Schmidt had vanished, but his followers were still on-task. One of them opened fire at Steve immediately.
"Stark," Steve said as he ducked behind his shield, "the machine's been activated and the gate's open. How do I shut it off?"
"There's a big obvious on/off switch on top," said Stark, "but even after you switch it off the gate will stay open until it's burned through the charge Schmidt put on it. Basically it'll send a certain mass through, and then it'll collapse. How much mass depends on how much energy he put in."
"Understood," said Cap. HYDRA soldiers were beginning to dart through the gate, three and four at a time. Their buddies were doing an annoyingly good job of keeping him pinned down. "Hawkeye. Get after that switch."
"Copy," said the archer. Steve retreated behind the truck, which had been pretty thoroughly perforated by bullets and charred by Phase Two fire. A rapid pop-pop-pop of pistol fire came from somewhere, and three HYDRA soldiers fell, just a few yards short of the gate. Steve had caught just a hint of muzzle flash in his peripheral vision, but when he looked again there was nothing there. Four more shots, and he could clearly see the muzzle flash this time—the snow had almost stopped—but he still couldn't see the shooter. Two more men went down, and another stumbled but managed to stagger through the gate anyway.
Well, at least the invisible person's on our side, he thought.
"Hawkeye?" Steve called.
"On it," said the archer, and an arrow clanged off the machine. The humming stopped, but the sunlit gate remained open.
"Nice shot," said Steve. "Don't let 'em switch it back on."
"Sir," said Hawkeye, and another arrow struck a HYDRA soldier through the neck.
"Clint," came an unfamiliar woman's voice on the comm, "Erik's wounded. We're pulling back."
"Stay safe, Raven," said Hawkeye. "Thanks for the help."
"Steve, I'm coming up on your six," said James. "Don't shoot me, okay?"
"Thanks for the warning," said Steve, and a moment later James slid into place beside him, rifle at the ready.
"Shall we finish this up?" he said with his crooked smile.
"Sounds good to me," said Steve. "Want a boost?"
"Sure," said James. Steve made a stirrup with his hands, then tossed James up onto the roof of the truck, where he began firing methodically. Hawkeye's arrows kept sprouting from the troops closest to the gate; James took out the ones furthest out, and Steve, under cover of his shield, worked his way into positions where he could pick off those sheltered from the two snipers.
A few minutes later, all the visible HYDRA troops lay still.
"How about the ones on the other side?" James asked, sliding down off the roof.
"I'll deal with them," said Steve, but before he reached the gate there was a shrill scream and a figure charged out of the sunlit arch. It carried two swords, both bloody, and its long dark hair, caught in the sudden blast of wind as it crossed the threshold, hid its face, but Steve yelled "Hold fire!" and ran forward, grinning.
"Sif!" he called, and she tossed her hair back out of her face and laughed back at him. She glanced around, seemed satisfied that there were no living opponents on this side of the gate, dropped her swords and flung her arms around him.
"Steven!" she said, and kissed him soundly. Then she pulled back and said, "You disappointed us. All those who came through the Midgard gate are dead already. I had hoped to find better sport on this side."
"Sorry, we don't have any left over here either," said Steve. "But I have something better. Sif, this is my shield-brother James—Bucky—who I told you about. We thought he had died before I went into the ice, but—"
Sif looked at James with interest, her gaze lingering on his left arm, which gleamed silver-bright through a long rent in his sleeve and the synthetic skin. She let go of Steve and took James's right hand in a warrior's forearm-grip.
"I am honored," she said.
"Likewise," said James, turning the full wattage of his wicked grin on her. "Jesus, Rogers, you've been holding out on me. Any more like her at home?"
"There are no more like her anywhere," said Steve. He looked up as Hawkeye approached. "Sif, this is Clint Barton."
"Lord Hawkeye." She offered him the same handgrip, but added a measured nod of respect, which he returned. Sif grinned suddenly. "But you may have seen me before, though I didn't see you."
Clint gave his secretive smile, and nodded.
"Listen, Sif," said Steve, "we have wounded to attend to. Forgive me for a moment."
"I will help, if I may," she said. She picked up her swords, wiping each blade clean on the snow and drying it on her cloak before sheathing it.
"I'll get Natasha and Coulson," James said.
"Banner's in the garage there," said Hawkeye. "Let me get him some clothes."
"How about your people?" Steve asked Sif. "Did you lose anyone?"
"Thor was struck by one of the light-weapons," said Sif, "But the healers say he will recover. Your folk?"
"Two injured. I hope—"
"Guys, the Helicarrier's almost in range now and the windspeed's safe for the choppers," Stark broke in. "They'll be there in ten."
"Thanks," said Steve.
"By the way, Legolas, how the hell did you land my jet on a helipad?"
"He had help," said a suave male voice. "And we'll take care of takeoff for you too." Jet engines fired up and they all turned to look as the jet rose vertically off the runway to just above the rooftops. The engines' roar rose to a howl and then a scream, and the jet accelerated rapidly and streaked into the sky.
"Son of a—" Stark's voice began, but the other cut it off.
"I'll be in touch, Mr. Stark, if you ever get tired of those sixty-two pesky little metal fragments. Five of them are dangerously close to your aorta, by the way." And then there was the sound of a radio link being shut off.
Sif stood guard by the gate as the others brought the wounded out to the helipad. Hawkeye stripped a parka, boots and pants off one of the dead to outfit Banner (conscious now, but still weak). Steve helped dress him. The wound on his back had scabbed over, but the skin hadn't regenerated.
Meanwhile James, with Coulson's help, brought Natasha out on a stretcher, well-wrapped in blankets. She was still out cold, but breathing normally. Coulson hovered protectively over her, eyeing the others. His gaze passed over Hawkeye with no sign of recognition, and Steve saw the archer flinch and look away.
"Before we leave, we have to do something about this gate," Steve said.
"Come back with me," Sif said suddenly. Steve hesitated, glanced at James.
James shrugged. "Still following you," he said.
"I—" Steve thought about it. It would solve a multitude of problems; no question of James being imprisoned by SHIELD or pursued by his former handlers. And it might ease some of the tension between Hawkeye and the Widow. And of course, it would relieve him of a great many headaches of his own.
But… he shook his head. "Still can't back away from a fight," he said.
"It'll be a hell of a fight, Steve," said James softly.
"I'll back you," said Hawkeye.
James raised an eyebrow. "For Natasha's sake?"
"Hers and yours."
James nodded slowly. "All right."
Steve keyed his comm. "Stark. Is there a gauge or something on this thing that will tell you how much it can transport?"
"Yeah," said Stark. "Look on the front panel. Three windows. What's in the one on the left?"
"It says zero-one point three-three-eight," Steve read.
"Metric tons," said Stark.
"Oh," said Steve, and he felt a smile begin to grow on his face. He looked over at Sif.
"How about you take the Gate home with you?" he asked her.
She grinned. "Steven," she said. "You are a born tactician."
"Do it," said Stark. "I can send instructions via bird mail later. I'm sure they can come up with a power source; it won't take nearly the juice the Bifrost did."
The gate device—Steve, like everyone but Stark, steadfastly refused to call it "The Asgardinator"—had retractable wheels, and it was only a few moments' work for James, Steve and Sif to push it across the threshold into the sunlight of Asgard. A small group of Asgardian soldiers gathered on the other side to look it over.
"You'll still need more mass to shut it down," said Stark.
"Five hundred seventy-four kilos," said Steve. "Does it matter which direction?"
"Nope," said Stark.
"Let's bring the bodies home," said Steve. "Some of them probably have families."
He kept a close eye on the gauge as the Asgardian soldiers passed the bodies through, one at a time. The last one brought the total down to eighty-five kilos.
Sif embraced Steve one more time.
"I shall visit you soon," she said. "And your friends." She smiled at all of them, but lingered a little on James. Some things never change, thought Steve. Sif stepped through the gate. A few cinderblocks later, the portal shut down.
Above them, two black helicopters emblazoned with the SHIELD logo were descending.
"Let's go home," said Steve.
The aftermath of HYDRA's coup attempt was messy and long-lasting. Communications disruptions lasted for months. A tsunami struck the South Kuril Islands; the authorities weren't able to get warnings out in time, and dozens died. Businesses folded, disease outbreaks took longer to contain, shipping and manufacturing took hard hits.
And people adapted, and mostly found a way to get by. Some NGOs came up with brilliant workarounds; the Stark Foundation made carefully-targeted donations to encourage this sort of innovation, and pressured other major donors to do the same.
And slowly, SHIELD got its house back in order.
Hawkeye disappeared right after debriefing. He was gone for a week, and came back looking relieved and a little smug. When Steve asked him about it, he just shook his head and said, "Checking on an old friend. Didn't need my help."
Banner's recovery was slower than expected, but uneventful. Natasha's was so swift that Steve suspected the Russians had had more than one trial with the serum.
Coulson vanished for nearly a month, but when he came back he remembered all of them. He resumed his old job (the exact parameters of which were known only to himself and Fury). And predictably enough, he took James under his wing. James, who had begun to chafe under the combined protectiveness of Steve and Natasha, seemed to take to Coulson's deadpan style. Coulson's desk acquired a full set of signed Bucky Barnes collector cards. In mint condition.
Stark threw himself into upgrading James's arm and designing a fabric that could withstand spent-uranium rounds.
And the highlight of Steve's birthday party (the real one, not Independence Day) was James and Pepper teaching Sif and Thor the Lindy Hop.
*author takes a deep breath*
Wow. Um, that turned out to be a lot longer than I anticipated when I started it. I need to distribute some thanks.
Thanks to my family for putting up with my endless nattering about plot holes and character motivation, for a story none of them have read nor ever intend to read.
Thanks to my glorious beta Ael_tRlailiiu, who has been endlessly patient with my demands that she work for me for free. Seriously. I owe you.
All hail Marvel, Joss Whedon, and the cast and crew of the Avengers movie. Special thanks to Alan Sylvestri for the awesome score, which not only inspires me to write, it pumps me up for my morning commute. And, um, I might sort of have the theme as my ringtone.
Thanks to all my loyal readers and reviewers, especially peppertheband on fanfiction dot net, who always makes me laugh, and TNH on AO3 who said just the right thing at just the right time to push me over the hump at the end. Also DaisyNinjaGirl, wtgw, susan voight, Thimblerig, The Sugarfaerie, TheNaggingCube, Shazrolane, katie_m, Darklady, SadieHyde, Narknon, luuv2shop, Insomniatic95, Malty, . , RevengerTigger, NSFL, and all the other assorted commenters, kudos-leavers and guests.Y'all are all wonderful.
And now I am going to take a break and deal with some real-life issues, which are a lot less fun and a lot harder to resolve and do not come with beautiful people in cool uniforms. Stay cool, everyone. If you run out of things to read, check out my bookmarks on AO3 (fanfiction dot net readers, my pseudonym over there is the same as it is here, and you can find AO3 by searching for "archive of our own" in quotes).