This is the longest chapter yet, I think.
(please let this through, mods, I really don't want to have to do all the formatting again...)
Chapter 5: Finally Some Action (Starring Several Assassins and Mesa)
It was close to midnight when Bucky woke up on the floor, disoriented and gasping from the nightmares. As he awoke, it took him a few seconds to realize that he wasn’t in an alleyway in Berlin with a body at his feet, metal hand gleaming scarlet, and a few more to remember where he was: the guest room on the upper floor of Quagmire’s tavern. As a dragon.
He felt sticky and wrong, and the guilt and panic from the nightmare still clouded his mind, and at some point during the night he’d gotten tangled in his thin blanket and fallen to the floor. The room was quiet in a way that it never got in cities, and the dying embers of a fireplace glowed against one wall.
Bucky pushed himself to a sitting position, cursing softly as he tried to put his weight on the arm that was missing, and looked around the room. In the faint moon- and firelight, he could just make out the indistinct lumps that were three sleeping dragons; the fourth was standing silhouetted against the room’s single window.
“Nightmares?” Natasha asked sympathetically, voice hushed to avoid waking up the others.
She nodded understandingly, but didn’t press further, not even to ask if he wanted to talk about it. Bucky was grateful for that. There was a moment’s silence, and then she announced, “You should come see these stars. Without any light pollution, they’re pretty spectacular.”
Bucky nodded. He tried to disentangle himself from the blanket, but mostly succeeded in shredding the poor thing on his horns and claws and annoyingly-profuse spikes. As he got to his feet and padded across the room to the open window, he asked in Russian, “(So why are you still awake?)”
Natasha shrugged, stepping aside to make space for him at the windowsill. “(Couldn’t sleep. I had to get up and get some fresh air--you wouldn’t believe how smoky it gets in a room full of sleeping dragons.)”
Bucky poked his head out the window and looked up. The snowstorm from earlier had blown over, leaving the night sky black as velvet and swirled with the brightest stars he had ever seen, although the patterns they made were unfamiliar, and it was quiet in the way it only gets on still, snowy nights. He sucked in a breath of the clear air and closed his eyes, letting the cold darkness wash away the residual groggy anxiety of the nightmares.
Deep breaths. Everything is fine. There is no blood on my hands today. I am Bucky Barnes and I am not a tool of HYDRA.
What am I, then? a small part of him questioned.
That wasn’t a question he wanted to think about right now, so he pushed it away by answering, Well, at the moment, a dragon.
Which was...strange, to say the least. His sense of touch felt deadened slightly, although not as much as one might expect with scales--maybe like the dulled sensation from his metal arm had spread through his whole body, which was not terrible. Everything was proportioned differently--longer body, face, and neck, shorter upper arms and legs but longer hands and feet, teeth and claws like steak knives, mobile ears...a forked tongue…
Then there was the swirling coldness in his chest, which was probably his IceWing frostbreath. It felt blizzardishly playful, perhaps a touch like freezing from the inside, but not malicious. It occurred to him that it should at least be making him nervous--being frozen was not exactly his favorite thing--but instead it felt as normal and right as a heartbeat.
The wings and tail, too, although odd, seemed as natural as the limbs he’d been born with. From what he knew about neuroscience (picked up from Romanian science magazines and Wakandan scientists), that probably meant the whole wiring of their brains had changed when they’d turned into dragons. Stark, Shuri, and Doctor Strange would probably all have a lot to say about that, but--
Something moved in the forest behind Quagmire’s tavern.
Bucky tensed, opening his eyes and tilting his head slightly so he could see down into the trees without letting on that he knew there was something out there. It sounded large, about the same weight as dragon-Squirrel Girl if he had to guess, although he didn’t have enough information judge properly.
“(Nat?)” Bucky whispered.
“(I think there’s someone out there.)”
Natasha was at his side in a moment. Something silver glinted in her hand, and Bucky glanced at her in surprise; she was holding what appeared to be a large chef’s knife. “(Where’d you get that?)” he asked.
“(Quagmire’s kitchen,)” she replied, and stuck her head out the window.
“(You’ll give it back, right?)”
Natasha rolled her eyes. “(Da. Shush, I can’t tell if there’s someone sneaking around if you keep talking.)” She whispered in English, “You’re right, the moonlight on the snow is beautiful,” for the benefit of anyone who might be listening.
Everything was silent for a long moment, and then there was more movement, a little farther from the window. This time, there was a flash of a pale shape at the edge of the forest.
Natasha nodded slightly, then yawned widely. “Well, pretty moonlight is nice and all, but it’s past midnight and I really must be getting to sleep now. You should too, Elk.”
They withdrew to inside the window and sat back on opposite sides of it.
“(Who’s going to investigate and who’s guarding the window?)” she asked, switching back to Russian.
“(I’ll investigate. If someone does come through the window, try to capture them instead of stabbing them.)” He nodded to the knife in her hand. Then he stood and slipped silently out the door of the guest bedroom.
The hallway beyond was not as dark as he had expected, which turned out to be a good thing--walking silently with claws and scales and only one arm was hard enough without having to worry about feeling his way. He paused at the top landing for a moment, debating on whether or not to try to navigate the stairs head-first and one-armed, then shrugged slightly and simply jumped down the full length of them.
He landed less-than-gracefully on the stone floor of the kitchen, although at least this time he didn’t fall over. Then he moved cautiously into the back room, nervous energy buzzing through his body.
There was probably no reason for his apprehension. It was not exactly news that he and Natasha both tended towards paranoia. But then...there was already least one known threat in this place. The Shadow Claws would likely have loftier targets than simple barkeeps, but Mesa...Bucky was fairly certain that Mesa was part of the Blazing Initiative despite Mallow’s feigned innocence, and it would be no surprise if a member of a counterintelligence team was on their hit list.
She probably would have been on mine.
He quickly pushed that thought out of his head and focused on the task at hand. Mission: identify intruder and level of threat. Drive off, neutralize if necessary. Use non-lethal force if possible.
He silently rounded a bin of metal scraps and paused by the doorway to the outside, pressed against the wall to stay out of sight of anyone who might be out there. Then he peered warily through the door.
Nobody was immediately visible, so Bucky went out the door into a covered porch, glancing at the forge and anvil set up at the far end of it. Cautiously, he stepped beyond the porch into the snow.
There was a slight rush of air as a shadow fell over him, and instinct kicked in and he jumped aside. He spun as a smallish dragon thudded to the snow where he had been.
It was a silver-scaled IceWing; half his size, but wiry and muscular, and definitely better balanced than he was. Her eyes glinted darkly in the moonlight as her wings flickered closed, and she jumped away as soon as she hit the ground.
Bucky lunged for the other dragon, kicking up snow. She tried to dodge around him, but he slammed his hand down on her tail, pinning her.
The smaller IceWing turned and glared at him, jaw working. She opened her mouth with a hiss, and it was only then that he remembered the frostbreath. He scrambled away, releasing her, as a long stream of glittering smoke spewed out where his head had been moments before.
The dragon snapped her mouth shut and pulled a knife out of a sheath tied to her leg. Growling, she lunged at him, but he sidestepped. The two of them circled for a minute, and then the other dragon jumped at him again.
Bucky ducked, putting a wing to the ground for balance as he caught the dragon around the middle and shoved her over his head, using her momentum against her. The dragon slammed against the stone wall of the tavern with a crack and slumped to the ground.
She wasn’t dead; her tail twitched and she gasped for breath, pressed against the wall in a trembling crouch. One of her horns, it looked like, had snapped off at the tip, and dark blood was running down it.
Bucky approached slowly, using his tail to flick the knife out of reach. “What are you doing here?” he growled.
The silver IceWing didn’t answer right away. Slowly, she ran a hand over her face and up her broken horn, wincing as her claws came away wet. She tried to push herself upright, but failed and slid back to the ground. “None of y-your business,” she finally replied.
“You just tried to kill me,” Bucky pointed out. “I think that’s my business.”
She looked away and mumbled, barely intelligible, “Orders were Mesa’s sibs and anyone else who gets in the way.”
Bucky studied her. “Are you the only one here?”
“Yes.” She met his gaze steadily as she said it; either she was sincere or an excellent liar. Each seemed equally plausible.
Natasha’s reddish-sandy wings appeared around the corner, and she landed on a nearby bank of snow, kitchen knife still in hand. “(Everything alright?)” she asked.
“(Target neutralized,)” he assured her. “(Assassin, unknown source. No backup, as far as I know.)”
Natasha looked at the little IceWing, unimpressed. “(Bad strategy. Should I go wake up Quagmire?”)
“(Yeah, he’ll--no, wait, get Mesa. She’ll probably be more helpful.)”
Natasha nodded and spread her wings, but she paused before taking off. “(You take the knife, I don’t want to freak them out.)” Bucky nodded, and she tossed the knife to him. He caught it deftly as she took off and flew up to tap on the windows.
The IceWing blinked up at him as he turned his attention back to her. “Was that...some kind of code you were speaking?”
Bucky shrugged, sitting down and sweeping his tail close around his feet, making sure to position himself where he could still see the forest. “You could call it that. So who are you?”
“Petrel of the IceWings,” she muttered. “Third Circle, last I checked.”
Mesa’s coffee-brown talons thumped to the snowy ground next to Bucky. “What’s going on here?” she asked, tail tip flicking like an irritated cat’s.
“I caught an assassin,” Bucky explained, glancing at Natasha as she landed on his other side. “Her name’s Petrel. Not working alone, but no allies here as far as we know. Says her orders were to kill your siblings and anyone else who got in the way. Might be less stunned than she looks, so be careful.”
Mesa let out a long, hissing breath. “On your feet,” she barked at the captive.
Petrel gritted her teeth and got to her feet, wincing. She turned to face the three of them.
“Wings up,” Mesa ordered. Petrel grudgingly raised her wings, revealing the shape of a dragon’s footprint painted on her left shoulder in black ink. Mesa sighed, looking unsurprised. “Shadow Claws. Guess we should have taken the threat letters seriously…”
“Of course you should have,” Petrel growled, snapping her wings shut. “We never make empty threats.”
Mesa opened her mouth to reply, then stiffened. “Oh moons, Alpine! I need at least one of you to stay here and guard the prisoner. I’ll be back soon. If my sibs wake up, tell them I’m checking on Alpine.” She spread her wings and leapt into the air.
“Do you need backup?” Bucky called after her.
“Probably,” the MudWing responded, not looking back.
“I’ll stay,” Natasha offered, taking the kitchen knife from Bucky. He scooped up Petrel’s dagger and launched himself after Mesa.
They flew wordlessly through the night, surrounded by mountains and starlight. Bucky lost a wingbeat when he realized that there were three moons, but he quickly recovered. There was a mission; no time to waste staring at the night sky.
They landed at a one-story stone house on the outskirts of town. “Sweep the perimeter,” Mesa ordered. “I’m going in.”
He was only halfway around the building when he heard shouts from inside. Cursing, he retraced his steps to the front of the building and stepped through the front door, which was open.
On the floor of the front room, Mesa wrestled with a SandWing about the same size as Petrel and Doreen. She had its tail trapped in her mouth just below the venomous barb, but one of her arms was pinned beneath it, and its front claws were raking across the sides of her snout.
Before he could do anything, Mesa flipped over, pinning the SandWing. It growled and blasted fire at her, nearly hitting her face, but Mesa knocked its head aside.
The fire glanced off her wing instead, and Mesa gasped and jerked back, allowing the SandWing to pull its tail from her mouth and squirm out from under her. It darted away and bounded out the window of the house.
Bucky turned and rushed out the door, trying to follow the SandWing, but it had already disappeared into the forest. Capture’s not a priority...
He stepped back through the door as a SkyWing appeared from the hallway. “Mesa?” she asked, glancing up at Bucky and then back down at the MudWing. “What under all the moons is going on here?”
“Assassin,” Mesa answered, pushing herself to her feet and breathing hard. Blood ran down her face from the SandWing’s clawmarks. “Shadow Claws. They sent one after us too.”
“What?” The SkyWing flared her wings as much as was possible in the hallway, then closed them again and spun around. She pushed open one of the hall’s doors, calling, “Sparrowhawk! Mistral! Lammergeier!”
She sighed in relief as she was greeted by a chorus of sleepy “What, mom?”s. “Family council,” she explained.
“In the middle of the night?” one young voice whined.
“There was an assassin,” the mother SkyWing said briskly. That got the kids up quickly, and a moment later, three young SkyWings stood in the front room, looking tired but interested.
“So what’s going on here, Mesa?” the mother SkyWing asked. “And who’s the IceWing?”
“This is Bucky. He’s the one who found the assassin that came after us. Bucky, this is Alpine of the Blazing Initiative, and her dragonets Lammergeier, Mistral, and Sparrowhawk.”
“Are any of you hurt?” Alpine broke in.
“No,” Mesa assured her. “We caught the assassin before they got into the house. An IceWing there and a SandWing here, both adolescent and both with the Shadow Claws mark.”
“Are they gonna come back?” the largest of the children asked.
“We don’t know,” Mesa responded. “We captured the IceWing, and she was banged up pretty badly, but the SandWing got away, and we don’t know if there were more of them.”
“We should move everyone to one house and post a watch,” Alpine decided. “Probably here, since it’s more defensible than your tavern. The dragonets can sleep with me, and then you and your sibs can take their room, and Bucky can take the guest room and we can lock your prisoner in the linens closet.”
“Don’t you have police or something?” Bucky asked.
Mesa shook her head. “The nearest Sky Kingdom National Guard post is down in Carmine Perch, and that’s a two-hour flight away. Blazing ops have the authority to temporarily detain suspected criminals in four of six kingdoms including Sky, though, so we’re good. I’m going to go get the others and bring them here.” She spread her wings, then winced at the burns and quickly closed them.
“I’ll go,” Alpine said. “You’re injured. Why don’t you kids go ahead and move your bedding into my room?”
The children scampered off to comply, and Alpine vanished out into the darkness.
About twenty minutes later, Alpine reappeared in the doorway. “Prisoner’s escaped,” she reported. She stepped into the room, shaking snow off her talons and leading a multicolored parade of sleepy dragons.
Natasha was the first in after Alpine, limping, bleeding from one arm and holding the other curled up against her chest. Her head was nonetheless held high, and she glared around as if daring anyone to express sympathy.
“What happened?” Bucky asked.
“Got jumped by a little SandWing,” Natasha replied. “I would have beat them, but I made a stupid mistake and forgot Petrel’s frostbreath.” Her tail lashed with annoyance, causing Tony to jump backwards and nearly run into Karst.
“That’ll be the assassin from here,” Mesa sighed. “That makes two of us who need medical attention, I suppose. That scratch claws or spines or tail barb?”
Karst dragged Natasha and Mesa into one corner of the room and began administering to their wounds, while Alpine guided the rest of them as they arranged themselves in the different rooms. Steve, unsurprisingly, volunteered to take the first watch, and everyone else settled down to sleep.
The assassins didn’t come back for the rest of the night, and singularly and mercifully, neither did the nightmares.