Steve hesitated; the door to his apartment was ajar. It wasn't a trap--well, probably not, anyway; not subtle enough. He'd occasionally felt a ghostlike presence in the apartment, just the feeling of someone, another body moving through the place. But this... Steve pushed the door open and moved slowly into the hall. There was a bloody smear on the wall, three big drops of blood on the floor. The shower was hissing, and Steve saw the shadow of a man on the other side of the curtain.
He was sitting, half-naked and drenched, at the bottom of the shower stall, pulling a leather strap tight with his teeth: the makeshift tourniquet on his right arm. The inch of water he was sitting in was pale pink. The gun came up, aimed right between Steve's eyes, before he'd even noticed it clutched in the metal hand, and Steve immediately raised his own hands, stomach twisting: Bucky'd been shot multiple times. He'd detached his left trouser leg and his right sleeve to treat the wounds, and blood was already faintly staining the clean white bandage he'd affixed to his thigh. Now he was working on his arm: he'd irrigated the wounds and was about to dump in the clotting powder when Steve turned up.
He aimed the gun between Steve's eyes without even looking, his long wet hair plastered to his face. The leather strap fell out of his mouth. Water dripped from his nose. The movement of the metal arm was swift, and despite all the blood, the lines of pain on his face, the hand holding the gun was steady.
His eyes were dark and unreadable: there was only a faint ring of blue around the pupils. He stared at Steve down the gun barrel and muttered: "Are you really my friend?"
"Yes!" Steve's head swam at the question. "Please. Let me help you. Let me call--"
Bucky hesitated for a second and then yanked the gun to his own temple, and Steve instantly froze. "No doctors. No hospitals," he said, a terrible sincerity in his voice.
"All right," Steve said. "Yes. Whatever you say."
Bucky sized him up for another second or two, then nodded, gun arm falling to his side. After another moment, he let the weapon slide into the water, and yanked the tourniquet tight, grunting, his face contorting with pain. "I need your help," he said, gritting his teeth as he shook powder into the wound, then reached into the pocket of his tac vest and pulled out a clean bandage. Steve stared at him helplessly, and Bucky surprised him by laughing: a jagged scrape of a sound. "Not with this," he said, as if he were reading Steve's mind. He pressed the bandage hard to the wound then roughly began to tape it down. "This is nothing," he said, with a quick shake of his head, though the beaded sweat on his face, notwithstanding the cool water he was sitting in, seemed to indicate otherwise. "I heal fast."
"It's a mission," he told Steve, "one I can't do by myself." He finished winding gauze around his arm and leaned back against the white tile wall of the shower; he was breathing hard. His exposed skin was all goosebumps, but he didn't seem to notice. He looked up at Steve. "You were my captain, right?"
Steve dropped to his knees outside the shower door and braced his hands on his thighs: not even sure how to start. "Bucky," he began--but even this proved to be too much, and something that had been open slammed shut on Bucky's face.
"I'm not ready for that," he said flatly, turning his head away.
"I--okay." Steve felt even further knocked off his axis. He looked at--Bucky? The Winter Soldier? James?--and didn't know what to say. And then he did: "Tell me more about this mission, Sergeant Barnes," he said.
To his relief, Bucky accepted a towel and a change of clothes, and then he stood by Steve's kitchen table absently toweling his hair and fiddling with a little electronic device about the size of a matchbook. It was a good thing Steve had seen similar devices at Stark Tower, otherwise he would have been shocked when it suddenly projected a gigantic three-dimensional map over the table.
"This is Dulag 186, in what used to be Yugoslavia," Bucky said, and then he muttered something that sounded like, chernaya bashnya, temno, mračno: "the black tower, the dark place." The map rotated above them, showing off an impregnable-looking structure half-built into a mountain and surrounded by water on two sides; it looked to Steve like a fortress, and he said so. "It was," Bucky said, mouth twisting into a grim smile. "It was a medieval city. The Nazis used it as a POW camp, and then midway through the war, it was repurposed by Hydra. It's still in use," he said, reaching up to stretch out the map, showing Steve a modern road, and details of a satellite system. "It's where they do their experiments," he said flatly. "Mostly on prisoners; criminals, politicals. It's Serbia; there are always politicals. But there are also children - orphans, smuggled in from all over the world. They have more than 200 children living there, training as sleeper agents." Bucky stared at the spinning map. "I was born there," he said.
Steve couldn't let it pass. "You were born in Brooklyn, Sergeant Barnes."
Bucky looked at him, and then nodded. "That, too," he agreed. He turned his attention back to the map. "I've looked at these schematics from every angle," he muttered, "and I can't imagine a one-man operation, can you?"
Steve forced himself to exhale, to relax his shoulders, and tried to focus on what was being asked of him: the tangible problem of this terrible place. "I don't want this to sound arrogant," he said, turning to Bucky, "but I have access to some people in high places. I could--" and Bucky turned, metal arm grabbing him by the shirt front, and Steve instinctively went into a defensive crouch, hands grabbing for Bucky's balance points, prepared to flip him over, to take him down.
But Bucky stopped, his arm quivering. He looked furious--and Steve blinked, because it was Bucky who was angry: not the Winter Soldier, not the Hydra agent, but Bucky Barnes, his friend. He'd seen this thunderous look on Bucky's face before: loads of times, actually. It had just never been aimed at him.
"Do you think they don't know?" Bucky asked contemptuously, letting his arm drop; he had obviously stopped himself from hitting Steve by some instinct or impulse or residual feeling. "Do you think they don't know what's happening in the Congo, or that they make ten year olds work slave hours in Bolivia, or-- " He stopped. "They know. Hell, they help to pay for it, and everyone gets plausible deniability. But what they'll tell you, Captain, is that there are wheels within wheels. It's only 200 children, and they're all fine, really. We'll have to bring in someone from State, someone from the Pentagon. And would you want to risk disrupting the fragile state of affairs in the former Yugoslavia simply on account of--"
"Stop," Steve said tightly. "I'm sorry; you're right," and he knew Bucky was right because he could hear the phrases rolling out in Alexander Pierce's voice. "I keep forgetting that things aren't how they were."
Bucky turned away, arms wrapping around himself as if he were physically restraining himself. "Things were never what they were," and then, low and tight, he apologized: "I don't want to fight with you. I don't ever want to fight you again. You're literally the only friend I have," he said, and there was that jagged laugh again. "But I guess that was always true, huh?"
"No," Steve said, "you've got it backwards. You had lots of friends. I only ever had you." He smiled sadly at Bucky and then jerked his head at the schematics: "So, pal: how do you want to do this?"
"Weeell," Bucky drawled, and it was most like Bucky he'd sounded yet, "I'd like your take on it, obviously, but I'm assuming that it'll involve a shitload of explosives. Oh, and this," and then he hauled up his tac vest and pulled something out of the pocket.
It was wrapped in plastic. Steve bent to look and said, "Uh, is that--"
"A finger, yeah. He was dead already," Bucky said, and then he frowned and added, "I swear."
"Okay," Steve said uncertainly.
"We'll need it to get in," Bucky said. "And codes, but I've got those. The problem is: they know I'm coming. They'd be stupid not to be on high alert--"
Steve bit his lip; so Natasha had been right. "So it was you who took out Frankfurt and Brussels?"
"You bet. And Shikotan, Maroussi, Crete, Paraguay, Kentucky, Texas," Bucky said relentlessly. "Everywhere they used me."
"They said that thing in Texas was an oil fire," Steve said, frowning.
"That's what they said, yeah," Bucky replied. "But Hydra knows, and they've got to know I want the black tower more than any of them." A muscle twitched in his cheek. "It's the last one. But I can't do it alone."
"You don't have to," Steve said. "You don't have to do anything alone, anymore, if you don't want to, I swear to God," and Bucky turned away, seemingly made uncomfortable by Steve's promise.
It was odd having Bucky there - having him but not having him - having somebody in the shape of him picking at Steve's makeshift dinner of soup and sandwiches like he'd forgotten how to eat, having someone with the slope of Bucky's shoulders and the exact tilt of his head sit there carefully repairing his tactical gear. Steve watched him out of the corner of his eye, tried not to stare: it all felt so familiar, this man overlaid with the guy who used to sit on a chair in their apartment, mending his clothes or shining his shoes. Steve remembered the familiar back and forth of the brush, Bucky's careful quick stitching, the way he'd snapped the thread with his teeth.
Nobody shined or repaired anything anymore; you could still buy polish and needles at some places, but if they had them they were on some dusty shelf that nobody ever used. But even seventy years later, Bucky's hands moved with familiar sureness as he worked to repair his kit: mending his combat trousers and shirt with a sure backstitch, then conditioning the leather of his jacket, the straps and harnesses for his weapons. He took particular care with his gloves and boots: this man overlaid with the guy who used to sit on his bunk, inspecting his boots and then carefully cleaning and oiling them, making sure they were mission-ready.
The only part that felt normal was strategizing the mission: bending over the electronic maps with their heads together and talking the thing out, start to finish. "See here," Bucky said, pointing to the curve of the river, "on this side of the tower, there's no surveillance, no real defense at all. Because it's a quarter mile of sheer cliff." He looked up at Steve. "Impregnable, they say."
"Riiiiight," Steve said, meeting his eyes, and then they grinned wolfishly at each other. "So—a boat?"
"A boat, yeah," and was it Steve's imagination or were Bucky's Brooklyn vowels breaking through? "A small one, so's we don't get caught at the checkpoints," Bucky tapped the map, "here, or here."
"We'll have to do it at night," Steve mused.
"Course we have to do it at night," Bucky said. "Fucking walk in the park if we do it in daylight," and then they were both snorting laughter and geez, Steve could just picture the slippery stone wall and the waves and the rope and the four hundred foot drop. "You ever sail a boat?" Bucky asked him.
"Oh, sure," Steve said. "One of those kiddie ones at Luna Park," and bang, the moment smashed. Bucky's shoulders rose up, all stiff and tense, and he turned his face away. Steve could have kicked himself; Bucky'd said he wasn't ready, but he'd had to push it, hadn't he. "Sorry," Steve muttered, then rubbed at his hairline with the heels of his hands. "Tell me about the weapons situation," he said, belatedly adding, "Sergeant."
It took Bucky a moment to answer. "There are caches. You just need to know where to look."
"And you know where?" Steve asked, letting his hands drop.
"Yeah, Cap." Bucky's face wore a smile, but the humor was gone out of it. "I know," and Steve wanted to ask if the caches were of Hydra weapons or of SHIELD weapons, which side they'd been meant for, but he was afraid that Bucky might look at him with pity in his too-old eyes and tell him that there was always only ever one side. Instead he lifted his chin and met Bucky's eyes, and said: "Would you show me your guns?"
Bucky went still, and then he smiled slowly, his tongue pushing out over his full lower lip. Steve tried to pretend he didn’t notice, but Bucky's faces had always fascinated him; he understood why Hydra put him in a mask. "Sure," Bucky drawled. "They're good ones," and then he was crossing to where he'd piled his gear, and lifting a long black rifle from the pile: it was a Barrett M82, a hell of an update from the Springfield bolt-action sniper rifle Bucky'd carried during the war. Bucky thrust it at him—and Steve took it, hefted it and peered through the scope, then quickly disassembled and reassembled it until it came back together with a satisfying click. He knew Bucky well enough, even now, after everything, to know that something in Bucky had eased by this display; could feel it in the air, the shift in his body language.
"Nice," Steve said, handing it back. "What else you got?"
Bucky showed him a compact but deadly-looking machine gun and then a number of handguns: a tiny, shiny Derringer, a Colt pistol, a massive black Sig Sauer. Steve's eyes came back to the Colt. From the wear marks, he guessed it was Bucky's favorite. It was very like the one Steve had carried in the war, though it couldn't have been the same gun (...when had he last seen that gun?) Still, it was achingly familiar, down to the scratches on the barrel. He could see where Bucky's hand had worn the grip down, the fingermarks where he'd yanked the slide back again and again, the dull sheen on the trigger. (He'd thrown that gun to Bucky. He'd thrown this gun to Bucky on the train.)
Steve looked up; Bucky was watching him closely, his face still. "Can I use this one?" Steve asked.
Bucky nodded slowly. "Yeah," he said. "Sure."
Bucky efficiently packed his things into a small black rucksack and then surprised Steve by stripping off his borrowed shirt, revealing the thick line of scarring where his metal arm met his shoulder. Steve absently raised a hand to touch before coming to himself and yanking it back down; his body was so familiar and so different, and Steve wondered if this was how Bucky felt seeing him after the super serum. The bandages on Bucky's normal arm were yellowed and rusty. Then Bucky reached for the thin lining he wore underneath his tac vest: he was going to suit up. He meant for them to start now.
It was too fast. He--they needed more time. They needed more time together, alone -- to remember, to figure out who they were to each other, to negotiate a peace. The very air between them felt explosive: Steve felt like he was trying to defuse a bomb. They couldn't go out on a mission like this: only hours after meeting again, without sleep, with Bucky wounded--
"Wait. I need to know you're mission ready," Steve tried; he could insist on that much: it was his right as an officer to know the state of a soldier's health and his duty to see he was cared for. "Let me check those bandages," but Bucky obeyed with a sad passivity that made Steve regret he'd asked, coming to stand switched-off and dead-eyed before him, presenting himself to be inspected, like a thing.
Bucky hadn't lied: he was healing fast: his blood had clotted over granulating wounds, tender pink weals were raised on skin where smaller cuts had closed already. Steve quickly sprayed on some fancy modern bandages-in-a-can, then fumbled in his medicine cabinet for some of the drugs SHIELD had developed for him. Bucky looked down at the pills in his palm before dry-swallowing them, not even asking what they were.
This was a mistake. Hydra would have taken care of Bucky like this: would have made damn sure Bucky was mission-ready, whatever it took (drugs, cybernetics, implants) and would have had him carefully inspected, cleaned and put away till next time, the way you'd take care of a really good gun. This wasn't what Bucky needed from him -- in fact, idiot that he was, he'd missed the more important clues. Bucky had shaved, and short black hairs were prickling over his chest; he was taking control over himself, his body, his appearance. Steve had done the same, more than once: he remembered the itch of his own chest hair growing back after the Vita Ray machine, and he had hidden under a beard for nearly five months after finding himself in the 21st century. Sometimes these little choices were the only ones you had. Bucky needed to be listened to, not directed: he wouldn't ever have questioned Bucky's advice in the field. Smart officers listened to their sergeants. If Bucky thought he was ready, then he was ready; if Bucky thought the time was now, then let it be now.
"You're all clear," Steve said, and flashed him a quick smile. "Give me a minute to suit up. Should I—get us a car?"
It took Bucky a moment to come back into his head, for his posture to ease; he'd gone somewhere far. "Yeah," Bucky said, licking his lips and swallowing, like his mouth had gone dry on the journey, and then he added, "Get a good one."
A good one? Steve slotted that into the requirements: a car he could borrow, that wouldn't be traced to him, that wouldn't be missed – and a good one. He'd been thinking of borrowing old Mrs. Russo's nondescript gray Corolla, which she never used but once a week for shopping, if that, but he didn't think it would meet Bucky's criteria for "a good one." He'd never been interested in cars himself– he liked his bike, which suited him fine – but Bucky'd always liked machines and technology, even dragging Steve to the auto shows at Grand Central Palace. Natasha would know, Steve thought despairingly -- and then he remembered hearing that the Corrigans, who owned the big house at the end of the street, were away for the entire summer: they had a place at the shore. Mr. Corrigan looked to Steve like a prime candidate for midlife crisis, and sure enough, when Steve jimmied the door of their two-car garage, he found a shiny black Corvette with tinted windows.
The street outside Steve's building was dark and quiet when Steve pulled up, and Bucky detached himself from the shadows as he got out of the car. Bucky looked it over approvingly, stowed their packs, and moved toward the driver's seat. Steve got in beside him: in the dark, with Bucky in his black leathers and him in his black uniform, they could barely be seen.
"Where to?" Steve asked, as Bucky gunned the engine and then pulled away from the curb with a screech of black rubber.
"Weapons cache," Bucky answered, "and then there's a small cargo airport on the outskirts of—"
"Wait, stop – pull over," Steve said. "Right now; I'm serious," and Bucky cut his eyes toward him but obeyed, slamming the brakes and jerking the car over to the shoulder. Steve was out practically before the car stopped, going around the nose of the car to Bucky's door and yanking it open; he had no idea how Bucky was going to take this, but he had his limits.
"Out," Steve said. "I'm driving," and Bucky looked up at him incredulously. "I'll go to Yugoslavia to fight Hydra with you," Steve told him, "but I'm not going to risk killing someone on the way to the airport," and thankfully, Bucky seemed to find this funny, sliding out of the car in a fluid motion and gesturing Steve in with his metal hand. The look he gave Steve was almost fond. Steve watched Bucky walk around the car, then gracefully fold himself into the passenger seat. They pulled the car doors closed in unison, slam.
"You think I get into a lot of fender benders?" Bucky asked; his legs seemed too long for the passenger seat.
I'm not sure you'd stop to notice. "I think you probably haven't been to traffic school in while," Steve replied, putting on his blinkers as he pulled out into the road.
"And you have?" Bucky asked.
"I have, actually – I had to do it for my driver's license. " Steve glanced over at Bucky and added, "I'm all squared away and legal now – driver's license, passport, bank account. Back pay – I'd bet you'd qualify."
"Bet I wouldn't," Bucky muttered.
"Thing is, they always transpose the numbers," Steve found himself saying, and it was weird, but he hadn't told anyone this. Not that it was important, but—well, who else would understand? "All the time – for my birthday," Steve explained. "They never write down 1918. They write 1981—all the time, always. 1981. Most of the time, I just leave it - because I get it: it doesn’t make sense. The brain skips over it, or if you see it, you figure it's a typo. So it's funny, you know?" Steve finished unconvincingly, because he actually didn't find it funny: it was a stupid thing, but it made him feel bizarre and invisible.
Bucky didn't laugh, which was kind of a relief. "I know," he said grimly.
"It's like my whole life is a typo," Steve said, and immediately regretted it; he was made as stupid by sympathy as some guys were by drink. He tightened his hands on the wheel and stared at the road but he could feel Bucky's eyes on him.
When Bucky answered, Steve could barely hear him over the thrum of the engine. "My whole life..." but Bucky turned away without finishing the thought, and when Steve ventured a look over, he saw his unhappy face reflected in the tinted glass.
Bucky directed him to what looked like an abandoned industrial compound in Virginia. It was surrounded by a high, barbed wire fence, which they easily flung themselves over. Then Bucky moved steadily through dark, weedy terrain, passing one dilapidated, sagging warehouse after another. His hand was nowhere near his weapons, so Steve relaxed a little; he'd half been expecting a Hydra attack. Bucky stopped in front of what seemed to be a rusty metal door, but appearances were deceiving: Bucky clawed open a panel to reveal a glowing red number pad and began punching numbers.
"They haven't changed the codes?" Steve asked, surprised.
Bucky shot him a sardonic glance. "I'm pretty high up. Anyone who could have changed my codes is dead or has bigger problems. Or they will," he added darkly, and Steve heard it for the promise that it was.
The room was dark and cool and full of guns, but Bucky wasn't interested in guns. He was, however, interested in ammunition, and he tossed a box of bullets at Steve – soft casings, hollow points, no brand marked – before loading up his rucksack with handgun ammo and long, slim rifle bullets. He had to punch another code into a cabinet mounted on the wall, which opened to reveal a series of small black discs and cylinders of various sizes. Bucky took one out, carefully – the cylinder was about two inches wide and deep - and then flicked a switch on its bottom; a green light began to blink.
"What's that?" Steve asked, as Bucky turned it this way and that, studying it.
"Explosive," Bucky replied, and switched it off with his thumb. "You can roll it like a grenade, or you can attach them wherever you want, like a shaped charge." He packed a black duffle bag to the top with them, and then handed it to Steve, who flinched but took it. Bucky looked hard at him and said: "I can't leave it standing, you understand."
"I understand," Steve replied, controlling himself, and then, slipping a little: "I want it, too. What's next?"
Bucky tilted his head to the side and narrowed his eyes. "I think we ought to pick out something nice for your girlfriend," he said, inexplicably, and Steve just had time to blink and say, "What?" before Bucky was swiftly crossing the room in three long strides and yanking the door open, his sidearm already out and aimed.
"Wait!" Steve yelled. "Don't!"—because it was Natasha standing in the doorway, managing to look bored even with Bucky's gun aimed at her head.
"Aren't you going to invite me in?" she asked, looking from Bucky to Steve. "Where's all this old fashioned courtesy I've heard so much about?"
"I don't like being followed," Bucky growled, low and dangerous; he hadn't lowered his weapon.
Natasha didn't seem to notice; instead, she came closer and stared up at him defiantly. "I wouldn't have had to follow, if I'd been asked. You didn't think I might take a personal interest in this mission?"
Bucky stared at her for a long moment, then lowered and holstered his gun. "Well," he said, and his smile was all teeth and no warmth, "we've never really been introduced," and Steve blew out a relieved breath and quickly said, "This is Agent Natasha Romanoff. Natasha, this is…Sergeant James Barnes."
Natasha stared him down for another moment, then jerked a nod. "James," she acknowledged, with a tip of her head, and a muscle in Bucky's cheek tightened, but if he minded her putting them on a first name basis, he didn't say.
"So am I in?" Natasha asked tightly, and Bucky shrugged and said, "Not my call," his eyes moving to Steve. "Cap?"
The question hung in the air as Steve thought about it: another test, this was all a test. Was Bucky leaving it to him to send her away? Natasha was a terrific ally, but Steve felt a pang at the idea of losing—what, the closeness, the twoness of them; it hurt so much that they were practically strangers as it was. But then, there was the mission to think of: the tower. Bucky wanted to destroy the tower and everything it stood for, and with Natasha, the odds of success rose enormously.
"I want to take that place down," Steve said. "Down to the ground," and he saw something grateful and pained cross Bucky's face. He didn't have to explain further, which felt great, like flexing a stiff muscle; Bucky just turned to Natasha and said, almost offhandedly, "The Glocks are nice." He gestured across the room to the wall of guns.
"Oooh, shopping," she deadpanned, and went over to look. Bucky watched her go and then cut his eyes to Steve and said, "Ever since the army, you got women hanging all over you," and Steve's heart stuttered, because that was for him, wasn't it? Bucky was talking to him: not Captain America, not even Captain Rogers, but him, Steve.
Even now, Bucky was looking at him like he knew what he was thinking, so why—why on earth didn't he— "It's not that I don't remember," Bucky said softly, answering the question he hadn't asked. "It's that I can't forget. Scorpion," he said, before Steve had the chance to say anything; Natasha was holding a deadly looking black gun. "I carry one myself."
"Are there guns you don't carry?" Natasha asked, rolling her eyes; Bucky had six guns visibly strapped to him, and Steve was pretty sure he had at least three more on his person. Bucky shrugged, a gesture as familiar to Steve as breathing: quick pout, casual roll of the shoulder. Me to know, and you to find out. "What have you got for explosives?" Natasha asked, and Bucky jerked his head at Steve, who opened the bag. She nodded, pleased. "Good," she said, "that's good, though let me add a thing or two to the pot," and then she went and came back with two canisters: one of yellow powder, one of green.
"Oh. Oh," and Bucky was actually grinning. "I like how you think," and then, to Steve, "Sometimes I miss Dernier," and Steve felt a twinge at the mention of Dernier, at the fact that Bucky had brought up Dernier: clever, brave, brilliant with explosives. Steve took a moment to miss the crazy Frenchman: he'd lost so much, so fast, he was sometimes blindsided by things to grieve for. Not just people, but stupid things, little things: he'd once spent two days ticked off because he'd had a craving for raspberry junket and nobody even knew what he was talking about.
He had no idea what Natasha meant to do with the colored powders, but clearly Bucky did, which was enough for him, but Bucky seemed to want to explain. "The tower's medieval, solid rock," he said, "but they'll have drilled it – water, wires, electricity, plumbing. My charges are external, structural – she wants to go at it from the inside, blow its guts out."
Bucky sounded approving. Natasha showed Steve an impish little smile.
"All right," Steve said, "so let's go do it," and bringing in Natasha had been the right call: it was starting to feel like a team.
Bucky and Natasha had a little scuffle about who was going to sit in the passenger seat – Bucky offering her the seat out of chivalry, Natasha politely demurring due to Bucky's long legs – with neither of them admitting that they wanted the better tactical position: finally, Steve groaned and said, "Look, nobody's going to shoot anybody; just get in the damn car." He was vaguely gratified that it was Bucky who gave in: smiling tightly and offering Natasha a hand into the cramped back seat.
"Where are we going?" Steve asked, starting the car, and Bucky directed him to a small terminal in Nokesville, Virginia. It was made of dingy white aluminum, branded Xpress Cargo, and as they approached, a large door began to slide open.
"Flash your lights three times," Bucky said softly, and Steve did so.
He heard the sound of Natasha racking her slide. "Is this Hydra?" she asked, from the dark back seat.
Bucky snorted. "If you can call it that. These guys are so dumb, they don't even know they're out of a job."
Steve turned to look at him; he just wanted to be clear. "So we're not taking this place down."
"This place? No. Just follow my lead," and then they were rolling into the hanger, which was gray and bright with fluorescent bulbs. A small cargo plane – cheerily proclaiming XPRESS!– was being loaded by two bored looking guys while a third guy stood there with a clipboard; they all practically jumped out of their skin when Bucky got out of the car.
"Hail Hydra," the man with the clipboard said, and then warily looked at Steve and Natasha. "Sir, is everything—"
"I need on this plane. Get me three parachutes. I need to speak to your pilot," Bucky interrupted, and the man nodded and ran to obey. When the pilot arrived, Bucky jerked his head at Steve and said, "Take your orders from him," and Steve began to dole out information using the need-to-know protocols they used in the war, telling the guy only to register his usual flight path from Virginia to Sophia but that they'd be deviating from their course once they crossed into German air space.
"Yes, sir," the pilot replied, and if he thought it was strange to be taking orders from Captain America, he didn't show it.
Steve gave orders to the guy in the clipboard to return the car while Natasha checked out the plane: she appeared at the door to the cargo bay and jerked a nod of approval. "There are two jump seats in the cabin, but the forward hold is heated, so we might as well make camp there: that'll give us access to the cabin to and to the cargo doors for when we jump."
"Right," Steve said. "Great. Pack our gear," and it was only then that the guy with the clipboard worked up the courage to speak to Bucky again.
"Sir," he began, and nearly choked at the look Bucky gave him: the Winter Soldier's deadly stare. He managed to carry on, his face crossed with anxiety: "Since…what happened in Washington, we've been waiting for orders, but nobody… Do you have any suggestions as to how we should…?" and the Winter Soldier's eyes flicked over to Steve, who could now see Bucky in there after all: the amused flash of the eyes, the faintest curve of the mouth. Like I told you, Cap: too dumb to fall down. Steve took pity on the guy, who seemed normal enough, and clapped a hand on his shoulder. "Son," he said, "if I were you, I'd try running this operation as a legitimate business," and when the Winter Soldier suddenly stormed off toward the cargo plane, only Steve knew it was to hide the fact that he was laughing.
The forward hold was small, but Bucky hunkered down at the furthest end so the three of them made a triangle, with Bucky at the stretched-away tip. Arm's length, that's where Bucky was keeping him: sitting with his back to the wall, long legs stretched out before him. It was like the war all over again, except then, when Bucky kept him at a distance, Steve knew it was because Bucky was feeling too much and didn't trust himself not to show it. Steve remembered feeling that way too: there had been whole meetings where he couldn't so much as look at him. They'd had to manage themselves back then, and they had, more or less, letting go only when it was safe to: on leave, or when they were mostly guaranteed to be alone. They'd done it five days before the Alps, which Steve had been so thankful for in hindsight. He hadn't wanted to go, but Bucky'd been in a reckless mood and insisted they go to the Paramount, where he'd spent the night jitterbugging with some girl and then dragged Steve to the Albemarle and fucked the hell out of him. Afterwards, Bucky's voice had echoed in his head: "Come onnn, Steve. It's now or never: what are we waiting for?" and Steve had been so grateful: so grateful.
"What?" Bucky demanded suddenly, looking at Natasha; Natasha had put her head on her knees and was watching them both intently.
"Nothing," Natasha replied. "It's just interesting. I understand more now, seeing you."
Bucky tensed. "You don't know anything about me."
"You're right," Natasha said with a faint smile. "I don't know anything about you. But him…" and she slowly tilted her head at Steve, then turned to look at him fondly. "Of all the–-I thought it was loyalty, Rogers, or sentimentality, but you like him. And that tells me something about you. And you," Natasha added, looking back at Bucky. "You've got to understand, James: I have a lot of self-interested respect for Steve as a judge of character."
Bucky looked up at her with hooded eyes. "You don't know what the fuck you're talking about," he muttered.
"Bucky," Steve chided absently, before realizing what he'd said, the name he'd used.
Bucky flinched like he'd been hit. "She doesn't," he said flatly. "She doesn't know."
"Steve," Natasha said softly, "it makes me like you. Even more than I did. Do. Okay?"
"Can I jump out of the plane now?" Steve asked, almost pleading.
"That's funny. No: not for another ten hours. We should get some sleep," Natasha said, "cause there's not going to be much when we get there," and Steve nodded and settled back against some canvas mail sacks while Natasha curled up on the floor, head braced on her forearm. Steve closed his eyes and tried to structure his breathing: he and Bucky had always kipped together on mission--him and Bucky, Gabe and Dernier-- but Bucky'd marked his space, so it was best to—
"You've forgotten how, haven't you?" Natasha murmured, and Steve opened his eyes. Natasha'd noticed something he hadn't: Bucky was sitting exactly as he had been: back to the wall, legs stretched out before him, one hand on his gun.
"I don't need a lot of sleep," Bucky replied.
Natasha shook her head. "You don't sleep at all," she said, stating it as a fact. "You're out of practice. Even money says you wait till you're practically hallucinating, then go to ground and wait until the shakes pass," and Bucky's face tightened as he looked away, and Steve knew she was right. "That's not going to work now," she said, not unkindly. "You're part of a unit."
"How did you know?" Steve was bothered that he hadn't seen it himself: he was the Captain, Bucky was his friend.
Natasha shrugged at him. "I'm not being smart," she said. "I've seen this before," and then she was scooting across the tiny cabin, palms raised. "I'm going to touch you, okay? So don't break my arms," and then she was kneeling beside him and nudging him away from the wall. Steve gaped at her: she was just doing it, unholstering the black gun strapped to his back, flipping the safety on with a tsk before putting it down, and then she tightened one hand on Bucky's shoulder and jammed her thumb hard into Bucky's shoulder blade and Bucky shuddered and made a noise that went straight to Steve's cock.
"Yeah, I bet," Natasha said grimly, and then she was grimacing and pulling with one hand and jamming her knuckles into Bucky's back with the other, and Bucky's head lolled. "Fuck," he groaned, his hair falling into his face.
"I bet you say that to all the girls," Natasha said. "Or just all the girls you've shot?"
"There's usually a lot less talking," Bucky said darkly, "after I shoot someone," and Steve smiled into his hand. Bucky liked her—well, what was not to like about Natasha, really. Natasha arched her eyebrow and twisted her fist in a way that shut him up fast. He was actually panting, bending forward, head hanging down, by the time Natasha was finished with him, gripping at his metal shoulder and turning the other one down and back. There was an audible pop, and Bucky sighed and sagged a little; he'd broken out into a sweat. Natasha propped him up against the wall and looked over at Steve.
"Have you got any water?" and Steve rummaged in his pack and came out with a canteen, which he tossed over to her.
"Drink this," Natasha said, uncapping it and putting it into Bucky's hand. "Drink all of this, and then go to sleep." She crept back to her part of the hold, then glanced back. "All of it," she warned, and curled up again, head pillowed on her arms.
Bucky sipped obediently at the water. "Dunno if I'll wake up again, if I fall asleep," his voice already a bit slurred; he was listing sideway on the wall. Steve watched him for a moment, then went over: Natasha'd done it, maybe he could.
"You'll wake up," Natasha told him. "We'll wake you up," and then Steve was settling beside him and tugging his shoulders. "C'mere," he murmured, and Bucky practically fell sideways into his lap, closed his eyes, and fell asleep. Steve bit into his lip, tasted salt and rust, and stared hard at the curving gray wall of the plane, just letting the warm weight of him settle across his thighs. Finally he looked down, and almost helplessly brushed Bucky's hair off his face – Bucky's face, more familiar to him than his own, overlaid with a thousand, a million, other images: at home, at school, the park, table, bed, church, dance, war. He stroked Bucky's forehead – lined, now –before he remembered Natasha was there, then decided he didn't care: she knew, she'd noticed. Natasha knew everything, she only pretended not to.
He glanced over at her; her eyes were closed but she was smiling. "It makes me like you, Rogers," she said softly.
The plane rattled onward.
Steve opened his eyes and glanced down his watch. Bucky and Natasha were both still asleep, and Steve smoothly slid out from under him, taking care to slide his pack under Bucky's head for support. He climbed up through the hatch to the cockpit, where the sky was darkening: perfect. They'd taken off in the middle of the night, and now it was night again.
The pilot glanced over his shoulder at Steve as he approached. "I was going to call you; we'll be crossing into German airspace soon. Flight time to Sophia is one hour and fifty-three minutes."
"Yeah, we're going to take a little detour," Steve said, and bent over the navigational controls.
Everything was still dark and quiet when Steve slid back down the ladder. He bent over Bucky and then hesitated, not wanting to startle him; he was sorry to have to wake him at all. He put his hand on Bucky's shoulder. "Bucky?"
"Steve?" Bucky murmured, and Steve had been totally unprepared for how it would feel to have his name on Bucky's lips, in his mouth. It roiled him, and all at once he understood what Bucky meant when he said he wasn't ready for it.
Steve backpedaled. "Time to get up, soldier. Jump in T minus 20 minutes," and Bucky's eyes opened. They flicked from Steve to Natasha to the packs, and then he was up and beginning to assemble himself with astonishing efficiency.
Natasha was uncurling like a cat. "How far out?" she asked Steve. "What kind of terrain?"
"Woods, mostly," Steve replied. "If we time it right, we'll be within five miles of the Danube." And then—" he glanced over at Bucky and grinned, "—a boat."
"Oh, I love a night time boat ride," Natasha said, and shouldered her parachute.
The pilot drifted lower, lower. Steve opened the hatch at 8,000 feet and waited, counting down. He gave the signal and Bucky jumped out feet first, vanishing in a streak of black. A moment later, Natasha followed. Steve ran his fingers over his harness, checked his shield one last time and then flung himself out, letting himself enjoy the rush of air, the far off twinkle of lights. Below, there was only darkness, and he couldn't even make out the snake of the river, though he knew he had to be there, just northeast. He thought he could make out the dark bloom of a military parachute behind him, and then he was pulling the ripcord and gliding down through the night. He smashed into the foliage and tumbled down smoothly severing the parachute when it caught. He thumped to the ground, rolled, and came to his feet, flipping out his compass to get his bearings, and headed out.
It was a little unnerving, but he didn't hear Natasha until she was right behind him, leaves in her hair but otherwise fine, and it was Natasha who sensed Bucky, stopping Steve with a hand on his arm and letting out a low whistle. Bucky's answering whistle came a moment later, and Steve still didn't see him until he was nearly upon them, coming out of the darkness in his black goggles and face mask. "Four and a quarter miles to the boathouse," Bucky said.
The boathouse was on the bank near a small and dilapidated dock, where a few dirty boats were bobbing next to a rotting grey pier. There were lights on in two of the tiny boats, shredded curtains in the windows, and tinny music coming from the wireless or a phonograph, but those were the only signs of life. They silently followed Bucky down the splintered pier toward the last boat, a dingy white fishing boat with a small wheelhouse. "What do you think, Cap?" Bucky muttered.
Steve looked at the boat, then looked at Bucky. "The bags are waterproof, right?"
Bucky showed the faintest hint of a grin. "Yeah."
"Then, ahoy," Steve said, and stepped onto the deck.
They set off a few minutes later, lights off and the engine chugging softly in the dark. Steve stood in the bow and stared ahead as the boat churned through the water, trying to get a glimpse of the target. The banks on either side were mostly scrub or forest, with the occasional light shining through the trees, and as Natasha piloted them steadily downstream– she'd turned out to have more nautical experience than either of them – the ground began to rise up around them: first in little hillocks, then in rockier crags, until the trees were angling away from them, up the mountains. Then they were sailing through a narrow canyon of rock that towered over them on both sides, the river an undulating black ribbon between them.
Bucky came out to stand beside him, the cold wind off the river blowing his hair back. "The next bend," he said.
Steve looked at him; this was as good a time for this argument as any. "Let me go first," he said.
"No," Bucky said, and then, before Steve could say anything: "No, sir. It is not negotiable." He raised his metal hand and clutched the fingers into a deadly looking fist. "This," he said, "is a tool you don't have. And don't think you've got the easy job: you've got to carry the explosives."
"I know," Steve said, and hell, they'd talked about it, and he understood why and he'd agreed. But-- "I can't watch you fall again," Steve said, turning his face so the wind stung his eyes.
"I'm not gonna fall," Bucky said.
"You better not," Steve warned.
"Or what?" and that was pure Brooklyn, right there, which--thank God, because the serious answer to that question … This wasn't the time to get into the serious answer to that question.
"You don't want to find out," Steve said instead, trying to sound as tough as he could, but Bucky let out a mocking little whistle that made Steve grin.
"Try harder," Bucky said, and went back into the wheelhouse.
There were huge rocks at the base of the cliff, and Natasha drew the boat as close as she could and dropped anchor. "We're gonna get smashed to bits," Steve realized, as the little boat was knocked into the rocks by the sweep of the current.
"The boat will. We won't," Bucky said. He'd wrapped a huge length of narrow rope around his waist and shoulders, and he gripped a metal spike in his regular, gloved, hand. Now he slid on his goggles. "Lash yourself to the base of the cliff if you lose the boat," he advised. "There's more spikes in my pack. I'll be as quick as I can," and then he leapt off the boat and scrambled up the rocks.
"Don't rush," Steve called after him, and he thought he saw a hint of a smile before Bucky reached up and gripped the cliff with his metal hand, fingers digging in, stone crumbling. And then Bucky began, impossibly, to climb up into the darkness: hand over hand, wedging the spike into the rock and then yanking it out again, clutching the stone with his metal fingers, boots finding tiny cracks to use as toeholds. He went up and up, slowly, like a giant black spider.
Steve watched, feeling sick, but he couldn't tear his eyes away: Bucky was hanging off the cliff by his metal fingernails, with nothing between him and the sharp rocks below.
Natasha was next to him, neck craned, face intent. "He'll be all right."
"Yeah. You think that until it happens," Steve said, and still Bucky climbed up and up the gorge.
There was a long, slow, terror where Bucky didn't move, and didn't move, metal hand searching for a grip he evidently could not find. Steve couldn't stop watching, even as the boat began to break up around him and Natasha started yelling that they had to abandon it, move onto the rocks. Steve barely heard her. "He's stuck," he said, "I've got to go up and --" but then Bucky did move, stretching out sideways, and after a few careful lateral steps he again began his upward climb.
"Rogers!" Natasha yelled, and Steve tore himself away and ran across the splintering boards to the hold, where he loaded up with his pack, the explosives, his shield. Natasha, Bucky's pack on her shoulders, fought for balance as the boat lurched, then jumped across to the rocks and clambered up. Steve followed: the boat was now taking on water. They moved across the rocks to the base of the cliff and stared up, into the darkness, but now Steve couldn't see the top, couldn't see Bucky, couldn't see anything but the looming gray cliffs leading up to a black sky filled with stars.
He made it. He had to have made it. He didn't fall; they would have seen him fall. He would have screamed. Bucky had screamed, and the sound had haunted Steve's dreams ever since, but the Winter Soldier, after everything, would he-- The belay device hit the rocks with a clang, and only then did Steve see the ropes slithering down the side of the cliff.
"He made it," Steve said, almost dizzy with it.
"Of course he made it," Natasha scoffed, and quickly secured the rope around herself; Steve scrambled to set up. "Haul me up, Rogers," she said, giving Bucky a signaling tug, and then she was flying up through the air. Steve pulled steadily until he felt the signaling tug on the end - Bucky had her - and then began to climb. It was hard going, even with the rope: no visibility, the rock face slippery and smooth under his boots, and, he now realized, a steady wind through the canyon. He moved automatically, hand over hand, and didn't know he was at the top until he saw the flash of silver - Bucky's arm, reaching over to haul him up and away from the edge, then urging him to crouch down. Steve divested himself of his packs and handed over the explosives.
The cliff edge sloped sharply away again land-side, making a sheer grassed ridge like a wall. It was a wall, Steve realized - the stones of the castle were built hard into it, completing the circle, and the courtyard -- the bailey, the word coming back to him from past missions-- was spread out before them. Natasha was already lying flat and peering down at it, and he and Bucky crept over and spread themselves on either side of her. The bailey was crisscrossed with spotlights. Steve's eyes searched out what he'd seen in the schematics: guard posts at twelve, four, and eight, prisoner cells and laboratories in the south turret, guard's barracks and mess to the west. Hospital, kitchen, workshops, operations. He pointed them out for Natasha's benefit.
"All right," Steve said, pushing back. "I'm going for the prisoners, and I'm going to try to keep things quiet for as long as I can, but Sergeant, we'll need your support getting out."
"You'll have it," Bucky said.
"Good. Make some mayhem," Steve said, and the corner of Bucky's mouth turned up as he sketched out a salute.
Steve looked at Natasha. "You want to try pushing explosives through their water supply?"
"Oh, I do," Natasha said, and then added, cheekily, "Sir," and Steve flashed his eyes at her but otherwise ignored it.
"Fine," he said. "Hit operations, try to stay under the radar, meet me as soon as you can." Steve double-checked his weapons, his shield, then nodded. "Right," he told Bucky, "give me the...the...." and Bucky reached into the pocket of his tactical vest and gave Steve the plastic-wrapped finger and a folded piece of paper.
Natasha looked at it, then at Bucky. "They've installed biometrics?" she asked, and Bucky jerked a nod and hefted his sniper rifle. "Don't worry, Rogers," she said, as he gingerly tucked it away in his belt. "You get used to it."
"The two of you scare me," Steve said, and then added, "Stay in touch, both of you," and then he was running, low and fast, along the wall toward the south turret; Natasha headed the other way, towards the operations center.
It was late at night and everything was quiet. Steve leapt silently down from the wall and dropped the two guards outside the turret with quick, clean punches, dragging their bodies out of sight. The stone turret was old but the door was modern, and Steve punched in the first code to open it. The room inside had been fitted with modern technology, including a plexiglass wall blocking off the staircase and a bank of computer and monitors. The guard seemed surprised when the door opened but quickly got his bearings, and Steve smashed the gun out of his hand with his shield and then shoved him hard at the wall.
"How many guards inside?" Steve demanded, but this guy wasn't like those lunkheads at the airport. He said nothing. Steve banged him against the wall again, making sure to give his head a good knock. "How many?"
"Hail Hydra," the man said, and Steve, irritated, smashed him out cold. He went around the desk to look at the various monitors. One was shuttling between various views of the castle, and if Steve hadn't known that Bucky and Natasha were out there, he wouldn't have known that Bucky and Natasha were out there. Good soldiers, both. Another monitor showed the inside of the building, stone hallways lined with cells. The place was in lockdown, and Steve saw only three guards strolling through the corridors, their hand resting on the butts of their machine guns. He decided to take them out first, then used his second code to open up a door in the thick plexiglass wall that separated the command center from the stairs.
The first guard never knew what hit him - Steve's shield, back of the head - and Steve crouched over him and took his radio and his machine gun. There were no keys. Neither the second nor the third guards had keys either, and so Steve approached the first of the cells with trepidation: there was no place to enter a code. Then he saw it, a square slightly bigger than a postage stamp, and gingerly unwrapped the finger Bucky had given him and pressed it to the pad.
The metal door slid open. Inside, strapped to a gurney--Steve stopped. It wasn't Bucky, it wasn't, but Steve had to blink to clear his vision, because the man strapped to the gurney was very like him: dark hair, Bucky's broad shoulders. He moaned in fear as Steve came closer. "It's all right," Steve said quickly, unbuckling the straps, "I'm here to help you. Ich bin hier um Dir zu helfen," and relief spread across the man's face. Steve steadied him as he sat up and swung his legs off the gurney: he was sweaty and shaken, but seemed otherwise uninjured. Steve let his arms drop. Bucky could barely let him touch him.
"Kannst Du laufen?" Steve asked, and the man nodded and began to lurch forward. Steve searched his German for a moment and then asked, "Kannst Du mir helfen die anderen zu befreien?" Can you help me rescue the others?
"Ja," the man replied, and then, more uncertainly, "Yes," and then, "My name is Bernard. How many of us will you--"
"All of you," Steve said, and the man stared at him in disbelief for a second, and then he cracked a wide grin.
"The children," Bernard said, "the children are on the top, girls and boys in separate quarters," and so they went up and Steve unlocked the two dorms with Bucky's finger. There were two long rows of beds, and the children were getting up and coming toward him, and dear Jesus, dear Jesus, some of these children were as young as four. Steve knelt down next to a tiny little girl in a white nightdress and slipped his helmet off, hoping to seem less frightening. "Come, honey," he said gently. "Get your shoes. Hole Deine Schuhe," and then and older girl, maybe fifteen, came forward and stood protectively in front of her, and Steve stayed on the ground and addressed himself to her, craning his neck up. "We're getting out of here, but we have to move fast," and the girl hesitated for a moment and then began giving orders in Russian, and suddenly all the girls were scrambling, grabbing their shoes and the occasional homemade rag doll, the older girls helping the younger ones along. Steve darted out into the hallway and saw that Bernard had got the boys assembled into rough lines.
"Quickly, quickly," Steve said, and then he was leading the children down the worn grooves of the stone steps, down and around, shield raised in case of surprises. Natasha materialized at the bottom, looking disheveled but pleased with herself.
"Move faster, Rogers," she said, "things are going to start going boom in a--" and they both started at the shriek of automatic weapons fire from the courtyard - fifteen guns at least - though Steve thought he could actually hear them being eliminated, one gun going silent, and then another. Steve peered out: the remaining agents were in a panic, guns arcing up and sweeping back and forth across the wall, looking for the shooter, for Bucky. Another guard screamed and collapsed, and then another, the shots coming from seemingly impossible angles. In another thirty seconds, they were all lying dead in the courtyard.
"Now!" Steve said, gesturing wildly at Natasha; several of the children were crying. "Take them out through the kitchens. I'll get the others," and then he was running back up and along the corridors, opening cell doors one after another: the politicals were all awake, roused and made hopeful by the sound of gunfire, only a few of them restrained like Bernard.
"Out!" Steve yelled, over and over. "Out! Quickly, through the kitchens!" and that's when first explosions hit. The politicals cut across the corner of the courtyard and bolted into the kitchens, arms raised to protect their heads from the rain of pebbles and stone, but the courtyard was now filling with people - Hydra agents, scientists, and administrators - some drawn out by the sound of gunfire, some shrieking and bleeding from their injuries: Bucky's first bombs had collapsed the barracks.
It was madness, chaos, and Steve braced himself for an onslaught as some of the Hydra soldiers saw him and realized there was a second front, that prisoners were escaping. Steve raised his shield and took them on, wading through them, leaving piles of men in his wake. Occasionally his attackers collapsed to the ground, shot: Bucky picking them off from above.
Steve knocked out three Hydra agents with a single throw of his shield, and as it spun back to his hand, he glimpsed a face he'd only previously seen in photographs: Hans Renke, the commandant of Dulag 186, of the black tower. Renke was old, now, wisps of white hair surrounding a lined, tough face, but still clearly recognizable from Bucky's dossier of tower personnel: a Hitler youth turned Hydra agent, who'd been a young man when he began working here in 1953. Right now, Renke was out of uniform, having evidently been roused from his bed by--
There was a second explosion, and this time the entire south tower collapsed into rubble, the cloud of pulverized stone rolling over them and leaving everyone coated in dust and gasping for air. People began to run.
Steve seized Renke by the shoulder, and shoved him down, hard, to his knees, on the paving stones. Then he pulled his Colt from its holster and put it to Renke's temple. Steve had read the file Natasha brought him from the Ukraine. He knew what they'd done to Bucky here, the surgeries, the experiments, the cryofreeze: all supervised by this man. He wanted to kill him. He wanted to kill him while he cowered on his knees and pissed his pants and a part of him was distantly shocked as he pushed the barrel of his gun against Renke's head. And Bucky wanted him to do it. Why else had Bucky given him the Colt? He'd understood immediately what Bucky was saying to him, the challenge of it -- you think you're better than me, you think you've been on the right side all this time -- except Bucky was wrong about that. He was no better, his hands no cleaner. Steve thumbed off the safety and hoped like hell Bucky had eyes on him.
The shot went wild as something smashed into his arm, knocking the gun off kilter, and Steve used the momentum of the hit to swing himself around into an attack position and found himself staring into Bucky's blue eyes. "No," Bucky said, his face twisted. "Steve. Don't," and then Steve grabbed Bucky and tucked him under his shield as a spray of bullets ricocheted off the vibranium. Crouching, Bucky drew two guns from his holsters. "Cover me," he said, and then Bucky tucked and rolled and came up firing, and everyone around them went down. Except Renke, who was scurrying away across the field like the human cockroach that he was. Steve drew a bead on him and fired, and a rose bloomed in the center of his back. Renke went down, and a second later, Steve did too, all the air whuffing out of his lungs as Bucky tackled him to the ground.
"No!" Bucky screamed at him. "Jesus! I said--" but Steve, overwhelmed with emotion, flipped him over and seized his shoulders.
"My hands aren't clean!" Steve yelled. "I'm Captain America, it's my job to— I'm sorry it was you, it wasn't supposed to be you, anyone but you," and Bucky stared up at him, horrified—and then the ground was shaking, moving beneath them, and there was a low rumble that brought the dust up around them in clouds.
"Natasha," Steve gasped, hauling Bucky up; they were both coughing, and then the stone wall nearest them crumpled inward, seeming to implode under its own weight, rocks flying everywhere. Steve hit his radio: "Natasha!" he called, "tell me you're out of here, tell me the children got—"
Natasha's voice was breathless in his ear. "We're halfway down the mountain, Rogers. Be back as soon as I can. Save me some marshmallows," and she radioed off.
"Come on," Steve said to Bucky, just as another of Bucky's explosives rocked the other side of the castle, sending a cascade of burning debris into the air. "Let's get out of here." They ran, and it reminded Steve of the best day of his entire life: finding Bucky in that Hydra base, alive, when Steve had thought he was dead. They'd barely managed to get out that day, flinging themselves through fire and out and over a wall and tumbling down a bramble-y hill until they'd crashed into the soft dirt. And then they'd both lost their minds for a while: sitting there in the mud, branches in their hair, laughing, and Bucky had had tears running down his face and he was saying, "How is this possible? How are you even possible?"
"I thought you were dead," Steve had said.
"Maybe I am," Bucky had said. "Am I?" and Steve had kissed him then, almost savagely, surprised by his new strength.
Now the castle was burning. The main gate had collapsed, bodies visible underneath it and other Hydra agents frantically trying to climb over them and out. He and Bucky scrambled up through the burning ruins on the other side of the bailey, flinging themselves over and skidding down a rough hill to get away from the wreckage and the billowing smoke.
Steve tapped his ear as he stumbled down – "Natasha? Natasha, what is your location?" – then turned back because Bucky had stopped, panting and filthy, to watch the tower burn.
"We're too close," Steve said, and then went to stand beside him. The sky was gray now: the sun was coming up. Another explosion sent up a burst of flame, like a bright orange balloon that caught fire and turned black as it rose up and up.
"Thanks," Bucky said softly, finally. "Thank you, Steve," and Steve frowned because Bucky was unbuckling his holsters, unstrapping his tactical vest, letting it all slide off and down to the ground. He looked exhausted. "I need you to do one more thing for me," Bucky said, "and you won't want to, but you're the only one who—" His voice strangled and died. "You're the only one," he said, and then he reached across to pull Steve's Colt out of his holster, and cocked it, and handed it to him.
Steve looked at the gun, and then looked at Bucky, who was all Bucky, now; the Winter Soldier pooled at his feet. Bucky looked at him and said, "Steve. Please," and of course, the Colt hadn't been meant for Renke; the Colt had been meant for him. "It's like Peterson," Bucky said softly, "you remember Peterson?" and of course he remembered Peterson: Peterson who had been trapped, and on fire. Dum Dum had done it. They'd all known the law, and the law was clear – battlefield mercy killings were illegal – but this was one of the places where right and legal didn't seem to square up too much.
Bucky got down on his knees, face still crossed with that awful pleading: trapped, Steve thought, and on fire. "Do it," Bucky said. "End it. I can't take any more," and Steve blinked fast so he could see and said, "I know. I know. I can't imagine—but Buck, I'm selfish, see?" and then he was kneeling down and turning Bucky around, slinging an arm across his collarbones and pulling Bucky hard against him, back to chest. Then he jammed the Colt against Bucky's sternum.
"I can't let you go. Not without me," Steve said apologetically, pressing his face behind Bucky's right ear. "You understand, right?" and Bucky twisted his head around to meet Steve's eyes, searching his expression, trying to read what he saw there.
"You," Bucky began uncertainly, but Steve understood immediately that it was a question: You? You, too?
"Yeah," Steve scraped out, "it's been terrible - for me - I can't imagine what—"
He heard Natasha's gasp of surprise but didn't look at her. "Jesus," he heard her breathe. "Jesus, Rogers. What the hell is—" but he didn't have time for Natasha right now, so he swung the Colt away from Bucky and aimed it in what he thought was her general direction, just until he heard her stop moving: stay there, Natasha, stay put. Then he moved the barrel of the gun back to Bucky's chest. "I can't imagine what it's been like for you," he said, finishing his thought. "I really can't."
"Pretty bad," Bucky said, and he was swaying a little. Steve tightened his arm to keep him upright.
"So you're the weapons expert," Steve said. "If I fire this gun, will it kill both of us?" He wouldn't hesitate to pull the trigger: he'd be so grateful to end the frozen half-life he'd been living since Bucky fell from the train, the sick horror of walking around so far past his time.
But Bucky took a long time to answer. "It might," he said finally. "But not reliably," and Bucky's hand was sliding over Steve's and tugging at his wrist, and Steve let the gun drop to his side. "Especially not with that outfit you're wearing."
"Okay. Okay. So that's a bad plan," Steve said, "because it's both or nothing, you understand? We'll do it another way. Jump from the top of the Empire State Building. Or just take the car a lot – the way you drive, it's practically an inevitability. You drive like an assassin," and Bucky was laughing but there were tears streaming down his face, making trails of wetness in the dirt—and then Natasha darted in and snatched the Colt out of Steve's hand before bolting away again.
"Sneaky bitch," Bucky said, roughly swiping the heel of his hand across his muddy cheek.
"Yeah, I know, I really like her," Steve replied, and then he was holding Bucky tight and gasping against his neck while the black tower burned behind them. Bucky pulled him close, the silver arm as warm as the flesh, and a shivery-burn ran throughout Steve's whole body: the last of the ice, thawing out.