Part 1: Wakanda
Bucky liked his hut.
It was a step up from the cold tank, for one thing. Sure, the hut smelled like goats—he couldn't keep them out even on a good day—but it was roomy, there was no one around to hear him scream when he woke up from his nightmares, and it had plenty of diversions to keep him busy. Right now, Shuri's umakazi was teaching Bucky how to weave. He was starting to get pretty fast at it, too. And he really liked that Shuri trusted him with his aunt. It said a lot about his progress with his HYDRA triggers that she did, and that Shuri's mother, Queen Ramonda, did.
The Princess asked him if he felt "clearer" now, and boy, that was one way of putting it. Seemed like he now had choices beyond fight or run, kill or be killed. Bucky felt like he was standing on his own for the first time since HYDRA had him, and he wasn't afraid. This wasn't like hiding out in Romania or El Salvador, certain at any second he'd either lose control or be snatched up. He was safe, inside and out. No one could hurt him, and Shuri made damn sure he couldn't hurt anyone, even with the new arm she gave him. Life was good.
Well, except for one nagging problem. This guy he barely knew kept coming around and interrupting him.
"Hi, Steve," Bucky said, sitting back and tucking his shuttle carefully so he wouldn't lose his place. He really liked how this blanket was coming out. He'd selected two colors of wool yarn, cream and a bright pink died from beets, that he was weaving in an alternating checked pattern.
"What are you doing?" Steve said.
"What does it look like I'm doing?" Honestly, Steve could be a lunkhead sometimes.
Steve sighed. "It's just, I thought Shuri said you were clear to join us at the palace between sessions."
"She did. That doesn't mean I have to. I like my life out here. It's peaceful."
"But all of our friends—"
Bucky stood up and went to grab some water. "Those people are your friends, not mine, and especially not that woman who used to be HYDRA."
Steve's face did something complicated. "She's a good girl, Bucky. HYDRA tricked her into thinking they were something else."
Bucky scoffed. "I don't see how. Everyone says heil HYDRA every two minutes. They start to doubt your loyalty if you don't. And they put their skull stamp on every damned thing so you can never forget—on your duds, on your gear, even on your goddamned body."
"So don't tell me she didn't know. She did. And Shuri showed me that interview with Dr. Cho saying the Witch and her brother worked with Ultron. That she only volunteered for HYDRA to kill Stark."
"That's not true, she was defending her country. And anyway, he killed her parents!"
Bucky raised his eyebrows. "The hell you say. Then how come he's not in jail?"
"Not like that—a Stark bomb killed her parents."
Bucky tried to believe his ears. "And so you condone her croaking him? Trial by HYDRA?"
Steve bit his lip. "C'mon, Bucky. It ain't like that."
"You keep saying it's not my fault for killing his parents, even though I did it with my own two hands. But somehow it's his fault someone else bombed her parents?"
Steve crossed his arms. "It wasn't your fault. They made you do it."
Bucky was tired of hearing that tune. It didn't make it any easier to bear the guilt of what memories he did have, the ones that cropped up in his nightmares and kept him up at night.
"Whatever you say." Bucky finished his water and sat down. "Leave me be, Steve. I have to finish this blanket for the Queen."
"Oh, you're making the queen a present?" Steve sounded relieved. "That's real swell, Bucky."
"It would be if you got out of my hair, punk."
"Sure, sure." Steve looked at him earnestly, his cheeks pink. "Maybe you can come to breakfast with everybody tomorrow? I asked the cook if we could make pancakes. I'm not sure if the idea got across, but maybe if you tried to explain?"
Bucky's Wakandan was rudimentary, but it was better than Steve's, that was for sure.
"Fine, I'll come to breakfast."
"Great! That's super. See you tomorrow, Buck." Steve bounced out of the hut looking on top of the moon.
Bucky sighed and went back to his weaving.
Breakfast was a disaster. Bucky offered to do the cooking since the cook didn't seem to trust Steve much. But then Steve wouldn't stop hovering over Bucky's shoulder, and he kept smiling at him non-stop like a cheesy soap ad. Bucky felt someone staring at his other side, but he refused to turn and look at the Scarlet Witch, because the only time he did, she nearly singed his eyebrows off with her jealous glare. Bucky didn't know what had snapped her cap, but if he had to guess, he'd say she had a soft spot for Steve and thought Bucky was taking up too much of Steve's sweet time.
Fine with him. Bucky barely remembered the good times Stevie always spouted on about, but what Bucky remembered wasn't so good. He remembered being cold and tired and trekking through the blood and muck and mud, constantly afraid of getting shot or losing one of their comrades. And further back than that, he remembered being hungry and cold and having holes in his shoes and always wanting things: candy, comic books, or tickets to the movies, stupid things other kids had that he never did. Why Steve was so gaga for the good old days, Bucky couldn't figure, but he wished he'd stop going on about it. Like now:
"Remember when old man Connolly caught us smoking ciggies behind his shop and tried to give us a licking?"
Bucky sprinkled a drop of water on the skillet and watched it dance. "I remember you stole that deck of Luckies, and he only caught us because your coughing caused such a ruckus. We ended up having to put up stock for him the rest of the day to make up for it." Bucky poured out the first pancakes, satisfied when they bubbled up quickly.
"Oh, yeah." Steve laughed ruefully. "I thought the asthma was going to kill me back then."
Bucky noticed he didn't say anything about the theft. "'M Glad the serum made me quit that smoking shit."
"Yeah, no point." Steve leaned over Bucky's shoulder again. "That smells great, Buck."
"Back off or you'll make me burn 'em."
"Right, right. Hey, Wanda, you want the first ones?"
"No, thank you. I'll just have fruit," she said, speaking for the first time after all the staring. "I need to keep my figure."
"Oh, a kid like you doesn't have to worry about stuff like that," Steve said blithely, and Bucky turned his head just in time to catch Wanda's horrific scowl.
Bucky went back to the pancakes, hiding his grin. "Guess these are yours then, Stevie." He flipped the first three pancakes onto a plate and handed them over.
"Terrific! Thanks, Buck. Man, I've missed this." Steve sat down at the table and pulled out his communication bracelet, which he refused to wear on his wrist for some reason. "I'll just let the others know breakfast is up."
"Sure." Bucky turned back to the stove and poured some more pancakes out, resigned to spending the morning with Steve's friends.
Barton showed up first, flinging himself onto a stool and immediately clamoring for a plate, saying, "I didn't know your friend cooked. Gimme some."
Bucky rolled his eyes while Steve passed over the plate and the mango syrup. Wilson thanked Bucky for making breakfast. Lang clutched his plate like a baby bird, waiting.
"Steve sliced up the fruit," Bucky said, content to stand at the stove and serve up more pancakes for all.
"Aren't you going to have some?" Steve asked Bucky, prompting another scowl from Wanda. The dame was something else.
"Sure, I'll save myself some," Bucky said, fully intending to blow out of there as soon as Steve's back was turned. Bucky finished serving everyone up, whipping up a bowl of scrambled eggs at Lang's request, and once everyone was settling in to nosh, Bucky tossed his pancakes onto a plate and ate standing, watching the rest of them eat and chat. Lang seemed eager to befriend the others, Bucky noticed, but they ignored his quips and conversational gambits.
Bucky washed the dishes and listened idly to the conversation as it veered toward their stay in Wakanda.
Wilson said, "The technology here is incredible. It sure has Stark beat."
Steve agreed. "I wish Tony could see it. He needs a little bit of humbling in that area."
Bucky rolled his eyes. He'd heard Steve complaining about phones being too complicated in this era, and here he was badmouthing a guy who'd invented one that was so tiny Bucky had carried it in his boot and called his handler with a single word.
"Of course, I guess you could say we humbled him pretty thoroughly in Siberia, right, Buck?" Steve gave him a sideways smile, and Wilson offered a high-five.
Bucky stared back in disbelief. "Jesus, Steve."
"I don't know where to start. The guy was out of his mind with grief. We should never have—"
"He was gonna kill us, Buck!" Steve stared at him earnestly. The others were staring back and forth between them.
"If he wanted us dead, we would be, Stevie. I read the dossier on the Iron Man suit. I was told to stay the hell away from the guy. All he'd have to do is flick on a laser to cut us in half."
"Laser? What're you—"
"True," Nat said. "He and Rhodes sliced up all of Hammer's hacked suits at the Expo and stopped them from killing everyone. It only took a few seconds. I tried to convince him to add a laser to my Bites but he said it was too dangerous."
"But maybe he didn't have it on him," Steve said.
Bucky blew out his breath. "So then why didn't he just aim that thing that took off my arm right at my chest? It would have blown right through me."
"Maybe he was a coward," Wanda whispered viciously.
Lang ducked his head and scooped his eggs into his mouth.
Steve gave an awkward laugh. "This is stupid. Why are we talking about this?" He rubbed his hands together. "What is everyone going to do today?"
Finished with his drying, Bucky leaned back against the sink and to watch them talk.
"Not much to do since we can't go out into the city," Barton said. "We're basically under house arrest."
"I hate being trapped like this," the Scarlet Witch said, her eyes glowing a little in anger. Bucky saw Steve give her a disapproving look, and she backed down, saying, "Of course, if it weren't for the king, we would all be suffering back at that Raft." She shuddered delicately, and Steve put a protective hand on her arm.
Her playacting was more than Bucky could deal with, and while they were pre-occupied, he slipped out the side door. The only person who saw him leave was the Witch, and she looked glad.
Bucky's reprieve was brief. Steve caught him later that morning when he was out by the lake herding the dairy goats.
"You left," Steve accused, and Bucky hushed the startled goats.
"Easy, Steve. You'll curdle their milk."
"I—" Steve stopped and frowned. "Is that possible?"
Bucky laughed. "No, y'lunk."
Steve smiled. "But why'd you ditch us at breakfast?"
"'Cause I had my chores." Bucky spread his hands. "Gotta water these guys then get them back to their pen." It was about that time, anyway, so Bucky whistled and waved his stick, and the goats bleated and started wending their way back up the hill. Steve stayed beside Bucky like they were on a mission, and Bucky shrugged off the proximity.
"Why're you doing this, anyway?" Steve said. "I'm pretty sure T'Challa wouldn't ask this of you."
"He didn't," Bucky grunted. "I asked Shuri what I could do around here to help out."
"Why? You should be training with us."
Bucky shook his head in disbelief. "I'd rather be useful, Steve. Everyone around here is doing so much for me."
"T'Challa's the one who owes you," Steve grumbled under his breath, and Bucky held his tongue. It wouldn't be very nice to point out the king sure as heck owed Steve nothing, nor the Scarlet Witch, who'd killed a bunch of his people, accident or not. The least they could do was herd a goat or two.
"I hafta get back to my weaving. It's the queen's birthday in a couple of days and I want to finish in time."
"Can I join you? I won't distract you, I swear." Steve held up his hands. "I can sit and draw. Lots of interesting things to draw around this place."
Bucky held in a sigh. "Yeah, sure."
"Thanks, Buck. Seems like I've hardly had a chance to see you."
Bucky could only wonder why he didn't feel the same.
Bucky worked hard and ignored all distractions over the next couple of days, and he finished the queen's present just in time. He wrapped it in clean cloth and tied it with twine, and brought it to the morning audience Shuri sent him an invitation to.
When Bucky presented it, his hands sweating a little with nervousness at the formality, Queen Ramonda's face brightened into a gorgeous smile and she said she loved it.
"The design is very unusual, Sergeant. And I love the colors you chose."
Shuri gave Bucky the thumbs up, hands curled toward her chest to hide them, and Bucky smiled a tiny smile.
"Thanks, your highness," Bucky said in English. "It was real nice of Umakazi Nyawira to teach me how."
"She said you were a good pupil," Ramonda said, then switched to Wakandan. "Now, how comes your language lessons?"
"Not as happy as my weaving," Bucky replied in Wakandan, and Ramonda laughed.
Someone ran in and ducked close to the queen to whisper in her ear. Queen Ramonda lost her smile, her face going stern and severe. Bucky tensed.
"It seems we are to be interrupted," Ramonda said. "One of your compatriots wishes to speak to you urgently."
Bucky took his cue from Ramonda's expression. "They should know better than to interrupt the queen," he said. "They'll have to wait."
He noticed the Doras behind Ramonda sharing an approving look, but his focus was on Ramonda, who nodded slowly, her smile returning.
"I believe we were discussing your language lessons."
Steve grabbed him as soon as he left the queen's wing. "Buck! What took you so long. We gotta talk."
Bucky pulled his arm away and shot Steve a glare. Steve backed off, his hand raised. "Buck?"
"What's the matter with you, Steve? You tried to interrupt an audience with the queen. On her birthday, to boot."
"It was important!"
"Oh, yeah? Is the building on fire?" Bucky turned the corner and started to head toward the doorway that led to the gardens. Two Dora Milaje approached down the stairs.
Steve touched his arm. "Where are you going? We need to talk, Buck."
"We can talk on the hoof."
"But Natasha thinks T'Challa has a plan to get us all home!" Steve exploded.
Bucky stopped and gave Steve a narrow look. "Home?"
"Yeah. New York." Steve's eyes were soft.
Bucky felt like laughing. Brooklyn hadn't been home in seventy years. The Brooklyn of his youth was a distant, faded memory, like a postcard left out in the rain.
The two Dora met them at the landing. Bucky recognized Okoye but not the other gal.
"Hello," Bucky said, nodding.
"Sergeant Barnes, Captain Rogers: his Highness expects you to attend him this afternoon at 2:00 p.m. in his conference chambers."
"We'll be there," Steve said eagerly before Bucky could open his mouth.
Bucky nodded, and the Dora withdrew.
"So, you think this is about getting us back to the States somehow?" It seemed impossible. Bucky was Wanted in about fourteen countries that he knew of, at least one of them the U.S.
"Yeah. Nat put her ears out and said something was in the offing. T'Challa has been setting up a big meeting with some diplomats." Steve's face twisted. "And Tony."
"Stark." Bucky would regret to his dying day what happened in that bunker. He wanted to tell Stark himself: that Bucky had no idea Steve knew he'd killed Stark's parents, and that Bucky regretted acting defensively and raising his automatic when Stark punched Steve.
It all fell to pieces because of that. If Bucky had just raised his hands instead of his weapon, who knew what would have happened?
"Yeah, Stark," Steve said, oblivious to the differences in their tone. Bucky stared at him as Steve turned, trying to guide him down the hall. "Come on. We've got to put our heads together for this meeting. Strategize."
"Not sure how we're s'pose to when we don't know what the meeting is about," Bucky pointed out.
"We know what Stark is after—control over what we can do. We have to figure out how to block him," Steve said.
"You do that," Bucky said. "I have some chores before this afternoon."
He brushed off Steve's protests and went back toward the garden exit, nodding at the guards on his way out.
That afternoon, after a quick dip to wash off the goat smell and once he'd changed into his best kilt, Bucky arrived at the entry to the king's meeting chambers just before 2 p.m. The Avengers were already there milling restlessly about; the only one who stood still and watchful was Romanov, who leaned against the wall with one arm behind her back.
Bucky picked a space on the opposite wall as far as possible from the Scarlet Witch, who crackled with furious energy. There could be half a continent between them and Bucky still wouldn't be happy.
The double doors opened, and Okoye said, "His Highness will see you now."
Romanov took the lead with Barton at her shoulder and Maximoff just behind. Wilson and Lang followed, but Steve waited for Bucky and, once they were inside, herded him toward a seat beside him.
Bucky was getting a little tired of being treated like Steve's date. But he supposed that wasn't fair—Steve had spent a long time asleep in the ice, he'd told Bucky. He'd only woken up a few years ago, so to him, the past was still touchable.
"Thank you for being here," King T'Challa said, looking regal in a black velvet suit with a glittering sash. "We will momentarily be joined by our other attendees."
A shiny round screen appeared in the center of the table. It was both insubstantial and opaque, a truly remarkable sign of the advanced technology of Wakanda. The screen lit up and divided into seven separate windows that were obviously visible to everyone at the table. Bucky would love to know how the heck they'd managed that, but he was distracted by one face in particular.
"Stark," Steve said under his breath.
"Good morning, good afternoon, good evening, Ambassadors Müller, Skutnik, Olantunji, Kublanov, Mwangi, Ross, and Mr. Stark. Welcome and thank you."
The people on the screens murmured their greetings.
"Ladies, gentlemen, may I introduce you to the individuals previously known as the Avengers: Natasha Romanov, Clint Barton, Steve Rogers, Sam Wilson, Wanda Maximoff, and also, Scott Lang and Bucky Barnes."
Steve seemed to stifle an objection. Bucky figured T'Challa was pretty smart throwing so many people into the mix to keep everyone tame.
"Also present in this room is the legal team provided by the ICC: Mr. Klimov and Ms. Leboo, with Mr. Haas representing the ICC itself."
A whole lot of nodding happened. Mr. Klimov caught Bucky's eye and smiled at him.
"Some, if not most of you, are already aware of the news that brings us together today; those that aren't, please be advised this is information of critical importance to the security of our planet. Indeed, of our universe." T'Challa paused, his hands resting on the table.
"A great threat approaches, one that Mr. Stark has been attempting to warn us of since he first glimpsed it through a portal into an unknown sector of space in 2012." T'Challa nodded at Stark, who nodded back gravely. "This threat has now been verified by outside parties traveling to our planet.
"The reason I have brought you all here in one gathering is for a simple reason: this news has escalated the time table for resolving the presence of the fugitives currently seeking asylum in Wakanda. By bringing you all together, it is my hope we can find the fastest possible means of ameliorating the wrongs done in the recent media dubbed 'Avengers Civil War' and to move forward with returning the fugitives to the United States in order to prepare for what is to come."
"And what is this universal threat, exactly?" Steve said, apparently unable to keep his yap shut any longer.
"More on that later, Mr. Rogers. I have an agenda and I intend we should follow it." T'Challa's voice brooked no argument. "We must proceed to remunerate those affected by the Civil War in order to move on. The ambassadors on the call have already been in talks with the U.S. president and others and come to us today fully prepared to forge agreements to that end.
"First on the docket: Germany. Mr. Stark and Mr. Pym have been in discussions with Ambassador Müller regarding reparations to Leipzig and to the various airlines and individuals whose property was destroyed."
After a pause, Stark said, "That's correct. The assumption we're working off of is none of the parties responsible for starting the fracas at the airport actually have the funds to pay back the damages they caused."
"We're not the only ones who caused damages, Tony," Steve said.
Stark tilted his head. "And no one said you were. You have to admit, though, causing massive damage with no care for consequences or whether you can provide recompense is pretty much your modus operandi."
Bucky blinked. One of the ambassadors, the one with a moustache, tried to hide a grin.
"Unless you have a couple billion dollars tucked in your pants? No?" Stark waited a moment, his dark eyes sardonic, before continuing, "Which is why Pym and I are personally bailing you guys out. We're replacing all the cars, jumbo jets, porta potties, and airport infrastructure. To the tune of 2.1 billion dollars."
Bucky whistled low. That was a lot of cabbage.
Stark glanced at Bucky, his mouth twitching in amusement before he sobered. "As far as the medical costs for Colonel Rhodes, we are grateful beyond words to the nation of Wakanda for volunteering their spinal treatment, and the U.S. Air Force and I will handle the costs of any therapies or prosthetic aids he might require for the rest of his life." Stark's eyes burned through the screen at Steve, and Wilson shifted uncomfortably. Bucky swallowed hard. He knew Stark's friend had been injured, but he hadn't known how badly. From Steve's stiff reaction, he hadn't either.
"If this will satisfy Herr Müller?" T'Challa said.
Müller cleared his throat. "As long as all costs bear out and these seven fugitives are not allowed back into the European Union without the express requirements for planetary safety as outlined by the agreement."
Bucky sensed Steve's muscles bunching as if he were about to leap into action, and Bucky grabbed his leg under the table.
"The agreement will be discussed further with assistance from the ICC lawyers, Mr. Rogers," King T'Challa said, obviously sensing Steve was about to go ballistic.
"Can it, Punk," Bucky whispered very quietly. He caught Stark's interest in the exchange out of the corner of his eye.
"Next we have the Nigerian Ambassador, the Honorable Ms. Olantunji. Ma'am?"
"Thank you, your highness. We have been assisted by the Maria Stark Foundation since the bombing in Lagos," she said, her voice low and melodious. "They dispatched care workers, engineers, medical supplies, construction supplies, and Director Stark provided mechanical suits to assist in the search and rescue efforts and in clean up. This work is almost complete. However." She turned her head and trained her eyes on Maximoff.
"I was helping," Maximoff said weakly. "I saved lives." Wilson reached out and touched her hand.
Olantunji raised a curved eyebrow. "And yet, fifteen Nigerian citizens and eleven Wakandan relief workers were killed. There can be no 'clean up' for this loss. No fixing it with mechanical suits. The best that can be done is counseling and offering monetary recompense for the families to support them and to raise the children who have lost parents and caregivers. This is the best we can do, since those responsible abandoned the field as soon as they entered it. This is what we have offered to the devastated families."
Steve gave a full-body wince at that, and Maximoff shrank in her chair.
"The Maria Stark Foundation will provide for the education of the children and the support of the families," Stark said. "Of course." He addressed T'Challa. "What are the feelings of your people, your majesty?"
"They wish to see the Accords implemented, of course, which we are close to completing. And they accept the generosity of the Foundation as well as our Wakandan Relief Fund. They also wish to see this agreement succeed so the fugitive seven will leave Wakanda," T'Challa said.
Bucky didn't have a chance to react before Steve hollered, "You promised us amnesty!"
"Watch your tone when speaking to the king," Okoye said, taking a step forward to stand beside T'Challa chair.
T'Challa raised one hand, and she subsided. "Mr. Rogers, much has come to light since I gave you that promise. Specifically, the role the Winter Soldier as a HYDRA assassin and the work you and your team did in concealing that fact for over two years. Your culpability as a HYDRA sympathizer marks you as a man of dishonor and, as such, our agreement is moot."
Steve's mouth worked soundlessly. Moustache in a blue suit, who Bucky suspected was the American ambassador, murmured, "Hear, hear."
T'Challa shot him a smothering look before he continued, "If we might continue hammering out this agreement? I fear this will be a long meeting, otherwise. Ambassador Skutnik, thank you for speaking to me on behalf of the Romanian people and her affected civilians. I feel great remorse for my part in the tragic incident that occurred in Bucharest and, per our discussions, intend to pay for all medical treatments to the civilians involved in accidents in the tunnel, including Mr. Tarniceriu, who was thrown from his motorcycle and suffered extensive injuries."
Bucky's stomach turned to ice. He vaguely remembered the chase in Bucharest. He'd been buried under defeatism at that point, certain he was going to die, his panic triggered by Steve's assurance the police were out to kill him. But hindsight was the real killer. He sure wished he'd surrendered right then and there and ended that whole mess before it began.
"I don't have much in the way of funds, but what I do, I'd like to contribute," Bucky said softly, and T'Challa raised his eyebrows.
"All right, Mr. Barnes. Thank you."
"It wasn't our fault," Steve said under his breath, but Bucky pinched him in the leg.
"As far as the GSG 9 operatives who were tasked with bringing in Mr. Barnes, many suffered severe injuries. They will never work again as police," Mr. Müller said. "The state pension insurance should provide for much, but there will still be a gap. In usual course, they would sue the responsible parties for the amount." Müller gave Steve and Bucky a look of distaste.
T'Challa waved his hand. "I will provide the necessary amounts as my obligation to Mr. Barnes. Please convey this to the victims."
"Very well," Müller said, sniffing.
"Which leaves us with a few final obstacles before we can move to the agreement with the fugitive seven."
"Could you please stop calling us that?" Barton said.
T'Challa raised his eyebrows. "And what would you prefer to be called, Mr. Barton? The renegade superheroes?"
"We're the Avengers," Steve said, crossing his arms. Maximoff made a sound of agreement.
"But you aren't any longer. You abdicated that position when you fled. And Mr. Barton was retired, and Mr. Barnes and Mr. Lang never were Avengers to begin with. So, the fugitive seven you shall remain for the purposes of clarity." T'Challa turned his attention to the blond-haired, icy-eyed woman on the screen. "Ambassador Kublanov. Please accept my apologies for crossing the border to Russia without passing customs when I pursued Mr. Stark, Mr. Barnes, and Mr. Rogers ten months ago."
"As you have already secured the pardon of our president, I find I am helpless to hold it against you, your highness," Kublanov said. "However, the plane that entered our airspace to rescue Tony Stark was not sanctioned beforehand, and for that, there must be recompense."
"We apologize on behalf of the United States," Moustache said.
Stark cleared his throat. "Yes, like Ambassador Ross said. Let me apologize now, as I couldn't before, being unconscious at the time," he added.
"Your apology is acknowledged, but it is inadequate." Kublanov sniffed. "We will accept one of your Iron Man suits in exchange."
Ross bared his teeth in an imitation of a smile. "Stark would face charges of treason should he offer such a trade, Ambassador."
Stark raised his hands. "How about instead, I offer ten tamper-proof arc reactors installed into the Russian power grid at locations of your choice? The tamper-proof arc reactors are not under trade embargo."
Kublanov's eyes glittered.
"Free, clean, almost unlimited power for the next twenty years," Stark said. "With a similar offer to the U.S., of course, for providing my medical services at Landstuhl."
Ross eased back and nodded.
"That is...acceptable," Kublanov said, her ice melting a little. "And of course, next time, we expect your 'man down' protocol to notify the state department before attempting rescue."
"My apologies again," Stark said, nodding. "Vision is new to politics, and was a little too anxious to get to me. And, of course, he was wise to do so."
"Yes. I read the report."
Bucky looked at Steve, alarmed, but Steve just sat there with his arms crossed as if watching a boring reel.
"What did the report say?" Bucky asked, forcing the words past his rusty throat.
"My country's climate doesn't suffer fools, Sergeant Barnes," Kublanov said. "So Bonaparte discovered, and Director Stark as well. He was near death from hypothermia when his rescue team arrived."
Maximoff made a noise that sounded like a snort. Bucky threw an angry look Steve's way. He'd asked him whether Stark would be all right, whether they shouldn't bring him along, and Steve just dismissed his worries. But leaving an injured American in enemy territory like that didn't sit well. Bucky didn't remember much, but he remembered that.
"Siberia is brutal," Kublanov said proudly. "So perhaps we will forgive The Vision for his panic."
"Was Stark..." Bucky forced himself to look at the man directly. "Are you all right?"
Stark's eyebrows rose to the ceiling. "Eventually. Yeah." He held Bucky's eyes for another moment before turning to Kublanov. "Thank you, Ambassador."
"Finally, we must speak of the attack that occurred in the United States. Clint Barton set off a diversionary bomb at the Avengers Compound and disabled security, and Wanda Maximoff physically assaulted The Vision and damaged multiple levels of the compound when she bodily sent him through the floor."
The Witch huffed and flexed her fingers on the table top, sparks igniting from the tips. Bucky looked at Steve, but he didn't seem inclined to stop her behavior, so Bucky pulled a knife and tested the point before giving her a meaningful look. She glared at him resentfully and the sparks snuffed out.
Stark sighed. "Unless Barton and Maximoff have come into a small fortune, I will drop the charges and fix the damages myself. The Vision also refuses to press charges in light of what's coming."
"What is coming, exactly?"
"Patience, Mr. Rogers." T'Challa motioned the lawyers forward, and they opened their briefcases and started passing thick documents around the table. "We have completed the civilian reparations segment of the agenda. Let us break for a moment before moving on to the legal agreement. My staff will serve refreshments, and perhaps you can take this time to begin looking over the first draft."
Four of the screens went dark. Stark and Ross remained on the call, however, and Bucky noticed some sort of robot approaching Stark with a cup of green goo in one claw. Stark turned with a smile and accepted it, saying something the microphone didn't pick up before he laughed, his eyes crinkling.
Bucky looked down and flipped open his agreement.
"This is crap," Steve said, and shoved his packet away to turn to Bucky. "Come on, let's get out of here. I need some fresh air."
"And I want to get a jump on this thing," Bucky said. "This is about our lives, Steve."
"Not if I can help it." Steve firmed his chin. "They need us, after all." He raised his voice. "Isn't that right, Tony? You need us in this fight."
The conversation around them dropped into a waiting hush, and Tony put down his glass and wiped his mouth slowly. "Need you? I suppose you could say that."
"Well, you're the ones paying for all these reparations to make sure we come back," Barton said.
Natasha, who had been suspiciously quiet so far, said, "C'mon, Tony. No point in trying to hide it. You need us; it's obvious."
"You could look at it that way, I suppose: that we needed you so badly we paid for you to come back." Stark's face betrayed a smirk. "On the other hand, it took not just a global but a universe-ending threat for us to even consider bringing you back. And even then, you are in such disfavor we had to pay everyone off to look the other way—that's how much people hate you."
"Tony," Natasha said, disappointment in her voice.
"Don't sugar coat it," Lang said.
"As for me?" Stark shrugged. "This guy is going to end trillions of lives, according to Thor. I can put my ego aside for that. Can you?" Stark's eyes gleamed.
"Thor is back?" Steve said, ignoring the dig.
"Yup. Bruce, too." Stark smirked outright. "They both have signed the preliminary Accords, by the way."
Steve's fist clenched on the table.
"Anyway, better get to reading," Stark said. "That's some important stuff. And the language is a little dense." Stark signed off with a shark-like grin.
Steve cursed and stomped away from his seat.
Stark wasn't kidding about the language, though. Bucky got about three pages in before he raised his head helplessly and caught the eye of Mr. Klimov, who came over with a smile and sat next to him.
"May I help you, Mr. Barnes?"
"Would you, pal? I can't make heads or tails of some of this gobbledygook."
"That is what I'm here for," Klimov said. "I'm surprised the others aren't availing themselves."
Bucky looked around and saw Steve and the others grouped in the corner of the room munching on snacks and whispering to each other, their agreements left behind on the table.
"I'm not," Bucky said, and leaned over the page to ask questions.
Klimov was good. He didn't talk too fast, but he didn't treat Bucky like an idiot, either. The agreement seemed fair, if too complicated in places, but Bucky figured that was to make sure the lawyers got their full pay. Not everything was spelled out, but Klimov said they still had some decisions to make, and they'd discuss it in the meeting later.
"So, basically, as long as I stay out of Europe and Russia, I'm good?"
"Yes, Mr. Barnes."
That wasn't so bad. Lots of other places left to run to if things went sour. "And after this bad guy gets taken down, I get to have my day in court, and you think they'll grant me leniency?"
"Mr. Barnes, I don't think anyone can argue that 75 years of brain-washing shouldn't deserve the full measure of the court's leniency. But I swear to you, when I heard of your case, the first thing I did was research every precedent that came even close, and I believe you have nothing to fear from the ICC."
Bucky had to admit, that took the weight off, right there. "Thank you, Mr. Klimov."
"You're welcome. Now, back to the agreement."
By the time King T'Challa returned, and everyone got back to their seats, Bucky felt like he had a pretty good handle on the agreement so far. The whole thing was a lot less scary than he thought it was. The only thing he was worried about now was fighting this monster they were talking about, and whether the world would survive.
T'Challa restarted the call with the other ambassadors, and then sat down and steepled his fingers.
"As stated in the preamble, this legal agreement with the International Criminal Court would be entered into to supersede any formal charges laid at the fugitives' feet for criminal activities between the dates of May 6, 2016 and May 30, 2016, with the understanding that should any of the fugitives violate the parameters of this agreement, the full weight of their crimes will be brought down upon them."
"Oh, great. Now we're back in high school," Barton said. "Who's gonna be hall monitor?"
"Mr. Barton, am I to understand you did not take advantage of a single minute of Ms. Leboo or Mr. Klimov's valuable services to read through this document?"
Barton crossed his arms, flexing them in a show. "No. I'm not signing anything until I get what I want."
"And what is that, Mr. Barton? A prison sentence?" T'Challa held up his hand when Barton made as if to talk some more. "To continue, and we won't go into minutiae—that is for you to work through with your legal representatives—the following parameters are already set. None of the fugitive seven are to return to the European Union or to Russia except in their duties as dictated by their team leader, and only then in the direst of circumstances as outlined in the agreement, Section 3, a-f. The fugitive seven team leader, Tony Stark, has been selected by the U.N. Accords Council; he shall remain team leader until his duties become too great."
T'Challa paused to turn pages, and Steve and the rest of them began whining like babies. Stark leaned on his palm and watched.
"Stark's no leader," Maximoff said.
"Sir. King T'Challa," Steve said, suddenly so meek and sweet, Bucky wanted to bring him flowers, "surely you realize what a bad idea that is. Tony Stark is—"
"Your team leader," T'Challa said, his voice rising over waves of protest. "Unless you want to go directly to prison and skip all of this..." he waved his hands. "Paperwork."
"Surely a compromise?" Natasha said. "You do need us, after all."
T'Challa raised an eyebrow. "And this is where you wish to plant your feet? So early?" He waved his hand over his read-out, and glowing pages fanned out in the air. Bucky hid a smile, knowing exactly what was in the array of pages. Having spent ten months with these jerks, he was kind of looking forward to watching.
Natasha turned toward Steve. "He does have a point, Steve."
Steve bit his lip. "But Tony..."
Stark rolled his eyes, his chin still resting on his palm like he was in the cheap seats at a stage show. "No, please, do go on. Tony...what?"
Steve shook his head.
T'Challa continued. "Team members will follow the orders of the team leader. Not to do so is a violation of the agreement. Team members will do their utmost to help prepare Earth's defenses for the arrival of the Titan, no matter what their duties should constitute, as long as they are within the law."
"I bet I know who threw in that clause," Steve muttered.
"Team members will stay on-site at the Avengers' Compound in New York, where all their needs will be provided for. In exchange, they will assist in recruiting and training the incoming team members and also train themselves, vigorously, in preparation for the upcoming invasion. Any failure to do so or any attempts to leave the grounds for reasons not associated with team assignments will be considered a violation of this agreement and reason to remand them to the ICC for the original charges."
Steve turned his head to glare at Stark accusingly, but Stark wasn't looking him. His attention was on the Witch, whose fingers once again danced with red.
"You should at least pretend to be cooperative, Wanda," Stark said. "You can't reach me from there, you know."
"Stark. You'll have me imprisoned again."
Stark rolled his eyes heavenward and turned toward T'Challa. "I told you she'd think of it that way."
"Ms. Maximoff," T'Challa said. "This is not imprisonment. Prison, as you are aware, is a six by eight-foot cell. This will be a sprawling compound filled with friends and young folk all preparing for most important event to ever occur on our planet. And, I remind you, if you don't like the terms, what awaits you is real prison."
Maximoff's eyes glowed red. "I'd like to see you try!"
T'Challa raised his hand, and The Vision appeared through the wall behind him. His eyes looked sorrowful as the stone in his head started to glow, and suddenly the red disappeared from Wanda's eyes, the magic fading from her fingertips. Bucky sagged with relief.
"Vision! What—!" Maximoff gasped.
"I'm sorry, Wanda," Vision said in a quiet voice. He turned around and disappeared again.
"No one's lives will be put at risk by your unstable logic, Ms. Maximoff. You will either abide by the agreement or you will be indicted for your crimes. There is no third option."
Wanda let out a choked sob, burying her face in her hands. Barton put his arm around her shoulders and glared.
"If I may continue?" T'Challa said evenly. He didn't wait for their agreement but finished going over some last details that Bucky barely paid attention to. His focus was on how tensed up Steve was getting. Bucky was worried Steve would lose control and start something; if he did, Bucky wasn't sure he'd be able to stop himself from reacting instinctively to protect Steve, even if he didn't agree. The same thing had happened in that bunker, and Bucky hadn't stopped regretting it.
"You okay?" Bucky whispered to Steve.
"Just peachy. Stark is our jailer and we have to follow his messed-up leadership to try to defeat this Titan guy. I don't like our chances."
"Well, this ain't the time to go into that. Let's just get this part done, okay?" Bucky said under his breath.
Steve nodded tightly, and Bucky relaxed a little.
"So. If that's all, ladies, gentlemen?" There were a couple of sullen nods in response to T'Challa's question, and he said, "Very good. Please make use of the lawyers at your disposal to go over the agreement in detail. After which, our royal notary, mzee Mapfumo, will witness as you sign the agreement with Mr. Haas for the ICC. Please take your time to understand the agreement thoroughly before you sign. We don't want any unpleasant surprises."
Since Bucky had already gone over it with Klimov, he took the opportunity to go snack on the treats the staff had provided. The royal chef did amazing things with the local bananas—Bucky would've never thought to put them in a stew, but it tasted smashing.
"I see you went straight for the ndizi-nyama," T'Challa said at Bucky's elbow. "It is a favorite of mine as well. Forgive me for saying so, Sergeant Barnes, but you seem more open to new experiences than your fellow Mr. Rogers. Perhaps because you didn't spend the last 75 years hibernating?"
"Nah," Bucky said. "From what I remember, Stevie was always kind of a fuddy-duddy. He was born an old man and he just got older."
"Interesting." T'Challa turned and stared out into the room. "Well, I hope for all our sakes he grows a fresher outlook or he will prove to be useless to us." Giving Bucky a solemn nod, T'Challa left him to his stew.
"Huh." Bucky wasn't sure if that look meant T'Challa intended him to pass on the warning or not, but he wasn't Steve's handler, that was for sure. Steve could take his own knocks.
Bucky was done looking out for him.
Part 2: The Compound
The first steps Bucky took on American soil as a free man were at JFK International Airport. Crowds of people came out to greet them holding banners and signs, all with the same general messages, "Welcome Home Avengers!" "Welcome, Defenders of Earth!"
"See, Bucky? They couldn't wait to get us back," Steve said, smiling and waving at all the people.
"I think this means they know about the invasion," Bucky said. "Right, Natasha?"
Natasha was waving too, although she wasn't smiling much. "I think you may be right. They've never called us 'Defenders of Earth' before."
"C'mon. That's Stark's driver, Happy." Steve pushed them along and away from the roped-off crowd. "I knew they'd bring us back," Steve said. "Just thought it would be a little sooner."
Bucky shook his head.
Vision was waiting for them at the limo. He handed them each an envelope after they piled their bags in the trunk.
"Hi, Vis," the Witch said as she took her packet, her eyes lowered and her smile timid.
"Hello, Ms. Maximoff," the android replied, cooler than a cucumber.
"What's this?" Steve said, turning his envelope over.
"That is your welcome packet. It has various pieces of information you will require, such as a map to your quarters, your schedule, and your badge and key card."
"I know where my quarters are, Vision," Steve said. The others murmured in agreement.
"Your belongings were stored away and your quarters cleaned and repurposed in your absence. No one believed you would be returning," Vision said blithely, and Bucky choked at Maximoff's huff of outrage. Vision gave Maximoff a sideways glance, then continued. "You have been issued new quarters. Your belongings, such as they were, await you there."
"Such as they...well, how do you like that?" Steve said, turning to Bucky.
"Just get in the car, Steve. It's been a long trip."
"Right. We'll settle this when we get to the Compound."
Vision proceeded to drive them to the Compound. Steve and his gang spent the time discussing what it would be like to be back in the United States, and who must be using their quarters, and how to evict them and get their rooms back. Just as the vehicle approached the Compound, which Bucky had seen only in photographs, Maximoff leaned over the front seat.
"What about my powers, Vis? It's been days without them...I've been miserable!" Maximoff gave a little choked sob, and Steve came to her rescue.
"Vision, you know it wasn't right for you to steal her powers like that."
"In fact, I did so at the request of the sovereign ruler providing you sanctuary," Vision said, his voice soft and gentle. He pushed open his door and paused before getting out of the car. "Ms. Maximoff's powers will be restored for training purposes whenever she has need of them. Otherwise, for her own safety, and those around her, they will be kept under control until she learns now not to abuse them."
"Noooo!" Maximoff screamed.
"Vision! We need to discuss this—"
But Steve wasn't given the opportunity. Vision rushed off—well, floated, more like it—leaving them at the entryway. They all got out of the car and retrieved their bags before entering the lobby. The sheer number of people running around seemed to have Steve and the rest of them in a tizzy.
"Who are all these people?" Maximoff said petulantly.
"I assume they're the new recruits," Natasha said. "Remember, they're gearing up for the Titan. Tony chose the Compound as his base of operations to keep any battles away from New York City."
"But this was our home," Steve said.
"Not me," Lang said.
Bucky looked around at the giant structure. "A little big for six people, ain't it?" Steve gave him a glare. "What? I'm just sayin'." Bucky grinned.
"Never mind. Let's get to our rooms and get settled in. According to the schedule we're meeting up with Tony in an hour."
"Any chance there's food planned?" Bucky's stomach growled.
"Yeah. It's a dinner." Steve got caught up in a conversation with Barton and Maximoff, who seemed upset again.
"Fantastic," Bucky muttered. He pulled out his map and was pleasantly surprised to see all the team's rooms were marked, and his room wasn't next door to Steve's. In fact, it was all the way down a long corridor and on the other side. He used his key card on the elevator to get to the third floor, located his room, then used the card again to get inside.
The room was real nice. A wide-open space, no shadowy corners, and thick glass windows that had the bullet-proof shimmer he hated as a sniper, but gave him a warm sense of security from the other side. He touched some button controls beside the window and a set of shades lowered down. The second button caused metal shutters to clank down.
Bucky raised his eyebrows, impressed. "Going to have to thank Stark for that."
He got to unpacking. It only took him a few minutes; it wasn't like he owned much of anything, his most prized possessions being his Glock 45 and his M249 Paratrooper. He put the SAW in the closet and the Glock in his pants where it belonged. There were some extra clothes and gear in the closet that weren't his, ditto in the bureau, but they were wrapped in plastic and looked brand-new. Maybe they were for him, or belonged to the person before him. Bucky shrugged and sat down on the bed to sort through his papers.
The rest of the packet went over Compound rules, stuff like no fighting outside of the trainings rooms; no dining in the conference rooms unless it was a designated lunch or dinner meeting with cleaning provided afterward; please be courteous with shared areas such as the kitchen and bathrooms; and no magic use allowed outside of private rooms or during training.
Bucky couldn't help being relieved at that last one, although he wasn't sure how it could be enforced. At least Maximoff was under control.
The next page went over the Compound "amenities" such as the artificial intelligence who helped administer the Compound and acted as quartermaster; the cafeteria hours; available menus and incidental foodstuffs; and how to use the interpersonal communication devices.
Then Bucky's stomach growled again and a quick check of the time made him dump his papers on the bed to finish looking through later. He'd better hop in the shower; he stunk like a wet dog. As he undressed and dropped his badge and keycard on the bed, he saw the little light on it go from green to red. Curious, he picked up the card, and the tiny square went green again.
He was still pondering it while he lathered up under no less than three showerheads. Did Stark design the compound? Steve was always going on about Stark being a flaky, self-centered, no-good sonofabitch, but that didn't ring true with what Bucky was seeing. This place was a marvel, just the kind of secure facility HYDRA could only dream of having: the key cards went dead if they weren't in physical proximity to the person they belonged to. Badges were still required, though, so that real human security must be involved with checking identity. But that wasn't all; Bucky had seen dividing barriers partitioning the ceiling at intervals. Obviously, Stark had prepped the Compound with a possible foothold situation in mind.
Bucky had stepped out of the amazing shower and was rubbing an ultra-plush towel through his hair when someone started pounding on his door. It was a faint sound because the door was so thick, but Bucky's hearing had been exceptional even before the serum.
"Who is it?" he yelled.
"It's Steve! Who else you expectin'?"
Bucky laughed. "Yeah, that would be our boy." He wrapped the towel around his waist and unlocked the door.
It swished open and Steve came stumbling into the room. "Bucky. I thought something had happened to you."
"In the 45 minutes since you saw me in the lobby?" Bucky sighed and went digging for a clean shirt. He'd forgotten to check the welcome sheet for where the laundry room was.
"Stark could have done something to you. I know he's still angry." Steve sounded like the angry one, though.
Bucky wondered why, after everything Stark had done and paid for to get them back here. "Well, I'm fine, sport."
"Yea, I can see." Steve's eyes lingered over him, and Bucky frowned and turned away.
"I'm gonna get dressed. You want to meet at the conference room?"
"Nah. I can wait for you."
Bucky heard Steve sitting on his bed as he turned his shirt right side-in. He pulled it on in a hurry, feeling weird about Steve watching him and not knowing why. It wasn't like the two of them hadn't changed clothes together about a million times. Bucky snatched up his shorts and tugged them on, letting his towel slip off just as pulled them up. He draped his towel over the closet door and then shrugged on his pullover.
His hair was a too-long mess. That was a question he could ask the quartermaster about later—maybe they had an on-base barber. In the meantime, he just pulled it back with a tie and left it in a messy ponytail.
"Ready to go?" he said to Steve, who seemed to be leafing through Bucky's packet.
"Huh? Yeah. Let's go." Steve dropped the papers on the bed. "I don't get why you're way the hell over here instead of in the room next to me, Buck. We'll make Stark change that first thing."
"I like my room," Bucky said stubbornly. "It's got metal shutters and bullet-proof glass, and it ain't facing the forest like yours is. I can see for miles from this side."
"Okay, Buck. I'll get moved to this side."
"That's not what—"
"C'mon, we're gonna be late." Steve charged out the door, and Bucky grabbed his Glock, his badge, and his key card, and followed.
"You know where we're going?" he asked, putting the badge around his neck as they headed toward the elevator.
"Yeah. The Malibu Conference room is on the second floor by the elevator. Tony named all the conference rooms after his favorite cities. The guy's ego is a marvel."
"Better than naming them A, B, and C, right?"
"I guess. There you are," Steve said as Natasha joined him in the hallway. "Can you believe they put Bucky all the way over here?"
"Steve," Natasha said, giving Bucky a quick look. "Don't stir things up. It's our first day."
"They're trying to split us up! It isn't right, Nat," Steve said firmly. He hammered on the button to the elevator like a rat going after the lever.
"It's lit already," Bucky said.
"What?" Steve jammed the button again.
Lang, Maximoff, Wilson, and Barton showed up just as the elevator arrived. Bucky didn't relish riding in an enclosed space with the Witch, but it was a short drop to the ground floor where the conference room was. Bucky could have found it just by following the glorious smell; his stomach roared so loud Steve laughed at him, poking him in the shoulder.
"Your stomach sounds like mine feels, Buck. Let's get some chow."
But as they entered the conference room, Steve let out a glad cry, "Thor! Bruce!" and rushed over to two guys chatting with Stark, ignoring the pizza altogether.
Bucky shrugged and grabbed a plate, keeping an eye on the action.
Stark walked away, a dry smirk on his face as Steve earnestly shook the curly-haired guy's hand only to get a mild smile in response. Bucky was pretty sure that guy was Bruce, because the giant fellow in armor had to be the god, Thor. Which meant skinny Bruce turned into the green monster, Hulk, when he got pissed off. And from Bruce's expression, it looked like Steve was well on his way winning the green lottery.
Wilson, Maximoff, Natasha and Clint all surrounded Thor, and Bucky sidled up next to Steve. "Hey, Steve, introduce me, will ya?"
"Oh, yeah! Hey, Bruce, this is my best pal, Bucky."
"Hiya." Bucky waved.
"Bruce Banner." Bruce offered his hand.
Bucky wiped pizza grease off his hand before offering his own. "Hey, another double-B. I'm Bucky Barnes."
Bruce cracked a genuine smile. It seemed to perk the interest of Thor, who said, "And who is this?"
"This is Bucky Barnes. Steve's friend."
"Well met, Bucky. I am Thor, son of Odin, King of Asgard." Thor winced. "Well, Asgard that was."
"And I'm James, son of Ethel. I ain't king or nothing."
"But you are a warrior, I assume. That is why we are all here."
"Some of us just hitched a ride," Bruce said, and Thor laughed and clapped him on the shoulder.
"None of that, friend Bruce. You are the truest warrior I know. In fact, you nearly had me in the coliseum on Sakaar."
"Uh-huh," Bruce said doubtfully.
"What's this?" Natasha said. "I've never heard of Sakaar."
"Ah, it's a distant planet where Bruce and I were trapped. Bruce was a great champion there for quite some time."
"Whoa, another planet?" Lang said.
"Sounds like a fun time," Steve said heartily, and Bruce gave him a narrow look. Bucky could tell the cold shoulder act was giving Steve the hives, because he started getting agitated. Steve never could stand it when someone didn't like him like he expected.
Steve put a confidential hand on Bruce's shoulder. "Look, Bruce: I don't know what garbage Tony's been feeding you about us being criminals, but a lot happened while you were gone. You can't take his word for anything. He likes to talk up a storm and make it look like he's blameless."
Both of Bruce's eyebrows went up.
"There are two sides to the story," Steve rushed on, "and you should know he was responsible for the whole Accords mess to begin with. I was just protecting an innocent man." Steve waved at Bucky, and he kind of wished he could sink into the floor at that second.
Bruce eyed them both for a long moment before saying, "Tony hasn't said anything to me. We're the ones who've been briefing him about the Thanos situation."
"Oh," Steve said weakly. "He hasn't?"
"Not a thing. How about you, Thor?"
"No. I shall have to ask him."
"I can explain," Steve said.
"That's all right," Bruce said. "I'm hungry. I can see Tony got pesto pizza. My fave."
"I've never tried that," Bucky said, and followed Bruce back to the pies with his empty plate.
"All right people, grab your pizza and your drinks and have a seat. I'd like to go over a few things before tomorrow," Stark said from the head of the table. The guy who'd arrested them in Bucharest, Colonel Rhodes, was sitting next to Stark, two slices in front of him and a bottle of dark beer in his hand.
"Oh, Mr. Stark?" Lang raised his hand.
"What is it, Lang?" Stark said. He sounded tired.
"Oh! You know my name. Good, that's good, 'cause I wanted to thank you for, you know, helping to pay for that airplane I trashed. God, I don't know what I was thinking. And then War Machine got hurt," Lang babbled, and Rhodes raised his hand.
"Forget about it, Lang. Believe me, you'll be paying for it in work. We have a job to do."
"Right, right, sure." Lang bobbed his head.
Stark cocked his head. "You didn't get any pizza, Lang. We out?" Stark looked around. "Anybody want anything else? Burgers? More vegetarian fare? How about dessert? Hey, Jarvis, did we order dessert?"
"I believe there's cheesecake, sir," an amused voice said, male, English. It seemed to be coming from all around, and Bucky craned his head.
"Jarvis is back?" Bruce said, his voice hushed with wonder.
"Who's Jarvis?" Bucky whispered, bewildered, and Steve said, "I'll tell you later."
"Yeah, Vision helped me restore him. Didn't I mention?" Stark made a good effort at nonchalant but it was obvious he was downright giddy about it.
"No...Tony, you didn't mention," Bruce said wryly. "God, that's wonderful! Welcome back, Jarvis."
"Thank you kindly, Dr. Banner. It's good to be back."
"He sounds like Vision," the Witch said. She sounded jealous for some reason.
"Jarvis is Vision's father, Ms. Maximoff," Rhodes said, his hand on Stark's arm. "Haven't you heard of a family resemblance? Now, everyone, please sit down. We should get started so you can get some rest. Tomorrow's going to be a busy day."
Steve sat next to Bucky, with Lang on his other side. Everyone else sat opposite, except for Rhodes and Stark, who sat at the head of the table.
"Jarvis, can you call Vis?" Stark requested.
"Of course, Sir."
A few seconds later, Vision came floating through the wall and directly to the chair at the foot of the table.
"All right, kids," Stark said, clapping his hands. "We're going to ramp you up pretty fast, because the situation is a little explosive right now—"
"Wait just a second. I have something to say," Steve cut in.
Rhodes said, under his breath, "Oh, boy. Here we go."
"As long as it pertains to the effort against Thanos," Stark said. "Go for it."
"I think it does," Steve said. "It's about team dynamics. We have to start off right."
Stark sighed. "What is it?"
"Why are you trying to separate Bucky and me?"
Stark stared, his face blank. "Why am I what, exactly?"
"You're trying to split us apart. You put us at completely different ends of the compound. I'm not an idiot, Tony."
Rhodes let out a wheeze that sounded like a laugh and smacked a palm over his face.
Steve's brows slanted. "It's obviously a statement."
Stark dropped his head and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Jarvis, please investigate the issue for Captain Paranoid, here."
"Of course, sir." There was a pause, then Jarvis said. "The latest guests were input into the compound's systems in the order sent by the State Department. That list was acquired by the State Department from the Wakandan Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The list is in the following order, Steve Rogers, Natasha Romanov, Clint Barton, Sam Wilson, Wanda Maximoff, Scott Lang, Bucky Barnes. There are six rooms per floor on each side. The rooms were assigned automatically in the order given as added to the system." Jarvis paused. "In fact, it was only with luck that a seventh room on that floor was available in time for the guests' arrival due to a recent vacancy; otherwise, the seventh guest would have been assigned to another floor entirely."
Bucky cringed with embarrassment for Steve, and searched for something to break the silence that followed Jarvis' report.
"Thank you, Jarvis. If I can continue with the business of the evening, Rogers?" Stark said mercilessly, and Steve nodded, his lips pressed together.
"All right! As I was saying, Bruce and Thor's arrival on Earth along with the Benatar was not as low-key as we might have wanted, but it was good publicity in a way. As we were just gearing up to get key authority figures and NGOs involved in the Earth Defense effort, this was the optimal time for the leak. So, nice timing, Bruce, Thor. Many thanks to our new alien friends, the Guardians of the Galaxy." Stark nodded ironically, and Bruce saluted him with a piece of pizza. "That being said, we had to move up our timetable a little, hence dragging you guys back on the bounce." Tony waved his coffee mug at Steve and the rest of them. Bucky caught Steve's expression and had to bite his lip; apparently being dragged around on Stark's say-so didn't sit well with Stevie.
Not a problem if Steve did it to Bucky, though.
"So, let's get some good rest tonight. We start at 7am sharp tomorrow. You'll find fresh uniforms in your closets. Sergeant Barnes," Stark said, and Bucky jolted. Stark continued, his voice conciliatory, "sorry to say I didn't have a chance to discuss your uniform requirements with you beforehand, so I did what I could. Talk to Jarvis if there's anything else you need. We have an appointment set for tomorrow afternoon to get your specific criteria down. Ain't that right, Jarvis?"
"Indeed, sir. It is on Sergeant Barnes' schedule."
"There ya go." Stark's eyes shuttled away.
"I'd like to attend," Steve said suddenly, and Stark peered at him quizzically.
"Why? It's..." Stark waved his hands. "Barnes' gear? Not a team thing."
Steve folded his arms. "Anyway."
Stark rolled his eyes. "See this?" He held up his wrist, pointing to his watch, which expanded to cover his hand until a glowing jewel covered his palm. Bucky frowned, a memory prodding at the back of his mind. "This puppy has a laser just like my suit's. I could cut through your buddy like a hot knife through warm butter before you could get up from your chair. If I wanted to hurt him, or you, you'd both be in pieces two years ago. So simmer down, Chicken Little."
The memory finally broke through. "It's fine," Bucky said. Jesus, he'd tried to shoot Stark in the fucking face the last time he saw that wristwatch trick. "I don't need Steve babysitting me."
Stark's watch reversed the trick, tucking itself away. "Glad to hear it."
"Wait," Steve said.
"Nope. We're done with delays for today. Everyone get some sleep. We start at 7am." Stark grabbed his coffee and, together with Rhodes, walked out the door.
The rest of them looked around. "Well, that was a treat," Lang said. "I thought he was going to blast us all for a second, there."
"We would have deserved it," Natasha said. "What were you thinking, Steve? Our first day back and—"
"I told you: I want to start as we mean to go on. I'm not letting Stark railroad us just because he's in charge."
"And what, precisely, do you fear will happen if you let Mr. Stark guide the group in accomplishing your tasks, Mr. Rogers?" Vision said quietly.
Bucky had clean forgotten the guy was still in the room, and turned to look at him. This was the closest he'd been to the Vision, and looking into android's face, Bucky realized the guy had more real emotions than he'd expected. It was all there in his eyes. Steve told Bucky the android was only a couple of years old, but his eyes looked ancient.
Bucky could relate.
"Hey, Vision. It's not...I'm not running Tony down," Steve said earnestly, and Bucky wanted to roll his eyes. That was the same choirboy act Steve put on whenever he'd gotten them both into trouble again, usually from some useless fight defending Steve's honor over someone called him a "shrimp." Bucky must've told him a hundred times there was nothing to defend, that the no-good rats putting him down for his height looked worse than Steve did, but Steve wasn't having any of it.
Bucky bit his lip when he realized he'd just remembered something brand new from his life before. He'd completely missed the conversation.
"...the goals of this organization. So, please cooperate the best you can despite any distrust you might have for us. We have some of the most brilliant minds on Earth working to prepare for this invasion."
"Sometimes it's not about smarts," Steve said gravely. "Sometimes it's about guts."
After a significant pause, during which Vision peered at Steve like he was a tapdancing cockroach, Vision said, "I'm sure. In this case, however, it's about the best scientific minds of our millennium striving to invent the very best defensive and offensive technology in as little time as possible to build a protective shield around our planet."
Vision's response made Steve's jaw twitch.
"With all of your assistance, of course," Vision said graciously. "Please get some rest. Tomorrow will be a busy day." With that, he turned and drifted through the wall.
"Can you believe that guy?"
"Sure, Steve. Listen, I'm pretty wiped," Bucky said. "Let's say we do like he said and get some sleep."
"Yeah, okay, Buck. You do look tired."
Bucky nodded and walked out. He could feel Steve at his shoulder, but at the elevator, Steve stopped to say something to Natasha, and Bucky made his getaway.
Man, he was plum tuckered out. It was only 9:30 p.m. but he was ready to hit the rack and wake up next week or so. He stripped his clothes and dumped them on the armchair in the corner, then tucked his Glock under his pillow and his boot knife under the mattress within easy reach. He was just trying to figure out how to get the lights off when someone tapped on the door.
"Bucky? Hey, Buck?"
Bucky groaned. "Steve. Buzz off. I'm going to sleep."
"But we weren't done talking."
"I was," Bucky muttered. "Good night, Steve."
After a moment of silence, Steve said sullenly, "'Night."
"Thank God." Bucky fiddled with the controls but they just made the shutters go up again. Sighing, Bucky rolled his forehead against the wall. Inspiration struck him a moment later. "Hey, Jarvis?"
"Yes, Sergeant Barnes?"
"Can you—do you know how to turn off the lights?"
"Of course. Would you like me to do so?"
"Nah. I'd rather you showed me how. Also, how to close the shutters again."
"It would be my pleasure. There is a second set of controls beside the bed."
Of course there was. "Tony thought of everything designing this place, didn't he?"
Jarvis' voice sounded warmer as he said. "Indeed, Sir has a talent for design. He could have been a great architect, had the fancy struck him."
Who knew an artificial creature could sound so proud?
"Now, the pad on the right is a dimmer. You simply run your finger up and down to raise and lower the lights, or double tap it to shut them off or turn them on completely. If you wish the temperature of the room adjusted, use the thermostat beside that—the colors indicate the temperature, and my voice will sound as well, for the vision-impaired."
"Absolutely everything," Bucky marveled.
"To the left are the window shade adjustments, but I think you can practice those tomorrow. You seem quite tired, Sergeant."
"Boy, howdy, am I."
"Let me lower the shades, then."
The shades went down with hardly a hum, and Bucky tapped the light pad, putting him in blessed darkness.
"Wake me up in time to get ready tomorrow, would you, Jarvis?"
"With pleasure, Sergeant."
"Thanks. Good night."
The next morning Bucky woke to Jarvis' quiet voice telling him the time, the weather broadcast, and some local news reports that made Bucky smile.
"I didn't know the Pickleball National Championships were so soon," Bucky said. "You should have told me, Jarvis. We could've fielded a team."
"I'm terribly sorry, Sergeant Barnes," Jarvis said dryly. "But I think perhaps you'll be a trifle too busy to engage in recreational athletics."
"Whaddaya mean, recreation?" Bucky said, running the shaver over his chops and then slapping some aftershave on. "I bet there's a big prize, right?"
"A team trophy, yes. And one would assume the approbation of their peers."
"There ya go." Bucky pulled his uniform out of the closet and took a look.
Stark hadn't done a bad job. The pants were dark grey and had tough panels on the thighs, shins, and on the reverse, proof against his knife-tip and possibly bullet-proof as well. There was a soft set of shirts and pants to go underneath, and then a black jacket with silver piping and the same tough panels on the shoulders and arms as well as the chest and back, all segmented for flexibility, and comfortable as well. Bucky put it all on and marveled at the easy weight.
The bag also contained knee and elbow pads that were plain magical. Bucky held the first pad up to his knee, trying to figure how to hook it on, and the thing just clamped on by itself. He shook his knee, pounded the pad, tried to yank it off, but no-go. Then he tugged gently on the corner and it just peeled off like it knew what he was thinking.
"Genius," Bucky said aloud in wonder. He attached the other three, adjusting the last one slightly before sticking it on, and then looked at the rest of his gear. The gear bag included a full-face mask, a half mask over his eyes, or one over the lower half of his face—it looked like Tony was covering all the bases. Bucky shook his head and went for the eye mask. He wasn't that other guy anymore. The eye mask had goggles that cast everything in a clean yellow light.
"Hey, Jarvis," Bucky said, shoving his feet into his boots. "Any chance I can get a new pair of boots? These are falling apart."
"I believe there is a new pair in the closet that should be identical, Sergeant Barnes. Sir spent some time analyzing your image before ordering them."
"You're kidding." Bucky went back to the closet and, sure enough, a brand-new pair of boots, almost identical to his own, sat waiting. He pulled them out and checked the size. Perfect.
"Please thank Mr. Stark for me, Jarvis. He did a good job on the gear."
"I will do so."
"Oh, and is there a barber on base?"
"There is indeed. A barber comes in weekly on Tuesdays, a stylist on Thursdays."
"What's the difference?" Bucky put on the gloves Tony had provided. They were soft as butter inside but had reinforced metal knuckles on the right hand. Jeez, the guy thought of everything.
"A barber tends to focus on short hair, razer cuts, shaves—things of that nature, whereas a stylist will handle longer hair, curly hair, problem hair, coloring changes, etc. While men tend to visit barbers and women stylists, that has changed a great deal in recent years, with men wearing longer hair and women shorter hair in the past few decades."
"Thanks a lot, Jarvis. Can you make me an appointment with the stylist." Steve would probably wig out, but that wasn't Bucky's problem. He liked having long hair. It hid his expression.
"Done. Is there anything else you require?"
"Nope." Bucky holstered his Glock and sheathed all three of his best knives. He brought the SAW as well since he didn't know what kind of mission they were going on. "I'm all set. Is everyone else ready?"
"They have already convened downstairs."
"Crap. All right, I'm making tracks."
The elevator doors opened on a colorful crowd of people. Steve and the rest were there, all tricked out in their usual uniforms, but looking brighter than usual. The red piping in Steve's red, white, and blue uniform looked almost metallic; the blue had a sheen like gunmetal; the white glowed practically silver.
The same was true for the rest of them: Black Widow's blue piping glowed neon, her hourglass red shone metallic just like Steve's.
Bucky looked around and saw a bunch of faces he didn't know, and set his back to a wall by the exit. The guy with the cape looked interesting. His eyes were that particular shade of ice blue that made him hard to read. It didn't help that he had a beard like Tony's and a smirk to go with it.
The blonde standing next to him wore a red, white, and blue uniform similar to Steve's, but something in the calculating way she assessed the room made Bucky want to find a dark corner.
There were other people standing a cluster talking: a dark-haired girl in a black jacket and jeans, a smiling guy in a yellow hoodie who was built like a tank, a floppy-haired blond fella speaking earnestly to a guy in a black outfit with his eyes covered by a black mask.
"Okay, folks, in a line, if you please. We're going to head in an orderly fashion to the buffet room and feast lavishly before we go. Please keep your uniforms tidy if you can," Stark said, and a ripple of laughter filled the room.
Bucky followed the line, Steve close beside him.
"Man, Stark wasn't kidding about a feast," Bucky said, in awe as he saw the buffet tables. There were three sets of them the length of the room, all loaded down with food.
"That's Tony showing off for ya," Steve said, grabbing two plates and starting to fill them with waffles, eggs, bacon, sausage, fresh fruit, and a side of pancakes.
"Uh-huh," Bucky said, doing the same. "What a jerk," he said, and Steve just nodded, oblivious to the sarcasm as he kept piling heaps of food on his plates.
Bucky shook his head and finished walking the table with his plates.
"Oh, hey, Barnes," Tony said.
"There's someone I want you to meet; this guy does the same sorta Krav maga stuff you do. Deviled Eggs, meet Buckaroo Banzai." Stark passed him off to a seat between the gorgeous gal with the long dark hair and the guy in the black mask.
Bucky shrugged and put his plates down next to the guy in the mask. "Bucky Barnes. I have no idea who Buckaroo Banzai is."
"Hi, I'm Daredevil. Tony is just being his usual smartass." Daredevil gave a friendly nod. "I'm part of the Defenders."
"I thought we all were?" Bucky started in on his waffles.
"Ah, a small confusion. We're the Defenders of New York City," Daredevil said. "That's Jessica Jones," he nodded at the woman on Bucky's other side, "Power Man," nodding at the man built like a tank, "and the Iron Fist," apparently the curly haired fella talking to Vision.
"Well, nice to meet you all," Bucky said. The Defenders all waved, Jones tipping a flask his way in offer. "Thanks." Bucky took it with a grin and enjoyed a quick sip of whiskey before passing it back.
"Nice to meet you, too. As nice as can be under the circumstances, I suppose." Daredevil said, popping a strawberry between his lips. Bucky found his lips a little distracting and looked away. His stomach growled, so he picked up his knife and fork and dug into his top waffle.
Daredevil laughed. If Bucky didn't know better, he'd think the guy could hear his belly over all the conversation and eating.
The fare was fresh and well-made. Bucky listened to Daredevil telling him about how the New York Defenders met while he ate his way through the mound of waffles and eggs. He was just starting on the second plate of sausage and pancakes when a familiar voice said, "Bucky! There you are. C'mon—I found us a table where we can all sit together."
Bucky sighed and put down the perfect mouthful he'd been constructing. "I've been here the whole time."
"Well, I saved you a seat. C'mon and join us," Steve said.
Bucky looked down at his half-eaten meal and shook his head. "Nah. That would be rude. Besides, Jessica was just telling me about the time Daredevil let a building collapse on him."
"I didn't let—I was trying to save my ex-girlfriend!" Daredevil said weakly.
"His undead ex-girlfriend," Jessica confided before offering him another sip from her flask. Bucky accepted it gladly.
"Not my brightest move, I'll grant you," Daredevil said.
Steve crossed his arms. "How about an introduction?"
"Oh, yeah." Bucky pointed. "Jessica Jones, Power Man, Daredevil, and the Iron Fist. These guys are the New York Defenders. Guys, this is Captain America."
Steve nodded at them all. "Anyway, we're over there." He pointed at the far corner of the room. "Come join us when you're done here."
"Thanks, but I got a front row seat right here." Bucky turned back to his pancakes, a little pissed off and not sure why.
"Pushy guy," Daredevil commented after Steve left. Daredevil's New York accent was thick and familiar. "That's Captain America?"
"More like my punk friend, Stevie," Bucky said. "I can't remember him all that much. I...have amnesia...from being brainwashed by HYDRA." And boy, wasn't that a mouthful. He risked a glance at Daredevil and saw his mouth was pulled down, those pretty lips pursed in a frown.
"Gosh, that's terrible. I'm so sorry."
"Eh. It is what it is. They had me for a long time, so I guess it will take a long time to get better. But it's a little frustrating."
"Recovery is the worst." Daredevil smiled ruefully. "After that building fell on me, it took me an excruciating amount of time to get better. I'm still not a hundred percent; I don't know if I ever will be."
"But at least you're alive."
"Exactly," Daredevil said. "And can think and get around. That's more than I could do when I woke up from the coma."
"You jerk," Jessica said butted in. "You didn't tell me you were in a goddamn coma."
Daredevil's mouth twisted. "You were a little busy beating me up. Couldn't get a word in."
"You deserved having your ass handed to you. All that time and not a word?"
"Well, I was in a coma for a month of it."
"So, I take back like, the fat lip and one black eye."
Daredevil licked his lower lip and grinned.
Jesus, this guy had the best cocksucking lips.
Daredevil tilted his head toward Bucky.
"Attention, attention, people! All right, let's get started. You know who I am," Stark said. The lights dimmed twice, and folks hushed down.
"Looking around, I see some of the most powerful people on the planet, but not just because of what they can do with their bodies or powers, but what they can do with their minds, with their focus, with their influence." Tony paused and gave the room a good stare. "Today, we're going to get started with the first of many campaigns of influence. We're going to tell the world, clearly and plainly, what the Earth Defense Project is all about. And we're going to enlist the entire world's aid in preparing for the arrival of Thanos and his armies.
"We're going to do this together."
There was a round of applause, some folks even pounding the tables with their fists.
"Okay. The staff is walking the tables as we speak handing out the press packets. You will be expected to stick to this script because this is the truth—we are working with full transparency on this project. No lies, no secrets. We can't hope to engage the full cooperation of the world population if we withhold or distort information." Tony took a deep breath and said sternly, "Without trust in each other, we don't have a hope of defeating the Titan.
"Please take this time to read through the Earth Defense Effort press kit and FAQ. The first portal will be open in one hour and will take us to the Times Square Hilton for the press conference. Captain Marvel and I, as the leader of our forces and the Earth Defense Effort, will be the primary speakers, and you folks will sit at the table as the impressive show of strength and power that you all are. During Q&A please remember to stick to the script or Jarvis will cut off your mic so fast your tongue will get road burn."
Tony paused during the laughter.
"Thank you; I'm serious. Jarvis is a vindictive so-and-so with a trigger finger." Tony clapped his hands. "All right; If you have any questions at all, please let Jarvis know and I will address them before we go." Tony flashed his cuffs and then stepped away from the podium.
Right away, Bucky got an uneasy feeling, and sure enough, he saw Steve, Wilson, and Romanov approaching Tony, Rhodes, and Captain Marvel, the gal in the red, white, and blue outfit, at the front table about ten yards away.
"Stomach hurt? You put away an impressive amount," Daredevil said.
"No. Steve's about to do something stupid. Question is, do I step in?"
"Do you want to?"
"Not really. But I can't seem to watch the little squirt get into trouble."
"Then let's go see what we can do." Daredevil got up with him.
"You don't have to do that," Bucky said, getting a little hot under the collar. He wished he could see Daredevil's eyes.
"C'mon. We don't want to miss the fun. Sounds like things are heating up."
Sure enough, Steve's voice was rising, and to Bucky's embarrassment, people were starting to notice.
"...just stick us in the spotlight like a bunch of show ponies, Tony! We came here to make a difference, not be dancing monkeys for you!"
"Did you miss the part where I said you would be making a difference? That all of us are in this together to bring the entire world into it? To inspire the whole planet to do its part in assembling Earth's Defense? This is your job right now. This is how you make a difference!" Tony looked completely exasperated. Captain Marvel looked on, for the moment not interfering.
"Steve..." Bucky tried to break in. "He's got a good point."
"Buck, stay out of this." Steve crossed his arms, his lower lip thrust out. "I could be doing much more. I'm a leader—the Avengers' leader, and—"
Rhodes made a rude noise.
"Excuse me, Jim, but—"
Rhodes shook his head. "Seriously, Rogers. Put a cork in it. Why do you think Tony paid all that goddamn money to bring you back here? More than a billion dollars—do you know how many lives he could have changed for the better with that kind of money? Do you even understand how much money that really is?"
"It's a lot of dough, I get it," Steve said sarcastically.
"Hoo-boy," Daredevil said under his breath.
"No, you obviously don't." Rhodes shook his head. "But let's put it this way: an average Joe would have to work seven days a week for twenty-one thousand years years and never spend a dime to make just one billion bucks. You blew over 2 billion."
After a moment, Steve said, "It's just—"
Stark stepped in. "Money, right? It's just money that could save lives. Money that could feed an entire country. Money that could build a shield around the world, manufacture protective gear for a ten million soldiers, money that you wasted destroying an entire airport because you couldn't just—stand—down. You covered up a HYDRA assassination plot for over two years for personal gain, protecting countless HYDRA conspiracists for your own personal reasons."
Steve growled. Bucky ducked his head.
"Now tell me again that you're a leader we should follow. A man we should put in a position of leadership, to listen to, to trust." Stark raised an eyebrow. "No, I don't think so. I paid out billions of dollars for one thing and one thing only: to reassure the planet that there were powerful people standing strong and waiting to do damage to the bad guys." Stark pointed. "That's your role, Steve."
"Now wait a goddamn second—"
"Nope. No waiting. You'll look good for the cameras, or you'll be indicted for your crimes. If you want to be part of Earth's Defense, just shut up and do—your—job. Because believe me, the day that we need you to fling a lousy dinner plate at the hordes of Chitauri coming for us, that's the day we've already lost the war, Steve. We need more than that from you. There is absolutely nothing dishonorable in encouraging talented, brilliant, hard-working, useful, and wealthy people to join the cause. In fact, it's the only thing you're skilled enough to do at this point in the process, so just shut up and do it."
Stark didn't give him an opportunity to reply. He just walked off, Rhodes close behind him.
"Well, shit," Bucky said, and Daredevil laughed hysterically under his breath.
Marvel said quietly, "When it comes to the field of battle, we hope to take the Chitauri in space before they even reach Earth. But to do that, we'll need the entire planet involved in the manufacturing process. Think of it as World War II times a thousand. A million Rosie the Riveters and Wendy the Welders. We need to throw ourselves on the mercy of the people to get this effort happening."
"I get it," Steve said sullenly.
"I just don't like playing for the press."
She shrugged. "No one does. But this is what your commanding officer is ordering you to do."
Steve nodded, his jaw working and turned away, almost running smack into Bucky, who backed off. Steve's face flushed deeper red and he brushed by Bucky and stomped off.
"Wow." Daredevil nudged Bucky's arm. "You want to go after him?"
"No. I'd better let him cool off. We still have to read our kits."
"Right. Let's get on that."
They went back to their table and broke out their press packets and prep pages. At some point, Bucky looked over to see what page Daredevil was on and saw nothing but blank pages. Except, under his fingers were little bumps. Bucky groaned into his hands in embarrassment. The super hearing, the sniffing, it all made sense.
"Finally figured out he's blind, huh?" Jones said next to him.
"Yeah, but, to be fair, I'm kind of a dope."
"I'm wearing what is functionally a blindfold," Daredevil pointed out, and Bucky punched him in the arm, lightly.
"Ow!" Daredevil grinned. "Your hand is like lead. And it's been making noises all night. It's...intriguing."
"It's an advanced prosthetic," Bucky said. He added snidely, "I can't believe you didn't figure it out."
"Ha-ha. Can I see?" Daredevil reached for his hand, and Bucky stripped off his glove and gave it up, letting him run his sensitive fingers over the metallic joints.
"Wow. That is...truly remarkable."
Bucky watched Daredevil play with his fingers a little longer. "You keep doing that, I'm gonna think you're flirting with me."
"Just figuring that out too, huh?"
Bucky smacked his free hand to his forehead and groaned. "Usually I'm better at this."
"Don't worry about it," Jones said. "Doubledee is awful at flirting."
"Hey! I'll have you know I'm an excellent flirt." Daredevil smiled sweetly.
Bucky shook his head.
"Ladies and gentlemen," Jarvis' voice came over the speakers. "Please assemble at the north wall where Dr. Strange and Sorcerer Wong will be creating portals for your transportation."
"Saved by the Jarvis," Jones said, slapping them both on the back.
Daredevil let go of Bucky's hand and they grabbed their things.
"Guess this is it," Bucky said, feeling more than a little nervous.
"Don't worry. You can hide behind Luke if it gets rough," Daredevil said, coaxing him along. Jessica laughed and linked arms with Bucky on his other side.
Together, all three of them stepped through the portal.
The press conference went pretty well. Steve and his pals remained quiet; thanks to the huge amounts of information Stark and Danvers were putting out about the intergalactic threat Thanos represented, no one had a lot of questions to spare about the fugitives from the Civil War. Bucky was damned grateful not to be dragged into the spotlight, and he did his best to look brave and heroic in the face of terrible danger, just as the prep kit requested.
Jessica shooting him the occasional tipple from her flask didn't hurt.
Stark introduced the alien crew that had arrived with Bruce and Thor to warn them all about Thanos' arrival. For aliens, they seemed like a pretty nice bunch. The dreaded Q&A section was winding down when one of the reporters finally got around to asking Stark about the fugitives, saying, "Do you think there will be any issues of team cohesiveness on the field in working with the old Avengers?"
Stark came back smoothly with, "That shouldn't be a problem. Colonel Rhodes, as liaison to the combined U.S. armed forces in this effort, won't be involved with the fugitives. My contact with them will be during the preparatory work only; Colonel Danvers will take leadership in the field, and she has no prior contact with them. I anticipate, as this is a space-bound defense effort, we'll be unlikely to bump into each other during the battles."
Steve tensed beside him and leaned toward his microphone. Bucky held his breath.
"I agree with Iron Man. It shouldn't be an issue."
Bucky forced himself not to react. Either Steve was playing the long game, or he'd finally learned a lick of sense.
"Last question," Stark said. "You, with the orange... Look, I know orange is the new black, but the only people who should wear orange ties are Girl Scouts and the Prince of Wales. Your question?"
"Oh, um. Charlie Gleason from the New York Investigator, Mr. Stark. You said financing for the Earth Defenders was coming from a variety of sources. Can you name some of them? Are they expecting recompense after this is over? Are they liable for damages caused by the team? Thanks."
"That wasn't one question, Charlie. First of all, all financing details are listed in the press kit. Earth Defenders Alliance believes in one hundred percent transparency. But to answer quickly, I am personally helping fund the effort along with King T'Challa of Wakanda, Bruce Wayne of Wayne Enterprises, Danny Rand of Rand Enterprises, and Hope Van Dyne of Pym Technologies, among others. We are not expecting recompense. We are setting up a damage fund and trying to find an insurance company generous enough to take on the contract. It's for the Earth, after all. And who knows: maybe we'll be able to keep all the violence out of range.
"All right, folks. Thank you for coming. Anyone wishing to volunteer, please hit our website at IVolunteerED.com or text EDCORPS. More info at the bottom of the screen.
"And please remember: the fate of the Earth is in all of our hands."
"He's trying to get my goat," Steve ranted. "It's the only explanation."
Bucky sighed and prayed for the elevator to arrive faster.
"Stark seems pretty preoccupied with defense effort," Romanov said. "I don't think he's aiming any curveballs at you in particular, Steve."
"Are you kidding? That 'In our hands' line? And I'm the leader of the Avengers and he's got me riding the bench."
"Don't you think he had a point about the way things would look? We're supposed to be uniting the planet and the last time we were on people's radar, we broke up the Avengers." Natasha sounded regretful.
Steve waved her point away. "That was a year ago." He gusted out a sigh. "C'mon, Bucky. Let's go strategize with the team."
"Actually, I've got that equipment session with Stark, remember? And I'm meeting Daredevil to try some hand-to-hand."
"What?" Steve stared at him.
"I'll catch up to you later," Bucky said uneasily, walking away from Steve's dead-eye look as quickly as he could. Steve was definitely not dealing well with the whole leader of the Avengers thing. Maybe he thought Bucky was brushing off his authority. Bucky would have to remind him friends didn't order friends around.
It took Bucky a while to find the right lab. He finally ended up asking Jarvis for directions, and Jarvis helpfully connected to his phone and gave him private directions on his screen. The more Bucky learned about the Jarvis, the more he was impressed.
Bucky found the equipment lab and the door whooshed open for him without knocking.
"Thanks, Jarvis," Bucky said.
"You're welcome, Sergeant."
"Oh, hey," Stark said, looking shifty. "I'll be right with you. I've just got to get changed." The Iron Man suit seemed to crawl off his body as he walked, leaving him in a tight black undersuit that didn't leave a lot to the imagination. Maybe that was why he'd gone a little squirrely. Stark disappeared behind some equipment and, after some thunking and cursing, came back dressed in a long-sleeved T-shirt and a pair of jeans that had seen better days.
He stood on the other side of a wide workshop table and gestured at Bucky, saying, "So? How did the uniform work out? Not that you saw any battle today beyond facing the dreaded press corp."
"It was fine, Stark," Bucky said. "I like the panels. How tough are they? Bullet-proof?"
"And then some."
"I could use some weaponry," Bucky said, hesitant. "Came with nothing but my Glock 45 and my M249."
"Hmm. That the Paratrooper you had in Siberia?"
Bucky winced. He'd regret to his dying day what happened in that bunker. Stark seemed to pick up on it, because he finally sat down on a rolling stool and set his hands on the workbench. Bucky sat across from him, nervous but ready. If Stark wanted to let him have it, it was no more than he deserved.
"Bucky. Call me 'Bucky.'"
Stark pressed his lips together. "Bucky. Call me Tony. 'Stark' was my old man."
"All right, Tony." Bucky forced himself to smile.
Tony smirked back, looking a little bit easier. "So listen: I want to thank you for letting Shuri forward your scans from before and after your treatment. They went a long way toward convincing the German and Romanian governments to accept our deals. It was just so damned clear you weren't in control of your own frontal lobe."
Bucky flushed with shame.
"Hey. Hey, B-Bucky. None of that was your doing, all right? You sending those scans really helped me understand that, too. I'm sorry for my reaction in Siberia."
"I was ready to shoot you!" Bucky couldn't believe this guy.
"Yeah, but your brain was mincemeat at the time, so..."
"And you just saw me do the most horrible—" Bucky bit his lip. "The only person who was in their right mind was Steve, so what was his excuse?" Damn it, Bucky was pissed as hell at Steve this whole time and didn't even know it.
Tony laughed, low and bitter, and pulled some piece of circuitry close to him to start fiddling with it. "Steve being in his right mind is debatable. Speaking of which—Jarvis says he's noticed a pattern of disturbing behavior." Tony looked up, raising a hand. "To be clear, Jarvis has been programmed with protective protocols for all the inhabitants of the Compound, and that includes patterns of harassment. You two raised some warning flags."
Bucky took a slow breath. "Like what do you mean?"
"Like—persistent requests for attention that aren't reciprocated, repeatedly pressing for physical proximity and being rejected...and, of course, I know from my research after Siberia that Rogers tracked you around the world. You were running from him, weren't you?"
"I...yeah. I knew who he was, but I didn't want..." Bucky wasn't sure what he wanted, or who he was, but just having freed himself from HYDRA, he wanted a chance to find out. "I wanted to be free."
Tony nodded. "Well, no one in the Compound is allowed to harass another guest. So just say the word to Jarvis if you feel uncomfortable."
"Yeah, sure. Okay." Bucky could take care of himself. It was just Steve being a pest.
"It's no big deal," Bucky said. "Thanks, though. Now about those weapons?"
Tony smirked and swiped up his hand. A catalog of sweet, sweet automatic weapons appeared, glowing in midair. There were even some old-school Stark weapons. Bucky pointed greedily, and Tony shook his head with a laugh.
"You do know we're probably not going to meet these aliens hand-to-hand."
Bucky shrugged. "Can't be too careful."
"Okay, champ. They're yours."
"And can you modify my goggles for night vision and rangefinding?"
"Got that, Jarvis?"
"Anything else, push pop?"
"I'll let you know," Bucky said dryly, and Tony laughed again, his eyes crinkling. He'd leaned forward on the table, Bucky noticed, his posture relaxing. He seemed less scared of Bucky now, which was good if they were going to work together.
"Thanks, Tony," Bucky said. "And for that other thing."
"Just let Jarvis know," Tony said. "He's here if you need him."
"I am, Sergeant."
"Thanks. I gotta go, though. Have a sparring session with Daredevil."
"Ah." For some reason that made Tony smirk. "Have fun!"
"Hmm." Bucky took off.
With the guidance of his handy map, he found the Istanbul practice room. It was a great space, lots of thick, firm padding on the floor that was easy to walk on but sank when he jumped on it. The door hissed open, and Daredevil walked in.
"This is terrific," Bucky commented, doing a quick couple of flips. Daredevil matched him, tumbling along with him, laughing, and they ended up facing each other.
"Hey, Jarvis. Privacy setting, if you please," Daredevil said.
"Of course, Mr. Daredevil. Done."
"What's going on?" Bucky said.
"Just a sec." Daredevil tilted his head as if he were listening to something, then nodded and reached up to pull off his mask. His brown hair fluffed around a high forehead and caramel-colored eyes wandered over Bucky's shoulder. Daredevil tucked his mask and one glove under his arm to offer Bucky his hand.
"Hi. The name's Matt Murdock."
Bucky pulled off a glove so he could shake.
"James Buchanan Barnes." God, Matt was handsome, with such pretty eyes.
"Yeah, I know." Matt tilted a grin. "You're kind of famous. I read about you in the papers and what happened to you even before the Avengers' divorce."
Bucky coughed. "That's a good way of putting it. Steve sure acts like the wronged spouse."
"Yeah, I noticed," Matt said, grimacing. "Listen, if you're having trouble with him, I can help with a restraining order. I'm a lawyer."
"A...lawyer." Bucky checked him out again, head to foot, the incredible abdominal muscles and bulging arms and thighs. "Right, okay."
Matt laughed. "No, really."
"I believe you! It's just when do you have time? In between punching out bad guys you take 'em to court?"
"Actually, I'm a defense attorney."
Bucky shook his head, laughing a little. "Fantastic."
"Don't change the subject, Bucky. Rogers is acting creepy. Jess noticed it, too. She has a good eye for these things."
"Not you guys, too. C'mon. He's an old friend. At least, from what I remember, he is. He's going through a tough time, and I guess he feels like he needs his friends around him."
"And what do you need, Bucky?"
Geez, Matt could do earnest like nobody's business, his warm eyes not quite meeting Bucky's.
Bucky cleared his throat. "Right now, I'd love a good workout with my new buddy. What do you say?"
Matt licked his lips and nodded then slipped his glove and mask back on. "Sounds like a plan."
And boy, could Matt bring the hand-to-hand. Bucky hadn't had such a good match since, well, he couldn't remember when. Bucky cheated a little, using the arm to toss Matt back to buy himself some extra time because crap, the guy was fast and spun tight little circles so it was tough to guess where the blow was coming from.
"Fuck!" Bucky said when Matt's toe caught him in the shoulder, right where prosthetic met his body.
Matt dropped from his handstand to his feet. "You all right?"
"Yeah. Just stung a bit. Nice shot."
"I was aiming for your jaw," Matt said ruefully. "You're too fast."
"I'm too fast? You're too fast. Are you...you know..." Bucky scratched his neck. "Extra-human?"
Matt bit his lower lip. "I'll tell you the story sometime when we're drunk. But I don't know what I am, really."
"You know what? Me, neither," Bucky said. "You ready to call it quits for today?"
"Yeah. Let's find that drink."
"Sounds good." Bucky stripped off his goggles and gloves, tucking them into his belt, watching as Matt resettled his mask. Now Bucky understood why Matt hid his identity—being a superhero could make trouble for his daytime job.
"Jarvis, lift privacy and unlock the doors." Matt turned to Bucky. "I know just the place, if we can get Wong to come with us. He loves Josie's."
"Oh, Josie's is more than a bar. It's a way of life."
"Sounds like fun," Bucky said, following Matt as the doors slid open, only to halt on his heels. Steve stood in Matt's way, a furious expression on his face.
"Why was the door locked?" He poked a finger at Matt. "What were you doing in there?" 'With Bucky' was implied, and before Matt could say anything, Bucky stepped in front of him, pissed as hell.
"None of your fucking business, Steve. What the hell?" He pushed past him, tugging on Matt to get him to follow on his left, blocked from Steve by Bucky's body. If that didn't make it clear to Steve to leave Matt alone, Bucky would stamp it on his goddamn forehead with knuckles, and not the flesh and bone ones.
"Okay," Bucky said once they were down the hallway a ways. "Tony and Jessica might have a point. A small one."
"Uh-huh. Just let me know when you want me to file that paperwork."
Bucky sighed. "I'd much rather have that drink. Let me get changed and I'll meet you in the lobby in an hour."
"Sounds good. I need to line it up with Wong. Okay if Jess joins us?"
"Sure thing. She's something else."
"She is, at that," Matt said, his grin wide.
Bucky went back to his room and put his gear away, cleaning what he could and putting the rest down the built-in laundry chute Jarvis told him about. He couldn't believe the convenience and the design of the place. Damn it—he'd forgotten to tell Tony how amazing he found the Compound. An awkward conversation for another time.
After a quick shower, Bucky took a look in his duffle. He had a couple of pairs of jeans and some ragged T-shirts he hadn't yet unpacked.
"Can you hook me up with the quartermaster? I need to get some civvies."
"I can assist you with whatever you require, Sergeant. But I believe you'll find some casual shirts and pants in your approximate size in the bureau within your closet."
"Oh. Criminy, you guys thought of everything." Bucky opened the top drawer and found some underpants and socks. The second drawer had long and short-sleeve T-shirts in a bunch of different patterns and colors.
"Sir told me to provide for the team so you'll have nothing to distract you from the primary tasks at hand."
"Thanks, Jarvis." Bucky grabbed everything he needed, going for a red shirt with dark blue stripes on one sleeve simply because the material felt extra soft. There was also a pair of jeans that felt pre-washed, and the shorts and socks were soft and stretchy. He dumped them on the bed and hopped in the shower.
When he got out of the bathroom, Jarvis said, "Sorry to disturb you, Sergeant, but you have a guest at the door. It's Mr. Rogers."
"I can tell him you're busy if you wish," Jarvis said tentatively.
"Does he know I'm in here?"
"I haven't given him any indication either way. The privacy of our guests is paramount."
Bucky relaxed. Hell, when had he tensed up? When did Steve become such a problem?
"Thanks, Jarvis, but please just ignore him. Hopefully, he'll be gone by the time I'm ready to go."
"Hopefully so." Boy, Jarvis could pack a lot of disapproval in two little words. Bucky finished drying off and hung up his towel then went to get dressed.
The shirt fit amazingly well. The pants were a little tight, but then he'd gotten used to clothes being a little tight in this century. Maybe Matt would appreciate it, Bucky thought with a grin, taking a little extra time to shave and tie his hair back. The eyes that stared back at him in the mirror were his own, and he repeated Shuri's saying to himself, "Forever persist; a rope cuts stone."
Swinging on his jacket, he stashed his passkey, badge, and Glock and addressed Jarvis. "Is the coast clear, Jarvis?"
"Mr. Rogers is no longer outside your door, Sergeant."
"Super. Hey, don't I have to get permission to leave the compound since I'm still on probation?"
"As long as you are accompanied by an established team member, you are not in violation."
"Cool beans." Bucky headed down to the lobby, grinning when he saw Jessica. There was another person waiting with her dressed like a monk. Bucky hadn't met Wong the Sorcerer personally, but he'd heard the Defenders talking about him. Bucky stepped forward and offered his hand.
Bucky nodded. "Heard about you. Daredevil says you cast a mean spell."
Wong raised his eyebrows.
Jessica slung an arm around his shoulder, "Brother, that's an understatement. Just don't let him drop you into any bottomless holes."
"That was one time," Wong said, raising his finger. "You were very drunk. And annoying."
Jessica laughed. "I didn't say I didn't deserve it." She looked over Bucky's shoulder. "Hey, Matt. Late as usual."
"Sorry about that."
Bucky turned and his jaw dropped. Matt was in a suit, tie and everything, walking toward them with a white cane to guide his progress. His hair was styled neatly and he wore red-tinted glasses with round frames that made his lips look like lush berries.
Bucky cleared his throat. "Hey, Matt."
"Hi, Bucky." Matt tilted his head, seeming to appraise him for a moment, before he smiled and said, "Well, Mr. Wong, shall we?"
"First round is on you, Mr. Murdock," Wong said, and spun his hands around in a controlled way. Sparks flew from his fingers, and a circle to another place grew right in front of them—a street in Manhattan, looked like. Jessica stepped through boldly, and Matt reached out. Bucky offered his arm automatically, and together they walked through the circle, with Wong coming through behind them.
The circle closed, the light fading, and they stood in the alleyway for a moment before Jessica said, "Booze is this way," and took off.
"She's like a bloodhound for booze," Matt whispered. "A boozehound."
"I heard that," Jessica said. "Just for that, you're getting the second round too, Matt."
"At your will, my queen."
Jessica snorted and opened the door to the pub. Bucky was immediately inundated with the smell of beer and the rush of noise and music and warmth of humanity inside. It brought on a sense memory so hard he staggered a bit, making Matt clutch his arm a little tighter.
"Yeah, just...it's a lot."
"I know what you mean," Matt said ruefully. "Senses can be a curse sometimes."
Bucky looked at him with surprise. Matt got it. "Yeah. And it's...giving me old memories back. Not bad ones, but it's..."
"Hey." Matt squeezed his arm closer. "If you need to go back, we can. Right now. Or if you need to be alone, whatever. Just say the word."
"Thanks. That's...you're..." Bucky shook his head. "Nah, let's go in and get a drink. It takes a lot to get me trashed, I'm all for trying."
Matt smiled. "Whatever you say. It's on me, remember?"
"I don't think your wallet can hold up to the pounding I can give it."
"Big words. You're talking to a guy who drinks with Jessica Jones on a regular basis. I have bar tabs bigger than you."
Bucky laughed. It felt so good he didn't stop until Matt shoved him up against the bar.
"Josie, I want you to meet my friend Bucky. He just challenged my wallet to a drink off. Bucky, this is Josie, the most patient bartender East of the Borscht Belt."
"Can the flattery. What's your order?"
"See? Patient as a saint. What's for starters, Bucky?"
"Line up a row of shots of Jack. Jessica and I will race from the ends. What d'ya say, Jessica?"
"You're on, cream puff."
"What about me?"
"You drink from the eel," Jessica said. "Punishment for being a smart ass."
Matt bowed his head, chuckling silently.
"And me?" Wong said.
"You get whatever you want for being the safe ride," Matt said. "That's sacred."
Bucky raised the first shot and dipped it to Wong. "Mfuata nyuki hakosi asali – one who follows bees will never fail to get honey." Bucky drank it down.
"Right on," Jessica said, tossing back her shot and slamming it down.
Bucky smiled. This was cool. Maybe he'd found some new friends.
Matt poured himself a shot from a suspicious-looking bottle and raised it to Bucky before tossing it back.
Then Jessica eyed Bucky, her posture all challenge, and the race was on.
They called it a draw at some point when Matt started whining about the bar tab. Bucky found a safe corner where he could see all comers while he slowly worked his way through some pints Matt shoved at him. Jessica called a gal pal of hers and they'd started talking about boots a few seats over. Wong was obsessed with the jukebox and how many selections he could pile on by someone named Gaga. It wasn't bad music. Made Bucky tap his metal fingers against the table until Matt rested his hand on his with a wince.
"Sorry," Bucky said. "Forgot about your ears. Funny how I can make noise that doesn't bother me but does bother you, am I right?"
"You are drunk, buddy."
"Not yet, but I'm getting there."
"You did a number on Jessica; I don't think she's ever met her match before." Matt laughed, his voice a pleasant husk. It was getting late and the place had cleared out some.
Matt tilted his head and then turned toward the door. "Tony's here."
"Oh, yeah?" Bucky was relaxed enough not to care. He saw Tony walk in, the movement of something strange crawling into the light on his chest as he turned and assessed the room. He caught Bucky's eye and smiled, quick and tight, before his glance landed on Matt and the smile turned warmer.
"Matt! Wong! You guys could look at your phones on occasion." Tony strode over and collapsed in the chair opposite Bucky. "Not that I've been trying to reach you for the past hour or anything." He grabbed a clean glass and poured himself half a beer from the pitcher. "Hiya, Bucky. Having fun?"
"Yeah. This is a great place. Not sure about the eel, though."
"Eel?" Tony wiped some foam from his beard and addressed Matt. "Aren't you even a bit curious why I flew by?"
"I'm sure you'll tell us, Tony. Wong is cueing you up dramatic music for the occasion."
"Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh, caught in a bad romance," the Gaga woman started singing.
"Appropriate," Tony conceded. "Well, the reason I had Jarvis texting you five times a second is we have a super soldier losing his shit back at the Compound. He claims his best friend was absconded with against his will by an evil sorcerer—that's you, Wong. Nice going building the rep."
Wong almost smiled. He was obviously tickled pink.
Tony shook his head and sighed. "Couldn't you miscreants have ducked out a side door or something? You think I don't have anything better to do than deal with Steve Rogers on yet another self-righteous rampage?"
Bucky winced. "Sorry, Tony."
"Sorry, Tony," Matt echoed.
"Oh, fuck him and his stalker ass," Jessica said, slamming a shot glass in front of Tony and pouring him a shot. "Have some of the good stuff. Chill out."
Tony stared at her, his smile disbelieving. After a moment, he shrugged and picked up the shot. "L'chaim," he said, and tossed it back. "Yipes. What is that?" Tony wiped a tear from his eye. "Gimme another."
Jessica burst out laughing and poured him another shot.
"Here's to ya," Tony said, swinging it around to all of them before throwing it back. "Wow. That is...a kicker. Thanks. I feel much better now, almost less homicidal. I swear, if I have to deal with that blockhead another minute today I will lose every single piece of shit I have left to give. Jarvis? Make note: my schedule is full. No minutes free for shit giving."
"Duly noted, sir."
"You carry Jarvis with you?" Bucky asked. He could swear Jarvis' voice was coming directly from Tony.
"Jarvis is my copilot. I take him everywhere. Ain't that right, buddy?"
"You'd be lost without me, sir."
Tony tapped his shot glass against the table meaningfully until Jessica sighed and refilled it. Tony gave her a nod of thanks and leaned back. "So, what are you crazy kids up to? Shooting the breeze?"
Matt sighed and moved closer to Bucky until their shoulders touched. "I haven't gotten to it yet, if that's what you're asking."
"He's procrastinating," Wong said. "Bad character trait."
"No, no—carry on," Tony said. "Don't let me interfere with your festive night out. We're just trying to save the world, here."
"Hey, I said was just getting to it," Matt said, grinning at their ribbing.
Bucky looked between them and said, "What's up?"
"We were wondering if you would join our core team. Core teams are supposed to be eight and we only have seven. We were looking for another member and we think it's you."
"Oh, yeah? Hang on, who's the seventh?"
"That’s Colleen. She's awesome," Tony said. "She's teaching tonight; I gave her a pass on missing the festivities so she could train up some more fighters. We're going to need everyone."
"The whole planet," Bucky said, still a little awed at the scope of what they were trying to do. "But I thought I already had a team." He looked at Tony in question.
"No one has a set team as yet," Tony said. "You're all free agents. And considering the way Rogers is acting, I wanted you to know you had a choice. Matt asked if you were on a team and I said not as yet." He shrugged. "So, here we are."
"I'll...think about it. Thanks for the invite," Bucky said to Matt.
"Sure thing. Just so you know, we all talked about it and everyone's on board, so give it some thought." Matt looked a little pink for some reason.
"Just don't take too long," Tony said. "We start training next week."
Tony sat back and finished his shot, then made a face and stuck out his tongue. "What did I just swallow? Jones? There was something in my drink!"
Jones laughed. "Yes! Stark ate the eel. I win."
Wong sighed. "I should have known." He tossed Jessica a twenty.
Matt pulled out his wallet. "This is turning out to be a very costly evening."
"Seems by now you should know better than to bet against Jones," Tony said wryly, standing up. "And I'll get the tab."
"Nah, I said I would."
"Tony." Matt grabbed his forearm. "I got this."
"This is another one of your Friendship Teaching Moments, isn't it?" Tony said ruefully. "Okay, fine. Buy the billionaire a drink. I'm taking a snapshot of this bottle, though." He reached up to his glasses and they flashed for a moment. "You got that, J?"
"The order is already in, sir."
Tony smiled. "That's my guy. All right, people. Let's get home before curfew or momma will have our skivvies for supper."
"That's...not a saying," Bucky said, charmed despite himself when Tony flashed an unrepentant grin on him and headed to the john. "Okay. That guy is all right."
"Pesky, but okay," Matt said. "All right. Let's see what the damage is." He tapped his way over to the bar to talk to Josie. His groan in response was audible even over the sound of Gaga singing, " P-p-p-poker face, p-p-poker face, mum-mum-mum-mah," which Bucky couldn't make heads or tails of. Maybe if he were a little less tipsy.
By the time Tony got back they were all ready to head out. Jessica pulled a pilfered bottle of liquor from her jacket and waved goodbye with it before strutting away.
"Not cool," Tony said. "I was gonna steal that."
"I'm going to head home as well. It was great meeting you, Bucky," Matt said, offering his hand.
"You don't stay at the Compound?" Bucky contained his disappointment.
"Not yet. When things ramp up, I will. For now, I show up for training and events and still do my day job."
"Guess I'll see you when it's time to flip ya."
Matt grinned. "'Til then. See you later, Wong, Tony."
"Thanks for the drinks, Atticus."
"Why always with the nicknames?" Wong said as Matt walked away. "You think you're so clever.
"I am clever, Gandalf. You're still sore because you turned down my offer to get you a backstage pass to Beyoncé's On the Run Tour."
"I am not. If I ever meet her, I want it to be on my own merit, not because I am Tony Stark's friend." Wong started circling his hands in a movement Bucky recognized.
"Good for you," Tony said. "You're a man of integrity. She'll appreciate that." He patted Wong on the shoulder and said to Bucky, "Coming?"
"Uh, yeah." Bucky followed Tony through the portal, the lyrics to the first Gaga song running through his head. "I want your love and I want your revenge..."
Tony laughed and joined along, "You and me could write a bad romance..."
"You got him drunk? I don't believe you, Tony!"
Bucky yanked Tony to a stop and almost fell over. "Steve." Shit. Bucky was drunker than he thought. "What're you doing here?"
"What am I...? Why weren't you here? I've been waiting for you for hours!"
"Jarvis!" Tony hissed.
"I'm sorry, sir. Apparently there is a blind spot Mr. Rogers took advantage of."
"We'll review in the morning," Tony said, and stepped forward brushing off his sleeve. "Rogers, you're causing a commotion."
Tony was right. Bucky could see a few small clusters of people starting to gather. Some of them he recognized from the big dinner, and he cringed to think superheroes were judging this mess.
"That's where you and I differ, Tony. You worry about how things look, while I worry about reality."
"Are you shitting me right now?" Tony sounded completely done in. "I'm trying to save the planet, Rogers. I need everyone on board with this. Of course I care how things look. If people think we can't hold our shit together, they aren't going to put their trust in us and join in! Now get your ass—"
"Maybe you're trying to save the world, but I'm trying to save just one man," Steve said, his arms crossed and his chin stuck in the air. "And what is it worth to save the planet if we can't even do that?"
"Are you...are you joking? You're throwing rhetoric at me like that's reality? Where is your brain?" Tony said, waving his arms. He looked at Bucky, who snorted a little at the look of sheer disbelief in his eyes. "Did you bother asking the guy if he even needs saving?"
"He's compromised! He doesn't know what he needs!"
Oh, that was it. Bucky might be drunk, but he wasn't too drunk to clock Steve one or two.
"Listen, pally. You might think I'm your old buddy, but you don't know squat about the me that's here and now," Bucky said. "And I don't want you 'round me no more."
"Bucky, you can't be serious—"
"That's right—it's the kiss off. I'm done having you tell me what to do and you putting your big meat hooks on me 'cause you feel like it. Matt says there's a legal paper—" Bucky looked to Tony, who nodded, mouthing, "Restraining order." "—a restraining order, that will make you keep off my back. I'm going to get me one of those and make you stick to it."
Steve turned white as a sheet. "Bucky, no, please. You're talking crazy."
"I ain't the one who's talking crazy. You've been following me around—you followed me across the Europe and half of Asia for crying out loud. Who does that? There's a reason I didn't wait up for you, Steve. If I'd wanted you to find me, I would have let you. But you're just this persistent asshole who won't see reason."
"Bucky. Bucky, no. Please. You're all I have left."
"You don't have me. That's what I'm saying. I'm finally free of HYDRA and now you want to up and claim me like a Cracker Jack toy. It ain't happening, Steve."
"Bucky, you don't know what you're saying!"
"You heard him, Steve," Tony said. "Leave the poor guy alone. He's been through enough."
Steve's face turned red, deep red, like heart's blood, and Bucky remembered that look. He knew it all too well. Big trouble now, with Steve so big and strong. He pushed Tony back and away.
"Jarvis! Protect him!" Bucky yelled, and watched in awe as the crawly thing happened, like ants marching out to coat Tony in metal. Bucky stepped in front of him just as Steve launched himself at Tony, and he caught the worst of Steve's lunge, falling back beneath his weight.
"Damn it, Buck," Steve said, trying to untangle himself, but Bucky clamped on with his legs and arms.
"What're you doing?" Bucky panted, his head pounding from hitting the floor.
"Let me at 'im. He's ruining everything." Steve tore himself free and Bucky spun over and tried to yank Steve down before he could knock Tony out.
He needn't have bothered. Tony was poised with his hand raised, a bright circle of light in his palm poised to blast Steve to kingdom come.
"One step, Rogers. Just one, and I will not only knock you out, I will blast you all the way back to court, where you will be indicted for countless crimes. Do you really want that?"
"You've been pushing me down ever since this started. It ends now," Steve growled and threw himself at Tony.
Or tried to. Instead of a blast, what seemed like electricity flew through the air, and Steve froze and started jerking on his feet like a puppet on strings, dancing, dancing and then collapsing in a heap.
"Sorry about the drama," Tony said, looking around at the gathered crowd. "I had to wait until he was clear of you before tazing him."
"Is that what that was," Bucky said, a little dazed by how quick Tony took Steve down.
"Yeah. Check his pulse, would you? I'm steering clear. Because of reasons."
"Plenty of reasons to steer clear of this guy," Bucky muttered, and bent down to check. Steve's pulse was strong and steady under his fingers. "All good."
"Great. Jarvis? Please send a suit to scoop him up and one of the security team to take him down to the brig. Give him formal notice when he wakes up that he's under arrest for violating item 13c of the agreement, no fighting outside of the training rooms. Also, of course, for the legal statute of assault. "
"Of course, sir. Security is already here."
"Oh, right." Tony waved the gal in uniform over.
"You have a brig?" Bucky said.
Tony flashed a grin. "We've got everything here. Didn't I say this was a full-service Compound? We attend to your every need so you can focus on what's important."
"Right. The defense effort." Bucky looked down at Steve, feeling suddenly free. "Hey, Tony? Remember how Daredevil and those guys asked me to be part of their core team? Well, I'd like to sign up."
A true smile spread over Tony's face. "Sounds like a plan. I'll make the arrangements. And Bucky?" Tony stuck out his hand.
"Welcome to the team."