[personal profile] alchemyalice
Chapter One is here.



Bucky drifts into consciousness with the never-comforting feeling of deja vu. It’s only slightly mitigated by the painkillers in his system. He feels solid though, and mostly well.

Surgery, right. Nothing combat-related. He breathes a little easier.

He hears a shuffle of footsteps and turns his head to the side, expecting Tony or Steve, but what he gets instead is the dark silhouette of Fury standing in the doorway.

“Morning, lieutenant.”

“How’d it go?” Bucky asks, voice scratching a bit.

“Perfectly, and it’s a damn good thing, too.”

He feels his stomach drop. “What’s happened?”

***

Thirty-four hours ago:

“So how’s this going to go?” Steve asks. Bucky went into the OR less than five minutes ago, and he’s already wringing his hands. Tony never should have fallen for the cow eyes. He takes a breath.

“Right, well, the first thing that goes in is the neural interface—the chip in his head that will translate his mental signals to a digital language the arm will recognise in addition to his muscle movements. That’s been done before; or at least, something similar’s been done before. It’s brain surgery, but very small brain surgery. After that, they’ll move to the shoulder, grafting the base alloy first onto his skeleton, then the nerve endings and muscle tissue. When he comes out, he won’t have the entire arm on yet,” he warns, “Just the base of it that is actually fused to him. We let that heal up a bit, and then the arm itself can be popped on.”

“How long does he have to go without?” Steve frowns.

Tony shrugs. “The doctor’s say at least two weeks. My guess is he’ll be demanding it within five days.”

Steve snorts. “You’re probably right.”

They’re standing at the observation window while various doctors and nurses bustle about, rechecking the monitors and equipment.

One of the surgeons looks around at his associates, and then nods. They set to work.

“Here we go,” Tony says quietly.

Steve just makes a small noise of anxiety.

Tony looks at him and huffs. “You know I’d never endorse this if I wasn’t sure of it, right?” he says. “This is for him.”

“I know that. I do. I just…he jumps into things so easily, like everything’ll be fine just because he wants it to be.”

“This isn’t exactly off the cuff, Rogers.”

“Maybe it just feels like it to me,” Steve admits. “He’s only talked about it to me in passing.”

Tony abruptly feels like a heel. At this point, he really doesn’t dislike Steve anymore. They do still grate on each others’ nerves, but Steve’s gotten better at not talking about Howard and rolling with Tony’s brand of terrible humour and sarcasm without taking it personally. And Steve is kind of funny, when he’s not yelling about teamwork and responsibility, funny enough that Tony doesn’t always feel backed into a corner by his mere existence anymore.

Plus, he’s Bucky’s best friend, and Bucky has excellent taste, so.

As a result, Tony’s tried to make an effort not to snap at Steve quite as much, and be a bit gentler about his more antiquated affectations (though seriously, if he wears pleated grandpa khakis again, Tony is breaking into his room and burning all of them). And he sees it now, how Steve has been quietly tolerant of Tony barging in and inviting Bucky, his childhood friend, into Tony’s life and Tony’s bed, of all things, a thing Tony would have been surprised at anyone being okay with, no matter what era they’re from. He’s done nothing to keep Bucky to himself in a situation where that would be exactly what Tony would do, and instead he’s just been…generous.

He says haltingly, “Well, he can tell you all about it when he comes out, right?”

Steve smiles gently. “Sure.” Then he adds, “He probably just thinks I’m not comfortable talking about it. I’m not…technology’s still a bit strange to me.”

“It doesn’t show,” Tony says honestly, because really, Steve’s been impressively adaptable, taking to cell phones and the internet with, if not enthusiasm, at least with competence. Though he supposes that, by contrast, Bucky has thrown himself rather gleefully into technology’s trappings, carrying around a tablet to look up unfamiliar words and pop culture references as they appear. Steve deals with technology the way he deals with most of the modern world—amenably, but only out of necessity.

“Thanks, I think.” He shoves his hands in his pockets. “I do owe you a proper thanks, actually. For being good to Bucky. He’s probably adjusting better than I have because you’ve been with him.”

“If that’s implying at all that I’m a well-adjusted person, I’m gonna have to disagree with you on that,” Tony says, because he doesn’t really know what else to say. “But, uh, you’re welcome, I guess? He didn’t really need my help. I just—“

Steve’s phone goes off. After fumbling with it for a second, he answers. “Director, what is it?”

Tony curses under his breath as Steve puts the phone on speakerphone. Fury’s voice blares out. “I need both of you to get to the meatpacking district right now. Rogers? We think it’s Zemo.”

Tony locks gazes with Steve, who’s gone pale with anger. “I’d call bullshit, but I’m guessing from your expression that Zemo’s cheated death before.”

“Unfortunately,” Steve growls. “We’re on our way, Director.” He hangs up. “My suit’s in the car.”

“So’s mine,” Tony confirms. They both glance at Bucky on the operating table.

“He’ll be disappointed to miss the action,” Steve says, and then they run.

***

“Zemo?” Bucky says in disbelief. “Fucking Zemo is back?”

“So it seems,” Fury says grimly. “And what’s more, he’s taken Cap and Iron Man.”

Rage has a calming effect on Bucky, it always has. This time, it comes down on him like a wash of cold air, stealing his breath for an inexorable minute, his nerve endings sizzling. Whatever fuzziness the pain meds had imposed on him disappears in a rush, leaving him staring at Fury while the whiteness of the hospital turns piercingly bright to his gaze, metal edges and glass glinting like knife edges.

“SHIELD and the rest of the Avengers are looking for them, but I’m thinking they could use another specialist,” Fury continues, raising an eyebrow.

Bucky cranes his neck to look at his shoulder, currently swathed in bandages, and feeling the pull of more around his head as well. “How long do I have to wait, you think, before I can tear these off?”

“Doctors say a week at absolute minimum,” Fury replies, “However, SHIELD may have an alternative.”

Bucky nods. “Get me out of this damn bed, then.”

***

The solution is not quite the super soldier serum, but it definitely packs a punch.

Agent Hill comes in with a slim black briefcase that holds a syringe and a vial of a fluorescent liquid that she proceeds to extract with efficiency. At Bucky’s questioning look, she says, “Temporary enhanced healing factor. We’ve never been able to make it last more than a few days, but it’s useful for getting agents back out into the field if they’re really needed.”

“And you haven’t been making a mint off of it, why?”

“This?” she says, holding up the vial, “Costs about fifty-six thousand dollars to produce.”

He whistles long and low. And then promptly yelps when she sticks him without any warning. “Watch it, would ya? Christ, that stings.”

“Man up. Now, you should start feeling the effects in about ten minutes or so. You’ll be good to go in six hours. Sign your release papers.” She gives him the clipboard to put his name on.

Ten minutes later, sitting in a SHIELD town car wearing the jeans and black shirt he’d gone into the hospital with, he starts to feel it—a strange tingling, itching sensation at the top of his skull and around the entirety of his empty shoulder. Superseding that, however, is a creeping, blinding pain that goes from a dull roar to a full on screech through his nerve endings.

He hunches further and further forward in his seat until he’s curled entirely around himself. Finally, he can’t suppress a groan of pain, and manages to ask through gritted teeth, “Fucking hell, is this normal?”

Agent Hill watches him and says, “Side effect of the healing factor, I’m afraid. It makes the user pretty much immune to pain meds. Don’t worry, since you’re healing at an accelerated rate, the pain will pass just as quickly.”

“Thank fuck for that.”

He manages the rest of the car ride in agonised silence.

The mansion is deserted when they arrive; all of the Avengers are either at SHIELD sifting through data or out searching. Bucky goes straight down to the lab with Hill in tow. The pain has faded enough for him to move quickly, the itch of healing flesh coming back to the forefront.

“I feel like I should tell you in lieu of Tony that you’re only allowed down here because it’s an emergency,” he says.

“I’ll remember that,” she replies dryly.

“JARVIS, I’m gonna need your help here.”

“Certainly, sir. Any resources I have are, of course, at your disposal.”

The door to the lab slides open and Bucky heads straight to the far corner, where he knows Tony keeps all of his work on the arm. He thinks briefly about how he had expected to do this with Tony the first time, put the new arm on and take it through its paces, probably end up jumping him halfway through again, and then pushes the thought savagely aside. Not the time.

“JARVIS, I need the model with the most firepower that’s been finished.”

There’s a pause, and then JARVIS replies delicately, “I have been programmed for Master Stark’s orders to take precedence, and I’m afraid the model I think you would find most useful he expressly asked that I hide. It was, I believe, meant to be a surprise.”

Hill makes an impatient noise.

Bucky thinks about it for a second, and then says, “Right. JARVIS, in general, where does Tony keep surprises?”

“I think you’ll find that he has a habit of putting surprises of particular importance in the cabinet to your left, sir.” If he wasn’t an AI, Bucky would swear there was relief in his voice.

He heads over to the cabinet and pulls it open. He exhales in a rush. “Tony, I think I love you.”

Hill comes up behind him to look. “I am,” she says reluctantly, “Duly impressed.”

Bucky takes it off the rack where it’s been hanging, feeling the weight of it. It’s a bit heavier than the prototype, but then again, there was reason for that.

“We’ll get that fitted on when we get to headquarters,” Hill says. “Come on.”

He nods, and says towards the ceiling, “Thanks, JARVIS, you’re a pal.”

“Bring him home safely, Lieutenant,” JARVIS replies. “If you please.”

“Will do,” Bucky mutters.

***

The arm is…fucking amazing.

Bucky and Hill come into the control room, where they find Fury, as well as Dr. Banner, Clint and Natasha. Bucky carries the arm tucked under his real one, and realises belatedly that he must look a sight—they hadn’t bothered to take off the bandages over his shoulder or around his head yet.

He also realises, however, that no one is looking at that. Everyone’s looking at what he’s holding.

Clint stares for a second, and then intones dramatically, “What hath science wrought?”

No one complains when Bucky sucker punches him as he walks past. “What’ve we got so far?” he asks, as Clint wheezes.

Natasha graces him with the smallest of smiles, and then she’s right down to business. “We got the call just after you went under. We’ve been tracking someone we suspected to be Zemo for months now, though we’d had no concrete evidence. Just evidence of organisation, the usual. Then two days ago, we reported a massive power surge not dissimilar to that emitted by the Moonstones, in a warehouse not far from where we’d gathered most of the reports of Zemo from. We put two and two together, and launched an investigative assault.

“Unfortunately, it was a trap. The source of the surge was a warp in space-time, such that when we arrived on the scene, while we were ambushed by Zemo’s men, Steve and Tony got sucked into the warp, which closed just after them. No doubt Zemo’s on the other side with them.”

Bucky blinks slowly. “A…warp? So that means, what, precisely?”

Hill takes a piece of paper and makes an X on it. “A warp means that you could be standing here,” she points at the X, “And take one step through the warp, and end up over here,” she indicates the opposite end of the page. “The warp folds everything up, so distance becomes meaningless.” She folds the paper, putting the X on top of the second spot.

“Then they could be anywhere,” Bucky says blankly. “How the fuck do we even start?”

“Well, thankfully,” Natasha says, “We have a god on our side who’s accustomed to travel via wormhole.”

“He’s looking now,” Clint says. “Between him and the SHIELD scientists analysing the energy traces at the warp site, we’ll hopefully get a lock soon. In the meantime, we’re scanning Zemo’s old haunts. Maybe we’ll get lucky.”

That makes Bucky breathe a little easier—having a plan is good—but that only means that the anxiety that’s been building in his chest ever since he woke up has more room to make itself known. He’s…he’s fucking scared, okay, because basically the one person he’d absolutely die for (fuck, has died for) and the best person he’s found in the modern world are both missing and no one knows where or what’s happening to them.

It must show on his face too, because Natasha purses her lips and says, “We’re going to find them. Soon.”

He swallows. “Guess I better get this on, then,” he says, raising the arm slightly.

“This,” Clint says, “I have got to see.”

***

Bucky ends up sitting on a table in the corner of the control room away from most of the analysts’ prying eyes, with Natasha deftly slicing through the surgical bandages with a razor blade she just happened to have on her person, because of course she does. As she peels away the tape, Bucky watches as his shoulder slowly comes into view with a strange, belated nervousness.

Natasha raised her eyebrows at the pink, but mostly healed skin. “Serum?” she says.

He nods.

“Not fun,” she observes, clearly speaking from experience. Bucky wonders what the hell she came up against that put her out of action and was serious enough for her to be thrown unceremoniously back out at it.

She prods at his shoulder. “Hey,” he says, “I can feel that.”

She raises an eyebrow. “Look at where I’m poking.”

He does. Oh. Her finger is resting just beyond the point where his shoulder turns, along a neat seam, into gleaming metal. It curves precisely in imitation of a shoulder joint, and then below that are a series of articulated parts where the arm is clearly meant to latch into place. He sweeps a hand over the whole mechanism, and feels a buzz of sensation in answer, though somewhat oddly displaced, like touching one’s elbow and feeling it on the palm.

The sensation of a whole arm, waiting for its physical complement.

He breathes, in and out, twice. Then he says, “All right, let’s put it on.”

Natasha nods. “How do I…?”

Bucky remembers Tony showing him all of the blueprints in bed, the catch and lock of it, the automatic powering on triggered by the slide of mechanisms into place. He’d gleefully described it as a “flex and slide, Bucky, you know the one” and then Bucky had had to tackle him into the pillows. He licks his lips and says, “Hold it up, the top of it tilted down. There’s a groove over the top of my shoulder where it should align with the inside of the arm. When you feel it catch, rotate it down so the rest of it can lock into place.”

She nods again, and does as instructed, wielding the thing like it weighs nothing.

He can feel it engage even before it makes the satisfying click of it catching, a frisson of feeling and awareness that only increases as Natasha rotates it down. He sucks in a breath, and watches in fascination as the plates slide and settle into place.

After a long pause, he thinks, move. Actually, he doesn’t even think. He just moves.

The arm flexes, curves of carbon fibre muscle and the faintest hiss of parts shifting under the chassis. More boldly, Bucky lifts the hand for inspection, flexing it, watching it move.

He’d thought the prototype fit when he’d tried that on. This…this was a whole new level. Tony’d been right—he didn’t have to think, he just had to do, and it was all there, not precisely natural, not like his real arm, but comfortable, the sensory feedback coherent and smooth. If he’d gotten this in the first weeks that he’d come out of the snow, Tony never would have had to do the hologram trick with his clenched dead arm, he would have just opened the fingers of this one, and it would have rung true.

There’s a low buzz of awareness somewhere along the top of the forearm that he doesn’t recognise. Curiously, he concentrates, and flexes.

A louder whir answers him, and an unfolding of…oh man, no wonder Tony’d saved this one as a surprise.

“Son of a bitch,” he breathes.

Tony fucking Stark built him an arm with missiles.

Natasha says decisively, after a moment, “That is sexy as hell.”

Bucky tears his eyes away from the arm to grin at her. “Sorry darling, I’m afraid I’m spoken for.”

***

It’s another eight hours before they find them.

Eight hours, and then Thor’s voice booms over the comm link. “COMRADES, I HAVE FOUND EVIDENCE OF A SECOND GATEWAY. METHINKS THE VILLAINOUS ZEMO RESIDES CLOSE BY. WILL YOU JOIN ME IN BATTLING THIS FIEND AND RETRIEVING OUR COMPATRIOTS?”

“Get a lock on his location,” Fury snaps.

Natasha answers the comm. “Thor, we’ll be there as soon as we can. Can you tell us the situation?”

“AYE. HIS FORCES ARE MANY AND HIS WEAPONRY POWERFUL. I MUST STAY VERY HIGH IN THE EARTH’S SKY IN ORDER TO STAY UNDETECTED. WE SHALL NEED ALL OF OUR STRENGTH AND WILE TO CONQUER HIM!”

“Specificity is not his strong suit,” Clint mutters.

“We’ll get eyes on as soon as we can,” Fury promises.

They’re not in the best of shape, any of them—Bucky’s still feeling lingering twinges from life-altering surgery, no matter how good the serum is, and the others have been mostly awake for the day and a half since Tony and Steve were taken. Still, they all snap to attention now, cagey like wolves. Even Banner is strung tight, keeping it together only with even breathing and checking his pulse every few minutes.

“We’ve got a lock,” Hill reports. “Outskirts of Bonndorf, in the Black Forest.”

“Of course it’s Germany,” Bucky mutters. Like he didn’t have enough terrible memories of the place.

“Four and a half hours to get there if we punch it,” Clint says. “We should move.”

“I’ll have back up arranged if it gets bad,” Fury says, “But they’ll be at least an hour behind you even with local help, so don’t be needing it any sooner than that.”

Clint raises a finger. “Can I request one immediate back up?”

“I second that,” Natasha says.

Fury looks between them. “He’ll meet you at the jet,” he says, leaving Bucky wondering who, exactly, the immediate back-up could be. “If you cause any international incidents, I’m demoting all of you to janitorial staff,” he adds, “Now get going.”

***

The quinjet is eerily silent on the inside, its consideration for the long-term comfort of hair-trigger superheroes a characteristic that again separates Tony from the rest of his fellow industrialists. Bruce stakes out a corner away from everyone else to sit down and meditate, Clint lays out his equipment and goes through it with methodical calm, and Natasha immediately lays down for a nap across one of the padded benches along the outer wall of the plane, the top of her head barely brushing what could only be the back-up’s thigh.

Bucky turns to Clint. “Who’s that guy?”

Clint smiles thinly. “That’s Agent Coulson. Our more immediate boss.”

“He’s our back up?”

“Don’t be fooled by the paper-pusher exterior. Guy can kill you with baked goods.”

Bucky raises his eyebrows. “Noted.”

Agent Coulson looks at him with a mild bureaucrat’s blankness. “I apologise for not introducing myself earlier,” he says, “I’m afraid I’ve been working with the Avengers in a more administrative capacity of late. Had I known you’d be joining us so soon, Lieutenant, I would have touched bases with you.”

Bucky just sort of approximates a shrug of ‘I guess it’s okay if they say it’s okay’, while not even hiding that it gives him an excuse to be more gestural with his new arm. In the hours between putting it on and getting Thor’s message, all sorts of other goodies have made themselves known—concussive blast capacity similar to repulsor tech in his palm, a retracting knife blade in his first finger, and thin spool of what Natasha identified as adamantium alloy cable wound up in his wrist, was just the beginning of what Tony had built in.

It makes something in his chest go tight and tender, because every single one of those damned features is just him all over, a perfect portrait of his preferences in combat. Tony’s never even sparred with him, and he already knows this stuff, knows Bucky inside and out it seems.

When they destroy Zemo and get Steve and him back, Bucky’s gonna take Steve out to a movie, and then stay in bed with Tony for at least three days straight.

He flexes his wrist back and forth, back and forth, the mechanisms never tiring.

He’s ready.

***

Zemo’s lair is deep in the forest outside of Bonndorf, away from any wayward roads or paths, in what looks like a natural clearing with a cabin on its edge. Hardly ostentatious for a super-villain, but Fury reports strange energy readings around the place, so Bucky’s guessing the true face of the building is well-cloaked, either by magic or something else entirely.

Thor swoops in and lands inside the quinjet when the pilot lowers the ramp a fraction. He doesn’t look tired at all, despite apparently having been in the air for at least half a day, but he does look solemn and just slightly worried.

“THERE ARE FORCES PROTECTING THIS AREA THAT I DO NOT RECOGNISE,” he says, “I FEAR HE MAY BE USING POWERS FROM REALMS I KNOW LESS OF.”

“Other branches of Yggdrasil?” Coulson says, like this is a completely normal question to ask.

“THAT MAY INDEED BE THE CASE, SON OF COUL.”

“Great,” Clint mutters.

“You’re going to have to operate on the down low,” Coulson says. “Natasha, take the lead, get eyes on the ground, let’s find a chink in the armour.”

“Got it,” Natasha says, “Thor, can you take me down?”

“CERTAINLY, MY LADY.”

They prepare to depart out of the open belly of the plane once more when from down on the ground, there’s a resonant shudder, a rumble of earth.

“Oh,” Natasha says, sounding surprised for the first time Bucky’s met her.

Everyone crowds the ramp to look.

The air around the cabin has begun to shimmer, like it’s encased in a soap bubble. Every couple of seconds, it flickers out entirely, and then the cabin isn’t a cabin, it’s a ruined castle with charred towers and blackened buttresses layered over with soot. Bucky blinks, looks again, and shakes his head.

“How much you want to bet that Tony and Cap are behind that little malfunction?” he asks.

“No bet,” Coulson says. “New plan. Frontal assault, and with any luck Cap and Iron Man will be on their way to meet us. I’ll tell the pilot to aim for gaps in the force field. Get ready.”

“Well,” Clint says, “This’ll be fun.”

The pilot’s good, as could be expected of a SHIELD agent. Bucky catches a glimpse of her when Coulson goes up to the cockpit—a crop of black, curly hair beneath her headset and an unfazed expression. She swings in on Coulson’s instructions, cutting down towards the ground in a steep dive that will afford them a modicum of surprise before all hell breaks loose. In the belly of the plane, all of the Avengers (except for Thor, because, well) have to cling to the strapping strung along the sides to avoid getting tossed.

“We’re going to pass through the forcefield in T-minus two minutes!” Coulson shouts against the roar of the engines getting pushed to full capacity. “Get ready.”

“Oh, I am so close to ready,” Bruce mutters. He’s clinging tightly to a strap, and his skin is tinged green.

The jet cants left in reaction to a flicker in the forcefield, and then a hard right.

“Here we go!” the pilot shouts over her shoulder, and then all of them feel a shudder run through the plane, through them, as the plane passes through and pulls up sharply. Bucky’s stomach lurches. The loading ramp begins to descend again, Thor standing right at its edge, Natasha gripping his armour in preparation for descent.

“How’re the rest of us getting down there?” Bucky shouts.

“Leave that to Nancy,” Clint says, jerking his head at the pilot. “She’s ace at it. Get ready to jump.”

“Jesus,” Bucky mutters. None of them are wearing parachutes. This is definitely a level of craziness the Commandoes would appreciate.

Thor shoots a glance at Natasha as the ramp comes down fully, his eyebrows raised. She looks down at the clear, unwavering view of the crumbling castle, and nods.

They leap off the ramp, Thor flying in a tight loop.

Bruce is next; he’s halfway to Hulked out even before he jumps.

Clint and Bucky line up, shoulder to shoulder.

“Ready?” Clint asks, grinning.

Bucky flexes his wrist, feelings cables go tight, titanium shifting. He bares his teeth. “Born ready.”

Nancy brings them low, nearly scraping the bottom of the ramp on a spire, and that’s where they jump, landing hard and rolling until they hit the crumbling edge of the parapet. Bucky catches himself with his new arm and has to grin at the only distant sensation of scraping as his hand goes tight on the rubble and holds.

“This is my stop,” Clint says, “See you on the flip side.”

Bucky nods, and unfurls the cable from his wrist, securing the telescoping grappling hook it ends with on the parapet and then belaying down.

Thor is making the biggest ruckus, with Hulk close behind; there are guardsmen pouring out of the castle walls and opening fire to no avail. Natasha, in contrast, makes her way silently across the grounds, sticking to the shadows, killing anyone in her path with ruthless efficiency.

Bucky opts for the middle ground. There’s a control tower off the left of him that probably contains a fair amount of equipment and surveillance—it’ll make a pretty big bang, he reckons.

He aims with his arm, there’s a click and whine of machinery, and then a near silent discharge, the recoil sending him swaying on the cable.

The missile breaks through the glass of the towers largest window and then two seconds later detonates spectacularly. There are shouts of alarm from below, and Bucky rides the heat of the explosion all the way down to the first wall.

There are soldiers waiting for him. He takes them out, and doesn’t feel rusty at all.

Natasha meets him on the ground. “Most of the complex is underneath,” she says. “And according to one of the climate control stations I just found, Hallway B of Subbasement A is on fire.”

“Lead the way,” he answers.

***

Hallway B, Subbasement C:

“Jesus fuck, you’re heavy,” Tony complained, wincing as a jet of flames flares out between a set of monastic pillars. Seriously, could super-villains be more cliche?

“Stop trying to undermine my self-esteem,” Steve manages, his throat is tight with pain.

“Oh good, you’re sassing me again, means most of your blood is back.”

“I’m still bleeding. Also, we need—“

“Your shield, I’m aware. We also need my goddamn armour. Come on.”

***

Bucky and Natasha run into trouble as soon as they reach the first sub-floor. The guards open fire, and it’s not with machine guns.

“Shit,” Natasha says evenly as they dive behind a reinforced wall. “What are those?”

“Pretty sure the last time I saw stuff like that was when Red Skull had the cosmic cube,” Bucky says through gritted teeth.

“You guys get that? Take care,” Natasha says into the comms, and gets affirmation and invectives in return. “I do hate when villains share resources,” she sighs. “Right, do you have any shielding mechanisms in that arm of yours?”

“I imagine so. No idea if it’ll work on those things though. Only thing that worked last time was Cap’s shield.”

“Right. I’ve got flares, we’ll use those first. You go through, I’ll go up and over. On three?”

He nods, flicking his wrist in preparation.

“One, two…three!

She flings the flares down the hall, and Bucky squeezes his eyes shut against the flash before pivoting out from behind the wall and firing, Natasha just behind and then overtaking him as they reach the guards, launching herself from the wall and across, arching over and disarming them. She grabs one of the guns and tosses Bucky a second.

They sprint down towards the stairs at the end of the hall and down.

Another explosion rocks them tumbling into the stairwell, accompanied by a roar of anger from the Hulk somewhere above ground. And then, more distantly from beneath them, a familiar voice saying, “Well, that sounds reassuringly like the cavalry.”

“Tony!” Bucky charges down the stairs.

“Barnes? What the hell—?”

“Shit, Cap, what happened do you?”

“What’re you doing here, Buck?”

“This is lovely and all,” Natasha interrupts, “But we should go.” She tosses two comm earpieces to Cap and Tony, and Tony has to help Cap with his. Steve looks worryingly pale, for all that he’s standing mostly upright. There’s a thick improvised bandage over one of his thighs, and it’s begun to turn pink.

“Yeah, few things we’ve gotta take care of first,” Tony says. He does a double-take. “Barnes, is that—?”

“Best present ever, I was duly surprised, I’ll thank you later,” Bucky says. “What needs doing?”

“Armour, shield,” Tony lists, gesturing, “And shutting down Zemo’s wormhole capabilities, which are currently powered by a moonstone and stabilised by my gauntlet repulsors.”

Clint swears colourfully down the comm line.

“Thor, can you sense where the most concentrated foreign power is coming from?” Natasha asks.

“BY MY RECKONING IT IS CENTRAL WITHIN THE COMPLEX, BUT ALAS I CAN BE NO MORE EXACT THAN THAT.”

“He’s learning about exactitude, that’s a start,” Steve says.

Tony tuts at him, which is…unexpected. “Save your strength, sass master.”

“‘Sass master’?” Bucky echoes.

“Long, irritating story,” Steve manages.

“Story later, mission now,” Natasha says testily. They’ve all been making their way towards what is a central courtyard at ground level, but underneath is an expansive complex of laboratories in the subbasement. It’s quieter down here, away from most of the frontal assault laid down by the Avengers’ heavy-hitters, but hardly less dangerous for all that. There are scientists ranged around, hurriedly compiling data and wiping their machines, some of them already filing into lines flanked by guards for evacuation.

“Cleaning house?” Bucky suggests.

“Indubitably,” Tony agrees. “We should stop them.”

Natasha makes a noise in her throat; she’d gone up and around into the rafters just above their heads for a closer look, and now she lands again next to them. “We can do all of that with what’s in this room,” she reports. “The moonstone and its setup are at the far wall. So’s your shield, Cap. And so is Zemo,” she finishes.

“Oh, great.”

“Plan?” Bucky asks, because that would be a nice thing to have right now.

“You’ll go in with Natasha,” Steve says, more steadily and taking charge. “First priority is my shield—Tony, we’ve no idea what state your armour’s in, so I want you behind the front lines for as long as possible, no arguing—and the shield can probably do a lot towards disabling the moonstone. Bucky, you know how to use it—do so until you can get it back to me. Also, I think we’re going to need backup.”

“On my way,” Coulson says, from out of the blue. Bucky’d forgotten he was around.

Steve brightened. “Agent Coulson, good to hear from you.”

“Coulson is totally your favourite, don’t even lie,” Tony grumbles. “You are so straight-edge.”

“Right,” Bucky says, looking at Natasha, “You ready?”

“Same as last time?” she counters.

“Same as last time.”

They go in sprinting.

***

The plan works…barely.

Steve is back to bleeding profusely by the time they get back to the quinjet, Tony is wheezing and his armour, while retrieved, is mostly in pieces, many of them left in the wreckage. Clint is grimacing through a long, shallow knife wound to the shoulder that Natasha is rolling her eyes at and patching up at the same time, and Hulk is back to being Banner and passed out with exhaustion. Even Thor looks tired, choosing to travel on board rather than fly alongside.

Zemo escaped. Of course.

Coulson surveys them all, looking dusty and ruffled but on the whole exactly as he started out, which has to be superhuman in itself. He says briefly, “Seeing as we have enough of a med bay here to take care of injuries sustained, there’s no rush getting back. We’ll take the long route, and you can all rest up before debriefing on arrival.”

A couple of them manage nods. Most of them don’t react at all.

Bucky finds himself being used as a pillow by Steve in the med bay while Tony puts surprisingly neat stitches into Steve’s thigh. “Where’d you learn how to do that?” he asks, after a while.

Tony looks haunted for a moment before his expression smooths into concentration again. “Yinsen. He had to patch me up a couple times while I was in Afghanistan. Nothing this bad, but enough to learn.”

“You’re a natural,” Steve says, managing to suppress a wince. Being immune to painkillers was a bitch and a half.

Tony gives him a quick smile. “Engineer. I’m used to doing delicate work with important material.”

Bucky studies them both. “You gonna tell me what went on in there?”

He definitely doesn’t miss the way they make communicative eye contact. “It’ll be in the report,” Steve says finally.

“We had some bonding time,” Tony says dryly.

Steve glares at him, which for Bucky is assurance enough. Tony ties off the suture on Cap’s leg and straps a bandage on top with unapologetic speed, because it means that as soon as it’s done he can curl into the part of Bucky’s lap that isn’t occupied with Captain America’s head.

“Hi,” he says, “You look good.”

Bucky raises the metal arm to trace the curve of Tony’s jaw. “Thanks to you.”

“I told you already, Barnes, you don’t need me to clean up good.”

“But apparently I do need you to save your sorry ass.”

“Mm. Inconvenient.”

“Damn right.”

Steve peers up at him for a long moment. “You were right,” he says blearily.

“About what?”

“H—mfgn.” He barely manages a wave.

Bucky raises an eyebrow at Tony. Tony shrugs.

“Horse tranquillisers. We keep ‘em on board especially for him.”

“And for you?”

“Scotch and soda’ll do me fine,” Tony says, leaning into his shoulder. “Oh, y’know, just the pleasure of your company.”

Bucky runs a hand through his sweat-soaked hair, and allows himself to breathe. “Yeah, that’ll do just fine.”


Chapter Three

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alchemyalice

March 2013

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