It was the first thought that came to Bucky, a gut-level instinct that pierced the turmoil churning inside him. Before he’d even seen the newspaper, before he’d found Steve in his flat, before he’d heard Steve’s friend shout “breach” over his comms. Instinct was the thing they’d tried to beat out of him but never could: it was in his bones, as much a weapon as his skill with a rifle, and they’d hated it because it clashed with obedience. The instinct for self-preservation had been the first to go when they’d perfected the chair, maybe the first to come back once he was free of them, and now it was telling him: run. Fight or flight—and he wasn’t going to fight. It was fierce enough to override his desire to go to Steve and touch him, to prove to Steve he wasn’t that thing anymore who’d nearly beaten him to death, to be the human being Steve remembered. There was no time for a reunion, though; Bucky didn’t want to leave Steve, but he had to.
Steve bellowed the word at Bucky as he tore the man pursuing him off the motorcycle. Sparks flew from Bucky’s metal hand when he dragged it on the concrete to keep himself from tipping over and levered both the bike and himself up at breakneck speed. In his peripheral vision Bucky could see Steve and the pursuer tumbling along the roadway, narrowly dodging the SUVs chasing them, their lights flashing and orders of “stand down” echoing through the tunnel. The sticky grenade Bucky’d thrown exploded behind him and sent Steve’s friend with the wings spinning sideways. Bucky didn’t want to abandon them to the lunatic in the cat suit or to the authorities, but Hydra was gunning for him, he had to.
At his nine o’clock, Bucky spotted reinforcements pouring in where the roadway rose from underground; he gunned the bike as fast as it’d go. A delivery truck cut him off ahead; he could dodge behind it, hide until there was enough distance and then lose himself in traffic. Once across the Dâmboviţa, he’d slow down, switch to a car or a different bike. All the scenarios of coming back to Steve that he’d imagined these past few years vanished; if they couldn’t make Bucky pay for the crimes they wanted to pin on him, they’d try to pin them on Steve—and he wasn’t protected, not after letting Bucky get away. Aiding and abetting a known terrorist; he wouldn’t come back from that easily. But worrying about Steve had to come later, when he’d made it out of Bucharest, when he was safe. That was the first rule, one they’d followed back in the war: save your own life first before you can save anyone else’s.
“For the record, this is what making things worse looks like,” Natasha said, more than a little condescending, so Steve ignored it to avoid saying something he’d regret later. She and Tony were playing escort for him and Sam, walking them to the office they’d be held in—which was really a conference room, surrounded by glass walls so they could be easily monitored. It made his hackles rise, and Steve hadn’t thought they could lift much higher than they had been on the trip here. Then Natasha and Tony veered off to the left with Everett Ross, who appeared to be Sharon’s boss here at the CIA’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, and another man, the UN-assigned psychiatrist who’d been called in to evaluate Bucky. Steve caught the man glancing back toward him, beady-eyed, and something about that made his skin crawl: it was only a flash, Steve couldn’t even be sure he’d seen anything at all, but it looked an awful lot like hatred.
“Guess you’re not giving me the shield back anytime soon,” Steve said, peevish, but for Christ’s sake, what the hell did they think he was gonna do with it in here? “Or those wings,” Sam threw in, eyes narrowed. Not for the first time since this whole clusterfuck had begun, Steve thought the promise/threat of the Accords was emboldening certain types of people—both Rosses chief among them—to lash out at anyone with abilities, punish them simply for being enhanced. Though even Steve had to admit, destroying a swathe of Bucharest and sending a bunch of German SWAT guys to the hospital hadn’t exactly paved the way for a welcoming reception.
“That’s cold,” Sam commented when Nat told him the shield and the wings were technically the government’s property, and Steve could feel the tension coming off him; Sam was as pissed off as Steve had ever seen him and when Tony retorted, “Warmer than jail,” the flames were practically leaping off the sides of Sam’s face. Steve put his hand on Sam’s shoulder, so Sam closed his eyes and shook his head.
They settled the newly minted King T’Challa across from them in another glass-enclosed room—though he’d been arrested with them, the task force would have to tread lightly here. Or maybe the task force heads even hoped he’d have another chance to finish the job and eliminate Bucky for them; Steve couldn’t be sure of anything right now, and he wasn’t certain they were above using the king’s grief to their advantage.
Everett Ross was your basic smarmy functionary type, the kind Steve had always disliked. The kind who believed that people and their motivations could be boiled down to numbers in a ledger. Steve didn’t regret in the least that when they’d arrived he had walked straight to Ross and declared that he was glad he’d interfered in what was basically the planned execution of an American prisoner of war. Everyone had been eyeing him nervously—the Avengers knew how volatile he was at that moment, and Sharon had been with him in London, she knew the score—but he hadn’t cared; instead he’d demanded to know “why you were planning to shoot him on sight instead of taking him alive. He had the right to be charged and to have legal representation.”
“A lawyer, that’s funny,” Ross had snickered, and Sharon, Nat, Tony, and Sam had had to haul Steve back so he didn’t grab the little shit by the throat and toss him into the far corner.
What were they trying to hide? The entire trip to Berlin he’d been chewing on that—even the Bin Laden raid had ostensibly, on the surface, been intended to capture, but this task force hadn’t even bothered with such a pretense. Making sure someone couldn’t talk was a sign that they had something to talk about. Steve glared down at the photos in the file Sharon had slipped him, wondering why now? Sam, who was flipping through the rest of the task force’s intelligence reports, was scowling when Steve looked at him, maybe wondering the same things.
Steve could see through the glass two rooms over that Tony was animatedly speaking with Ross and the other authorities, doing whatever the hell he was here to do; he seemed cagier than when he’d brought Secretary Ross to the Avengers compound. Representing for Go Team Accords, Sam had suggested, except...Tony hadn’t bothered with being present in Vienna at the signing, and if he was so in favor of the Accords, then why not go—at the very least for publicity? As if Tony had been sent here as Avengers Dad or something, filling the role Tony’d always claimed belonged to Steve, cleaning up Steve’s messes because, what? —Steve couldn’t be trusted to clean them up himself, because he was a criminal now? His service was meaningless to people like this—the functionaries—and maybe even to Tony himself. And if Steve’s service record was worthless, that meant Bucky’s was...he couldn’t even bring himself to think about it, so he rubbed his forehead; he felt enervated, on the ropes, but he had to maintain focus.
As he watched them, Steve noticed that Natasha didn’t appear to be listening to what the rest of them were saying: her gaze was mostly trained on T’Challa, assessing. While Tony gesticulated and held court, Natasha turned in Steve’s direction and caught his eye; there was a tightness about her eyes and mouth that hadn’t been there a few minutes ago and it set alarm bells ringing in Steve’s head. Whatever they were talking about, it didn’t sit well with her, and she was formulating a plan. Once, on a mission, Clint had said casually to Steve, “I don’t know about you, but I think my favorite sight in the whole wide world is Nat’s face when she’s devising a strategy. Means you’re probably gonna survive.”
“I get his majesty wanting Barnes dead,” Sam said, cutting into Steve’s woolgathering, his gaze following Steve’s to Natasha, “but this executive decision bullshit is starting to smell really fishy to me.” He closed the folder. “Who gave the order to shoot on sight? I don’t think it was the assface there. Someone higher up must have made that decision, but I don’t see a single signature on this paperwork—and did you notice the psychiatrist seemed surprised, like he’d been all worked up to get his hooks into Barnes? Ross ain’t telling the whole story.”
“No, he isn’t.” The second he’d seen Bucky in that flat Steve had known: he wasn’t that far gone. He wasn’t the Winter Soldier. There was a human being in there, trapped, terrified. But when the flashbangs were flying, Steve and Bucky—god, they had worked together. Steve didn’t know or care whether it was simple muscle memory or his hard-won recovery after Insight or, well, anything else—Bucky and he had worked together again. Steve was fucking ecstatic that Bucky’d gotten away, even if the price for his escape was that Steve would never see him again.
“There’s something really weird about that shrink, too.” The corner of Sam’s mouth twisted down and he leaned back in his chair, as if he knew exactly which track Steve’s thoughts were running on. Twice on the way to Berlin Sam had asked Steve how it’d felt to see Bucky again at last, and all Steve had really been able to tell him was that he knew Bucky didn’t do it, he believed it with every molecule of his being.
“You guys have your touching reunion and just like that, we’re supposed to be cool?” Sam had asked, more amused than confrontational, and Steve had simply responded, “What if it’d been Riley? Wouldn’t you know?” Sam had allowed that yeah, maybe he would.
When Sam mentioned the psychiatrist, Steve drew his head back, his eyes fixed on Sam’s; he’d thought maybe it was just him being overprotective of Bucky or something, repelled at the thought of them subjecting him to evaluations and interrogations and medical treatments against his will yet again. “What makes you say that? Yeah, his reaction to Bucky not being in custody was strange, I’ll grant you, but...I don’t know. I guess I thought it was just me overreacting. After our touching reunion and all.”
Sam’s eyes danced with laughter. “Nah, man, something’s off here. Well, there’s a lot of things off here. Bou—Broussard?—that his name?—seemed as surprised by the kill order as he was that Barnes wasn’t in the transport. He was dying to see Barnes. He looked like a kid didn’t get the puppy he’d been promised for Christmas.”
Yeah, now that Sam mentioned it. “I suppose assessing the Winter Soldier’s stability could be a career-making assignment, but...isn’t he supposed to be some big expert in his field already, that’s why the UN calls him in? What did Ross say about him?”
“Foremost expert in terrorism and mental conditioning.” Sam snorted, as if to say like that’s even a thing you could be.
Sharon quietly entered the conference room and handed Sam some forms. She seemed drawn and tired, worse than at the funeral; she probably didn’t want to be here any more than Steve did. Obviously she felt this was wrong too, wrong enough that she’d leak intel to them, and he wanted to thank her again, but it wasn’t safe here.
“Bird costume? Come on,” Sam exclaimed indignantly, and she shrugged, insisting she wasn’t the one who wrote it up. There was a TV screen on one wall that she turned on; mostly it showed footage of the chase aftermath, grainy stills of Sam and Steve and T’Challa being led to the transport at the Bucharest airport. Steve reached over and turned it off, stomach lurching; he couldn’t stand to see this again, the endless mentions of the Winter Soldier that conflated him with James Buchanan Barnes. As they stood in silence and pretended to review receipts for their gear, Natasha slipped away from Ross and the psychiatrist and Tony. Her arms were crossed over her chest, she stared down at the floor in thought as she walked, biting her lower lip. Steve tracked Broussard’s gaze as he watched her go, wariness in his body language, and she joined them in their glass holding pen.
Natasha didn’t waste any time: she angled herself away from view of anyone outside their room and said in a low voice, “Do you really believe that Barnes didn’t set the bomb in Vienna?”
They all went very still, and Sharon’s eyes darted nervously to each of them. “What are you thinking?” she asked so quietly Steve almost couldn’t hear her, and Nat’s eyes flicked over to meet Sharon’s. Two spies and two soldiers, he thought; but were they enough to save Bucky from the firing squad?
He nodded at Nat. “I do.” Steve knew her so well now that he could see the wheels spinning in her head; she knew him well enough that those two words were enough. “You think something’s wrong here, too.”
“I don’t know who that shrink actually is, but I do know he’s not the one he says he is.”
Sharon drew a breath, took her cell phone out of her vest pocket surreptitiously, slid it toward Sam. “Look up Theo Broussard. Zurich.”
Natasha stared at Steve. “And you swear he’s compos mentis? Barnes.”
“He’s...he’s afraid, and suspicious, and not wholly the guy I used to know. But there’s enough of that Bucky in there for me to be sure of him, to recognize when he’s lying.” You’re Steve. I read about you in a museum. “He says he wasn’t in Vienna, that he doesn’t do that anymore, and that’s good enough for me.”
A little squawk of outrage came from Sam as he looked up from Sharon’s phone. “Are you telling me that no one in this joint full of spooks and JSOC guys noticed that the picture of this famous UN psychiatrist you call in to interrogate the world’s most wanted criminal doesn’t match the CV of the guy you gave the hall pass to? I found older photos of him from conferences and websites on the third freakin’ page of images.” Sam palmed the phone under the table to Sharon; she looked at it and closed her eyes and swore under her breath. Great. Just great.
Picking up the alleged photo of Bucky that had been circulated to the media, Steve studied it more carefully: so grainy as to be almost useless in verifying it wasn’t doctored, just clear enough to show his face. Steve shook his head. “Why’d the task force release this photo in the first place?”
“Get the word out, involve as many eyes as we can?” Sharon seemed confused by his question.
“Right—it’s a good way to flush a guy out of hiding.” And then shoot him on sight, problem solved. Guilt heaved up inside Steve—if only he’d tried harder, been more selective about missions with the Avengers, he might have found Bucky earlier, prevented this whole thing from happening.
Sharon shook her head. “It got seven billion people looking for the Winter Soldier.” She glanced at each of them in turn. “You’re saying someone framed him to find him.”
“Steve, we looked for the guy for nearly two years and we found nothing,” Sam said.
“We didn’t blow up a UN building, though,” Steve countered, and Sam shrugged, conceding the point. “Turns a lot of heads.”
“That doesn’t guarantee that whoever framed him would get him, it only guarantees that we—” Sharon’s eyes widened with understanding.
Sam inhaled loudly through his teeth. “Whoever wanted him here wouldn’t be very happy about a shoot on sight order, now, would they?”
At that moment, Ross was escorting whoever this guy was impersonating Broussard out of the office, and Tony turned his attention to his phone, probably talking to Friday. This was completely screwed up—panic spiked in Steve, he was almost dizzy from this rare moment of uncertainty and dread. Anything he did now could mean life or death for Bucky.
“Put a pin in that for later,” Nat told them, “it’s of secondary importance.” When Steve balked, she motioned sharply at him and then looked past Steve’s shoulder, checking to see if T’Challa was still in his office. He appeared busy, doing whatever kingly business one did on a mobile phone, but while he was slouched comfortably in his chair, his body language betrayed him—coiled, watchful, distrusting. He wouldn’t give away that he was watching and attempting to listen to them, but Steve was certain he was. “We have to find Barnes ourselves, now, otherwise we’ll just end up with a repeat of today’s mess.” But her eyes were gentle when she turned to Steve and said, “He and I were trained in the same place. I know how to make contact with him. Just...swear to me I won’t regret this.”
There was nothing Steve wanted more than to take her hand, pull her to him in a super-strength hug, but he couldn’t let the others see that something was going on. “What do you need?”
“It’s old-school spy stuff. After having seen you, he’ll go to ground, he’ll view everyone, even you, as potentially compromised and every place as hostile—Moscow rules, you know—and he’ll be varying patterns, finding a new way to vanish when he has to, keeping all options open. But if he’s really who you say he is, he’ll probably be on the lookout for some sort of sign, a communication, maybe codes he’d know. It’ll be ingrained in him from the Soldier. Maybe from the war?”
“Moscow rules?” Sam asked.
Sharon and Nat shared a smile, bordering on a smirk. Steve gestured at the two of them, then at himself and Sam. “Spies—soldiers.”
“Unwritten rules developed during the Cold War for agents in one of the most dangerous espionage environments at the time. Tradecraft,” Sharon explained. “Haven’t you read any le Carré?”
Steve’d always really liked Sharon and he couldn’t help but grin at her despite feeling nettled, which made Sam grumble, “Do we really have time for flirting? This ain’t a rom-com.”
Natasha rolled her eyes. “It would help if you—can you give me something personal only you would be able to tell me, so he’ll work with me?” At his nod she took her phone out. “I’m stepping into the hall to make some phone calls, then I’m going to speak to the king. Finish signing the paperwork, pretend you’re very interested in the TV. Sharon, you head back to Ross and try to keep him talking and ignoring all of us.”
She stood on tiptoes to kiss Steve on the cheek and he said, low, “Tell him ‘to the end of the line.’”
With his enhanced hearing, Steve was able to catch some of what Nat said as she paced up and down the hall outside their little glass box: she was calling European newspapers, asking to place what sounded like a classified ad. He shared a look with Sam: they were at Natasha’s mercy right now, since they probably weren’t getting out of these charges by themselves. All things considered, that was a pretty safe place to be.
Bucky set the last of the grocery sacks on the counter, took off his sweat-damp cap and jacket, and began putting things away inside the cleaned-up cupboards. There was enough food now he shouldn’t have to leave the flat for a few days; that’d allow him time to settle down and sift through intel, figure out what had happened to Steve and his friend and what, if anything, his next move was. The little refrigerator in this place was on its last legs and still didn’t feel cold enough when he put his hand inside, but honestly, everything else was shit too, dirty and falling apart, and he’d just have to hope it would hold out till...whatever would happen happened. There wasn’t a lot he couldn’t fix these days, but he didn’t want to stay long enough to have to do that—he’d accidentally become the apartment block’s de facto handyman back in Bucharest once the old lady down the hall had asked him to repair her oven and a table. Sometimes he’d thought the other residents busted stuff up just so they could have him in to fix it, complain about the landlord, smoke terrible cigarettes together, and ply him with their native dishes. They didn’t give a shit that he was sketchy and suspicious, in fact they seemed to delight in tricking him into socializing. What must they be thinking now that they knew they’d let an infamous murderer around their children, that they’d welcomed him into their homes?
This new Budapest hovel wasn’t much better than his place in Bucharest in that respect: peeling, stained wallpaper that screamed Iron Curtain era; a sad, cruddy, but at least large-enough bed that had seen better days opposite the kitchen; the small icebox and minuscule microwave and hotplate; and every inch of it coated in a deep layer of oily dust. But there was a table and chairs, a sprung sofa, and a full bath, and that counted for something. He’d pick up whatever else he needed later at charity shops or off the streets; this wasn’t the nicest neighborhood, but András had said a guy like Bucky could melt into the scenery in the 21st District—the Csepel—so that made it the nicest for him. His stash of euros might last longer here, too, away from the tourist haunts and better shops—most of the money he’d liberated from Hydra back in the early days, before he’d found work here and there doing manual labor in Bucharest for lei, but using euros for too long would draw attention to himself. Since he probably wouldn’t stay in Budapest it wasn’t worth exchanging: the first rule of running was to make yourself hard to find, so he wasn’t allowing himself to get comfortable.
Lists had helped Bucky a lot in those days after his conditioning broke, so he began running one through his head as he organized stuff, trying to keep himself from getting lost in his own anxious mind. Trying to calm the fuck down after two days of running on the adrenaline of fear.
First was a shower, though, now that the little metal stall was cleared of fungus—or whatever the hell had been in there—and then he badly needed to eat more than just energy bars and protein drinks. Cut his hair off, maybe dye it. Some of the new clothes he’d picked up were sleek and stylish, not the sort of things a down-and-out fugitive would wear; his hair ought to match that. Maybe find a pair of glasses frames, too, because a ballcap and hooded sweatshirt weren’t going to cut it any longer.
Leaving Romania had proven more complicated than he’d anticipated, since it wasn’t in the Schengen Area. He’d stopped in Timisoara the first night to rest and cross the border from there, but realized they’d be looking at ID at the checkpoint; the agency that had come after him might not want to publicly admit the Winter Soldier was still on the loose, but there’d still be a massive manhunt, anyone with any kind of badge or authority would consider nailing him a coup. So instead Bucky’d headed up to the mountains to find another way into Hungary; he’d been a ghost for so long that moving through the world undetected was in his blood. It was one of the things he’d been designed for, after all. Wherever he went next, though, it couldn’t be in Europe, he had to get the hell out of here, though he wasn’t certain where.
With a few more additions to his list he was satisfied, but then he abruptly wrote, in capital letters at the bottom, FIND STEVE.
In his dream the Cat Man had pulled Bucky off the bike but Steve wasn’t there to save him: those claws had slashed Bucky’s abdomen open, disemboweling him, and he woke with a scream buried in his lungs, stuffing his fist into his mouth so the neighbors wouldn’t hear him through the paper-thin walls. His real hand clutched his soaking undershirt, twisting it, and he struggled to bring his galloping heart rate and frantic breath under control. At least this was new: the past two years his nightmares had been about falling from the train, or his arm being cut off, or watching Steve collapse at the Charlie carrier’s server control tower with Bucky’s bullets in his gut. Not necessarily an improvement, but there was a novelty factor in it.
Bucky threw off the cheap, scratchy blanket—Christ, he needed a shower again already, the sour tang of fear-sweat made his nose wrinkle. Pushing his hair back from his face, he got up to splash ice-cold water on his skin and toweled off, staring at himself in the chipped mirror. Going back to sleep wasn’t the least bit appealing right now, so he dug to the bottom of the grocery sack for the newspapers he’d picked up earlier. Four of them were English-language dailies, because his Romanian was still pretty shaky and he couldn’t read detailed articles with ease—his Hungarian was probably even worse, so he hadn’t even bothered with those—and one paper was French, the last Russian. Their reports on the Bucharest chase were as thorough as they could be given the restraints the counter-terrorism agencies no doubt had imposed; they identified the Cat Man as the new king of Wakanda, the old king having been killed in Vienna. That explained him coming after Bucky, but that was about all it explained—there was a lot more to this story, he knew, including who’d fed a Wakandan prince the intelligence about a German police operation. Not to mention who gave it to Steve.
Steve. Had he truly been a willing part of the operation? He’d said “the people who think you did” set the bomb weren’t planning on taking Bucky alive. But if they hadn’t been working in tandem, why else would Steve and his friend with the wings arrive at the same time as the tac team? What other reason could he have had for trying to talk Bucky out of fighting? They might have put Steve on point because they figured it’d make the Winter Soldier docile or compliant.
Bucky thumbed through the papers. If he couldn’t sleep, he might as well make use of his time: organize the intel, analyze patterns, identify the holes. He got the knife out of his pack and began cutting articles out, tacking them to the wall and dating them. Every article that named Captain America also mentioned the Sokovia Accords—he cut the separate mentions of those out but placed them off to the side: it wasn’t clear to Bucky yet how these things related to one another, but they must somehow. Steve’s legend figured large in everything written about the events; it was the unmasked Winter Soldier who remained mostly faceless save for that one grainy photo in Vienna. They’d given him only a name and a label, not even the dignity of a background of who James Buchanan Barnes had once been: he was merely assassin, murderer, traitor, terrorist.
The narrative, whatever it was, ignored his history as an American soldier to place him at the center of a Hydra terrorism bullseye. They couldn’t afford for him to be seen as a human being, Cap’s best friend, a war hero. They were telling the world through omission that he deserved to die. Bucky rubbed his tired eyes and stared at the clippings. Be patient, he told himself, there’s still a hell of a lot of missing intel right now: this is recon time—seek and find and develop a mission profile. Tomorrow he’d use the little notebook computer András had given him and dig down into the dark web.
Since Bucky’d landed in Eastern Europe over a year ago, András had been his lifeline, maybe the only person in the world willing to give the former Winter Soldier the benefit of the doubt. Once, he’d thought Steve would too, but the terrified look in his eyes when Bucky’d gone to punch through the floorboards told Bucky that benefit could well be irreparably damaged: Steve had nothing but doubts left. And it wasn’t as if Bucky could blame him.
For a while longer Bucky made notes on and stared at the clippings until they began to blur into one another, and he sat on the edge of the bed, sinking into the night, the constant grind of the city now muted and largely silent except for the occasional sirens or loud truck, and rubbed his eyes till his vision filled with sparking white lights. As he was puzzling things out, he grew aware of a peculiar sound coming from the south-facing window, deviating from the rest, like a...squeaky rasp. He shifted the grimy curtains and looked sideways out the window to the street three floors below, but all he saw besides cars and a few bikes was litter. Nerves, Bucky told himself, because they couldn’t have zeroed him already, he’d been too careful. The landlady hadn’t looked at him long enough to register his face; she probably did a lot of her rentals that way in this neighborhood. You had to be able to say “no, I never saw him” when someone with a badge came knocking.
The noise persisted for a while and then stopped, so he pulled the curtains tight and made tea, sat at the rickety table and thumbed through the rest of the newspapers, looking for anything other than news of Steve and the Accords. In the back of the Romanian paper Bucky found the classified ads: it was still habit to check that section, no matter how hard he fought against the Soldier’s training. Habits, Bucky had rediscovered, were pernicious bastards and extremely hard to kill—and he had two different lives’ worth rattling around inside him.
In the second column of the first page, Bucky stopped, sucked air through his teeth: a small ad buried in the middle, innocuous and written with the old codes, flashed at him like a strobing neon sign.
Rare Books and Old Maps. Specialists in hard-to-find Russian translations of poetry and fiction, collectible antiquarian maps. Call for help with your used book search.
Bucky stared at the phone number: it claimed to belong to a Brooklyn shop—probably one of those telephone services connected to an email account. In tiny type underneath, it read, “Or visit our shop! Take the A train to the end of the line.”
Bucky choked on his tea. It was the Black Widow, Romanov, it had to be—only she could know those protocols, was clever enough and knew Steve well enough to ask him for his own pass phrase. But what did she want to do—use Steve as a safety to lure Bucky in for the kill? Or would she really put herself on the line to help Steve and him out?
Fuck. He wasn’t sure he could completely trust that Steve wasn’t being manipulated by them, let alone her. Oh, he believed in Steve, more than anything, but... They’d used up their chance to flush Bucky out of hiding, their only hope now was to bait him—they knew how fuzzy his memories were, they’d seen what was left behind in the Bucharest flat, read his scant recollections and examined his drawings every which way. Adding up all of the detritus of a person to make a profile, writing the story they wanted to believe it told about him. Burrow their way in and truly nail Bucky this time.
And yet...he knew this about Steve, didn’t he? It was written in his bones: Steve would die before he’d give up on someone he loved. Defiantly, happily.
Run. Steve wouldn’t have said that if he was willing to give him up to the authorities or turn him over to the Cat King. And they would be fools if they started a war with the stubbornest man on this entire godforsaken planet. For a shimmering second, as they’d stood in that flat, all the fear that had kept Bucky away from Steve melted when Steve had asked him about the river, and he’d known: Steve had never stopped hoping Bucky would return to him. If Bucky didn’t try to help Steve now, maybe he’d never been worthy of that hope in the first place.
He stared at the wall, mouth twisting in thought. The news articles mentioned the CIA’s joint terrorism task force offices were in Berlin; no proof that’s where they took Steve and his pal, but it was the most likely: they’d want their home field advantage. Want Steve to serve as an object lesson. It was after three a.m., though—if he chose to call the advertisement’s number, it’d have to wait till daylight.
He was way too keyed up to sleep now, his mind veering off in a dozen different directions; these were the times he longed for the ability to drink himself into a stupor. Bucky pulled a notebook from his pack, along with the drawing pencils he’d kept in a bottom compartment: it calmed him, sometimes, to sketch, allow himself to use a different part of his brain and shut off the churning emotional cycles he fell into on the really lousy days. He’d never been all that good at drawing; Steve had dragged him to art classes and Bucky had gone just to spend time with him, never taking it as seriously as he should. Most of the time, if he recalled right, he’d spent the hours gazing at Steve instead of the subject, although sometimes he’d gone so he could look at the half-naked gals who modeled for the life studies classes.
Each of the notebooks in his pack were nearly full: pages covered with words that represented the scattered shards of his memories and his jagged, piecemeal sketches, as if he could squeeze all his nightmares out through the point of a pencil. He found a few clean pages in the newest one.
At first Bucky’d thought he might attempt to draw the king in his terrifying black suit, but his hand wanted to draw a real face—a face he’d known once as well as his own. Seeing Steve again after all this time... Jesus, all the stupid fantasies Bucky’d been nursing for two years about how they might reunite dissolved around him at the sight of Steve standing there, tall and strong, flipping through his notebook. The uniform had signaled that Steve wasn’t there as a friend, and Bucky’d just—panicked. That damn helmet obscuring Steve’s features hadn’t helped at all, Bucky couldn’t read him the way he believed he once had, yet he’d known the sharp spike of anguish by heart: all he’d wanted was to cross the room and take Steve’s hand and tell him that he was trying to get better, to make himself whole again before he came back to Steve for good.
The lines on the page weren’t smooth—he was thinking too much, not letting it flow—and the scale was off, but he kept at it, soon found himself drawing Steve in profile on a bed, turned on his side. The soft curve of his shoulders and his hips, the long, clean line of the arms and legs, and Bucky traced out Steve’s left leg bent up, as though resting on someone else’s body. Then his left arm reaching out, a caressing hand. Behind Steve’s arm and leg he swept the lines of his own torso, shading the neck and shoulder with its awful scars, the burst of light reflecting on his metal arm.
In the months after he’d made it to Europe, Bucky’d begun to wonder if he and Steve might have been together in the war: there were places that felt as soft and tender as memories, but they were so hazy Bucky couldn’t be certain they’d been real. What his hands were putting on this page, however, definitely wasn’t the war—Bucky’d drawn his long hair, their faces turned toward one another and Steve’s fingers in his hair. Shit, he thought, and laughed out loud: he was drawing his fucking fantasies—his fucking fucking fantasies.
What a sad sack you are. Like Steve would ever want you that way again.
Closing the notebook with a disgusted snap, Bucky got up, stretched out the kinks in his spine and his shoulder. The fight had really done a number on his arm and those muscles fused to the metal frame of his scapula and clavicle. Even his healing factor wasn’t pushing the recovery fast enough; maybe there was something about not having the drugs, no maintenance protocols, that dampened his recovery rate. Hard to tell: he’d lived a mostly quiet life after he made it out of the States. In the first couple of weeks after Steve had cut through the fog that final wipe had left, Bucky’d taken out a couple of Hydra strongholds that could have been potential threats to Steve, but that was it for him—he’d meant it when he said he didn’t do that anymore. If Steve had given Romanov the very phrase he’d used to pick the lock on Bucky’s brain, then Steve must have believed him. That’s what it had to mean, didn’t it?
He finished his tea and made the bed; he wasn’t getting back to sleep anytime soon. There was that noise again—scraping and squeaking, so Bucky turned off all the lights before peering out the window. His eye lit on the faintest motion: a piece of paper, maybe, blowing away, but then the noise came louder before tapering off. A cry, that’s what it was; maybe an injured animal. Well, crap.
As silently as possible Bucky climbed out the back window to the narrow balcony’s small iron railing, then dropped to the next balcony, and down to the ground. Behind some garbage he spied a kitten with pale splotches, wobbling and crying desperately, clawing at the paper and plastic wrappers it was half-buried in. It was only as big as his hand and he bent to look at it, its fur wet and dirty, mouth and eyes and nose crusted with some kind of gunk. Its eyes probably hadn’t even been open that long. Mothers abandoned runts all the time—especially when resources were scarce—and nature was a fucking cruel bitch, he’d learned that early on, but people were a hell of a lot worse; Bucky looked through the trash, all around the bins, but couldn’t find any signs of a mother or other kittens or that it had belonged to someone nearby who’d dumped it. God fucking dammit.
The thing mewed loudly at him—now that it had something to focus on it seemed to redouble its efforts to get help—and he shushed it, but it kept yelling. “No, no you don’t. I can’t afford to take on any charity cases. Anyway, your mom’s probably going to come back, okay?” Who the hell was he kidding? It looked like it hadn’t been fed in a while, and no self-respecting mama cat would let its baby stay this filthy. Becca’d had a cat, he remembered; he’d been out of the house by then but he absolutely remembered that and how much she’d loved on that thing. “Goddammit.” He started back up the balcony, the little critter meowing plaintively behind him, then stopped and sighed. “You’re gonna make me do it, aren’t you?” he whispered. “You’re gonna make me fucking rescue you, you little bastard.”
Bucky’d barely been able to save himself, he was in no position to be rescuing strays. In the dark it was hard to tell what color the splotches were, but it looked like gray, pale orange, and tan. He’d hate himself if he came out here in a day or two and it was dead; he told himself he had no choice, Steve would expect him to. Bucky’d clean it up, feed it, and then watch for the mother, put it back outside so she could take care of it, or dump it on the doorstep of a veterinarian. Yeah. “I have to be ready to run again, little thing,” he said, reluctantly picking it up. “You’re not sticking around. Got it?” He stuffed it in his t-shirt pocket and climbed back up by the balcony railings. This was just for tonight.
A few hours later Bucky woke to something hot in his face and he jolted upright, reaching for his gun, heart banging inside ribs like some broke-down old radiator. The fucking kitten was next to where his head had been, staring up at him with sad, anxious blue eyes and its little breaths coming rapid and shallow—which couldn’t have been normal. Oh yeah. It tried to waddle its way toward him, frustrated and shaky on the pillow, so he picked it up and held it for a while, stroking under its chin and its chubby little belly.
“Jesus Christ, you scared me, little thing. Not used to having anyone else in my place.” In the light of day it looked a lot more fragile, despite having been cleaned up and fed a bit of egg in some cream, since that was all the food he’d had it could reasonably eat. When Bucky was first peeling himself away from the Soldier, food had been difficult—from about the ’60s on they’d fed him a type of liquid nutrition that worked better than solid food thanks to the toll cryofreezing took on his organs, and in those first months after Insight he’d had to violently rediscover more substantial food. Eggs and milk had been his staple—even today his body would sometimes revert, rebelling against anything but that or the blandest, most overprocessed food—and Bucky had no idea what kittens needed, let alone one that appeared as sick as he’d once been, but if it had worked for him, he figured he’d give it a shot for this poor creature. He was certainly no expert at sexing a cat, but he flipped it over and...he was pretty sure that was a girl. Maybe. What difference did it make, Bucky thought crossly, when he damn well wasn’t keeping it around and he wasn’t staying in Budapest.
The kitten begged to differ, apparently, and snuffled into his shoulder, pushed its tiny paws against the hard metal, kneading. It seemed to like the warmth coming off the arm. Probably starving again, too, so he mixed up a little more egg and milk, dipped his finger in and let the kitten lick it off. Blue-gray light was leaking around the edges of the curtains when he’d finished, and there was still no sign of the mother. Bucky’d hoped he wouldn’t have to go out for a few days—the fewer trips outside, the fewer chances to get made—but now he’d have to find a vet that could find it a home. And hopefully one that didn’t pay much attention to the news and wouldn’t balk at him paying in fistfuls of euros.
But in the meantime there was a more pressing matter: he’d made the decision to call the number in the ad, even if meant walking into Romanov’s trap. There might have been klaxons going off in his brain, and Steve might be either a witting or unwitting accomplice, but this was no goddamn different than any other fight he’d ever waded into back in his Brooklyn heyday: if there was a way for Bucky to save Steve, he had to take it.
Nevertheless, he wasn’t speaking over an unsecured line—Romanov would know better than that and expect a text. There was only one code response that had been drilled into him Bucky could pull out of the dustiest memory, and even that one he wasn’t completely certain about. Most likely she was aware of all his impediments, knew how faulty his recall would be about the mutual training they’d received, but if she wasn’t, Steve would probably remind her, rather forcefully.
Seek first printing of Principles of Communism. Respond with cost.
He’d have to ditch this burner phone once Romanov made contact, send her a fresh number, which meant buying a new phone on top of finding the vet and getting food for the kitten, and—didn’t cats use a sandbox? Did a kitten this young need one? It was time to get on the Internet and look up orphaned kittens. Bucky rubbed the bridge of his nose, staring at the little critter. Christ, what a fucking soft touch he was—this was exactly what had gotten him in trouble in the first place: he’d gone back to the Bucharest apartment because he wanted his goddamn journals and his mementos and his drawings of Steve. He’d gone sentimental, and look where that had got him. It’d be just Bucky’s luck if the kitten ended up getting him captured.
It played with his finger, getting distracted by its own paws and stuffing them in its mouth, chewing thoughtfully. Almost immediately after he hit send his phone beeped with Romanov’s reply, written in what looked like a simple variant of a Vigenère cipher; he wrote out a key on the back of his drawing of him and Steve as the kitten kept trying to grab the pencil. “All right, stop that,” he said and tucked it into his pocket again, translating the cipher.
Bucky wrinkled his nose: this would probably turn into a disaster, but goddammit, he was in it now. “Okay, cat, we gotta go figure out how to rescue our boy,” he said, stuffing his hair up under a new cap and sliding on sunglasses. The kitten fit neatly in the inside chest pocket of his new leather jacket and looked relatively happy to be there.
New phone first: as soon as Bucky had it he texted Romanov a location and time, using what he sure hoped was the right keyword—with his memory gaps, for all he knew he was sending her the premier of Canada’s home address and phone number. Within a few seconds Bucky had a response: a string of numbers that basically meant OK and she was coming alone. Good: it gave him enough time to get everything done and then pick up one of his rifles—and most important, it didn’t leave him with too much idle time to think about Steve or the embarrassing fantasies that had shown up in that drawing last night.
Before Bucky could dig up a veterinarian, he had to look up the word in Hungarian, which—god bless the Internet—led him to a well-reviewed Csepel-area clinic in a small, cheerful yellow building with brick trim not that far away from his flat. All of the female assistants squealed over the kitten when he took it out of his pocket, telling him in varying levels of good-to-fractured English how wonderful he was for rescuing it, and he smiled despite himself: here he’d been so afraid of them thinking he was shifty enough to call the cops on—assuming they didn’t outright zero him as the notorious Winter Soldier—but they hardly even looked at his face once the kitten was in view. Yet no amount of pleading with them to take it, emphasizing that he wasn’t suited to care for it, convinced them to keep her; the best he could get was a promise from one of the technicians to talk with someone they knew and call him later. It seemed he was stuck with her, at least for the time being, and that made him want to claw his face off for being such a chump. The doctor reassured Bucky—in perfect English, so he didn’t have to rely on his shoddy Hungarian—that he’d done all the right things so far, which left him...oddly pleased, though Bucky didn’t know why it should. No one blinked when he paid with a wad of euros, and they sent him home loaded with food and milk replacer, medication, and pages of detailed care instructions. Fucking fantastic.
At his building, Bucky was heading to the stairs when the older woman who’d rented him the flat bumped into him as she came out her door. She hmphed and gave him the hairy eyeball, taking a drag on her cigarette, before spotting the kitten in his pocket, glancing down at the bag that clearly said Állatpatika on it, and his pulse thundered in his ears—it really would, it would be the kitten that got him caught. But she narrowed her eyes and hmphed again, blowing a thick cloud of smoke off to the side, and the look on her face said you’re not allowed a pet. With fake confidence, he made his best guess at “I’m just a tourist, I’m not keeping her, they’re finding a home” and he shook the bag. Her disbelieving chuckle disintegrated into a cough, and she rubbed her finger on the kitten’s head and said, in heavily accented English, “It is cute,” before turning to go. Bucky covered his face with his hand for a moment, then headed up to his place.
The rendezvous with Natasha Romanov was set for Vörösmarty Square, so he pulled out the collapsing rifle András had given him and folded it up into a duffle. This time of year the square would be crawling with tourists, which had its pluses and minuses; there was a good location with a view of around seventy percent of the square from one of the taller office buildings. Adjusting the scope, Bucky checked his sights, settled in to wait—right on time the Black Widow appeared, hovering at the south side of the fountain, pulling out her phone and holding her arms wide to show there was nothing else on her. Probably those stingers, though—he didn’t imagine she went anywhere without them; he’d never forget how much they hurt. His own phone buzzed in his pocket, so he sent: move to British embassy. She walked quickly to stand in front of the building’s entrance, then he sent: Café Gerbeaud, and she walked straight there, dodging through the crowds like a dancer. Bucky scanned the windows and the rooflines with each move, checked the crowd as she drifted through it for any kind of twitch of a head, flash of recognition in a passerby’s eyes, but saw nothing he could distinguish. Through it all she remained placid, aware of how the game was played. Metro entrance was his last text, and she strode purposefully toward the passageway.
Romanov turned around slowly clockwise when she got there, checking out each building front, eventually looking up. For a while she stood still, then cast a glance over her shoulder and up, grinning and making an OK sign. He pulled his eye away from the scope and chuckled. At the alert, he checked his phone: you could at least pretend to remember me.
Okay, he could definitely see why she and Steve were so close. His memories of the Black Widow trainees were fuzzy at best; she was right, he must know her, but he couldn’t recall any of the girls in enough detail that it mattered. What did matter was that Romanov knew him, not solely because he’d shot her a couple of times: she was telling him she understood how he thought, and that was a kind of affinity more valuable than recognition. He disassembled the rifle and put it back in his duffle, racked his Glock, and stuffed it back in his pocket.
When he got down to the square, Romanov was sitting on a bench in the little park behind the statue, sipping a coffee and holding another out to him. On the bench to her left was an older couple, looking fatigued and drinking from plastic water bottles, and she shrugged as if to say “harmless.” All right: he had to trust someone, and if she thought they were harmless that was good enough. Bucky took the coffee and sat on the right, noting his most direct escape route. “Satisfied?” she asked.
“Only as long as this ain’t decaf,” and he held it up in a mock toast.
“I took a chance—Steve said you liked your coffee no sugar, as much cream as you could get, but that you also loved chocolate.”
Huh. “I like mochas.” His own voice sounded almost childlike, but he wasn’t going to try to disguise his admiration, either.
“Did you discover them back in the States, or once you reached Bucharest?” Her eyes continued to scan the area, as alert as Bucky was.
“Don’t remember. Probably did, coffee shops were a new thing—everywhere I went. A lot was coming back at the time...it was confusing.”
“I can imagine.” There was a kindness to her voice that surprised him. Whatever led to her decision to leave Russia and join SHIELD, it had cost her, that was obvious. The fact that she’d dumped all her files onto the Internet where everyone could catalog her sins impressed him even more. “So.”
“Yeah...so. Can I ask— Where’s Steve? Just how much trouble is he in for letting me get away?”
“Oh, a lot. Right now the Joint Terrorism Task Force—CIA—has him in custody and the rest of us are trying to...” There was something about her trailing off like that that made him tense up and his stomach flip; they must be trying to crucify Steve.
“Are you trying to decide if you should tell me the bad news, or is this classified?” Would they resort to torture, was what he really wanted to ask.
Just a minute shake of her head, but she seemed sure of herself. “They’re not his biggest fans, but they’re showing him at least a modicum of respect. What do you know about Sokovian intelligence?”
“Nothing?” Sokovia—that was the country whose capital had been destroyed when Stark’s murderous robot ran amok the year before. What did that have to do with Bucky?
“Anyone named Helmut Zemo, leader of a black ops squad, ever have anything to do with Hydra?”
“Not that I know of.” So they were thinking that Hydra was behind the effort to flush him out. “You’re not even asking me if I did it. Bombed the UN.”
Romanov snorted, a surprisingly undignified response from someone so polished and controlled, and she flipped her hair back with her right hand, long coppery waves that caught the light. “A few years ago, Steve was...I don’t know, you could call him a work friend. I was always trying to fix him up, get him to be less sad. I cared about him, but he wasn’t someone I’d ever consider a good friend, not like...the guy who brought me in. But that whole mess with you, with Pierce and Project Insight, we became close in the way people do in battle.” For a while she studied her cup. “If he says he believes someone, then I believe them—and he says to believe in you.”
There wasn’t much Bucky could do in response but sip his drink, trying to hide the way his eyes were watering, how hard it was to swallow. When Steve believed in you, anything was possible—he’d known that, once, a thousand years ago. “I’m sorry I don’t remember you, except for...you know. You’d have been—what, a teenager when they sent me to Pierce.”
“Something like that. My files don’t reflect—well, my true age.” For the first time she turned to him and really looked at him, and he was struck by her lovely green eyes, the sly curve of her sideways smile. “I only saw you the once—you were a legend, but I was desperate to get a glimpse of you again after our final tests, to do more than just fight with you. Got punished for that, and your handlers moved you permanently to Siberia from then on.”
He remembered less about testing those girls than he did about shooting Romanov—both times—but he did recall that period of relative freedom, when they’d let him out more often and for longer intervals, and he’d enjoyed the girls doing their best to take him down. To impress the Soldat, and thus their masters.
“You look as young now as you did then, or as you did in the film of you and Steve in the war,” she said in amazement.
“Found a good moisturizer.”
Romanov had a nice throaty, deep laugh; he was growing fonder of her by the minute. God, Steve had somehow found another saucy gal like Peggy and Bucky was so damn glad of that. “I wish I’d known you then, so you...you could have had a friend.”
With a sad sigh, Bucky said, “I’m glad you didn’t. It would have made me shooting you a lot harder for you.”
“I suppose so,” and though she obviously didn’t agree, she let it drop.
They drank their coffees in silence for a while. “So, to the matter at hand—a Sokovian special operator? What’s that got to do with me?”
“We’re trying to figure that out now. There are a lot of layers, some of them are opaque to me. The task force won’t buy this guy as our terrorist and release Steve unless we’re certain we know what he’s after and why he put you at the center of it, which is why I need whatever you can give me. Plus there’s the King of Wakanda to deal with.”
“Fuck that guy.” Bucky flexed the fingers on his left hand.
Romanov ignored him. “We need to know why Zemo’d go to such lengths to try to flush you out, get a face-to-face with you. That’s not something we can discern on our own.” Pulling her phone out of her pocket, Romanov handed it to him: the picture was of a face he was pretty sure he’d never seen. “Steve sent me this on the plane, once they’d discovered who he really was.”
“Stark has an artificial intelligence, it was able to give us the physical what, at least, even if it can’t help with the why.”
“The Germans weren’t planning on taking me alive, Steve said. Why would he plan for delivery?”
“How do you think we figured this out? He assumed the identity of a psychiatrist sent to assess you for the UN, I’m guessing the real Broussard is dead—and he was pretty damn agitated when he heard about that shoot on sight order. Everything about it was off.” She sighed, rubbing her forehead. “Steve is...he’s a bit out of his depth in this arena, he’s smart but he doesn’t think this way, in gambits and end games—”
“I was a blunt object, an unstoppable force. I didn’t think much, either.”
There was that sly sideways grin again. “Bullshit. You were brilliant.” With an eye-roll, she added, “And he’s compromised when it comes to you.”
Bucky admired her frankness. “He always was. That’s how he really became Captain America, you know, rescuing me. Or does everyone already know that? Sometimes I’m not sure what people really know about him and what they think they know. God, he could lose— Is he in danger? Could he end up in a black site?”
“No, no, I don’t think so. Stark must have come around, if he’s dug up Zemo’s identity. Steve can be...persuasive. But I guess you know that.” It was still jarring to him, hearing Howard’s kid’s name. His memories of Howard Stark were fuzzy at best, but Bucky’d seen pictures of himself in his lab, like they were old chums...and that made his gut clench and alarm bells ring in his head. He cleared his throat. “But without your profile it’s all sort of...it’s hard to spring a trap when you don’t know what you should be trapping for. Believe me, we want to know why you just as much as you do.”
“Is he using the Accords as a cover?” At her curious glance he explained, “I’ve read all the news about it. Just because I didn’t make contact with Steve doesn’t mean I’m not keeping tabs on him.”
Her eyes crinkled, she huffed out a laugh. “That’s what trips me up every time. How could he have known the Accords were on the radar? We didn’t even know until a few days ago ourselves. We were blindsided.”
Bucky sat forward abruptly, heart in his throat. The news. A few days ago. Karpov. “There was a murder in Ohio a couple days ago, my former handler. After the collapse, he went to America, lived the way I was living in Bucharest, but somehow he was zeroed, maybe because of those files you put on the Internet. My, uh, contact here keeps track of these things—he showed me the articles. Karpov was tortured to death by someone who knew what they were doing.”
Her brows shot up her forehead. “Karpov. Bozhe moy.” A little shudder rippled through her. “Good riddance to bad rubbish. I’m not above wishing a terrible death on someone like him.”
Yeah, he definitely liked her. “Something Karpov told this guy...or...something Karpov couldn’t give him that I could?” Oh god. “What if he wanted to use me to take Steve down? Like you said, Steve is compromised when it comes to me, and Karpov’s the only one alive who’d know every fucking detail of the Winter Soldier’s history.”
Bucky thought, tapping his fingers against the side of his coffee cup, and she did the same. Her mouth was a tight line, and then she said, “It’s retribution. For Sokovia? He found something in your history he could use against Steve, or maybe even Tony.” She left unsaid that once Bucky had served his purpose, Zemo would have gotten rid of him, too, or maybe kept him in play to serve a new Hydra organization.
“I still don’t get the Accords, though, and the focus on me. If he wanted to he could have found easier bait to trap Steve than a convoluted plot to flush me out. Unless he wanted that signing to go down in flames. And the Cat King, how does he figure?”
Her sigh was telling: she was exhausted and frustrated with herself for not seeing Zemo’s purpose. “I would love to find that out. The Accords are an awfully convenient smokescreen, perfect timing for him, but the Black Panther was...unexpected.” So that’s what Cat Man was calling himself. It probably wasn’t any stupider than Captain America or Iron Man. “This is all just...theory. A very nice presentation to make, but they’ll laugh me out of the building without something more solid. I should be getting back. This is something to go on, but whatever else you can dig up...” She held a palm out, shrugging.
“I—I can’t take back the things I did. Can’t even really apologize to you, because I don’t think the words have been invented yet. You’re doing this for Steve, but...I’m grateful for your help.”
Well, there was a surprise: her head snapped back and a little sound of dismay flew from her throat. She’d thrown off all those years of training to hide every speck of emotion. “What they did to you was wrong. More wrong than what they did to us. These days, I’m in the business of righting wrongs—at least until I’m forced to retire, which should be, oh, any time now.” Romanov feigned looking at her watch, and with a grim smile, she stood, slid on her sunglasses, and touched his shoulder hesitantly, like she was still that little girl seeking approval from the Soldat for her fighting skills. “Were there any codes you and Steve used back in the war, ciphers? He’d very much like to hear from you. Even a text. I’ll send you the number, but he’s still inside the JTTF building, so...stay contained. Be safe.”
Of course she was concerned for Steve’s welfare, not his; Steve was her friend, after all, but just the same—“And you. I appreciate it.” Bucky watched her six until she was out of sight, then made his way back to the flat, where the kitten was still snoozing in its little nest of towels. Feeding time was overdue, so he mashed up the solid food and milk replacer as they’d instructed. It may have been the last thing he’d needed in what was, essentially, the middle of a mission, but even Bucky had to admit, it was calming to hold her little body in his real hand, her warm fur melting some of the ice still clotted in his veins. Her eyes were as blue as Steve’s, though the vet assistants had told him all kittens started out with blue eyes and they’d probably change, and she liked batting at his hair when he shook his head.
When he was done playing mommy, Bucky turned his attention to the computer András had given him, delving into the SHIELD-Hydra data dump. A hell of a lot of it was still encrypted, even after all this time—it could take someone years to decrypt just the Winter Soldier project alone, and he wondered how much Zemo had actually unearthed—but from what Bucky could tell, chunks of it had never made it to the news media or outside of intelligence circles. The primary focus of the most recent intel was related to Bucky’s attack on Fury and then the freeway overpass op against Steve, because they’d needed to put a face on the faceless soldier, the source of all that destruction. Needed someone to send the mob after with their pitchforks and torches. As he dug through the endless cascade of Soviet-era Hydra intelligence, he had to settle the kitten on his lap to keep her from crawling on the keyboard; she wasn’t happy, since it was nice and warm there, and she let him know loudly. How did something that tiny make that much noise?
He was idly flipping from page to page and drinking his tea when the holes in the pattern suddenly resolved, the last remaining piece of the jigsaw puzzle snapped in: there were occasional gaps in the Winter Soldier’s recorded mission history, all of them during his years in Siberia. Only Karpov gave him his assignments then, only Karpov would have been tasked with writing those reports—so only Karpov would have expunged them from the records. But why?
Two of the missions took place in the 1980s, when the course of the USSR was beginning its slow trajectory toward collapse, and one mission apparently happened in 1991. Bucky could put a face on the first date—he’d been sent to Central America to take out the leaders of a right-wing organization; he looked it up on the Internet and sure enough, there was the assassination of a Guatemalan official. The other two he couldn’t quite put a finger on, but there were numerous events on those dates and he was sure one of them would resolve, given time. As badly as he wanted to regain control over his own mind, Bucky frequently thought some memories were better left unrecovered—and he had a damn bad feeling these two assignments fell in that category.
Keeping that locked up in the terrifying funhouse in his mind could get Steve sent to prison, though. This Zemo character had searched for information only a few living individuals could supply, and was perfectly content to kill for it. Not like Bucky mourned Karpov’s death—on the contrary, he wished he could have done it himself—but clearly James Buchanan Barnes was the only living person now who might have what Zemo wanted and... Well, shit.
“Hey, buddy,” Bucky said, picking up the kitten and holding it to his chest, studying the articles on the wall. She meowed sleepily but was happy to have him bounce her gently, cuddling into his warmth as he turned everything over in his mind, eyes skating back and forth from one news clipping to the next. He looked at the picture of Zemo that Romanov had sent to his phone, examined the one where he was impersonating Bucky in Vienna. What had he wanted so badly that Karpov couldn’t give him? Bucky abruptly jolted and sucked in a breath: the book. The Soldier’s activation sequence. The one thing worth killing Karpov for.
Dobroye utro, soldat.
Ya gotov otvechat.
He wanted the original Winter Soldier, and the path to the others, too. The kitten startled when he squeezed her a little too tight in his anxiety, voicing a hoarse complaint.
That fucking book was out there in the world, in the hands of someone with the skills to understand what it could do and the treachery to use it. He would set the Soldier loose to kill anyone standing in the way of resurrecting the other Soldiers, and take over half the fucking planet. He put his finger to the kitten’s round, soft belly and rubbed, smiling as it flailed its arms and legs trying to get his hand. “Why does everyone always want to take over the goddamn world?” Bucky asked her as she swiped at his fingers. “Okay, you, back to bed. Gotta send a message to Steve so we can wrap this up and maybe see each other again.” She complained again when he set her in the nest, but then curled up in a ball to sleep. “I think you’ll like him. He’s a pretty great fella.”
Steve woke to something jabbing into his side; he turned over on the cot to see Natasha’s face smiling down at him as she poked him with her finger, so he scooted over as much as possible to let her sit. Most of the time he didn’t think of her as tiny, because she had such a large presence, but she fit herself next to his hip as though she were pocket-size and brushed his hair off his forehead with light fingertips. “Did you see him?” he asked, voice thick with sleep, and stretched as far as he could.
“Yes. He told me some things that make a kind of sense, but I don’t see yet how it fits together. He’s working on it, and he’s safe, made it to Budapest.”
Steve took her hand, threaded his fingers through hers. “I don’t know what I’d do without you sometimes.”
Across the room Sam cleared his throat loudly.
“Or Sam,” Steve added with a grin. “I thought you were asleep.”
“With your snoring?” Sam scoffed. “Please.”
“I see you’re still here instead of at the presidential suite at the Four Seasons. Didn’t you and Tony work out your differences?” Nat glanced around the office they were sleeping in, its small conference table and chairs pushed against the wall to accommodate the cots. He and Sam were soldiers and could sleep anywhere, they didn’t mind, though Tony had been bewildered and offended when they’d turned him down for the hotel. Steve simply couldn’t bear the idea of being under house arrest—under Tony’s house arrest. If they went anywhere in the building here, they were accompanied by four heavily armed guards—including to the toilets—but at least it was by his own agreement with no hidden terms, and by staying put he didn’t have to listen to more of Tony’s wheedling to get him to sign the goddamn Accords, or worse, listen to more tales of how much he’d hated Steve for most of his life.
With more emphasis and indignation than was required, Sam told Nat, “No. They. Did. Not. They argued for hours over everything, it was freaking exhausting. Rich white boy who’s always gotten his way thinks if we just sign our lives away we can fix it later. He has literally no clue what this looks like to us. And Mr. Flexible here can’t look past his own tunnelvision. It’s like working in a daycare. I have a damn headache.”
Steve shrugged and attempted a sheepish face, held out a hand. “Tony eventually conceded the point that this might be fueled by sheer guilt and admitted he’s miserable at the thought of us being split up and he detests Secretary Ross as much as we do. So we called Pepper and—”
“And then things escalated quickly because old Guts and Glory has never met a fire he couldn’t pour some gasoline on and make it bigger.” Sam gave him a narrow look. “I think the words ‘Stark Industries international law team and treaties specialists’ were uttered by Ms. Potts. Stark’s probably gonna get grounded for a really long time. Everything’s on hold right now, though, so we took the temporary ceasefire as a chance to bring him in on this shitstorm.”
“Despite the fact that I don’t completely trust him,” Steve said, and if he sounded a little more petulant than he wanted to, so what.
Sam sighed. “We are fighting on two shitstorm fronts here, Natasha, we’re understaffed.”
Nat’s eyebrows shot up her forehead. “Are you telling me you two don’t have to be put in a timeout? And you’ll allow us to be a team again?”
“Well, don’t get too excited,” Steve said. “But that’s how we found out about Zemo, Tony did his thing. He still wants me to sign and I think he believes it’ll keep me from throwing everything away for Bucky, but he also knows a set-up when he smells one.”
The corner of Nat’s mouth tugged up in a smile, and she dropped her head back, turning it this way and that trying to work out tension in her shoulders; she looked tired in a way he hadn’t seen since they were at Lehigh—it wasn’t trekking back and forth across Central Europe that was doing it to her. This was forcing her to confront a past she usually only talked about in the most oblique terms and he wasn’t sure quite how to make it up to her; every time she allied herself with him it was painful. “James insists he never knew anyone in Sokovian intelligence, didn’t recognize the photo you sent. It might have something to do with the murder of his old Soviet handler, the Accords were just...an unhappy coincidence Zemo took advantage of.”
“James?” Steve asked, teasing.
“I didn’t know him as Bucky,” she protested, with a whack on the shoulder. “He didn’t really have a name at all. James is his true name, yes? I feel like that’s a dignity I can grant him.”
“Wait, wait, go back,” Sam said. “‘Murder of his handler’?”
“Yeah.” As if somehow that wasn’t strange. “We need to get Sharon in here, and, well, Stark if you really believe it’s safe. This is...kinda complicated.”
“How does he even know about this stuff?” Sam asked. “Dude was living in a shithole almost totally off the grid.”
Steve’s heart leapt. “Has he been keeping tabs on me?”
“Oh my god, are you going to ask me if he still likes you?” Nat rolled her eyes.
“Maybe,” Steve conceded, and Nat dropped her head onto his shoulder, laughing at him, and that felt so comforting and familiar after the nightmare of the past few days he could have cried.
“Probably got some kind of murder wall set up already and he’s putting up all the stories about you he’s been collecting in that backpack.” Sam seemed particularly amused by the thought. “Drawing little hearts around your picture, maybe writing song lyrics around them.”
“Have you ever watched a TV show or a movie?” Sam shook his head when Steve huffed at him. “You know—person tries to figure out some conspiracy and tacks up articles and pictures and whatever, draws lines linking shit up, writing out their theories.”
“Oh yeah. Didn’t know it had an official name.” Steve shook his head. “The future is weird.” They both gave him indulgent smiles. “More power to him if it helps him figure out what this guy wants.”
Natasha cast a quick glance out toward the guards in the hall, neither of whom were paying them any attention, and she hugged Steve tightly, slipping a phone into the back pocket of his jeans. “He has the number.” Then she hugged Sam too, Steve assumed to make it look less suspicious, and left the room. They hadn’t seen the king for over twelve hours, but Steve assumed he was somewhere safely ensconced with his recently arrived retinue, hashing out the diplomatic details of his disastrous interference. And he figured that would be where Natasha was headed; they had seemed to spark an interesting connection between the two of them, and the king could do worse for a friend.
“Might as well get up, it’s almost dawn,” Sam suggested, stretching and looking toward the window to the river. “I really hope now she’s back we can either get this thing sorted out or you’ll get the stick out of your ass and we can move over to Stark’s hotel.” He did a dramatic “ow my back” act as he got up.
Though he wanted to retort, Steve just flipped him off instead and slipped the phone out to turn it on, sliding onto one of the conference chairs. He wanted a shower and a toothbrush—Jesus, he felt like death warmed over. There were two new messages already on the phone; the excitement and anxiety surged through him as he opened the app: one message was made up entirely of random symbols in ASCII, the other was complete gibberish, and it took him a moment of looking at the symbols before he realized what Bucky’s messages were telling him. Sam poked his head over Steve’s shoulder and said, “I’m gonna assume this is some kind of code and that’s not a sign of his complete mental breakdown.”
Steve stared at the message for so long Sam cleared his throat; it was almost unbearable, this tightness in his chest, the smothering desperation to see Bucky again. “He remembers, Sam. He really does remember.” He remembered enough, and that was all Steve needed.
Steve showed him the symbols. “It means, basically, he’s all right, he’s hiding—not all our codes can be replicated with these characters, but originally it would have been...waiting for rendezvous. Waiting for me.”
“Hopefully not with another grenade.” Sam wasn’t exactly smiling, but there was mischief in his eyes. “You draw each other lots of pictures?”
“We had the usual hand signals they teach you, but you know, we were unusual enough that we had some unique ones of our own.” Steve huffed a laugh. “Each of the fellas also had a sort of identifying gesture or...pantomime, I guess you could call it. If you needed to communicate to someone specific. Bucky’s was this” —and he made as if holding a rifle in front of him.
“Makes sense. What was yours?” Steve ducked his head, his cheeks coloring. “Come ooonn,” Sam cajoled.
Steve stood up and puffed out his chest, put his hands on his hips in a ridiculous pose, as Sam busted out laughing. “The fellas never missed a chance to make fun of me. One time Dum Dum tried to convince me it was making the shape of an A just like my helmet, like I was stupid enough to buy that.”
“Man, I could listen to a million more words about you guys back in the day, I swear.”
“If we get sent to some CIA floating ocean pokie, you’ll have plenty of time for that.”
“They’re not gonna send Captain America to a prison ship.”
With a sigh, Steve said, “Maybe not, but they’ll have no problem with sending Steve Rogers to one.”
The corner of Sam’s mouth quirked, and he gave Steve’s arm a squeeze. “All right, what’s the gobbledygook at the bottom and the second message?”
Snapping his fingers, Steve said, “Can you find—I need some paper and a pencil.” This was the thing he hated about modern offices: there was never stuff to write with around when you needed it, everything was goddamn computers. Sam rummaged around under the A/V ports and popped his head up. “Aha!”
While he was writing down letters, he had Sam look up the numbers associated with each symbol—it took him a few minutes to figure out where each set of numbers broke in the alphabet, but when he did he laughed so loudly the guards swiveled around to check on them. “It’s a URL,” Steve said, shaking his head, “it’s brilliant. To decrypt the second message he’s using my Wikipedia page.”
Sam put his fingers to his head, rubbing and trying to tamp down his laugh. “Okay, I know the dude’s tried to kill me three freaking times, but—respect.”
One of the guards knocked on the office door and poked his head in. “Hey, Captain, you guys want anything for breakfast?” The ones who’d been assigned to keep tabs on them weren’t bad guys, they were only doing their jobs; they seemed more awestruck that the Falcon, Iron Man, the Black Widow, and Captain America were lurking around their building than concerned about guarding some reckless vigilantes. The building cafeteria wouldn’t be open for a while yet, but they gave the guards their requests, and Steve set to work when they shut the door.
Steve wasn’t sure if the first message was intended for him or for Nat: “there are gaps in shield file dumps | year other winter soldiers created | missing intel includes my mission | karpov had activation code words | look for old red leather notebook w black star on cover | best guess wants to activate me for intel only soldier knows”
What the hell did that mean—other winter soldiers created? Bucky wasn’t the only one? Steve leaned his head on his hand, rubbed his forehead, and looked at Sam.
“There’s more of him?” Sam said, alarmed. “Are they as bad as him?”
Someone knocked lightly on the glass and they both turned to see Nat, Sharon, and...Tony. She wouldn’t sell him out, she wouldn’t.
“Before you get your Underoos in a bunch, I’m here to help,” Tony said, his mouth twisting in what on anyone else would have been a sheepish smile, but on Tony came off as smug. He held his palms out toward Steve—believe me. “Mata Hari told me what’s going on and what her disappearance yesterday was all about. I hate it when people skulk around without inviting me—I love skulking. And skullduggery.”
“People get flattened by buses all the time,” Sam muttered so only Steve could hear, “why not him?” Steve popped an elbow into his ribs.
“Will you just let me help you? Please. See, I’m asking nicely. I gave you Zemo, that’s a show of good faith, right?”
Steve waved a hand at them, left Sam and Natasha to explain what they’d learned in the past forty-eight hours—he had something more important to do: translating the second half of Bucky’s text. Their voices seemed far away, as if coming down a long tunnel, the sound of blood in his head muffling everything else. His heartbeat fluttered, his fingers gripped the pencil so tight it snapped.
Bucky’s message read: “You asked if I remembered you | You didn’t ask if I still felt for you | I did | I do”
“Yo! Steve!” He blinked; Sam was at his shoulder, making a face like he was afraid Steve was gonna get all weepy on him. There were suddenly more people in the room: T’Challa now stood behind Tony, Everett Ross next to Sharon, and all the joy he’d just felt evaporated.
“What the hell are they doing here?”
Ross let loose one of his contemptuous little laughs—really, did the guy have any other kind? “The desire to exonerate your old war buddy is admirable, I get it, but even if this comical plan works, it won’t erase the treason and murder charges—”
Steve surged forward, pushing Sharon and Tony out of the way and grabbing Ross by the front of his shirt. “Listen to me, you bureaucratic little weasel.” Shouts erupted as his friends tried to peel him off; Sam yanked Steve’s arm back and then stood between Ross and him.
“What did we talk about before? Name calling and threats mean no screen time and no juice box.”
Of course Sam was right, but the satisfaction of seeing Ross’s panicked face was too great not to keep tearing into him. “You look like someone whose only experience with the word service came when you asked people if they wanted fries with that. So let me explain: James Barnes was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross for his bravery—do you know how rare that is?—and two Silver Stars for gallantry and courage you couldn’t begin to understand. He received three Purple Hearts, one of which was for the torture he underwent as a POW, and he had more Battle Stars than could fit in your tiny little hands.”
“Steve! Stop it!” Sam was glaring at him now and he covered his face with his hands. “Why are you like this?” he pleaded, then, in a small voice muffled behind his palms, “why.”
But he was on a roll. “Men courageous enough to have earned those honors in service to their country don’t just turn their backs on it by choice. A man who’s...tortured and violated and forced to forget everything he held dear is not a traitor, he’s a victim. If Barnes said he didn’t plant the bomb in Vienna, then he didn’t do it. None of the things the Winter Soldier did are things James Barnes would have chosen to do, and he has to live with that now. That’s its own kind of courage, but I don’t expect you to understand that. You’re the kind of person who’d order the murder of James Barnes—not the Winter Soldier—without so much as a trial, without legal representation. You don’t know honor or courage.” T’Challa was watching Steve with that same cool, haughty face, as impossible to read as before, his eyes flicking occasionally only toward Natasha, as if no one else in the room was worthy of his attention but Steve and her.
“Great speech. Now let’s talk about how we’re gonna put on a show to expose this week’s bad guy,” Tony said with false cheer, and Steve didn’t really have the heart to be angry with him anymore. He was just...tired. Of this, of them, of the whole goddamn world. “It’ll be like an out-of-town tryout. Come on, Cap—we all want this to end. Boris and Natasha there” —he pointed at Ross and Nat— “have even formulated a plan to trap Moose and Squirrel. Or Moose, at least, Squirrel is your responsibility since he’s your boyfriend.” Tony made a face. “At least give the guy an audition.”
Ross straightened his collar and shot his cuffs; chastened, maybe a little, or at least hoping to stay on Steve’s good side. “I told Zemo we’ve located the Winter Soldier and are bringing him in. When he gets here, Carter and I will take him to sublevel five in the east wing so he can set up for the interview.”
Nat caught Steve’s gaze, nodding at him with a clear message that he should behave, and Tony shot him a long-suffering look before adding, “And while you are calmly and quietly waiting in the wings, I’ll be poking around that laptop of his to see what he’s got on it and just why he wanted to be locked in a room with Barnes.”
“Come on,” Sharon said and touched his elbow, “I’ll get you and Sam some earpieces and take you down there. Just...promise to let us handle this, okay?” The decent, grownup thing to do would be to apologize to them for the outburst, but he couldn’t quite find it in himself. Whatever happened here, Bucky was still a fugitive, still labeled a terrorist, and that wasn’t going away anytime soon, nor was Secretary Ross’s threat of prosecution for Steve and Sam.
They were led to a small alcove just outside the sub-basement’s office room, Tony keeping up an annoying and steady stream of patter over the comms as they waited for the fake Dr. Broussard to arrive. “That really true, about Barnes? Didn’t realize he was that decorated.”
“Yeah. Doesn’t really get to the half of it—Dugan and Jones were in his company before Azzano, they told me stories, things he was never properly recognized for because his CO didn’t have the time, and then they were captured.” Steve pushed his fingers through his hair, that grief that sat in the pit of his gut all the time making him nauseated. But if he could talk about this with someone who’d understand, it’d be Sam. “You know, it’s funny, our generation, we didn’t scorn commendations—that’s such a modern thing. Bucky...he was proud of his Combat Infantryman’s Badge, his Expert Badge in shooting, those were different from the medals. More about skills than bravery. He’d qualified for Expert long before he became our marksman; right from the start he had an affinity for the rifle. Most guys—you know, they’d always tell you that they didn’t do anything special, they were doing what anyone would have done in their circumstances.” Steve looked at Sam. “Same thing as with pararescues.” Sam flashed his crooked grin and Steve smiled back—he actually hoped the rest of them were listening to this conversation, they should be hearing these things until it sank in that Bucky deserved compassion, not punishment.
“But you know, proud as he was, after Austria...I had to put his ribbons on his jacket sometimes, he would just...say we didn’t wear our regular uniforms enough, so he’d simply forgotten. I had to reprimand him once for showing up completely nonregulation, he was so messed up by what Zola did to him, and I never...” Steve dropped his head and took in a shuddery breath as Sam put his hand on Steve’s forearm. “I thought sometimes after I woke up that maybe that was why he had Howard make him that particular outfit—that blue jacket, because it wasn’t like anything else and there was no place for all his ribbons and badges. Never wanted to wear his cover again, either, and only did it when he absolutely had to, like having anything on his head was intolerable. Well, you saw that chair—you know why.”
“They gave me the posthumous Medal of Honor in a ceremony at the White House after I woke up, gave me a handshake and a welcome back, it was great for their publicity. Then they handed me a medal I’d never even heard of—World War Two Victory Medal. When I got back to my hotel I just stared at them for hours, put ’em in a box for the Smithsonian and haven’t looked at ’em since.” They gave Steve a medal for not dying after all, when at the time, that was what he’d wanted to do most of all. Jesus, he’d missed Bucky so much there’d been times he couldn’t even breathe, could hardly move, the loss had sat so heavy on his chest. He’d wanted to crawl back in the ice—to never have known what it was like to be honored for surviving when the one he’d loved most had not. “Bucky’s commendations ended up with his family—along with some of mine—and he’ll never even... Christ. All anyone thinks now is that he’s a murderer and a traitor. All the courage and skill it took to earn those decorations, but they can just strip every one of them away and I’d be powerless to stop it.”
Sam squeezed his arm even harder. “Listen, we’ll figure something out. Once we nail this fucker, we’ll figure something out. I might not be Barnes’s biggest fan because he keeps, you know, tryin’ to kill me, but I’ll be damned if I’m gonna let them drag a fellow soldier down and take what is rightfully his. Though, you know, if you could get him to stop trying to kill me, too, I’d appreciate it.”
He flashed Sam a grin. “I’ll see what I can do.”
“And we got the whole Avengers team to get on it, too.”
“Except if the secretary has his way, you and I aren’t Avengers anymore.”
“I take that pointed reference right in the heart, and I’m deeply wounded,” Tony said over comms, and Sam and Steve shared a look. “Climb off the nostalgia train and cut the chatter, Bullwinkle’s in the building—I’m accessing his laptop right now.”
Removing his earpiece, Steve asked Sam, “What is this shit he keeps talking about? No matter how much crap I watch, I still can’t decipher half of what he’s saying.”
“Rocky and Bullwinkle. Cartoon from the ’60s—you’d actually like it, I think, especially Mr. Peabody and Sherman. When we get out of here I’ll track down some episodes. There’s a live action movie from a few years ago, but it sucks.”
Steve squinted at the ceiling, put on his best forbearing face, and stuck the earpiece back in, just in time to hear Ross and Sharon telling Zemo about the containment unit they would use to bring Bucky in, reassuring him he’d be safe and it was completely monitored. Quite the performance. Steve heard Zemo say, “I appreciate your concern, but I’m sure I’ll be all right.” Steve’s hand snapped the edge of the desk right off; he yanked it away and looked at Sam, embarrassed, and Sam gave him a look that said get a hold of yourself.
“I apologize for how dark it is. As soon as they hook up the holding unit, we’ll get you some proper light,” Ross said in his most unctuous voice. Steve wondered if there was something about the name Ross: he’d rarely taken such an instant, irrational dislike of a person as he had with both the secretary of state and this guy.
Zemo assured them, like the most professional of psychiatrists, he understood how unusual the situation was and he was quite all right, then he sat down, opening his laptop and briefcase. At this angle, none of them could see inside it to verify he had Bucky’s book, but then Tony brought up something else entirely: “This is kinda weird. He’s pulled up what looks like a delivery confirmation on the laptop, but it’s the day Barnes was supposed to be brought in—but it’s—shit, Friday, can you translate?” Some technicians were making a show of hooking up the containment unit. “Oh, yeah, that’s not good. Delivery was to the electrical substation for this district. He’s got an app with a button that indicates something’s queued up to arm. As Barton might say, this looks bad.”
“He’s going to wipe out the power to this whole area,” Steve said. “As soon as he’s alone with his subject.”
Sharon’s voice filtered in to his ear. “They would have disabled Barnes’s metal arm with an electric charge in the containment unit. Cut the power and—”
Jesus fucking Christ, he’s not an animal. Steve’s face was hot with fury; he was so damn glad he’d helped Bucky get away from these bastards.
On the monitor, he saw Zemo reach inside the briefcase to take out some papers, a folder, and a book: leather, with a dark star in its center, battered and worn. “Well, let’s not wait for him to hit the button. There’s your book.” The lights came on abruptly, as Zemo’s head lifted; he held the book midair, surprised and irritated, eyes narrowing behind his fake glasses.
“Some kind of homemade EMP. Big sucker. Oooo, gotcha.” Tony had been talking to himself with a kind of mad scientist glee, but that was all Steve needed to hear. “Disabled the laptop and the phone. Showtime, people, look sharp—and five, six, seven, eight. Light ’em up.”
Steve and Sam exchanged a long-suffering look, but left the alcove to join Ross and Sharon as they slipped into the room. Then the containment unit powered on, bright lights spotlighting Natasha where she stood just inside the unit, arms crossed over her chest, the corner of her mouth tugged up.
“Did you honestly think we wouldn’t figure this out?” she asked, stepping out of the unit and walking over to him, snatching the book from his hand. “Granted, you had a great setup impersonating Barnes, it was a pretty good distraction, but I find your reliance on coincidence and chance and unpredictable human behavior almost offensive. Not effective strategy.” But Zemo recovered his wits quickly, reaching for the laptop to try to press that button. Ross whipped his hand out to push the screen down, wagging a finger at Zemo.
Behind Steve, Tony laughed. “Curses, foiled again.” He had some kind of holographic thingy spread out in front of his phone, little blue lights flashing.
“What did you want with Barnes?” Steve demanded, grabbing Zemo by the jacket and hauling him against the wall.
Anyone else would have reacted with fear, but Zemo only shook his head, a half smile on his face. “Merely a means to an end,” he said, and Steve could see it again, that same expression he thought he’d seen when they were brought in: pure seething hatred.
“What end is that?” Steve wanted to beat that look off his face.
“To see an empire fall.”
What the fuck was that was supposed to mean? Nat cleared her throat and nodded toward the doorway, and Steve glanced up to see T’Challa there, his face no longer inscrutable: he looked like the grieving, shattered young man he was, trying to make sense of the fact that his father’s murder was simply the byproduct of a revenge plot and he’d nearly killed an innocent in his own quest for vengeance. He and Steve stared at each other for a moment, barely noticing as the guards hauled Zemo away, and Steve could see T’Challa’s throat moving as he swallowed hard. “Captain,” the king began, and Steve nodded at him, but all of a sudden Nat was at Steve’s side, pushing against him and Sam.
Her voice was loud at first as she said, “Let the task force take care of him,” and then rapidly under her breath, “get while the getting’s good. Secretary Ross is on his way.” To Sam she said, “Both of you want out of here now while they’re distracted.” Natasha slid the red book under Steve’s jacket as she pressed against him, squeezing his arm tight to his side. Her whisper was furious: “No one should ever have their hands on this book again.”
Then she led them toward the door, kissed his cheek, and returned to the chaos.
Steve didn’t have to be told twice. They left their only belongings—the shield and the wings—and hightailed it out of the building.
They were sitting on a bench in Kálvin Square, Steve wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses, attempting in vain to be incognito, as if he could ever do that again. Cute that he tried, though. Too handsome, Bucky thought: the aviators and the hat couldn’t hide the handsome; Bucky was unable to take his eyes off of Steve here now, just as it had always been. There was an awkwardness between them, though, as they navigated this new territory, and Bucky was glad he’d stuck to his plan of meeting in public the way he’d met Romanov, just so he didn’t humiliate himself.
While Bucky’d been feeding the kitten he’d received Steve’s text, alarmed that it wasn’t encrypted. But then he thought: Romanov would never have let him do that if she didn’t think it was safe; it was probably as good a sign as any that they’d foiled Zemo’s plan, or at least put the worst of it on hold for now.
The hardest part this time was not rushing Steve, knocking him down and holding on for dear life, never, ever letting go. Instead he’d forced himself to stay at the perimeter by the Ervin Szabó Library, watching as Steve slowly strolled from place to place to allow Bucky to clock any signs of a follow, almost vibrating with tension. When he’d signaled Steve with the go-ahead, Steve had stopped in to the café to buy two coffees, handing one to him when they’d sat down next to what looked like some students, heads buried in their reading. “Romanov tell you to ply me with mochas?” His body ached with the need to touch him.
“She may have mentioned your predilection.” God, that voice—it made Bucky go wobbly inside. “Coffee is so amazing here. And they had these cakes that looked incredible.”
“Best coffee anywhere.” He smiled. “I’m glad you know her. Glad you’ve made friends.” Even as he said it there was a sharp twinge in the middle of his chest; all these years and he hadn’t been there for Steve, he’d left him alone. He’d sworn he’d be there to the end of the line. “When I first really—I don’t know, came to, I guess, I wondered that: if you were all right, if you were lonely. You’d seemed willing to throw everything away on me even though I nearly killed you, and it seemed like anyone who had a good life wouldn’t be that foolish. So I didn’t—I thought it was better to stay away. Had to figure out how to learn to live with everything, and I didn’t want to risk...well. That’s a load of excuses. I just didn’t know what to do.”
“I know,” Steve said, and Bucky scoffed. “I mean, I know that now. Not saying it didn’t hurt, but you knew better than anyone how my head and my heart always fought to a stalemate.”
“That’s what’s in that book—a way to make me him again. All that stuff they put inside me, it’s still in here, just waiting for the right triggers to fire it up.” Bucky tapped his temple, snapped his fingers.
Steve pulled the right side of his jacket away slightly to reveal Karpov’s book in an inside pocket, and Bucky swallowed. It had been academic, thinking of it these past few days, but now that he was actually looking at it again—shit. “Know any place we could burn this?”
What if this wasn’t the only copy still out there—and someone else chose to trigger the Soldier again? Maybe getting rid of it wasn’t the best idea just yet; at least right now, the best man in the world had possession, so he supposed they could figure out a plan for it later.
“Anyway. I wouldn’t let that happen to you again. I will never let that happen to you again,” Steve said through gritted teeth. Nice sentiment, but Steve had no idea what he was talking about. The memories that were being stirred up just from the past few days were increasingly horrible—Bucky wasn’t so sure Steve would want to stick with him once he found out some of this nightmare fuel.
“Tell me what happened,” Bucky said, moving off that topic. For the next ten minutes Steve recounted what had happened, how he’d beat it out of Berlin as fast as he could before the fiasco in Bucharest got him and his friend thrown in prison.
“It was easy to leave it behind,” Steve said in a voice that’d brook no argument.
Bucky made a gesture—whatever you say. “Bet the Cat King’ll have something to say about that.”
Steve nearly spit his drink out. “Cat king.” His mouth quirked. “Yeah, interesting thing about that. When we were hotfooting it out of the building, King T’Challa stopped us. I thought for a minute that he was gonna throw down again, but instead he apologized. He was really shaken up thinking he might have killed you, or me or Sam. So he helped—his people sort of cleared the way for us—did you know his bodyguards are all women?”
It was nice to think the king wasn’t coming after them, but it didn’t change anything, not really. “I’m sorry that he lost his father that way. What do you do now, though?” Bucky asked. Steve would be sacrificing everything for him if he stayed.
“Don’t know. The secretary said if we refused to sign the Accords, we were officially retired. So I guess I’m retired. Maybe it’s time, you know? Since I came back I’ve never felt like I belonged anywhere—you were gone, the fellas were gone, Peggy was old and... Nothing ever felt like home.”
Bucky glanced away, watched a couple walking by with their dog, holding hands. The kind of life he and Steve were never able to have before, but maybe... “But you have made a life. Friends. A family of your choosing.”
With a sigh, Steve looked up at the sky. “I’ve gone where the job takes me, I guess. And now I don’t even have the shield. But I can go where I want to now, I’m not locked into a job, or a place...so if I become a bit of a nomad, I don’t mind. Not if you’re with me.”
“Well, my personal hygiene’s improved a lot since the last time we were in close proximity, so there’s that.”
It was impossible to imagine Steve without a cause to fight for—or against. When he was young he’d fought all the time, whether it was the battle with his body and the limitations imposed on it, or the state of the world, or his mother’s illness; it never mattered, he just fought. Bucky remembered that. When he got big, the rest of the world had finally noticed him, but Steve had remained that small, belligerent young man at heart, ready for the fight, always, forever. Now he wouldn’t even have his shield, the symbol of his true heart.
Steve knocked his elbow against Bucky’s, shaking him out of his reverie. “So. Why here? Why Budapest? It’s weird, I’ve been in all these other central and eastern European countries the past couple years, but never here. Went into the ice seventy years ago and it was an Axis country, now it’s...this.” He waved a hand expansively at the beautiful old buildings. “A bit like you, isn’t it? Survived so much and still so beautiful.”
“You’re ridiculous.” With a shake of his head, Bucky added, “Here because...András.”
“Let me guess. Someone you helped.”
“Sort of. Did Romanov explain about the other Winter Soldiers?” Steve nodded. “The Hydra operators working inside the Soviet government used to like to, I don’t know, gather recruits from the party faithful in satellite countries. Or sometimes take them as punishment if their families had been partisans or dissidents. András’s father was some government functionary, I think, and Karpov saw him as a perfect candidate for a new serum they were trying to get. He was a big kid, really big, pale skin, sandy blond hair, blue eyes” —he could see Steve twig to where he was going— “big nose.”
“Hey.” His eyes crinkled when he smiled, those perfect, rose lips that Bucky wanted to lean over and kiss curled so sweetly.
“I knew he wouldn’t make it. Not that I knew what they were going to do with the serum, but I knew he wouldn’t even last in the same program as the girls. There was this—this compulsion to get him the hell out of there, and the idea of that, of feeling compelled to do anything was so unusual that I—I had to pay attention. Like the taste of a hot dog at a ballgame, or a chocolate malt, or bourbon—something long forgotten, but a trace just...lingering, like those faded signs you see on old buildings, you know? Ghost signs.” Bucky nodded to himself. His life had been ghost signs. “Somehow I—got him out, told them he’d failed a training mission so I’d eliminated him in the field. They didn’t believe me but there was fuck-all they could do about it at the time. The signs of collapse were already there, and they pawned me off to Pierce.” Before Steve could say anything—Bucky really didn’t want to hear about what a good man he was and even Hydra couldn’t completely erase that—Bucky reached over and took Steve’s hand.
“So...” Steve said. “We’ve been here for forty-five minutes and no sign of a follow or even the local flatfoots nosing around. Do you trust me now, do you believe that I’m not part of a trap? You willing to keep me? I’m homeless, you know.”
Bucky grinned at him. “It was never you I didn’t trust.” With an embarrassed laugh, he said, “I do gotta get back. The first night I was here, I found this half-dead kitten outside the building. Didn’t want to take it in, but the mother was nowhere to be seen. It has to be fed about every four or five hours till I can get it off my hands.”
Steve pressed his lips tight, they turned almost white in his effort not to smile.
“What?” Steve asked, all innocence.
“Stop looking at me like I’m a cuddly guy who rescues kittens and puppies and pukes rainbows. I’m not him anymore. Steve, I murdered those people.” Steve merely blinked at him, no doubt trying to come up with some sort of platitude that would make Bucky feel better, but it didn’t work that way and he needed to understand that. “That doesn’t go away just because of a good deed or two.” Bucky shook his head. “I get stuck on some of them, you know, it’s...it’s ugly and I can’t promise it’ll be easy to be around me. The worst are the ones in D.C. That cop who came after me, the people on the overpass when we attacked you. Everything else...feels distant, but those...they were still so fresh in my mind, despite the wipe. Even if I can be forgiven, I can’t forgive myself.”
“Those things you did, what they made you into...you didn’t have a choice.”
“I know that. I do. But I still did them.” God, he’d hoped so much to wait on this, at least till they’d had a chance to truly get reacquainted, but he had to tell Steve the truth. “The worst one, the missions Zemo was looking for, I think I killed—”
“Buck, stop. Please, just...please. I don’t want to think about this right now. You’re alive and we’re together and I know there’s a lot to talk about, but. It can wait.” Steve stared down at their hands, his fingers wrapped tightly around Bucky’s. “You forget that when the carriers launched...I sent a lot of people to their deaths.” Bucky hoped it wasn’t lost on Steve that he’d been the one to kill an awful lot of them. “On my actions and my words. And all those people who died in Sokovia... All of this was set in motion because of us. Secretary Ross used the word vigilante to describe us recently and I’m not sure anymore he’s wrong. ”
“Well, I am.” How exactly was Bucky supposed to live with this if he was the one responsible for taking the world away from Steve? This was exactly the reason he ran two years ago—Steve should not have to choose between his reputation and a fucked-up old pal.
“We’ve got time to talk about all of it. Wasn’t planning to sign the Accords even before you happened. Means I’m unofficially retired, demobilized almost a century late and I think it’s about damn time. Natasha actually signed in Vienna before the explosion, but after this, she’s changed her mind. Thinks retirement might suit her, too.”
Bucky sighed, uncertain how to proceed; he recalled enough about Steve to know that once he’d decided on a course of action, swaying him was impossible, and he was tired of talking, anyway—Steve had a point. Once they got back to the flat and had time to get used to one another again, they could figure it out, maybe. When Bucky made to get up, Steve pulled hard on Bucky’s hand, tugging him back down to the bench.
“Can I see you again?” he asked in a pleading sort of voice, his face open, watchful.
“No, I—” Bucky began, confused, and Steve’s face crumpled. What had he thought, that Bucky was ditching him? “I thought you were coming with me. My place is. Well. It’s disgusting, almost as bad as Bucharest, but I...I thought this meant you were coming back with me. Staying.”
His eyes were all shiny, and he smiled bashfully. “Oh. Yes.” He blushed furiously. “Guess I am.”
The subway station was nearby, so he turned in that direction. “We could take a bus back to the district I’m in, but it’s pretty bad—the buses are literally Soviet-made, on their last rickety legs. The Metro isn’t much better—some pretty sketchy characters on it and you might get recognized—but if we keep our heads down it should be all right.”
Steve touched his elbow, trying to steer him in another direction. “Actually, we don’t have to. Sam’s waiting in the car, we’re parked a ways away.”
“You left him in the car like a dog?” Bucky shook his head and Steve shrugged. “You’re a piece of work.” That was followed by a flutter of panic in his gut. “Jesus, what do I say to him?” Bucky asked hoarsely, following Steve out of the square and onto the city streets.
With another shrug that seemed to say don’t worry about it, Steve exhaled. “He understands. Not saying you guys’ll be best pals, or that you even have to be, but—he was the one who helped me look for you all this time. And he’s a vet himself, works at the VA, that was kind of how we got to know each other.”
“Is there a greeting card for ‘sorry I tried to kill you so much’?”
They walked companionably down a few more streets until Steve pointed toward an ancient blue Volkswagen Beetle, where his friend was asleep in the passenger seat, his mouth open, face pressed against the partly rolled-down window. “Oh man, I am going to be giving him shit for that for a looong time,” Steve said quietly. Somehow he must have sensed Steve coming because he sat up with a start, rubbing his hands over his eyes, a smirk on his face. Wow, he was really good-looking up close, when his face wasn’t obscured by goggles, and for a second a sliver of jealousy stabbed Bucky in the heart, but he let it pass.
Pointing at the car, astonished, Bucky said, “You drove all the way here in that thing? You’re either braver or stupider than I recalled.”
“It wasn’t like we came to the Continent with a bagful of euros and our international drivers licenses—plus we’re sorta fugitives at this point. We thought we were just coming to London briefly for Peggy’s funeral and then the bombing—”
“Peggy’s funeral,” Bucky repeated, stunned, heart dropping into his belly. There hadn’t been anything about her death in the articles about Steve and the Accords, but then, he hadn’t been looking for that, either. Had that been a contributing factor in Steve’s refusal to sign? The Peggy Carter he remembered would have been pretty contemptuous of a program designed to control superheroes by committee.
Sam climbed awkwardly out of the car, stretching, and Steve leaned toward Bucky and said softly, “I try to focus on the fact that she had a great life, that she wouldn’t want me to be sad—she always said I’d had enough of that for ten lifetimes. I’ll tell you more about it later, when we’re alone.”
And yet Steve was sad—as soon as Bucky’d opened his mouth the mask of bravery Steve always wore when he was suffering most slipped just that little bit, and Bucky wasn’t the only one who noticed: Sam looked at Steve with a certain knowing and said, “You all right?” Steve nodded, something passed between them that Bucky thought must look an awful lot like how they used to be with each other, back in the day. It was obvious Steve was fighting back tears, but Bucky was paralyzed by indecision, not knowing if he had the right anymore to comfort Steve. Eventually Sam turned his attention on Bucky, letting Steve collect himself.
“Hey man.” He wasn’t exactly warm, but he was at least cordial.
Before Bucky could respond, Steve butted in. “We were gonna head back to where Bucky’s staying. In the—”
“A’ight,” was all Sam said, and he leaned inside the car to pull the seat forward— “climb on in” —pointing to the back. Well, Bucky supposed that was the best he could expect, and maybe deserved. “I’ll drive, you two can catch up,” he said, giving Steve a crooked smile.
“I’m sorry you’ve been sitting here all this time. Steve didn’t say.” Bucky threw Steve a narrow look, hoping Sam would take his comment in the spirit offered.
“It’s cool. Got out, walked around, came back and tried to catch up on my beauty sleep.”
They didn’t say much on the drive, Bucky busy giving directions and Steve alternately looking out the window at the scenery or checking on Bucky. It should have annoyed him, Sam pulling rank and stuffing him in the back seat, but it gave him a chance to figure out what he wanted to say to Steve about those missing mission reports and the serum and the other soldiers. How the hell did you tell someone you murdered one of their friends?
When they reached the flat, Sam and Steve were silent, but he could tell what they thought of it; Steve wouldn’t judge him, but he just might pity him. “There’s not a lot of—I mean, we’ll have to bring something in for you to sleep on, but you’re welcome,” Bucky said to Sam.
Sam huffed out a laugh. “Nah, man, I’m good. Already picked out my hotel on Priceline.”
“It’s...I know it’s shitty, but it’s low profile.”
Sam scoffed. “Dude, no. You made it to these places on your own, you made a life for yourself. Don’t apologize. This is an achievement.” He flashed a real smile. “That’s not why I’m going to a hotel. It’s that I am not masochistic enough to try to crash your reunionating.”
“Thank you, Sam. For everything. I’ll be in touch,” and Steve hugged Sam tight.
They watched him drive away—how the hell had Steve even found that damn car?—and went up to the room; he was more nervous than when he’d found Steve in his place in Romania, and this time there was no tac team waiting outside to shoot him in the head, but he almost wished there could be.
The kitten meowed enthusiastically when he picked her up, trying to bap his nose with her tiny paws. He let Steve hold her while he made up her food. “My god, this is the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. It’s adorable.” He held it to his neck, grinning like an idiot. “How did you find it?”
“She was kind of buried in some trash, I don’t know what happened to the mother, I’ve been keeping an eye peeled, but... When I found her she was wet and hypothermic—cranky and vocal as all hell, and you can see she’s skinny. Pretty rough shape. I guess I could identify.”
“What’s her name?”
Bucky rolled his eyes. “Come on. I’m a wanted fugitive, I’m not the angel of kitty salvation. Soon’s I can find someone to take it, it’s gone.” Steve kissed the top of her head and looked smug when he said “it”; Bucky sighed in resignation. “Liho, I was considering. After a scary old lady in Slavic myth...kind of the embodiment of bad fortune. She can grow into it,” he said, reaching forward to chuck her under the chin. “Something to aspire to.”
No amount of scowling at Steve could get him to stop smiling.
“I love her coloring.”
“I looked it up—it’s called a dilute calico, I guess. Has to inherit three specific genes, and expressed a certain way. Means she’s special.” Bucky shrugged, trying to pretend it wasn’t important, but Steve just kept smiling, seeing right through him.
While Bucky sat down on the bed to feed her, Steve used the bathroom, then poked through some of his stuff. It wasn’t till Bucky finished that he realized Steve was flipping through Bucky’s notebooks. “Jesus Harold Christ, were you always this nosey? I think the word they’re using these days is boundaries, Steven.”
Ignoring him, Steve got his put-your-dukes-up face on. “I want to get your belongings back, when things shake out. They have no right to your stuff. And just for your information, I didn’t see much in that notebook before the breach, but I did see you’d been drawing a little bit, in with all the writing, which I did not read.”
“Uh huh. But you sure did notice that exhibit program.”
“What can I say? It stroked my ego.”
“You’re crazy, you know that?”
“Am not. Doctors three and six confirmed it.”
He stood in front of the wall where Bucky’d put up all the clippings and huffed. “Wow, Sam was right, you do have a murder wall.”
His heart twisted: did Steve think he was planning an attack on someone? “A what?”
“It’s from movies, I guess. Person keeps track of all the people involved in a murder or something? Just like this.”
With a squint, Bucky peered at Steve and shook his head. “The future is really strange.”
“Oh god, I know! I keep telling them that, but they just laugh about what an old man I am.”
They stared stupidly at each other while the kitten tried to climb up Bucky’s right shirtsleeve with her needlelike claws, slipped down, then tried again. Then—oh crap—Steve flipped a page and there was the fucking fucking sketch.
“Just—don’t look at that. It’s terrible in every way, you shouldn’t have to—”
“No, it’s not.” Steve ran his finger over the half-finished lines where Bucky’d left off drawing in his own torso, the thick, rough lines of the metal arm, almost as if he were really touching Bucky. “It’s great. With some shading, a little work on the perspective, it’ll be amazing when you finish.” Shaking his head, he added, “Jeez, sorry, I didn’t mean to play art critic. It’s just...so good to see you doing this again.”
“Yeah, the fearsome Winter Soldier, secret diary-keeper, failed artist, and savior of helpless kittens.”
“You contain multitudes. I always said that.”
“What about you? Did you keep up with your art?”
There was a funny look on Steve’s face, like he was trying to hold back tears, but happy, too. “Yeah, some, after they woke me up. But after I saw you again—well, there was a lot.”
For a while his attention was taken up with getting the kitten to pee and cleaning her up, before putting her in the little nest box he’d made along with her makeshift toys. How had this even become his goddamn life. “After I saw your museum exhibit, stuff was coming back to me in these huge waves—sometimes it would be quiet, calm, other times it would come at me so hard it’d knock me down, drag me under. So I bought a bunch of notebooks; I’d be up all night, puking from withdrawal and scribbling down every random thought I had. Once in a while tried to sketch it out because I didn’t have the words to even describe what I felt.”
Steve stood next to Bucky as he petted the kitten and helped her try to wash herself—her tongue mostly just made it to the general vicinity of her paws or her legs, and it was so cute it hurt his chest. “Will she sleep for a while now that she’s fed?” Steve asked.
“Yeah, should, why—”
With a grunt of surprise, Bucky was hauled up in front of Steve by his shoulders. “I don’t want prying kitten eyes for this.”
His fingers danced up Bucky’s side, lightly gathering some of the fabric; then Steve bent forward, his mouth millimeters away. His breath was warm, and a slight shiver ran through Bucky, icy-hot.
“Steve,” and it was delicious, the way his name felt in Bucky’s mouth, soft and lazy, he could say it over and over, “this place...it’s...you deserve better. We could go somewhere else.”
“We’ve been in worse.” Steve pressed his lips to the skin of Bucky’s neck, just beneath the ear, and Bucky leaned into it, the breath tickling him and he almost laughed. The way Steve touched him made him feel as though he were made of fine bone china and could break at any minute, like he was precious and deserved the greatest care. “Did you draw what you wanted us to be like?”
He could be embarrassed about that question, but he felt too good to bother. “I thought about... I don’t know. Were we—you know—before the war?” Bucky asked as he pressed his forehead to Steve’s, heartbeat erratic. “During? I keep trying to remember it, but what I wish was true and what really is true are often at odds.”
Steve gave him a sad-puppy smile. “During. We were too damn stupid to do anything about it before the rescue.” His right hand slipped under Bucky’s t-shirt, pushing it slowly up his front; Steve’s fingers sought the skin there and goosebumps rose along Bucky’s flesh in the wake of his touch.
“After I saw you in Bucharest—I—yeah. All that stuff was still sleeping, and then—you woke it up.” Woke him up.
“That’s what it was like in the war. Almost losing you woke me up fast. We didn’t have a lot of time, but...we tried to make the most of it.”
When Steve kissed him, it was vertiginous, his head felt foggy, he was floating—then crashing down through the fog into a sun-bright sky as Steve pulled away. With a flirty gesture, Steve yanked his t-shirt over his head before tugging on Bucky’s. But Bucky clutched his hand, squeezing hard. “That sketch is a lot cleaner than the real-life version. I don’t know how much you’ll like what you see.” It wasn’t as though he wanted to stand on pride, certainly not right now, but Steve should know what he was getting into.
“I’ve seen your files. I know what they did to you. You don’t have to, I don’t know, protect me.” It was Steve’s call, and though his jaw was tight and his eyes flinty, it didn’t seem as though he’d flip out, either. His hair was sticking up in all directions from pulling the shirt off, so Bucky tried to smooth it down.
“Okay,” was all he could eke out. He allowed Steve to pull his shirt off and skim fingertips over the scarred history of his body, questing to find the places that made Bucky sigh and yearn toward him. He kissed Bucky like they were young again and brave and the rest of the world didn’t matter.
Before he’d left, Bucky had put new sheets on the bed, creased from the package; he was glad he’d taken the time because Steve wasn’t going to waste any time here. He knelt on the mattress, coasted his hands along Bucky’s arms to cup his elbows and draw him down.
They touched each other with hands that knew every contour and angle, even after all these years, all these lifetimes in between; kissed like they’d never forgotten the taste of the other’s mouth. And Bucky almost forgot what a brutal ruin of a human being he was when he saw Steve’s luminous smile as he drew back, pressing a thumb to Bucky’s lower lip.
Bucky watched, his body humming, as Steve slipped jeans and underwear down those narrow, perfect hips. “Let me,” Steve said, unbuttoning Bucky’s jeans, each flick of his finger a little zing of pleasure right through his underwear, then tickling through the line of hair there as he pulled the shorts down. “You feel so good,” Steve murmured against Bucky’s neck, moving to his chest, dragging his tongue across Bucky’s right nipple. Did Steve remember these things, all the little sensations Bucky had loved once? He must have: Steve worked his mouth and his fingers around Bucky’s body as though he were an instrument Steve had mastered years ago; he lost all sense of time as Steve played him until he was naked, and hard, and begging for that crescendo.
Opening his eyes again, Bucky saw Steve staring—right now, he wanted nothing more than to let Steve see him, to show Steve everything inside of him. His eyes stayed fixed on Bucky’s as he stretched out against Bucky’s side, drawing feather-light circles on his chest and belly. “What is it?” Bucky asked, because he remembered this side of Steve: how he could get lost in his head when he was most emotional, bring something that should by all rights be nothing but joy to a screeching halt.
“You must have thought all this time I was—god, that I was hunting you. And then I showed up with a damn army, and how could I expect you to trust me again?”
He could feel Steve wanting him to tell him so, but he wouldn’t. “No, I never thought that. I do trust you. I told you: I stayed away because it was safer for everyone.” He dropped his real hand to Steve’s belly, snaked it lower, lower still, only just brushing against his hardness, and Steve responded by gently pushing Bucky on his side, erection pressed to Bucky’s ass. “The past few years, when I dared to dream about a future, it was always with you. Just didn’t know how to get there.” Throwing in a little roll of his hips earned a distinct gasp from Steve, and Bucky shoved his face into the pillow, attempting to hide his mile-wide grin: it was coming back to him now—how he could make Steve feel, all the things Steve wanted from him.
“Is this how you imagined it, in your drawing?” He dropped kisses to the back of Bucky’s neck, nipped at his earlobe, hand grazing past Bucky’s hip until he gripped his cock warmly, coaxing.
Giving a small, startled gasp, Bucky felt Steve’s cock glide between his ass cheeks, he stammered out a “better than—than that stupid—hhnnggghh—drawing” as he arched up, electricity thrumming through his body, god yes.
Steve’s arm curled under his neck now, muscles flexing as he brought Bucky’s head toward his eager mouth, and his leg bent, resting on Bucky’s thigh. “I’m glad. You deserve it, you deserve to feel good.” Slowly, teasingly, Steve moved his hips back and forth, a soft sound of satisfaction coming from low in his throat and Bucky felt it all over, like honey in his ear.
And Bucky was bowled over by the realization that this was familiar, that these movements and noises and expressions were, indeed, known to him. He opened his mouth to Steve’s, hungry desperate happy kisses, currents of electricity passing between their lips and he could hear his own deep, panting breath, chugging like a train climbing a steep hill.
Steve’s hips moved faster now, rougher, the contact and the slickness of his cock against Bucky’s skin turning him into a gasping wreck. It made Bucky lightheaded that he could do this to Steve; he was floating as he let Steve’s arms pull him tight, tighter still, the hand on Bucky’s cock keeping a rhythm with the sweep and sway of his hips. His skin was blazing and he quivered with sensation, the slippery heat of Steve’s cock and his hands and his mouth, and when Steve sucked on the flesh of Bucky’s lower neck and rubbed his thumb over the tip of Bucky’s cock, he struggled not to cry out, not to thrash against Steve’s mouth and arms as he came. He quaked and panted until the waves of pleasure ebbed, and then was embarrassed to realize he’d been so distracted by his own orgasm he hadn’t noticed Steve’s, somewhere...back there.
Shifting—not too much because he didn’t want to get far away—Bucky caught Steve’s blue eyes trained anxiously on his face, and that familiar sweet smile. “Hey,” was all Bucky could think to say, touching the side of his face; he felt young and supple and bright, something he’d never thought he could feel again and he wondered if Steve felt that, too. They stared into each other’s eyes for a while, ridiculously besotted, listening to the sounds of the city outside, their own heavy heartbeats. “Can I see you again?” Bucky asked, and they burst out laughing, pressed foreheads together and breathed each other’s breath.
“Let me check my calendar.”
When Steve woke, the room was dim and Bucky was moving around, fussing over the cat: early evening now, he thought, the light that filtered in through the thin curtains making Bucky’s skin glow rose-gold. When he set the kitten down on the counter, his attention on her food, she quickly skedaddled to the counter’s edge, nearly taking a header right off it, but Bucky caught her just in time. “Hey, you little shit! Don’t do that,” he scolded, and stuck her in a bowl while he finished.
He stayed motionless so he could watch Bucky like this—his caring was innate, something Hydra hadn’t been able to completely burn out of him, that was obvious in the way he’d saved András even when he’d been nothing more than a weapon, in the way he’d taken a starving kitten in. When they were young, Steve had often thought Bucky was the embodiment of still waters run deep: his home life had been chaotic, and there’d been so many demands on him from all sides, but he was always calm and centered, never lashed out at anyone, even Steve at the worst of his provocations. And it hadn’t been from lack of caring: he’d always cared deeply for his loved ones, his friends, he’d had a rich interior life and deep relationships that Steve had often envied and tried to emulate. It might have been easier for Bucky if they had killed that part of him: he could have cut his losses and left Steve and Sam behind in Berlin, never looked back. He could have moved on instead of being wrecked by his past.
That drawing of his had punched Steve in the gut—the way Steve had been foregrounded, the almost passive position Bucky’d drawn himself in, told him in a way words never could how much Bucky wanted to let go of that control he’d always had and fall, as long as Steve was there to catch him.
But Steve could only stare at Bucky for so long—he was famished, hadn’t eaten since the border. They’d stopped in Prague for a short overnight, pushed through as fast as they could considering their ride, and it was all catching up to Steve now. Somehow Bucky must have realized that, because he plonked the kitten down on Steve’s chest and said, “I don’t have a lot left in the place, I was so anxious about you coming I didn’t want to go out, but I scrambled up some eggs and made oatmeal, and there’s toast and fruit. Kind of crazy about fruit these days.”
“My cooking’s still terrible, but fortunately for you this doesn’t require effort.”
Steve made a face. “Nah, your cooking wasn’t all bad. There were a couple good meals back in, like, ’37 or ’38, I think.” The smile Bucky gave Steve in return was sweet and shy.
He was wearing only a pair of gray boxer briefs and Steve wanted to draw him standing by the kitchen window putting food on a plate—or maybe finish Bucky’s lovely sketch from before. His body was more muscular, solid, than he’d remembered from Washington; maybe it was the fact of no longer being kept in a freezer that had given him that extra mass, but Steve liked it. Or in truth he’d like anything about Bucky because he was here now, alive, strong, so beautiful and human and Steve had never wanted him more. “How long have I been out?” Steve asked, petting little Liho, letting her scamper around on his chest, trying very hard not to think about the things he wanted to do with Bucky.
“Not long—about forty minutes.” Somehow it felt longer, drained as he was by all the tension of the past few days, the constant fear for Bucky and maybe for himself and Sam—and that Steve might have lost his chance with Bucky and would never have another. And then the sex, and Steve went out like a light. “Talked to Rom—Natasha, she says to tell you the herd of SI lawyers has arrived and the secretary is apoplectic.”
“Good. Couldn’t happen to a nicer person.”
Bucky set the plate down and Steve scooted up so his back was against the wall, setting the kitten by his side so it could rumble around the bed. He ate while Bucky fed himself, and when he was done he took the plates away and settled next to him. Yeah, he definitely wanted Bucky, right fucking now. “Still hungry?” he asked, stroking his thumb over Steve’s lower lip.
“Is a second course on offer?” In affirmation Bucky’s right hand drifted lower and lower till it was wrapped around Steve’s dick and he shuddered. “God, yeah, that.” Steve closed his eyes as he skimmed his hands over Bucky’s strong body, losing himself in the sparks of pleasure that built and built into a fireworks show behind his eyes, gasps from his mouth egging Bucky on.
Bucky brought a leg over Steve to straddle him as he opened his eyes, looming above, eyes locked on Steve’s. He dragged his fingernails down Steve’s chest, scratching over his skin deliciously, following his hands with his mouth, down all the way until he took Steve’s aching cock into his mouth.
There was no way to keep track of it all, everything felt too good—Bucky’s hand and his lips, fast and then slow and fast again. He pushed Steve’s legs up, curved his arms around Steve’s thighs, his hair brushing against the inside of Steve’s legs and his belly and Jesus, it was insane—the ripples of pleasure as Bucky’s hands caressed his skin and he hummed against Steve’s cock. The world grayed out around the edges, nothing but delight and sensation and Bucky all around him when he came, and he watched Bucky finish himself off, his eyes lit up and his mouth red and swollen as his hands moved swiftly on his own cock; he was transfixed.
Once more he fell asleep, sticky with Bucky’s spunk on his belly, but apparently it was only for a few minutes because Bucky was at the sink, washing the plates, when he snapped awake. After Steve had his fill of watching he rose, kissed the back of Bucky’s neck, got dressed; he didn’t even have a change of clothes and some of his smelled rank, but Bucky didn’t look like he had many extras to spare.
“Gonna need some clothes, a few other things. Connect up with Sam.”
Putting a plate down to dry, Bucky said, “We can’t really stay. In Budapest, I mean. They’re still gonna want me, or they’re gonna try to nail you and Sam for what happened in Romania—we’ll get made sooner or later. So all this is—temporary, and as soon as I find someone for this little monster we should probably hit the road.” He picked up little Liho and put her in the nest of towels, pulled a Henley over his head and tugged on his jeans.
Steve frowned and shook his head. “Just so long as we go together. I’m not having any of this ‘I’m bad for you’ shit. By the way, I have an idea for the cat. If Nat’s retiring, I think she’ll need something else to occupy her time besides babysitting Clint’s kids.” At Bucky’s confused look, he added, “Arrow guy on our team.”
“Oh yeah.” Bucky bit his lip. “Look, there’s a lot of stuff to tell you about, all this shit with Zemo brought it back.” He stopped, worried, and Steve thought he looked so young and fragile and it made his fists curl with anger at what they’d taken from him. “There are things to say. It’s not over, and as long as the words in that book are still in my head, I’m a ticking bomb. There’s no way I can go home with you.” His eyes were shiny and wet, his breath had become shallow. Steve was pretty sure he knew what had brought that on, what he struggled to say. “I think the mission Zemo was angling for was Howard Stark’s murder. December of 1991. And I think I did it, it fits and I think I remember— When that comes to light—”
“I know, Buck.” Steve dropped his head, shoved his fingers through his hair. He’d wanted this conversation to go differently. To ease into it. “At least, I’ve suspected for a while that it was the Soldier’s assignment, once I read the file dump. I should have dealt with it, but I didn’t. I didn’t want to know. But that doesn’t change how I feel. It wasn’t you.”
“They were my hands, though. What kind of a person kills a friend?”
Through gritted teeth, Steve said again, “It wasn’t you.”
Bucky swallowed, blinking repeatedly, like he was trying to figure a way out of this. But he eventually allowed himself to relax a bit when he saw that Steve wasn’t changing his stance. “And when his kid finds out, there won’t be a safe place for you or me anywhere near the States and I can’t say as I’d blame him.”
They had a pretty uncertain future, Steve would grant him that. There were acres of ugly memories to slog through for both of them. Yet he couldn’t help smiling at Bucky, touching his face and smoothing his hair back. Time would bend the shape of their futures however it pleased; it was up to them to make the most of what they could, at least for now, to cross those dark territories together.
“Yeah, so...about that. I happen to know a guy who runs an African country who’s recently extended an invitation for us to visit. Indefinitely,” Steve added.
“Only you,” Bucky said, shaking his head.
“Wakanda is the most technologically advanced country in the world. The king thinks that their scientists could help with the words that were in your book.” Bucky slid his arms around him, his grip tight on Steve’s shirt, but he didn’t say no. “And we don’t have to drive there.”
Then Bucky was smiling through the ache and Steve was smiling and they were holding each other, and Bucky said against his shoulder, “At least we already know he likes cats.”