XIII: The Winter Soldier, Part 5
While Steve slept, Xavier, Logan, Magneto, the Avengers, plus Harry the Wizard discussed Erik Shin's parting words.
"Okay, first things first, can magic people see the future?" Tony started.
"Sure," Harry replied. "How, I have no idea; I never studied divination. Besides, in my world, people who have the sight are extremely rare. I met one real seer, and I thought she was a right fraud until Dumbledore told me otherwise."
"So it's possible Erik Shin can really see the future," said Xavier.
"Possible. Probable, even."
"Disregard the validity of fortune-telling for now," Magneto interjected tersely. "This… cure he hinted at, that's far more relevant and plausible. There have been numerous attempts to subdue and eradicate mutant kind over the years. The Sentinels, the Weapon X program, the Legacy virus … it is to be noted our enemies went from using brute force to biological warfare."
"As brute force proved insufficient and the body of knowledge concerning genetics grew," Xavier agreed. "Turning certain gene mutations 'on' and 'off' have been demonstrated in laboratory settings. No doubt certain individuals extrapolated the possibility of 'turning off' the X-gene from these results. However, the relationship between this and the Super Soldier Serum, which I presume was what Shin meant by Captain America, is less certain."
"The Super Soldier Serum has never been successfully recreated," Natasha pointed out.
"Plenty of knock-offs, though, with varying degrees of success," Clint added.
Bruce mulled over Dr. Erskine's notes on the Super Soldier Serum in the thoughtful silence that followed. How would he use them to turn off the X-gene?
"Inactivating mutated genes or replacing them, that's gene therapy," he reasoned. "We're still in the early stages, but there's been a lot of promising research. Stem cells. Cancer treatment. Therapeutic viruses." A flash insight. "Extremis."
"Which happens to be a SHIELD sponsored Super Soldier Serum recreation effort," said Tony with a grand gesture. "Extremis chemically re-codes the DNA of the entire organism. Rapid exponential replication with intense heat as a byproduct. Narrow it down to target the X-gene, and…"
There was silence for a beat; short, heavy and full of implication.
"How effective and reliable is this Extremis?" Xavier asked, at last.
"Fifty-Fifty success rate. Failure leads to literal explosive death. The effects were nowhere near as permanent as the Serum, but while it lasted … the results were comparable," Tony answered.
"When did it become viable for human use?"
"This year, maybe, sort of. The head scientist tried to force-recruit Bruce to help her fix the fifty percent chance of death glitch. Didn't end well for her or her sponsor. Long story short, Bruce, Steve, War Machine, and yours truly gutted the lab and destroyed all the samples. The minions in cahoots are in custody, and the sponsor and the head scientist are dead."
"Who has their data?" asked Logan.
"Just me. I'm using it to develop a viable anesthetic for Steve," Bruce replied.
"Ah, yes, the accelerated healing factor, making most drugs ineffective," said Magneto with dark humor. "I suppose it's fortunate you're the one safekeeping the data, Banner."
"Thanks," said Bruce wryly.
"Did you find evidence for Extremis injected to mutants?" Xavier asked.
Bruce shook his head. "Ordinary human subjects only."
A longer bout of silence descended upon the group this time. Bruce assumed everyone, like him, were speculating whether the existence of Extremis translated to the existence of an X-gene suppressing agent. Where would you even start finding out if such a thing existed? Bruce wondered. Would even Natasha and Barton, the Avengers' two master spies, know where to look?
Bruce heard a noise; fabric rustling against fabric. He looked down and saw Steve shift and mumble softly while still asleep. A deep frown creased Steve's otherwise smooth features. As he watched Steve's fretful sleep, Bruce felt a sob deep within him claw up to his throat. Why? Why does this always happen?
"Such turbulent dreams," Xavier murmured.
The last rays of sunlight for the day framed the Professor like a copper-gold halo as he wheeled around his desk. Was he thinking to give Steve some psychic comfort? Or did Xavier see something of interest in Steve's dreams? But before Bruce could ask, the window framing the sunset exploded.
Xavier fell to the ground. For that fraction of a second, Magneto was a rictus of shock and rage, the white of his eyes clearly visible. Then there was another blast, and Magneto went down bleeding.
"Charles!" choked Magneto, clawing his side and reaching out to Xavier at the same time.
"E-Erik," Xavier gasped. Dark blood bubbled out of his mouth. "Logan. The children…!"
Steve's eyes flew open. On the next blink, Steve stood braced against the wall, looking out of the broken window.
"Sniper!" Clint called out from his own cover. "Xavier and Magneto down. Four shots. Fifty meters. West side."
Steve nodded once.
"Natasha, Clint, evac all residents to safety. Thor, provide air support and take out any hostiles. Bruce, look after Max and Xavier. Logan and I will pursue. Harry?"
Harry pointed his wand at the outdoors and muttered, "Homenum Revelio." Two bright spots appeared in the nearby woods. They were slowly approaching.
"Thanks," said Steve, and then vanished. Logan leaped through the shattered window shortly after, adamantium claws unsheathed. Thor took flight, and thunder and lightning followed his wake.
"Excuse you, Captain How-Dare-You-Ignore-Me, what am I supposed to do, just sit around and look pretty?" Tony groused. "Hey, Harry, can you—"
Harry pointed his wand to the sunset and cried, "Accio latest Iron Man Armor!"
There was a beat. Then the dissembled pieces of Tony's Mark 42 suit came zooming in through the still-open magic portal. The breastplate hit the burgundy chaise, ricochet into all the other pieces, and left everything scattered all over the floor.
"…Oops," said Harry, chagrined, and Tony face-palmed.
An alarm was blaring by the time a fully-armored Tony joined Thor in the skies. A handful of adults and twenty-odd students were in the hallway, all in an orderly line.
"Oh, cool, you guys know the drill. Carry on, we'll cover your six," said Clint. When a student who had long furry tail got a whiff of him and gagged, he quipped: "Yeah, that's what happens when someone throws you into a dumpster. Get over it."
"We need two stretchers! Xavier and Magneto were shot!" Bruce told the nearest teacher, a black woman who had an impressive white mohawk. Before she could answer, Harry joined them in the hallway with Magneto and Xavier floating in the air behind him.
"Don't shoot! I'm a friendly wizard!" cried Harry, his hands and wand up in the air.
"Wizard. Right," said White Mohawk skeptically, her palms crackling with electricity. She turned to Bruce. "And who are you?"
"Bruce Banner. Avenger. I'm sorry, I know you're suspicious, but Xavier really needs medical attention."
White Mohawk shot a quick look at the two elderly mutants and nodded. She then led the way to the X-Mansion's Infirmary without another word. Along the way, Harry cast spells that a) created protective, bullet-proof domes of light over the mutant students, b) made Clint's quiver to refill itself ("Infinite Arrows! Oh, yeah, baby!" he crowed before he started shooting in abandon), c) turned furniture into human-sized chess pieces that attacked hostiles, and d) turned a burly SWAT geared individual into a sea urchin.
"I like how you fight, Wizard," said White Mohawk when Harry conjured a flock of birds that viciously pecked at another SWAT team member and set them on fire at the same time.
"Ta. I like you, too," replied Harry, grinning. To Bruce, he said, "Go! We'll keep them at bay."
Dr. Hank McCoy was waiting for them in the med bay. Xavier was no longer conscious. Magneto was clearly in pain, but refused to succumb or budge from Xavier's side.
"My stars and garters," McCoy grumbled as he carefully lowered the levitating Xavier to a table. "Can you lend me a hand, please, Dr. Banner? And Magneto, stop trying to operate on your own self. I highly doubt the bullets that hit you were made of metal."
Sure enough, the bullet McCoy pried out of Xavier's side was made of special plastic.
"Slug?" Natasha asked, appearing like a disembodied spirit.
"I wouldn't know," Bruce grunted. "Help yourself."
Natasha examined the bullet without touching.
"It has an injection mechanism."
"Good heavens, they do," said Dr. McCoy, holding another bullet aloft between tweezers. "The kind you use to sedate large animals. Nasty. There's some residue left. I could…"
"Don't bother," Magneto grunted between clenched teeth. "We know what it is."
"We do? What is it?"
Bruce breathed through his nose as he steadied himself.
"An X-gene suppressant."
Hank McCoy didn't press Bruce to explain how he knew the plastic bullet-injectors contained an X-gene suppressant. Instead, he focused on preparing Magneto for surgery, muttering instructions to Bruce and growling at Magneto to stop fighting him, goshdarn it.
Magento went under many minutes later. Bruce was just allowing himself a breather when an explosion rocked the med bay.
McCoy crouched over his two patients, shielding them. Bruce clung to the operating table as he knees buckled. A compact body flew overhead. When the tremors subsided, Bruce looked up and found the separating wall had turned to rubble.
Crunch. Bruce heard heavy boots, stepping on the debris. A man clad in black from goggles, facemask to toe marched into view. His dark hair was long and shaggy. He had an odd swinging gait, like his left was heavier than his right.
It probably is, Bruce realized with a start. The man's left arm was made of metal.
The man aimed his gun. Bruce froze. But before the man could pull the trigger, Natasha Romanoff dropped on his shoulders and wrapped her strong thighs around his neck.
The man bucked like a rodeo horse. Natasha clamped down and drew a garroting wire. The man caught it with his flesh hand, right under his chin. The two grappled each other for a beat. Then Metal Arm smashed his back against a wall, stunning Natasha. Next moment, he reached over and threw her off.
Natasha landed hard with a pained grunt. But soon she regained her footing and tossed a small disk. It landed on the metal arm and sent blue paralyzing pulses.
"EMP," Natasha explained as she pulled Harry the Wizard — the compact body from earlier — back to his feet.
"Thanks, sorry," Harry gasped. He was white as a sheet, and Bruce didn't like the way he was wheezing.
"Shut up. Breathe and focus," Natasha barked with a grimace.
Metal Arm wrenched the EMP device from his prosthesis. After flexing his metal fingers, he pulled out a switchblade and lunged at Magneto. McCoy body-slammed him away. While the two exchanged furious blows, too fast for Bruce's eyes to follow, Harry took a puff from an inhaler. In the next blink, he was breathing well enough to croak, "Protego."
A now-familiar protective dome of light encircled Magneto and Xavier. "Damn my EIA," Harry muttered as he quickly plastered small pieces of parchment adorned with brown Runes all over their operating tables. Once finished, Harry pointed his wand at Metal Arm, shouting, "Stupify! "
Metal Arm grabbed McCoy and spun him around, making him take the full brunt of the spell. McCoy went limp. Metal Arm brutally kicked him to Natasha, pinning her under his weight. Harry dove after the two, muttering, "Shitshitshit, Rennervate, Rennervate, Leviosa!"
Metal Arm stabbed the dome of light. It didn't budge. He then punched it with his metal arm. Same result. Harry fired two spells in quick succession when McCoy started to stir, but Metal Arm dodged the beams of red light with the smallest of movements. At last, the man took out a small grenade launcher and fired.
Smoke filled the room. The vapor made Bruce's eyes water. Coughing and sputtering, Harry flicked his wand. A strong wind started to blow. When the smoke cleared, Metal Arm was nowhere to be seen.
"I know the man who attacked," said Natasha, breaking the silence.
"Who?" asked Bruce. He couldn't recognize his own voice.
"Most of the intelligence community doesn't believe he exists. The ones who do call him the Winter Soldier. He's credited with over two dozen assassinations in the last fifty years."
"How did you hear about him?" Harry asked.
"Five years ago I was escorting a nuclear engineer out of Iran, somebody shot out my tires near Odessa. We lost control, went straight over a cliff, I pulled us out, but the Winter Soldier was there. I was covering my engineer, so he shot him straight through me." Natasha pulled up her shirt to show them the bullet wound on the side of her belly. "A Soviet slug, no rifling. Bye-bye bikinis."
"Yeah, I bet you look terrible in them now," said Bruce sarcastically; it was either that or hysteria. "So why are you telling us this?"
"What would Rogers or Stark do if I tell them?"
"Chase after him, I guess."
"And that's a dead end. I know, I've tried. He's a ghost story senior agents use to scare baby agents."
"Except he's very much real and alive," said McCoy, as he dusted his blue fur. "You're probably right in thinking it's unwise to chase after the Winter Soldier, my dear. He was certainly a formidable opponent. If my supporting vote is what you're after, you have it."
That moment, they heard a thunderclap and the roar of Iron Man repulsors. Tony landed on top of the broken wall and dropped Clint to his feet. Thor landed next to them as lightning tore through the dark skies overhead. Finally, Logan and Steve clambered into view. Steve looked gutted and ashen.
No, worse, Bruce realized with a cold pang. Steve looked defeated.
"All clear," said Tony, after raising his face-plate. "Did you get the sniper, dear ancient ones, or were you feeling too old for a merry chase?"
Logan raised his gore-covered claws pointedly. "Got one. Would've got his spotter if Rogers didn't freak out."
Natasha frowned. "You freaked out."
"I..." Steve swallowed. "Willie. It was Willie ."
"Who the hell is Willie?" Tony asked.
One could've heard a pin drop in the stunned silence that ensued. Bruce could barely breathe, so unnerved was he at the unexpected name.
"…Burnside?" Tony echoed. "As in, member of team Captain America until he went gaga Burnside?"
Steve flinched. Bruce heard the Other Guy roaring in his ears and brutally suppressed the urge.
"He and Jack Monroe went AWOL in 1945, I recall," said Natasha carefully. "The others died early. How could he have survived until now, then?"
Steve looked away; said nothing.
The silence stretched.
"We need to positively identify the body as Burnside," said Natasha.
"Take him to SHIELD, you mean," Steve muttered.
Natasha nodded. Steve drew in an unsteady breath, eyes closed. When they opened again, Steve looked resolute.
Natasha tilted her head sideways. Inquiring without questioning.
"We don't know if we can trust SHIELD on this matter," said Steve flatly. "And I know how identifying the dead works. You need a baseline. DNA. Teeth. Other identifying marks. SHIELD won't have that info because former Director Carter made sure no one had it. All they have left is my word." Another unsteady intake of breath. "And I'm telling you … that person over there is Willie Burnside."
Natasha folded her arms.
"We still need to figure out who sent him, and how he survived this long."
"That doesn't require anonymous SHIELD scientists pawing on Willie," Steve snapped.
"Woah, there, Rogers," Logan cut in. "Widow's got a point. You might have warm fuzzies for your old chum, but he's the rat bastard who shot Chuck." He bared his teeth. "And he attacked a school full of kiddies. This is serious sh!t, bub, and I'm gonna get to the bottom of this pile of turd, starting with an autopsy. When I'm done, you're free to lit a funeral pyre for Willie for all I care."
Steve's jaw clenched.
"Fine. Do whatever you need to do to find out how he survived."
Thank God for magic, Bruce thought fervently in the aftermath of the attack.
Truly, if weren't for Harry the Wizard, it would've taken the X-men and the twenty-odd frightened mutant students many months, if not years, before they recovered from the partial destruction of their safe haven. Once everyone was accounted for, Harry bustled around, waving his wand enthusiastically about, as he restored large portions of the X-Mansion in a matter of minutes. That is, when he wasn't transfiguring bits of fluff into teddy bears, conjuring cups of hot cocoa…
…putting flame-freezing charms on mutant students perpetually engulfed in flames, so Captain America can give them a much-needed hug without sustaining second-degree burns…
"I wanna keep him," Tony muttered. "Let's keep him."
"I'm pretty sure that constitutes as interdimensional kidnapping," said Bruce.
"Not if I entice him into staying."
Harry took a break after restoring most the X-Mansion's infrastructure. Steve sat next to him, holding a snoozing, preschool-age mutant.
"Thank you so much everything."
Harry shrugged. "It's nothing. Magic is really good at this sort of thing."
"You could've left when they attacked, and no one would've blamed you."
"I know the importance of not giving anyone the honor of ruining your life," said Harry, his green eyes bright against the pallor of his face. "That's what they want, isn't it? Whoever it is that ordered the attack. Ruin the mutants, you, anyone, for their own benefit."
Steve nodded slowly.
"You should go home. You have family waiting, don't you?"
"Yes and I will. As soon as I put a couple of healing charms on Mags and X. Oh, and I have to de-transfigure the SWAT guy. Can't be fun, being a sea urchin. Plus, he might have…"
That moment, a pale young woman who had her dark hair done up like a cartoon Shinto Priestess and a blond-haired young man dressed in tweeds and argyle, who had a ferocious discoloring scar trisecting the flesh around his right eye, came bursting out of a broom closet.
"Harry, goddamnit, what kind of trouble did you get yourself into this time?" the young woman exclaimed. Then she took in the destroyed lawn around them, Harry's guilty weariness, and started berating Harry for being a stubborn martyring idiot who couldn't help but sacrifice his skinny arse for every person in trouble that came his way.
"We're leaving," said the young man after she finished yelling.
"I still got stuff to do," Harry protested.
"Leaving," the young man repeated firmly. Then he and his female companion bodily hauled Harry into the broom closet they came from and shut the door behind them.
They had perhaps a single blink to regroup from the sudden, whirlwind of change when Steve's SHIELD-issued cellphone chirped with impeccable timing.
"It's Nick. Meeting tomorrow at the Triskelion at two."
"Did he mention why?" Bruce asked.
All the Avengers exchanged a look.
"Let's find out what he wants," said Steve.
Final Notes: The plot thickens :) Blond young man is Neville Longbottom, and Miko Hair is my OC Julia Lestrade. Both are as depicted in A Study In Magic, my HP-Sherlock crossover fanfic.
EIA = Exercise Induced Asthma.
Happy Reading! BOC
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