“Wait a god-damned minute,” Sam said, frowning intently at the oddly uninformative holographic screen. He’d gotten the hang of Stark’s weird displays but this one wasn’t working quite right.
“That’s what I said,” Tony said, rolling his eyes.
“Are you telling me he wasn’t supposed to go in there at all?” Sam asked. Tony’s attention was fixed on the display. The doctor lady looked concerned, fiddling with Steve’s IV, and the two women who were strangers were standing near Tony, the dark-haired one carefully avoiding meeting anyone’s eyes and the blonde one looking either disgusted or delighted, it was hard to tell which.
Also, the blonde one, damn. Sam had been pretty comfortably gay for a while but after Natasha this was the second woman who’d made him reconsider in the last couple of weeks. Maybe he needed to re-examine that policy.
He glared down at Steve’s unconscious body, hooked up to electrodes— and yeah, now that he looked, they were a little haphazard. He knew JARVIS had told everybody he was coming; by the time he got here Steve was already hooked up and he’d been too overwhelmed by getting the full story to pick up on how weird the atmosphere was.
“Yeah, as soon as he found out you were here he basically shoved Yelena out of the way,” Tony said. “Natasha was already under or I bet she’d’ve objected. She had a plan. But you know Steve.”
“Yeah,” Sam said, fury fading to a grim cold weariness, “I do.”
“It probably won’t kill him,” the blonde said, British accent, far too casual— she was amused, at least on some level. Or she was projecting amusement. It wasn’t just her hotness that reminded him of Natasha. Oh no. This chick was from the same school of charm.
“That’s great,” Sam said, not even bothering to soften the sarcasm. “That’s fan-fuckin’-tastic. Anybody wanna catch me up on what the fuck this-all is?”
“Tall order, cowboy,” Tony said. “I’ll give you a hint though. This is Yelena Belova, formerly of Department X,” and he gestured to the blonde. That explained some things. She smirked. “And this is Regina Wells, formerly— and I mean, as of this morning— of HYDRA.”
Sam stared at the two of them. “Okay,” he said, “don’t bother explaining, just sum it up.”
“You know what,” said a voice from behind him, and he turned with no small feeling of relief— it was definitely Lakeisha’s voice— but stopped dead when he saw her. “Let me.”
Her t-shirt and jeans were soaked in drying blood and she’d clearly been crying, but looked calm and unruffled and wryly amused. “The hell happened to you,” Sam said blankly.
“Been a hell of a morning,” Lakeisha said. “Hold on to your ass, I got a feelin’ it’s not gonna get any better.”
“Fuck,” Tony said suddenly. “What happened?”
Sam looked over, alarmed, and the holographic display had gone mostly dark. “What,” he said, stomach dropping.
“It’s a, what d’ye call it, glitch,” Yelena said.
“Will that kill them?” Sam demanded.
“Vitals holding steady in all three subjects,” the doctor lady said quietly.
“No,” Yelena said, “it just dumps you into a dark space with no features and you have to sit there bored while they reboot the scenario.” She waved a hand. “You missed the cue to load the next scenario so now you have to reboot the thing. Look, right there, it’s tapped into Steve’s memories, it shouldn’t be hard to load a scenario right out of that. It only takes a couple of moments, fifteen tops.”
“Time passes faster in there, though,” the other woman, Wells, said, with a frown.
“Well, yes,” Yelena said. “It’ll probably be at least an hour for them, where they can’t do anything.”
“So what happens?”
Yelena shrugged, unconcerned. “Natasha and I used to fuck,” she said, with a flippant shrug. “It was that or sit in the dark and do nothing.”
Sam blinked, traded raised-eyebrow looks with Lakeisha. Natasha and Yelena. It was mind-bendingly hot. But then he looked down at the three still bodies, and that was plenty to quench his confused libido. Christ, Barnes looked awful, half-naked and bandaged, pale and blood-smeared and bruised.
“Used… to… fuck,” Tony said, blinking rapidly. “Wait, since when is Natasha a lesbian?”
“You have no idea,” Yelena said, and that was a glimmer of what looked like genuine amusement.
* * *
Steve shivered and picked up the pace. “It’s eerie,” he said.
Natasha looked at the blank streets, barely-sketched outlines of buildings, and said, “It is. I imagine it’s worse if this were anywhere I’d ever been.” There were cars, but motionless, frozen in place, bare hints of shadowy people, colors faded and strange, everything blurred as if half-glimpsed and mostly forgotten. She couldn’t make out details, and there was an odd warped quality to some of the features. But Steve recognized it, knew exactly where they were, could even pick out details to clue him in as to the particular date— a shopfront’s dim sign displaying specials, a boarded-up window, it was 1938, this was the neighborhood between where he’d lived and worked then, he knew it absolutely without hesitation.
A suspicion began to form as she listened to Steve’s breathing, tight and too fast and shallow. “Do you have… any vision problems?” she asked.
He shot her a look, face going quite still. “Yes,” he said. “Colorblindness and astigmatism.”
She nodded. “They’re using your memories, then,” she said, and waved a hand. He gave her an alarmed look. “Colors are weirdly muted, things are unexpectedly and unevenly blurry.”
Steve nodded, and put his head down, continuing to walk fast, jogging perhaps out of habit across streets despite their strange echoing vacancy. “Hearing problems too,” he said. “You getting those?”
“No,” she said. “Well. I suppose. There aren’t many noises.”
He led them unerringly through the still neighborhood, nearly running. The bones of the neighborhood were clearly New York, recognizable enough to Natasha in the layout of the streets and the disposition of the buildings. “Where are we headed?” Natasha asked, though she could guess.
“Home,” Steve said grimly. “Seems like the logical place to look.”
“It looks like they’ve rebooted and pulled the scene from your memories,” Natasha said. “But where that puts James, I couldn’t begin to guess. And as for Zola…”
“I’m not looking forward to seeing my memories populated by an evil genius AI,” Steve said. His breathing was high and tight, but he was ignoring it, small chin jutting determinedly from the set of his jaw.
They were on a residential street, Natasha thought, though she didn’t recognize anything. She knew Brooklyn decently well, she’d spent enough time in it, but clearly this whole neighborhood had been rebuilt since 1938. Steve moved unerringly, unworried by the strange fuzziness or glitches, and led her up the steps of an old brownstone.
He stopped, hand going to his hip, and she recognized the gesture. He was patting himself down for his keys with the habitual and slightly hopeless air of someone who frequently misplaced them. “Well,” he said, glancing self-consciously over at her. “I clearly don’t have my key.”
Natasha looked at him, looked at the door, and produced her lock picks from her wrist sheath. It took her a moment to deal with the fact that Steve’s memory apparently included the rusty tumblers in the door lock, but she was pleased to note that her physical reflexes remembered how to adjust to being virtual with no trouble. She’d spent enough time like this, sometimes she thought about how much older she really was, mentally, than her body, since she’d spent so much time in this accelerated virtual reality. Lifetimes, all told.
“Got it,” she said, as the lock finally clicked, and she opened the door and looked warily into the hallway. Faded wallpaper, old-fashioned chair rail and banister, rickety-looking steps.
Steve took a long tight breath, held it, and let it out slowly, but that probably had more to do with emotion than an attempt to control his asthma. “They repainted in ’39,” he said. “Right over the wallpaper.” He blinked slowly. “So this is ’38. Bucky’s dad is still alive but my mom is dead.”
“Unless Zola changed that around,” Natasha said. “He may have a modicum of control that we don’t, over how he appears or who he constructs in this environment.”
“Great,” Steve muttered. “If he shows up as my mother I’m going to lose my mind.”
“Sorry,” Natasha said. “I’m not sure what he’s capable of. Just… be careful.”
She wanted to precede him up the stairs but she didn’t know the way, and it was just more efficient to let him lead. He walked unevenly, with none of the grace she was used to in his new body. His legs were still long relative to his body, but he was so small, so slight, shoulders high and narrow and square.
He paused, visibly steeling himself, and walked down the second floor landing to the door that led to what Natasha assumed was the rear apartment. “I can pick locks,” he said, looking sidelong at her.
“Just let me,” she said, “I know this set of lock picks.” He gave her a go-ahead gesture, and she knelt by the apartment door, listening intently for any movement inside for a moment before she set to work on the much less-rusty tumblers of this lock.
The door swung open, and she held Steve back with one hand, eyes sweeping the edges of the frame for indicator marks, for traps, for anything amiss. She moved slowly into the apartment’s entryway— coats on hooks. “Bucky’s coat’s there,” Steve murmured. “Shoes too.”
“No,” Steve said. “Looks like I’m… not home.”
Natasha made a face at the paradox, and edged in. Virtual environments: just real enough to kill you, not always real enough to convince you. “Bathtub in the kitchen,” she said skeptically, seeing it.
“Yeah,” Steve answered, in a near-whisper, and laughed softly. “Didn’t seem weird at the time.”
“Huh,” she said. So that wasn’t incorrect. That was weird. She poked carefully at the antique range-top. It wouldn’t seem antique to Steve, would it. There was a note on the counter. Steve came up beside her and picked it up.
“Jesus,” he breathed. “I know what day this was. His mom left this note while I was at work.” His eyes went to the doorway at the far end of the room. “Bucky was home sick from work. He’d been hurt.”
Natasha eyed the loopy, angular writing, working to decipher it. It took a moment for her brain to get the knack of the writing, but it was legible enough once she did.
Came by for a bit— left you some food in the icebox— that’s for both of you— Rory says the important thing is to keep J’s fever down but I don’t have to tell you how to do that— R also says if J falls asleep and won’t wake send for him right away— I’d have stayed longer but J was very out of sorts and saying cruel things— I will stop by again first thing a.m. if I don’t hear before— love to you both— MB
“That would mean Bucky’s in the bedroom,” Steve breathed. “Least, he was when I got home and found this note in real life.”
J. James. Oh. Natasha drew one of her guns and went to the bedroom doorway, putting her back to the edge of the doorframe and standing at the ready. Steve opened the bedroom door carefully, and stood off to the other side as it swung open.
There was a moment of tense silence. Natasha could hear someone breathing, someone who sounded heavily asleep. Steve gave her an uncertain look, and she bit her lip. Finally Steve squared his shoulders and stepped sideways into the room. He’d drawn a gun too, but had it down by his side, inconspicuous.
“Bucky,” Steve said, the tension leaving his posture; he sounded broken.
Natasha went in after him. There were two narrow beds, pushed together against one of the walls of the small room, opposite the window. And sprawled across them, loosely curled on one side, tangled in a blanket, was Bucky— with two flesh-and-blood arms, short hair, and a clean-shaven face. He looked young, and flushed with sleep, babyfaced and innocent, and he was wearing a grimy singlet and blue-striped white cotton shorts.
“Bucky,” Steve said again, flattening himself against the opposite wall and breathing with an effort. He closed his eyes. “What do we do now?”
“It depends,” Natasha said. She really didn’t know what to expect here. She knew the machine had a rudimentary AI, had constructed personalities that could interact with the surroundings. Some of them had been very advanced, had been convincingly human. She was sure Zola would be able to do the same. But what form would he take?
Steve went to one of the dressers in the corner of the room, pulled out a white button-down shirt, yanked it on over his tac suit, and buttoned it, then sat on the edge of the bed. “Bucky,” he said. “Bucky.” He reached out gingerly and put his hand against Bucky’s left shoulder, and made a worried hissing noise.
“What?” Natasha asked.
“He’s burning up,” Steve said, pressing his hand more firmly against Bucky’s shoulder, moving it up to the side of his neck. He holstered his pistol to cradle Bucky’s head in both hands. Bucky was unresponsive, unmoving. “He was like this when I came home that day too. He had an infected knife wound. It got pretty bad, and I thought he was going to die a couple of times, but he eventually pulled through. It was terrifying.”
“Was he unresponsive like this?” Natasha asked.
“A couple times,” Steve said. He gently let go of Bucky, and left the room, going into the kitchen. She heard water running. She moved over and took Bucky’s pulse. He felt human, he felt real, as real as Steve did. She pinched the flesh on the underside of his arm, but he didn’t twitch; he was really out.
Well. The Winter Soldier she’d known, in here, would have had good enough discipline to fake unconsciousness through that kind of stimulus. She didn’t know if he did anymore, and bet he wouldn’t have been able to before the war. But he would have been able to then.
She could remember him a lot more clearly in here. Yes, he’d called her Natalia— Natasha was just a diminutive of the name, and it was a little stuffy and old-fashioned to use the formal name, but he had. And she remembered him having the traumatic breakthrough and remembering his name had been James. She remembered making love to him, remembered conspiring with him to help each other when they came out of the machine. And she remembered the fatal slip, when he’d nearly been killed and she’d said his name, unthinking, within hearing of the operators— and they had heard her, and had yanked both of them back out, and the next time they’d met in the machine he hadn’t known her. It wasn’t long after that she’d defected.
Steve came back with a couple of wet dishtowels and pressed them against Bucky’s pulse points, neck and wrists and forehead. “His fever was too high then too,” he said, a little grimly. He glanced over at her. “We didn’t have antibiotics yet, not really. Not for widespread use. We had stuff that’d kill bacteria on contact but nothing if it had already invaded your body. Not until during the war.”
“I hadn’t realized,” she said.
“People look up when antibiotics were invented,” Steve said, smoothing Bucky’s damp hair back tenderly, “but nobody really thinks about how hard they used to be to make.”
“Medicine was hard to get when I was a child,” she said. “I do understand about that.”
“C’mon, Bucky,” Steve said.
Natasha went through her little first-aid kit. “Fever reducer,” she said, pulling out a little blister pack. “Ah. Yes, antibiotic. If he’s not real, it won’t affect him. If he is, it’ll help him.”
Steve stared at her. “That had never occurred to me,” he said.
“He feels real to me,” Natasha said, “but if he’s not,” and she shrugged. “We just gotta get him conscious enough to swallow pills.”
Steve went back out to the kitchen and chipped off some ice from the icebox. Natasha had to go look at it, since she’d never seen one in real life. While she was there, she poked around the kitchen, letting herself be curious. There had still been kitchens furnished like this in Russia when she was a child, she knew that, but she remembered it dimly, and mistrusted most of her older memories.
“If medicine will help him,” Steve said, getting a bowl from one of the cabinets, “then we probably should tend to the wound, too. Like I did then.”
“Yes,” Natasha said.
He looked into the icebox again. “Do we need to eat, in here?” he asked.
“We do get hungry,” she said. “It’s not… quite the same as the real world.”
“Just…” He looked a little wistful. “Bucky’s mom’s oxtail soup.”
Natasha laughed. “Go for it.”
* * *
“You see the interface, here,” the blonde British woman said, gesturing at the holo-screen, “and these are their readouts.”
“What do the readouts mean, though?” Tony asked, frowning.
“Well, it’s not exactly going to be their vitals or whatever,” Wells said. She was the HYDRA agent, and Lakeisha was joining Sam in staring distrustfully at her.
Her phone was blowing up though, which was kind of putting a damper on the distrustful staring. She was following, though. Stark’s main PR department was handling it, but she was getting a lot of Avengers-related flak that Stark’s PR was doing the best they could to deflect.
Also, every single one of her relatives had attempted to call and she’d had to send out a mass text and now all the replies were going insane. As one expected.
“Why not their vitals?” Sam asked.
Keesh, cousin Tamika wrote, oh my God, I was so scared!
“I’m monitoring those,” Dr. Montazeri said.
“Because it’s not real-time,” the blonde said. “Time passes differently, remember?”
Lil Dude is fine, Jeremy wrote, didn’t understand what was going on so he didn’t get scared— are you sure you’re ok
“Right,” Tony said, “right, but— what is all this?”
“Well,” the blonde— right, she was Yelena— said, “it’s their status. It’s kind of… a primitive interface for what’s really there. I don’t recall what all the interfaces are, but, see, this is their physical location relative to the map of the game.” She indicated two X’s on a faint grid. “The structures in the game are kind of crudely outlined on here, see this must be a building,” and she traced around a rectangle, “and this is a street, here.”
I really am fine, Lakeisha wrote to Jeremy. I was scared for a bit but really everything’s under control now. I learned some things. It was real interesting. I promise I’m fine, they said I could go home and I said no, I wanted to stay and help. I’m in no danger, it’s Bucky who’s hurt.
“Can you tell where they are?” Tony asked.
“The map is zoomed out over here,” Yelena said. “Here’s the entire world. I don’t know where that is, it’s not somewhere I’ve memorized. A city with a grid structure, but that doesn’t narrow it down all that much.”
Tony peered at it, and while Lakeisha really couldn’t make anything out, he made a “hunh!” kind of noise, and said, “I bet you anything that’s Brooklyn.”
Lakeisha! We prayed for you, wrote aunt Marie.
“You did take the map from Steve’s memory,” Yelena pointed out. “So it stands to reason.”
I didn’t see the news, wrote cousin Mike, but I’m so glad to hear you’re okay!
“And that,” Tony said, and pulled out his phone, pulled up a little holo screen, searched on it, came up with a floorplan. “Hm! An early 1900s New-Law tenement building.” He gave a low whistle. “Looks like Stevie went home.”
What is going on???????? wrote cousin Sherilyn.
“And this,” Yelena said, “is a little legend detailing their actions. Over here… let’s see… Natasha used lock-picks. Steve used… I don’t know what that is.”
That Bucky guy, Jeremy wrote. He really owes you.
“An icebox,” Wells said. “I looked it up.”
“An icebox,” Tony said.
I’m pretty sure he doesn’t owe anybody anything at this point, Lakeisha wrote back to Jeremy. If he survives this I’ll introduce you to him, you’ll get it.
“He took soup out of it,” Wells said. “They’ve eaten. There’s another player in the building with them.”
“Barnes?” Tony asked.
“It’s not… exactly… what I expect Barnes’s signature to look like,” Yelena said, frowning. “Damn it, Natasha really should have let me come along.”
I dunno, Jeremy wrote back, nobody deserves to play my sister like this.
I’m fine, Lakeisha wrote. She wished she had a clean shirt. A tiny traitorous part of her knew that if Pepper had stopped by here at all she’d have noticed and gotten her one. But Pepper was busy assuring the world that Stark Tower was fine. And that was important. And really, being covered in Bucky’s drying blood wasn’t so terrible, compared to the condition he was in.
“She did try,” Sam said dryly. He elbowed Lakeisha. “Anything good on there?”
“My entire extended family is texting me because Stark Tower was on the news,” she said.
“Oh,” Sam said, “oh shit.”
“C’mere,” Lakeisha said, “I’m gonna take a selfie with you, that’ll make them all believe I’m fine.”
Sam gave his million-dollar smile without any further prompting, and she sent the message, letting him watch her type Look, the Falcon’s here now, I’m totally safe.
Unexpectedly, that made Sam put his arm around her. He pulled her in and embraced her, and she let him, and closed her eyes against the sudden sting. “You are okay,” he murmured. “You did real good.”
“Don’t make me cry,” she said.
“Oh holy shit,” Tony said, and Lakeisha and Sam both sat up sharply at his tone.
“That’s a newcomer,” Wells said. “Wait, I think this one is Barnes? Entering the house?”
“He has weapons though,” Tony said.
“Natasha— yes, Natasha is fighting him,” Yelena said. “Oh! She’s shot him.”
“But that’s Barnes,” Wells said.
“There’s another player in the— oh my,” Yelena said.
“She shot him,” Tony said, blankly shocked.
“Whoever that other player was— shit, another glitch,” Wells said.
“Fuck,” Tony said.
“Okay who shot who?” Sam demanded.
“We need to load the next scenario,” Wells said, “someone got shot.”
“Here,” Yelena said.
“It looks like Bucky showed up and Natasha fought him,” Tony explained distractedly, “and shot him non-fatally, and then she shot another person, who wasn’t Steve and wasn’t Bucky, except— I don’t know who the fuck it was. Can we tell if that was fatal?”
“Not until we load the next scenario,” Wells said.
“Great,” Lakeisha said.
“I’m going to pull the next scenario from Natasha’s memories,” Yelena said. “It looks like going off Steve’s didn’t lead us anywhere productive. Bye-bye, Brooklyn.”
“That sounds really fuckin’ ominous,” Lakeisha muttered to Sam, but it wasn’t like she could come up with anything better herself.
* * *
“Yeah? I’m right here, buddy,” Steve said. Bucky was lying with his head in Steve’s lap, Steve’s back propped against the wall. Natasha was sitting at the foot of the bed playing with the Brownie box camera she’d found on the shelf.
“Steve,” Bucky said, blinking vaguely. “Aw Stevie. I had the weirdest fuckin’ dream. Are you mad at me?”
“Naw, Buck,” Steve said, “I’m not mad at you.” He was visibly fighting tears, and smoothed Bucky’s sweaty hair back away from his forehead. He’d been upset the whole time they’d been here, and Natasha couldn’t blame him. His dead mother’s effects were in a box under the bed, and he hadn’t been able to not cry when he’d found them. He’d let her pull him in against her shoulder, which was a first, and she’d sung to him, because sometimes dream-logic worked in here.
Bucky looked around, sucking in a breath, then yawning. His eyes lit on Natasha, and he frowned, then shoved himself upright with a wince. “Natalia,” he said, incredulous.
She half-smiled. “Hello, James,” she said. “We’ve come to find you.”
“It wasn’t a dream,” he said, and twisted around to look at Steve. “It wasn’t— but— where are we?”
“It’s a virtual reality,” Steve said.
Natasha put the Brownie down and crawled closer across the bed. “James,” she said, and caught his chin between her fingers. “Is it all you?”
“I dreamed there was someone else,” he said. He looked frightened, and younger than she’d ever known him. “Holding me prisoner.”
“There is,” she said, “and we are here to force him apart from you, but we have to find him first.”
Bucky took a deep breath, staring at her, then yanked his left hand out of the tangle of bedding and stared at it. It was human, not metal. He flexed it slowly, staring at it as if it were an advancing scorpion or venomous snake.
Natasha had never seen his left hand, so she had no idea whether this were correct— his skin was a bit stained with machine grease, dirt ground under the nails, but the nails were well-groomed and neatly trimmed apart from that. There was a scar across the pad of his thumb, a callus on his palm from operating some kind of machine with a lever, a scattering of freckles on his forearm, a delicate tracery of blue veins under the pale skin at the wrist.
Steve took the hand between both of his and held it. “Bucky,” he said.
“You, you were bigger,” Bucky said uncertainly. “I— what really happened and what was a dream? Where the fuck are we?”
“We’re in the Mechtat,” Natasha said. “It’s really 2015 and we’re trying to get Zola out of your head, so he’s in here with us somewhere.”
Bucky grimaced. “He was in my head, Steve,” he said pleadingly, “and I couldn’t— I couldn’t tell you.”
“I knew something was wrong,” Steve said. “Bucky, I know you, I’ll always see. Don’t ever think I won’t. It might take me a minute but I’ll always figure it out, I’ll always come for you.”
Bucky clung onto his hands, breathing hard. “I love you,” he said, “I love both of you, but I swear to God, if you can’t get Zola out, you have to promise to fucking kill me. I can’t live like that any longer.”
“Bucky,” Steve said, and suddenly the lights went out. But the bed didn’t disappear, and Natasha sprang to her feet in the total darkness.
“Another glitch?” Steve asked.
“No,” she said, “listen!”
Something with a heavy tread was outside on the stairs. A man, perhaps, walking heavily, setting boots down and making the treads squeal. “Jesus Mary and Joseph,” Bucky said, and from the rustle of bedding, sat up
“Stay still,” Natasha said, moving out into the kitchen. She had a flashlight in one hand, a pistol in the other, and had them crossed over one another to hold both steady, finger on both triggers. “Neither of you move.”
Steve flicked on a flashlight, which came dimly through the door. “What is it?”
Bucky shushed him, and she heard them bickering in whispers over Steve giving Bucky one of his pistols. “Don’t,” she said suddenly, thinking of something— they had no guarantee that was really Bucky. “Don’t, Steve.”
“What?” Bucky sounded confused.
The doorknob of the apartment rattled, and Natasha adjusted her stance, absolutely silent. She’d bet anything she knew who was going to come through that door.
As the door splintered, she shone the flashlight at eye level at the intruder. It didn’t slow him down at all; as she’d expected, it was the Winter Soldier, in mask and goggles, and he came in through the door and dodged three bullets and deflected the third with his arm.
“Run,” Natasha shouted, “run!” and flung herself down, sweeping his legs and shooting him in the calf. But he barely stumbled before he was up again and past her, into the bedroom; she leapt on him from behind and he caught her and smashed her against the doorframe before she could get her garrote into place. She kept hold of her pistol but lost the flashlight, and now the only light in the room was Steve’s flashlight, lying on the floor.
The Winter Soldier loomed over her and she gripped the pistol, aiming at his face. It didn’t deter him. “Natalia,” he said, muffled by the mask. “Natalia.”
“Don’t call me that,” she hissed. Someone leapt onto his back, either Steve or Bucky, and he staggered back; her bullet had hit his leg after all. She scrambled to her feet and the lights came back on.
It was Bucky on the Soldier’s back, elbow wrapped around his neck and face set grimly; he’d missed his grip to break the Soldier’s neck and was trying to strangle him instead. The Soldier wasn’t fighting as hard as he should have been, and she realized that behind those goggles he was staring at Steve, who had his back to the window and his pistol up, and was trying to get a bead on him.
Bucky was in the way, and the Soldier was working to keep it that way. Natasha could take his legs out and have him, but she paused for a moment, working through something in her mind. She knew the Soldier; if he wanted them dead, they’d already be. “Steve,” she said, “Steve, wait.”
Bucky gritted his teeth and adjusted his hold and the Soldier sank slowly to the floor. “Steve,” the Soldier said. “Steve.” He could have thrown Bucky off, but made no real attempt, only keeping one hand braced so Bucky couldn’t crush his windpipe.
Natasha stepped closer, purposely spoiling Steve’s shot. “Wait,” she said, and brought her gun up. The Soldier stared at her, expressionless behind the obstructions over his face, but after an instant he slowly bowed his head, a tremor going through his body. Bucky watched him, a strange glimmer of triumph crossing his face.
Natasha set the muzzle of her pistol against the middle of Bucky’s forehead, not the Soldier’s.
“No!” Steve shouted, just as Bucky raised his eyes to her and snarled, something flashing green across his irises, and Natasha pulled the trigger and everything went black.
* * *
“No,” Tony said, “you can’t use a defibrillator on a man with all that metal in him!”
“Well,” Dr. Montazeri said, frazzled, “you tell me what I am to do to save this man’s life!”
“This is Zola,” Yelena said from the monitor, pointing to a line in the text readout. “He used— one of the memory-erasing chairs— he just deleted your Barnes.”
“This is not happening,” Lakeisha said, realizing she had both hands wrapped around Sam’s arm. Bucky had looked bad enough before, unconscious, but he was visibly different, lips blue already, eyes glinting dully half-open.
“When you die in the game you die for real,” Yelena said, but she had the grace to look upset and furious.
“He’s not even in the game,” Tony said, disgusted. “He never even got a chance— I have to be able to fix this.”
“Use the control panel,” Wells said. “Natasha— could use the control panel. Barnes still has a player in the game.”
“Adrenaline,” Tony said, “give him adrenaline or something—“
“It is highly unlikely that would restore a functioning heart rhythm,” Dr. Montazeri snapped.
“Can we use this thing to talk to them?” Wells asked Yelena. “If we tell her— look, that thing there, that sprite, whatever you call it— that’s Barnes, he’s not deleted, she just needs to activate it.”
“She does,” Yelena said, distant, preoccupied.
“You can keep someone alive a long time with chest compressions,” Dr. Montazeri said grimly. “Cynthia, if you’d fetch me a bag.”
* * *
“Bucky,” Steve said brokenly, and she heard him moving in the darkness. “Bucky— Natasha, what happened? What the hell?”
He sounded angry now, baffled and wounded. “Steve,” she said, “that wasn’t Bucky.”
“It was him!” Steve insisted. She found her backup flashlight, tied to her calf, and turned it on. They were nowhere again, a glitch, alone.
“You didn’t see his eyes,” Natasha said.
Steve spun to face her, breathing hard with a high tight wheeze, gun still in his hand. “I don’t need to see his fucking eyes,” he said.
She looked him up and down impassively. “This is why I was going to bring Yelena,” she said. “She knows how different it is in here. You don’t understand how the Mechtat works, Steve. You’re not suited to this sort of work.”
Steve froze, at that, and after a long moment, holstered his gun. “What, were they both Zola?” he said grudgingly.
“No,” she said, “I didn’t think— but he should be here, if it was really Bucky.”
“But if you die in here you die for real,” Steve said. “If you killed him—“
“His body would be here if I killed him and he was really him,” Natasha said, rounding on him in exasperation. “I swear to God, Steve, if I have to throw you out of here I will.”
“No,” Steve said, subsiding with ill grace, but subsiding nonetheless. She’d take it. “No, I— I’m sorry.”
“You are not trained for this,” she said, relenting a little now that she could afford to concede. “But when I say you didn’t see his eyes, I mean you did not see when they changed color. He slipped and Zola was there.”
“That’s why you were telling me not to give him a pistol,” Steve said. He sounded sick. “But— Natasha, it was him.”
“It probably was,” she said. “I think it’s the same in here as it was out there, Steve— it’s Bucky, but Zola’s wound through him.”
“I thought we were gonna be able to separate them, in here,” Steve said, dismayed.
“We are,” she said. “It’s just… not going to be all that easy.”
Steve chewed on his lower lip intently, clearly thinking. “How long has it been?” he asked.
“Real time?” Natasha considered. “I doubt it’s even been an hour.”
Steve shoved his gun back into its holster and swung away to pace through the disconcerting nothingness. “We gotta,” he said, but trailed off, and stopped. He turned slowly, and came back toward her. “The— other him. The Winter Soldier. I assumed that was Zola but— I was distracted— toward the end, he was saying my name, wasn’t he.”
“Yes,” Natasha said.
“Fuck,” Steve said, and turned away again.
Natasha took a breath to speak, but stopped as in the distance the sound of the simulation spinning up throbbed through the floor. “Get ready,” she said, “we know Zola’s awake now,” and Steve drew his pistol again.
But as the lights flickered up, it didn’t matter: they were in a white room, completely surrounded by about a dozen black-clad men with guns, all just substantial enough to make it plain that for the purposes of the simulation, they were real enough to kill.
* * *
Steve followed Natasha, hands on his head, as the gunmen escorted them through white hallways. He’d fucked this up, it was on him. He didn’t know Yelena at all but she wouldn’t have been distracted by Bucky, wouldn’t have been distracted by the old apartment and his mother’s things. Natasha wouldn’t have known which apartment to check but that probably didn’t matter. He shouldn’t have come. Now they were trapped.
They were marched through a metal door with a large wheel to lock it, and the men in black trooped back out and slammed the door behind themselves. The room was large and filled with esoteric old-fashioned science-type equipment. One figure stood next to a bank of controls, his back to them. Natasha was standing frozen, stock-still, staring at something, and it wasn’t the person. Steve followed her gaze to a large, curved-glass structure with metal banding, a large tube of some kind, cloudy with condensation and weirdly-lit, like it was full of liquid.
And then Steve noticed the hand. A human hand was pressed against the inside of the glass. “Oh my God,” he said suddenly.
“I have seen,” Natasha said hoarsely, “this place before.”
The figure turned slowly, and looked at them, and it was the Winter Soldier, wearing an incongruous white lab coat and his goggles and mask. He had seemed slighter, facing the other way, but now he loomed, larger than life, inhuman with his face hidden. Steve swallowed hard, hands still up. “So if he’s over there, who’s in the tank?”
“There were other men who went in the tanks,” Natasha said, voice low. “But it is possible neither of them is really him.”
It was then that Steve managed to focus on the man in the tank. He had dark hair and a familiar build. It was almost certainly Bucky. “Well,” Steve said, “shit.”
The Winter Soldier walked toward them slowly, unhesitating, emotionless, impossible to read. As he came closer he seemed to get bigger, towering over them, looming in silent implacable menace.
But he was moving at an angle to them, and passed by— without pausing, without looking at them— and continued to another bank of complicated equipment on the far side of the room, away from the cryo tank. There was an ugly padded chair, and he climbed into it, and Natasha made a faint noise, though her body language betrayed nothing.
Restraints snapped down around his wrists, arms, ankles, and thighs, and the chair tilted back a little, and Steve staggered back a little as Natasha turned abruptly away and crashed into his shoulder. But she wasn’t tackling him down or anything like that, she was just grabbing him to steady herself. “No,” she said quietly, “I— no.”
She was shaking. “What,” Steve said, and looked back over to see an apparatus lowering itself over Bu— the Winter Soldier’s head. Electricity crackled, and Natasha’s fingers tightened on his shoulders enough to bruise.
“Memory wipe,” she said, “a memory wipe—“ and just then, horribly, Bucky started screaming.
“Jesus Christ,” Steve said, sick, watching Bucky convulse, held in place by the restraints. And from the way Natasha was completely, completely still against him, she had gone through this herself. She wasn’t even shaking anymore. “Can we stop it?”
“No,” she said, “interrupting it is— almost as bad— sometimes worse—“
“The cryo tank,” Steve said, “if we break it, can we—“
“No,” she said. “No! He has to— there’s a procedure. If you don’t— even if you do— I’ve watched— I watched a man die, coming out of cryo, it’s the— it’s the worst thing—“
Steve set his jaw grimly, watching as Bu— as the Winter Soldier stopped convulsing and the apparatus detached. It swung back up and out of the way, and the Winter Soldier lay motionless, twitching occasionally. “I hope that neither of these is really him,” Steve said. He’d never seen Natasha upset, not like this. She was hanging onto him with a downright painful grip, not moving and not looking at anything. Would Yelena know what to do, here? He’d assumed he knew how to work with Natasha, but nothing in here was like he’d expected.
Especially not Natasha. There was a different kind of logic to her here. And he really couldn’t believe he’d actually— not thinking about sex with Natasha had always been a kind of important boundary to him and he’d just, willy-nilly, blown past it, and that wasn’t like him or her, and something was wrong but he had no idea how to figure that out.
Natasha breathed sharply in, let it out slowly, and straightened, looking him in the eye and loosening her grip on his shoulders. “We have to initiate the defrosting procedure,” she said. “I think it’s the only way we can go from here.”
“What about,” Steve said slowly, staring at the Winter Soldier, who still twitched intermittently. Natasha stepped away from him and went to a bank of controls near the cryo tank. Warily watching the Winter Soldier, Steve followed.
He had to steel himself to look up at the cryo tank. It was absolutely Bucky in there, blank-faced and open-eyed, suspended completely motionless in greenish liquid, a mask with a tube covering his nose and mouth, his hair short and disarranged as if floating in liquid.
Natasha scanned the controls, and Steve tore his eyes away from Bucky’s horrible stillness to help her look. “Here,” she said, and flipped back the cover protecting a switch so she could move it to the downward position.
There was a beep, then something whirred, spinning up into a deeper groan somewhere in the inner workings of the machine. The display lit up and readouts scrolled across it. “Did it work?” Steve asked nervously.
“It’s… doing something,” Natasha said. “Temperature, that’s what this is.”
They stood awkwardly for a few minutes. Steve turned and watched the Winter Soldier, still motionless in the chair. Natasha frowned intently at the display.
Suddenly the cryo mechanism cranked to life with an ominous groan, and there was an unsettling rushing noise as of liquid. The level of green in the container started to drop, and the tube slowly, grindingly tilted. “Temperature’s coming up,” Natasha said, frowning. “I don’t know if it’s supposed to be that fast?”
“I don’t know anything about this,” Steve said helplessly. “Fuck.” He glanced over. The Winter Soldier was still now, lying as if dead, but it was impossible to tell with his mask on. The— whoever he was— in the tank was strapped to the back of the tank by his chest, so as the tube tipped to horizontal, he settled flat against the former back of the tank, now the bottom.
“He’s alive,” Natasha said, and glanced up. “Heart restarted.”
“His heart doesn’t beat in cryo,” Steve said, and of course it didn’t, he’d just never— he’d never really thought about it.
“Respiration,” she said, “should be,” and she squinted at the figure. The chest moved a little, Steve thought. The liquid was draining away. There was a beep, and Natasha said, “Remove mask from subject as soon as tank opens,” clearly reading from her display. They exchanged a look.
“I figured there’d be ice,” Steve said.
“The liquid isn’t water,” Natasha said. “It’s just below freezing. Or, was. The temperature’s coming up really fast now.”
She was completely emotionless and blank, and he’d long ago learned that meant she was very upset. “You’ve seen this before?” Steve asked warily.
“I watched a man die,” she said flatly. “All of his organs failed during defrosting. It was the worst thing I’ve ever seen.”
With another beep and a whoosh, the tank’s supports separated, and the curved glass face began to rise with the hiss of air-cushioned supports. “That’s reassuring,” Steve said. A humming noise began, and hot air blowers began to circulate, taking over from the liquid in the tube at the task of warming Bucky’s body.
“Take the mask off him,” Natasha said, “and turn him on his side, his lungs are full of fluid.”
“Fluid,” Steve said, startled. “Won’t that drown him?”
“It’s an oxygen-bearing PFC fluid,” Natasha said. “He’s going to have to clear it from his lungs before he can breathe air, but he’s going to be too weak to cough effectively. I’m told that even when it goes well this part is unpleasant at best.”
Steve grimaced, and climbed carefully over the railing, with a glance back at the Winter Soldier still in the chair. Still motionless, still unresponsive, still shackled to the chair.
“Hurry up,” Natasha said, “he’s coming up to temp and he’s going to wake up suffocating.”
“Yes ma’am,” Steve said, leaning over the tank. It had separated into a kind of bier, and Bucky was lying like he was asleep, stark naked and with a metal left arm that didn’t look much like the one he’d had when Steve had fought him in D.C. This one looked older, and had a hydraulic cable down the back. Bucky’s hair was long, but not as long as in D.C.
The mask fastened with a clip, so he unfastened it and pulled it loose. What looked like water started pouring out of Bucky’s mouth and nose, and Bucky spluttered weakly. Steve gritted his teeth and unfastened the strap around his chest, turning him onto his side, metal arm upward, with some effort— he was much smaller than Bucky now.
Water gushed out for a moment, and then Bucky coughed wetly, and more or less vomited. The liquid had blood in it, distressingly. His eyes rolled open and his body convulsed as the liquid streamed out of his lungs, and Steve held him, grimacing.
Bucky dragged in a ragged breath, choked again, and coughed a little more strongly, gasping and retching and convulsing. It was a long time before he managed to draw a full breath, and he arched his head back with it, eyes open and unseeing and hands blindly grasping.
“Bucky,” Steve said, “I gotcha, it’s okay, hey.”
Bucky vomited again, mostly water but some blood, and Steve held him gently by the shoulders as he curled in on himself, gasping and shaking. He was managing to make distressed noises, and as he got more of his lung capacity back they came closer and closer to being screams. He was clearly in agony, completely incoherent with it.
“Careful,” Natasha said, “his skin is probably pretty raw.”
“Great,” Steve muttered.
“Temperature is good,” Natasha said, “approaching normal, he’ll be warm enough to shiver soon.”
Bucky’s human hand found one of Steve’s and grabbed onto him, weakly. Steve folded his fingers to hold him better, and said, “I gotcha,” carefully stroking the wet hair out of Bucky’s face. Bucky didn’t seem to be able to focus his eyes, staring wide-eyed like a newborn.
“This was how the man died,” Natasha said, not looking at them. “At this stage. His heart started beating, he started breathing, but there’d been too much damage. His lungs started sloughing tissue, his skin split, and he died trying and failing to scream.”
“Fuck,” Steve hissed. In his lap, Bucky coughed weakly, and his body tried to curl in on itself but he could barely move. “Was it like this every time?”
“He’s doing better than the other guy already,” Natasha said. Steve wanted to comfort her, but he also was busy feeling like absolute shit at finding out yet one more piece of how badly Bucky had suffered. Because it was unlikely anyone had ever sat with him like this before, had ever tried to comfort him during this horrible process. And Steve had thought his own defrosting was bad— but he’d slept through it. He hadn’t slept through the freezing, that had been horrible, but this was clearly worse.
“I don’t know why I assumed that they had a good cryo-freeze process,” Steve muttered.
Bucky whimpered, turning his face to Steve’s lap. He was getting a little stronger already, or just used to it; he squeezed Steve’s hand a little harder and managed something closer to a full breath.
“Nothing they did was good,” Natasha said viciously.
Bucky writhed violently, sucking in a deep breath, and wheezed, “No— look out— no—“
“Don’t try to talk, Barnes,” Natasha said, not unsympathetically.
Steve glanced up, wondering what Bucky could possibly mean, and was alarmed to note that the Winter Soldier was gone from the chair. “Fuck,” he said, whipping his head around to look for him.
Natasha followed the direction of his gaze, yanking one of her pistols out of its holster, but she was too slow; the Winter Soldier was directly behind her, and hit her so hard in the face she staggered and fell, dropping her pistol.
Steve jumped to his feet, leaving Bucky to curl into a ball, and drew his pistol. The Winter Soldier slapped it out of his hand and drew a gun of his own, bringing it to bear.
“I wouldn’t try it,” the Soldier said, voice muffled.
It wasn’t Bucky’s voice.
“No,” Bucky gasped, from his curled position. “N— no—“
The Winter Soldier reached down with his metal arm and hauled Natasha upright, keeping the gun pointed at Steve. Natasha was semiconscious, groggily trying to get her bearings. “Stop it,” Steve said, knowing it was futile. He really didn’t want the Soldier to start shooting, but he also was pretty sure whatever he was going to do to Natasha wasn’t good.
“It’s better this way,” the Soldier said, and this time Steve could identify the voice.
The Soldier dragged Natasha away, walking slowly backward, gun still trained on Steve. “No,” Bucky whimpered, and Steve stepped back so he could see Bucky and the Soldier at the same time. Bucky was shivering, trying to push himself up.
Natasha dropped her shoulder and rolled, an expert move that should have worked, but the Soldier held onto her easily, not wavering, and hauled her back up with a gesture that made her seem weightless.
Steve figured out where they were going about the same time Natasha did: the chair. Natasha groaned, a heartfelt noise like Steve had never heard her make, and began to struggle wildly. It didn’t make sense, Steve thought; he’d seen Natasha fight the Soldier before, and she’d done a lot better than this. But, he was continually finding out, normal rules didn’t always apply in here.
For one, the Soldier was bigger than Bucky ever had been. It wasn’t just his altered perspective, Steve was sure of it— the Soldier was at least six-four right now, and he knew even after being changed Bucky was barely over six feet. He was enormous.
Zola was altering reality to suit him. And that meant Natasha had no chance in hell of escaping him. She resorted to clawing at him, trying to kick his knee back, ripping at his face mask and goggles, but the gun he had pointed at Steve never wavered, nor did his progress toward the chair.
Bucky managed to get up as far as his elbow, shaking violently, then vomited blood and curled up again. Steve started toward him in alarm, keeping an eye on the Soldier’s reaction, and stopped short when the Soldier paused to take better aim, an obvious prelude to firing.
“Not so brave without Erskine’s serum,” Zola said. Natasha ripped his mask off, and it sure looked like Bucky’s mouth. “Stop, little girl, this is for your own good,” he said, betraying annoyance, and with that he shoved Natasha down into the chair and punched her, hard, in the face. Her head lolled back and she went limp, and Steve scooted forward in that instant of distraction to stand right next to Bucky. The thing he was lying on was about knee-height from the floor, and Steve eyed it, trying to see if there was any shelter to be had there. If he could get behind it, to fire from cover, he’d have time to draw the other pistol— but he’d have to get Bucky off it, get him to cover too. Either way, though, his lifespan was likely to be measurable in seconds, because Zola didn’t look like he was all that susceptible to bullets at this point.
“You can’t even play fair,” Steve said. “C’mon, this can’t even be that fun for you.”
“Your big mouth,” Bucky panted indistinctly. He still wasn’t breathing all that well. “Christ, Rogers.”
Unhurriedly, Zola pressed his hand against the middle of Natasha’s chest, and the restraints of the chair snapped into place around her arms and legs. She looked so small, so slight, so helpless, her nose and mouth streaming blood and her eyelids fighting to open.
“I’m above those sorts of considerations, Captain Rogers,” Zola said. “It is impossible to have a fair fight against me. I am a genius, after all.”
It was obscene, watching Bucky’s mouth make Zola’s voice. He wasn’t Bucky, though, he clearly wasn’t. Steve still wasn’t sure how Natasha had known before, but this was pretty unambiguous.
“I dunno,” Steve said, “I’ve known plenty of geniuses in my time, and usually the only way to get them to do something is if it’s fun. They’re the worst at motivation.”
“Perhaps,” Zola said, unperturbed. With the goggles on it was impossible to tell where he was looking. “Having the last Black Widow at my mercy, along with you, and my chance to finally destroy the last remnants of Sergeant Barnes? I suppose you could call that fun.”
“The last Black Widow,” Steve said blankly. No she wasn’t. Did Zola know that? Would knowing that change anything? Was it strategic knowledge? “And it’s not like I have the serum, it’s not like you can use me.”
“Not in here, no,” Zola said, “but you can’t think I won’t do this to you next. And if I control your consciousness, I control your body, serum or no.”
So Natasha was getting the chair first. What would it do to her? She moved her head feebly, blinking, and he saw her jerk her feet and realize she was restrained. “This is bad,” Steve said softly. “This is real bad. Tony, you gotta see that this is bad.” Surely Tony could shut it down. Coming in here to fight Zola had been a terrible idea.
“Tony’s the operator?” Bucky asked, in a murmur.
“And Yelena,” Steve said. He wasn’t going to bring up the HYDRA woman.
“Don’t think they know how to pull us out,” Bucky said.
“You are in a bad way, gentlemen,” Zola said smugly, and turned his head to press a button on the complicated control interface next to the chair.
Natasha thrashed, silent and determined, as a big circular metal clamp descended toward her head. She was small enough to twist, to a degree, within the confines of the restraints, and she moved far enough that the clamp stuttered, caught, and retracted rather than coming down on her head.
Zola leaned over and planted his metal hand in the middle of her chest, forcing her back into the proper position as the clamp descended again. She struggled, dislocating a thumb and freeing an arm, but she couldn’t move far enough to avoid the clamp this time.
Something stirred next to Steve’s leg, and his thigh holster suddenly lightened. The muzzle blast knocked him sideways and he staggered, ears ringing.
Zola reeled back, and Steve scrambled madly for one of the discarded pistols on the floor. He scrabbled up the closer one and shot Zola as Bucky fired again. Bucky missed, but Steve didn’t, and Zola staggered back a pace. Steve wasn’t much of a shot in this body after all, but at this range it didn’t matter; he’d shot the gun straight out of Zola’s hand with little trouble.
“You’ll kill him,” Zola said. “Do you want that?”
“Yes,” Bucky said hoarsely. He was sitting up, shaking violently, holding the pistol in both hands and struggling to bring it to bear on Zola again. “Fuck you,” he managed to say, and his nose was bleeding as freely as Natasha’s.
“I got him,” Steve said, and shot Zola in the chest.
“Headshot,” Bucky said, letting his arm fall, nearly collapsing. “Get a headshot. No good without a headshot.”
“Yeah okay,” Steve said, reluctant, but he advanced to where Zola had fallen back against the wall, reeling. He raised the pistol and shot Zola in the chest again. “Headshot, Steve,” Bucky said, stronger. “That’s not me. Do it.”
Steve couldn’t do it. Zola yanked the goggles off and stared at him with Bucky’s face, stark white and shocked, blood coming from his mouth. “Steve,” Zola said.
Natasha screamed, and it cut off abruptly. “Shit,” Steve said, and ran to the chair. The thing had clamped down onto her head and was emitting some kind of sparks or something. Frantic, Steve fired blindly into the control interface, twice, three times. The clamp released Natasha’s head, and Steve pried at the restraints around the arm she hadn’t freed with his free hand. Finally they released.
Natasha fell out of the chair as Steve pulled on her. “Shit,” Steve said again, “shit, shit,” and lowered her to the ground. She was shuddering, maybe seizing, and he kept the pistol in his hand, kept his eye on the Winter Soldier, held her as best he could.
“Steve,” she said, shivering, “Steve—“
The lights went out, and Steve braced himself in the total darkness.
“Glitch?” he asked breathlessly, when nothing happened.
“Glitch,” Natasha said, inhaling with a gasp.
“Bucky?” Steve ventured. “If he’s here, will we hear him?”
“I’m here,” Bucky said weakly. “What the fuck.”
“It’s a glitch,” Steve said. He fumbled for his flashlight. “Shit.”
“I have one on my belt,” Natasha said. “Left. Lower, that’s my boob.” She managed a laugh.
Steve switched the flashlight on and swung it around. There was no sign of the lab, no sign of the Winter Soldier, but there— over there was Bucky, half-curled on the ground.
“Jesus fuck,” Bucky said, struggling to sit up. “Jesus. I forgot how bad that sucked.”
“I did not,” Natasha said. She struggled up as well, and Steve helped her get up and stagger over to Bucky. “James,” she said, and she was crying. She put out her arms and pulled Bucky’s head against her chest, and Bucky threaded his arms around her waist. “James. Oh God.” She was shaking.
“Did they use the chair on you?” Bucky asked, in Russian.
“Only once, I think,” Natasha said, then laughed bitterly, “but I don’t remember. We were all terrified of it.”
“What did it do in here?” Bucky asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t— I know it came down on me, I know it hurt, but I don’t remember, there was suddenly this glitch and we’re here. I don’t know.”
Steve remembered her dislocated thumb and found her hand, pulling it up to check on it. It was fine. “Wait,” he said.
“Sometimes injuries don’t persist,” Natasha said. “Sometimes they only last until the next glitch, sometimes they reset when you stop paying attention to them, sometimes they continue until you get out. It depends on the operator.”
“Huh,” Steve said, squinting. “But if you die in here you die for real. So did we kill Zola, just now?”
“You didn’t shoot him in the fucking head,” Bucky said, raising his face from Natasha’s shoulder. “I know what kind of specs the Winter Soldier’s body’s got, you wouldn’t have registered as a kill for sure without the headshot.”
“You could survive getting shot four times in the chest,” Steve said. “Point-blank. Large caliber.” He had a m1911a Colt .45 like he’d always carried. It felt enormous in his hand, and the kick was enough to knock him back every time.
“Yes,” Bucky said. “I have.”
Steve stared at him. “Well,” he said. “He’s not here.” He gestured.
“No,” Bucky said, “he’s not. But that doesn’t tell you anything except that there wasn’t any of me in that body, like I fucking told you.”
“If I jump the gun and kill you, then we’ll have come in here for nothing,” Steve said. “The whole point is to try to get you out.”
“I don’t think we killed him,” Natasha said quietly.
Bucky closed his eyes and leaned his head down against Natasha’s shoulder again. She was shaking less. He held his arm out and yanked Steve in, making it a three-way embrace. Steve let go of his pistol and wrapped his arms around both of them.
“If you can’t get me out,” Bucky said, “you can’t— if you can’t separate him outta me— he said there wasn’t any way—“
“I’m not about to take his word for anything,” Steve said. Light flickered across his vision and he blinked, confused. Neither of the others reacted, not even when the light repeated— an overall flash of brightness that stung his eyes. “What’s that?”
“What’s what?” Bucky asked, raising his head.
“That,” Steve said, “that light— ow!”
“Oh,” Natasha said, “shit.”
“Ow,” Steve said again, sitting up groggily— oh. Oh. He was— he was himself, in the Tower. In the lab they’d been in. With no shirt on, sitting on a gurney. He felt enormous, his shoulders an alien framework like a plow blade. “Ow, what the—“
“Steve,” Sam said, “you reckless son of a bitch. What the hell were you doing? You shot Bucky like five times.”
Steve looked over. Natasha was next to him, still and sedated, wearing a sports bra and jeans and as many electrodes as he himself still was, but as he watched, her eyebrows pulled together and her eyelids pinched. Next to her was Bucky, shirtless and bandaged and dead-white except the dark bruises that had come up from his run-in with the drill press.
“Wasn’t Bucky,” he said, rubbing his face groggily. Anaesthetic had him still sluggish. “I— what happened?”
“I yanked you out of there,” Tony said. “I tried to do it before you murdered anybody, or before Natasha got fucking electrocuted, but things happen pretty fuckin’ fast in there and it’s not the most responsive program.”
“Yeah,” Steve said, “I feel that.”
Bucky was coming to, Steve noticed; he wasn’t giving any real sign but his heart monitor had picked up a little and he was breathing carefully, deliberately. “Well,” Dr. Montazeri said, “he didn’t die again, so it must not really have been him you shot.”
“It wasn’t him,” Steve said. “It wasn’t him when Natasha shot him either. That’s him, now.”
Bucky took a deep breath and shoved himself up on an elbow, startling the doctor. “You didn’t kill Zola, Steve,” he said. “I know you didn’t kill him.”
“Well,” Steve said, “is he in you?”
Bucky stared at him, stricken. God, he looked awful, circles under his eyes and blood on his face. “I don’t know,” he said.
Tony came up next to him and gestured a holoscreen into existence, then held a little device up. “Gonna put this behind your head,” Tony said, “don’t startle and hit me or anything.”
“Okay,” Bucky said.
Tony held the device a couple of inches away from the base of Bucky’s skull. “How you feelin’, BarnesBot?”
“Like if you cut all the metal out of me I still wouldn’t be human,” Bucky said. His eyes suddenly snapped to Steve. “Clint. I hit him with a syringe full of horse tranquilizers. Did it kill him?”
“No,” Dr. Montazeri said gently, “he will be all right. He is resting comfortably and will have no lasting ill effects.”
Bucky let out a slow shuddering breath. “Thank fuck,” he said.
“I don’t get any kind of reading like Zola’s in there,” Tony said.
Bucky breathed in slowly, then out slowly, and began picking the electrodes off himself. “Okay,” he said. “Okay.” He nodded slowly. “We didn’t kill him, though. I know we fucking didn’t.”
“I shot him a whole bunch of times,” Steve said.
Natasha was stirring, coming up more gradually than either of them, and she seemed to be fighting grogginess with a lot more difficulty. “You killed him,” she said, slurring her words a little. “You got him, Steve.”
Steve frowned at her. “That’s not what you said just now,” he pointed out.
“I don’t remember,” she said, managing to get a hand to her face to push at the middle of her forehead like she had a headache. With great effort, she pushed herself upright and started peeling electrodes off.
Steve picked off his own electrodes with practiced ease— he’d spent a lot of time with electrodes glued to him, he reflected— and yanked his t-shirt back on over his head. “Well,” he said, remembering to glare at the HYDRA woman, who was absorbed in the screen with the readouts, along with Yelena. “I guess we’ll find out where he went. Can’t JARVIS go in there after him?”
“That’s a thought,” Tony said, “and it’s a thought I’ve been working on. JARVIS has been learning as much as he can through the Mechtat machine but he’s also been a little distracted restoring himself from backups, so. We’re not there quite yet.”
“At least he’s out of Bucky,” Steve said, climbing to his feet. “Right?”
“Looks that way,” Tony said. Bucky was sitting hunched on his gurney, arm wrapped around his midsection, bare feet dangling. He looked so tired, and so frail. Steve brought his sweatshirt over and handed it to him.
“You look cold, Buck,” he said, and helped put it on him. Bucky pulled it closed and shivered.
“Thanks,” he said quietly.
“That wasn’t,” Steve said, and paused uncomfortably. “Cryo wasn’t, was it really like that?”
“Yeah,” Bucky said. He scrubbed his hand through his hair, disarranging it dramatically, then leaned over and pressed his forehead against Steve’s shoulder. Steve wrapped his arms around him, so grateful to touch him he was past caring about anyone watching them. “I hated it,” he said, very quietly. “Every time I wished it would kill me. It never did.”
“It never did, Buck,” Steve said, savagely angry. “And you fucking beat them, in the end.”
“I wish I was sure of that, Steve,” Bucky said. He repeated it, softer, and it would have been inaudible to anyone with standard hearing. “I wish I was sure of that.”