Moksha, Pt 2

January 28, 2017:

Nadryv finale scene, part 2.

Ozone Park, Queens

Deep underneath this place.

Characters

NPCs: Avram Vasilevich Golubev (NPC'd by Jane Foster), assorted Hydra(?) techs (NPC'd by Winter Soldier)

Mentions:

Plot:

Mood Music: Exit Music (For a Film)


Fade In…

Continued from Part 1.

From her stopped position, Peggy's vision is blurry. The memories are still warring in her mind, but she knows a gun being pointed at Steve when she sees one. Her hands rearrange her grip on the gun in her hands, but she knows she has no clear shot of Barnes that would not put Steve at risk. Even if she were willing to risk hitting Steve somewhere that would ricochet off his suit or shield, she knows that would not have any effect. But, she knows that she still has to react.
Herslready she is moving, unsure of what to do, weaving as her vision doubles. Then, however, a modicum of a plan forms. It's not a good one, but it is all that she has. She barrels forward: not aiming for Barnes, but for Steve. Her shoulders lower and she stumbles against the curb as she runs. Measured steps turn uneven: she is unable to stop her momentum. That, however, is all fine with her plan as she tries to tumble right into the back of Steve's legs: impact hopefully knocking him backward and out of the way of Barnes' aim. He has good reflexes, she knows he will be able to get up quickly to rebound.

Maybe counterintuitively, Zatanna's shriek helps. It helps to ground him in the real, in the things that he would never have known if he gave in to the seduction of this 'perfect' world. Though the Drake residence once stood - once stood, no matter how much this world is trying to tell him it's still there - in the wealthiest part of Gotham, neighbours to Stately Wayne Manor and no doubt to Shadowcrest as well - would he have ever met Zatanna if he'd just been regular Tim Drake, whose parents were around, who never made the choice to become Robin? At best, the Zataras might have become casual acquaintances of the family, like the Waynes themselves, maneuvering as they did in the rarified air of Gotham's high society.

But she's there, now, hanging onto him. And no matter how much pain his own foolishness, his own childish weakness has caused him where she's concerned, he wouldn't give that up for Hydra's utopia, either.

"I promised, I promised," Tim Drake whispers feverishly against Zatanna's hair, where her face is tucked against him in fright, where she shrieks for him to wake up. He promised he wouldn't leave, that he wasn't going anywhere.

He promised that he wouldn't let her fall.

So they swing, they swing in a movement that starts out haphazard but soon finds the practice and expertise of the last several years of Red Robin's life reasserting itself, aiming for the flare Zatanna created, towards where the Winter Soldier and Captain America are about to come to blows.

"Belt," he says to Zatanna. His hands are full. "Third pocket from left, small disc. Squeeze lightly for one second and then throw them at Barnes."

If she does, the discs would prove to have a fast-hardening glue held under pressure inside, meant to hopefully goop up the Winter Soldier's weapon, and his arm itself.

Watching Jessica Jones work never gets old for John. It's just so…improbable. She looks so average, so absolutely normal, and then she does things like pivot massive magical artifacts in place, severing bolt ties to the concrete floor as though they were toothpicks.

She'll hear the tenor of the hum change as she twists, and John holds up a hand to stop her not long after she begins to push. "Good enough."

His stomach tightens around a frozen stone, his limbs flash with adrenaline heat. He is going to plug himself into this. Into this envelope, this network, of energy sufficient to remake the world in someone else's perfect image.

He swallows. "Listen, Jones…I don't know what's going to happen when I do this. It should…/break/…this…" An eloquent gesture from one hand encapsulates the whole of the facility, the transfiguration of reality, "But I don't know if they'll come back. And I don't know if the rest of Hydra will come with them, or…"

Or if the entire place will come down on top of them. The memory of all of that depth they slid past as they descended into the seemingly interminable elevator shaft…

He glances at her sidelong, knows before he says what he says that she'll refuse. Has to offer, anyway. "You wouldn't be letting me down if you got yourself out of the blast radius, luv." Pale blue eyes linger, then return to the crystal in front of him. "Somebody's going to have to put the pieces back together again, after all."

He tilts his head to one side, hard, coaxing a pop from his neck. Pushes his shoulders back, rolls them, claps and rubs his hands together, pops his knuckles.

Christ, this is going to be awful.

"Bottoms up," he says, flashing a brilliant smile for Jones, and placing both of his hands on the crystal. His eyes close. He begins to half-whisper unintelligible words, remnants of a dead language woven into newer constructs, fragments of magical concepts linked and stapled: John's mongrel magic.

Pressure begins to expand outward from the connection of flesh with stone, as though the air in the hallway were compressing itself. Dust stirs in the eddies of current, vibrates in the air — and then the pressure releases with a sudden violence, wind whipping through the corridor, strong enough to snap and catch at his coat as John opens the door into himself and the currents of the spell matrix accept him as a component, threading him into its configuration. Light courses into his fingers and hands, backlights the solidity of his bones within his flesh, the worming passage of veins, illustrating the soft pulse of blood with every accelerated beat of his heart.

He cannot use his magic here with the wards in place. His only choice is to use the magic already being generated by the Tarnhelm — and hope that it does not notice him, an infiltrator to its design, and deign to consume his soul. The filth of that energy rips through him unkindly. Perspiration turns to sweat as he concentrates on the flow passing through him, a torrent, fast-moving and white-hot.

John twists the mystical machinery of himself, bends it to the purpose of /redirection/. It is like trying to shunt the deluge of a waterfall off-course halfway to the rocks below, and just as a waterfall would, it batters his mortal form relentlessly, and sends him to his knees. The hum of magic becomes a whine. The steady stream of power wobbles, ripples, waves, begins to oscillate, snapping back and forth on itself — and into John. Each crest takes the network closer and closer to the point of shattering.

John, too.

As the armor continues to unravel from the God of Thunder's rather broad form, replaced by what is true, he finds himself frowning down at Azalea for an entirely different reason. "Remind me, when this is over, to speak of what you truly are within, mortal."

Urged to think of the missing scientist who showed him such kindness just a blink of an eye - to an Asgardian's longevity - ago, his frown deepens. Jane Foster, always thinking of science, always striving to discover the truth that was out there. A van, a taser, the Destroyer.

He recalls her face, a moment of embrace, and a bridge severed, an opportunity lost to the whimsy of time, space and duty. For all Thor's languid approach to life, duty is what wakes him in the late morning, what has him on Midgard now, up late to investigate murders in the Park, to look into crimes that seem petty yet upset his balance for how this Realm should be.

This Realm now, most definitely it is impure, wrong. Dastardly wrong. It's too perfect. What need is there for a Warrior like Thor, with the Nine Realms at pure peace? "Perhaps she is there?" he says, eyes closed shut, one hand lifted to point to the massive citadel in the distance.

As his hand lifts, the lights of Times Square shut down, and the lockdown begins.

Eyes opening, the Thunderer turns his head to look up at the citadel. "Yes, I feel that that is the first place we should check. What is your name, mortal, and what do you hold inside you? And? can you ride a goat?"

At that moment, the goat lords that Thor saddled so long ago with the help of his brother, Toothgnasher and Toothgrinder, leap down from the cosmos above. They'll help the pair of Godlings on their way. "Unless you can fly, that is. I am missing my hammer. I cannot fly without it." Thor spreads his hands, guilty as charged, ready to be ejected from the scene.

His dad is an asshole.

His /other/ dad is also an asshole. Well the closest thing he had to a dad. But Yondu was a very specific kind of asshole. You at least knew where you stood with him. Which usually was under his boot.

The happy memories fight back. They flood Quill's mind with pleasent times. Of a decade of birthdays spent not hiding in the ducts of an unfamiliar alien ship from roving gangs of pirates, but in the loving and warm arms of family. His family. Traveling the stars with them. Seeing sights that even he hadn't seen yet. Starscapes spread out before them like the twinkling dimonds of a gem mine. Each one just waiting to be visited. Just waiting to be seen. By all of them. By his…

Again that glitch in the system throws up flags in his mind. His friends? They arn't there. That isn't /really/ him then. Its not /him/. He is the one that was raised by pirates. He is the one that saved a planet. He is the one that makes his own poor goddamn decisions and gets repeatedly slapped by phasing teachers with a vage kind hot librarian vibe going. He is the one that met the Guardians, and formed them into a family. They are his family. Not some glowing asshole that left his mom to die.

That catches him. His heart contracts for just a moment.

Then he pushes past. Not because he's not worthy of happiness. Not because he doesn't want happiness. No. Because no one fucking tells Peter Quill what to do.

Not even himself.

If he wants happiness he'll find it his own damn self. With his own damn people.

…besides someone is fighting over there now, and he's in the mood to join in.

"HEY! VADER!" And he's already reaching into his bag, for one of his magnet grenades. Those seem to work on Bucky's guns. And likely wouldn't work on Cap's shield. "YOU'RE STILL A JERK!"

"I don't get out if you don't get out," Jessica says simply, firmly. "It wouldn't be about letting you down. That would be about letting me down. Besides. I don't have so many friends that I can afford to throw them away." Because if the place goes down, or all of Hydra descends, he's going to need someone to defend him, isn't he? And that someone is her. Not to mention everyone else they came in with.

She watches him work as much as he'd watched her, though of course…it's really hard to understand what he's doing. He chants, things glow, things happen.

And then it just gets weird, as she watches light flare literally /beneath/ his skin as he turns himself into the virus in the Tarnhelm's malevolent programming.

He falls to his knees. She can't keep him from breaking or shattering, but she can step right at his back, fists up, ready to punch anyone or anything that comes to stop him now, or to harm him after. And if all that's left of her friend is a body to bury? Well. Horrid thought though that is, she won't leave even his corpse behind. But that's an outcome she won't accept, so she glances behind her, willing him to hold together, to live through what he's doing.

She won't leave him behind.

She won't leave a single God damn one of them behind.

The crystal turns under Jessica's strength. The flows of magic start to stutter and go awry. A slight opening forms in the orderly pattern. Enough of a crack for John Constantine to reach out and infiltrate, seizing hold of the magic coursing through the air for lack of his own to use.

It does not take kindly to foreign hands upon it. The hungry attention of the helm turns towards him, sensing something new to devour. Pain ravages through him, the pain of trying to redirect and channel more than a mortal frame should be able to bear.

On the other side, Zatanna can suddenly feel it— a weakness forming in this reality, back in the direction from where she and Tim came: a small corner of the world, near a corner of a building, that is palpably in flux. That feels like John. That can be assailed to crack this whole wrong world wide open.

Of course, they will have to navigate the swarm of Peacekeeper drones that are already arriving on the scene, acquiring locks on these unruly hostiles which are disrupting the peace.

"/You did/ and I /swear to God/ if you break it, I'm…I'm…I'm gonna /dump a bunch of salt in your aquarium/!!"

She doesn't hesitate. She grabs one of those discs and sends it flying towards where the two greatest heroes of their age are about to clash. Her aim might be shaky, but she tries her best.

When they land, Zatanna stumbles and nearly eats the horrendously pristine ground, only managing to remain on her feet when her body folds over and her hands come down instinctively to press her palms flat on it. She breathes raggedly, her heart pulsing wild and fast within the cage of her ribs, threatening to shatter it. The way blood rushes into her veins renders her lightheaded, a wave of nausea assailing her senses. She straightens herself up, somewhat, still hunched and her hand clapping over her mouth. That is another commonality, some part of her manages to think as she fights the urge to lose even /more/ of her dignity by wretching in front of her best friend. The two of them don't particularly agree with their preferred methods of transportation.

"Red, he's augmented," she says from between her fingers, once she espies Captain America engaging the Winter Soldier. "I don't want to tell you what to do but he's been upgraded." And she will leave the choice to him. But this fact is something she is sure of, because she remembers them - the series of glowing, Old Norse runes that Bucky had activated before he left her shattered self for John to tend to, vanishing and following after his Russian master.

And that is precisely what she is counting on. Because if these runes were here, and the Tarnhelm is on the other side, and whatever large, magi-tech construct they were using…

/You're the one who opened the Einstein-Rosen Bridge./

A bridge.

Jane. Her throat tightens. Eyes fall down to her shaking fingers, doubt wreathing over her expression. Cold sweat dribbles down her back as she remembers her screams, that writhing, twisting, excruciating agony, her body contorting on the ground like a snake put to the fire, in pain and fright that she was going to destroy everything and she sees that possibility play out now in sharp relief - this powerful, lovely lie, reduced to ashes and /everyone else/ who had come in with her rendered to dust. She had brought items to use, but she knows they won't be enough. They never could. The power that is required to force a connection between worlds is one that the artifacts at her disposal can't possibly hold.

And John isn't here to make sure this doesn't happen.

John and Jess facing the might of the Tarnhelm and the might of Avram's good, hell-bent intentions on their own…

Suddenly, it was there. He was there. Across time and space and infinite possibilities, he manages to…

Her fingers slowly come up, taking a few ragged breaths. And while she can see most of her party, she can't see…

"Spidey," she whispers through the earbud com. "I'm gonna try and bring us back."

Her voice trembles. She's so scared to use it again it can't help but quaver.

"And when I do you better be here."

She grits her teeth for a moment, but her lips part. She speaks the words, threads of her power swirling around her, blue-white luminescence rippling over the ground, reaching forward in an effort to activate the runes on Bucky Barnes' metal arm as he tangles with Captain America…and whoever else might join him in the fight.

/Come on. Come on. Come on. Let this work. Let this…/

Alone with only his thoughts, Peter Parker stares blankly skywards. He feels spandex slip along the frazzled nerves of his fingertips as they twitch and scratch the clean ground beneath him. He feels everything so acutely, and yet… one sense, that extra sense, is completely blank here. No threats. No possibility of it. Everything is uniform. Streamlined. Rote.

Perfectly standardized.

It's wrong. He knows that. He knows, logically, that everything in here strikes a wrong note that's wrong simply because of how perfectly everything is timed. Something too right to be right. He knows that.

But he misses him. So much. It hurts every day still. An empty piece of him he'll never get back. Except now… he could. He could have it all. No more hatred and fear and suspicion. No more pain, every day, knowing he'll never be able to do anything that'll make up for the one, real father he had in his life.

He could just… forget. And finally just be allowed to be happy.

He feels a sort of comfortable numbness creeping over him as his thoughts wander, as his eyes stray. Blurred, unsteady, they eventually come to focus on that tower in the distance. That tower that shouldn't be. He remembers Avram Golubev's words. 'It is a cycle, I've learned, same, unchanged, no matter what side you take.'

His eyes focus with more clarity, the smudge of that tower edging into something clearer, more distinct, more… wrong. His hands curl into fists as he fights back the nausea welling up inside of him. As he remembers someone else's words. Someone important to him. Someone he lost.

'Ever since you were a little boy, you've been living with so many unresolved things. Well, take it from an old man. Those things send us down a road… they make us who we are.'

Would he even recognize that man in this world? …

"… g… ug… hkk…"

Spider-Man's throat clears wetly as he drags himself, trembling, back onto his feet. He staggers, hitting the nearby wall with his dislocated shoulder. He sucks in a deep breath. He hears Zatanna's voice, and hesitates briefly. But no words come. Instead, he braces himself. Squeezes his eyes shut.

'I'm gonna try and bring us back. And when I do you better be here.'

The wet, popping sound that fills the air as Peter sets his dislocated shoulder back into place is only drowned out by how thick the sound of his yell of pain is after. His stomach churns.

By the time he's fought off his urge to violently expel his dinner, Peter makes his way out to the shut down expanse of Times Square. He looks up.

He sees flying goats.

It takes two seconds of squinting in muted, incomprehensible silence before he just slings a web to the leg of one and lets it carry him off citadel-wards behind Thor and Azalea, because the thought of flying wargoats really isn't going to make his day any worse.

Images of a woman she had not known, other than a brief glimpse at the auction, flood the mind of The Dark Devil - but it is not her power that brings the notion of action to bear. She blinks out of her reverie, teeth pressed togerher, lips slightly parted.

The God of Thunder's revelation sends her eyes to the citadel, and she steels a breath as she looks down at her belt, and at the grapple gun she had 'borrowed' from Red Robin. It is not something that will get them there. A real, living God addresses her in a way that makes her feel small, and for once that's a good thing. She needs to be reminded of who she is.

"My name is Azalea Kingston, and I carry Xiuhnel, the Sky Serpent." Of course, it has gone by many names, in many cultures. Xiuhnel is only it's favorite. This is the first time she's ever said it's name, because it's the only time she's ever really known much more about it than 'it likes to fuck, it likes to fight'.

She keeps staring up at him, and her eyes fade from gold and back to their natural blue, as he recounts all the ways they are unprepared. She does not faulter until he mentions goats.

What. The. Fuck.

Then they are set upon by the creatures, and her eyes go wide. This is it. This is the moment. Don't be weak. "Don't worry buddy, I'm kindof missing my hammer too." And then she leaps on the back of Toothgrinder and takes hold of his fur. "Lets find out if I can fly a mother fucking goat!"

Her heels dig in, and she swears to god, she is not going to say up up and away. Nope. Not gonna say it.

"Fly you fool!"

Close enough.

The blow strikes true and Captain America knows as the gun rises that he will have to act quickly. However, the strain of this world slow Steve's reflexes, that gives Barnes a rare advantage outside of his arm. Normally, there are few things that dull the combat abilities of the super soldier, but this place attacks the mind, something that is only protected by Rogers' sheer will. Fatigued by so many things, it just isn't keeping up. The trigger will be pulled and that's it.

Or so Cap thinks.

Peggy's well-meaning maneuver sends Cap tumbling back, but he doesn't flip back to his feet, landing on his back awkwardly. As others seek to press the attack, Steve merely brings up the shield as he gets into a crouched position, trying to move not for himself, but for the fallen Carter. In focusing the defensive efforts on her, most of his lower body is left exposed should the Winter Soldier have a chance to fire his gun. After everything he went through today, Rogers will do everything in his power to avoid losing anyone, even the one that wants to kill him.

"If you're going kill me, Bucky, you're gunna have to try and a lot harder than that."

The Winter Soldier looks dispassionately downwards as Peggy tackles Steve from behind to bring them both out of the line of his fire. His head cants, he starts to adjust his aim—

—and he glances up as a number of projectiles are fired at him.

Runes flare on his arm. There is a brief flash of a great shield around him, briefly visible in passing flickers as projectiles impact it. But his usage of them makes it quite easy for Zatanna to get her needed hook into them, without even needing to force their activation.

The runes should fade after use. They do not, chained by Zatanna's magic. Their power smells home across the bridge being tunneled by John Constantine— through that weakness burrowed into this reality— and it reaches back. All John and Zatanna have to do is knot the connection across worlds. Flex it. Break the matrix of this spell.

Fixated on Steve, the Winter Soldier does not notice.

His weapon aimed at Steve. A clear shot. His finger on the trigger. He should pull it.

He finds, here when the opportunity has finally arisen, that he cannot.

"I have to kill you," he repeats, but his hand is shaking.

The Peacekeeper drones move in, each of them solid, eight-foot tall machines, limbed and shaped like men, plates shifting their unnatural, seamless strides. It is a batallion of them, responding as quickly and patiently as the civilians disperse, each machine tagging the leftovers with their laser-eyed scanners.

There are dozens of them, circling in Times Square, segregating the block with the ease of familiar formation. It is protocol seventy years in the making. The world the left behind is not this systematic, not this organized, not this precise. But Lernaea deals with the false positive outliers in its population.

Swiftly and with finality.

It cannot — does not — will not — suffer loss.

The looming machines — each and every one of them labelled made by STARK — shift and unfold cannons from their back. Their optics strobe, transmitting messages amongst each other, drones awaiting instruction from the hive.

There is a deafening roar through the air. It takes seconds, but this new world has turned on this unprecedented threat.

Uncloaking from stealth, a helicarrier beams a thousand lights as it looms massively above, hanging over the lit Times Square, the flying fortress wreathed by night. Its lights flare down, and it pivots a dozen extra arms.

The utopia has no patience for this. This does not exist here. It has not. And this is why. How long does one last in resistance against an entire world? An entire world reshaped into a single police state?

For Thor, for Azalea, for Spider-Man, transversing toward the tower by goat, they are met with a second helicarrier, sharing the sky with them, keyed to their threat. It pivots and points its many weapons towards them.

The reality seems to realize, seems to know, seems to feel their rejection. It fires upon them.

The pain is excruciating. Beyond metric or scale, beyond thinking, beyond regret. It consumes everything. The violent oscillations of the power stream within the Hydra facility lose some of their intensity as John falters, stumbles over his own mortality. He is a penny slid into clipped wires, an improvised element, never meant for this purpose. Never meant to contain this.

Even the slightest easing of that current arrives as an overwhelming relief, tempts him to relinquish his hold on the flow, but it also creates room in him, and thoughts, memories, rise like jagged spines spurred by tectonic movements, massive things colliding in him.

Zatanna first, and always: what she'd given to bring he and Jess back, even when she'd given almost everything she had just to survive. Chamomile, lavender, valerian, lemon balm. The impossible capacity to love him, in spite of — of him, and everything about him.

But not /only/ Zatanna. Spider-Man and Red, young men so willing to give selflessly of themselves in the defense of others, a quality they share with the woman whose effortless generosity has somehow managed to keep John Constantine, of all people, in her orbit. Brave people, already committed to a thankless life of anonymous pain, because to do nothing would be so much worse.

Steve Rogers and Agent Carter, people whose history he delved into as he familiarized himself with the plight of James Barnes. Cut of very much the same cloth, but excised from a time they understood, devoted to pursuing the right thing even after the inexorable march of time left them behind and the past took with it everyone and everything they'd known or loved.

Quill and Thor he barely knows, but they are /here/, are they not? They're risking themselves, and so what if Quill has prehensile genitals, or whatever-the-hell? He's putting those on the line. Surely, that counts for something.

Jane Foster, the tiny pixie with eyes like knives and wildfires, a mind like a diamond, too small to contain the storms of emotion that seem to move through her with such unfettered abandon. Who had been unable to turn her back on wonder and knowledge, no matter the price — something that gave rise to kinship of a kind, for John.

James Barnes.

The Winter Soldier.

What he almost took from John — from everyone who knows and cares for Zatanna Zatara and Doctor Jane Foster — would have been enough for John to send him to Hell with a breath, with a /thought/…but it hadn't been him, really, had it? Or, if it had, it had been some iteration of him warped out of true by abuse that John cannot begin to fathom the true extent of, too outlandishly terrible to be grasped in any way that could possibly come close to the truth of it.

James Barnes, who told John that John had been his first friend in sixty years.

His first friend.

He thinks he screams, a gutteral roar as he pushes back against the flow of the matrix of magic, but can't be sure. It may only have been in his head, the sound of his consciousness yielding to the white spike of pain that tears his head apart as he bends his will into the crystal.

They /will/.

Come.

BACK.

Flying a Goatlord is easy. You simply tell them what to do, and they do it. Provided that you were the one who slipped their harness on to begin with. Perhaps not as easy for Azalea as it is for the God of Thunder, the goats take to the skies, only to be greeted by the upcoming helicarrier.

"Well then, Xiehnel, Azalea, know that I am Thor, son of Odin, heir to Asgard and the Nine Realms. Know that though death awaits us, that Valhalla beckons. Know, that Valhalla brings forth only the worthy.

"Know, and fight!"

The beam of the lights is near blinding. Asgardian eyesight suffers, but will not be stilled. Squinting against the light, biting back so many fookin swears, the God of Thunder refuses to go quietly into the night as the roar of the Helicarrier unleashes pure Armageddon down upon the two goat-riders.

Time slows, the rain of hellfire descending upon them both. It would seem the bell is tolling for both Azalea and Thor, as they ride forth for the citadel.

Leaping from the back of the goat, Thor, the Odinson, will land upon the revealed stealthy carrier. He will surge force, all fury, strength and courage, tearing through the opposition that awaits him on the deck. He will clear the field, all fists, fury, and unyielding Godhood.

"Know this, mortals!

"You have angered a God this day!"

Leaping clear of the carrier, as only a God can, the Thunderer will embark on a journey to the Citadel. One that will, ideally, be cut short by the end of this dreamscape, otherwise who knows what will come after goats. One that will be cut short right /now/.

The shield is really unfair.

It was when Hanussen did it, too.

Red Robin lands more easily than Zatanna, tries to keep her from falling and hurting herself, but there's only so much he can do when she's moving to try and keep herself from yarfing all over the sidewalk, and also there's a couple of supersoldiers about to throw down /and also/ there are drones and other mechanised things in the air. This is getting bad. He knows that Zatanna is up to something, hopefully something that's going to get them all out of there, from what she's saying over the comms; he frowns, looking over to the confrontation between Captain America and the Winter Soldier, still at a strange kind of stalemate.

He knows what he has to do.

"CAPTAIN ROGERS!" the cowled young man shouts, in that electronically disguised voice. "DON'T FORGET WHAT I GAVE YOU BEFORE!"

He reaches behind his back, palming items from his belt. He has to stay there, he has to guard Zatanna, to make sure she's able to complete whatever magic thing she's doing, to get them all out of there. The odds are mounting though, and he's just a man. He can't fly or shoot crazy laser beams like some kind of Iron Man. But he does have those EMP discs ready, in case any of the drones get close enough.

There's more, worse. Helicarriers, of all things, to take out the more outstanding threats that have presented themselves, white blood cells seeking to destroy the viruses that have infiltrated this perfect world. Of course, no utopia can be maintained except through the asbolute, crushing suppression of anything that doesn't work. He knows they'll come for those of them on the ground, as well, the swarming drones. He tosses a few of those EMP discs, hoping to take out any that wander too near, but he knows what's coming. He knows what he has to do.

He moves. He's beside Zatanna as death starts to rain from the heavens on them. He takes one of her hands.

Presses something into it: It's a vial, she'd recognise it if she were able to think about anything other than the magic she's currently trying to work.

"Sorry," Tim Drake whispers.

He forces Zatanna's hand tight around the Pinch, the ward Constantine had made to thank him for his part in saving Zatanna's soul.

He forces her to break it, to receive its protective effects, as the might of Lernaea comes crashing down on their heads.

As Steve collapses over her and the proper shot is averted, Peggy takes a breath of both pain and relief. However, much like Steve, her own reaction times and her tactical mind. There's still fragments of a life she did not lived rattling in and out, attempting to find a place to latch on and assert themselves. It's less difficult to push them away than when they first appeared, but it is still a mental effort.

The dispassionate look of Barnes as he lowers the gun is met with an expression both of fear and determination. Then, though, Steve doesn't spring up to fight. He brings the shield up to protect her. Agent Carter pushes herself up from the ground, one hand still gripped tightly around her gun. It might be aimed back at Barnes over the shield, but now there are the Stark weapons taking aim at them. She doesn't miss the name on the sides of those drones and there is a groaned, "Of course there is Hydra Stark Technology."

However, she turns, trusting Steve to protect her back against Barnes should it come to that. "Go!" she tells him, urging him to move forward and not worry about covering her now. "I'll cover you!" And, without waiting for a response, she starts shooting at the drones.

The battle gives her ample enough assistance. As the runes on the Winter Soldier's arm flares to life, triggered there by this inevitable clash with his sworn brother, Zatanna's magic surges forward and snares the tendrils of magic left at his wake, knots them together and /pulls/. Graceful fingers weave patterns in the air before her palm tilts up and her fingers curl in, to snap them into place, and to reverse their flow, to have them surge into her and use her own body as a conduit.

It slams into her like a brick wall, forcing breath to leave her lungs. As she eases more and more of her power out of her, she grits her teeth, slowly twisting her body to face towards the corner of that building in which she and Tim almost lost their lives. John's presence, that throbbing weakpoint in this reality, felt the strongest there and slowly, that arm lifts and her fingers extend towards that point. Deep within her, she feels it build, caressing over the still waters of her endless potential, sending it into a slow simmer to an outright boil. The blue of her irises slowly recede, light pouring from the whites of her eyes.

"Dlrow ruo ot kcab tfir eht nepo…" Her voice echoes strangely; she feels it pull, the urge to use /more/. More power. More essence. She struggles against it, digs her mental heels in even as she attempts to reach those astral fingers through the widening cracks, and pry it open.

Wider. Wider. Her power surges into the growing ripples. She is fully aware of death raining down upon them, Red Robin's scream near her and oh god, she has to work fast, she has to…

Glass breaks in her other hand. Blood drips from her fingers and her eyes move over to her friend….and what he had done. What he was prepared to do.

No.

/NO!/

"Kcab su dnes…" she whispers, fighting through her panic, nearly drowning in it until a resonating pulse calls to her from somewhere beyond.

She turns her face forward, and pours /herself/ into it. The ripples expand, glow. They swirl in a dizzying loop as she feels it /give/. She presses her advantage, digs deep inside of herself. There is no room for hesitation here. She /must command/.

"KCAB SU DNES!!" she screams, and somewhere within herself, she throws her magical might forward, into the growing breach. She feels it crack. She feels it /shatter/, ephemeral fragments spilling over her senses, cutting at her everything. Her arms, her legs, a gash on her cheek…

She surges forward through the chasm, to find the man waiting for her on the other side. She uses their tether, the silver thread that ties her to him…and uses it. Power /floods/ through the connection, bursting out of her in an excruciating, white-hot flare, /tearing/ through the walls of this perfect, but imperfect world and seeks out the other, throwing itself against the fingers she feels reaching for them, twines tightly. Holds fast. And doesn't let go.

/I'm not ready to say goodbye to you, yet./

This is not how Azalea Kingston pictured her end. The sky becomes blinding, and Thor takes the lead. His words are inspiring, and his actions moreso. But here and now, that will not be enough. Fire pours in her direction from a thousand guns, and though she does not feel fear anymore, she does know a certain kind of despair. She pulls up hard, and the Asgardian Beast who does not know her, shows her the kind of loyalty only a friend might.

It takes the fire and Azalea begins to fall, goat breaking up over head, the horror of it's deconstruction filled up in the slow motion of her mind's eye, as each part of it is shattered a thousand thousand times.

Finally, she looks away, unsure if the guns will track her through the air, and really it does not matter. She cannot fly, nor leap like Thor can. The mind races in that moment, and she wonders when the flash of her entire life will happen, because most of it was a wasted effort, there are some small parts she would like to see again, and some she's prefer to do over.

She wishes she had one more chance to get that kiss right.

She laments that she is out of chances to save Bucky.

The ground grows larger, and she can see energy raining to meet it long before she'll get there. Some of it grazes her leg, she hopes she'll have the ground's love before the rest of those guns get close, but she can't help but look at where she's hit.

It's only then that she sees the grapple gun, and she snaps it to her hand, the line hits a drone and not a building, and she's lurched sidelong hard enough to fling her into the side of 30 Rock, shattering a window and rolling, somewhere inside Alec Baldwin's old office, to a stop.

So in the middle of battle Peter Quill has learned not to get in the way of other people trying shoot someone. Which is bad, because right now it seems that people are trying to shoot /all/ the things. Drones. Helicarriers. More tracer rounds than he cares to think about. All angling for them. From every concieveable angle, and from a few that he doesn't even want to think about.

"I really," He says quietly as he slams his armor back to active and draws one of his pistols. "Should have brought a bigger gun."

But that doesn't mean that he's just going to sit there and take the death. One hand snaps out, magnet bombs flying towards drones to smash them off course. He dives though holes made in the hails of gunfire.

"You don't!" His shout is aimed towards Bucky as his pistols sing in his hands. "Have to do a goddamn thing you idiot! You don't want to shoot because he's your buddy. Friends don't shoot friends!" Again a roll though a hail of fire that leaves holes in his coat they come so close. "Except that one time on Centi four where…well nevermind! I really needed that guy to move! My point in stop listening to your damn conditioning and shooting at friends!"

A pause as four drones angle in on him.

"Oh huh, they have /missiles/. This is gonna pinch…"

Captain America prepares to be the end. His only hopes are that the other heroes are able to stop Winter Soldier, but as the magical energies begin, it looks like this is going to be it. He doesn't know what sort of gun the Winter Soldier has, but he's pretty sure it will tear through his bulletproof armor, or he'll just aim for an unprotected space.

But the bullet doesn't come. As Steve looks up to see Barnes and the reluctance, his mind briefly goes to a very important conversation in a different era.

TIME - WWII, PLACE - SSR TRAINING CAMP:

"You have the skills, Rogers, but you're not going to win the fight. Not like that. You want me to tell you why?"

Steve looks toward the older man as the pair stand there on the training mat. The older man is dressed as a proper officer while Rogers is sweaty from hours of hand to hand combat. "Yes, General Phillips, I would."

The wrinkled man just looks straight into Cap's gaze with a level of intensity. Phillips was no psychic, but he just knew. "You're afraid of breaking me, so you're going to let me break you." And with that, the General proceeded to knock some blood out Captain America with two solid punches, connecting all too well to that 'perfect jawline' of his. "When are you going to show me otherwise?" Another one-two. "When?" A third set is about to go, but then Phillips backs away. "There we go."

Rogers, angry and confused, put down his fists. "How did you know I was about to hit you?"

A confident grin comes from the wizened General. "Eyes are the window to the soul, kid. Lets you know when the lady is keen on you, lets you know when a man's aiming to kill you. When you learn to read a man, you have the fight. Remember that."

PRESENT:

The shield is taken off and given toward Peggy. Rogers doesn't want her hurt as he is about to do something very foolish or due to bullet flung at her without him being there. "Trust me," Cap says quietly before he stands sans protection.

To the Winter Soldier, Hydra's trusted asset, Steve looks him straight in the eyes. All Cap can see is the cold killer, but he knows there is more underneath and more importantly, the killer can see right into him. The window of the soul works both ways. "If you need to kill me, Steve Rogers, then do it," Steve Rogers begins, walking toward Bucky. His instinct to survive him to run or tell him to look at the gun, but he doesn't, even as he moves straight for the weapon aimed for him. "But I won't fight the man who saved my life. I won't fight the man who cared for me when I refused to care about myself."

If he can, Steve will walk through the magical barrier from the runes, up to the point where the gun is pressed firmly on his chest. "If I'm the one in the way of your dreams, Bucky, then don't let me stand in front of them. But to me, you're not a Hydra lackey, you're James Buchanan Barnes, and you're my best friend."

If there is a shot or a beat down in response, there is no resistance. Like most things in life, Captain America, Steve Rogers, is a man of his word. Again, he prepares for the end for the second time in under five minutes. But at least, this time, it's on his terms.

So high in the sky now, Peter Parker can see a clear bird's eye view Manhattan beneath him. He knows this city by heart. Even from so high up, he knows exactly the quickest route to get to Queens. To his home. To his aunt… … and his uncle.

It'd be so easy. So easy. Just let go of that webbing, forget everything, and pretend he just got lost on the way to get groceries, and life would continue like nothing ever happened. One path would take over the other, letting the old fade away like it was never there.

It would be so very, very easy.

Which is what makes his next choice so very, very hard.

The helicarrier trains on them. A multitude of guns. Like antibodies seeking out foreign elements to methodically eliminate. This is not a world. It's just an organism. Unthinking and working in tandem towards one end, and anything that does anything different, a disease, a virus, a cancer, to be eliminated to maintain purity. Disgust wells up inside Peter instinctively as his body tenses. As the cannonfire ignites the night sky in a blinding surge of its opening salvos.

He hates this world.

But most of all — he hates that it forced him into a position to make a choice he never wanted to have to make.

The sound of artillery fire drowns out the impotent scream of Peter Parker's rage as he -hurls- himself towards that helicarrier after Thor, twisting through massive volleys of firepower fueled entirely by his own frustration and rage. He lands, fighting his way through the massive aircraft after the God of Thunder, spinning webs onto weapon platforms and -yanking- them with such phenomenal strength that they bend with mechanical protest to turn their firepower on the very ship they belong to. Explosions rip past him, kinetic force blowing him this way and that, shrapnel tearing at his costume and lacerating flesh but all that enters his voice is anger. Overwhelming, futile anger for a world that never was meant to be.

Because he knew, the moment those memories entered his mind, knew even as he struggled against it to convince himself otherwise — knows even as he hurls himself off the edge of that carrier after Thor in what will be a suicide rush if they're not saved —

The real Uncle Ben — HIS Uncle Ben — would never be able to accept a world like this.

And no matter how much he tried to will himself otherwise, he can't, either.

There is nothing Jessica can do. If she could lend John Constantine some of her strength, she would. He's screaming and there's no threat she can fight for him, nobody she can hurt to bring him relief. She can only stand sentry for him, face locked in a frozen expression as she darts a glance down at him, pale and fearful. Waiting, simply standing with someone else while they struggle, being there because being there is what you've got, goes against every atom of Jessica's nature. Her nature is to act, to move, to press forward, to work, to keep looking for answers.

She whips her gaze around, looking for something, anything that can help, some opportunity to tip the scales in everyone's favor. She might not find anything. But s he can, at least, look.

Quill's shouting catches the Winter Soldier's attention. His gaze swings over, eyes narrowed. "He's not" he starts. He can't finish. He struggles visibly, a snarl crossing his features. "He's not"

Movement hits his peripherals. His attention and his gun swing back around to find… Steve walking towards him, shieldless. The Winter Soldier's weapon snaps up instantly, locking onto the unprotected form of Captain America, over seventy years of muscle memory in handling a gun acquiring his target before conscious thought catches up.

He still does not pull the trigger. He can only listen. Listen as Steve says he cannot— will not— fight his brother. Will not raise arms against the man who cared for him when he could not care for himself.

The muzzle of the gun presses flush to Steve's heart. You are James Buchanan Barnes, he says. You're my best friend.

James' blue eyes look up into Steve's. The weapon falters and drops, slipping out of his hand to the ground.

The connection forms. A /flex/ crosses that bridge as it is assailed from both sides by the power of two magicians…

And reality shatters. The hell that is Lernaea fades away, even as the gunships fire. That world dissipates, just as the searing light of those strafing beams eclipses everything…

…and, almost anticlimactically, everyone finds themselves back in antiseptic reality, strewn on the floor at John and Jessica's feet.

The Winter Soldier is there too, framed in the door, left hand clutching his head. His expression is caught in agony.

"No," he says. "/No/." His features twist in realization.

He turns and flees, down the hall, through another door.

Time has long since ceased to exist, if it ever did. If ever at all. Everything is a tide of sickly pale green light, putrid with millennia of hunger, the Tarnhelm a magical wendigo, its appetite bottomless. He can sense it in pursuit of him through the serrated saw of the agony that channeling its power causes, but he will not lapse a second time. If it consumes him, if it eats him alive, then so be it: he cannot live in a world where he did not give everything he had to give, for all of those names and faces, all of the things they have yet to do. The world /needs/ people like them. John…he's a mixed bag, isn't he? Some people would say that was being charitable, really. But them…

And her.

Sweat pours out of him, and by this time he's so feverish that the sweat is turning to steam. He's starting to lose himself. His soul was in rough shape to begin with; it tatters in these ephemeral winds that he whips to a frenzy with purpose.

…and then she's there. He feels her. The power that slides down the live wire that links them on the astral plane, familiar, desperately wanted. In the chaos of his suffering he has no control over the hope that explodes through him, driving that last, brutal push. Power twines like, a tether forming, his end humming, vibrating like a plucked harpstring, drawn tight to the point of snapping by what he's redirecting. They pull.

/Come back to me./

And then the pressure goes, all at once. Bodies appear as though through some manner of effortless teleportation. The fire hose of her soul shifts in space, crosses the divide.

When he finally manages to wrench himself out of the circuit, he lets himself fall forward onto his hands, head bowed. Liquid slicks the back of his neck, makes his hair damp at the hairline. He pants, thoughts too disjointed for any more than that.

Reality shatters just as she hits glass, and when her roll stops, Azalea Kingston knows the full truth of her situation again. She is no longer one person, no longer at peace, no longer in full control of her abilities. Her breath comes in pained bursts, and she reaches up to feel the mask still on her face.

This is who she is now. There's pain, the struggle upward, and she reaches out for Jessica to gain some purchase and haul herself up, pointing as she tries to find her voice. It fails her at first, and then she swallows, her throat dry from the terrible transition.

"Stop him."

She's talking to Jessica. That was the plan. She was supposed to back Steve up, but things went to shit. Maybe now she can do a little bit of that, stumbling against the nearest wall to try to get her balance back.

World surfing is a bitch.

As reality lurches back into being and the masses of capes and cowls return to the floor, Thor is quick to right himself. Gods don't fall to the floor, that's outlandish! Brushing himself off, the expression on the Thunderer's face is remarkably dark as he again feebly reaches out for his hammer. Not yet? Not yet.

Wait.

The elevator so far down the hall lurches. The wards, tumbling down, lose their hold over certain enchantments delivered by a force beyond the Gods.

A massive crunch echoes down the hall as the mythical hammer Mjolnir hurtles down the halls, taking this turn and that turn, slamming through a wall, only to end up in the waiting hands of the Thunderer.

Straightening to his full height, Thor lifts the hammer high, a God very much complete. "This is why I do not condone mortals playing with magical artifacts," he says, as lightning crackles down from the ceiling of the room into the weapon itself. Armor slams down into place, individual chains of mail affixing themselves along the bulky, muscly form of Thor.

The light show ends, and he beings swinging the hammer. "Now, rise up, mortals," he speaks, noting the very mortals who put so much on the line to restore them to reality. "The men who have caused this await. You may rest when you are in the halls of Valhalla!"

The elevator doors go slamming by outside, an afterthought to the process by which God and Hammer were reunited. They'll probably stop before they hit the fleeing James Barnes, but they're a factor. "Rise up, my friends! Today is your day! Bring back your brother, and your sister! Reunite!"

Galvanize, strengthen, and grow from this. The God instructs, instead of simply flying forth.

And then just like that, everyone's there again. Jessica does a double take. Aaaand there goes Barnes, racing down the hallway. Azalea catches herself, tells her to stop her. She gives one last glance at John but…she's sure he'll live.

And then she's in motion, /leaping/ to catch up with Barnes, thundering down the hallway on his heels, pushing forward with her speed, trying to get close enough to disable the chip before they disable his /head/.

"JAMES," she yells, using his first name for the first time, not the formal Sargent Barnes.

She'll try to leap again, to close the distance again, fingers going for an EMP pulse.

She stretches, strains, sailing towards him, twisting her body to just stick the thing on his temple and hit the button, triggering it as she flies past him, sails past him.

The landing. Sucks. Half on her side, half on her back, she hits the floor in front of him and skids, offering an eloquent, "Ow, fuck." But she was /ready/ to move, ready to do something, and that…was a pretty easy decision to make.

When Steve hands off the shield to Peggy, it is an understatement to say that she is surprised. However, she takes it from him without argument: the metal of it heavier than she expected. Agent Carter slips her arm into it, feeling slightly off center, but she brings it up to protect herself, Steve and Barnes from the drone's fire. She backs up slightly in order to ensure that the borrowed shield can have the biggest surface of protection.

Otherwise occupied, she only glances behind her once she sees Steve hugging James Barnes. This time there is no surprise. When Steve told her to trust him, she expected him to do something out of the box. Hugging a man that has attempted to kill them is not entirely out of the realm of possibility. Ever the practical one, however, she waits for Steve to pull up the EMP to disarm the device that may have been implanted in Bucky's head. When it seems all the more sure that he is not about to do it, she continues her backward movement. Holstering her gun, she holds the shield up to pry one of the EMP devices Red Robin gave them.

Unfortunately she only gets a few steps. Then, the world shifts. There is no electricity this time, it's more like the floor is suddenly made out of fabric that is not pulled properly taut. Her knees buckle and she topples to the hard ground of the base, still curled around the shield.

It's hard to pick herself up from that position, she sort of turtles with the shield, unused to a heavy and circular piece of metal attached to her arm. After a few tries, she shoves herself upward.

The armor is the only thing that saves him.

He gave up the tremendous mystical protection Constantine's ward had offered, given it up without hestitation or a second thought: If Zatanna had been hurt or killed, they would quite liekly have been trapped, and soon enough they would've been cut down as well. If she'd been hurt, or killed…

Red Robin knows full well, that sort of agony is worse than the thought of one's own demise.

Which isn't to say that he just stood there like an idiot to get himself shot; the caped and cowled vigilante from Gotham crouched to make himself less of a target, used the shield that surrounded Zatanna to protect himself as much as he could, as well. It's possible that he could've done the same the other way around, but he has no way of knowing if it would really protect anyone standing behind him, and in any even the risk of a stray shot getting past would be too high even if it did.

He feels white hot pain in his body, the impacts of bullets blunted, deflected by his armor, by the current running through his memory-material cape, hardening it. But he also feels a bullet lodge in the meat of one calf, feels one glance off of his ribs, cracking one of them in the process. Maybe two. The pain is… Remarkable.

But it was better than the alternative.

"Is everyone all right?" wonders the modulated voice of Red Robin, as the Winter Soldier runs out in a panic, as Thor recalls Mjolnir, reunited with the fullness of his might. He pushes his own pain to the back of his mind, with the rest of it, where he'll deal with it later. He forces himself, agonizingly, to stand, to not baby his injured leg or his injured side. He'll regret that, when the shock wears off… But really, what alternative does he have?

So many weapons. All angled at little ol' him. Peter Quill has never felt so pouplar. In a bad way. Then he's moving, time slowing down as combat trained reactions take over. One pistol comes up to shoot at incoming ordanance, angling the blast just enough to explode a second missle too close to the first. Rounds kick up dust around him, one slicing though his arm. A second slams into the shields around his thigh and spins him around. A third impacts more center of mass as he ragdolls backwards from the impact, only the thin energy shield saving him from taking one in the chest.

He can see the other weapons angling in on him…

…and then that whole tastes-like-burning-and-knives-in-the-brain sensation hits again.

He lies there, spread eagle on his back and stares at the ceiling.

"If you define all right by 'still breathing' then yes," Comes his reply to Tim's question as he starts to sit up. "Did someone get the number of the truck that just drove though my skull?" Groping around he reaches for the bag of tricks that he brought with him before he gingerly forces himself back to his feet.

A smirk as Thor reunites with his hammer before Quill glances around. "So time to finish this then. Good. I'll bring the bombs."

When she reappears, she is barely coherent. Her eyes are blank and bleeding light, and stray magic curls off her body, wisps of white smoke seeping from her pale skin and causing the blanket of sweat and mystic blood - from the pinch - webbing over her to tingle. The high ceiling above her head swims into view, and she croaks out a sound, weakly from the back of her throat. Her chest heaves up and caves in, deep, desperate gulps of air inhaled, as if she had just sprinted in a dead run from New York to Gotham, and it actually feels like she might have. Trembling fingers reach up to press against her face, every muscle and sinew aching from the transferrence and manipulation of pure power, images swimming in a dizzying loop.

What captures her more immediate senses and manages to anchor her back into the dead space of the Tarnhelm's dome are the familiar strains of magic that she picks out, thick in the air, as if an arcane bomb had just exploded and left a crater of ephemeral stuff, blanketing eveything else. The signature is familiar, spools of red and black, smatterings of gold and varying hues, and the familiar brush of indigo, painting over the spots before her eyes like oil on canvas…

Red Robin's query has her rolling to her front, groaning as she pushes herself up. She gives him a nod. "Are you?" she breathes, her voice frayed at the seams.

She lurches forward, however. She still manages to find the strength to stand, no matter what happens. Peeling herself off the floor, pale, shaking hands reach for the British magus, to grasp his shoulders as he heaves. She takes advantage of the cracks in her seal, power leaking out of her still, but she is open enough to be able to glimpse his other self - the crossroads of Fate that he represents, the jigsaw pieces of independent, but interconnected secrets and magic that make him so unique even for the likes of them. She has to make sure. Has to make sure that he is whole, that he is not tattered or frayed. Whatever happened here was /massive/ and for a moment panic seizes her. She doesn't know what this cost him and she wasn't here to shoulder the burden…

"John," she whispers.

/Look at me./

"What can I do?" Always what she asks, an instruction, never whatever is inside of his head. "What do you need?"

The weapon is thrown to the ground, Cap lives another day. A sigh of relief is given. Now just to get the device to his head now that he understands that Cap is not a threat and-

As the hand reaches for the belt, Steve prepares for the sudden motion just in case Bucky's resistance to the Winter Soldier Program is fleeting only to find that the plan is adjusted once more as the dream reality is stopped. Steve drops to one knee, his free hand bracing himself for whatever is happening. And then, as swiftly as they entered, they leave this place of artificial selfish pleasures. The device in still in Rogers' hand, the shield still with Peggy, it's clear that it was all 'real' in a way.

"Bucky wait!" Cap cries out from his crouched position. Unable to have time to even thank his saviors Jessica and John, Steve scrambles desperately to his feet as he tries to follow Barnes out the door, his shoulder slamming painfully into it due to the frenzied resolved and the disorientation most people who made the trip still have from the planes traveling. One could suppose that is one way to answer Red Robin's question of 'Is everyone alright', that's for sure. Rogers is not sure if Jones' effort to EMP worked but even so, he knows that Hydra has far more basic ways of dealing with traitors. Either way, he has to secure his friend at all costs.

As the world goes back to normal, the ever motivating man speaks into the ear piece. His voice is winded and swift, but not lacking in his usual determination. "I know we've been through a lot, guys. An almost insane amount of stuff. But Thor is right. Bucky needs us. Foster needs us. Let's end this, /together/. We've come so far, we can't stop now." While Rogers started this mission in the back, it's clear he's leading in the front now.

Spider-Man leaps, soaring high through the air, and just as the helicarrier's cannons train on him —

— it's like being yanked through existence by a vaudeville hook, the way he suddenly lurches backwards through spacetime, unceremoniously tugged back into the world. The real world. His world.

It doesn't make him feel any better as he appears, bent inward on hands and knees and hacking dryly. Spittle clinging to his lips, he forces the troubles plaguing him to the side in order to take a mental inventory of those present, to make sure everyone made it. There's the Dark Devil, and Red Robin, Constantine, Scary Lady, Captain America, Captain America's British Friend Who He's Totally Got a Thing For, Zatanna, Thor making his hammer crush through architecture and yelling at him so he seems fine too, Schmucky running like a madman —

— wait —

Still as quiet as he was since they made that cross-world trip, Spider-Man scrambles to his feet, running past Zatanna and Red Robin and Thor and everyone else, rushing after Jessica and Bucky because it's all he can allow himself to focus on. He reaches out, wincing in pain as his arms lift, fingers press into upward-facing palms —

— and webbing springs forward, looking to snag Barnes by the back if he can — to try to stop him, keep him from fleeing, keep this from all being for nothing.

"Wait, you — argh! Just — argh!! Where — is — Dr. Foster — ?! Where's that son of a bitch Golubev!? Tell me — !!"

Voices. John can hear them, but he doesn't focus on trying to understand them. His head buzzes like a badly shielded power transformer. He can taste metal, knows his nose is bleeding, but aside from feeling as though he's just been aggressively intimate with the third rail of the subway, he is whole.

It's the touch to the shoulders that pins him to the present again. He sucks a deep breath and pries himself off of his hands, back onto his knees. His eyes are dilated, dark pools ringed in pale blue. He scuffs his sleeve beneath his nose, blinks his eyes to try to clear them, glances down at the small smudge of rust on tan fabric. Looks up. Looks at her. Finds a half-smile and furnishes it. It's fuzzy around the edges, slightly disoriented, but it has backbone in it, still. "A shower and a massage would be nice," he says, hoarse. So very British: /mass-oj/, emphasis of the word on the first syllable.

They still have things to do. He hears that in the background, processing that things have not quite been restored to the status quo for which they hoped. Barnes is still—

John decides that the ongoing crisis can give him the courtesy of five seconds, at least. There are faster, stronger people than he to chase Barnes down on foot. He reaches for her, for the side of her face, eyes tightened. Trying to assess her condition, but his head is swimming. "Alright then, 'tanna?" Beneath his thumb, a ribbon of his own illuminated blood slides past. His lips part. Blue eyes tick over her shoulder, angle toward Red. Had to be Red; Jessica was here with him.

Something else to owe him for, then.

The Winter Soldier— James Barnes— whoever it is at this point in time— doesn't stop. Not even for the cry of his name behind him, his first name, from off an unfamiliar tongue. He does look back briefly, however…

…and gets tagged, the pulse of the EMP staggering him for a second. Two.

Then he shakes his head, tearing the EMP from it, clearly not understanding what it was for, but his pace doesn't slow. He is absolutely singleminded in these moments— up until the 'thwip' of webbing makes him whirl. A nearby exam tray is taken from a cart and thrown into the path of that web, snaring it like a shield. 'Where is Dr. Foster?' Parker wants to know.

Where do you think I'm going?!" he shouts back, clearly in no mood to be stopped. He keeps going, turning a corner. "Jane!"

A voice is audible down the hall as they draw closer. It's familiar to some. The voice that was on that audio file, the voice that so clinically recited how Hydra would break a mind to compliance. It is not so calm now. It is furious.

"He LEFT me here!" that voice rails. "Left me here!"

Silence, as of someone responding.

"At least you're still here too, you fucking cunt," he snarls. There is a horrible sound, the whir of machinery, the priming of electricity—

—and then worse sounds, a shout, then screaming. Then silence.

The scene to which the first responders will arrive is the sight of a young man hanging limp, pinned to the wall by the steel left hand of the Winter Soldier impaled straight through his chest.

The sight of Jane Foster, slumped in a chair, strapped down, a machine clamped about her head.

"I'm always fine," Red Robin assures Zatanna, the one person on this mission who could definitively and absolutely know that is a lie.

He doesn't linger. Captain America is right that the work isn't finished yet, and that one guy is talking about bombs, which generally presages bad things… And Spider-Man is off like a shot, no doubt furious after whatever changes that other world had tried to impose on him. The cowled young man doesn't know what they could be, but he can sympathise nevertheless.

With Zatanna moving to tend to the British magus, though, the costumed vigilante doesn't stick around, ignoring his body's protests as he follows the others into the corridor with only a last brief look at the magicians. He's pretty sure he can manage a light jog, at least.

But if worse comes to worst, he'll run and deal with the agony later.

Jessica scrambles up, pushes herself back to her feet. Well if he's going to Jane that's convenient. "Ow, shit, shit." But she's shaking off the wrenched muscles, following, then skidding to a halt as she sees James kill some son of a bitch that kind of deserved it anyway. Unless he was another mind-controlled unlucky sod, but…for her own conscience and sanity she's just going to imagine he's some kind of mastermind behind this plan and go from there, and once she decides that she can't find much in the way of fucks to give for that guy.

Jane strapped down with a machine on her head gives her pause though. She freezes, reaching to just rip it off her in her normal bull in a china shop fashion, then stopping herself, unsure if that will kill her, and unsure whether a second EMP is the right move. She rocks back on her feet, hesitating without touching anything at all. Red. Red will know. Maybe. Well, he'll know better than her. She can see him coming down the hall anyway, and so she whirls about to see if any other threats are going to present themselves, her curtain of black hair flying as she does, fists raising again just in case. Barnes seems to have it covered, but when one hesitates so completely, one tends to revert back to known quantities.

As the Thunderer rallies the troops and Captain gives the orders, Azalea knows she still has work to do, and with her passenger back to it's split, mad self, she has only a fragment of the power she once had. She digs deep, searching for reserves past the pain of knowing she'll never be that perfectly joined thing. Finally she looks up.

Zatanna and John are talking, but it isn't their words. There are just some things that join people, ephemeral and unbreakable and she can feel it from across the room. She takes one steadying breath, and then another, and she's the very last one to join the chase, but eventually she'll make it out of the room and down the hall, and carry her turmoil - every bit of it from The Perfect World and what waits for her in this one, into a practiced, readied rage.

When she finds The Winter Soldier has taken care of the situation himself, it very nearly disarms her. But then she remembers there was an old man voice, and somewhere nearby he may still lurk. Her head tilts back.

Eyes lid and nostrils flare, as if sniffing out some remaining bit of magic, her posture more creature than champion.

"Pretty sure you're bleeding, buddy. But each to their own man! Not one to judge!" Calls Quill towards Tim as he shakes himself and then takes off running. Following the path that Bucky is leading them on. The merry chase. Somewhere important judging from the shouting and the screaming…

He slides into the room just as the Winter Soldier impales a man with his freeking arm.

"That guy deserved it I bet…" A pause. "Nice punch?" He adds before he slides right past Jess and Az and moves towards Jane and her chair of…well that totally doesn't look like fun.

"I know you like science, but this is not healthy for anyone." He mutters. "Hey! Red! You're good with mechanics right? How do we get her out of this thing without making things worse?"

Because shooting it off her is /possible/ but he doesn't think that would be doctor recommended.

She's already digging out a wrinkled bandanna from her pocket, to mop up the dribble of dark blood she finds trickling from his nose. The quip earns him a small smile. "You can get those later," she murmurs. "If you can stand, we should probably finish what we all started."

The hand reaching for her face has her own shifting so she could cup the back of his knuckles, turning her face into the warmth of his palm. She manages a grin, brows quirking upwards, a sidelong glance aimed for him from the way her head tilts. "I am now," she says succinctly, before she rises. If John needs it, she'll help him up.

With that, she turns and gives chase. She manages to somehow head up the tail end of the line chasing after Bucky Barnes, down the hall and through the sterile confines of this wretched space, only to…

She stops when she sees the blood, the crimson geyser spilling from a man whose chest was just carved open by the Winter Soldier in his fury. Ice dumps into her heated blood before her eyes track to…

Her stomach drops as she catches sight of the brunette strapped on the chair. Urgency, worry and fury sweeps upwards, coruscating from within her. The obsidian obelisk is whipped from her pocket, the point of it directed to empty space.

"Vebulog marva dnif!" she cries, to shoot out another one of those red orbs, to track down her quarry. To find the Russian. He /can't/ be made to get away, not with the Tarnhelm still in his possession.

She then turns to where Jessica is ripping off the bits and pieces of machinery on Jane, reaching for the dark-haired physicist. She starts checking her over, and digging into her pocket, she produces a golden feather, which she places in the middle of her body. Her fingers splay over her chest, followed by the other set directly on top.

"Retsof Enaj ekaw dna laeh," she whispers. To try and heal her and wake her up, using the phoenix feather she has managed to procure from Gerry Craft.

Strapped down, fixed and jointed into place, and head partially-encased into the closing halves of a machine, is the lost Jane Foster.

Unable to move, unable to do anything but look, she strains against her bonds, blinking fresh tears away from her open eyes. There are tear lines down her cheeks, the skin scoured raw — raw from nothing but her own crying. The slow erosion of stone under a constant bead-drip of water.

Dressed in a medical gown, looking thin and sleepless and beyond traumatized, she looks like a tiny lab rat surrounded in so much medical torment, a tray lain out at her side with sterilized surgical implements, and a familiar chip at attention. A surgery that was supposed to take place.

Take place and did not. It seems, in the end, there was not enough time.

No time now, with the way her captor hangs dead, impaled on an arm forged of plated steel.

It happens in her sight. The machine secures her so well that even if she so wanted, the very conscious, very cognizant Jane Foster could not look away. Her lips move as if to say a word, but she has no strength to speak.

She has no grounding to even believe this is real.

Whirling a hammer is only good for so long. Ultimately, as everyone is revealed to be mostly alright, the Thunderer does the logical thing. He lets it loose, and is dragged for the ride. Fun note: Thor can't fly. The Hammer just drags him along.

So it is that walls cease to exist, debris flying every which way, as he follows the mild rampage of Bucky Barnes to the destination. The sight of Jane there, slumped in the chair with that Midgardian headgear (high fashion?!) draws the weapon back up.

He points it squarely at Jane first, and then to the assembled mortals nearby.

"Remove her from this device at once!"

His voice booms, a heavy crack of thunder echoing even here, so far beneath the surface. The God of Thunder is decidedly angry, and the hammer swings to each person presently in the room with the Winter Soldier, the impaled guy, and the clamped-into-machine Foster.

His eyes cut to the rather sensuously joined Soldier and the young man. If that young man had the key to remove Jane from this device—! The hammer comes back around as Jessica, and then Zatanna, begin their attempt to assist. It would seem this God is angry.

The costumed vigilante is indeed bleeding.

Not as much as he should be; the Red Robin suit incorporates many things learned from Batman's years of Batmanning, modifications made to the original by the young man himself as well as everyone's favourite secret accomplice, Alfred Pennyworth… And among those things incorporated is an underlayer designed to apply pressure to injuries, and to absorb blood rather than leaving it laying around everywhere where it might be used to identify him. It's hardly perfect, but only a few staggered droplets of red life mark his trail to the room where the others have gone, where Bucky Barnes has done a murder, and Jane Foster is secured up.

A place meant for surgery, and who knows what other torments.

Behind those white lenses, Red Robin's eyes slide shut as he regards the Winter Soldier and the man whose chest cavity currently plays host to his cybernetic hand, and he lets out a faint sigh, turning to deal with the living instead. Zatanna's magic whizzes past, and he's tempted to go and follow it, before instead moving to the machine that holds Jane Foster. He sizes it up, quickly, looking for the places it comes apart.

Everything comes apart, if you know where to look. Even high-tech torture harnesses.

Methodically, he sets about dismantling it as safely as possible, to see that the Doctor is freed without any other nasty surprises.

Though honestly, he wouldn't have blamed Jessica for tearing it to shreds.

Barnes keeps moving — Spider-Man keeps following. He leaps onto the walls, rushing across it, slowed only by an accumulation of injuries that still burn with memories of another world.

He hears the voice. He knows that Jane Foster has to be in danger, has to be saved soon. But he also knows that if he doesn't get there first, get there before Bucky Barnes does—

—in the end, he doesn't. Once more, he fails to make it in time, only bowling through that door into the room just in time to see that limp and lifeless and bloody form held aloft against the wall by Bucky's crimson-soaked arm like a pinned butterfly.

He's too late. He's always just… too late.

"NO!" shouts the young man, but he knows there's no point now. He could tear Bucky away, but Bucky is built to kill — the man's fate was sealed the minute the Winter Soldier entered the room. He doesn't doubt that man has done terrible, awful, irredeemable things, just like many of those cultists. How much Bucky or Jane must have suffered under him. But right now, the young man just feels so powerless, so frustrated, so — /defeated/ that he just stands there, shaking, fists clenched inward. "Why are you… so…"

The sound of his fist striking the nearby wall is deafening in the way it makes sterile metal violently crunch outward. Every ounce of him just controlling the most basic impulse of anger inside of him as he instead turns his attention towards Jane, looking around him to try to find some sort of control console to make use of to free her from her confinement. Because right now, he just has to focus on the things he -can- save.

Once on her feet, Peggy does a quick count to assure herself that everyone made it back. The numbers match. However, then, Barnes is barreling through hallways and Steve is quickly following. The door is burst forward and they are all in their own time and manner making their way toward where Jane Foster has been kept. Red Robin's injury is quickly assessed, but not commented on as the man seems to be intent on pushing forward.

When she enters the room of murder and pain, the Agent's eyes survey the damage. Her eyes remain on Barnes, seeing that Zatanna, Jessica, Red Robin and Thor are currently helping Jane out of the device she's been strapped into. For now, while Barnes refused to shoot Steve, he is still suspect. The shield is held forward, ready to hand off to Steve should he need it back.

The gun she holstered in favor of an EMP is pulled out again, ready. The man just put his metal hand through a man's chest, his danger level is still high.

The shield is taken back and secured behind his back once Carter has it for him. While people have their reactions to what they see, Steve is surprisingly neutral even if he is rather adverse to kill or murder much like Parker. The flood of emotions is many so it would seem Cap has decided to deny them all. There is still work to be done and there is a lifetime to process what has happened here. That said, he knows that people will go for Jane to free and heal her, so Rogers moves toward Barnes instead. "We need to get everyone out of here? Including him." As Peggy regards to the man with concern, it's clear that Rogers will as well.

The Winter Soldier's head bows a little to Parker's familiar distress. He remembers now, remembers other occasions Peter was just a little too late. Why are you… so…

"I look forward," he answers, "to the day I have the luxury to stop."

The Winter Soldier yanks his arm free from the corpse, letting it hit the floor. His eyes stare at nothing, too many memories warring in his broken head. He is barely responsive to anyone, anything, breathing through his teeth, eyes flickering in rapid blinks as he tries to sift his own thoughts…

…and gives up, for now. There is one thing left to do which he does not feel ambiguous about in the least.

He looks at Jane, then as quickly looks away in a jerk of his head. Zatanna has her. Zatanna will care for her. Zatanna won't drag her to hell and hurt her for weeks, stand by and watch her tortured, bring her dutifully back to the chair when she tries to run away—

Zatanna's tracking spell finds purchase. The red orb bobs in the air, then starts to float out of the room, zipping down the hall towards its destination. Bucky looks at it, but his body language suggests he is not explicitly following it when he leaves the room.

"There's only one place he will be," is all he says, as swift strides take him back down the hall.

No rest for the wicked.

John, of course, insists on getting up himself, only to take a moment to steady himself using Zatanna's shoulder as the ground decides to betray him by imitating a pendulum.

When it steadies, he follows, and halfway down the hall manages to recover enough of his inner ear's functionality that he can break into a jog. There are distressingly wet sounds coming from the room into which everyone is disappearing…

Oh.

That explains that.

John stares at the grisly display. At first, he doesn't even realize that Jane is in the room, her figure lost in the crowd, just another part of the machinery swallowing her up. It's only when activity stirs around the device that holds her that he sees her, really /sees/ her, and the ruin wrought on her.

"Bloody hell," he says, voice weak not from his exertions with the spell matrix but with the terrible reality of what was being done here.

He hangs back, stays out of the way. Technology is Red's purview, healing Zatanna's. Jessica can move mountains, Thor — someone /did/ say that was Thor, didn't they? — is particularly good at giving commands in a voice that brooks no argument. Captain America and Peggy Carter seem like better candidates for assisting or negotiating with Barnes, depending on whether or not he's really restored to himself; Parker is strong enough to help, and tie him up into the bargain, if necessary. Azalea is Jessica's roommate, some part of Captain America's team, and doubtless more physically capable than himself, particularly at present.

He splits his focus between the room and the orb of red magic. The temptation to give chase is there, though he's not at his best. Everyone else, everyone he actually gives a shit about, is in that room.

He's just about to let the wall opposite the open door support his weight when Barnes emerges. John straightens again, tries to sharpen the edges of him rounded by his time in that magical crucible.

Two heartbeats, a glance at the room, and then John follows in Barnes' wake.

Jessica looks at Tim, relieved she doesn't have to, relieved he's there to do it right. She follows it up with a stick-and-EMP on Jane's head, "Hello, Dr. Foster, nice to meet you, hope this doesn't hurt." Then she pat pats the woman whose life has sucked so very badly lately, and gives Red the thumbs up. She spares one sympathetic glance for Spidey, and then she's running again, following Zee's magic.

She didn't understand the backwards talk, but…the 'v' syllable she caught makes her think Zee's trying to find the engineer of all this carnage, and if that's the case, she definitely wants to be hot on the heels of the thing. This puts her stride for stride with Barnes as he declares the man will only be in one place; she nods to him and keeps moving.

This time if she gets to smash the Tarnhelm she sure as hell won't stick it in a potted plant.

She has now seen the PSA that says 'don't do THAT shit.'

She glances behind her, alarm widening her eyes. "Oh Jesus, John, are you sure you can…" There's that moment of hesitation, like maybe she should go help him, but in the end she decides he's a big boy and knows for himself what he can do and can't do…and the Tarnhelm might take him and Zee both to shut down anyway.

Sweat beads Azalea's brow as emotion churns in the room, and she can feel Xiuhnel revel in it, can feel it act the fractured monster, the kid in the candy store. Bucky is gone before she has time to react, and she sees Spider-Man, the guy she had found so annoying at first, show the true measure of his morality - one she herself shares. Otherwise she'd join Bucky in a vast pit, one filled with memories of all the bodies that past lives have wracked up, and she very simply cannot.

Steve's words snap her into action though, out of her spiritual feeding trance and her odd stare at Man-Spoder, until finally she's spurred into a run that takes her after Barnes. It isn't about stopping him, exactly.

Mostly it's just about making sure he has a friend to watch his back.

Peter steps back as Tim and Zee start to work on Jane. Healing spells and mechanical knowldge combine to make things a bit better for the poor abused scientist. The pilot sighs just slightly, seemingly to relax a bit more. He gives the others time to work as he glances around. A look is cast towards Jessica and Quill just grins slightly.

One hand is raised to pat the detective on the shoulder. "I'll make sure he's fine. You take care of the tiny terror." He jerks his head in Jane's direction. "Tell her I'll take her into space after she gets better."

A pause.

"Actually tell her she can force me to do it, because she'll like that better." Again the smirky little smile from the pilot before he strolls on out, following behind the others on the trail of one Bucky Barnes.

Slowly but carefully, Jane is unpeeled from the cruel grasp of that machine, its layers and pieces stripped away — some broken off in Jessica's hands — from where they viced down around her head. There is nothing invasive about the machine, no needles or instruments that would draw blood, but it's fitted with sensors and conductors — meant to apply regulated and acute doses of electricity to the brain.

Let out of her straps, one after another, the first thing Jane does is tremble. She's cold. She's afraid. She's not sure what is happening.

Zatanna enacts her healing spell as the scientist gazes up mindlessly, not all there. There is little to heal. Fatigue. Dehydration. They have not injured or hurt her. They have, on the contrary, done well to keep her healthy, to enforce the narrative of a peaceful, painless transition to console the Winter Soldier. Make him believe all are treated well by Hydra.

Her health is fine. Jane Foster's mind, however, is something quite else.

Her dark eyes lance from face to lance, so many of them, some of them she recognizes, some of them she stares right through. She double-takes at Thor, and it is probably seeing him that makes her question whether any of this is happening at all. There is so much all at once, and she shrinks back, her freed arms pulled in with a lab animal's quiet desperation to protect itself.

Her eyes find the Winter Soldier. She stares at him even as he looks away. She watches him leave and tries to call something after. Her useless voice cannot seem to form sound.

Ultimately, when Jessica talks to her, it earns Jane's eyes. Her thousand yard stare. Something is pressed to her, and she doesn't know what, can't make it out, and cries out, expecting more pain. None comes.

She tries to wonder if this is just another dream. If it's red.

Peggy remains where she is after handing the shield back to Steve. Now, she is able to hold her gun with two steadying hands. She glances over her shoulder first at John as he hangs back from the crowd around Jane and then the others as they help and pry the doctor from the device she has been strapped to.

There's a desire to move forward to try and help and the woman, but she knows that it's her friends that will be able to help her. A near-stranger may only add to the confusion and harm. Her attention is divided and as Barnes pulls his arm form the corpse. Her attention is snapped back to him as the heavy sound collapses onto the ground. The woman pauses and quickly pulls off her jacket, holding it out to Azalea. "Something to cover her," she tells him briefly, not waiting for another response before following after Barnes down the hallway.

She pulls the feather away and tucks it into her pockets. She had hoped, she knew from the logs that they were going to do this, but she didn't want to believe. She hoped…

As Zatanna stares into Jane's wide, dark, disbelieving eyes, anger nearly blots out everything else, washes everything around her in white noise and nuclear heat. Her fingers bite tightly into the edge of the bed as she watches the physicist take in everything and everyone and wonder. The fact that she doesn't speak, that she isn't bounding around with her usual energy, has her swallowing against the hard knot in her throat, attempting to force it down. Distantly, she is cognizant of everyone else leaving the room, except for Thor and Red and Spidey…for now.

She's already stripping off her jacket before Agent Carter's suggestion leaves her lips. She gently attempts to guide Jane to a sitting position, so she could drape it over her delicate shoulders. It is about two sizes too big for her, considering the difference in their sizes - the raven-haired magician is over half a foot taller than her, after all.

"Jane, we got you," she whispers quietly. "We're taking you someplace safe, okay? Just…just hang on. A little bit longer, okay?"

Glancing over towards Thor. "Would you be able to take her to a safe place? Someplace out of here, and fast?"

The luxury to stop.

The flare of anger inside Spider-Man dulls the way his knuckles thrub as he drag them away from that dented, ruined husk of metal so that he may aid the Red Robin in freeing Jane. There is a rebuke somewhere in there, something inside him screams at him to say something back. That stopping is anything but a luxury. That not taking that last step is what's trying, and painful, and…

… but the words never come. They just die on his throat as he helps with freeing Jane, never letting that fallen, bloodied body leave the peripherals of his vision. He says nothing, in fact; for as much of a fool as he plays, he's diligent and perhaps shockingly keen when it comes to working with machines.

He stays only as long as it takes to make sure Dr. Foster is freed, and safe. The second he knows that nothing has happened to her, that she doesn't need any further help…

The webbed vigilante is rushing out of that room as fast as he can, bounding up and onto a wall with uncanny speed faster than most cars as he propels himself forward, following after the trail for the man who caused all of this.

The orb leads them to a research and reading room. An archive. A few tables, a few chairs, boxed file folders, two workstations. Presumably, it's a field setup for the scientists who were activated to operate out here in New York, to support the Winter Soldier on his assignment. Even for his short missions, the Winter Soldier— like some murderous, wetwork celebrity— never deploys anywhere without an entourage of support staff dedicated to his control and maintenance, and they in turn need space and information with which to work.

In the room is a vast amount of data both on the Winter Soldier, and on the operation here. Some in the files, but most on the workstations. It is laid out, open, like a gift.

James Buchanan Barnes is staring straight at one of the workstations, flesh and metal hands gripped on the back of the chair before the screen. It is playing a file that is hours long. From the poor quality, it looks to be either early analog recordings that were digitized— presumably for ease of use and portability, and presumably because the actual physical originals are kept locked up somewhere deep in Russia, never to be taken out lest they fall into the wrong hands.

It is timestamped 1954. There is footage of the Winter Soldier, strapped in a chair, a much cruder version of his arm clamped down. Something vast and metallic, like a mantis iron maiden, mantles over him, two plates clamped to either side of his head feeding electricity through his skull as he shakes spasmodically in his chair. On screen he is screaming, the sound muffled by the mouthguard they've put in to keep him from powdering his own teeth.

It quits after fifteen seconds. You are the Winter Soldier, the crackling voices of the scientists recite to the shuddering wreck in the chair, rote, in the most brute force sort of hypnosis. You are faithful to the Soviet Union. You are faithful to Hydra. You kill for us. You have always been proud to kill for us. This is all you are.

The dog refuses its training. It pulls fitfully at its leash. I don't remember who I am, it says. But I know I am not that. Put me back where you found me. Let me die.

The clamps go back on instantly. The dog screams as it is punished for refusing its conditioning. And this cycle— statement, refusal, pain, statement, refusal, /pain/— repeats and repeats and repeats, until the dog starts to agree. Maybe that is who I am. I don't know. Yes.

The pain stops.

A young man at the side of the Winter Soldier looks up. Young— yet apparently already lamed, leaning on a cane in lieu of his useless right leg. General, he addresses someone offscreen, his precise Russian-accented voice terribly familiar, the subject should now be ready for mental implants.

The other workstation does not seem nearly as exciting, at first glance. The file open on it is called Memory Excision Process, Live Test 1.

There are handwritten notes— the precursor to a formal report— by the workstation. They are a bit scattered, as if someone left the pile in a hurry. "Memories can be removed from the subject's mind, but cannot be directly 'deleted' in the sense desired. Transfer is not effective unless the memories have somewhere to go. Suggest recording memories marked for deletion onto easily destructable media. AVG appears opposed to further development on this control method, but perhaps can be convinced."

There is one recorded memory already marked for deletion.

There are thunderclouds brewing, and a good portion of them are on the face of Thor as he observes the extraction of Jane Foster from the device. These mortals and their toys?

No matter. It seems she is breathing.

In a rare moment of humanity, the God of Thunder drops Mjonir with a heavy thud, the curated floor caving in where it lands. As the mortals show their kindness, so too does Thor, taking a knee near the rather bewildered and tortured woman near the center of all of this.

"Hello Jane," Thor says, a hand reaching out to settle on her knee. Perhaps a bit forward by some standards, but at least she's got half a dozen coats and cowls at this point to warm her up. He takes off his own cape to add to the pile.

"I see I must apologize. It seems my ravens came too late.''

Yes, definitely the type of dialogue for a dream sequence, if not the weak smile added to such a weak joke. His blue eyes turn to the nearby Zatanna. Everyone else has left, it seems. "She needs time before I can move her. If there is more your spells can do, please do so. Take my strength if you can."

And with those words, he reaches for Jane's hand, his decidedly warm physiology seeking to give what heat it can. "And I want that helmet. It leaves with me, or it will be destroyed." There's no room for argument in that voice. All smiles for Jane though, at least there's that.

As the procession goes, everyone moves along. As Rogers moves into the room where the 'magic' happens, his teeth grit in anger at what's discovered. The sound tightening leather reveals that his hands are balling into fists, but he says nothing immediately. SHIELD would likely want this place studied, to see if it has any worth or intel. He knows with so much suffering that has gone on, there is little that he could do or would do to stop anyone from going to town on this place.

In the wake of the memory, in the wake of the pain and suffereing, Rogers moves to Barnes. "You'll get through this, Bucky. And if it gets tough, know you have a lot of people who are rooting for you," he offers quietly a hand moving to pat Bucky on his chest. To everyone else, he says, "We should likely get what we can from here, then takes this place out. I'll be making my way out, SHIELD will want to have the area sealed off to make sure no one unwanted comes down here." That said, the American Idol turns and prepares to make his way to the entrance, waiting for parting words from others before he goes.

She wasn't prepared. Not to see Bucky staring into the abyss he had come from, into the place where he was remade, in digital form. It isn't just the sight of him ingesting it that cuts Azalea to the core. She /remembers/. The chair. The pain. The frozen gaps between. It is a harrowed sound that leaves her, and her eyes, wide and full of a very human terror, sweep across the boundless horror of this place.

A sharp intake of breath reminds her she is still alive and that she still needs to breath, slowly moving up beside the assassin, her gaze trained on the video as it plays.

"Bucky."

Azalea does not dare to touch him, though she does find his peripheral vision, and urgency rises in both her expression and her voice. "We have to find him."

The mission. It's all she has to offer him. She doesn't know that their new target might not be here anymore, she can't fathom the turmoil Bucky faces now, despite having some of his memories. When Steve arrives at his other side, she has hope.

Then it dwindles when he pats Bucky's pectoral. What the fuck is actually happening right now. The furrow of her brow tells the tale, and her teeth grit.

Hesitation wreathes her features at the God of Thunder's request. Zatanna glances over at Jane.

"I've healed what I could," she says quietly through a frown. Red and Spidey have vanished, leaving herself and the intimidating presence of the Norse deity alone in the room. "But from what I gather, most of the damage they would have wrought is in her mind. Daddy…" She hesitates. "Daddy knows how to recalibrate the psyche. He can wipe memories, rehabilitate others by correcting abnormal impulses, implant false memories. I am his legacy. I should be able to do it."

There's a glance down at her fingers. Her lips press together.

"But I won't," she says quietly. "Not even if it would fix her. I don't have the experience, and even if I did….I can't. I've met Dr. Foster only one other time and after everything she's suffered, I won't….I won't do to her what these people did. I'd rather die. Whatever happens now, for her, we're going to have to do it the hard way."

Her expression gentles. For a moment, just a moment, she lets go of her anger. She reaches out tentatively to tuck Jane's hair behind her ear.

"There's a lot of magic in the act of loving someone," she says quietly. "I'm hoping that's enough."

John lags behind some as he follows Barnes, but he does so with a stubbornness that refuses to be cowed by his splitting headache or exhaustion. He's only forced to brace a splayed hand against the wall once, to keep from careening off of it with one shoulder. But as the others have said: this needs to be seen through, whatever that may mean.

The room into which he steps as he reaches the assassin's — former assassin's? — destination is…

…is a mauseoleum of a kind. A tomb for a man. They buried his life here. That makes it holy, in its own way. Or unholy.

Both.

The same hush that hangs on a church settles over him, quilted with unease. Watching the grainy film transfer on the screen, he feels the unease of someone who understands that they're witnessing something that they shouldn't be watching, were never meant to see.

"She's right, mate," he forces himself to say, wincing at the sound of his own roughened voice. Inappropriate, for him to be here, in this private place.

Jessica had heard Quill, but she'd already been moving in this direction; distantly she's aware Thor and Zatanna stayed with Jane.

Nausea comes over her face as she takes all of this in. It puts an ugly look on her face. Eyes narrow. She hears Azalea trying to get through to Barnes. And Captain America. Her contribution is this. "Never again."

She looks for the red dot, and…and it's just hovering there? Why is it just hovering there?

Probably some bullshit invisibility trick. She rears back her fist and punches into the space where the dot is hovering, just in case. Good and hard. He's all jacked up with the helm after all.

Quill follows, his booted feet thumping down the hallway with the pack of men and women off to find the wizard behind all of this mess. And then hopefully rip his head off. In the state of mind some of them are in that might be a litteral thing.

So he follows, into what seems to be the Winter Soldier's past. So much information here, so much death. So many things that they should be burried. "I can blow this all too hell if it makes anyone feel better." He murmurs as he glances around at the accumulated information of decades of work. "But I think we need to find that helm thing. Just to make sure it doesn't happen again."

Which would be a bad thing.

And then the flare stops.

And Jessica tests a theory.

Well her fist will do more damage than the stick he was going to use. And feel more satisifying if it connects. Perfect.

Cuts and burns and other injuries decorating the places where his costume tears, his left arm screaming pain at him, Spider-Man's speed is still impressive as he pushes past his injuries and ignores how much they scream at him as he agitates them further. He only stops when he makes it to that room.

And when he does, he comes to an absolute, dead stop.

For so many reasons, Peter Parker thanks god right now he wears a mask, so his reaction to everything he sees in this room, his confusion and revulsion and every other conflicting emotion, can't be seen. He just stares at it all, listens to those recordings, taking it in with an abject refusal to look away, to turn a deaf ear to what the man had to go through. For years. Decades. He slowly moves past Barnes, exhaustion briefly settling into his bones as he allows them to rest even for a second. Wordlessly, the masked young man picks up those handwritten notes, leafing through them, hazel eyes skimming information at swift speeds as his lips curdle beneath the mask.

Memory deletion. As if he were some computer with information that should just be stored and removed when inconvenient. The papers crumple slightly underneath the tensing clench of his trembling fingers.

He looks to Azalea and Constantine as they speak, pausing only when he sees what poor shape the Brit is in as the world finally starts catching up to him again. He hesitates, almost ventures to ask how the man is — but thinks better of it for now.

"… But, where is—"

He begins, and then Jessica just starts beating up the air.

"—he?!"

He really wishes that didn't come out as a surprised squeak.

Seriously.

A side door, moved slowly, with only the timeless patience of someone so old, opens off the far end of the archival room. The private office of Avram Golubev.

He emerges, slowly, powerfully, his aged body strong — his face masked, encased, entombed totally by the Tarnhelm. Its iron-and-wood forging cuts strong, armored features, etched and smithed by inhuman hands. It imbues him with the magic to open the seams of this world. It imbues him with the magic well enough to steal the soul from a homo magi's body.

It…

He lifts one withered hand and slowly pulls it free. And, just like that, in the finalizing gesture of a man who knows he's lost, lets it drop.

The Tarnhelm hits the ground in a useless, hollow clang of iron.

Once it leaves his hand, the old man sags, all that false strength leaving him, venting out until all that is left is an old, dying man, who struggles with his lame right leg, limping, and with grasping hands, shaking arms, lowers himself down to a chair.

Avram Golubev looks up. His pale eyes take in the Winter Soldier. Take in the others. He looks on them all, weary, tired, hollow. Accepting.

"It seems you have all made your choice," he says, simple as that. "You are all children. You have not suffered long. Perhaps when the years take you…"

He exhales, lids his eyes. His right hand clasps his left, fingers over his wedding band. "Soldat. For fifty years I addressed a machine. I am honoured to speak to a man. You know how these things must end."

When the door opens, Azalea follows the motion with a gripping tension that ripples her body and puts her on edge, her fists curled, her pose struck. She's ready to fight something that won't go down without a fight. Or maybe, like everything else they've experienced, is impossible to predict. The old man's words fall, and she swallows, her response a muted whisper.

"Longer than you might think."

When she steps forward it's to place herself not between Soldier and Operator, but just to the side, looking between them, while hanging closer to Bucky. There's no inference here, the Old Man recounts a history of violence here, a tradition. He calls the Soldat a man, but seems to give him no choice.

"Human beings get to make decisions. Don't fucking tell him what he knows. He doesn't take orders from you anymore."

But neither does he take orders from anyone else here. She values life because pushing one into the darkness would drag her with it. Maybe if Bucky Barnes can restrain himself against his darkest, living demon, he can find a little light.

Or maybe Avram Golubev simply does not play a game he cannot lose.

Peggy has remained near the back of the room. The video, the memories, these are not hers. When Avram Golubev enters, her gun raises, aiming straight at him. He may be old, but she knows better than to discount people due to their age. The helmet crashes to the ground, but she lets someone else pick that up. What happens to the Tarnhelm will be dealt with later. For now, there are other things that are pressing matters.

In fact, as Avram finishes his speech, her eyes narrow. Steve is bringing SHIELD back, something she was about to follow until just now. Instead, she knows she must have some purpose to stay here. She'll speak for Steve, as she hopes she knows what he might say in this situation. It doesn't mean the same, she doesn't have the same rapport, but all she does is call out,

"Sergeant Barnes," her voice is not an order, not exactly a reproach, it's a reminder. Things don't always need to end in violence. "We can handle him."

"I would not want that for her. Her mind is brilliant. Whatever ordeal she has gone through, I know she has the strength of character to come through to the other side," Thor replies to Zatanna, still down there on one knee, waiting for Jane to pose.

"She was kind to me once, when I was not worthy of kindness. The least I can do is stay here now, and hold her hand."

With a slight shake of his head, he nods his chin towards the door. "Go, if you must. I will guard her and keep her safe. Heed my words, mortal. That helmet should be removed from this Realm, so that these days of history should never be repeated."

An act of love? That's a bit of a tall task. For now, Thor simply stays there, a God at the beck and call of a mortal.

"If you really want it, it's yours," Zatanna says, turning her heel. "Take care of her, Thor."

There's a pause, and she angles a look over her shoulder. Somehow, in spite of everything - the tension, the aches, the pain, the spectral traces of that lingering fear and the taste of near-inevitable loss, she winks at the Norse god.

"You big woobie."

With that, she turns, to propel herself into a light jog…and once she realizes that the bit of rest has managed to rejuvenate her, booted feet move in a dead sprint, drawing out her obsidian obelisk and following where it leads, stone and magic pulsing in her palm as it directs her towards the tomb of the Winter Soldier. As always, whenever she decides to invade a space, she lets everyone know it.

The doors rebound violently off the walls as she barges through, inky-black hair clinging to the sides of her face, skin drenched with cold sweat and the mystic blood-weave of the ward that Red Robin forced her to break and throw on herself, in the event of a hail of death from Stark drones in the other, perfect-imperfect world. She pants from her dead run, stumbling forward as she follows the red dot…

…to the cluster of her associates, and the inactive Tarnhelm on the floor. Ice-blue eyes lift to fall on the familiar face of Avram Gobulev seated on the chair, frail, old, his fingers running over the wedding band on his hand…

You, my dear, took me back nearly sixty years.

Her grasp on that burning, simmering fury falters.

You look very much like someone I used to know.

Her expression contorts. Realization, sick and anguished, crawls over her fine-boned features.

Jessica punches the air so hard she spins herself around and falls flat on her ass. Yeah. Az might remember her saying something? About needing refinement? She can use some of that herself. She grimaces and waves the arm that she nearly dislocated right out of her own shoulder socket. Nothing to see here, folks, just a private investigator who just tried to get too clever by half.

But hey, if it would have connected that would have been so satisfying, so. Worth it, really, just for the chance. Even though it's honestly better this way.

Her gaze travels to the monster who has just surrendered. Her lips curve in a sneer of raw contempt, and a terrible look enters her eyes. She can only nod in agreement with Azalea's bold statement.

In her opinion, that son of a bitch hasn't suffered nearly enough, but like all monsters, he's quite prepared to stand there and tell everyone he's the victim. He's more than ready to explain why he knew better for the whole fucking world, and why that justified any hateful, harmful thing she wanted to do.

She clenches her teeth, swallowing hard.

Her opinion isn't the one that matters here. This is not her monster to punish. Agent Carter calls for conventional justice, claiming they can handle him, perhaps give him a long life in some prison.

Her gaze travels up to James Barnes. She wasn't about to try to convince him of anything, one way or the other.

People had been making his decisions for decades. If he wanted to turn this man over to SHIELD, impale him with that metal arm, or anything in between…as far as Jessica Jones was concerned, he had that right. She just sits there, emotion shining brightly behind her dark eyes, the full horror of just…every fucking bit of it finally catching up to her. Her throat closes as that emotion starts to steal over her face. It's done, unless this is some trick, and the need to keep moving, to keep looking, to stay in motion and do something, all that is gone, which means the buffer has been stripped from her feelings.

The people here see what they choose to see as the creator of their pain and suffering slowly walks into the room. What Quill sees is an old man. Ancient beyond measure, tired of living in the world.

He shrugs slightly towards the man and his words.

"Maybe so," He drawls out as he looks around the room once more. There isn't anger in his voice. None of the fury that others might have. Or the worry. "But its our choice to make grandpa. Not yours." He smiles slightly. "Isn't that how its suppose to be?"

The man is asking for death. That much is obvious. Bucky isn't one for mercy when it comes to the pain of one Jane Foster.

I mean dude went after Peter with a launcher and Peter didn't even do anything! …much.

Life or death, its not really his choice to make.

"Er," begins Spider-Man, slowly. "… I think that's just… air. You know, nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide, argon—"

The faint and lazy creak of hinges is what catches his attention first; still holding those papers, the masked vigilante's gaze turns immediately towards the source. Old, but strong — he looks too strong, as if something was bolstering him, layering him with muscles age had once decayed away long ago. The cane, familiar. Lame. Just like that man from the recordings, with that familiar voice…

Avram Golubev. The papers in Spider-Man's hands drop to the floor. Anger surges inside of him, impulsive, teenaged fury. It makes him pivot sharply on his heel. Makes him immediately move to that man as he falls back into his chair and just shrinks into withered age with the vitality of the Tarnhelm lost from him. So many things he wants to say — wants to -do- — to this man. And he barely even knows him. Has never even met him.

And knowing that is exactly why Peter Parker moves to impose himself between Avram Golubev and Bucky Barnes like a scrawny, 5'10" barrier.

For all his strength, for all his power, so beaten down and torn up and just… him… Spider-Man hardly looks imposing. But he doesn't move. Doesn't dare budge an inch. Doesn't address the man behind him, for all he wants to -scream- at him. He just stares level at the Winter Soldier — at James Buchanan Barnes.

"You— you have the luxury to stop, Mister Barnes," he says simply, voice so tired and so very, hopelessly young, "right… now."

No sermonizing, no pleas. He shakes with built up fatigue. Maybe he has no right. Maybe he has no place. He's pretty sure he'll never, ever be able to understand the hell Bucky Barnes went through just to get here.

But he's ready to fight, if he has to. With every last ounce of his strength.

He can't do any less, even now.

Two, three steps, and then John stoops, reaches. Plucks the Tarnhelm up off of the ground in one hand, blue eyes tugged from Golubev, much diminished by its absence, to the helm itself. His expression is inscrutable, a mask — even when Golubev asserts that none of them understand suffering, too young to truly comprehend true loss.

Some respond. He does not. He stands, holding onto the cursed object — unlike many objects of power that wander into his life, he is determined to see that this one goes to Thor, and ultimately to its destruction — and watches Golubev in silence. If he has any opinion as judge or jury of what he's seen, he keeps his verdict to himself.

The door explodes inward, and he turns his head, looks over his shoulder at what he already knows he will see, the seething coil of universal magic behind him.

He takes two steps backward, out of her possible trajectory.

Slowly guided to sit up, Jane follows weakly, a boneless quality to her body that is partially exhaustion, partially trained obedience. She holds herself in guarded resistance, mentally trying to catch up with what's already wrought, her abused mind afraid to hope that this all might be over. She's dreamed before, dreamed up realities where she thought herself safe, only to be brought back — brought back with the pain.

Her eyes strain to follow the Winter Soldier until he has long left. His missing presence affects her transparently, soundly. When sentenced to two weeks of hell, and allowed one person only as a requisite break to all that torture and pain…

It was for the sake of the Winter Soldier to allow him access to visit her, witness her drugged and compliant and not physically harmed, to keep him docile. But Jane benefitted from that too. Enough that being here, and not being able to see him —

— it makes her anxious.

At least borrowed clothes shield her from the chill. She's so tired of feeling cold. Two weeks of so much cold. There's a touch on her knee, and it makes her jump slightly, tense, too-alert.

Yet with the moments, her eyes focus. "Thor?" Jane murmurs, voice low and weak. It's really him. He's really here. If any of this is real.

Is he really back?

Her attention waxes and wanes, here and there, cognizance scattered to the wind as Jane's attention drifts in and out. It feels like her thoughts are not all her own. Whispers not herself mixed in with the rest. It's a struggle to parse it. The touch to her hair doesn't stir her. Jane doesn't even notice it's there. She struggles to find any way back. She just wants to…

"I can't… go," she whispers. "Not… without."

Bucky is silent as Steve comes up alongside him— as everyone, in their turn, makes some quiet remark. It is the tense, agonized silence of a man who does not know what to say, nor how to address those he has let down. Those he has hurt. Those he has nearly killed.

We have to find him. To put a stop to this. To end it. That is the one thing he eventually focuses on.

"Yes," he says eventually. "Yes." He pulls something from the workstation, palms it, pockets it.

He does not turn until he hears that familiar voice at his back. He looks on Avram Vasilevich Golubev almost sightlessly, staring through him, a thousand yard gaze off across the decades. Decades of conversations he is only now remembering. Decades of pain. Decades of control. Decades of…

You know how these things must end.

In response, he draws a weapon.

He stands in silence as people speak around him. They insist he does not have to obey. They insist that they can handle this man. Many, however, are silent, or explicitly leave it to him.

And then there is Peter Parker. Peter Parker, who interposes his slight body between them. Peter Parker, who tells him he has the luxury to stop.

"You'll learn one day," he eventually says to Parker, voice exhausted, "that death can be mercy. Mercy I was prepared to give, despite everything."

He holsters his weapon and turns his back.

"Na miru i smert' krasna," he says to his handler of fifty years. "May you see Eve again when you die."

Avram Golubev stares only up at the Winter Soldier, his pale eyes expecting something, a consequence that men like both of them must accept. Soviet soldiers are not allowed to outlive their mistakes.

And then Peter Parker inserts himself between them. Between the forged weapon and the broken old man.

Avram, too weak to do anything more, simply waits. Waits for what must be assured.

His expectant eyes, nearly blind with his long years, look on. He cannot see so clearly these days, not as well as he used to, but he can make out the way the Soldier makes his decision. Does not grant the dignity of an execution and turns his back.

Golubev knows he shold feel disappointment. Instead, a soft laugh wells up in his throat. How should any father feel disappointment when their son makes his first choice as a man?

He speaks of Eve Golubev. Eve, who loved him. Eve, who screamed for him. Eve, wreathed in fire as she died, taken away. He died with her that day.

"I will make sure she does not," he answers. "Some winters thaw. And others…"

He reaches one withered hand at his back with a brush of movement. Able to be tracked. Able to be sensed by Parker. At his turned back.

There is a gun in Golubev's hand.

He presses the barrel to his own throat and pulls the trigger.

"Not without the man with the metal arm," Thor finishes the words with a smile.

There's a reason why the scientist has found herself in this hole, deep under the city, strapped to an internal machine, made to act to the whimsy of another. This bird, in his opinion, should be free.

"Jane Foster, you find a way to dig yourself into the deepest of the holes. You helped me once - let me help you now. Just follow my light."

Instead, he will lift her up, cloaks, jackets and all, and carry her out of this dreadful room. "You see, when I left," he fills the travel time with talk, seeking out the magical signatures elsewhere on this location. "I was forced to destroy the Bifrost, that bridge you were so fascinated by. At least, I think it the same. Your claims of 'science!' were always so bizarre.

"Unfortunately, I was not able to return until… a little while ago." Hmm, white lie? Sort of. "I am sure I will have to repeat this later. No matter. I sent three ravens, but none were able to find you. Toothgnasher was also not able to find you. I spent a solid day or two flying over New Mexico. I even called into that giant pit north of there, but alas, you did not respond."

Nearing the room with all the commotion, Thor pauses, and smiles briefly down at the astrophysicist. "I am glad you found someone. But I will caution you not to play with anything that starts with the word 'magic' again. Call me first, if you must. I have a phone now."

That's going to be one weird fever dream for Jane Foster. The God of Thunder and the Woman of Blankets stand just outside the doorway, awaiting the outcome within. The gunshot goes off. Thor speaks up. "Did you know that Darcy is working for SHIELD now? Strangest thing. I have not seen Erik since last I left this world, but perhaps we can get everyone together to-"

When the Soldier's weapon comes out, Azalea's gaze slips sidelong, to Jess. To see what she might do. She's been her rock for the past week, but finding that expression there gives her little direction. All those around her pitch in, and mostly, it seems like they believe as she does. That the Soldier needs to make the choice.

She expects violence, and when the Soldier does not deliver it, when Bucky instead denies the man mercy, she swallows hard. For almost two years now she's crawled into the night and tried to take a stand, using a horrible thing as a weapon against other horrible things. For more than two years she's chased at being a hero.

She can't pinpoint when that happened, if it happened at all. But she knows the moment that Bucky Barnes proved that he has what it takes to be a hero, at least for her part.

She's so in awe in watching him as he goes to find his Jane that she does not see the old man find his gun. She jumps when the shot is fired, and her eyes fall shut for a brief moment until sound returns to her ears and she can look upon the destruction Avram had wrought upon himself.

As her eyes strained against his age, every deep line and harsh cut of sacrifice to a cause that did not win the day, she realized that the gunshot wound had been the least of it.

The confrontation between the Winter Soldier and Spider-Man has Zatanna waiting at the fringes, tension coiled over her shoulders. Ice-blue eyes flick between them, at the words exchanged. When the former lowers his gun, however, the young woman exhales a breath that she isn't conscious of holding. She takes a few tentative steps, stopping just slightly behind and to the side of John.

"She's waiting," she tells the Winter Soldier quietly, though she can't quite look at him in the eye, staring somewhere at a point past the side of his face.

With Spider-Man blocking her view of Avram, she doesn't see the gun, doesn't see what he does to it until the unmistakeable sound of a gunshot thunders over the mostly silent space, the ping of a spent casing bounding off the ground and the slick, wet sound of crimson spattering. Her spine stiffens at it, her lips parting in shock, but she is at the very least spared the sight of it. Demons, eldritch terrors and other terrible, fantastic things have dominated her young life, but she has yet to grow calluses against the violence a human being can inflict on another…or himself.

Warring emotions threaten to split her down the middle; relief, whatever dying embers of her fury there are, impotently grasping at /something/ tangible to hold onto and finding none because even if she wanted to, it's too late to make him pay - for what he did to Bucky and Jane, to everyone else in this room, to herself and what he stole from her. Sorrow, because she can't help it, her empathy wouldn't allow her not to feel it, knowing the nature of his loss, if not just by implication, remembering the one persistent ghost that haunts her own father.

A sob threatens to break through the dam, vile heat and the sting of unwanted moisture pricks from under her lashes. She attempts to blink it rapidly away.

She attempts to divert her attention to the Tarnhelm in John's hands instead, glimpsing her warped reflection on the dull, tarnished surface. Her hands move, to try and take it from him if he will let her.

He can't hide it. He's too tired to. The relief that seeps in and melts the tension from Spider-Man's body is far too obvious as Bucky Barnes holsters his weapon. His muscles uncoil, relax. He looks aside as breath bleeds from his lips in an exhale he didn't even realize he had been holding.

He hears Barnes' words, even as his hands uncoil from fists. Even as his guard drops, even for a moment.

"… Maybe," he murmurs, voice so very fatigued. "But that doesn't mean it has to—"

That buzz. So soft, at the back of his skull. So tired he barely even notices it. His eyes widen. He spins sharply on his heel, sees the gun in the old man's hand. For a moment, one impulsive moment, he thinks that the man is going to turn the gun on him. He's too tired, too late, to avoid it. He prepares himself for what's to come…

… and even thinking such a thing, the very second he sees the barrel twist and lodge itself against the nook of the man's jaw, Peter Parker's first response is simple and instinctive.

He lunges for that gun.

"WAIT—"

BLAM

The gunfire rings at his ears. The acrid smell of gunsmoke mixes with coppery tang of blood in his nostrils. His hand is on the limp and lifeless one of Avram Golubev, crimson unseen against the spandex of his costume as he stares, shocked mute, at the man who was once alive before him not a second earlier.

For the longest time, the only thing Peter Parker can think of is how warm his hand still feels.

The last vestiges of a life that is no longer there.

He is frozen there, silent and unmoving, as he feels it all slip away, staring at the remains of Golubev as if he could just will him back to life through the quiet shock of his gaze.

And just like that, whatever strength Peter had been mustering up from the reserves of his will just… crumbles. He collapses to his knees, bonelessly numb. Vacant and sapped.

Why? He doesn't know. And now he might never know.

Eventually, Peter forces himself up. Quietly, wordlessly, he takes a final, uncomprehending look at Golubev's body behind that mask, and then just… leaves. No words spared. No quips, no optimism, no assurances. He just goes, head bowed and spirit cowed.

Even death can be beautiful in company.

A sentiment he'll never understand.

Complicated things pass between Golubev and Barnes in silence, in fragments of speech that mean nothing to John, beyond the scope of his knowledge. Their mutual understanding of the natural conclusion to events seems inevitable…

And then Spider-Man, battered and bleeding, costume torn, puts himself between them. His idealism, the architecture of his morals, so painfully uncompromised. Uncompromising. It is not clear whether he intends to save Barnes or Golubev, the latter already — to John's practiced eye — a dead man. Both, perhaps.

John has it in him to wonder if he was ever that way. Suspects not. Believes, genuinely, that the reed which does not bend in a gale is the reed which breaks instead — but then, maybe that's why John's soul is stained and threadbare.

Not that it matters. He can see it coming before it happens. A muscle in his cheek twitches, tightens, and he averts his gaze, the Nazi's end spelled out in his peripheral vision as a rooster's fantail of red. Not something he cares to see. Not because he's squeamish — he isn't, and he's had more cause than most — but because he's seen enough tragedy in the last month, and he's had his fill. He hears Spider-Man sink to the ground and his jaw tightens in sympathy — he has been there, he has felt that — but what can he do, or say? What reassurances could he, of all people, offer?

Besides, it's…over.

Maybe?

He contemplates Zatanna touches the helm, and John demonstrates /excellent/ survivalist reflexes, spinning in place and snapping the object away from questing fingers in spite of his condition. Sharp eyes slowly soften as they take in the sight of her, and though he visibly wars with himself, it's a very /brief/ battle.

"Bollocks to that," is what he says, having arrived at that conclusion almost instantaneously. "I've 'ad more than enough of the 'Zatanna and Tarnhelm' show, thanks much, I don't fancy a sequel. It's going to the big bloke with the Ren-Faire natter."

But he has two hands, doesn't he?

The other one extends, seeking hers, a weft of graceful fingers. He is not unaware of the way in which her eyes are just that little bit too bright, the emotion she's keeping in check. "Come on, love. Let's see that he gets it. And then…"

Go home.

Because it's over. Because they did it. They survived. Whether Barnes and Foster will recover — that he can't say. Only time, he thinks, will tell. But they're alive, and so there's a chance, isn't there? In spite of the odds. In spite of everything.

As close to a happy ending as they were ever likely to get, all things considered.

He doesn't say that, though. He lets the corner of his mouth ghost upward, just a little. "I was promised a shower and a massage."

Soviet soldiers are not allowed to outlive their mistakes. They are executed. Avram Golubev knows this. The Winter Soldier knows this.

James Buchanan Barnes knows it also, but he refuses it. He turns his back. His hands are covered in so much blood that it seems monumentally exhausting, of a sudden, to add any more. And he does not have the heart after seeing Peter Parker standing there…

He pauses in his departure as the old man speaks behind him, however. He turns his head just enough to glance over his shoulder. He knows what is coming.

His eyes reflect nothing at the sound of the gunshot.

She's waiting, he hears at his periphery. His head turns, eyes briefly resting on Zatanna— then twitching away again, as unable to look at her as she is at him.

For you, is the unspoken implication in Zatanna's words.

"She should not be," he says, his voice weighted with self-loathing.

He tilts his head back. "Thank you for saving her," he says, to the room at large, before he turns away from the door where Thor and Jane are waiting. Turns to vanish out the other side of the room, an old ghost gone back to ground.

That same spirit returns in a rush, suddenly, when John spins the helm away from her. Brows furrow and eyes narrow. Lips part to argue the point, notwithstanding the cracks in the dam, and words would have cascaded in a rush were it not for Spider-Man's reaction to the dead Russian. Ice-blue eyes follow his wake, the slumped line of his shoulders as he vanishes from the darkened stage. Her lips part to call for him, almost by name, but something stops her - there's no way she'd be able to say what she wants to say in front of everyone else.

Or if they're even the right words.

She is still staring forward when Bucky addresses her, and she has nothing to say to that either. She is extremely aware, however, that he is not returning to where she had left Jane and her eyes close quietly as she hears the door from the other end of the room click shut.

For a while, there's nothing but silence.

She stirs once again when rough but surprisingly elegant fingers tangle into hers, glancing down at John's hand briefly before her gaze ticks upwards to meet his, and the slight tilt upwards on the corner of his mouth. While she doesn't return the smile, she does lean forward, capturing the taste of it with her own - a momentary salve.

"Alright," she says. "Let's finish the job then."

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