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Data is King

Chapter Text


The wind howled around the building face, stirring up the perpetual mist that surrounded the city, turning it into fierce eddies and crashing waves of vapor, but never dispersing it. Five hundred feet above the ground, two men clung to the smooth face of the skyscraper, two lone specks of discoloration stuck between the glowing white of the building and the wet grey of the mist.

Blonde hair, yellow-blonde like corn in a field, stood out like a shock over the painted white mask covering the first man's face. His clothes were long-sleeve robes covering his whole body, an off-white that contrasted like a discordant note against the blinding white face of the building. The paint on his mask was flaking off, revealing the original black leather it was made from beneath.

The man, Steve Rogers, leaned forward to tap at his companion's shoulder. Their hands were stuck to the building face with ultra-friction gloves, infused with thousands of micro-grip points. Their boots were made of the same material.

The other man, Bucky Barnes, looked over at Steve, peering through the murky plastic of his own mask, through the equally as murky plastic of Steve's mask. Steve gestured, thumb jerking up. Bucky nodded and fumbled at something inside his robes. After a moment he tugged a small, well-worn device out, painted white like their masks but chipping just the same. He glanced at it, then turned it around and stuck it out to Steve, pressing it against the plastic of Steve's mask so he could read it.

524 .

Five hundred twenty-four feet. Five hundred and seventy-six feet to go. Say what you would about the privileged folk who lived inside the walls of New Versailles, but they sure liked their round numbers and organized symmetry. Made planning raids on the stores of food that much easier. Not that it was ever easy .

Steve nodded his acknowledgement and Bucky shoved the altimeter back inside his robes, fumbling slightly. Steve shook his head, smiling behind his mask as they continued their climb. Bucky always did hate the loose robes they needed to wear to sneak into New Versailles' stores. But it was necessary if they were spotted while inside the storehouses, if they wanted to have a chance at looking like they belonged there.

Sweat dripped down Steve's back as he continued their climb, one had over the other, thighs propelling him upwards as his feet gripped at the walls. One foot, then the next, shoes designed with millions of little microscopic fingers by their ghetto's resident scientist, Doc Erskine. Every time Steve's foot found a grip that wasn't there, and his thigh and calf was able to push himself just another inch higher, Steve sent up a silent prayer of thanks to the good Doctor. Or perhaps it was a prayer down, not up, since those that lived in the towering skyscrapers of New Versailles had little regard for the denizens of the lower cities outside their shining white walls and protective mists.

Another four hundred feet, and Steve didn't need to check with Bucky as to their altitude: the end of the building, where the storeroom outer window was, drew close above their heads. Under another hundred feet or so and they'd be there. That was less than the distance that a sickly and small Steve had been able to wheeze down between the bases of the makeshift baseball field as a child. The neighborhood kids set it up, nestled in the garbage dump with old toilet seats for bases and defunct electronics cutting through the thin soles of their good-for-nothing shoes as they struggled to capture some innocence and fun.

Bucky got there first—Bucky always seemed to get everywhere first, Steve thought with a smile. The front of food lines, puberty, girls, finish lines: Bucky was always a step ahead of Steve. Which was alright by him: Steve was just happy to have Bucky with him, on the side of the good guys. He was Robin Hood and Steve was his Little John (only nowadays, the name was filled with the same irony it had been with the original Little John rather than being an apt description of his stature, all thanks to Doc Erskine and his scientific skill, once again).

Above Steve's head, barely visible through the thick mist, Bucky was fumbling with the security system on the window to the storeroom. Steve rested for a moment, hands and feet pressed as flat against the surface of the skyscraper as they could be, to give him a moment's rest. He watched Bucky with the ease and relaxation of having done this successfully dozens of times before with his best friend, confident with the knowledge that they knew how to do this, Bucky knew how to do this, and that Bucky would get them in, same as he always did.

Sure enough, the window opened after a minute or two of Bucky fumbling with some wires, the faint click lost in the dampening pressure of the mist. He was gone in an instant, off-white robes sweeping soundlessly through the window, mist swirling and settling into the empty space his body left in an instant, erasing any evidence he had ever been there. Steve hauled himself up there a moment after, arms and legs strong and powerful as they propelled him through the window and gracefully onto the floor of the storeroom.

The window snapped shut behind him, closing out the poisonous mist. The air filter systems were already working in the storeroom, the last wisps of mist swept away in an instant by the magic of technology. Steve tugged off his mask and wiped at his face, sweaty with exertion and the cloying discomfort of being stuck behind that mask for the thousand foot vertical climb.

Bucky removed his mask too, dark brown hair sticking up every direction with the sweat that had formed in his hairline, handsome face dewey with the same liquid. He panted for a moment, breathing in the fresh, filtered air of New Versailles, before he turned to Steve and flashed him a smile.

“Ready to get to work?” Steve asked, still breathing a little heavy.

Bucky's grin turned cocky. “You know it.” The two men knocked their masks together in a sort of celebration, then set them aside at the window. If they were caught, they'd probably be recognized for who they were in an instant, but in the off chance that they weren't, the masks would be a dead giveaway. Best to leave them by the window for when they'd need them again, and try and buy themselves some time.

From beneath their robes, Bucky and Steve both set to work removing the packs they had brought with them. Tattered old canvas bags, painted in that same flecking white paint everything else was that they brought on these missions. Ignoring the paint chips he was spreading around the floor like some kind of reverse Christmas cheer, Steve opened up his bag and pulled a heavy canister out of it, along with a dozen white, deflated balloons. Bucky was pulling the same from under his robes.

Quickly Steve set to inflating the balloons with helium—a costly item, given its rarity and difficulty to come by, but less costly than the price of the goods Steve and Bucky brought back with them. Even if they lost money on the helium (which they did, actually, but when you give your spoils away for free, you don't tend to make money), it would still be worth it. Whatever helium cost, it was a small price to pay for food and medicine.

Clunky fingers fumbled with the first little latex balloon, taking a few precious seconds too many to get the lip of it wrapped around the nozzle of the first helium tank. But then it was on, Steve's fingers pinching it carefully in place.

“Just like putting on a condom,” Bucky had told him the first time they did this, trying to help him out.

Steve had stared helplessly over at Bucky, big blue eyes still not quite grown into his head. “But I've never put on a condom before!”

Bucky had laughed himself sick, and Steve had been so scared they were going to get caught. But they weren't: they had gotten the supplies back. That had been the first of the good days: the days when Steve realized he had something to contribute, had something to do to help improve the lot of everyone around him.

Now the balloon inflated quickly under Steve's more practiced hand, and he tied off the end easily, trapping the helium inside. Another knot, this one to secure the balloon to the underside of the canvas bag he had just pulled it and the helium canisters out of. Then to repeat the process, two dozen times: pinch the balloon to the helium canister, fill it, tie it off, secure it beneath the canvas rucksack. Again and again Steve did this, time ticking down in the back of his head, ears attuned to any sounds coming from the far front of the room, a football field away, where the storeroom let out into whatever was beyond in this skyscraper in New Versailles. Steve had never seen more of the city than what was in this single room—it was all he needed to see, all he needed to know. A football field of food and medical supplies, hoarded away by the denizens of the city like scared children hoarding their sweets from others on the playground. Hoarded away from the people who needed it, from the greater population that filled the ghettos and world around the only city, outside the poisonous mist.

Steve filled dozens of balloons, until the six massive rucksacks he had brought with him were all floating to the ceiling. He tied off five and grabbed tight hold of one, carrying it with him around the storeroom as he began his grocery run. Bucky was already gone beside him, his five rucksacks tied off at the window already. They each had their grocery lists: they didn't need to stick together for this part of the raid. It was more efficient if they didn't.

Quickly Steve headed down the rows of supplies, the mountains and mountains of carefully organized, catalogued, and shelved goods that towered over his head. Steve's scowl deepened, as it always did when he roamed these halls. It was absurd, the amount of food that they kept locked up away from the needy, pleading hands of the masses. The injustice of it disgusted Steve. Some days he thought maybe there was something more he could do, something bigger than scratching at a scab, picking at this tiny mite on the asshole of the problems of the world. But he had yet to come up with something—something that would be useful , and not just vindictive and angry, a petulant child crying out in the night.

Canned vegetables were first on Steve's list: things that wouldn't spoil, but contained much-needed vitamins that the people outside New Versailles so sorely needed. He filled up an entire canvas bag with just those: spinach and string beans and broccoli and carrots. The kids may not be the biggest fans of these, but Steve sure wished he had access to such vitamins when he was a kid. Maybe then he wouldn't have needed Erskine's unconventional intervention to help him grow out of the sickly kid he once was if he had access to these sorts of nutrients growing up.

After one canvas bag was filled, heavy but not as heavy as it would have been without the helium balloons to help alleviate some of the weight, Steve returned it to the window and grabbed a second canvas bag. Next to his bags, Steve noted that Bucky had already returned once to drop off his own full first bag—chock full of every kind of medicine Erskine had told them was needed for the people in the ghettos. Insulin and pain relievers, antibiotics and sterilizing alcohol, asthma controllers, stomach pills, epilepsy meds, and a thousand more things Steve had no knowledge of besides the grocery list Doc Erskine handed them every month as they went on these runs.

Next on Steve's list was fruits. Canned peaches, canned apples, canned cherries, canned tomatoes (Steve put it under the “fruits” grocery list because it had seeds. That meant it was a fruit... though then again, cucumbers had seeds too, didn't they?). Steve piled his canvas bag as full as it could get and still close part-of-the-ways, at the very least, then returned with it to the window. Bag three was grains: pastas and cereal, stuff that wouldn't get moldy too fast. Not that these supplies ever lasted more than a day or two, with the amount of people they tried to distribute them to. But just in case, in case one of these days they started to get ahead, to build up a surplus for the really bad times, Steve always bought supplies that would last, supplies that could be stored and not go bad.

Of course, this meant that Steve's choices for his fourth bag, dairy, was pretty limited. Powdered milk and powdered buttermilk. They had some degree of refrigeration, down in the ghetto, but it was only the few who could build the systems themselves and find the freon which was as necessary as it was difficult to come by. Doc Erskine had one, because he needed it for some of his medicines. Anything Steve stole that needed to be refrigerated had to go to him. Which was why Steve only grabbed a dozen sticks of butter off the shelf, and three gallons of milk. He passed by the ice cream with scarcely a longing glance. He had made the mistake of trying it, once, on one of their first supply runs. He still felt guilty about that—just because he was the one making the runs didn't mean he deserved any more than anyone else got, down back home. And now he was stuck wanting to eat the darned treat every time he passed it on a run. Served him right.

By the time Steve returned with the final bag, Bucky was already at the window, mask on the top of his head and painted white ropes rigged as a torso harness to the canvas bags, not-quite-floating on their helium cushions. Bucky nodded at Steve, mask bobbing on the top of his head. “Get going, slowpoke,” he chastised, not unkindly. “I'm dying of old age, waiting for you.”

Steve snorted, but got to work pulling the ropes out from under his robes and hooking them onto the chest harness, then the canvas bags. The descent down was always nerve-wracking, at least for Steve. Bucky never seemed bothered by any part of it, cool cucumber that he was. The descent was also the most frustrating part for Steve: they were limited in how much they could bring by the strength in their backs and legs. If only there was some way to mechanize the return trip, somehow. A conveyor belt of ropes and pulleys. But the risk for detection would be too great: someone would have to stay at the bottom, where the sentinels patrolled regularly. And they would be too exposed, too visible, with streams of off-white canvas bags floating down the soaring walls of the skyscraper. They were lucky they hadn't been spotted before: such a system would drop their success rate down to zero, the first time they tried it. Of that, Steve was certain.

When he clipped the last bag into place, Steve turned to Bucky and gave him a thumbs up. “Ready to blow this popsicle stand?”

Bucky snorted and tugged his mask down over his face. Steve did the same. “You're such an old man.” Bucky's voice came out muffled and tinny through the mask, but definitely clear enough for Steve to understand him. Steve reached out and punched Bucky in the shoulder, none-too-lightly, and laughed when Bucky staggered back and clutched at his arm.

“Too big for you to pick on me now,” Steve reminded him, his own voice echoing weirdly in his ears, thanks to the mask.

“Hey, check your memory banks: I'm the one who protected your scrawny ass, not the one doing the picking-on,” Bucky reminded him.

Just as another witty retort was on the tip of Steve's tongue, a sound behind them, and a light cutting through the darkness of the room. Bucky and Steve fell silent in an instant, dropping down to their haunches beneath the windowsill. Someone had opened the door to the storeroom. Someone was coming in.

Steve turned his head sharply to look at Bucky, tugging up his mask so they could communicate quietly. Bucky did the same, eyes narrowed and calculating.

Steve glanced between Bucky and the open door of the storeroom quickly. What do we do?

Bucky glanced up there, then back at Steve. His body was very still as he raised a hand to his throat and pulled his thumb across his throat slowly. Kill whoever it is .

No . Steve shook his head sharply. No . If they started killing the folks in New Versailles on these missions, not only would it put them in the moral wrong, but it would escalate tensions between the people of New Versailles and everybody who lived outside its gleaming white walls. At the very least, they'd never be able to make another run again; at the worst, they'd unwittingly start an all-out war. And the people of the ghettos were struggling to simply survive day by day. There was no question who would win that war.

Bucky shrugged, thinking again. He raised his hand, curled like around some object, then brought it down sharply. Knock him out ?

Steve shook his head again. Same problem: whenever the individual woke up, they would know someone had been there, and the raids would have to be suspended, not to mention the risk of retribution.

Bucky threw his hands up, head shaking angrily. He narrowed his eyes and Steve and his hand shot out, jabbing at the air in front of Steve. Well then what the hell do you want to do ?

Steve settled back on his heels, thinking quickly. The door was still open, the person rustling around at the front of the room. Steve held his hand out to Bucky in a placating gesture, pressing his palms down towards the floor. Wait. Wait . With any luck, whoever was at the front of the room was just collecting some supplies and would leave. The back of the room was almost never disturbed—Steve saw the same cans in the same places month after month, up until the two or three times a year when they restocked everything.

Bucky was shaking his head, fists clenched at his sides, but he stayed put. Steve waited patiently, eyes and ears trained on the front of the room, trying to discern what the citizen of New Versailles was doing, when they would be leaving. After about thirty seconds, with the person still rummaging around at the front of the room, Bucky gestured at Steve to get his attention. Steve glanced over reluctantly, ears still tuned anxiously to the front of the room. Bucky jerked his head over his shoulder, at the window. He raised his eyebrows. We could just jet, now .

Steve shook his head. That would alert the person in the room, more likely than not. Best to stay put. They would leave soon enough.

“Ghetto trash?”

Steve's body felt like it had been dumped in ice cold water. Next to him, Bucky went perfectly still, body rigid with shock.

“It's Bucky Barnes, yes?” the voice called out again. “And Steve Rogers?”

Steve knew that voice, from the New Versailles news broadcasts that occasionally filtered down to the rest of the populace. Baron Zemo.

Steve turned to Bucky. Very, very lowly, he whispered: “Jump.”

In one movement both men jumped to their feet, masks slapped down over their faces. Bucky kicked the window open, all security protocols out the window—coincidentally, the same place they were going. Bucky jumped first. Steve dove out after him.

The first five hundred feet of the building fell away behind them, as Steve scrambled to find his grip with gloves and shoes against the smooth face of the skyscraper. Bucky was a hundred feet below him, slowing his descent the same way Steve was trying to. Steve only caught a glimpse of him, off-white and tumbling below him, as he focused on his own attempts to stop his descent.

Wind whipped past Steve's robes, the weight of the canvas rucksacks, heavy with supplies, like an anchor pulling him to the depths of a white sea. It took everything in Steve not to scramble at the ropes, to try and release them. If he did, it would all be for nothing. And it wouldn't help slow his descent, not any amount that would be worth it. He kept his hands on the skyscraper, dragging the gloves along the smooth surface, trying like hell to gain some traction. It was working, albeit slowly. His feet dug into the edifice, shoes getting hot with friction. A hole ripped in his right glove, at the heel. Steve clenched his teeth and dragged his feet and hands harder, ignoring the skin he was losing to the building, the red blood that was marring the pure white surface.

He slowed, slowed, and finally came to a stop. Panting harshly into his mask, Steve glanced down. The mist was already settling back around him, making seeing more than a hundred feet in front of him almost impossible. Not to mention their white clothing and supplies camouflaging them, as was their purpose. Still, maybe seventy-five feet down and twenty feet over, Steve could just make out a darker blur, a figure in the white blankness. Steve let out a shaking breath, eyes stinging with relief. Bucky was okay. Bucky had managed to regain his traction, same as Steve.

Carefully, Steve started climb down to Bucky, panting hard into his mask as his heart rate returned to something below scared jack rabbit, which was how it pretty much felt right now. As always, the descent was slow, painstaking, the weight of the supplies danging below him straining the grips on his gloves and shoes, now fresh with the added difficulty of those grips being worn nearly smooth in his frantic attempt to stop his mad descent.

Steve climbed down alongside Bucky maybe ten minutes later. He was clinging to the skyscraper face, staring up at Steve, white of his mask blank but somehow expressing anxiety. Steve immediately threw a hand out as he settled next to him, gripping tightly at Bucky's shoulder. Bucky's hand shot out at the same time, grabbing back at Steve's shoulder in reassurance. Carefully Steve leaned over, pressing his mask to Bucky's.

“Fuck,” was Bucky's eloquent assessment of their situation.

“We gotta get these supplies down,” Steve said.

“If the guards aren't waiting for us,” Bucky pointed out.

The thought had already occurred to Steve. Futilely, Steve glanced down through the mist beneath their feet. He couldn't see through it to the bottom: no way to tell who was waiting down there for them, if anyone. Steve nodded chin over Bucky. “Altitude?” he asked aloud. Little point for quiet and subtlety now.

Maneuvering ropes and robes out of his way, Bucky fumbled one-handedly at the pockets past all those obstacles. After a moment his hand closed around something and he pulled out the little round altimeter, white paint worse for wear. He checked it for a moment, then turned it around and pressed it against Steve's faceplate. 319 . Not bad. Not undoable.

Just as Bucky was tucking the altimeter back into his robes, a muffled noise registered with Steve, somewhere above their heads. Confused, Steve glanced up. A blur of moment, a swirl of mist. Then suddenly, Baron Zemo's hateful face was charging at him through the mist, sword drawn and slashing out.

Steve only managed to avoid the attack out of pure shock: his hands lost their grip on the building surface and slipped, sending in down fifty feet in seconds. When he regained his grip, Steve threw his head back, trying to see through the blank whiteness above his head. He caught a glimpse of something, just for a second , through the gap in the mist his own falling body had just made. It was Bucky, darting backwards as Zemo's blade slashed through the mist, heading for his chest. Then the mist remade itself, blocking Steve's view. Steve screamed, trying to force his voice loud enough to be heard through the thick mist, fifty feet away.

Nothing. Only muffled, cloying silence about Steve's head. Scrambling at the smooth surface of the building in front of him, Steve gritted his teeth and started to haul himself back up. He wasn't leaving Bucky alone with Baron Zemo. Not defenseless as he was. Steve's arms strained, his legs ached. He'd already done this climb once today: his body wasn't ready to do it again, and with hundreds of extra pounds of supplies dangling from his chest. Still, he had been given a reprieve, in the form of a seven hundred foot drop. He could do this. He could get to Bucky.

His right hand slipped in its own blood as his torn glove fought to gain traction with its last remaining grips. Grimacing, Steve wiped his hand on his robes, ignoring the way the red stood out bright on the white of the cloth. It didn't matter. They wouldn't be making this climb ever again: not now that they had been found out. All that mattered now was getting to Bucky, and getting him down safely. And maybe giving that Baron Zemo asshole a good hard sock in the jaw, for everything he'd done.

There! Up ahead, some shadows in the mist. Steve climbed faster, practically jumping himself upwards with his thighs, slamming his hands to the surface of the skyscraper for traction. The heel of his palm stung with every slap to the side of the building, his breath came in shorter and shorter gasps. But there, there! Bucky, just above his head! Clinging to the building helplessly with two feet and one hand, other hand holding a short knife in it—something they packed in case they needed to cut some rope or wires. Not for self-defense. Zemo was coming at him with his sword, swinging freely on a line of something that looked sturdier than rope. Steel, or maybe some of those carbon tubes his friend Sam had been talking about, once. Whatever it was, it had scuffs on it, little marks where Bucky's knife had probably slashed at it, to no avail. Steve gritted his teeth and climbed faster. They were fifteen feet away, maybe twenty. Zemo slashed at Bucky, grin contorting his face around the small rebreather that fit snugly in his mouth and nose. Bucky blocked the blade with his knife, deflecting it to the side.

Steve didn't even see it happen. Somehow, between one moment and the next, Bucky's grip slipped. He had been holding onto the side of the skyscraper, and then he wasn't.

“Bucky! No!” Steve's hand shot out, his body thrown as far off the side of the building as he could be without falling himself. But Bucky was too far away, his body tumbling too far out from the building face: maybe from his movement dodging the blow. Steve didn't know, he didn't know why or how, all he knew was that Bucky was falling past him, hands reaching wildly out toward the skyscraper, toward Steve, toward anything he could possibly grab onto. But there was nothing, nothing for him to grab but air.

Steve stared after him, hand reaching uselessly down after him, mouth contorted into a single silent “no” that was still on his lips, voice swallowed away in shock, lost in the white mists.

A triumphant laugh, and a slash of air above his head. Steve dropped down five feet in shock, head snapping up to spot Zemo, still suspended above him. Steve saw red, his vision going black around the edges as he stared up into that malicious, selfish, cruel face.

But Bucky might be alive down there, below him. Bucky might have regained his grip, Bucky might have fallen but only been injured. Steve had to get down there, as fast as he could. So Steve relaxed his grip, sliding down the side of the skyscraper in as fast of a fall as he could manage while maintaining some semblance of control. There would be time for anger and tears later.

And even if Bucky was dead, Steve had half of the supplies. He had to make it back down, he had to make it back to the ghetto, back to his friends and family, neighbors and all the kids. They needed the supplies he had: Bucky or no.

No matter how fast Steve dropped, Zemo was dropping faster. That damned steel line of his, it was bringing Zemo inexorably closer to Steve. As he controlled his fall, Steve counted the feet in his head silently. Ten feet down. Another ten. Another. Forty feet . At a hundred feet, Zemo slashed at Steve's head again, this time cutting through one of the straps that held the mask to his face. Steve sucked in a breath and slapped at the mask, letting it fall free. Maybe two hundred feet left to fall. He could hold his breath—enough.

Ten feet more, and ten feet more. Steve's lungs were becoming uncomfortably tight already. Well, that was just swell, wasn't it? Another slash, this time striking the back of his scalp. Steve ignored the flash of pain. It was nothing. Ten more feet, and Zemo was on top of him, sword slashing at his shoulder. Steve's lungs burned more now, pressure building within him. He no choice in the matter: he was going to have to take Zemo out before he continued on any further.

Steve stopped his descent and leaned back, getting a good sight of Zemo as he dropped the last two feet to meet him. Zemo's first strike forward was a sloppy one, hurried in his rush to catch Steve off-guard. Steve dodged it easily, releasing his grip for a second to drop a foot, then clamping back on to the side of the building. Zemo was going to have to do better than that if he was going to take down Steve.

As Zemo came level with him again, he struck out: more controlled this time, more calculated. Steve couldn't dodge this one, so he blocked it, deflecting it away from his midsection off his forearm. It cut through his robes, but didn't break the skin. There was one thing to be said about the voluminous layers that the citizens of New Versailles wore. Zemo slashed again, eyes gleaming madly above his rebreather, disgust battling with excitement in a twisted display of all the basest emotions a human could have. Steve lunged backwards, hands and feet tumbling over the smooth face of the skyscraper, over each other, in a mad barely-controlled cartwheeling fall. He avoided Zemo's blade again, just barely, but slid several heart-lurching feet down the face of the building before he regained his balance.

He should have cut the bags from his waist ages ago. But with Bucky down, Steve was the only hope his ghetto had left. It couldn't all be for nothing. Bucky's... Bucky couldn't be for nothing. Steve had to come back with something, have something to show for all this horror and pain.

Zemo slashed again, sending Steve stumbling down another few feet, trying to descend as fast as he could without losing his grip, but it could never be fast enough. Another slash, and this time Steve wasn't fast enough. He tried to fall, tried to dodge, but the grips held too tight and Steve's hands and feet weren't quick enough. Zemo landed a blow with his sword through Steve's shoulder.

Searing pain, tearing and shooting and leaking, horrible pain. Steve cried out, grips slipping before he steadied himself, survival instinct blessedly winning out over the burning, renting pain through his shoulder. Though at this point, Steve didn't know if his body's will to survive was more blessing or curse.

Zemo grinned, eyes crinkling up wickedly above the breathing apparatus covering his nose and mouth. Steve let himself slide down a dozen feet. How many more to go? Where was the bottom? He had lost count through the burning, the fire in his lungs, nose, and throat, the dissimilar but burning all the same fire in his shoulder.

He had one shot left. One thing left within him—left to him by the good Doctor Erskine, to get him out if times ever got too tough. Gritting his teeth through the pain, Steve leaned forward, pushing as much of his weight down onto his feet as he could and praying the already tried grips would hold. The rest of his weight he distributed to his chest, pressed against the side of the building. His core muscles shook with the strain of balancing like this, but it was necessary: he had to take off his gloves to do what he needed to do.

Side of the building scraping against his forearms and stomach through his linen robes, weight of the canvas bags sliding him down the side of the building no matter how hard he dug his feet into it, Steve ripped off his gloves and threw them away. A hundred feet left to the bottom, two hundred feet, fifty feet: it didn't matter how much was left. He wouldn't live to see the bottom if he didn't do this now, no matter how close or far it was.

“Going to slap me, ghetto trash?”

With his teeth Steve ripped open his palms, exposing the implants Erskine had put in there two years ago, when he first made Steve into the man he was today. Zemo was watching him interestedly, his murderous instinct apparently suppressed thanks to his curiosity.

Staring Zemo straight in his beady, angry, little eyes, Steve growled out: “You tell me: this feel like a slap to you?” Then he brought his palms together, joining the two metal implants inside his bloody, battered palms.

Instantly a light shot out from them, spreading out from Steve like a star going supernova. The golden light hovered in front of him like a shield for a long moment, glowing and swirling, like the mist that was slowly poisoning Steve, burning him into cinder from the inside out. But this light was something altogether different from the mist: warm where the mist was cold, golden where the mist was pale and colorless, protective instead of vicious, poisonous, noxious. Just as Zemo was cocking his head curiously at the plane of light, hovering in the space between Steve and himself, Steve turned his palms out towards Zemo, aiming them at his cruel, uncaring visage. Then, with all his might, Steve pushed the shield of light out in front of him, as hard and as fast as he could.

The light reacted instantly to Steve's extrasensory command. The shield spread out like an explosion, a tidal wave of particulate matter surging forward, slamming into Zemo like a sheet of six-inch thick steel. Zemo screamed, his hands going up to protect his face, his body knocking backwards dozens of feet, swinging limply on the line.

This was Steve's only chance. Turning away from Zemo and back to face the wall of the building he was still somehow clinging to, Steve grabbed on with bloody palms and started sliding down, barely maintaining any semblance of control over his descent. At this point, all he wanted to do was make sure he didn't land straight on his neck. If he could manage that, his journey down the side of this blighted skyscraper could be considered a success.

The ground was closer than he had thought, thank God. Maybe fifty feet, instead of the hundred or two he thought might be left. Unsurprisingly, Steve was traveling too fast as he approached solid ground. He hit the muddy field that marked the outer perimeter of New Versailles hard, pain flaring up through his right ankle as he did. Steve collapsed to the ground, body too much aflame, too much in pain to do more than to crumble, fall, fold.

Bucky. The word whispered through his mind, pressed itself against his closed eyelids. Steve's eyes opened, body somehow moving beyond what he thought possible, keeping going when surely he should be resting, when surely he should be dead. Bucky. He was still out there, somewhere at the bottom of the wall. There was a chance he was alive. And if he wasn't... Steve swallowed, throat burning, from sorrow or the mist, it was all the same at this point. Bucky had half the looted supplies. Either way, Steve had to find him, where he had fallen.

Steve levered himself to his feet with bloodied palms, entire body aflame, mind aflame, not an inch of him left that wasn't burning. One step towards the wall, then another. Above him, Zemo's screams were still reverberating off the wall of the skyscraper, echoing down to the lush ground beneath Steve's feet.

As Steve took one step back towards the building, then two, his eyes and lungs and shoulder and palms burning, a strong, black hand reached out through the mist and encircled Steve's wrist, dragging him away from the bottom of the building.

“Sam!” Steve tried to call out, but found himself wracked with coughs as he croaked the word.

“Get your ass out of here, Steve!” Sam shouted back. His voice was muffled: he was wearing a gas mask. Steve stared at it jealously, lungs burning, eyes watering, body feeling like it was powering down.

But there wasn't time for jealousy or longing for clean air. Bucky was still out there, Bucky's supplies still needed to be collected, Bucky... Bucky needed to be collected.

“Bucky-” Steve gasped, throat burning, trying to fight through to explain.

But Sam was dragging him away, into the urban jungle that was pressed against the dead, barren, mud-moat surrounding New Versailles. The buildings, beyond the poisonous white mist, beckoned invitingly. “Steve, we've got to get you out of here!”

Bucky.” The mist was closing in around Steve. His lungs were shutting down, finally giving in under the noxious poison of that white mist that surrounded him, infected him.

Steve collapsed into Sam's arms, his world going white. Bucky .