily dodged, getting out of the way again and again. They were coming back towards Steve and he had nothing to fight with but his bare hands. That wouldn’t do, so he ran for his shield.

Then the tunnel started shaking again. The ground moved so violently that Steve lost his balance and fell. He caught himself on his hands, avoiding smashing his head into the ground, but damn. Things were shifting and breaking around them. He heard as pipes snapped and concrete broke, and he really hoped the whole tunnel was not about to collapse on them.

Someone grabbed his forearm and the only reason he didn’t turn around with a punch was that he knew the hand was too small to be Gor-Tok’s.

‘We need to run,’ Loki said. The ground was still shaking and bigger things were starting to fall down from above.

‘What’s going on?’ Steve demanded.

Loki jolted and her expression froze, then she looked down. Steve barely caught sight of the piece of metal sticking out of her when she was yanked back. The chain Gor-Tok was pulling on was still glowing orange so it must’ve materialized the same way his bolts did. In a second he had Loki right up next to him, and he wrapped the chain twice around her neck from behind before she could escape. Then he pulled harshly on it and lifted her up from the ground. Green magic lit up in Loki’s hands and she kept struggling, but Gor-Tok was not letting up.

Steve did not have much time to think. His shield would not do him any good, but Loki’s spear was lying abandoned on the ground almost right next to him. He grabbed it and ran. Loki saw him coming and her green flames grew brighter. Gor-Tok yelled in pain, but he still kept hold of her. She did the only thing she could and twisted to the side as much as possible, giving Steve a slight opening to Gor-Tok’s neck, the one place Steve he could aim at.

The spear sunk in deep spraying blood as dark as ink everywhere. Gor-Tok’s hand loosened around the chain as he reached up to yank it out, so Loki was freed enough to twist around and elbow him in the head. They both fell as Gor-Tok dragged Loki down with him, and they hit the ground with a loud thud. Loki quickly untangled the chain, and with no mind to the bolt still impaling her, she wrapped it around Gor-Tok’s thick neck and pulled.

Gor-Tok started attacking as Loki straddled his chest and yanked on the chain some more, no doubt cutting off his air. Gor-Tok was big and strong, but he only had his fists at his disposal. Loki took the hits, unwavering. There was a ferocious determined look in her eyes. She was not going anywhere until Gor-Tok was dead, Steve was sure of that. But the ground was still shaking and Steve seriously started to worry about getting buried alive here.

Gor-Tok struggled some more. He reached for his dropped crossbow, his fingers inching closer and closer. Loki couldn’t do anything to stop him, but Steve could. Loki’s spear got tossed away, but Steve’s shield was still close enough.

He tried to run as straight as he could, but everything was shaking. He never really experienced earthquakes before and he was ridiculously glad that he did not. The earth was supposed to be solid under his feet, dammit.

He picked up his shield and ran at Gor-Tok and Loki. Again, he did the one thing he could and slammed the shield’s edge down on Gor-Tok’s wrist. The metal gauntlet bent from the first hit and Gor-Tok lashed out, trying to reach Steve, but Loki swiftly yanked him in the other direction. Steve slammed the shield down again, and this time it cut through the metal gauntlet. Gor-Tok clenched his other hand into a fist and slammed it into Loki’s side, but Loki struck back, head butting the struggling man.

‘My spear!’ Loki yelled and Steve ran for it. It was hard to run even a few feet, but Steve managed to keep his balance as he sprinted for the weapon. He barely grabbed the bloody spear and turned back around when he stumbled again from a larger quake. He was close enough though.

‘Catch!’ he yelled and tossed to spear to Loki. She turned, rose to her feet, and let go of the chain to catch it. She struck before Gor-Tok could move. There was a wet crunch, the sound of bone breaking, and Gor-Tok stopped moving.


Loki staggered as she stepped down from the body, blood running down her front and back, while the skin on her throat was bruised and swollen. Steve finally took a good look at Gor-Tok’s face, or what was left of it. He was deadly pale, his skin almost see-through, his lips were ink blue just like his blood... Steve was suddenly reminded of the men they found on Hashima Island.

‘Get out... we need to get out,’ Loki said.

‘The bolt,’ Steve said as he got back to his feet and walked closer to her. He was pretty sure that that this bolt was going to be just as difficult to remove as the previous one. But Loki shook her head.

‘No time, we need to go,’ she repeated.

‘But Gor-Tok’s down,’ Steve said.

‘It was never Gor-Tok I was worried about,’ Loki hissed. ‘We need--’

Steve didn’t hear anything, or notice anything, but Loki’s eyes widened and she shoved him to the ground. His breath was knocked out of him, since he did not expect to be pushed. Then he saw pipes flying through the air. That couldn’t be natural. Loki dodged one, two, three, then Steve lost track of what was going on because things were falling down on them, long dead electric cables, supporting beams, pipes, concrete. He had to roll from side to side protect himself.

He was just about to scramble to his feet when warm blood sprayed him in the face. And he recognized the sound; it was something hard piercing flesh. He looked up and saw that one of the pipes stabbed right through Loki, a little above the bolt. That shouldn’t have been possible, it was just steel. Then another pipe flew through the air and it pierced through Loki with a wet crunch.

Something grabbed Steve’s foot. He kicked out in reflex, then he saw that it was an electric cable. Fortunately there were no sparks, but it was still a freakish sight. He quickly reached down to untangle it from his ankle, but there were more coming from all directions. Just as he tore down one a new took its place, and they were starting to drag him towards the hole in the tunnel. No, not towards the hole – he realized after a second – but right underneath the spot where more pipes and beams were bending and twisting unnaturally on the ceiling.

He twisted left then right as some of the pipes fell down and embed into the ground next to him, but he knew he was not going to be able to dodge them all, not with the cables dragging him around like he was a piece of meat. Dammit.

Loki shouted, but Steve could not make out the words. The sound of metal snapping made him look at her again despite his own predicament, and he saw her escaping the chains that once again twisted around her. Then she leaped and landed almost on top of Steve. They both heard the loud crack from above, but there was nowhere to go with everything falling down on them. So Steve just braced himself for the impact.

The metallic screech that filled his ear was one of the worst sounds he could imagine, but the dust filling his lungs was a bigger problem. He tried not to breathe too much, but he had to suck in quick gulps of air. It felt like having asthma again as he started to run out of air. The noise just went on and on and Steve felt vibrations under his back. Maybe it was another earthquake, maybe it was just the shock wave from the collapsing tunnel. Because he knew the tunnel was collapsing, he just knew. His legs were still stuck and the cables were still twisting and moving like metallic snakes. There was nowhere to go.

Bucky was safe, he reminded himself. He got out in time.

Then a minute passed and Steve was not crushed. Something hit him in the head and he felt a little dazed from it, but he was in one piece. In fact, only his legs hurt, of course he couldn’t tell how bad that was. He opened his eyes and found Loki, mostly above him. She was stuck, held in place by the pipes that went straight through her, and by the slithering chain and cables that were still winding around her body, tying her up. Oh, there was so much blood, how did Steve not see that before? There were pipes in the ground everywhere around him, and in Loki, but none got him. He was fine.

Something pressed into his side... Loki’s hand and a knife, or dagger. She didn’t say anything, maybe she couldn’t. She was breathing heavily and her body shook. A human would have been long dead. Steve turned his hand around and took the blade, giving Loki a frown. What was he supposed to…

‘Gor-Tok was useful. I am displeased about this,’ said a female voice. Steve went still. He heard heavy boots, but light casual steps. The shaking stopped and the sudden quiet made every small sound that much louder. How did anyone get in here? The tunnel was blocked now as far as Steve could tell, there was rubble everywhere around them.

‘One would think that you’ve learnt your lesson by now, Trickster,’ the woman said. There was something off about the voice, but Steve couldn’t put a finger on it.

When she finally walked into his line of sight, Steve did not know whether he should be surprised or not. Her clothes were rather simple, no tactical gear, no visible weapons, just civilian clothes. She was tall and blonde, had an athletic build, but otherwise Steve would have not looked twice if he saw her on the street.

She crouched down next to them, but she only looked at Loki.

‘So tell me then, who set you on this foolish journey?’ she asked. Loki tilted her head to stare right back at her, but said nothing.

‘What power were you promised in exchange for all the suffering my believers put you through?’

Loki swallowed, then her lips curled up into a smirk.

‘You’re stuck halfway through… that must be uncomfortable.’

The woman reached out and grabbed Loki’s chin. Steve saw a shadow, something dark moving under her skin. He tried to move his legs to get out, but there was no use, he couldn’t move them an inch.

‘You have done nothing to truly stop me,’ the woman said. ‘Petty meddling, nothing more, you are but a minor annoyance.’

‘Yet here you are, in the flesh,’ Loki smiled with bloody teeth.

‘Who sent you?!’ the woman demanded. ‘Tell me a name! Tell me who dared defy me!’

Loki’s smile widened.

‘If you think you have even a slither of hope…’ the woman hissed.

‘You will fail, and I will laugh as you burn,’ Loki said, still grinning, but it was a strained smile.

The woman let go of her and stood up, walked back out of Steve’s sight.

‘Do not speak,’ Loki told him quietly. ‘Not a word.’

Steve stared at her for a second, then nodded. He did not know who this woman was, but one thing was for sure, she wanted information, so she was not going to get any. Simple as that.

Steve heard a wet crunch and then the woman was walking back to them with Loki’s spear in her hand.

‘A fine weapon, it is wasted on you,’ she said, not crouching down to them this time. She fell quiet and just stared, looking at Loki.

‘Last chance to come to your senses, little giant,’ she said. ‘You cannot win and no matter what you were promised, it will not be worth the agony I will cause you now that I’ve arrived. You’re a creature of magic; I could give you so much.’

Loki laughed. ‘Keep your empty promises... demon.’

The woman stuck, but she did not make it quick. Steve moved to do something, grab the spear maybe, but the woman swiftly put her foot on his neck, pinning him down with more strength than Steve expected. Then she slowly slid the spear through Loki’s throat, dragging the moment out for as long as she could. Steve shut his eyes to keep the blood from getting into it, but he still felt it dripping down on him, and the smell was everywhere. Dammit to hell.

Zirenaiad,’ the woman whispered angrily. And Steve finally realized what seemed so off about her voice, there was a second voice underneath it. It sounded deeper, masculine even. It was just a faint echo, but Steve still heard it.

It was hard to get air into his lungs with the pressure on his throat, but he did his best to keep his breathing even as he opened his eyes again. Loki stopped breathing after a moment, she went limp and her eyes fell shut. The woman did not pull the spear back out, just propped Loki’s head up with it, like it was some display.

‘Much better,’ she said. ‘Such an annoying thing.’

The woman finally turned to look at him and the pressure eased up on his throat, although the boot remained firmly in place. That shadow Steve saw moving under her skin became much more obvious now that he saw her eyes clearly. Inky blue veins filled up the whites of her eyes, and it made her sharp gaze very unnerving. Steve squared his jaw and said nothing.

‘Ah, no matter,’ the woman said. ‘The dead can be very loquacious if prompted right.’

Okay, Steve was ready to admit it; he was just a little freaked out about this situation he found himself in. He tugged on his leg again, but he was firmly stuck, he couldn’t move. His fingers tightened around the knife and he did his best to keep it out of sight.

The woman, or whatever the hell it was, stared at Loki’s motionless face for one long moment. Then she reached out and cupped her slack face, digging in her nails.

‘Now tell me your secrets, lie-smith,’ she said. ‘Niiso gmicalzo das camliax.’

Some of that dark shade Steve saw underneath her skin started moving and shifting in her hand, then it seeped over into Loki.

‘Come now, show yourself,’ the woman prompted.

There were a few moments where nothing happened and Steve only heard the sound of his own heavy breathing and the blood rushing in his ear. Then Loki’s eyes popped open, but it was most certainly not Loki waking up. The irises were faint, almost white, and Steve could not explain why his breath got stuck in his throat. There was a coldness he felt, then a vacuum of noise, where even the sound of his own breathing faded away. It was an inexplicable presence that made him freeze, made him not want to move, not even blink. It was an instinctual reaction, unnatural and unnerving, because it never happened to Steve before. He never froze.

The woman’s hand on Loki’s face started to wither. First the skin became wrinkly and old, then it turned grey, rotten, and soon it was nothing but skin and bone. Steve assumed the same thing was happening to her entire arm under the green canvas jacket.

‘You,’ she whispered. Her voice was the only thing Steve could hear in the perfect empty silence.

The white eyes staring through Loki shifted to the side and looked at her.

‘Why? Why would you do this?’ the woman demanded, leaning closer. ‘Why interfere? All the souls I will reap on this world... would that not please you? Why? Tell me, why?!’

Steve did see the rot spreading now, the skin wrinkling and dying away on the woman’s neck too, spreading to her face even. Her breathing picked up, her body started shaking. The white eyes kept staring at her, but no answer came.

‘Oh, silence it is... you send one of your pets to stand in my way, but you do not think I deserve to hear your words?! And why the trickster? This liar, deceiver, this wretched thing of chaos and destruction, you take this thing into your good graces? You--’

Then she yanked her hand away with a shout of pain and she finally took a step back, taking her boot off from Steve’s throat. Steve coughed as the pressure vanished.

The white eyes fell shut, and the presence, whatever it was, vanished. Steve immediately breathed a little easier. He could hear again, all the small noises in the tunnel returned, just as the sound of his own breathing. His fingers were so tight around the knife that they started to go numb, so he loosened his grip just a little. He had no idea how it was going to help him, but it was good to have a weapon, even if it was only a knife.

The woman’s hand slowly turned back to normal, the skin was rapidly growing back and all withered flesh returned to her bones. She stared at her hand silently, deep in thought.

‘Your comrade... friend, he’s but a mortal, just a human, he cannot be her servant,’ then she pinned Steve with a sharp look. ‘Who sent him?’

Oh boy. Steve looked back at her, but remained silent. He was sure Loki’s words were not to be taken lightly. He didn’t know what would happen if he said anything, but he was going to take the warning literally. He expected to die, to be honest. He was stuck, Loki was down, and he only had a knife. Seeing as this woman literally just regrew flesh onto her bones, the knife was probably going to be useless.

He was so grateful that Bucky was out, so damn grateful.

Silence again,’ the woman said. ‘You anger me.’

He had so many clever quips to say in answer to that, but he resisted the urge. Not a word, he could do that.

The woman walked back to him and lowered herself to one knee. Yeah, she really was angry, that much was clear. Steve was also rather sure that she was about to try and make him talk. His body tensed, bracing itself for what was coming. He kept his eyes on the woman, but he could still see Loki from the corner of his eye, bloodied and limp, strung up with the cables twisted around her body. With all the pipes going through her, it was a nightmarish sight, there was no other way to describe it.

The woman gripped his throat and Steve immediately grabbed her forearm with his free hand in return. Not that he could budge it even an inch, great.

You are no one’s servant,’ she said. ‘So why are you here?’

She was not squeezing his throat, so he could’ve said something if he wanted to, but of course he did not. He could see more irritation flashing in her eyes, but it just made him all the more determined to stick to his guns.

She waited one long moment before she spoke again.

Fine,’ she said. ‘If you insist on being to no use to me, then I will make you useful.’

She slid her hand slightly lower on his neck, and Steve was blinded by sudden pain, and something... he saw something... he felt something. Thoughts started swirling in his mind, but he did not recognize them as his own. It hurt, god.

Who am I?’ the woman asked. Steve bit his lips to keep quiet. He was pulling on the woman’s wrist, trying to move her hand even as his head started to ache, and he felt sharp pins and needles behind his eyes.

Who am I?’ the woman asked again and that deep second voice was clearer than before. It was male, still distant, but a voice Steve would not forget. He knew the answer to the question, he knew who this was, he did not know how, but he knew.

He didn’t answer. He said nothing. He swung the knife Loki gave him and buried it in the woman’s chest. She fell back from the impact, letting go of him. Steve sucked in a deep breath and tried to clear his head. He blinked again and again to get his vision to clear. The skin on his throat felt hot and Steve was sure he could smell his own burnt skin despite the scent of blood everywhere. His head kept swaying, making him nauseous.

He heard the woman get up, but he did not turn his head to look at her, because he felt like he was gonna throw up from the smallest movement. The woman groaned in pain and there was a wet squelch as she probably pulled the knife back out. Then sure enough, the blade hit the ground with a clank.

You’re my herald for now, soldier, and I am your god,’ she said. ‘So tell your friend all about me, give my message to the one holding his leash,’ Steve’s vision was blurry, but he saw her lean over him. ‘And I let you live, so be thankful for my mercy.’

Then she walked away. Steve heard a few footsteps, three or four, then there was just silence. His head kept swimming, and no matter how many times he blinked things started to get more and more fuzzy. He was not seriously injured, he knew that, he was sure of that. He could figure out how to get out of here... or someone would come... Bucky. He just...

He passed out.

Chapter Text

The damage in Detroit was severe. They’ve all seen worse, obviously, but it was still not a pretty sight to fly over, and it was going to look even worse in daylight. They had no accurate damage report, they didn’t know how many people were affected. But there were a lot of abandoned buildings in the area, so everyone hoped that the number of casualties would be low. Still, as bad as it looked, normally it wouldn’t have made them fly over. It was Barnes’ call that changed that. This was not just some gas leak or faulty infrastructure. This was very much something they needed to be here for.

They found Barnes on ground zero, police and firemen keeping their distance from him, probably afraid to get close. Tony spotted some phones, so he knew that there would be pictures of him online. And what the pictures would show was a dirty, bloody, frayed looking man with a metal arm, digging into the rabble with his hands. Frantic, maybe even desperate, obviously not really knowing what he was doing.

‘HELEN, try to keep the internet under control,’ he said absently.

Would you like me to make the sun rise a little sooner as well?’ she asked in return.

‘You know what I mean,’ Tony said. ‘I don’t mind the blurry shots, but try to take down all pictures where his face is visible.’

I will do my very best,’ she answered.

‘What’s Wilson’s ETA?’ he asked next.

Approximately 46 minutes,’ HELEN responded after a moment.

Vision, Thor and the twins immediately ran closer to Barnes, but Tony hesitated for a moment when he saw that Natasha stopped after getting out of the Quintjet. He knew that Barnes was at the tower, he knew that Steve wanted to talk to Natasha the next morning, but he didn’t make HELEN tell him what happened. It was hard to read a super-spy’s face, but Tony saw Natasha was uneasy. Clint and Bruce waited for her to get going, Hawkeye even gave her a questioning look, but Natasha just shook her head and started walking closer. Yeah, it was time to figure out what the hell happened here.

Tony was so mad at Steve, so very mad. The way he left without a word, picking up his shield and following Barnes into this shady, secretive business. And not just Barnes, but Loki too. Stupid, so damn stupid. He didn’t blame Vision for not standing in his way, because they all knew there was no stopping Steve Rogers once he made up his mind about something. But Tony was still mad. So he was going to find him, make sure he was fine, then kick his ass... or maybe just make him suffer through a very snarky, very angry lecture. Natasha will kick his ass.

‘Sergeant Barnes,’ Vision said to get Barnes’ attention. The man whipped around to stare at them all. He didn’t notice them approaching and that already said a lot about the current situation. A master assassin should really notice their entire group running up to him.

‘We gotta...’ he started as he climbed through some rubble to get closer to them. ‘I don’t know how to get down, but we need to get down. The tunnel’s collapsed, the sewer’s collapsed, the goddamn building is collapsed, and I can’t get back down! We gotta get back down.’

‘Sergeant Barnes,’ Vision repeated, gripping his right upper arm to get his attention. ‘Your vitals are erratic. I need you to take a breath.’

‘He can’t be in the basement, no way he stayed there,’ Barnes kept going, not really looking at any of them. ‘Maybe he didn’t make it to the subway tunnel.’

‘James,’ Natasha interrupted, loud and stern, making him fall silent and stare at her.

‘One thing at a time,’ Vision said. ‘You need to calm down.’

Barnes took a large breath and shut his eyes for a moment.

‘Where’s Steve?’ Tony asked, trying to get to the point.

‘Underground,’ he said. ‘But I don’t know where, and all the entrances I know are blocked.’

‘Oh, shit,’ Pietro cursed as he looked around the collapsed streets and the huge pile of rubble that used to be a building.

‘But I don’t think he stayed in the basement, not unless someone kept him there,’ Barnes went on. ‘Loki said she’ll get him.’

‘And where is Loki now?’ Thor asked.

‘I don’t know, she went back for Steve!’ Barnes said, raising his voice.

‘Loki?’ Tony asked slightly incredulously. ‘Crazy world-conqueror Loki went back for Steve?’

The look Barnes gave him was either just seriously pissed or downright murderous.

‘Gor-Tok was there,’ Barnes continued. ‘Arcade too, I couldn’t... I couldn’t go back... I should have... shit. I don’t know what happened.’

‘How do you know Loki didn’t just open a portal?’ Wanda asked. ‘Maybe she’s not even down there, maybe neither of them are.’

‘I... I don’t know,’ Barnes said, sounding a little helpless, and still pretty frantic.

‘Either way we need to search for them,’ Thor said. ‘We will find them here, or they will show up on their own.’

‘Okay, so what’s the plan?’ Clint asked.

‘Vision, you can start searching, get underground,’ Tony said.

‘I will have to be careful,’ Vision reminded him. ‘So don’t expect results immediately.’

Then he floated up a few inches from the ground and sank into the pavement, phasing through concrete and earth with ease.

‘This is a big area to cover,’ Bruce pointed it out. ‘Are we sure we can’t narrow the search down?’

‘When did you lost contact with Steve?’ Natasha asked.

‘Right at the start,’ Barnes said. ‘Our radios picked up nothing but static.’

‘HELEN, anything in the air to mess up radios?’ Tony asked.

Nothing I can detect with the suit’s sensors,’ she said.

‘When was the last time you tried contacting him?’ Wanda asked.

‘I didn’t...’ Barnes said, then went for his belt to get a small radio out. It looked ancient, okay not ancient but at least a few years outdated. Tony made a face even though nobody could see it.

‘Steve?’ Barnes called, a little too loud, a little too breathless. They all waited for a long moment, but there was no answer.

‘At least it’s working. Try and contact him again later,’ Tony said. ‘We might even get a response if we’re lucky.’

‘I believe not all of us can be of much help to our Captain right now,’ Thor said. ‘Vision is already searching. Wanda, Tony and I can try and move things out of the way, make an entrance.’

‘And me,’ Barnes said immediately.

‘And James of course,’ Thor nodded. ‘The rest of you should aid with the rescue of others.’

‘Yeah, might be good for people to see that we’re here for them too,’ Tony agreed. Plus Clint, Natasha, and Pietro were not going to be able to pick up concrete blocks and steel beams, so there was not much they could do for now.

‘I’ll go and see if the paramedics need some extra help,’ Bruce said. ‘I don’t think you’ll need the Big Guy here.’

‘We’ll know where to find you,’ Tony agreed. ‘Wilson will be here soon, fill him in when he gets here.’

Natasha nodded and the four of them headed back to the Quintjet, and towards the local authorities and rescue teams.

‘All right, let’s get to work then,’ Tony said.

They were all very good at not thinking about worst-case scenarios, focusing on the task at hand without getting caught up in what might’ve already gone wrong. So they didn’t talk about it. They just kept clearing out a spot to get down to the damn subway tunnel.

Barnes though, he was definitely thinking about the worst. He followed Tony’s advice and took out his radio to call Steve frequently, but every time no answer came he got that look on his face; dread. Tony’s experience with the guy was limited, he easily admitted that, but seeing him so obviously frightened still put a new perspective on things. It’s like he didn’t bother hiding anything, so every emotion on his face was clear as day even to Tony. Technically, he knew a lot about him, both Bucky Barnes and the Winter Soldier, there was a lot of information available for him. But words on a screen, plain facts and reports, would never be able to describe reality. The guy in all the documents and the man in front of him was shockingly different.

They were still no closer to finding Steve when Wilson arrived, so after ten minutes or so he joined the others helping with civilian casualties. He did stare at Barnes for one long moment with a worried tilt of eyebrows, which Tony was absolutely not surprised about. The guy really did look like he was about to snap and start hitting people... or his own head into something.

And Steve... well, they dug up a lot of debris, sure, but it led them nowhere. Vision didn’t find anything either. Tony knew what he meant about having to be careful with his search, phasing through living things was not... advisable, so the android did his best to avoid accidentally doing it. Tony wished he had something to help with the search, something to detect vibranium with maybe, since Cap probably had his shield nearby. He had HELEN make a note of the idea. It would be the best way to search for Steve, unless they put a tracker in his suit, which he was strongly against since the whole SHIELD-Hydra thing. Tony didn’t blame him.

The sound of metal hitting metal made him turn around and he saw that Barnes’ fist bent some metal beam. This is what happened when people got scared, they either ran and hid, or sometimes they got violent. Tony had a feeling that Barnes would be in the latter category.

‘We’ll find him, robocop, so keep it together,’ he said. Yeah, maybe he shouldn’t be the person standing closest to him.

‘I should’ve stayed down,’ Barnes said. ‘I never should’ve left without him. What the fuck was I thinking?’

‘Then we would be searching for you too probably,’ Tony told him. ‘Or not... since nobody would’ve called us.’

‘I didn’t want him to come,’ Barnes said then, staring at the indentation his fist made. ‘I told him no, but he wouldn’t listen.’

‘...You know Cap,’ Tony said after a moment of silence. He was a little uncomfortable hearing the emotions in Barnes’ voice. He was really not the best person to deal with this.

Barnes kept staring at the spot he punched. His metal fingers were twitching. It seemed like an involuntary movement so it caught Tony’s eyes. Barnes could be very-very still, he knew that from the surveillance footage they had of him while he was locked up in the tower.

‘Something happen to your arm?’ he asked. Half our of curiosity, half wanting to distract Barnes from the spiral of guilt and anger he seemed to have been caught up in.

‘I got electrocuted,’ he said.

‘Excuse me?’

‘Arcade,’ Barnes said. ‘He had some drones, and something to shoot electricity with, I don’t know. It knocked me off my feet for a bit, I think some nerves are still healing.’

‘You need a doctor,’ Tony said. There could be nerve damage, muscle damage, goddamn organ damage. He didn’t see any burnt skin, but maybe it was different under all that body armour.

‘I’m fine,’ Barnes said. ‘I heal quickly, the arm’s operational.’

Then he turned back to pull out the beam he was beating on earlier. Tony knew a lost battle when he saw one, so he didn’t try to convince him.

‘You and Cap definitely make a fine, idiotic pair,’ he said. ‘Try him on the radio again. And don’t go losing your shit on me, because I will knock you out if I have to, and then you won’t be there for the glorious rescue.’

Barnes didn’t say anything to that, but he did pull out his radio again.

‘Steve, you there?’ he asked, then waited. ‘You better be all right, I swear, you goddamn--’

... Bucky--

‘Steve!’ Barnes basically yelled down the radio. Holy shit, thank god.

‘We’ve got Cap on the radio,’ Tony reported to the rest of the team right away as he hopped over a large piece of concrete to get closer to Barnes.

He heard Steve coughing on the other end, and his voice sounded really messed up when he started talking again.

Are you okay?’ he asked.

‘Shut the fuck up... are you?!’ Barnes asked in return.

Things went dark for a while,’ Steve said. ‘But I’m in one piece... just stuck. Gor-Tok’s dead… ah dammit.

‘Where are you?’ Barnes asked him.

There was another cough then a grunt, maybe Steve was moving around. Thor landed next to them.

Subway,’ Steve said. ‘There’s... ugh, there’s this gap, never got to the other side of it.

‘I think I know where,’ Barnes said and he immediately straightened up and started running. ‘Keep talking to me.’

I’m okay, Buck, nothing serious, I promise.

Barnes didn’t look like he believed him, and to be honest, Tony didn’t believe him either. Steve had a bad tendency of downplaying his own injuries.

Barnes ran like a madman, looking at his surroundings, probably trying to find the location without being inside the tunnel. He abruptly stopped after a few moments, then ran across the street and into an alley towards the next street that was mostly caved in. Tony flew up almost right away to follow him in the air, because he hated running in his suit. Thor followed him on the ground though and Tony soon spotted Wanda joining them as well.

Barnes stopped next to the collapsed street, still looking around, but seemingly finding what he was looking for, so Tony landed next to him.

‘It has to be around somewhere,’ he said.

‘Vision can look underground,’ Tony said. ‘Vision, you there?’

The android swooped down from above, landing on the pavement softly.

‘This is a much smaller area,’ he said. ‘We should be able to find him.’

Is that Vision?’ Stave asked on the radio.

‘Everyone’s here,’ Barnes said. Tony let his faceplate open and leaned a little closer to the radio in Barnes’ hand.

‘And I am slightly insulted you didn’t hear me,’ he told him.

Of course you are,’ Steve said with a huff, his voice still really hoarse.

‘Sit tight, Cap, you’ll be out in no time,’ Tony said to him.

Not going anywhere,’ Steve answered.

Vision already phased through the pavement and started searching for him underground.

‘Loki was supposed to find you,’ Barnes said, sounding angry.

I found her,’ Steve said.

‘Then where the fuck is she?’ Barnes asked. Tony wanted to point out how monumentally stupid it was to trust someone like Loki in the first place, but he actually had a brilliant moment of wisdom and kept his mouth shut instead of commenting.

Things didn’t go well, Buck,’ Steve said quietly.

Tony didn’t like his tone, Barnes obviously did not either. Thor stepped closer with a frown on his face and opened his mouth to say something, but then he abruptly shut it and stayed silent instead.

Oh, dear...’ Vision said on the comm.

‘You found him?’ Tony asked in return.

Yes,’ the android said.

Hey Vision,’ they heard Steve say on his end. ‘What... no, it’s fine, it’s not my blood.

‘Well, that doesn’t sound good,’ Wanda commented.

Steve is indeed relatively unharmed, I can only see minor injuries,’ Vision reported.

That’s what I said,’ Steve told them.

However, things appear to be rather unstable, so it might not be easy to get him out of here without everything collapsing down further.

‘Yeah, it would be a shame to get you crushed just when we found you, Cap,’ Tony said. ‘Can you move at all?’

No, I’m stuck,’ Steve answered on the radio.

I don’t think I will be able to move him on my own,’ Vision said. ‘I do not want to risk all of this falling down on us.’

‘All of what?’ Tony asked.

Things that are sharp and heavy,’ Steve said.

You should be able to make an entrance a little further away from here,’ Vision said. ‘We have about two hundred square feet of space here.’

‘If we go down at the edge of that area we can hopefully avoid making things fall on you,’ Tony said. ‘Sounds like a plan.’

Vision gave them some exact parameters and Tony was quick to create a makeshift map for himself on his HUD.

‘Thor and I will do the heavy lifting,’ he said. ‘Wanda, you’re our spotter. Anything shifts or moves too quickly, catch it.’

‘Not a problem,’ she said.

‘Barnes, wanna jump down the rabbit hole first?’ Tony asked. ‘If you fit through, Cap will too.’

Barnes nodded, looking determined. Maybe Tony was wrong, but his eyes looked much clearer (and much saner) now that they found Steve and had a plan to get to him. That was reassuring for now, but didn’t say much good about Barnes’ general mental state.

‘Wilson, you hear me?’ Tony called on the comm.

Loud and clear,’ Falcon said after a second. ‘You found him?

‘Yeah. Vision says he only has minor injuries, but you might want to fly over.’

On my way,’ Wilson said.

‘Okay, let’s do this then.’

It wasn’t exactly an impossible task and with Vision’s input from down below they were able to move rather quickly. Tony and Thor moved debris and concrete blocks aside, but there was also a lot of hard dirt to get rid of, which was not pleasant to go through. Wanda stood watch, red sparks flaring up at the tip of her fingers every once in a while and her eyes kept glowing, ready to jump in if there was need for her. Barnes and Wilson mostly just kept talking to Steve on the radio. Sam talked for the most part, since Barnes seemed reluctant to relax until he actually saw Steve with his own eyes.

‘Okay, here we go,’ Tony announced. ‘How big is the drop Vision?’

Only about ten feet,’ the android answered. ‘But try climbing instead of jumping maybe.’

‘Things seem pretty stable up here, but inside might be trickier, especially if we have to move things around to get Cap out,’ Tony said.

‘We should be able to secure the cave better from the inside,’ Thor suggested. ‘Wanda can remain outside.’

‘Won’t you guys be crushed too then?’ Wanda asked.

‘There’s nothing too heavy up here that could cause us serious trouble,’ Tony said. ‘So yeah, I’m with Thor.’

It seems like the best course of action, yes,’ Vision agreed. Excellent.

‘Ready to jump, Barnes?’ Tony asked. Barnes was of course already moving closer to them to get going.

No, wait... wait,’ Steve called on the radio.

‘What is it?’ Barnes asked, concern already making him frown again.

Thor, you there?’ Steve called.

‘Yes, my friend, what is it?’ Thor asked, stepping closer to Barnes and the radio in his hand.

Steve sighed on the other end, and Tony had a bad feeling about that noise. Cap could say so much even without words.

Look, I’m not going to tell you not to come down, but... I don’t want you to be blind-sided either.

‘What’s wrong?’ Thor asked.

Things really did turn bad, okay? Bloody... listen, Loki’s here but...

Thor stared at the radio, then he just marched over to the opening they made, and jumped down. Barnes followed immediately, rushing to get down and Tony had a feeling it was best if he hurried after them. He descended down the hole swiftly, avoiding all the sharp edges of concrete blocks and broken beams.

It was hard not to see it immediately even in the dim light. Tony still turned on everything that gave off light on his suit to illuminate the darkness further. God, there was a lot of blood. All the pipes sticking out of the ground, short and long, thick and thin, and Loki herself... it was like some horrific pincushion. There were things wrapped around her and it took Tony a moment to realize they were cables from the tunnel’s wiring, although he did not know how that was possible. Then there was the spear, going right through her throat and popping her head up a little, keeping her deadly pale face visible for all of them. Tony didn’t care for Loki, he didn’t, but seeing this still made him stop and stare for a long moment. He wondered what sort of sick fuck decided to turn her into some gory-bloody display.

Thor didn’t go closer at first, not even when Barnes ran past him. Barnes stared at Loki for a second, then turned to check up on Steve, who was lying directly under her on the ground. Well, that explained how Cap was not turned into Swiss cheese. Loki took the brunt of whatever the hell happened down here.

Thor finally seemed to snap out of his shock and he ran closer, dropping down to his knees right next to Steve and Loki. And the look on his face, there was disbelief, and shock, and just sharp jagged pain.