"A hydra. Of course a cult calling itself HYDRA would have a pet hydra!" Clint groaned melodramatically, even though in this case, it was quite justifiably warranted.
Before the group of six, a huge twelve-headed beast had reared out of the deceptively calm, cold marshes, jaws snapping menacingly at them. They were definitely not going to be able to proceed without killing it and not without going about doing so with some form of a strategy. Luckily, they had good and knowledgeable tacticians with them.
"The heads are its most vulnerable parts," Steve announced. "We'll have to cut them off and then sear the neck stumps with fire before the two new heads regrow. Bruce and Peggy, we'll need your fire magic for that, so conserve your spells. Tony, your blasts can be modified to cause fire damage, so help out whenever you can, but I want you, Clint and Natasha to be mainly in charge of distracting the heads for me."
"Right, no transforming this time for me," Bruce acknowledged, and the others showed their understanding of the plan too.
"Have enough fire spells on hand?" Tony asked.
Bruce smiled, "More than enough." Then turning serious, he added in a softer voice so nobody else would – hopefully – overhear, "Tony, you should sit this one out. It's going to be a prolonged fight with a monster this big. You and I both know that you shouldn't be using your abilities as much as you already have."
"We're so close, Bruce. I can't just stop fighting here!"
"It's precisely because we're so close to their fortress. We can't have you fall now, Tony. Honestly though, I don't even think you should've joined Steve on this quest since you already knew about that." Bruce gestured vaguely to Tony's chest. "I don't know how you explained it away to Steve that day when you fell from the sky but I'm surprised he still hasn't stopped you from going into battle."
"Going to miss me if I die?" Tony joked, not wanting to deal with what Bruce had said about Steve.
The wizard's eyes hardened. "Don't joke about that. You're the first person to be my friend since I got bitten. The beast acknowledges that too. You're all… pack to him, especially you Tony."
"At least promise me that you'll use that crossbow I know you have instead of your powers today, Tony."
"I… Okay, okay Bruce," Tony agreed a little reluctantly. "But if it turns out that I have to fly around to play decoy, I'll still do it."
Bruce sighed but nodded in acquiescence, probably knowing that it was the best he could hope to get out of Tony.
It turned out that the hydra was a variation of the normal ones since it could breathe out jets of frost, which complicated matters a little as they had to be careful not to end up frozen. A couple of times someone had to jump out of the way of a rain of frost, abandoning their task of distraction or decapitation.
Peggy and Bruce stayed behind the frontlines so that the hydra's attention was less focused on them, letting loose fire spells whenever required. As they both could use ranged weapons, they still chipped in to help distract the hydra from Steve's progress of chopping off their heads. Natasha and Clint worked in tandem to distract and injure the hydra's main body. Injuring the main body was slow going that way because hydras had the innate ability to rapidly heal wounds dealt to their bodies, so the main attack force was really all up to how fast Steve could slice off heads. Tony flew around, using that as a distraction maneuver as well as watching out for everyone else. Specifically Steve, but he hoped that the paladin wouldn't really notice that.
Thus far, he'd stuck to using his crossbow, in deference to Bruce's request. He had yet to see the need to chip in with a modified blast of power as Peggy and Bruce seemed to always know when Steve had successfully sundered a neck of the beast. In fact, Bruce was probably reacting even faster than Peggy most of the time, which Tony attributed to the wizard looking out for him and making sure Tony did not have to use more invocations than the one he used to maintain flight.
By this time, five of the twelve heads had been sliced off and the stumps dealt with. Instead of retreating, the hydra seemed to get even more agitated and angry. Its attacks were becoming wilder and more reckless, and Tony had had to do some fancy rolls in the air to get out of reach of a violently flailing head as well as swooping down to lift Clint away from being cornered by two heads. For someone who favored long-distance combat, Clint seemed to have a knack for becoming embroiled in close combat.
"You know, I thought archers preferred standing further away from the enemies they're trying to hit," Tony commented as he picked up Clint. "And I really do not need to be holding you any more than required, thanks."
"Haha, Stark. Don't live in denial. You can't wait to- Ouch! Artemis!"
The hawk, which was well-trained enough to stay out of the way of most battles, had suddenly appeared to peck her master sharply on his fingers. There was also what looked to be a disapproving glare in Artemis' eyes if that look were to be transposed onto a human's face.
"I think your lady hawk here knows you don't need to be that close to your enemies. Which proves my point, Barton."
Following that, it was going well until Tony saw that one of the three remaining heads was about to breathe a jet of ice onto Steve and the paladin was too concentrated on hacking off another head to notice the one coming up behind him. Immediately, Tony sent out a blast of his own, modified to have the same intensity of flame as ice that the hydra was breathing out. The heat from his attack melted the frost cloud into a mini rain cloud that harmlessly splattered onto Steve and did nothing to deter the paladin from successfully decapitating another of the hydra's heads. A fireball from Peggy came almost immediately after, cauterizing the new stump and rendering it incapable of regenerating more heads.
The hydra roared in pain and probably anger at having its attack thwarted and the two heads made for Tony, trying to sandwich him between their snapping jaws. He spiraled backwards and away but the beast was not deterred, and so he was forced to send out another blast mixed with a fire invocation to keep both heads at bay. He was saved from having to use more of his warlock powers by Bruce pelting one head with crossbow bolts and Clint taking out its eyes, while Natasha somehow managing to clamber onto the other's neck and drive multiple daggers into the hide, leaving them in there so that the beast wasn't able to heal the wounds.
When the hydra finally crashed to the ground with all its heads felled, it was met with cheers from everyone. It had been a particularly arduous battle and they were now all exhausted, if elated at their success. This had been their most challenging fight to date and they had all gotten through it mostly unscathed.
Tony wouldn't be able to explain it in a sufficiently convincing manner to anyone later but he was abruptly overcome with a sense of wrongness. A glint of light flashed from a tree on the far end of the marsh and Tony was flying full tilt towards Steve, driven by instinct that something was really wrong and fear for the blond. He angled himself so that he stopped in front of Steve and barely a millisecond after that, an arrow pierced through the minute gap between the metal plates of his armor, deep into his chest. He had a moment of clarity to appreciate just how good the marksman had to be to make such a shot hit its target before he felt the pain from the wound. Was there poison coated on it? Because there really shouldn't be this much pain from a wound not all that deep. Then he was losing hold of the invocation that kept him in the air and just trying to catch his breath.
Someone called his name and his forward momentum was broken by someone catching him before he could crash. He realized that someone in question was actually Steve and a sense of panic welled up inside of him. Not Steve, not Steve. Steve had to get away because the marksman, whoever he was, had definitely been aiming for the paladin. He'd missed once because Tony had gotten in the way, but Tony was sure the enemy wouldn't hesitate to fire again.
"Go… away… Target… you," Tony managed to slur out.
"I'm not leaving you like this! The rest of them have it covered."
Tony turned his head a little to see the shape that was Clint, standing protectively in front of them, his arrow nocked and pointing in what was probably the direction where the other arrow had come from. The Bruce-like shape had his hands spread out in front of him, a protective barrier forming around them. The smaller, dark shape topped with red was Natasha who was slowly stalking around, on alert for more enemies, which meant that the last blurry figure next to him was Peggy who was kneeling beside him and opposite Steve, the beginnings of a healing spell making her palms glow a soft blue-white.
"It's going to be all right, Tony," Peggy murmured. Then to Steve, she said firmly, "On my count, pull out the arrow. Do it hard and fast so the entire arrow comes out, including the tip of it. As soon as it's out of Tony, I'll start the spell."
"Got it," Steve said, his voice sounding serious as if he were on a mission.
"Okay. Bear with it Tony, it's going to hurt," Peggy warned. Then, "One, two, three!"
A choked scream found its way out of Tony's mouth as the arrow came completely free of his body, whatever poison on it intensifying the pain that shot through his nerves. Then the blue-white light came closer and with it, a gentle, calming sensation filled Tony, as if there was someone carefully, tenderly caressing him. The sharp pain from the open wound started to ebb as his tissues knitted back together and Tony felt like he could breathe again as the fast-acting poison was cleansed by Peggy's superior healing magic.
It took him a while, several moments too long, to realize that Steve was being unusually quiet. Tony would have expected the paladin to start fussing over him, asking him questions at least. But no, Steve wasn't making a sound. Angling his head to the side where Steve was, Tony looked at the man. And then blinked a few times for good measure to make sure his chest wound hadn't, illogically, messed up his vision permanently.
Steve was staring at the metal arrow tip, still stained with Tony's blood, with a look of abject horror.
Steve could not believe what he was seeing. The metal tip of the arrow that he'd pulled out of Tony's chest… he knew that design. Specifically, he knew that little mark etched into the metal tip, a stylized "B". Steve hadn't seen this mark in ages, hadn't believed that he would ever see it again. But there it was, staring back at him on the bloodstained arrow.
No, it couldn't be. Yet Steve had no illusions that the shot that had hit Tony, so precisely through the tiny gap in between the armor plating was something only Bucky could've done.
The implications of that… The implications…
"Steve? Steve, are you okay?" Peggy's concerned voice cut through his thoughts.
He looked up at the brunette, and wondered what his expression must be to cause a deeper frown on her face. Was he okay? No, no he wasn't.
"Peggy… I… No, I'm… not. This…" He didn't know how better to explain it, wasn't sure he even wanted to, and so he held out the arrow to Peggy and then murmured, "Look at the arrow tip."
Peggy stared hard at it and Steve knew the second she had seen the inscription when she gasped. "Steve, this… this mark… Isn't it…?"
"Bucky…" he breathed out, confirming to the both of them that yes, it was indeed what they'd thought upon seeing the little engraving.
"You know the person who was aiming for you?" Tony asked, and even through his shock, Steve could hear the faint trace of concern in the warlock's voice.
Even so, he couldn't bring himself to answer, because… because he didn't know the answer. The mark was Bucky's signature but there was no way, no possible way for it to be Bucky's. It just couldn't be possible. Steve had seen Bucky fall and he had been unable to do anything about it.
"James "Bucky" Barnes was a soldier in the Mainheim army and Steve's childhood friend. When Steve became a paladin, Bucky would accompany him on his journeys. Three years ago, Bucky had fallen off the mountain ridge where we had been ambushed by HYDRA. There wasn't a way for us to search for him, and we'd thought him dead ever since," Peggy explained for him before the silence could get too long.
"This is his?" Clint asked, gesturing to the arrow Steve was still holding onto.
"The mark on the metal tip. Bucky always etched his signature on to them," Steve replied softly.
"Could HYDRA be messing with you because they know of your past with Barnes?" Clint asked.
"Bucky was good with many weapons but he favored archery. That shot… He could've made it hit," Steve said. "And it did hit, just that it wasn't… me."
Natasha suddenly kneeled in front of Steve, looking to catch his downcast eyes. When she did, she asked, "May I look at the arrow?"
Steve nodded, loosening his hold on the arrow so that she could take it. Natasha studied the etching carefully, a little frown forming on her face.
"This… looks to be the Winter Soldier's," she finally announced grimly.
"The Winter Soldier?" Peggy repeated.
"Yes. He… When I said that I used to be a spy and assassin, I worked for HYDRA and was known as the Black Widow," Natasha said.
There was a stunned silence and even Tony seemed surprised, before Clint broke it by saying neutrally, "Well, that explains how you seem to know your way really well around the HYDRA bases we've busted."
"Most of the bases are built with the same concept. But my point is that I've met the Winter Soldier before and worked with him a few times. He preferred sniping from afar and his arrows had always had that etching. If HYDRA had called him in, then they're starting to take us seriously."
"I didn't think that assassins were in the habit of handling each other's weaponry," Peggy commented lightly.
"I had to clean up after him sometimes, when we couldn't afford to leave the slightest of tracks. We were also… close, in our own way."
"When was the first time you heard of him?" Peggy asked.
There was a chance, a slight one that Natasha had known of this Winter Soldier before Bucky's death and that the arrow's inscription was just a coincidence.
"Winter, three years ago. I thought that the mark was of his call sign, a 'W' with a slash through it."
"You didn't ask?" Clint more or less stated.
"There wasn't a need to know anything personal about him and it's easier to be compromised if too much of the real person behind the spy is known. He wouldn't have told me even if I had asked."
Bucky had fallen into the depths of that unforgiving ravine in autumn, three years ago. Steve, as had Peggy, had been hoping that the Winter Soldier had been around before that. It was possible that Natasha hadn't known of the other man up until then but the Black Widow was known to the Church as one of HYDRA's longest, most competent and trusted subordinates before she had mysteriously vanished from HYDRA and the Church's sights a year or so ago. It was unlikely for her to be uninformed about a new specialist recruit immediately. It was an idea that Steve did not want to consider but had to, in the face of the information he had.
"Bucky fell in autumn, three years ago," Steve murmured, and from the broken tone in his voice, he knew that they would come to the same conclusions that he had.
What he couldn't get his mind around was why Bucky would work for HYDRA. It was incomprehensible. It was impossible.
"Can you describe his appearance, Natasha?" Peggy requested.
"He's about Steve's height, just a little shorter, with dark brown hair and eyes."
"That does sound like Bucky," Peggy murmured, a slight downwards twist of her lips now visible.
"Why would… Why would Bucky…"
"I may have an answer," Bruce spoke up, drawing everyone's attention to him. "There is a very advanced spell under the School of Enchantment that is able to alter a person's memory. Used by a skilled mage, it can completely rewrite a person's memories of his past. If this Winter Soldier is indeed your friend, then he might have been made to forget his actual past."
"So there may be nothing of the Bucky we knew left?" Peggy asked after a period of contemplative silence, a slight waver in her voice belying her calm expression.
"Perhaps," Bruce said. "It all depends on the skill of the person who cast it as well as the strength of will of the recipient."
"Bucky has one the strongest wills among the people I know," Steve said forcefully. "He… he would have resisted the spell. I know he would have."
"I don't want to be the bearer of bad news, Steve," Clint said hesitantly but still uncompromisingly, "But HYDRA would probably have been torturing him and doing everything they could to wear him down. Eventually, even the strongest break."
"It just can't."
"He'll appear again," Natasha said quietly. "The Winter Soldier doesn't fail on his missions. You'll find out once and for all if he really is your friend then."
The rest of the day passed mostly in a blur for Steve. He wasn't sure when the sky had turned into a riot of dark reds and purples when the sun set until he finally noticed that they had all stopped, and around him, their camp had been more or less set up. Wordlessly, he entered one of the tents to deposit his belongings, only to come up short as he was face-to-face with Tony.
Steve froze, the numb bubble that had formed around him since the discovery of the arrow popping all of a sudden. He remembered that Tony had been hit. Tony had pushed him out of the way. That arrow had been meant for him, and he had gotten so caught up with it that he hadn't checked up on his injured friend, much less thanked him for saving Steve's life. Then there was the fact that things were now a little awkward between them, what with him still not being too sure about how to treat Tony.
He winced a little but regretted that action immediately. Tony's surprised expression clouded over with hurt before the warlock forced a parody of a smile onto his face. Damn it, he was just making everything worse.
"Oh hey, Steve. If you want this tent, I can move."
"No, don't. It's okay, you don't have to move. I… I just, I didn't even ask if you were alright."
"I'm fine. Peggy has magical hands."
Steve knew how bad the situation between him and Tony really was when Tony's attempt at a double entendre fell flat because of the forced cheer in the other man's voice. Not to mention the fact that Tony was still looking tense and very ready to leave. He really should have listened to Peggy when she had very pointedly told him, just the previous day, to stop using flimsy excuses to avoid interacting with Tony.
"Will… will you stay? I mean, if you want to."
Silence pervaded the space between them as Steve went about settling in the tent and Tony fiddled with something. Despite that, Steve slowly felt himself allaying just a little. It was inexplicable but it felt good. He realized that it had been too long since he had just been in Tony's presence. Guilt welled up in him but before he could start berating himself, there was a gentle touch on his shoulder that made him look at Tony.
"Hey, let's take a walk," Tony suggested.
There was a set to his features that made Steve think that even if he refused, the warlock would just keep asking until he caved. That and knowing how often he'd been brushing off Tony made Steve agree.
They exited the tent and Tony gave the rest of the team a rather flimsy excuse of going off to gather some more firewood (because everyone knew Tony disliked such "menial labor" and would never willingly do it without some form of protest first) before they set off deeper into the forest. Steve didn't know where they were going and he wasn't sure Tony did either, but the walk was nice and filled with a companionable silence. When they reached a small clearing where the evening sky was visible, Tony stopped and looked up at the cloudless sky, still faintly lit up by the dying rays of sunlight.
"I'm sorry," came the non-sequitur.
"What? Why are you apologizing, Tony?"
But Tony talked over him. "I knew you wanted me to trust you but clearly I didn't because, well pretty much the biggest secret of my life is my actual identity. And you know my dad, and now you know I didn't get along with him even before. So I don't know. I hope it's not awkward for you now whenever you see him again. Just, please don't tell him you've met me? Jan was one thing but I'm really not ready to see my dad just yet."
"I won't, Tony. I-"
"So, well, I didn't quite trust you… and I know this will be a bit hypocritical, because well, it's coming from me. But… but I guess I just wanted you to know that if you need someone to listen to, you, you can… Well, there's me. If you want."
"And if you don't, I understand perfectly too! I mean-"
"Tony," Steve tried to get a word in, not liking the sudden tense set of the warlock's shoulders as if he was going to fly away if Steve didn't do anything.
"-ha, it's me right? Actually, you know what? I think I should just-"
"Tony! Tony, just listen to me!" he finally said loudly as he placed his hands on the other man's shoulders, spinning him around so that Tony was looking at him and not at the sky.
Tony shut up and tried his best not to meet Steve's eyes, his gaze seeming to hover somewhere above Steve's left shoulder. It wasn't ideal but it would do for now.
"Tony, thank you for offering, for reaching out to me even when I haven't exactly been a very good friend to you recently. No, don't interrupt me. Just listen, okay?" he said firmly, still not letting go of the other man for fear that he would try to run. "I should not have reacted the way I had. I was in shock but even when I came to terms with what I had learnt about you, I still kept my distance and I shouldn't have done that. I'm not angry at you, not even right after you told us who you were. How could I? I just realized that I had unknowingly hurt you and I didn't want to do it again. But clearly I failed because I was too caught up worrying about what I should do that I didn't realize that I was doing it already and for that, I'm sorry."
"Steve, no, why… why are you apologizing?"
Knowing that if he didn't stop Tony somehow, they would be running circles around this topic, so Steve said, "Tony. Let's just agree that both of us feel that we have something to apologize for and accept each other's apology, okay?"
Now, Tony was looking straight at him, his brown eyes seemingly boring into Steve's soul. The dwindling light that cast shadows over Tony's features, strangely, did not serve to make the warlock appear sinister, but rather seemed to make him more mysterious and yet fascinating all at the same time…
"Well, okay, fine," the warlock acknowledged, oblivious to Steve's epiphany. "This wasn't supposed to be about me anyway. So I guess the question is how are you feeling, if you still want to talk about it…?"
Compartmentalization. He should do that. He needed to do that, immediately, before Tony read the wrong idea from his stunned silence. He and Tony already had so many misunderstandings under their belt that he didn't want to add any more, especially if it was preventable. So Steve packed away his realizations and feelings (for Tony) into a mental box and shoved it into a mental cupboard and tried not to dwell on how his mental cupboard looked like the one in the guestroom he stayed in at Tony's mansion.
"Yes, I… I think it would be good to talk," he replied, settling himself on the ground and tugging Tony along gently so that the other man would sit down next to him as well.
Then he started talking about Bucky, something he hadn't done since Bucky's apparent fall down the snowy valley three years ago. He told Tony that Bucky was his first and best friend; that Bucky stuck by him and defended him whenever he mouthed off to bullies thrice his size; that even after his change – a blessing granted to him by the God of War himself – Bucky never stopped treating him differently and instead left the army to join Steve on his new journey as a paladin. He told Tony about how devastated he had been when he saw Bucky fall; how hard Peggy had worked to prevent him from self-destructing in grief; and how he had borne a grudge against HYDRA ever since. He admitted to Tony that he saw the truth in Clint's words that even the strongest of wills – and Bucky was plenty willful and stubborn – would break eventually. But he still hoped it really wasn't Bucky that had become one of HYDRA's best the Winter Soldier.
"I'm afraid of meeting the Winter Soldier. I want Bucky to be alive but if they're really one and the same…"
"It's okay to be afraid, Steve. If they do turn out to be the same person, I- we'll all be with you, be there for you."
"Thank you, Tony."
"You're very welcome, though I think we should get back to camp now. With some firewood, just to make our excuse seem more legitimate."
"I think they all know we weren't actually gathering firewood."
"Oh shush, they definitely thought we were!"
Steve could not help but smile at the easy flow of banter between him and Tony as they set about collecting kindling. Things were, perhaps, slightly complicated by his newly-discovered feelings for the warlock, but there was one thing that he was certain about. He was not going to let anything disrupt his friendship with Tony. Whether or not Tony would ever reciprocate with more than just friendship did not matter as much, and for now, he was content with the status quo.
It was a sign of how much his being currently revolved so much around Steve when after making up with the said man, Tony felt refreshed and buoyed by it all that nothing seemed to be able to get him down. Bruce had remarked on it, but he had a pleased smile on his face so Tony didn't mind it much.
Still, peaceful traveling had now become a thing of the past since the encounter with the hydra beast. HYDRA was beginning to get nervous about their approach, if the cult throwing more roadblocks in the way were any indication. Interestingly enough, while they started having daily skirmishes with a variety of HYDRA agents, the Winter Soldier was not present for any of it. Or if he were, he did not announce his presence in any way. Tony was more inclined to believe that it was the former reason and wondered if it was because the assassin had failed to kill Steve.
Regardless, it was one less thing to worry about at the moment. He knew that Steve was not looking forward to coming face-to-face with the mysterious assassin and while he couldn't imagine what it must be like for the paladin, just imagining the Winter Soldier as Rhodey was enough to make Tony want to scream in denial.
Unfortunately, their luck did not hold and they finally met the infamous assassin.
As it was, it wasn't unexpected that it was Natasha who sensed him first. They had just dusted off another batch of HYDRA's forces when the redhead suddenly tensed and then in a motion that was nearly too fast for the human eye to track, disappeared. A screech of metal scraping against metal was heard. Tony turned towards the sound to see one of Natasha's blades locked with another dagger that was held by a tall man dressed in light black armor with a similarly-colored mask covering the lower half of his face.
"Widow. You look well," the man spoke calmly, voice slightly muffled by the mask.
He seemed wholly unconcerned that he was facing off against the Black Widow (and yes, this was Natasha in Black Widow mode, never mind that this was the first time that Tony had truly seen the assassin in Natasha) and that he was essentially surrounded by an armed group that had their weapons pointed at him.
"James. You knew better than to go without double checking."
For a split second, there seemed to be a softening of the lines of the Winter Soldier's eyes before the cold, blank look was back. "I'm not here to reminisce the past."
Tony knew from the last time Natasha had spoken about the Winter Soldier that they'd been intimate. Now, it seemed that the other assassin had been the one sent to eliminate Natasha when she'd decided to defect and hadn't completed the job. It was interesting to say the least and if the situation wasn't so tense, he would've been teasing Natasha about it. It was also interesting to note that the Winter Soldier wasn't a completely obedient dog to HYDRA. Hadn't Steve said that Bucky could be pretty wilful?
"Then what are you here for?" Steve's voice cut in before Natasha could reply, and Tony had to look at the paladin.
Steve was paler than normal, but his demeanor was still set in Captain mode. Tony had the feeling that Steve had identified the Winter Soldier as the best friend he thought he had lost three years ago. A quick glance at Peggy confirmed that deduction beyond doubt. Despite having confided to Tony that he was afraid of meeting the Winter Soldier, Tony felt that Steve was doing a good job at holding on to his composure. It was then completely natural for Tony to drift slightly closer to the paladin in a show of support he'd promised Steve that night.
The male assassin's eyes zeroed in on Steve despite Natasha still hampering his movements and possibly moving to strike him when his attention was diverted. He seemed uncaring of the potential danger he was in.
"Captain Steven Rogers. Pleasure to meet you. I don't normally get to say that to my marks but then you did manage to evade me."
Perhaps it was because he was now extremely attuned to Steve, Tony noticed the fine tremor that was starting up in Steve's tightly clenched hands and how the paladin had unconsciously switched to holding his shield defensively in front of him. Seeing the lack of recognition his old friend had for him was a blow to Steve, who so dearly wanted to believe that HYDRA had not managed to brainwash his old friend completely.
"You… you don't…"
There was a blur of movement and then suddenly, the Winter Soldier was in front of Steve who had just brought his shield up in time to block the twin daggers that were now in the HYDRA assassin's hands. Natasha was cursing more foully than Tony had ever heard, even as the pointed end of her blade was repositioned back against the Soldier's back. Tony hadn't even realized that there existed a person that could give the Black Widow the slip in such short order, and that just highlighted how skilled the Winter Soldier was.
"You've gotten soft, Widow," the man murmured. Then in a louder voice directed at Steve, he added calmly, "I was told you were a menace to HYDRA. You don't seem very threatening. Or capable."
Natasha's voice was a low, dangerous hiss but perhaps Tony could sort of see where the Winter Soldier was coming from. In her past, the Widow would've plunged the knife into the Soldier's back regardless of past allegiances instead of holding it there as a threat. But that could also be because Natasha had noticed Peggy and Steve's reaction and knew that Bucky and the Winter Soldier were one and the same, and was holding back for their sakes.
Then there was what had been said to Steve and it cemented the fact that the Winter Soldier truly did not remember his old best friend. Tony couldn't see Steve's expression right now but he had the feeling that the blond wasn't going to be able to hold on to his shaky composure much longer.
"You don't remember me, Bucky?"
The masked man looked at Steve, eyes narrowed for a moment. "I don't know who you're talking about."
"You're James "Bucky" Barnes. You were born in Mainheim. You were my neighbor and we've been best friends for years. I thought you died."
"You're mistaken, Captain. I've never been to Mainheim unless it was to kill someone."
Then deeming it was enough conversation to be had, the Soldier twisted out of the standoff between him and Steve, narrowly avoiding Natasha's knifepoint. He dodged an arrow from Peggy and deflected the one from Clint, which would've gotten him in the eye otherwise. A lightning bolt struck the metal chain shirt the brunet had on but it barely caused him to flinch. Tony followed almost instantaneously with an eldritch blast of his own (power toned down a little because this was Bucky Barnes even if the man didn't remember it and Bucky was important to Steve) and though it hit the assassin squarely and sent him down to the ground, the man just rolled with it and was up again like it was nothing.
How in the world…?
Natasha was moving in, looking like she might actually be going with the intent to kill instead of incapacitate, when Steve was suddenly between her and the Winter Soldier.
"Stand down. The rest of you, all of you. Let me handle this."
Despite how firm Steve sounded now, Tony refused to believe that the paladin wasn't shaken. He opened his mouth to protest, "Steve-"
"Let me handle this," Steve repeated clearly, his tone firm and just the slightest bit stubborn in the "I-dare-you-to-challenge-me" way. "This is between me and Bucky."
Then to the Soldier himself, Steve added, "I hope you have no objections."
"Other than the fact that I'm not who you think I am, none whatsoever. You were my target after all and I should thank you for making my job easier."
As everyone else reluctantly backed away, the two men began to circle each other warily. Tony noted that Bruce had a spell readied, able to be launched at any moment, just like how Tony was gathering energy to blast as soon as an opportunity arose. Natasha still had her daggers on hand. Peggy looked faintly stricken and she was grasping her holy star symbol but it was in a manner that indicated she had a spell on hand despite still reeling from the proof that her friend was alive but brainwashed. Clint was the only one who hadn't obviously put away his weapon, his arrow still nocked. It seemed that they all had the same idea and for that, Tony felt a swell of warmth for this group of people that he found himself surrounded by.
They all had Steve's back. They all had each other's back. That was more than Tony had ever expected to happen to him.
It was Bucky. The Winter Soldier really was Bucky. Joy at knowing that his best friend hadn't died warred with the despair of knowing that Bucky didn't remember and thought he was the enemy. As their wary circling turned into an exchange of blows, most of which was Steve defending and pulling his punches because it was Bucky, he couldn't help but try to reach out to the other man.
He tried to jog Bucky's memory, tried to mention things that had happened that only they knew about, including some embarrassing moments that he hoped his current friends would not remember. A part of him was warmed by how they still circled around him, and he knew despite his order to stand down, they were all ready to jump in if required. The much larger part of him was concerned with Bucky.
At one point, he even brought up Peggy again and how Bucky had tried to flirt with her but was shot down so efficiently that even Bucky himself had been impressed. To that, the brunet's impassive expression seemed to turn into one of amusement as his gaze darted to Peggy for a second.
"Any man would flirt with her, Captain," he said. "Most would have been shot down."
Steve started slightly at the strangely sure tone from the other man and then noticed how Bucky himself seemed to have realized what he said as a furrow appeared between his brows. That, that actually sounded like something Bucky from before would say and would also know for a certainty, having been shot down by Peggy himself and then subsequently witnessing it happening to other men. Steve could not stop the slight bit of hope from rising up.
That seemed to snap the other man out of whatever he was thinking about. An object materialized in his hand which was promptly thrown down onto the floor. Smoke and dust erupted from it, obscuring Steve's vision. From the shouts of surprise he heard, the range of the smoke bomb must have been wider than he thought. He tensed, sharpening his concentration to be ready for any sneak attacks.
"See you around, Captain," Bucky's voice drifted over to him.
"Wait!" he shouted, reaching blindly towards the direction where the voice came from.
He thought that his hand had, perhaps, brushed against something, but it could be his imagination. When the smoke cleared away, Bucky was gone.