He's been here before. A hundred times. A thousand times. Heart beating in his chest, his mouth going dry with fear as the fighters of the Hydra clan cut down his sword brothers.
He strikes down another enemy, but out of the corner of his eye he sees Morita falter, then fall. He blocks a blow, saving his own life for the moment, but across the courtyard, a Hydra fighter cuts Jones down. Dugan, Falsworth and Dernier, Hydra kills them all, until it's only him and Bucky and General Fury left, surrounded by a deepening circle of their enemies.
Beside him, Bucky roars, then launches an attack at the two fighters nearest him. They go down to his furious blows, but two more take their place.
They won't survive this battle. And the worst thing, Steve thinks, is that he doesn't even know why they're fighting, why the Hydra clan has decided to wipe out General Fury's palace guard.
"I'm sorry," General Fury says. Steve can't see his face, but he knows his expression will be harsh, his mouth a tight line, his one eye flinty with rage. "If you survive this, trust no one." Before Steve can respond, ask what he means by that or tell his general what an honour it's been to serve under his command, Fury lets out a berserker scream and runs into the horde of Hydra fighters. He lasts longer than Steve believes possible, striking down his enemies, staying on his feet with grim determination until at last he falters and stumbles and falls.
It's only him and Bucky, then, back to back as masked Hydra fighters tighten the circle around them, wary enough not to swarm them yet. Steve doesn't doubt that Hydra will be victorious in the end, but he's determined to make that victory costly indeed.
When there's a touch on his free hand, Steve reaches back and twines Bucky's fingers in his.
"Steve. I—" Bucky's voice breaks, and he stops, unable to say what he'd planned. Not that he has to.
"I know," Steve says, and squeezes Bucky's hand as hard as he can, putting all he feels into the hold, all the emotions he cannot express. General Fury and his troops have been Steve's family since he joined them, since his mother died, but Bucky…Bucky is his everything. "Me, too."
Bucky pulls his hand away, reluctantly, and Steve can feel him adjusting his stance, preparing to attack. Steve does the same, raising his blade in both hands. The fighters in front of him shift uneasily.
Steve opens his mouth, and he's not sure if the scream in his ears is from his throat or Bucky's. Then he's charging forward, bringing down two enemies with every swing of his sword. Behind him, he can hear the clash of metal as Bucky fights behind him.
They may be fierce, trained by the great General Fury, but they're only two men, surrounded by innumerable foes. For every two men he strikes down, four seem to take their place. Steve feels pain in his arm and looks down. A line of blood appears on the sleeve of his uniform, deep red staining blue. Steve takes a breath and lets the pain fuel him, driving deeper into the crowd of enemies, but he feels himself begin to falter, feels the bite of each sword that manages to get through his defences.
"No!" Bucky's voice cuts through the curtain of pain swirling around Steve. Steve spins in time to see Bucky raise his left arm in defence, only to have it struck down by a Hydra foot soldier wielding a heavy bar mace. Bucky staggers from the impact and his arm goes limp.
"Bucky!" he screams, and tries to move toward his friend. His efforts are stopped by the press of men surrounding him.
"Steve!" Bucky stops, sword raised in his right hand, and turns his head, his gaze meeting Steve's.
Then the unthinkable happens. A hooded Hydra fighter more imposing than all the others faces down Bucky, and before Steve can yell a word of warning, he strikes, his evil-looking sword impaling Bucky through the chest.
Steve yells, and doubles his efforts to reach Bucky. Bucky freezes for a brief second, his mouth an O of surprise, then he drops out of sight, swallowed by their enemies.
Steve is alone.
He fights on, but with Bucky dead, his heart is gone. He's battered and bleeding when the sword is finally struck out of his hand and he's knocked to his knees. Still, he won't bow down before these invaders. He raises his chin, exposing his throat in defiance.
A space opens up in front of him, and the hooded soldier who struck Bucky down appears before him. The fighter throws back his hood, and Steve can't help but gasp at what is revealed. Where he's expecting a face there is instead a red skull, leering in dark victory.
General Fury had heard rumours of this monster, this Red Skull; had taken his most trusted men to search for him so he could warn the Emperor of the danger he presented. Instead, the Red Skull has wiped out the best hope for defending the Empire.
The Red Skull reaches down and grabs Steve by the front of his robes, pulling him up to face him. In spite of the horror of his visage, Steve forces himself to face the Skull down, to maintain the honour of his ruined company.
"You're the last one left, Captain," the Skull says. "Are you ready to beg for your life?"
"You'll get no such satisfaction from me," Steve says, keeping himself as upright as he can. "Kill me and be done with it."
"I'm afraid you won't be sharing your companions' fate." It's hard to tell, but Steve thinks the Skull is smiling at him. "I need one of you alive. One survivor to share the tale of what happens to those who defy Hydra."
"If you leave me alive, I'll hunt you down," Steve says through gritted teeth.
"You can try, Captain." The Skull laughs at him. "But I think you'll find it hard to fight me without this." He reaches out one hand, and an underling places Steve's sword in it. The Skull holds up the sword in triumph, and Steve feels sick. Fury presented Steve with the ZhanLu sword when he became Captain. It's a weapon that's said to only serve a man of good character.
"You'll never wield it," Steve says. "It will never accept you."
The Skull's already dreadful features twist into a sneer. Before Steve can react, the Skull pulls back the hand holding the sword and strikes him in the face with the pommel, once, twice, and then one last time. Darkness descends on Steve, pulling him down to a temporary oblivion.
Steve startles awake, and finds himself not in the smoking ruin of a distant outpost, surrounded by the bodies of his friends, but in a shabby room in the dilapidated inn where he'd stopped last night. He'd spent silver from his rapidly diminishing purse for the privilege of sleeping in a rickety bed on a scratchy, flea-infested straw mattress.
He wipes his face with one hand, angrily smearing away the tears that always come with this nightmare. Months have passed, and the terror and grief of that day is still with him. He curses the Skull for leaving him to face living alone, just as he curses him for taking Bucky's body, leaving him nothing to grieve over.
He washes his face, pulls on his robes and boots, and makes his way downstairs. There's only one other guest at the inn, a man in worn travel clothes drinking tea at a battered wooden table, a falconer's glove on the bench beside him. Steve nods a greeting to him, then takes a seat on the other side of the room. The man looks friendly enough, but Fury's order to trust no one still sounds in his ears. And even if he were inclined to trust the man, Steve knows he's no longer fit for company. Especially not on a morning after he's had the nightmare.
Steve eats his breakfast—a cold pork bun and thin congee served with weak tea—straps his shield on his back, and resumes his journey. Something makes him turn just before he reaches the first turn in the road. He sees the inn's other guest emerge from the dingy little building, a plain sword at his belt, one arm clad in the falconry glove he'd seen. The man holds out his arm, and after a brief pause, a large hawk with red plumage lands on it. Then Steve reaches the turn and both inn and man are lost to his sight.
He continues in the direction he's been walking for weeks, heading north, following the trail of destruction the Red Skull has left behind him. He has sworn to find the Skull, to reclaim ZhanLu, and to take vengeance for the deaths of his sword brothers. He will seek justice for the death of the man he loved.
He's perhaps an hour from the inn when something sparks his senses. He stops and has his shield on one arm in an instant, listening for the clank of weapons or the clatter of armour. He's in the bottom of a valley, the way ahead littered with large boulders that could hide an army of foes or nothing at all. All he can hear is the whistle of the wind and the faint screech of a hawk.
He waits a few seconds longer, then moves forward, his progress careful, ready to block an attack with the shield at any moment.
He's almost convinced himself that he's overreacting, when two bandits emerge from behind the nearest boulder, screaming at him, their swords descending in an arc that will cleave his skull if he doesn't act quickly.
Steve raises the shield, blocking the first blow, then swings the edge of the shield into the midsection of the second attacker, hearing a satisfying "oof" as the man goes down. He lashes out a kick at the first attacker's knee. Another swing of the shield, and the first man goes down beside his companion.
Steve thinks that that's it, that these two are all he has to worry about, when there's a roar, and a dozen more bandits emerge from their hiding places.
He hefts his shield and plants his feet, preparing to fight even as he curses his luck. These men are a distraction, not the enemy he seeks, and he thinks how unfair it would be to fall here before he can avenge Bucky's death.
But as the first wave of bandits is upon him, there's a shriek and a flash of wings, and then a hawk is diving at the bandits, beak and talons scratching at exposed tender skin.
Steve only wonders at his unlikely ally for a moment before he moves to take advantage of his change of fortune, striking the nearest bandits with his shield. He takes them down, one by one, his skill superior to theirs, but their numbers are overwhelming, even with the hawk harrying them from above. But then there's a yell, and another man is joining the fray, the man from the inn.
His sword is unadorned, but he's clearly well practised in using it. His weapon takes down nearly as many bandits as Steve's shield. It doesn't take long for the bandits to decide their chosen prey isn't worth the effort. As a mass they turn and run, taking their wounded with them.
Steve watches their retreat, then turns to his companion, his hawk circling above them.
"Thank you," Steve says with a bow. "I owe you more than I can say."
The man shrugs. "I don't like an unfair fight."
"We have something in common, then." Steve holds out his arm. "Steve." He hasn't gone by Captain Rogers since the battle with the Red Skull.
"Sam." His companion clasps his forearm, his strength apparent in his grip. "And we have something else in common."
"What's that?" Steve asks.
"We follow the same road. Perhaps we could follow it together for a time. Two are less tempting to bandits than one."
The offer makes sense, but Steve hesitates. Not only has he taken to heart Fury's last order to trust no one, but he's also accepted his solitary lot since he woke up in that ruined courtyard. He doesn't want to bring danger to another.
His hesitation makes Sam frown and back up slightly.
"But if you'd rather not, I understand," Sam says, his hands held up slightly as if in surrender. "Not everyone trusts my people."
"Your people?" Steve says, confused. He looks closer at Sam, and notices he's wearing a chapan over his travelling clothes, with a belt holding the colourful coat closed. No Han Chinese would wear such a garment. "You're Uygher?"
Sam nods, the gesture a slight flinch, and Steve feels a surge of anger at anyone who's made this man feel less than proud of his heritage.
"I trust anyone who would help a fellow traveller," Steve says, his voice firm with his conviction, and he realizes that he does trust this man. "And I'd be pleased to share the road with you, for however long we travel in the same direction."
The smile Sam gives him goes a ways to melting the ice that Steve has felt forming in his heart.
The rest of the day passes uneventfully. There are no more bandit attacks, and they see no one else on the road. They walk together, Sam easily matching Steve's stride, sometimes talking, sometimes walking in companionable silence. He may have only just met Sam, but this is the closest Steve's felt to another human being since Bucky's death.
The road itself is desolate, little more than two dusty ruts in the ground, and the inn they left behind this morning is the building they see all day. By nightfall, with no better prospects in sight, they make camp.
Sam's hawk—he calls her Red Wing—brings down two stringy rabbits that they share with her for dinner, then they settle in for the night around a banked campfire. Steve props his shield up on a nearby boulder, close enough that he can easily reach it if need be, then lies down, his pack as his pillow.
"You're handy with that thing." Sam nods at the shield. "But wouldn't you do better with a sword?" He pats the pommel of his own weapon beside him.
Steve shakes his head, not quite ready to share his story with Sam, or his vow not to wield another sword until he's reclaimed ZhanLu from the Red Skull.
"This serves me well enough."
Sam narrows his eyes, looking as if he knows there's more to Steve's choice of weapon, but he doesn't push, and for that, Steve is grateful.
They settle in for the night, and for once, Steve's dreams are of him and Bucky in happier times, though he still wakes from them with tears in his eyes. Tears he hides from Sam, because what would a fellow warrior think of a man who weeps even for happy memories?
They smell the battlefield before they see it, the foul smell of men's flesh turned into carrion. They top a rise and see a vast plain covered by the dead, nothing moving but the waving of battle standards abandoned in the dust, and the fluttering of vultures doing their dreadful work.
Steve immediately has his shield on his arm, and looking beside him he sees that Sam has sent Red Wing to the air and drawn his sword. The battle looks long past, but they'd be foolish to think there's no danger here.
As they make their way through corpses and charred wagons, Steve feels this must be the work of the Red Skull, grown powerful enough now to take on a whole army, and not just a company of Palace Guard.
Then they reach the edge of the field, and Steve realizes that there's life here beyond the vultures after all. In the shade of a stand of trees at the edge of the field, surrounded by a ring of corpses ten deep, are two men.
A Buddhist monk, head shaved and clad in blue robes, kneels on the ground over a soldier dressed in the red and gold armour of a general. The general is grievously wounded, the blade of a spear embedded in his chest, its haft broken off. His helmet rests beside him, his face is ashen and drawn in pain. The monk has pulled the general into his lap. His hands rest on the general's shoulders, and he's chanting under his breath.
Steve draws closer, and then a name falls from his lips. "General Stark," he says, amazed to find one of General Fury's allies in this place.
"You know him?" the monk asks, his voice low and strained.
"He was a friend of my commander," Steve tells him.
Sam puts down his sword and is immediately at General Stark's side, his gaze locked on the monk's.
"What can I do to help?" Sam asks.
That's when Steve notices the beads of sweat on the monk's forehead, and the way his hands tremble as they clutch the general's shoulders. He realizes he's doing more than comforting a dying man. Steve hovers over him, shield ready to defend them all.
"How squeamish are you?" the monk asks.
"Not very," Sam says. "My mother was a healer. I helped her with everything from broken bones to amputations, and she passed on some of what she knew to me."
"Perfect," the monk says, and then he begins to issue orders.
The monk, Banner, tells them the blade is poisoned. He has spent a night and a day holding the poison at bay with a power Steve doesn't pretend to understand. He hasn't removed the envenomed blade himself, fearing any break in his magical protection would let the poison reach General Stark's heart, but now he has Sam dislodge the spear, as Steve puts pressure on the wound. When Stark seems no worse for their efforts, Banner reaches into his robe and pulls out a glass amulet that glows with a ghostly blue light as he places it in the wound.
"What is that?" Steve asks.
"This amulet contains a healing mantra of great power," Banner explains. "I can't cleanse the poison from his body, but this will keep it from his heart." Banner finishes dressing the general's injuries. "The rest of the healing depends on him," he says.
With Stark's wounds treated, the three of them move him off the battlefield, into a wooded copse, as far as they can get from the smell of decay. Banner settles beside Stark, his legs crossed, hands loosely resting on his knees. He watches over his patient, and once again begins a low chant.
Steve and Sam take turns standing guard, both reluctant to leave a monk and a defenceless man on their own.
Once, as Sam is standing sentry and Steve is drifting into what he knows will be a troubled sleep, he finally hears what Bruce is chanting.
It's not "Om Mani Padme Hum," nor any of the other chants Steve heard so often in the temple his mother brought him to. Banner is repeating, "No anger, anger is an illusion, serenity is all," over and over again. As he falls asleep, tumbling into confused dreams of Bucky fighting at his side, he wonders what kind of a mantra that is for a monk.
When Steve and Sam wake in the morning, the general is sleeping peacefully, while Banner still chants over him. In the early morning light, Stark's complexion has recovered an almost healthy glow, but Banner's looks more ashen than the general's had the night before.
"How long is it since you slept?" Steve asks him.
"Two days," Banner says, then hesitates. "Maybe three."
"We'll look after him," Sam assures the monk. He encourages him to eat some of the dried fruit from his pack, then to lie down. Then Sam covers him up with his chapan.
"I have no need of such comforts," Banner tells him.
"I know," Sam says, then tucks the garment around him anyway.
When Banner has fallen asleep, Sam grabs his falconer's glove and belts on his sword.
"I'll go find us some breakfast if you're okay here," he tells Steve.
"I'm fine," Steve says, then takes hold of Sam's wrist as he passes. "You're a good man, Sam."
Sam gives him a shy smile, revealing a gap between his teeth, before he vanishes into the forest. In another world, thinks Steve, another time, he might have been able to give his heart to Sam. But that would be a worthless offer now. He gave his heart to Bucky, and with Bucky's death his heart is a poor and shrunken thing.
Steve sighs, then settles in to watch over his charges, his shield within easy reach.
General Stark stirs restlessly, throwing off the blanket they'd placed over him. They'd removed his armour yesterday, so he wears only loose black pants, his chest bound with bandages Banner had in his pack. Steve can see the glow of Banner's amulet underneath the dressing on the general's wound. He reaches over to replace the blanket, then feels Stark's forehead to check for fever. At his touch the general's eyes fly open, wild and panicked, and Steve puts a hand on his chest to calm him. His action has the opposite effect.
"Who are you?" the general asks, his words coming fast. "Do I know you? Are you one of my men? But my men are all dead. Aren't they?" He tries to sit up as if to look around, but Steve eases him back down, not wanting him to make his injury worse.
"You're safe," Steve tells him. "I'm Captain Rogers. I was with General Fury's Palace Guard."
"But General Fury is dead," Stark says with a frown. "He and all of his men are dead. You can't be …unless you're with them." The panic in his eyes grows. "You're with the Skull. You're out to kill us all."
Stark scrambles away from Steve with a strength born from fear. Steve moves with him, afraid that the general will do himself a greater injury.
Stark lodges himself against a tree, his hands outstretched in front of him, warding off the threat he thinks Steve is.
Things happen quickly after that.
The blue glow under Stark's bandages begins to burn brighter and brighter, until it's a blinding white, and then Steve sees a light begin to blaze in his palms. As if he's sensed something going wrong, Banner sits up. He's groggy with sleep, but as soon as he sees what Stark is doing he stands up.
"No!" Banner yells, though Steve has no idea which one of them he's talking to. Maybe both of them.
Banner's shout only spurs Stark on. He pulls back his palms and then thrusts them forward, as if he were pushing something away from him. The light in his palms blazes, then rushes toward Steve like a thrown spear. Steve is frozen in place, as unable to handle an attack by glowing light as he was to deal with the Red Skull on his own.
But Banner is not frozen. He leaps in front of Steve, taking the brunt of Stark's strange attack, and going down with a howl.
Banner's collapse startles Stark into lowering his hands, and Steve into moving toward Banner, to make sure he's all right. But Banner clearly isn't all right. He howls again, and writhes on the ground, and then he's changing from a monk of average size to a…monster is the only word Steve can think of. Banner has turned into a monster, taller and broader than he usually is, bigger than Steve, bigger than any man Steve has ever seen. His skin is an unnatural green colour, his expression is a rictus of rage, and he bellows at Steve, at Stark, at the sky.
"What the hell?" Sam has reappeared, holding two more rabbits Red Wing must have brought down for him. Banner, or at least the monster he's turned into, swings at Sam. Sam backs into a tree. Banner looks at them all, and then he runs, disappearing into the forest.
Steve, Sam and Stark stay motionless and silent for a good long while, looking at each other as if they don't know what to do or who to trust.
It's Sam who breaks the silence.
"Did our mild-mannered monk just turn into a green giant?"
"Yes," Steve says, still not entirely sure what he's seen.
Sam shakes his head, then turns to Stark.
"General, am I right in guessing that you've never done that before?"
"No." Stark's voice is almost a whisper, and he's looking at his hands as if he's never seen them before in his life.
"Okay," Sam says. He puts down the rabbits and his sword, and then approaches Stark with his hands open. "I'm going to check your wound. Make sure you haven't made it worse."
Steve is amazed at Sam's calm. As he removes the general's dressing, he acts as if he faces supernatural attacks and green rage monsters every day. Sam keeps up a steady stream of calming chatter that must work, because Steve sees Stark's shoulders begin to relax. Steve feels himself relaxing, too, feel the knots in his stomach begin to loosen, feel his breathing begin to ease.
Sam gasps when he's got the dressing clear, and Steve prepares for the worst, prepares to see the wound opened up and bleeding. Or perhaps gone black with corruption.
What he doesn't expect to see is the wound fully healed, only the bulge of the amulet and its unearthly glow marking where just yesterday Stark had a spear buried in his chest.
"Well," Sam says mildly. "Banner did say that amulet contained a powerful healing mantra."
They spend the day talking. General Stark tells them about his men and how brave they are—or were—when they'd faced down the Red Skull's Hydra fighters. He tells them how they'd all fallen around him until he was the only one left. He tells them how he fought against the Red Skull's champion.
"The Skull called him the Winter Assassin. He was one-armed, dressed all in black, his face obscured by a black mask. When he first appeared, I didn't take him seriously, but that was a mistake. He was the fiercest, most relentless warrior I've ever seen, and we fought until he had me on his knees. And that was when the Skull handed him the spear."
They don't ask him to continue the story. Instead, Steve shares stories of his regiment in happier days, and Sam tells them about his family and friends. He tells them how his father taught him and his friend Riley to train hawks, and how they only keep a hawk for five years before they give it its freedom.
"I'll release Red Wing next year," he says, and pets his bird's feathers as Red Wing preens for him.
It's nearly nightfall when Banner returns to the camp. He's back to normal: normal-sized, his skin faded from green to its usual tone. His robe and his trousers are tattered. He's sheepish, not meeting anyone's eyes as he approaches the fire Steve built to keep the chill of night away.
He doesn't speak, just sits at the edge of the campfire's light, his eyes downcast.
It's Stark who finally breaks the silence around the campfire.
"If no one else is going to say it, I'm going to say it." Stark turns to Banner. "Green, huh? You turn green when, what? You're hurt?"
"Angry," Banner says. "I turn into…that when I'm angry."
"That's why the chant," Steve says, and the other two look at him strangely. Steve shrugs. "'Anger is an illusion, serenity is all.' It's an unusual chant."
"Meditation helps. Sometimes," he adds.
"How…" Steve begins, then trails off. He's not sure Banner will want to answer this question, but the monk immediately begins to speak.
"Meditation also caused my…problem." Banner pauses, looking down as he bites his lip. "I was practising the mudras of the dharmapalas. I've always fought to control my anger and I thought emulating the movements of a wrathful God might help to channel that anger. Instead, I seem to have become a vessel for one of them." He fiddles with a stick he finds on the grass in front of him. "I was performing the mudras of Acala when it happened, so I think that's who I turn into."
They're all silent for a time after that. Steve grapples with the news that the Gods can manifest on earth. He's not the most religious of men. He visits a temple for special celebrations; he does his best to follow the Noble Eightfold Path, but his notions of Buddhism have never extended to running into a God, let alone knowing someone who can turn into one.
"Do you have a home? A monastery?" Sam asks. Steve has come to realize that Sam is the practical one among them all, the one with his feet most firmly on the ground.
"I did," says Banner, and then he bites his lip. "I would travel the country, but the abbot would always welcome me back. But then two months ago when I returned home, I found the monastery burned down, the monks dead or scattered."
Banner clenches his hands into tight fists, and Steve thinks he can see a tinge of green in his skin. He hopes the monk isn't about to transform again.
"Who did it?" Sam asks, though Steve thinks they all know the answer to that question.
"The Red Skull."
"So, you finding me on the battlefield wasn't a coincidence," Stark says, and Banner shakes his head.
"I've been tracking the Skull ever since. The thought of letting Acala punish him for his crimes appeals. But I arrived at the battlefield too late."
"Not too late to save me," Stark says, his voice gentle.
"Well," says Sam. "It looks like we're all going after the Red Skull."
"Not you," Steve says. "It's not your fight." Sam is a good man. He doesn't want to be responsible for drawing him into an impossible battle.
"Who says it's not?" Sam looks at him defiantly. "I may not have lost anyone to the Hydra clan yet, but men like the Skull, they don't stop until everyone's lost someone."
And Steve can't argue with that.
"One soldier, one fighter with a hawk, a monk who can turn into a monster, and a general with the ability to attack with glowing light," Stark says. "We can't lose."
"What is that glowing light?" Steve asks. Because one thing they hadn't talked about was how Stark suddenly had his own magical power.
"I told you the spear was poisoned," Banner says.
"And that you were keeping the poison from his heart," Steve prompts him. "But didn't the amulet cure him?"
"Not exactly." Banner won't meet Steve's eyes.
"Then what exactly did you do to me?" Stark sounds both curious and anxious.
"There's no cure for that poison. The amulet draws the poison to it, keeps it from killing you. But you need to expel it, every once in a while."
"And if the attack had hit me?" Steve asks.
"You would have died." Banner finally looks Steve in the eye. "That's why I put myself in front of you. When I transform, it's pretty hard to kill me."
"What would happen if I removed the amulet?" Stark asks.
"You can't," Banner says immediately. "You'll die if you remove the amulet. Or if it breaks."
Stark turns a bit white, but stays outwardly calm. "No taking the amulet out," he says without hesitation.
Steve looks around at his new companions. They all look drawn and tired.
"Time to rest now, I think," he says. "We can talk more in the morning, but we won't be any use against the Skull if we're exhausted."
They all nod in agreement, even the general. Steve banks the fire to keep its heat during the night, and they all settle in to sleep.
The next morning, they all wake as the sun rises, and Steve feels like he has a renewed purpose. He has sword brothers once again, united against a would-be tyrant.
Banner produces rice from his pack, and makes them congee in a pot scavenged from the battlefield. Stark dons his armour, replacing the ruined breastplate with one retrieved from one of his fallen men.
"Are you sure you don't want a sword?" Sam asks Steve quietly, when neither Stark nor Banner is listening.
Steve shakes his head and finishes strapping his shield on his back.
"Are you ever going to tell me why?"
Steve stills and looks down. He feels his throat tighten, feels his eyes fill with unshed tears.
"It's all right, Steve." Sam puts a warm hand on his shoulder, and Steve feels the tension in his chest ease enough that he can take an easy breath.
"Soon," Steve says. "I'll tell you soon." When he can talk about Bucky and his vow without wanting to break. While he's shared stories of the Palace Guard, he's barely spoken to his new friends about Bucky. Nearly a year later, that loss still feels too raw.
Sam nods and pats his shoulder, and then resumes getting his pack together.
They all share what knowledge they have of the Hydra clan's stronghold, and then set out to find it.
They travel a countryside that shows the ravages of the Skull and his forces. Some villages they pass through are burned to the ground, the people ghosts, hiding at the edge of forests or fields until the strangers pass. Other villages are intact, but the people are nervous, or hostile or beaten down, and reluctant to provide food or shelter to men they don't know. The travellers take to finding their own food, with Sam and Steve hunting what game they can find, and Banner gleaning fruits and vegetables from the fields of abandoned villages.
After dinner, Stark takes to practising his poisoned palm attacks, draining off the poison that accumulates around his heart each day. He moves from attacking trees and rocks, to moving targets the others throw for him. And though it took nearly dying to give him this weapon, Stark seems pleased enough to have it.
Though they're sleeping outdoors, on hard ground and rocks, Steve sleeps more easily than he has since Bucky fell. And on nights when nightmares do disturb his sleep, he has sword brothers who wake him with a gentle hand on his shoulder.
He doesn't know what Fury would say about it, but he knows he trusts these men with his life.
They encounter the woman when Stark has guessed they're several days away from the Hydra clan's stronghold. They turn a corner and there she is, standing on the side of the road as if she's been waiting for them.
She wears a black robe, cinched at the waist with a broad, blood-red girdle. A wide-brimmed hat sits on her head, and her face is completely obscured by a veil. There's a short-bladed sword at her belt and in her hand she holds an umbrella and a bow. She's tiny, but Steve feels a barely leashed power radiating from her.
She nods at them, and they all nod politely back.
"You go to face the Red Skull," she says. It's not a question.
"How do you know that?" Stark asks, suspicion in his voice.
"I wish to join you," she says, not answering Stark at all.
"Now, wait a minute," Stark says. "We don't know who you are. Why would we trust you to—"
"She's a Black Widow," Steve says, suddenly recognizing the woman's garb. Not that he's ever seen a Black Widow before; he knows of them only through rumour and legend. The Widows are a guild of assassins, trained from girlhood to be lethal, their identities closely held secrets. No one sees the face of a Widow, except her victims.
"All the more reason not to trust her!" Starks says.
"I have more cause than any of you to want the Red Skull dead." The Widow folds her hands in front of her, the picture of poise, though Steve can hear a slight tremor of emotion in her voice. "He enslaved me and my sisters, used our talents for his own ends, and then he tried to kill us all." She bows her head. "I am the last of us."
Steve looks around at all of them. With the exception of Sam, they've all lost people to the Red Skull. This woman is one of them.
"We should let her join us," Steve says.
"Now, wait—" Stark starts.
"I agree," Banner says
"I'm with Steve," Sam says.
Stark looks from the Widow to Steve and back. Steve thinks the general is probably not used to being contradicted, let alone having his opinion overruled.
"Fine," Stark finally says. "But if she kills us all in our sleep…"
"If I wanted to kill you, I don't need to wait until you sleep," the Widow says, and Steve hears the teasing in her voice. He can't see her face, but he immediately decides he likes this woman.
"Welcome to our little group," Steve says, realizing that he's somehow become their leader, with Sam and Banner looking to him, and even Stark deferring to his decisions, however reluctantly.
"Thank you." The Widow bows her head. And Steve realizes something.
"We can't just call you a Black Widow. Do you have a name?"
She hesitates for a moment, then says, "You may call me Natasha."
Steve doubts it's her own name. He wonders if she even remembers the name she was born with. But somehow, it seems to suit her bearing and her voice.
"Thank you, Natasha."
Natasha proves to be an excellent travelling companion. She has a dry sense of humour that Steve appreciates. She's almost as good at bringing down game with her bow as Sam is with Red Wing. Even though he's never seen her face, Steve finds he instinctively trusts her. And likes her.
They journey on, the signs of destruction growing more numerous as they draw closer to their target. Then, when they're within a day's travel from the Hydra stronghold, they find one last village ravaged by Hydra, its people dead, half its buildings burned and smoldering.
As he's done every time they've found death on their journey, Banner drops to his knees and begins a low chant. Steve thinks he recognizes the beginnings of the Heart Sutra. It's all they can do for the dead. There are too many for them to bury.
He and the others wait for Banner to finish chanting. The monk gives one final bow and rises to his feet. As they prepare to resume their journey, Steve realizes that Natasha is no longer with them.
They search through the ruins, and find her in a small hut whose walls have only been scorched by the fires that consumed the village. She's kneeling at the side of the bodies of two young girls, their hands clutched tightly together. Natasha makes no sound, but Steve thinks he can see her shoulders shake.
She startles, as if she was so wrapped up in her feelings she hadn't heard them approach. She clutches her hands in fists so tight her knuckles go bone white, then relaxes her body and rises to her feet and turns to face them.
"We must bury them." Natasha's voice is steady and insistent.
"Natasha, we don't-" Steve starts.
"They were my little sisters," she says, and it's only on the last word that Steve hears a slight crack in her voice. "We hid them here before the Skull took the rest of us. We hoped they'd be safe." She pauses and stands up straighter. "We must bury them."
Steve looks at the others, and each one in turn nods. They'll do this for Natasha and her sisters.
They bury the girls in a small cemetery they find outside the village, and Banner says a simple prayer over the grave. Steve finds tears running down his own face at Banner's voice as he thinks of all the people he's lost in this struggle against Hydra and the Red Skull. As he thinks of Bucky, and the funeral he was denied when the Skull took his body.
When Banner finishes, Natasha bows to them all.
"Thank you," she says.
They're the last words she says all day.
When they make camp that night, as she's done all through their journey, Natasha makes her bed away from the campfire, out of sight of them all. Steve has always respected her need for privacy, believes that she deserves to make the choice not to show them her face if she chooses, but this night he feels he can't leave her alone in her grief, and when the others are settled down for the night, he leaves the light of the fire to find her.
The moon is a thin sliver this night, but it provides enough light that he finds the glade where Natasha has made her camp. She has her back turned to him, and has already removed her hat and veil. Her hair is a shocking red, even in the dim light of the moon. He's about to speak, to warn her he is there when she slips out of her clothes, and then, between one breath and the next, she transforms into a fox with nine tails.
Steve gasps in shock, and the fox turns to him. The fox yips, and she's once again Natasha.
She stands before him, naked and unashamed, and he has enough time to register her beauty before she attacks. She knocks him to the ground, then puts one forearm against his throat with enough pressure that he knows she could crush his windpipe in an instant.
"You're a fox spirit," he whispers, amazed.
"No living man knows my secret," she says, her voice as fierce as her expression. "Tell me why I shouldn't kill you."
"I just…" Steve stumbles because he knows nothing he can say will be enough. So, he decides to try the truth. "I came to see if you were all right."
She stares at him with narrowed eyes, and puts more weight into her hold. Steve closes his eyes and prepares for the end, hoping that at least he and Bucky will be reincarnated together.
After a long moment, he feels the pressure on his throat ease.
By the time he opens his eyes, she's tying her robe shut. She leaves her hat and veil off, then sits down on the ground, gesturing for him to join her.
"You're not afraid of me," she says. "Why?"
"A fox spirit lived near my home village. My mother always told me she brought us luck."
"Your mother is a rare woman."
"Was," Steve says. "She was a rare woman. She died years ago."
"I'm sorry." Natasha bows her head.
"Will you tell the others? What I really am?"
"It's your secret to keep or share. We all have secrets."
"And what's your secret, Steve?"
Steve thinks back to dark eyes and a musical laugh, to clever hands that could bring him pleasure as easily as they could bring their enemies pain. It's a secret Natasha deserves to know.
"I fight the Skull to avenge the man I loved."
Natasha nods, almost as if this is something she already knew. Steve feels encouraged to go on.
"Bucky was my sword brother, and my best friend. He was the fiercest fighter I've ever known, and the gentlest man. The Red Skull cut him down, then took my sword and left me as the only witness to his slaughter." Steve swallows around the prickling in his throat. "I've sworn to be the one to kill the Skull."
Natasha reaches out and takes Steve's hand in her own. Her hand is small, delicate, but has the same calluses as his, calluses born of countless hours of weapons practice.
"It won't be enough to defeat the Skull. You'll need to defeat his champion. The Winter Assassin will protect his master to the end."
"Then I'll defeat the Winter Assassin as well."
"We'll take them down together." Her voice sounds calm and even, but even in the moonlight Steve can see the passion in her eyes. She stands, and pulls him to his feet. "You all showed my sisters kindness in death. Time for me to repay that kindness with trust."
Grabbing her hat and veil, her umbrella and weapons, she guides him back to the campfire where the others are, her face still uncovered.
Sam is the first one to notice them. He blinks, sits up, then comes to his feet, staring at Natasha in amazement. Banner is next, and he stands next to Sam and bows to Natasha. Stark is last. Steve's not sure what he expected from the general, but it's not for him to go to one knee to her before he rises, one hand on his heart, his head bowed in respect.
"We'll arrive at the Hydra clan's stronghold tomorrow," she says. "It's time I told you everything."
And so she does. She tells them how she and her sisters were forced to kill for the Skull. She tells them how they used their powers as fox spirits to turn the will of men, to make weak men, bad, and bad men, worse, creating an army for Hydra. She tells them how they turned the Winter Assassin to the side of Hydra.
"The Assassin was neither weak nor bad, but the Skull wanted him for his own. My sisters and I tried to break his will, but it would not be broken. So we broke him instead. The Skull forged us an amulet, an object tempered with the blood of both my sisters and the Assassin. While the amulet exists, the Assassin will remain a creature of Hydra."
"How do we destroy the amulet?" Sam asks.
"First, we must find it," Natasha says. "The Skull kept it in his inner sanctum. Once found, it can only be destroyed by a hero's sword."
"So," Stark says, "all we have to do is break into an impregnable stronghold, defeat an enemy army, destroy a magical amulet, defeat an enchanted soldier, and kill the Red Skull."
Steve's mind is already working on the problem.
"Can you find the amulet?" he asks Natasha. She nods.
"Good," he says. "Banner, can you become Acala without being angered?"
"It's not something I've tried. But if I do the mudras again, I should be able to."
"Okay," Steve says. "I have a plan."
Plan may be a bit of a grandiose description for what Steve has in mind.
"That's your plan?" Sam had asked after Steve had laid out his idea. "That's not a plan. That's a strategy for suicide."
"I don't know," Stark had said. "It's almost genius in its sheer stupidity."
After that comment, Steve hadn't been sure he wanted Stark on his side.
And yet here he is, Stark to his left, Banner to his right, and Natasha and Sam out of sight, ready to play their parts in Steve's strategy for suicide.
"If General Fury hadn't told me you had one of the best strategic minds he'd ever seen, I'd think you were a complete idiot," Stark says.
With that encouragement ringing in Steve's ears they break cover, emerging in front of the great gate of Hydra's stronghold.
They approach the guards manning the gate, Hydra foot soldiers who look more confused than anything by the approach of two armed soldiers and a monk.
Steve takes the lead.
It takes five minutes to convince the Hydra guards that they want to surrender, and ten more minutes for someone senior enough to accept the surrender of a general to be brought to the gate, but the three of them are finally stripped of their weapons and brought into the inner courtyard of the stronghold, surrounded by Hydra soldiers.
That's where they are, on their knees, hands behind their heads, when the Red Skull finally appears, with ZhanLu belted at his side and the Winter Assassin looming behind him. The Assassin is exactly as Stark and Natasha had described him: tall, looming, dressed all in black with a mask hiding the lower half of his face and long hair hanging half into his eyes. Those eyes are cold and distant. Steve can see the Assassin examine them, calculating the threat each of them pose.
Steve does his own calculations. The Assassin is imposing, and carries himself like he's prepared to attack at any moment. His left sleeve is empty, tied in a knot. His right hand is covered by a black glove, and he has knives tucked into his belt. He looks a formidable enemy.
But, Steve reminds himself, the Assassin is not their true enemy.
The Skull took this man, whoever he was, and used the strongest magic of Natasha and her sisters to turn him into his weapon. A weapon Steve hopes can be turned against his master when Natasha and Sam find the amulet.
"When they told me who'd shown up at my gate, I didn't believe them." The Skull's tone is as gloating as his expression. "Captain Rogers and General Stark, both come to surrender."
"We’re here for the good of the country," Steve says. "We ask that you stop your raids on the countryside."
"You're not in a position to demand anything, Captain. I, however…" The Skull smiles, and never has Steve seen an expression that causes such deep revulsion in him. "I am in a position to demand everything."
The Skull draws ZhanLu from his belt, and directs its point at Steve's throat. Steve feels the call of the blade that has never stopped belonging to him, but he knows better than to move. From this position, the Skull could tear his throat open before Steve could move an inch, and if he dies now, it will be even harder for Stark and Banner to carry out his plan.
"What do you want?" Steve asks.
"You have only one thing I need," the Skull sneers.
"And what's that?" Stark demands.
The Skull gives ZhanLu a flick of his wrist, and Steve feels a line of fire across his cheek.
"Your lives," the Skull says, taking a step back from Steve, his gaze locked with Steve's.
The Skull turns to the Assassin and hands him the sword. Steve feels another thrum as the Assassin takes the weapon.
Steve knows this is their moment, when they must act. His eyes flick over to Stark and then Banner, and they both nod and prepare to act. But the Skull has one last move to make.
"I think it's only right that the Assassin takes your life. After all, you have such history with him, Captain Rogers." With that, the Skull reaches out and pulls the mask from the Assassin's face.
What Steve sees is so impossible he almost rejects it: the Winter Assassin wears Bucky's face. The Assassin is Bucky, but his expression is like no expression Steve has ever seen on the face of his love. His expression is ruthless and calculating, the expression of a killer, an assassin, not a soldier.
"Kill them," the Skull orders the Assassin. Orders Bucky.
"Bucky," Steve says. "No."
"Who the hell is Bucky?" the Assassin asks, before he moves on Steve.
Steve is frozen, his mind moving in a million directions at once even as his body refuses to move at all. He wonders if Bucky knows what the Assassin is doing and is powerless to stop it. He wonders if Bucky blames him for leaving him in the hands of Hydra. He wonders if Natasha knew that the Winter Assassin was Bucky all along, even as she listened to Steve's story.
But then ZhanLu is arcing over his head, and Steve knows he must move or die, so he rolls out of the way, toward the place where he saw a Hydra minion place his shield.
While he's been standing unmoving, Stark and Banner have acted. Stark may have been relieved of his weapons, but now he uses his poisoned palm strike, first taking down the Hydra fighter nearest to him, then delivering a glancing blow to the Assassin, temporarily distracting him from Steve.
Banner has performed the mudras of Acala, and is completing his transformation into the dharmapala, his roar as terrifying as Steve remembered, his form as daunting, his skin as green. As Steve retrieves his shield from a cowering Hydra soldier, he sees Banner take out three of the enemy with one wave of his arm.
Steve just has time to raise his shield before the Assassin brings down his sword on him again. Steve feels the impact of the Assassin's strike all the way up his arm.
"You can stop this, Bucky," Steve says, desperate to reach the man he knows is buried inside the Assassin. "I don't want to fight you."
"I'm. Not. Bucky," the Assassin says, punctuating each word with a strike of his weapon. Steve's weapon. With every strike of ZhanLu, Steve feels a blow to his heart and a shriek in his head.
It's chaos in the courtyard. Stark and Banner are only two men, but they fight like twenty, taking down every Hydra fighter who takes them on.
The Assassin is relentless, forcing Steve to retreat further and further, his shield arm strained to the limit. He feels himself reaching the end of his strength when he sees a flash of red feathers in the air. He looks up in relief, and there is Red Wing, a silver chain clutched in her talons.
Steve yells and presses back against the Assassin's attack, forcing him back. Red Wing swoops in and drops the amulet at Steve's feet. He scoops it up with his free hand, and has just enough time to get his shield up before the Assassin resumes his attack.
He looks at the Assassin closely once again, frantic to see something of Bucky in his face. He sees only rage. But perhaps, he thinks, he can use that rage to save them both.
He pretends to drop his guard, to seem like he's more tired than he actually is. The Assassin immediately presses the advantage, moving in for a killing blow as Steve knew he would. Steve uses his shield to strike the Assassin's legs, his ribs, his arm. The Assassin snarls in pain, but he doesn't fall. Steve delivers one final blow to the Assassin's wrist, and finally attains his goal. ZhanLu clatters to the ground.
Steve scoops ZhanLu up in his free hand, the weapon singing in his head as he does so. He presses back against the Assassin with his shield, throwing him off balance for the few seconds he needs, then does a shoulder roll in the other direction. He drops the amulet and raises his sword above his head with both hands.
"No!" screams the Skull from the corner where Banner has him trapped.
The Assassin advances on him, but before he can reach him, Steve brings the sword down with all his strength, shattering the amulet into glittering shards.
The effect is immediate. The Assassin shudders to a halt, confusion on his face.
"Bucky?" Steve asks, hoping against hope that this body he loves so well once more is controlled by the man who holds his heart.
The Assassin trembles and drops to his knees, his eyes directed to the ground. His breaths are great shuddering heaves in his chest. When he looks up, Steve finally sees recognition in his eyes.
"Steve?" Bucky asks, and Steve could almost cry in relief.
"No!" the Skull yells. "It isn't possible!" He advances on Steve's position, a murderous rage in his eyes.
Bucky looks over at his former master, his expression flashing between rage and fear and hope. Before Steve can do or say anything, Bucky grabs ZhanLu from him, and for a brief shameful moment Steve believes that he's miscalculated, that Bucky is still the Assassin, that this is the moment when Steve will pay for his hope.
Instead, Bucky tears into the Skull, fighting him with the same savagery he'd turned against Steve.
"Stop!" the Skull orders. "You will obey me."
"I am not your weapon," Bucky says, his voice full of cold fury. He takes a breath, then strikes, cutting the Skull down, turning that terrifying visage into nothing more than a lifeless mask.
Bucky stands there, triumphant, as the battle slows around them. Then he takes a step, and stumbles, and Steve watches in horror as he falls to the ground.
By the time Sam and Natasha show up to help round up the last of the Hydra fighters, now disheartened by the loss of their leader and their champion, Steve has Bucky cradled in his lap, hoping that he hasn't found his love, only to lose him once again.
This inn is not at all like the one where he'd first encountered Sam. It's well kept and charming, the food is excellent, and the bed on which Steve lies is cozy and comfortable.
Outside, the sun is just beginning to come up, casting a warm glow into the room.
The man in his arms grumbles and shifts, turning his face into Steve's chest. Steve hugs him more tightly and brushes the hair out of his eyes, letting his hand linger on Bucky's scalp, comforting him with the touch.
"Go back to sleep, Steve," Bucky says without opening his eyes.
"I can't," Steve says. "I can't believe you're here. I keep thinking I'm going to wake up and this will all have been a dream."
Bucky does open his eyes, then, and Steve can see both the love and the pain behind them.
"I'm here, pal," he says. "I'm really here. To me, the past year has been the nightmare and now I feel like I'm finally awake."
"Oh, Bucky." Steve strokes one hand down Bucky's shoulder, down the stump of his ruined arm. He thinks of all the pain this body has been through. Pain that he hadn't even known he needed to stop.
"I thought you were dead," Steve says, his voice little more than a whisper. "I thought you were dead, or I would've come for you."
"I know you would've, Stevie." Bucky strokes Steve's cheek with his thumb. "I know."
Bucky's mouth meets Steve's, and the kiss is as sweet as the first one they'd ever shared, both tentative and full of heat. They lose themselves in passion until the sun is well above the horizon. And it's only then, when they're sated with each other, that Steve lets himself drift into sleep.
When he wakes, Bucky is up and sitting at a chair by the window, looking out at the verdant landscape beyond the inn. He turns to Steve, an open smile on his face. He's dressed in trousers and a tunic of light green cotton. Were it not for the missing arm and the hints of scars Steve can see at the tunic's open neck, Steve could almost think this was the Bucky of a year ago, happy and loving and untouched by misfortune.
"There's a letter for you," Bucky says, nodding at the table. "From Stark."
Steve sighs, vexed at the intrusion of the world outside onto this bubble of comfort he's created for himself and Bucky. But he knows they won't be allowed to stay here forever. He stretches, rises, pulls on a robe, and goes over to open the letter.
"He wants you to join his regiment, doesn't he?" Bucky asks after Steve has broken the seal and read the letter.
"Not quite." Steve shakes his head, still amazed at the contents of the letter.
"The Emperor himself has asked me to be a general. To start my own regiment. To guard against what he calls extraordinary enemies of the state."
Bucky's smile is wide.
"Is it?" Steve isn't sure he shares Bucky's enthusiasm. He doesn't know if he wants to return to the martial world. Doesn't know if Bucky would be willing to join him, after all he's lost to fighting for his country. "The Emperor has asked you to be my second-in-command."
Steve's not sure if he imagines the wince from Bucky, but the smile is back soon enough.
"I wouldn't let anyone else take the job," Bucky says, crossing the distance between them to wrap Steve in his one arm. "And I know a few others who'd be willing to join you."
In the aftermath of the battle with the Skull, Bucky has gotten to know Steve's other sword brothers, and sister: Sam and Banner and Natasha. He's become friends with them all, though Bucky and Sam tease each other like warring siblings.
Steve knows he'll accept the posting, knows he'll take on the job of protecting the country once again. After all, ZhanLu is a hero's sword, meant for exactly this sort of a life. Tomorrow, he'll write to Stark and tell him he's ready to take on this new responsibility.
But he will shirk that responsibility for one more day.
For today, he thinks, as he takes hold of Bucky's hand and gently kisses his palm, he doesn't want to be a soldier or a general or a hero. For today, he only wants to be a man, and to take care of the man he loves.