Mountains, mountains and rain, mountains and rain and sun and snow; always too cold or too hot or sometimes, improbably, both at once; terrible coffee and not enough food and wet socks and too little ammo or the wrong kind of ammo and trying to call out only to find the damn radio was broken again ...
Steve had never realized that war would all run together like it did. All the mountains were the same mountain; all the forests were the same, and all the bombed-out villages with pigs foraging in the shadow of tumbledown walls. It was a little like being back on the USO bond-selling circuit: how New York, Cleveland, Los Angeles, even London or Algiers used to blur into a haze of star-spangled costumes and music and audiences so much alike that sometimes he could swear it was the same faces over and over.
Except this time there were more people shooting at him.
These particular mountains were in Yugoslavia somewhere, though sometimes he had to check a map to remind himself that it wasn't the Swiss Alps or Poland or, God, where hadn't they been in the last ... how long had it been now, six months, eight? It was early summer, 1944 -- or at least it should have been summer, but in these mountains it felt more like early spring. At least it was late enough that they weren't having to walk through snow, but the sweeping cold rains remained a misery. As if it wasn't enough misery that half the people they met wanted to kill them and the other half were starving because years of fighting -- between Chetniks and Partisans, between Partisans and Germans, between Russians and Germans -- and reprisals and counter-reprisals had flattened the fields and killed the flocks. But there wasn't a damn thing they could do to help without starving themselves.
Steve took a lot of the watches because he didn't need as much sleep as everyone else. Bucky often sat the watches with him, even though he needed the sleep a lot more than Steve did, but Bucky didn't sleep all that much anymore. Last night Steve had managed, through a combination of bullying and cajoling, to get him into his bedroll, and Bucky had seemed to be genuinely asleep the last Steve had seen him. Maybe it had fallen apart by now in nightmares, but if so, he hadn't come up looking for Steve, so he must be getting some rest, at least.
So Steve sat on a boulder in Yugoslavia and watched the sun come up. One boulder much like another. Same sun as elsewhere. He knew he should be appreciating its beauty -- the colors, if he only had paints; and okay, he did feel a small tug at that -- but mostly he was thinking that it was too damn cold and he was hungry. He had to warm his hands under his jacket before cracking open a can of (alleged) ham and eggs from one of the K-ration breakfast packs. The key-style can opener slipped and he sliced his fingertip on the edge of the lid -- not bad, just a thin red line that healed as he watched it. He wiped away the blood on his pants.
After this mission was over, they'd been promised a week of leave in London. They hadn't had leave since the team was put together -- and Steve knew there were men who'd been fighting a lot longer, under much worse conditions, but he was starting to get why Peggy had told him that conventional military wisdom was that two months in combat without rest was a good recipe for combat fatigue, and any longer was asking for disaster. For the Commandos, it was mission after mission after mission, because they were really all the SSR had on the HYDRA-hunting end of things. It seemed that the bases Steve had spotted on the map in Austria were just the tip of a very large iceberg; every time they blew one up, they picked up intelligence that led them to a half dozen more.
And then there were things like this: joint missions with American or British intelligence, or just being flat-out appropriated by agencies outside SSR because over the last few months they'd picked up a reputation for being able to go in where other teams didn't and do what other teams couldn't (especially if it involved destroying things). The OSS, the American intelligence service, had managed through some kind of finagling to get the loan of the Commandos for help with sabotage operations in Greece, which was one of their big pushes right now, smashing up infrastructure to draw the German army away from some kind of thing that was going on up in France. Steve figured he'd get the details on that when they were out of the field for a while. Right now it was hard to think beyond the next hill, let alone to accept the existence of France or Britain or heaven forbid the U.S. as real places.
In any case, if there was one thing the Commandos were good at, it was blowing stuff up, which was why they'd gone straight from Greece up to Yugoslavia -- "You're in the neighborhood anyway," Peggy had said dryly -- to do basically the same thing here. Blow railroad bridges so the German army couldn't move, isolating individual units in the mountains; create as much disarray as possible; then disappear. The American and British intelligence services both had sabotage teams of their own in the area, but Peggy had been cagy about how many and where -- it was possible that she didn't have the information either; she'd also warned Steve that the local resistance movement, the Partisans under General Tito, were none too fond of Americans. Steve hoped they didn't all end up shooting each other while the Germans were off somewhere else entirely.
It was hard to remember the danger on mornings like this, though, when the world seemed serene and still. Crashing in the brush made Steve tense and reach for his shield, but it was Gabe coming up from their cold camp below, making enough noise that he wouldn't accidentally get shot.
"Brought you breakfast," he said, holding out a tan K-ration box, "but I see you've already got yours."
"Just like Mom used to make."
They ate together in a companionable silence -- they'd already worn out their store of complaints about the dismal food, so there wasn't much to say anymore -- and watched the sun paint the world with liquid gold.
"You know," Gabe said suddenly, "I dunno about you, Cap, but me, someday I think I'd like to see this place when it's not full of mines and people shooting at me. Come see the mountains just for the sake of seeing mountains, not for blowing up shit that's in the mountains. What do you think of that?"
"Sounds like a good plan to me," Steve said. "I always wanted to see the world. Me and Bucky used to talk about it when we were kids. Leave Brooklyn, go travel around. See the Grand Canyon and the Eiffel Tower. All those places we'd only read about."
"And hey, look at you now," Gabe said. "Ma Rogers' boy all grown up and seeing the world."
"Meeting new people," Steve said.
"Shooting at them."
Gabe grinned. Steve tossed his empty can over the edge of the cliff in front of him, watched it flash in the sun as it tumbled on its way down.
They'd lucked out on the weather today -- clear for once, without the rain and fog that had had them wandering back and forth across the same stretch of mountain for the last two days. They were able to take a good bearing on the sun, figure out on approximately what part of their stained, wrinkled map they were currently located (give or take a mountain or two) and on what other part of the map their target was (a railroad bridge across an old stone aqueduct, still basically where they'd left it) and therefore which way they'd have to go to get between the two. On the map, it looked like smooth sailing.
Which of course Falsworth had to say, which was undoubtedly why the weather socked in and started raining again. And then, in early afternoon, they ran smack into a river that wasn't even on the map, unless they'd gotten completely turned around. The line of men broke against the river's bank until they were all assembled, staring in dismay at the broad, churning expanse of white and brown.
"I think it might be this," Bucky said, tracing a tiny, nearly imperceptible blue thread that squiggled in and out of the contour lines.
"That's not a river," Dugan said, scowling at the map as if it had personally offended him. "That's a surveyor's error."
"It's probably half this size in midsummer," Morita pointed out. "Right now it's risen because of snowmelt, and we just had a week of rain on top of that." Unlike the rest of them, he had previous experience with mountains due to an adolescence spent hiking his way around California.
"That's a big heaping lot of help, Professor, since what we really need to do is get across the damn thing."
The river was far too deep and fast to even think about wading, so they drew playing cards to determine whether to go upstream (hoping it would get narrower) or downstream (in the hope of finding a place that was wider and shallower). Downstream won, and a couple of bends brought them to a flat meadow crisscrossed by goat paths. Here the river looked broad and shallow enough to ford, though it was still alarmingly fast-moving. Even more alarming, just downstream of their crossing place, it narrowed to a racing chute of high-pressure water shooting over a waterfall -- a series of waterfalls, really, Steve discovered when he looked over the edge. The river stair-stepped down the mountainside in a series of close-spaced cascades, vanishing ominously into the mist below them. Anyone who went over that edge would be thrown into a meat grinder, and there wasn't likely to be much left of them by the time they made it down all those waterfalls to the bottom.
On the other hand, climbing down all those waterfalls would take the rest of the day and probably some of tomorrow, and wear them out besides.
"We're roping together," Steve declared.
"Great, so if one of us goes off the edge, we all do?" This from Morita.
"The point is none of us will."
"You hope." But Morita was already shaking a rope out of his pack.
They cut walking staffs from thickets of brush alongside the river, discovering in the process that the thickets were full of shaggy little flop-eared goats. Shy at first, the goats quickly became friendly, nuzzling at fingers and pockets. Some of them wore bells which had been muted by stuffing little twists of rag inside -- the better for both goats and goatherds to hide, Steve guessed. He scanned the mist-draped hills for signs of anyone nearby, but if there were people around, they stayed out of sight.
"Sorry, guys," Steve said, fending off goat noses as they nipped at his pants. "No treats for you."
Watched by a smattering of curious goats, they roped off on the riverbank, putting Dernier in the middle because he was carrying the explosives that were vital to the success of the mission -- despite Dum-Dum's half-serious grousing that "the guy who blows up if you drop him should go on the end, don't you think?" Steve went first, with Dugan behind him, then Gabe, Dernier, Morita, and Falsworth. Bucky brought up the rear, a position he'd been settling into more and more frequently -- bracketing the squad between Steve in front, and Bucky, with his sniper rifle, covering their six. Although in this case the weapons were stashed in their packs, which sat as high on their shoulders as they could carry them. They'd be sitting ducks if they were attacked.
The water was ice-cold, the current stiff and the footing treacherous. Their makeshift walking staffs helped, giving them something to brace against, but the waterworn rocks slipped and rolled underfoot when they were stepped on. The worst place was halfway across, at the deepest part of the channel. It was almost up to Steve's chest, even deeper on the shorter men in the squad like Morita.
Once he was past the deep place, Steve felt the rope go taut behind him as Dum-Dum struggled through it. He slowed up a bit, bracing his own legs so that he could arrest a slide if one did start to happen. He could only risk occasional glances over his shoulder, mostly concerned with keeping his own footing, because this was one place where his supersoldier strength would be the most useful. If Steve fell, they might all go over, but he was reasonably confident he could manage not to. One by one, they hit the deep part of the channel; one man at a time, he felt the rope tight and then go slack again.
The one who slipped was Falsworth.
The line whip-cracked when Falsworth went down. Morita was whipped half around and then arrested in mid-slide when Dernier dug in and put tension on the line. Bucky, having no one to brace against, didn't have a chance and was dragged off his feet and slung around into the deep part of the channel instantly. The rest of them staggered sideways. Steve braced himself on his staff and half-turned so the rope was across his body and he could bring as much of his (considerable) weight to bear on it as possible.
But they were in trouble. The whole line wavered, the river sucking at them. Bucky and Falsworth were both struggling to regain their footing, but Bucky was off his feet completely, full-body spread-eagle in the current, which meant Falsworth's attempts to stand up weren't doing much more than threatening to pull Morita down.
And Steve froze, unable to think of anything to do except stay planted like a tree in the current -- he thought he could hold them even if they all went down, but he wasn't sure, and he wanted to go back and help (was Bucky's head even above water?) but he couldn't do it without sacrificing the closest thing to an anchor point they had --
"Get to shore and tie off!" Dum-Dum bellowed at him.
That snapped him out of his paralysis of indecision. Yes, stupid -- all he had to do was get the rope tied off to something, and then he'd be freed up to go back and help. Steve took a careful, slogging step forward, braced on the staff, and looked back again --
-- just in time to watch what happened next like a slow-motion accident --
Falsworth had managed to regain his feet for a second, but was dragged over again, and Morita lost his footing for an instant before getting upright again with the help of Dernier braced against his part of the line. Steve could barely see Bucky, just a thrashing shape in the water, but he did see the quick silver flash of a knife, and then the whole line went slack and Falsworth was staggering upright with Morita's help and Bucky --
-- Bucky was gone.
Steve didn't bother with water-swollen knots, just snapped the rope close to his waist with a twist of his fingers. "Get them onshore," he snapped at Dugan, who gave him a tight nod of understanding as Steve, letting go his end of the line, plunged into the water and let it catch him. He surfaced long enough to make sure Falsworth had kept his footing -- yes, they were all upright and headed for shore -- and then he let the current take him over the waterfall.
He went over it like a barrel-rider in a chute. He wasn't sure how far it was -- fifty feet, a hundred -- but it hurt when he hit, a full-body slap of pain, and he came up from underwater coughing and gasping and feeling like he'd been beaten. And by God he was going to do that one waterfall at a time until he found Bucky, even though the rational part of his brain was already telling him by the time they reached the bottom there wouldn't be enough left of Bucky to ship home in a cigar box --
-- except Bucky, somehow, had managed not only to avoid breaking his neck in the fall, but had caught hold of a boulder in the cascade, just downstream of the first waterfall and upstream of the second. That was as far as he'd managed to get; he was clinging like a drowned rat, clearly unable to progress from there, but not progressing any further downstream, that was the important part.
Steve half-swam, half-fell through the water and dragged himself onto Bucky's rock with one hand gripping the rock and the other in a white-knuckled grip on Bucky's sleeve. "You okay?" he yelled over the roar of the waterfall.
Bucky's hair was plastered down and his lashes clumped together with water. His eyes looked huge in his pale face. He started to nod, started to shake his head, and then shouted back in a breathless, slightly strangled voice, "They could sell tickets to that at Coney Island."
Which meant he was okay. Basically. "Come on," Steve shouted, and Bucky, needing no more encouragement, transferred his death grip from the rock to Steve. They struggled ashore, hanging onto each other, and kept that grip even when they fell, sodden and half drowned, among the rocks at the water's edge in the pattering gray rain.
The thought occurred to Steve as he tried to roll over onto his back and found that he couldn't -- his pack stopped him -- that taking off the packs would've made swimming a lot easier. On the other hand, in all likelihood the pack had given Bucky some protection in the fall. And they hadn't lost their gear. So there was that.
"Is everyone --" Bucky managed. His teeth were chattering so hard he could barely get the words out. "Are they --"
"Everyone is fine. Everyone is fine except you, idiot!" Steve said, and aimed a half-hearted cuff at Bucky's head, but a lifetime of boyish grappling had left Bucky wise to those sorts of tricks and even in his present state he managed to dodge enough that Steve just barely clipped him. "What were you thinking? Were you thinking? Do you actually know how to think?"
"I was thinking we were all gonna get dragged off the edge and die, Rogers, what the hell you think, I do this kind of thing for my health?" His teeth were still chattering so hard that it came out in an incomprehensible rush, but Steve got almost all of it; he'd had many years' practice at deciphering Bucky drunk, cold, insensible with exhaustion, and in just about every other conceivable state.
And so Steve merely lay on his back for another minute or two, until he'd regained his breath and stopped wanting to strangle his best friend. He was shivering himself. The rain had slowed to a drizzle so light that it was really just a clammy mist hanging in the air, deadening the sound of the waterfall and leeching heat out of them both. He really needed to get Bucky up and moving, so he made himself sit up. "Are you hurt? Let me take a look."
"Get off," Bucky complained, pushing him away when Steve attempted to pat him down for broken bones. Ever since Steve had pulled him out of that HYDRA prison camp, he'd been extremely touchy about being handled.
"No," Steve said, and having reassured himself that nothing important was broken, he hauled in Bucky and hugged him, hard enough to squeeze out most of the air that he'd managed to regain.
"Knock it off, Rogers, you enormous sap," Bucky said, coughing slightly and trying to make some space to breathe in. "I don't need my face in your armpit. You're huge now, can you try and remember that?" Still, he made little attempt to escape -- more, Steve thought, due to being cold than wanting to be hugged in particular. Bucky was still shivering violently.
"I'll knock it off when you stop making me think you're dead."
"You'd think you'd know by now that I'm not that easy to kill," Bucky said. "I can't believe you jumped in a river after me. I swear someday I'm going to get you a tattoo that says Don't do anything stupid on the backs of both your hands so maybe it'll sink in --" He choked off with a peculiar strangled sound. "Steven, did you just lick my ear?"
"No!" Steve said, and then, "Gah!"
The goats had turned up again, drawn to the two prone figures on the riverbank and apparently curious if they were carrying food, or were edible themselves. They scattered when the targets of their curiosity sat up, but drifted back immediately.
"Say," Bucky said, pushing back a goat that was attempting to nibble on his hair. "Weren't they on the other side of the river? If we had this much trouble getting across, how'd the damn goats do it?"
They both looked at the water, still just as churning, swift, and dangerous as it had been above the waterfall.
"Different goats?" Steve asked. "Stop that, my collar is not your supper." He got to his feet and gave Bucky a hand up. Bucky's fingers were still ice cold, and he was wobbly enough not to shake off Steve's supportive hand against his elbow.
"Could be, I guess."
As in the meadow above them, there were goat paths all along the bank, and much of the nearby shrubbery had been browsed on. Steve followed one of those paths with his eyes; it wound up the bank and appeared to dip behind the waterfall. Bucky noticed where he was looking, and they both watched one of the goats disappear from view, seemingly between one step and the next.
"Steve, I think there's a cave or somethin' back there." Bucky's voice was still tight with cold, but when he glanced sideways at Steve, his eyes were bright. "You know you wanna look."
"We need to let everybody know we're not dead, Buck."
"C'mon, Steve, it's a secret cave. Like in Last of the Mohicans, the cave between the waterfalls? Just a peek." He flashed a quick grin. "Could be useful if we have to come back this way."
"We're reconnoitering," Steve said as they allowed themselves to be jostled along in the herd of curious goats. "For important tactical purposes."
It was obvious from close up that the cliff was steeply undercut, with a lot more space between cliff and waterfall than Steve would have expected. It was more like a broad recessed passage, choked with brush that had been severely pruned by the goats. The rocks were slippery and treacherous underfoot, but once they risked it, they found that the passage was easily broad enough to walk through -- and the rock under the waterfall's lip was networked with multiple caves and tunnels carved out of soft limestone by eons of the water's action.
"Looks like the river used to run through here and now it goes over the top," Bucky said, lips close to Steve's ear to be heard over the roar of the waterfall.
Steve nodded. He pushed through the brush into the mouth of one of the tunnels. Away from the waterfall, it was dryer and more quiet. The floor of the passage sloped up steeply. Years of dried goat droppings crunched under his boots. He had his shield out -- this was a perfect hiding place, and the mountain resistance knew most of the good ambush spots. However, he saw no signs of recent occupation by anyone other than goats, though the remains of an old wooden fence suggested that people had been pasturing their flocks in these caves for a long time.
Bucky joined him, with the rifle unslung from his back and pointing at the floor. "Anything?" he asked, and Steve shook his head.
"You know what I'm thinking?" Steve said. "We could build a fire back here without giving ourselves away. Dry our stuff out. Get warm."
"I'm good to move on," Bucky said, flexing his hands on the rifle's grip. His teeth were still chattering slightly; he tightened his jaw to still them.
"I know. But it wouldn't hurt to take a few hours off our feet. Get everything dried, rest a little. All of us need it." Steve tipped his head toward the cave entrance. "I'll go find the others if you want to start getting some firewood together."
He ditched his pack in the cave without giving Bucky a chance to argue -- it was really the only way to win an argument with Bucky -- and scrambled upslope, fighting his way through a tangle of brush all pointing downhill. Halfway up he ran into the rest of the team coming down, Dugan in the lead. "Barnes --" Dugan began upon seeing Steve.
"Down there. He's okay. We found something interesting."
Once they'd seen the caves, no one offered any objection to the "build a fire and get warm" plan. They'd been cold camping for a week, concerned about smoke giving them away. But the waterfall and rain would help take the smoke out of the air, and they could post guards at the cave entrance. Soon a small fire of dry twigs was crackling and popping as far back in the cave as they dared build it without asphyxiating themselves. They spread out their wet gear and clothes, wrapping themselves in blankets which were still unpleasantly damp, but warmer than running around naked.
And the fire was pure bliss. "It's warm," Falsworth groaned, stretching out his hands to the flames.
The goats plainly thought so too. They continued to wander in and out of the cave, but a number of them bedded down near the fire. Dernier said something in French. Steve's French was still limited to a smattering of random words, but he knew what mangeons meant. "No one is eating any goats. They belong to somebody."
"Past tense, possibly," Gabe pointed out.
"If we were starving, then, yeah," Steve said. "But we have food. Terrible food, granted, but I'm not gonna give the green light to slaughtering someone's livestock unless we have to."
"We could milk 'em," Dugan said. "Some of these poor things look like they haven't been milked in awhile." When everyone turned to stare at him, he said in a baffled voice, "What?"
"Do you actually know how to milk a goat?" Bucky wanted to know.
"More importantly," Falsworth said, "why would you want to?"
"I've been around farms a little, yeah. And come on, you want to tell me that fucking C-rat coffee wouldn't be better with a little milk in it? At least it'd kill the cardboard taste."
"Yeah," Morita said, "replacing it with goat taste, that's whole a lot better."
"Bet you five bucks you can't even catch one," Gabe said.
This led -- predictably -- to a whirlwind session of competitive goat-chasing. Steve kept opening his mouth to make them stop, then closing it again. No goats seemed to be getting hurt, and the men were having fun. Although he really wished he had a camera to capture the image of Dugan, clad only in a blanket that didn't cover very much of him, throwing himself on top of a startled nanny goat.
Bucky didn't join in the friendly chaos -- he was heating water for coffee, while huddled so close to the fire that he'd singed his blanket in a few places -- but he was laughing, really laughing, the first time Steve had seen that in ... awhile.
Steve brought him a cup of milk, supplied by Dugan. "Trade you," he said, reaching out a hand for Bucky's cup of weak, watery coffee.
Bucky accepted the trade with a deeply skeptical expression. "Did this or did this not come out of a goat's .... lady parts, Steve."
"That's where all milk comes from," Steve couldn't help saying, and then honesty compelled him to add, "Goats or cows, I mean. Mostly cows. Is what I understand."
"Yes, but I'm not in the habit of getting personally acquainted with the cow." Bucky pushed away a goat that was getting up close and personal with his pack, sniffed at the cup and wrinkled his nose.
"Drink it," Steve said. "It's good for you."
"I can't believe you just said that. Can not believe I heard those words come out of your mouth."
"Maybe it's a sign we're growing up," Steve said. He grinned.
"You?" Bucky said. "That'll be the day." But he drank it, complaining vociferously the whole time. After awhile he pillowed his head on his damp coat and fell asleep, resting one shoulder against Steve's thigh.
Steve flew into Skopje from Paris by way of Zagreb. He was jet-lagged and tired by the time the twin-engine plane approached the Macedonian capital, but not too much to appreciate the mountains glimmering in the sunset. It was late spring. There was still snow, pink and white and gold on the high rocky peaks.
The lady who checked his passport and took a cursory look through his luggage -- a massive backpack -- asked him in English, "You are camping? Mountains?"
"That's the plan," Steve said.
"Early in the year," she said. "Still cold. Still ..." She fluttered her fingers in the air, miming falling snow as she searched for the word. "Storm."
"I'm a hardy sort," Steve said. He smiled and thought about saying he'd been here before, but she might ask him when.
She smiled back and stamped his passport. "Have a pleasant trip."
He found the hotel he'd been told to look for, and asked at the front desk if there was a message for him. There was. It was nothing but a single word, which meant nothing to him, but the map on his phone told him it was the name of a village about a day's travel from the city. Steve sighed. He was tired enough -- from today, from this past year, from his whole damn life -- to wish that for once they could just give up on the cloak and dagger stuff. He should've taken Tony up on the offer to drop him off directly.
Still, he checked in and asked the location of a good restaurant. By the time he and Sam had knocked off searching last winter and gone back to DC, he'd been too sick of traveling to enjoy this kind of thing anymore. He just wanted to be somewhere familiar, sleep in the same bed more than two nights in a row and eat in the same place long enough for the waitresses to start recognizing him. But after a few months of that -- give or take a bit of Avengers business along the way -- he was starting to appreciate travel again: wandering the unfamiliar streets of a city he'd never been, communicating with people in the handful of common words they had between them, puzzling over the menu's unfamiliar Greek-derived alphabet and finally ordering by guesswork. He'd brought his sketchbook -- it wasn't like the extra weight made much difference to him now -- and he idly sketched people and architecture, and drank tiny cups of coffee while he waited for his body to get the message that it was night and time to sleep.
The next day found him pushing deeper into the more rural country outside the city, by bus and taxi and finally on foot. The thing that disconcerted him most, once he was finally into the mountains, was that it was genuinely touristy, at least around the towns. There were hiking trails, signs, cheerful groups of college-age backpackers waving and greeting him in a half-dozen languages. Zdravo! Salut! Grüezi! He couldn't stop scanning the soft green folds of the hills for snipers, couldn't stop looking for signs that the trail up ahead had been mined.
It was something that had been easier to fight off when he was traveling with Sam, if only because Sam was so eager to play tourist, and had so few existing associations with the places where they'd gone; it had made it easier to see the world through Sam's wide-open eyes. In between tracking down leads on HYDRA and Bucky in France, in the Czech Republic, in Russia and Hungary and Turkey, they'd also visited museums and hit as many of the tourist spots as they could. Sam had been to Germany a couple of times, to Italy one time on a school trip, but other than that and Afghanistan, the world had been a fresh blank page for him.
Sam had teased him, sometimes, that he liked to play the jaded old man. "I'm older than you, Steve, you dipshit." And it was true. But it was also true that Steve's head was full of tanks and barbed wire and explosions; everything he knew about Europe, everything he remembered, was seventy years gone. And it was good that the place wasn't a war-torn hell hole anymore -- even the Balkans, which he knew had been war-ravaged long after the war he remembered, were putting themselves back together, grass growing over the damage to the landscape and scar tissue patching up people's hearts. He liked to see that. It mattered, that life went on, that people went ahead and lived their lives and made beauty where there had been ugliness and pain.
But sometimes he felt himself caught with one foot in that world and one in this one, unable to let go even as the gap slowly widened, parting him down the middle.
He was sitting on a boulder, contemplating a valley with its cow-dotted fields, when Natasha found him. She sat beside him and unwrapped an energy bar. Her hair wasn't red anymore; it was brown now, and longer than it had been, pulled back in a no-nonsense ponytail. Between that, her backpack, and the jeans and sensible hiking shoes, she could have been neatly interchanged with any of the female hikers he'd passed along the trail. Only her eyes were not a college student's eyes. Not a student at all. But still recognizably Natasha, even if everything else was different.
There were so many things he wanted to ask her. She'd dropped him occasional pieces of information on Bucky's whereabouts while he and Sam were actively searching, but he hadn't seen her in person or had a real conversation since last year. Are you okay, are you safe, did you find what you were looking for ... She looked tan, fit and healthy, but he of all people knew how deceptive physical looks could be.
While he tried to figure out what to say, Natasha took a bite of her energy bar, puffing out her cheek like a squirrel's. "Where's the shield?" she asked archly, without bothering to swallow first.
"No shield. I'm here as Steve Rogers, not Captain America."
"Yeah, I wanted to know what's up with that," she said. "I've heard conflicting news. Are you retired, or what?"
You could have called anytime and asked, he wanted to say, but didn't. "Not retired, just ... tired, I guess. I still get back in the suit. I go out with Tony, or Thor, or Sam. Save who needs saving. But there's always someone that needs saving, and --"
And what was the point when all his strength and speed and the fame he hated couldn't save the one person he owed more than anyone else in the world? But that was a stupid thing to say, a childish thing -- as if it mattered to people he'd pulled out of burning buses and raging floodwaters. All that mattered to them was that they were alive, because of him, and it should have been enough --
Except there were too many people in the world to save, far too many people. He hadn't realized how much of a crutch SHIELD had been. Go there. Do that. Save these people, don't worry about those. It was .... it was horrible, to salve his conscience with I was just following orders, and yet, how much he missed being able to. Now it felt like he was drowning in a sea of cries for help, every day's news broadcast slapping him in the face not just with natural disasters and terrorist attacks (although, yes, those too) but the endless cycle of assaults and murders and abuse that he could stop, should stop, because he was a hero and if they hadn't given him this freak-of-nature body to help people, then what good was it, what use was anything he'd ever done ....
SHIELD had deployed him where it suited their purposes, and that wasn't right, but in the absence of orders, how could anyone possibly choose? The answer wasn't to choose nothing, but sometimes it was the only one he could muster the energy to make.
He realized he'd been quiet an awfully long time. Natasha had finished her energy bar and started another. "So, I got your message," he said at last -- fairly obvious, since he was here, but he couldn't think what else to say. "You haven't sent me any Bucky sightings in awhile."
"It's Nick's message really," she said indistinctly through the rest of the energy bar.
"Why is he getting involved in this?"
"Didn't you know?" She looked surprised, although he knew her surprise was rarely genuine: when she was actually caught off guard she did a better job of covering it up. "He's been -- well, I wouldn't say handling him exactly, but your friend Barnes has been doing occasional jobs on Nick's behalf."
"What?" Steve turned to look at her, angry and shocked. "Are you serious? Are you telling me Fury's known where he was this whole time?"
"Goodness no." She finished the last bite and licked her sticky fingers. "Barnes is a free agent. Always was. It's more that their interests lie in the same direction, I guess. And Barnes wants direction. Needs it. Nick gave him that."
"Nick's using him then," Steve spat. "Bucky isn't --"
"Isn't what? Capable of making his own decisions?"
There was challenge in her eyes and he knew they were scraping along the boundaries of her torn edges now, her past, but he was too angry to care. "Yes! About that, yes. He's more than a damned weapon."
Natasha shrugged and hopped down. "You'll have to take that up with them. I'm just the messenger."
"Wait," Steve said, scrambling off the rock. "Wait, no. I'm --" Sorry didn't fit quite right. "Can we start over? Hi. How've you been?"
Natasha tilted her head back to look up at him. He tended to forget how short she was. Her smile was quicker than it used to be, and more of it reached her eyes. "I'm hanging in there, Rogers. And how are you?"
"Hanging in there," Steve said, and he hugged her, picking her up off the ground just to hear the indignant noise she'd make. He wasn't disappointed. She kicked him in the thigh hard enough to hurt, and he put her down.
"Well, now that we have the pleasantries out of the way," Natasha said, "I'll tell you that despite Nick claiming he's around here, I've been in these mountains for four days and haven't seen a trace of our mutual ghost friend. Nothing but rumors among some of the locals. Stories."
"Stories of what?"
"What else? Monsters." A not-so-nice smile flitted around her mouth but never quite managed to settle. "He's here though, Steve. Or at least he was here very recently. Aside from Nick's intel ... I don't know, call it spies' intuition if you like, but there's a feeling to dead ends and this isn't it."
"Like the way you know when --" It was a dark comparison and he regretted it the minute the words left his mouth, but he made himself keep going. "-- when you're not alone in the woods. When there's a sniper in the hills."
"That's ... morbid, Rogers, but accurate." Her eyes held his for a moment before moving on. "I don't know why, but I forget you're a soldier sometimes. You do the Boy Scout act too well."
"I was here, you know," Steve said. "We all were. Me and Bucky and the rest."
"Yugoslavia." Hard to remind himself it wasn't called that anymore. "This area."
She frowned slightly. That was what surprise looked like on Natasha. "That's not in your files."
"There's probably a lot of stuff that's not in the files. We weren't supposed to be here. We were on loan to the American intelligence service. It wasn't HYDRA-related, though. It was nothing to do with HYDRA."
"What did you do?"
"Blew up a bridge," Steve said. "Want to see it?"
She kept up with him, uncomplaining, as they headed deeper into the mountains, and he tried not to show that he was slowing down for her. He knew she'd hate it, didn't blame her, but it wasn't her fault that she had fragile human bones and muscles that wore out like tires on an old car. He had to slow down for Sam too. For everyone. It was back in the war days that he'd learned how to do it, learned he had to do it. He was used to being the person others slowed down for. It had taken him awhile to train himself, to learn right down to his bones that what felt like a comfortable, steady walking speed for him left other people gasping and collapsing beside the trail. It was the sort of thing that started out okay and then snowballed if he wasn't careful, because he didn't power-walk other people into the dust; his normal walking pace wasn't any faster than any regular guy with long legs. Instead it was a matter of knowing that he had to stop for breaks before he was tired, knowing that he couldn't keep going the same speed up a hill even though his legs weren't sending him signals to slow down.
He'd spent most of his life learning to power through pain and discomfort, and then overnight he had to learn to do the opposite -- to hold himself down to a fraction of his real strength, to pull his friendly punches and stop himself from snapping pencils and cup handles in hands that suddenly felt as big as Christmas hams.
Strangely enough it had been Dum-Dum Dugan, of all people, that he could talk to about it, or at least Dugan was the person who came closest to getting where he was coming from. (Bucky ... Bucky might have, if Steve had only -- but no, no, that way lay doors that had closed seventy years ago and a lifetime's worth of regrets that could drown him if he let them.) But Dugan was a big guy, had been a big guy all his life, had actually worked as a circus strongman for awhile if his wild stories could be believed. And Dugan had grown up with the knowledge that he was bigger and stronger than most of the people around him, grew up having to restrain himself so he didn't hurt anyone. It was all new to Steve, but it was good to know that it wasn't just him -- maybe he had a worse case of it than anyone in history (well, so he'd thought, 'til he met Thor and Banner) but at least it was part of the human experience, even if he was somewhere out on the extreme end.
He stopped on the trail. "What?" Natasha asked, impatient and a little out of breath.
She kicked his ankle with the toe of her hiking boot. "What are you thinking, Rogers?"
"Nothing," he said again.
He'd been thinking that human experience was wide and deep and vast as the universe (deeper than the the thin layer of stars in the sky, he knew that now), and yet as unique as any snowflake, all at the same time. And he'd been thinking how much it had helped him to talk to Dugan and to know, back in those days, that he wasn't the first to have gone through what he was going through. Maybe he was the first to have gone through it in exactly that way, but the things he was struggling with -- this big awkward body, the way he almost missed the familiarity of pain, the embarrassment that he couldn't even button his own shirt without accidentally ripping off two of the buttons -- these were things that people had dealt with before, each in their own way. And somehow, most of them had found a way through it.
Maybe he could say that to Bucky.
Maybe it would help if Bucky knew that he wasn't the first, the only. Maybe he was the first person to have his brain turned inside out by machines, to be stripped of his memories and humanity, to die in the snow only to be reborn in an indestructible new skin. But he wasn't the first person to be alone, he wasn't the first to be cold and scared, he wasn't the first to be forced to fight for a cause he didn't believe in.
There were human hooks in every alien thing that had happened to Bucky, just as there were for Steve. He wondered if Bucky had ever thought about it that way. If pointing it out would help. If it would only make it worse.
Well, there was no way to do any of those things if they couldn't find him.
With well-marked trails, good maps and clear weather, the walk from the trailhead to the old railroad bridge took them less than a day -- compared to nearly a week of miserable scrambling through the mountains. Change, Steve thought. Somehow he never seemed to get used to it. Just when he thought he had, something new would come along and blindside him.
"This is it?" Natasha asked.
"I think so." These were the times that threw his sense of reality off kilter. He'd been here a couple of years ago, had watched the old aqueduct and its burden of wet steel rails slide into a ravine while dodging mortar fire. Now there was a new bridge a little farther down the canyon. The old rails had been pulled up, and the old rail line was so choked with brush and trees that it might have been mistaken for a natural cleft in the hills except for its geometric precision and the fact that all the trees were more or less the same age. Below, in the canyon, he could make out the humped shapes of old rubble under a blanket of new vegetation. Or maybe those were natural rock formations. He hadn't had time to take a good look at the bridge after the explosion; they'd been too busy running for their lives.
Time slipped and slid sideways at moments like these. There should be bodies lying on the fresh spring grass, craters blown in the mountain soil. Maybe this was an old crater here, he thought, this dip filled with wildflowers that the trail detoured around.
The thought occurred to him suddenly that they might have rebuilt the bridge downstream because of unexploded ordnance in the area. Still, if that had been a causative factor back in those days, seventy years' worth of herders and hikers and tourists had probably found them all.
"No ghosts," Natasha said.
"Plenty of ghosts," Steve said quietly. "No Bucky, though."
They left the trail -- it continued along the top of the ridge, giving gorgeous views to both sides -- and walked down the old railroad cut, picking their way through dense brush. When they got to the edge, Steve located the remnants of the supports for the old bridge, stone buttresses crumbling with time and weather, massive iron fittings bleeding rust down the cracked and broken rocks. The sun was setting beyond the canyon rim. It was gorgeous and he wanted to draw it, but his sketchbook was buried in the bottom of his pack and urgency itched under his skin, pressed between his shoulder blades.
"No Bucky and no HYDRA," Steve said. He peered over the edge. "At least, if they've hidden something out here, it's hidden really, really well."
"Maybe he's not here for HYDRA."
"Nick's message --"
"Forget Nick's message," Natasha said. She sat on one of the old buttresses, legs swinging above a terrifying drop while she uncapped a bottle of water. "You know Barnes better than anyone, Steve, and you've been chasing him for almost a year. What is he up to?"
"He's after HYDRA, I guess," Steve said. He sat on a pile of rocks across from her and dug in his pack for a bag of trail mix. "But he's slipping past and present. Some of the places Sam and I tracked him to were current HYDRA facilities. Some had been decommissioned during the Cold War. Some were places we'd destroyed, all those years ago. The common thread was HYDRA."
And always, always they had been three steps behind.
"Was it?" Natasha asked. "Are you sure the common thread wasn't Barnes himself? Or maybe even you, and your shared past."
It was another of those tilt-sideways-and-rearrange moments ... like seeing a bombed-out bridge overgrown with seventy years of fresh green, putting together the shape of the seventy years that had made it that way. He'd been so sure that Bucky was on a one-man mission to take out HYDRA by himself -- a theory that had kicked off when he and Sam found the remains of the bank vault in DC: thoroughly trashed, papers burned, people killed. That had definitely been Bucky. But it had been Bucky in the first days after the Triskelion's destruction, scattered and scared and hurting, with no safe place and every expectation that HYDRA would be hunting for him. That had been self-defense more than anything.
You could have come to me, you jerk. I would have helped you.
But no, Bucky was Bucky -- and something about that (thinking he had to do it all alone, trying to take the whole burden on his own shoulders) was so damn Bucky that it hurt. So he'd gone on, and Steve had gone after him, and ...
"He's looking for pieces of himself," Steve said slowly. Wonderingly.
"Well, he's running missions also," Natasha said. "Before you ask, I have no idea at what point Nick made contact with him, between when you last saw him and now. I actually wasn't sure until about a week ago. And no, I don't know if I would have said something, so don't even ask." She looked out over the canyon, her profile limned with the setting sun's ruddy light. "I sometimes think I would have. But I don't know."
They camped in the railroad cut. Steve had a little Sterno stove -- would the wonders of the modern camping world never cease? -- and heated water for instant soup and coffee with packets of cocoa mixed in.
"I have to say, you're handling this a lot better than I thought you would." The night was growing chilly and Natasha had wrapped herself in an incongruously bright-colored windbreaker made out of some kind of modern high-tech fabric that was a little bit squishy to the touch. Steve kept wanting to touch it, but suspected she might throw him off the edge of the cliff if he did, and he'd probably deserve it.
"I guess it's better to exceed your low expectations than to fail to live up to your high opinion of me." He smiled to show it wasn't meant to sting, and handed her a cup of mocha'd coffee. "Besides, it's necessity more than anything. If Bucky is here for himself and not HYDRA, there's another place nearby he might have gone. And I'd be headed there right now, believe me, except I don't think I can find it in the dark. Not after seeing how much everything's overgrown. It was hard enough to find in the daytime, seventy years ago."
"I wouldn't expect a city kid to be this good at wilderness navigation."
Was she teasing him? Hard to tell, sometimes. "Well, I was in the Army from '43 to '45. Call it a crash course in that sort of thing."
"I suppose it would have been," she said.
She looked distant, her gaze a million miles away, and before he thought about it, the words were out of his mouth. "What about you? City girl too?"
Natasha paused with the cup halfway to her lips. "Don't you know you aren't supposed to ask me questions like that, Rogers?"
He'd known it was a violation of her implicit rules even as he'd said it. "I'm sorry."
Natasha leaned forward to tap him in the shoulder with a small fist. "No apologies. Do you know how often people ask me about my past? Directly, I mean."
"Not often?" Steve guessed.
"I suppose it depends on whether pliers and rubber hoses are involved." His reaction must have shown on his face, because she rolled her eyes. "I don't exactly run the local knitting club, Steve. My life is dangerous. But there's something refreshing about your bullheaded and mildly incompetent lack of respect for my boundaries."
"Thanks ... I think?" Steve said. "I've been told I'm, uh. Persistent."
"That's not what you were going to say."
He wondered if his smile was as sad as it felt. "Stubborn as a horny mule. That's what I was going to say."
"He called me a lot of names," Steve said. He cupped his hand around the Sterno flame, watched the light gleam through the liminal spaces between his fingers. "Some of the other names were worse, I guess. It depended on how much I'd been annoying him lately."
"So much history," Natasha said quietly. "So much past."
When Steve looked up, the light from the little blue flame had caught in her eyes. The sun was long down, and though tiny lights glimmered in the valley below -- clusters of villages or rural farms -- they seemed to be all alone on the windswept mountain.
"I used to think I understood you," Natasha said. "I have loved those who were far away. I've gotten back those I thought lost. But now I don't think I understand at all. Everyone I knew from my childhood is dead. Bones in the Russian winter. I don't know what it is that drives you, Steve."
"I'm sorry for everything you've lost," Steve said slowly, feeling his way along. "But -- I think you're selling yourself short. Love is love, you know? So what if you don't have a ... a shared history with anybody that goes back to the first grade. I remember how hard you fought to get Clint back. I saw the look on your face when Fury --" He caught her sharp intake of breath, skirted away from that topic. "You understand better than you think," he said.
"Hmm," she said noncommittally, and then, "Look!"
A train passed on the new bridge below them. It was a cargo train, its long headlight spearing out a half-mile or more down the tracks, the cars a chain of darkness trailing behind. Steve could feel the vibration through the ground, and the odd thought occurred to him that trains hadn't changed all that much since he was a kid. He'd seen passenger trains that were a little different -- sleek, streamlined, space-age-looking -- but the future wasn't filled with gleaming monorails and stubby-winged shuttles to the moon. Just diesel locomotives dragging coal or lumber or fertilizer through the dark mountains.
"I don't know," Natasha said, and before he could ask her what she didn't know, "City or country girl. I don't suppose it matters anymore. I was trained to blend into high society or to survive for months in the wilderness. That's my skill set. There's a memory I have -- it might not be mine ... I guess I'm eleven or twelve. I'm given a knife and turned loose in -- I think it must have been the Stanovoy Mountains. That's north of Lake Baikal."
"That's pretty far from anywhere," Steve said quietly when she seemed to be waiting for a response.
"They came and got me -- or her -- in two months. That's not long enough to starve to death, just in case I wasn't as good at living off the land as I ought to be. They'd invested quite a bit of effort in training me by that time. If I was stupid enough to allow myself to be eaten by a grizzly bear, that's my problem."
"And how were you, after two months?"
"I was wearing a grizzly bear skin," Natasha said, and smiled, a flash of her teeth in the light of the stove's little flame.
It took him a moment to figure out what to say to that. "Well, if there's anyone I want at my back in the wilderness, it's you."
"I understand Barnes is pretty good too."
"Between you and Bucky," Steve said, "I guess this city boy is in good hands, then."
They were up before the sun and ate cups of instant oatmeal while sitting side by side on the old bridge buttress, watching the sun rise over the canyon below them. There were little farms down there. Roads. Cars.
Steve had done his best to catch up on the history of the world after he'd gone into the ice. It was a lot to take in, he couldn't possibly absorb everything, but he'd been especially interested in the places he'd been during the war. The places he had, in some ways, helped to shape -- for good or ill. He'd read about the 1940s Yugoslavian civil war, the one he'd been in the middle of, giving him context for the things he'd seen and done. He'd read about the collapse of Communism and the civil war of the '90s. All those dead people, then and now.
"It's so strange to live long enough to see the changes happen," he said: musing out loud, really, but Natasha tilted her head enough that he knew she was listening.
When he didn't go on, she said, "Everyone sees changes happen in their own lifetime."
"Yeah, I know, but ..." It was hard to get the thought to wrap itself into coherent, easy-to-articulate format. "I guess it's a little disconcerting to go from being in the middle of it, to having seventy years of hindsight to be able to see how everything turned out. To go from boots on the ground to being able to put it all in perspective in the blink of an eye."
"Like being an eagle," Natasha said. She held her hand up high above her head, fingers spread against the sky. "Look down at the little people, see their lives all spread out for examining."
It was the first time he'd ever heard her speak with a Russian accent. Just a trace of it. "Not like that, really," he said. "It's more like ... being able to finally see the whole picture, I guess. Twenty-twenty hindsight. I mean, I had no idea why we did half the things we did in the war. I didn't know who it was going to affect, or what the broader landscape of the war looked like. I'm not saying we wouldn't have disobeyed an order if it seemed to be really wrong, at least I hope we would've, but mostly we just got orders and we did what we were told. Same thing with SHIELD."
"You couldn't have known about HYDRA," Natasha said.
"You either." He started to toss his oatmeal cup into the abyss beneath him, then stopped himself and laughed.
Steve crushed the cup and put it in his backpack. "Oh, I just ... the last time I was here, packing out our trash was the last thing we thought about. Anything that was deadweight, we tossed, preferably off the trail so the Germans wouldn't find it."
"Americans," Natasha said. "Such slobs."
"Sam told me they left a bunch of stuff behind in Afghanistan too. I thought it was a, you know, a then-and-now thing -- we didn't really think about that sort of thing back in the '40s. We didn't have big signs and TV commercials telling us not to litter. But really, it's a survival thing. When there are people shooting at you, I guess you have other things to worry about than whether you're cluttering up pristine waterways with ration cans."
Silence, then: "I was lying about the bear skin."
He glanced at her. "I thought you might have been. Though the word we used to use was 'tall tale'. Not exactly a lie."
"It was rabbits. A coat made out of rabbit fur, trapped by hand and softened by chewing. I was very proud of it. But it was crawling with vermin, so they burned it."
"Still a pretty good achievement for a twelve-year-old," Steve said.
"If it even was me." She turned her oatmeal cup over and over, as if looking for answers. "Black Widow is ... it's not just a codename, it's a -- an occupation, I guess. A description. I'm not the first Black Widow." Her mouth twitched in an expression that couldn't quite be called a smile. "I'm not even the best."
"I sometimes got the ..." He trod carefully, picking his words. "The impression that you might be older than you seem. From, uh, files and such."
Natasha shook her head. "I'm not. I don't think I am, anyway. It's more like ..." She twirled her hand in an ambiguous gesture that Steve couldn't interpret, so he just waited for her to go on. "They messed with my head a lot," she said at last. "I have memories -- I don't know, they aren't all mine, and a lot of it is from other Black Widows, so I don't even know what is mine for certain."
"I kind of got that."
"Imagine little red-haired girls all in a row," Natasha said. She smiled grimly. "Imagine an agency that doesn't want the West to know they're all different, that they're human, that they bleed and grow up, age and die. Little girls in a line. One goes down, another grows up to take her place. You know, I thought for a while the Winter Soldier was like me -- like us. A code name for many different assassins all under the same mask. It seemed the logical conclusion."
"But ... just Bucky," Steve said.
"Mmmm. One Bucky Barnes. A dozen Widows, all the same."
Steve reached out to curl his finger under her chin. She let him, which meant she didn't mind. "But only one Natasha," he said. "Irreplaceable."
This time the smile went all the way to her eyes. "Charmer."
He had to laugh. "Now that I've never been accused of."
"Really?" She uncurled her legs and stretched. "Girls in the 1940s must have been a different breed."
"Want to go find a goat trail with me?"
"Stop the sweet talk, Rogers, before I take my pants off right here and make a spectacle of myself."
Morita had been right that the river was smaller in dry weather. In fact, Steve had trouble recognizing it as the same river, in part because it no longer flowed the same way. At some point in the last seventy years, a flood or avalanche upstream had changed the river's course so that it no longer flowed over the entrance to the caves, but went around them instead. The cave mouths were gaping open, exposed to the elements, and the area in front of them was fenced pasture.
"This feels like trespassing," Steve said, climbing over the fence after Natasha.
"It is trespassing," she retorted. "It was trespassing seventy years ago, too."
Unlike the last time, though, no goats came to nibble their pockets. Steve noticed that Natasha had drawn a gun. He hadn't even realized she had a gun. Of course she did. Useless to wonder how she got it past Customs. "Expecting company?" he asked lightly, and wished he'd brought his shield.
"It pays to be prepared."
The caves had clearly been used to stable goats a lot more recently than the 1940s. In the first cave they peeked into, there was wire mesh just at the edge of the light spilling in from the cave mouth, blocking the goats from going deeper into the cave system.
And yet ... no goats.
"So, did we just come on market day or what?" Steve's voice echoed eerily off the cave walls.
"Well, there is something in the hills killing livestock," Natasha said. "Perhaps prudent shepherds are pasturing them in the valleys now."
Steve looked at her in surprise. "Killing livestock?"
"I did mention monsters earlier, didn't I, Rogers? I didn't imagine that?"
"I thought you were talking about --" He gritted his teeth, but said it anyway. "Bucky."
"I'm not that much of a jerk. .... Well, okay, perhaps to some people. But not you."
He didn't answer. They checked the other cave, and as soon as he stepped inside, Steve's sense of deja vu twanged painfully. It had been -- how long had it been, for him? Two years, three? He could still remember exactly where they'd had the fire. It had long since been filled up by goat dung and dropped fodder. The cave floor tilted more steeply than he remembered, ending in a wall of rocks and dirt where the ceiling of the cave had collapsed at some point in the last few decades.
"This is where we camped," he said quietly. He'd sat there, right there, Bucky sleeping on his leg, while Steve dealt out a hand of Patience for himself with the dog-eared deck of cards. He could almost taste the terrible camp coffee and the weird musky flavor of the goat milk. It had actually been kind of awful, at least he'd thought so, but it also had a weird kind of addictive appeal; it was warm and full of protein and sugar, things they'd all sorely needed.
"How far back did you explore?" Natasha asked.
"I don't know. Not very far. We were mostly just resting and getting out of the rain for a while." He looked up at the ceiling of the cave. Was the dark patch old smoke, from their fire? Or maybe just damp and mold.
Maybe other fires.
But that wasn't really such a long time, all things considered. He'd read about caves in the mountains of Europe that had been occupied forty or sixty thousand years ago, by Neandertals and by the long-ago ancestors of the people living there today.
"Well, clearly there's no getting in this way," Natasha said. She gave the collapsed cave ceiling a long look before leading the way back to the other cave, straight to the fence blocking the entrance to the tunnels.
The wire was old and rusty, with strands of dead grass clinging to it -- clearly the farmer had salvaged it from a fence elsewhere, since it was hammered into a very new-looking wooden frame. In one place, the wooden support structure had been broken and reinforced with more wood, nailed on in a haphazard kind of way. Natasha examined this closely while she tried to pull up the mesh. Then she shook her head and brought out a utility knife.
"Allow me," Steve said. He took a firm grip on the frame with one hand, the mesh with the other, and popped it apart.
"You're useful to have around," Natasha said, smiling. She bent back the wire to make a Natasha-sized gap and slipped through. Steve enlarged it enough to join her, then, feeling faintly guilty, bent the wire back into place as best he could.
Natasha knelt and examined the floor with a small flashlight. Tracking was one thing Steve had absolutely no aptitude for; the floor was scuffed up, but he couldn't tell if it was from goats or just the natural passage of years in the cave.
"Any luck, Dora Crockett?"
She looked up in dismay. "Was that a joke? Oh, Steve. Please don't." She rose and brushed off her jeans. "Boot prints. Relatively recent. Maybe a few days old."
Steve's heart leaped. He couldn't help it. "Bucky?"
"I don't know. About the right size. Generic combat boots."
A few days. Still a step behind, but closer than he'd been in months. "Obviously we're going in there," Steve said.
"Obviously," Natasha said dryly, pointing her flashlight ahead.
The cave system was vast, twisting and complex. Steve remembered Bucky's guess that the river used to flow through the limestone, eons ago. He was no caving expert, but his explorations with Natasha seemed to bear this out -- the snakes'-knot passages, the braided slopes where old waterfalls had worn their channels. In places water remained, shallow pools or ink-black, deep-flowing streams. Natasha's narrow flashlight beam reduced their world to a tiny sliver of the vast deeps around them.
"I feel like we need --" Steve began. His voice rolled off the walls, down side passages, advertising their presence to the whole cave system. Natasha gave him an exasperated look. "A ball of string," he whispered. "To find our way back with. What are the odds we'll get hopelessly lost down here?"
"Don't you have a super sense of direction?" she whispered back.
"Who do you think I am, Superman?" he shot back.
"Ah well," Natasha said with mock disappointment. "Luckily I have one."
"I thought you only pretended to know everything."
She held up a hand. Something flashed between her fingers: a pair of nail scissors. "That's why I cheat," she murmured, and scritched a little mark on a stalactite. It was shaped like an hourglass.
Progress was slow, often because the tunnels they were following had a way of narrowing down until an adult could no longer fit through them, but also because Natasha spent a lot of time bent over, studying the cave floor. Steve looked too, but all he saw was dust and rocks. She paused for an unusually long while to study a particular section of cave floor (that looked much like any other section of cave floor to him), to the point that he asked her what she'd found.
"I .... don't know," she said thoughtfully. "Here, take a look."
Steve stared at the floor and tried to look like it meant something. She seemed to be looking at that pointy little bit next to the other bit, so he did too.
"You really know nothing about tracking, do you," Natasha said.
"City kid," Steve said. "As you yourself pointed out yesterday."
"Yes, but outside you actually seemed competent."
"Navigating by landmarks I'm pretty good at," Steve said. "And I can find a trail and recognize if it's been recently dug up, like to put land mines in it, say. This, though -- it's just dirt to me, sorry. You'll have to explain."
He was half expecting a sarcastic comment in return, but instead she answered seriously. "This deep in a cave system, there's almost nothing to erase tracks. No wind or rain. Not many animals around. At most you might get flashfloods. So that's good because tracks stick around forever. Not so good because --" She raised her eyebrows at him.
"You can't tell when they were made," he said, half guessing, but she smiled like a teacher whose pupil had given a star answer.
"Correct. Now you can actually tell to some extent -- tracks dry out, the edges crumble. But it's tricky. A track might look a few days old when it's actually been there for ten years."
"Okay," Steve said. "So what kind of tracks are you finding?"
"Mostly goat and sheep," she said. "And a few foxes, and other small creatures, and occasionally the tracks of soft-soled shoes that are probably shepherds looking for their lost animals."
"Any sign of Mr. Combat Boots?" Steve asked as casually as possible. The look Natasha gave him let him know he either hadn't managed to be casual at all, or had gone straight out the other side.
"A few traces," she said. "Well-hidden, though. Whoever our friend is, they're sticking to hard rock ridges and staying off the soft places as much as possible. They're good. I, however," she added smugly, "am better."
"Well, I assume they didn't spend seventh grade hunting bears in the Siberian wilderness."
Worry instantly seized him that he'd pushed it too far, but the way she grinned was a slightly dimmer shade of the proud-teacher expression from earlier. "Hunting rabbits, Rogers; pay attention."
Steve grinned. "I'm sure Siberian rabbits are bigger and meaner than the American version."
"Teeth like a shark, too," she said, straight-faced, and then there was a subtle shift, a tilt from play-serious to deadly serious. "But the tracks I found just now aren't Siberian rabbit. I don't know what they are."
"That's .... ominous."
"You have no idea." Natasha chewed her lip. "Could be I'm wrong. Could be goats stepping in each other's tracks. It's not an exact science, tracking. More of an art."
"What do they look like?"
"Like nothing I've seen before. Three toes. The gait is odd. I want to say more than four legs." She paused, thinking it over, and then added, "Large."
"How large is large?"
"As big as a horse."
"That's large," Steve said, and forced himself not to look over his shoulder at the darkness. That way lay panic. "So, I think you better tell me more about these livestock killings."
She gave him a firm shove. "Not here. Let's keep moving."
It was harder, after that, to shake the paranoid feeling that they were being followed. Steve could feel unseen eyes on his back in the darkness. Most of the time he thought it was probably his imagination, but every once in awhile he thought back to what he'd said to Natasha, days ago, about snipers in the hills. Sometimes you just know, and right now a very old instinct kept telling him that they weren't alone.
They came to a place where the caves penetrated all the way to the surface, and light shafted down. Both of them stopped, throwing their heads back, greedy for light even though they'd only been below for a few hours. It was afternoon, Steve thought, from the sun's angle. Hard to gauge the passage of time underground.
By unspoken consent, they paused for a late lunch or an early dinner. While they broke out sandwiches and water bottles -- staying in the light the whole time -- Steve said, "I need answers now, Nat. Not the abridged version. I want to know what kind of snipe hunt we've been sent on, and why."
"I told you. Something's been killing livestock in these mountains," Natasha said. "Nick thought maybe some kind of HYDRA experiment run amok. At least that's the intel I had. I figured he'd actually sent Barnes on some other assignment and just used the dead sheep thing as a pretext for sending me in so he didn't have to say what it really was, because honestly, who sends the Winter Soldier after a killer wolfpack?"
"He lost contact with Bucky," Steve said, a thread of ice twisting through his chest. "And we've been ... been dicking around, looking at old bridges and -- Damn it, Natasha, this is why I need to know what the hell is going on!" His hand clenched hard enough to crumble a few bits off the boulder he was sitting on. They'd sent Bucky alone, with no backup, after God knows what -- and then he'd been cooling his heels, wandering all over the mountains, waxing nostalgic about the good old days ... He was going to kill Nick Fury.
"I don't know, Steve. Until I saw those tracks, I honestly believed Barnes was on a completely different assignment and I was supposed to be doing naive intel collection and figuring out where he got off to. I'm as surprised as you are that there's apparently some truth to the rumors."
"Fuck this!" Steve burst out. Echoes ran amok through the galleries and tunnels around them, reverberated from the passages riddling the hills. "SHIELD goes down and it's still spies and lies and half-truths, and you two sent Bucky alone to fight a monster! I could have been here days ago, helping, if anyone had the decency to give me the information that I needed to work with --"
Natasha made a vigorous Keep it down gesture.
"I don't care who knows we're here!" he snapped, and his voice was thrown back a hundred times from the walls. He scrambled to his feet. "Let it come! You hear me out there? You want a fight? We're here now! Bring it!"
Natasha dropped her head into her hands and fisted her fingers in her hair. Good, Steve thought vindictively. Damn it, just when he thought he could trust her, just when he'd managed to get his head wrapped around Natasha as a person and not as the Black Widow -- "Yeah, you heard me!" he bellowed to the walls around them. "I'm here! I'm not going anywhere! Let's have this out right now! Come get me!"
The echoes ran around and around the cave, dying away slowly, and as his rage began to die, falling to pieces around his worry for Bucky, Steve became aware of how very exposed they were in the light, with impenetrable shadows all around them -- shadows that would close in, as the sun went down. He wanted to look every direction at once, turning his back to none of them.
Natasha put down her water bottle and picked up her gun.
Sniper in the hills, Steve thought randomly. He reached for the shield he wasn't carrying, then dropped his hand away, only to feel something cold pressed into it from Natasha's small fingers. Combat knife. It wasn't his favorite choice of weapon, not even in his top five, but he'd had some training with them, and he gripped it with a certain sense of relief.
Natasha moved until she was back to back with Steve. "You see what I have to put up with?" she said loudly to the shadows among the stones. She rotated slowly, keeping Steve at her back. "Or really, I guess you already know what it's like, don't you?"
Steve strained his ears. He couldn't hear anything, but there was still that sense of presence. Of awareness, out there somewhere in the dark. Hidden sniper's eyes.
"It's hard working alone," Natasha said. "You get used to it, but maybe you start thinking, on those long nights when you haven't slept in two days, maybe three -- it could be useful to have someone else standing guard. Even if someone has a frustrating tendency to pick fights with anything that moves."
"No I don't," Steve said, never taking his eyes off the shadows.
"Oh come on," Natasha said, "are you really going to let him get away with that? Look, you can think of this as a dry run, maybe. Teaming up against a common enemy. It doesn't have to be permanent, but it might be an opportunity to try it out. See what you think."
Steve waited, heart battering his ribs, and as the waiting, listening silence stretched longer, he said, "Bucky?"
The answering movement was a lot higher up than he'd been expecting, in the vaulted shadows under the high ceiling of the grotto. Steve caught a flash of light on metal, a flicker of reflective dark leather, and then the world's most deadly assassin jumped down and landed gracefully in the gray penumbra outside the patch of sunlight.
There was a sniper rifle slung over his shoulder, knives and ammo and more guns on his belt, a revolver in his hand that was pointing somewhere between the floor and them. His hair was tied back and he had a scruffy beard. He wore leather body armor -- it looked handmade -- over a tattered dark-gray sweater that hung off his spare frame. He didn't look like he was starving, but there wasn't a scrap of spare flesh on him anywhere; he was whittled down to muscle and bone. He looked ... feral wasn't quite right, but ... wild. One part Winter Soldier, one part mountain man, and maybe, just maybe, one part Bucky Barnes from 1944, the taciturn sniper with the shadowed smile. Not a shell and not a ghost and not the burned-out remains of something that didn't know how to be a human being anymore. He looked tired and dangerous and hard, but he was -- there. Someone was home behind his eyes.
Steve's breath caught on fishhooks in his throat, his words strangled by the fear that he'd say the wrong thing and trip the wrong wire between them. Natasha seemed to be holding her breath also, her gun at half-mast, not quite pointed at the floor and not quite at Bucky either, a twin to Bucky's own.
Bucky spoke first. In a voice scraped hollow, but still recognizably his own -- that familiar voice Steve would know anywhere, across the years and the miles -- he said, "Seventy years." He cleared his throat, and went on, "And you still haven't got the common sense of a brick."
Steve was startled into a choked laugh. He dropped Natasha's combat knife, which he'd forgotten he was holding, because the chances of him using it on Bucky were slightly less than the Earth spinning off its orbit and careening into outer space.
"Tell me about it," Natasha said. "I'm going to put my gun away now, if you'll do likewise." She moved her hand slowly towards her belt, and Bucky did too. In perfect unison, as if they were mirrors of each other, they holstered their weapons but -- like Old West gunslingers -- kept their hands near them.
Bucky's eyes roamed constantly between Steve and Natasha. He was watching Natasha with considerable wariness, but Steve ....
Bucky watched Steve like he was an armed grenade with the pin pulled. And Steve, still caught on the twin blades of past and present, said the only thing he could think of.
This seemed to throw Bucky off a bit. "For what?"
For having my back a thousand times, for surviving all those years of hell and walking out with at least some part of you intact, for being willing to speak to us right now ... "The Potomac," Steve said. Bucky looked blank, like the word meant nothing to him. "You saved me. Pulled me out of the river. Everyone said -- but I knew it was you. So ... thanks."
"Yes, he came halfway around the world to thank you for something that happened a year ago," Natasha said, and smiled. "Hasn't changed a bit, has he?"
Her body language had changed subtly. A few minutes ago, when she and Steve had been talking, she'd been Natasha: made of steel and sunlight, playfulness and sudden coiled violence. Now she'd melted like candlewax into a new shape. Steve couldn't quite see the edges of it. And he wanted to tell her to stop, because if he could see she was doing it, Bucky might be able to see also -- actually, Bucky would have been able to for sure (he was always better at people than Steve was) but whether the Winter Soldier could ... Steve wasn't sure.
And besides, Natasha was good at people too. Everyone seemed to think Steve was too -- natural born leader, he'd read at the Smithsonian exhibit ... but he wasn't, he just knew how to stand back and let people do the things they were best at. Maybe this was one of those times, when he should simply let her do her thing ...
Bucky, though. Natasha was good at people, far better at people than Steve would ever be. But Steve was good at Bucky. It was, perhaps, the one thing he'd always been good at.
"Have you eaten?" Steve asked. "We were just having lunch. There's plenty."
Again, Bucky seemed to stumble mentally, catching himself on an internal stair-step. "Lunch," he said.
"Yes, lunch; when did you last eat?"
The response was sudden and mechanical. "Three days, seven hours --" Bucky's jaw muscles clenched, his whole body went rigid, and he stilled himself with a sharp jolt. "Awhile," he said in a tone that wasn't at all casual, but was clearly an unpracticed attempt at it.
Something tore in Steve's chest, and he wasn't sure if it was the answer or the fact that he'd done what he didn't want to do, tripped over something planted in Bucky's mind by the people who'd done this to him.
He'd eaten half of his peanut butter sandwich already; now he held out the rest. Bucky just stared at it, so Steve set it on a rock, along with a water bottle and the ziploc bag of trail mix he'd been nibbling from, and stepped back.
Natasha made an underhand throw. Her granola bar landed neatly on top of Steve's sandwich. "Yes," she said, "we are feeding you, because underfed allies are no use to us. That makes sense to you, doesn't it? Good logic for useful people."
Steve tried not to glare at her. Might not have succeeded. "Sorry for the bites out of the sandwich," he said. "I hope you don't mind. We, uh -- we've shared food in the past."
"I know," Bucky said, his voice tight but less robotic, more inflected; there were emotions, even if Steve couldn't quite put a name to them. "I know who you are, Rogers."
He stepped forward and picked up the food offerings. Sniffed each of them as if checking for poison. He retreated a discreet distance and leaned against a rock wall while he ate the sandwich in small neat bites, obviously exerting a physical control that hurt to see. He tucked the rest into his pockets.
"Three days, Nat," Steve whispered helplessly.
"Stop it," Natasha hissed, cuffing his shoulder. "Don't treat him like he can't make his own decisions."
"Can he?" Steve whispered back, heat coiling in his chest and spiraling outward. "If Fury tells him to do something, tells him to stay in these caves 'til he hunts down whatever's responsible for those things you told me about, can he say no?" Trump card, one he was angry enough to use: "When you first came in, if he'd said that to you -- could you?"
Her lips pressed tight together, and she didn't answer.
"Hey, Buck --" Steve said, and then stopped himself. "What do you like to be called?" It wouldn't be easy to change after all these years, but if it was James, Barnes, hell if it was Jumping Jack Flash he'd do it. Bucky had started chafing at the childhood nickname in his late teen years anyway. The main reason he'd gotten stuck with Bucky in the Army was because there were just so many other Jameses -- two more in the Howling Commandos alone, plus they were all a bunch of shitheads; they'd all had nicknames. (Except for Gabe. No one ever really called him anything but Gabe or Jones, probably because he did most of the cooking and no one wanted to piss off the cook.)
"I don't care," Bucky said. "Call me what you want. It's just words."
Steve told himself it didn't matter, it wasn't a good sign or a bad sign, it just meant that he didn't have to get used to a new name -- at least not yet. "We used to call you Bucky, back in the old days. It's --"
"I know," Bucky said. "I read my biography. You know I'm famous, right?"
"Everything you were isn't in the biography." He'd been appalled, honestly, once he'd started reading the books and (worse) watching the movies about himself, about Bucky, about the Howling Commandos and Howard Stark and Peggy -- the way their real lives had been chopped up and rearranged and spliced with half-truths and pure fiction to support the writer's particular agenda or just to make a better story. The fact that it (usually) included so much of the truth just made the distortions more painful.
"It's what it is," Bucky said. His voice was a little smoother now, his responses a little faster. "Why are you two here?"
Steve opened his mouth to answer ("You") but Natasha spoke first. "You listened to our conversation, didn't you? No need to pretend you don't know."
Bucky tilted his head in something like a nod, or at least acknowledgement.
"We're hunting a common prey, I think," Natasha said. She knelt in the sand of the cave floor and sketched a three-pronged shape. "We've found tracks. Like this. No visual as yet. You?"
A hesitation. Maybe a soft sigh. Then Bucky said, "Whatever it is, I've been hunting it in these caves for a week. It's fast and stealthy. The best I've been able to do is keep it pinned down, more or less. I don't think it's been able to come out to hunt without running into me. Which means it's getting hungry and angry."
"And you accused me of being reckless," Steve couldn't help saying.
There was an instinctive part of him that expected Bucky to come back with a playful riposte -- but Steve got nothing for his troubles except a flat, expressionless look.
"That's your plan," Natasha said. "Piss it off until it comes after you? Did they not teach critical thinking skills in the 1930s?"
"Good luck then," Bucky said, and took a step back into the shadows.
"Wait, Bucky!" Steve started after him, and somewhat to his gratification, Bucky stopped at his call: stopped dead, really, like Steve had thrown a net around him. "She doesn't mean it."
"She does mean it," Natasha said, "but you're point on this one, Soldier. This is your op. We're here to assist you."
"Really," Bucky said. There was a recognizable expression now, a muted sort of disbelief. "I know who you are too, you know. The Black Widow. One of Fury's right-hand people. You have an agenda. Always. You're in a lot of files."
"I happen to know you run jobs for Fury too, so don't play the hypocrite, James. It's not a matter of taking over your mission for you, it's just that I would rather not get killed while implementing your half-assed plan. I happen to be rather attached to my life. I've fought hard to keep it."
Steve was about to step between them and point out they were both on the same side when he caught a certain .... he wasn't even exactly sure, it wasn't a smile, but it was something about the set of Bucky's mouth, the look in his eyes. Steve had once known Bucky better than any other human being including his mom, and despite all the years of conditioning and brainwashing, it wasn't completely gone; there was a language to Bucky, and Steve could still read it, even though the words were blurred and occluded by all the things that had come between them now.
And Bucky was -- well, not quite flirting, but having fun, or whatever fun meant for him now. He was interested, intrigued, on. In the old days he'd gotten that way when he and the guys in the neighborhood went off on cars and motorcycles, or when a political discussion broke out in their favorite local bar -- or, yeah, with girls. It just figured that jockeying for alpha-dog position with a fellow assassin would be the thing that would set him off now.
Natasha's eyes were bright and fascinated too, despite the sharp tone of her voice, and Steve squashed his protective instincts as much as possible and decided to just sit down and enjoy the show.
"If you have a better plan," Bucky said, "especially for one guy on his own, then lemme hear it."
"You're not on your own, we're your backup, were you not listening? Why don't you tell me your plan and I'll tell you all the ways it could suck less with three people instead of one."
"So here's the half-assed plan I got so far," Bucky said, and he even sounded more like Bucky than he had before -- not that he hadn't sounded like Bucky, exactly, but this was less like a Bucky who was completely locked down, and more like a Bucky who was interested and alert. "This critter only comes out of the caves at night. I've been sealing all the exits I can find, making sure it has to come up where I want it to. I have a place picked out and all."
"Uh, if you're the one who blocked off the caves where the waterfall used to be, we kinda tore a hole in your fence," Steve broke in.
"I know," Bucky said, sounding exasperated. "Thanks a lot for that, by the way."
"Sorry," Steve said, but he said it with a stupid grin on his face, because -- Bucky. It was Bucky, and he was talking and he was in there and ... even if there was still an uphill road ahead of them that was never going to end, Steve had found him and he was him and ...
"Does the fence work?" Natasha asked. "I figured it wasn't to contain goats -- it looked too sturdy. But not sturdy enough to keep back something that was big and dangerous as I'm gathering this thing is."
"So far," Bucky said. "It broke through in a couple places, and I shored it up as best I could. Keep in mind I'm limited in what I have to work with here."
Natasha tipped back on her heels. "Okay, so ... what do you know about what we're dealing with? Because we know nothing. All I know is it's torn up some livestock, but I don't even have autopsy reports because we're in the middle of the mountains and nobody does that out here."
"You don't know about the hiker?" Bucky asked, sounding surprised.
"Wait," Steve said, leaning forward. "There's been a human death?"
Bucky flicked his eyes down to his hand -- to the inner surface of his right wrist, where pale skin flashed between his fingerless black glove and the loose sleeve of the sweater. It was a tiny motion, there and gone, but the flick of his eyes, back and forth, let Steve know he'd read something. The inside of his wrist was a crib sheet. And then his gaze went back to the two of them, almost too fast to note.
Something clutched in Steve's chest, hard, because Bucky had always had a very sharp memory. For stuff he wanted to remember, mostly -- Bucky was too damned stubborn to learn anything he didn't want to -- but he'd always been a sharp student, the sort who'd probably have aced college if he'd been able to go.
"Hiker," Bucky said. "Lithuanian. Three weeks ago. Media put it down as a feral dog attack, except on a few conspiracy websites. Fury didn't think so. That's when I got called."
Steve clenched his teeth so hard his jaw ached, to not say anything, to not feel a stupid surge of jealousy (irrational, he knew it was irrational) that he'd spent the last year in desperate worry for Bucky and all the while, Fury had known where he was. Not only that, but when Fury called, Bucky came ...
"It's not what you're thinking," Bucky said, shifting from his mission report voice to something lighter, more Bucky-like, and it hit Steve all of a sudden, like a baseball bat between the eyes, that Bucky knew all his tells, too. "Fury and I happen to be going the same direction some of the time, that's all. This is one of those times, so I -- What's the matter with you?"
"Nothing," Steve said, blinking his eyes rapidly. "Nothing at all." Three years and a lifetime since anyone had been able to read him like that.
"Did they autopsy the hiker?" Natasha asked, sliding smoothly across the top of Steve's imminent emotional meltdown.
"They did," Bucky said, tearing his gaze away from Steve, to Steve's relief -- though his eyes took a detour by way of his wrist again. "The body had been largely consumed -- soft tissues, muscles and entrails, pretty much everything but the bones -- so there wasn't much evidence left."
Natasha frowned. "Dogs might attack people, but they wouldn't eat them. Not like that, not unless they were starving."
"It's spring," Bucky said. "Not much to hunt in the mountains. But ... yeah. Not likely. Other thing from the autopsy was an unknown chemical in the remains. Just traces. Could've been a toxin or a contaminant."
"What chemical?" Steve asked.
"Unknown," Bucky repeated, with a hint of irritation.
"I'd love to get my hands on the autopsy," Natasha said. "You don't have a copy, by any chance?"
"Yeah, it's in my --" Bucky stopped. "It's nearby."
"May we see it?" When he hesitated, Natasha added, "Sharing intel. Good practice with your allies."
"Yeah, it is," Steve murmured. She shot him an irritated glance.
Bucky glanced up at the sliver of blue sky visible through the gap in the cave roof -- gauging the hours until sunset, Steve guessed. "All right," he said, and without another word, turned away into the darkness.
Bucky didn't say where he was going, just took off, but he allowed them to follow close enough to keep up with him. Natasha used her flashlight. Bucky didn't seem to need it. Steve wondered what he was navigating by -- memory, sound, dead reckoning, HYDRA-implanted echolocation?
"Well, Steve," Natasha said very softly as they followed Bucky down winding passages barely tall enough for Steve's large frame. She reached out quickly to scratch a subtle X on a stalactite as they passed it. "Is he what you expected?"
"I don't know if I had expectations," Steve said.
"Come on Rogers, don't lie to me."
"What do you want me to say?" Steve asked, quiet and tight. "He's not the Bucky I remember? I knew he wouldn't be. Neither am I. I can't even imagine what I'd say to myself if I could go back to 1941. Well, heck, no, I think I'd probably kick my own ass for being a little punk."
"You're not a little punk anymore?" She gave him one of her tiny Sphinx smiles.
"I'm a big punk now," Steve said.
"Natasha," Steve said seriously, and she dropped her playful manner and graced him with equally serious regard. "I watched my best friend die. I don't care how he comes back. Whoever he is now, whatever is left of the person I knew, even if nothing's left, it's still the same ... the same soul, if you believe in that, or the same ... the same ... I don't know, the same being, whatever -- I don't care who he is now, or who he isn't. I want to get to know him."
Natasha was quiet for a little while; then she said, "Trick's gonna be convincing him of that, Rogers."
"I know," Steve said.
"And maybe yourself."
He didn't answer that.
In front of them, Bucky said, "Stop."
There was a sound of rushing water somewhere nearby. It echoed oddly, the caverns catching and throwing back the water's many different tones until Steve couldn't tell if it came from above or below, from a river or from a small stream. The air was dank and chilly, the rocks slick underfoot.
"Stay," Bucky told them, and scrambled out of sight, down some sort of incline. Natasha leaned after him, sweeping her flashlight beam across gleaming wet rocks. Bucky had vanished. The water sound was louder down here, Steve thought, though the limited range of Natasha's flashlight didn't reveal any actual water.
"He's coming back," Steve said -- reassuring himself, mostly.
"I know," Natasha said. She sat on a rock and dumped gravel out of her hiking boot. "He doesn't want us to see where he sleeps." After a moment, she asked, "That bother you?"
"It shouldn't," Steve said. "He doesn't have any reason to trust me yet."
"Only twenty years of friendship."
"Are you trying to rub me wrong? I told you --"
"I know what you told me," Natasha said. "It's just ... this is going to be hard, Steve. Hardest of all because you're so invested."
"You know," Steve said after a minute, "you told me last night that you didn't understand me and Bucky -- that it was outside your experience. I trust your people instincts, Natasha. I know they're better than mine. But on this, I think maybe my instincts are better than yours."
She was quiet for a little while, and then said, "I did say that. And I know -- I've accepted -- that I can't understand you from the inside out, in this at least. But ... I've dealt with emotionally compromised people quite a bit in my line of work. That level of entanglement rarely makes things better, and it often makes things worse, especially when you're dealing with people who are willing to exploit those vulnerabilities. Believe it or not, Rogers, I'm not trying to be an ass. I just don't want to see you hurt. Or dead."
"I never thought I'd live to see 1935, let alone 2014," Steve said. He tried to smile.
Natasha punched him in the shoulder. "Oh yes, that makes it better."
"Ow," Steve said, although she hadn't hit him hard enough to hurt.
"She's right, you know," Bucky said, materializing out of the darkness in the opposite direction from the one in which he'd vanished. Steve had the (small) satisfaction of noticing that he wasn't the only one who jumped a mile, though Natasha covered faster.
"No she's not," Steve said obstinately, and also more or less on autopilot. He and Bucky had spent so much time contradicting each other as kids -- especially when Bucky was flagrantly wrong -- that it slipped out before he even knew he was going to say it. Although he did mean it.
"Yes she is," Bucky retorted, and shoved a clear plastic bag at Natasha, with files visible within. "And for that, she gets to look at this first."
"That's what you think," Steve said, peering over her shoulder.
"Don't make me turn this car around," Natasha mumbled, paging through the file with her flashlight clamped in her teeth.
The photos escaped being lurid only because there wasn't enough left of the body to leave it recognizably human, except for the scraps of clothing and mangled remains of the skull. There was one in situ photo, taken on a rocky path that resembled the ones Steve and Natasha had hiked along, and then some pictures of the assembled collection of remains on a steel morgue table, laid out in correct anatomical order. The bones hadn't been entirely stripped, but the skeleton had been torn apart, pieces scattered across an area fifteen feet in diameter.
"I hate to break it to you," Natasha said, taking the flashlight out of her mouth so that she could speak clearly, "but hog wire is not going to contain something that can do this."
"The wire is more of a deterrent," Bucky said defensively. "Anyway, most of that is a standard predation pattern. A pack of hyenas could have done just as much damage in a similar time frame."
"Predators and scavengers don't usually disarticulate skeletons to that extent at such an early stage in the feeding process," Natasha countered. "Not unless heavy competition makes it necessary to drag off portions of the carcass to eat elsewhere. But that's obviously not happening here, unless we're wrong about a single large predator and we're dealing with multiple competing packs. Which is a lovely idea, by the way."
"But large predators with scavenging tendencies, like bears --"
They were both on a roll now, in one of the gorier professional-one-upsmanship conversations that Steve had been a party to. He stole the file from Natasha while she was distracted and flipped through it himself, tilting it toward the beam of her light, only to discover it was written in Greek script -- or probably Macedonian -- but in any case, not much use to him. There were post-it notes stuck to various parts of the report translating bits of it into English (though not in Bucky's handwriting -- or at least not handwriting that looked like Bucky's used to). Steve didn't think the voice sounded like Bucky's either; it was highly clinical and in most cases not very helpful. More useful were a few sketches of the body's location and a close-up set of photos depicting a relatively intact limb (probably an upper arm; he tried not to think too much about that) with rows of puncture marks on it. A neat set of four red dots marched lengthwise down the arm before disappearing into the ragged area above the elbow where flesh had been ripped off the bone. Another photo showed a different angle, with the first row of dots visible and a second row, maybe a couple inches away, paralleling it.
"What on Earth is this?" Steve asked, interrupting a heated debate on whether the number of calories in the entrails of an average-sized human male would be enough to sate a lion-sized predator before it got to the limbs.
Bucky shook his head. Natasha said, "Those look more like hypodermic needle marks than tooth marks. Possibly a Centipede injector device, although the spacing looks all wrong for it."
Steve didn't say anything; he'd just had a sudden flash -- more of a flashback, really -- to Erskine's needle arrays piercing his skin .... to the similar needle arrays above the table he'd freed Bucky from, all those years ago.
"What was the chemical they found in the body?" he asked. His voice sounded strange even to himself.
"Not what you're thinking," Bucky said, reading Steve's mind -- again. He took the file back and turned a couple of pages. "It's somewhat similar to strychnine, chemically, but it's nothing to do with Erskine's formula."
"Can you read that?"
"Sort of," Bucky said. He didn't elaborate.
The next page of the file was a computer printout with a brief bio of the hiker and a photograph of a bearded, open-faced young man. He appeared to be a simple victim of circumstance, unless HYDRA was now recruiting 23-year-old Lithuanian construction workers. Which was not entirely out of the question, but as far as Steve could tell he'd simply been a regular kid on a hiking vacation in the Balkans. He got separated from the group of buddies he'd been hiking with, and his body turned up three days later. He was identified easily from ID found with his corpse, confirmed by dental evidence. If he'd been HYDRA, they sure hadn't tried to hide his identity. From the look of things, he was just a regular kid -- a kid with friends and parents and maybe a girlfriend back home. Wrong place, wrong time.
Steve could relate to that.
The last few pages of the file were Google Earth printouts, heavily marked up with clusters of dots. "What's this?" Steve asked.
"Livestock attacks," Bucky said, glancing at it. "They usually cluster within a few miles of the caves."
"So ... that's it," Steve said. He stared at the printouts, at the autopsy photos scattered on the rocks. "There's a monster down here, maybe some kind of HYDRA experiment, and it killed a guy, and Fury sent you in after it."
"Steve," Bucky said. His gravelly voice was almost gentle. "I'm a killer. That's what I do. This is in my skill set. So, yeah."
Steve looked up. The ambient glow of the flashlight's narrow beam made Bucky's face a study in chiaroscuro, all sharp lines and planes. He no longer looked anything like the boy from Brooklyn, all those years ago.
"Guys," Natasha said quietly. "It'll be dark outside soon. Are we planning an ambush, or what?"
"Kinda starting to wish I'd brought my shield," Steve murmured, and heard Bucky's soft laugh for the first time since 1945.
Natasha had been serious, it seemed, about letting Bucky take point. Steve was disoriented enough in the maze of tunnels (endless tunnels, endlessly the same and different, with the three of them isolated in a little bubble of light in the darkness) that he didn't realize where they were going until they reached the red glow of sunset light, streaming through wire mesh. They were back at the cave entrance where they'd come in. Natasha shed her pack and stretched, flexing her shoulders.
"Remember the goats?" Steve asked Bucky, dropping his pack beside hers.
"Goats," Bucky said.
"Yeah, goats. They showed us the cave. Remember?"
Bucky didn't answer.
"And you fell in the river," Steve added. "Like a klutz."
He thought for a minute that he'd pushed it too far, presumed too much on the tenuous threads of their remembered intimacy. But then Bucky said slowly, his eyes distant like he was trying to remember the words to a script he'd memorized and then lost: "You ... you fell in too, didn't you? Who's the klutz, anyway?"
"I did it on purpose."
Bucky came back with the expected parry-thrust, faster this time. "Yeah, that makes it better?"
"Heroically," Steve said. "To save your ass."
Bucky looked away. They'd almost had it. Almost. And then something slipped and they were back to being strangers again.
"Here, huh," Natasha said from behind them. "Why here?"
Bucky turned to her, all business and Winter Soldier game face again. "I picked a different spot originally, but why screw around when you two have done such an excellent job of laying a scent trail."
"Do you know for certain that it tracks by scent?"
Bucky shrugged. "Educated guess. I don't think its eyes are good for much, so it must get around somehow."
He hooked his metal fingers in the wire mesh, where Steve had already torn it, and yanked. The wire tore jaggedly; his arm also made an unpleasant grinding noise, and Steve was close enough to see Bucky flinch before he covered.
"That's malfunctioning," Steve said.
"Yeah, well." Bucky left the wire pulled halfway to one side, crumpled in a mess. "I'm a broken tool, what can I say. I wasn't designed to be out of cryo this long."
There was a bitter edge to his voice that sawed raggedly at Steve's heart, and made him say, "You're not a tool, you're a person. And I know people who can fix your arm."
"I know you mean well, Rogers," Bucky said. "But there is a whole shit ton of things wrong with me and you technically have known me for all of an hour at this point, so fuck off."
I've known you your whole life hovered on Steve's tongue, but the memory of Natasha's words from earlier made him bite down hard on it. Literally -- he drew blood. He could feel the cuts knitting almost instantly, a slight fizzy sensation. He sat on a rock to keep him from doing .... something .... he didn't even know what, maybe grabbing Bucky and hugging him, maybe punching himself in the face.
"Is there anything more to your plan than sitting here and waiting for it to find us?" Natasha cut in. "Because that's why I wanted to know earlier, on the grounds that I don't plan to die tonight, and would like to offer some suggestions if that is in fact the case."
"Yep," Bucky said. He drew a knife in his metal hand and pushed up his sweater sleeve. Steve caught the briefest glimpse of writing, sloppy and profuse in every direction, dense as tattoos on the pale skin -- before Bucky slashed the knife across his forearm. Blood followed in the blade's wake, pattering to the floor of the cave.
"Bucky!" Steve yelped, lunging to his feet.
"Back in a minute, Steve, don't be stupid." Bucky whipped around with lightning-fast reflexes and vanished into the dark.
"That's clever," Natasha said. Steve heard her dimly through the roaring in his ears. "He's laying a blood trail. Bleed on his way out, then go dark on the way back -- Steve?"
"Flashlight," Steve said numbly.
"Flashlight!" Steve barked and reached for her. Natasha hastily slapped it into his hand; apparently his intention to wrestle it away from her was blindingly obvious. Then she grabbed his wrist, tenacious and strong, but it was only human strength. He broke her grip without even trying. From the way she flexed her hand, he'd come close to breaking her fingers. He'd probably have felt very bad about that, later.
"Steve --" she began again, but he was already off and running.
Bucky you stupid reckless SHITHEAD -- All he could think about was the torn-apart skeleton, scattered over the mountain path. Bucky might think of himself as the most dangerous thing in these mountains, but he was only human, and tired, and hadn't had proper food or sleep, not to mention he'd just bled himself --
Yeah, dumbass, and YOU have no weapons and no plan, Steve thought at himself viciously. This thought was followed almost immediately by another, laced with black humor: So what else is new.
At least Bucky wasn't hard to follow, even with Steve's minimal tracking skills. The drops and splatters of blood he was leaving behind glistened like bright coins in the flashlight's beam.
"Steve!" That was Natasha's voice, echoing faintly through the tunnels. He shouldn't be able to hear her from where he'd left her, which meant she was following him. His initial surge of mingled fury and fear had faded enough that he was now feeling quite a bit of guilt for dragging Natasha deeper into this, rather than leaving her at the cave mouth where she was ... if not safe, then at least closer to safe than she was now. On the other hand, it was Natasha. She was good at taking care of herself.
Besides, if whatever-it-was followed Bucky's blood trail, it'd run into Steve before it ran into her. And right now he welcomed it. He really wanted to punch something. Bucky, preferably, but since he didn't want to actually hurt Bucky, he'd settle for being able to unleash his full strength against something he could hurt all he wanted.
Something jumped down on him from above. Steve dropped the flashlight -- the beam danced crazily across the walls -- and swung a fist, which was caught in the palm of a metal hand, bruising his knuckles.
"What is the matter with you?" Bucky's voice was filled with anger, exasperation, and disbelief, and it took Steve straight back to 1930s Brooklyn. Steve, did your ma drop you on your head a lot when you were a baby or somethin'?
"I'm not letting you use yourself for bait," Steve said as calmly as he could manage. He picked up the flashlight. Bucky's sweater sleeve covered his right forearm and it seemed to have stopped bleeding, though he carried it stiffly. "Not alone, anyway."
Bucky's face twisted and for a minute Steve was back on the helicarrier and it was the Winter Soldier looking out of him out of Bucky's eyes -- or, worse, that terrible amalgam of both, towards the end: the Soldier's ice and Bucky's fire, distorting those familiar, beloved features with rage and pain. "I. Have. A. PLAN, you fucking moron. And you are supposed to be backing me up like you claim you're here to do."
"Yeah, your plan is to cut yourself open and bleed in the dark, alone, so that a monster can find you. No."
He was braced for Bucky to attack him, the Winter Soldier coming to the fore completely -- and wasn't quite sure what he'd do if that happened. But instead, Bucky stared at him, his eyes dark and enormous in the dim light. Slowly the rage faded into a much more familiar expression, the blend of frustration, fondness, and desire to shake Steve until his teeth rattled that had been a regular component of the way he'd looked at Steve seventy years ago. "You know, I kept wondered if my memories of you were real -- if one person could be that ... that frustrating. Turns out the real you is ten times worse."
"You always said I was the most annoying person alive," Steve said, and grinned. Bucky -- slowly, and clearly against his will -- started to grin back.
Which of course was when something enormous dropped on them out of the dark like a concrete bridge pylon.
It was huge and it was fast and it had claws and way too many legs and gleaming black chitin and coarse dark fur, and the world was suddenly full of it. Steve went one way and Bucky went the other -- smooth as clockwork, no words spoken, the way they'd always been able to work together in a fight, even when Steve was ninety pounds and Bucky was the tall, strong one.
They'd been fighting together all their lives, after all. In the alleys of Brooklyn and the battlefields of Europe, and now in a subterranean world of darkness and still damp silences.
Steve had dropped the flashlight in the initial rush, so they moved through stark black-and-white shadows, in shifting fogscapes of light and dark. A clawed foot as big and hard as a Volkswagen engine block cracked against Steve's ribs, drove him to his knees; he felt hot breath on his face, then a metal fist came out of nowhere, smashed the side of the creature's head and drove it back. Red light flickered in the corner of Steve's vision. As big as a horse, Natasha had said, but in reality it was more like multiple horses linked together in a chain. She'd guessed it had more than four legs. That was definitely true.
Apparently HYDRA was now taking the centipede thing literally.
"Down!" Bucky snapped and he fired over Steve's head. The gunshots were deafening in the confines of the cave, and the muzzle flash strobed like lightning. Steve got a slightly better look at the thing in the staccato flashes -- equal parts lizard, scorpion and panther, with at least a half-dozen sets of great humped furry shoulders, each with a paired set of scorpion-like claw-arms curled above them. Its narrow head looked something like a snake and something like a wolf, but either way it had jaws as long as Sam's mother's dining-room table -- and Mrs. Wilson could feed an army of nieces, nephews, and Wilson cousins on that thing.
Steve thought at first that the red lights glimmering across its powerful shoulders, on its massive head and down its muscular legs were a trick of his eyes. But he got a better look when Bucky managed to score a shot directly into its left eye. It shrieked, drew its head up, and red light flashed like ball lightning across its face -- then it swung its head around and jaws snapped on thin air as Steve rolled out of the way, but he'd seen both intact eyes catch the light.
"It's not HYDRA!" he shouted at Bucky. "This is AIM -- Extremis!"
"I have no fucking idea what any of that means, Rogers!"
"It means it's stronger than us and it can fix whatever damage you do!" Steve wracked his brain for other scraps of information he'd picked up on Extremis from Tony or from SHIELD's analysts -- difficult to think, while fighting for his life -- and added, "Also, it might explode!"
"Oh," Bucky said. He punched the thing in the jaw with his left arm, visibly dislocating its lower jawbone. It shook its head and popped the jaw back into its socket with a snap of its teeth. "Okay, that's -- not so great."
There were so many damn limbs that it was hard to keep track of what all of them were doing. Bucky was a whirlwind of destruction, but the creature was almost as fast as he was, and there just wasn't room to fight properly in the cave. Steve glimpsed, out of the corner of his eye, the creature rearing up and preparing to stab Bucky in the back with its scorpion tail. Steve jumped on him, knocked him down and out of the way. Bucky cursed through a mouthful of gravel and Steve rolled off him just in time to get smacked across the chest with something that stung like he'd just been whacked with a cactus. The stinging blow just missed the protection of his leather jacket and ripped through his shirt like sharp thorns. It wasn't the tail; he caught a glimpse of two small, jointed appendages folding back into the space beneath the creature's jaw.
Natasha came out of nowhere, a sudden tiny whirlwind with guns in both fists, lighting up the dark. Startled by her sudden appearance, apparently deciding the odds had shifted against it, the creature scuttled backward into the dark.
"Oh no you don't," Natasha snapped, firing after it.
"Natasha, wait!" Steve called. "It's Extremis -- it can heal --" His voice failed breathlessly. Something was wrong. He didn't exactly hurt, but he tingled all over, starting from his chest and spreading through his limbs. He tried to get up but sank to the ground because his legs wouldn't hold him up anymore.
"Steve!" Bucky's voice seemed to come from far away. Hands, rough with fear, turned him over and tilted him toward the light, tearing at his shirt.
"I can't --" he tried to say, but his tongue and jaws were made of rubber and the words emerged in an indistinct slurry.
And yet he wasn't passing out, wasn't falling down a dark tunnel into nothing. He could still think; he could still feel Bucky's hands on him, albeit more like tingling pressure than regular touch. Bucky slapped his face. He could feel that.
He just couldn't move.
Or -- increasingly -- breathe.
So this must be what happens when supersoldiers take a lethal dose of poison. He'd put an airplane into a fatal dive, he'd fought aliens, he'd almost been beaten to death by his best friend, but he was pretty sure this experience eclipsed all of those for sheer blind terror.
At least now they knew what those neat little rows of puncture marks on the corpse had been ...
Bucky said his name in a tone of increasingly panic. Everything sounded muffled, like it was happening underwater. The urge to blink was becoming torturous, but not nearly as awful as the growing need for air as his shallow, desperate gasps stilled completely.
I'm going to die. And it was starting to look like he'd be awake for every minute of it.
Fingers pressed against his neck, feeling for a pulse -- the skin tingled like it was asleep.
His vision was starting to darken, telescoping inward from the edges. It didn't do anything for the panic or for the terrible drowning sensation as he slowly suffocated, but at least there was some hope he wouldn't have to put up with it too much longer.
Then someone else's lips closed over his, and there was air.
He would've scrabbled for it, clawed for it, if he'd been able to move. As it was, all he could do was lie there, eyes wide open and watering, more desperately grateful than he'd ever been for anything in his life.
It took a few more breaths for him to stop being so helplessly relieved that he managed to be able to think again, sort of. He was dazed and dizzy and still teetering on the verge of hypoxia, but it was Bucky, Bucky was breathing for him, sealing his lips carefully over Steve's and then pulling away just long enough to draw another breath.
"It got away," Natasha's voice reported from somewhere far off, then went silent. A shadow fell across him. She didn't bother asking questions, but he felt hands on him again -- not Bucky's -- firm and quick and light, touching his pulse points, assessing his condition.
All the while, Bucky breathed for him, fast and rhythmic, and time mostly went away -- 'til Natasha's arm reached across Steve's face and planted itself across Bucky's mouth, stopping him.
"Breathe for yourself, idiot," she said, and Bucky swayed away, reeling and half falling over. "I'll take this for a while."
The pressure of Natasha's mouth on his was different -- not softer, really, just different. Steve was starting to get enough of his mental faculties back to feel a vague sense of embarrassment for being an imposition. They'd both probably tell him he was an idiot to want to apologize, but he did want to apologize. Mostly, though, he wanted to tell them to watch their backs, because it could come back and he didn't want them to be so focused on him that it got the drop on them.
And he needed them to know that he knew they were doing their best, and if this didn't work, they'd done all they could have.
But it did work. They went through another round of trading off, and by the time Natasha took over for Bucky again, Steve was starting to feel weird little flutters when he tried involuntarily to inhale. He managed to draw in an awkward little gasp, and Natasha pulled back, looking down at him.
He got another choppy breath, and managed to blink -- oh relief -- and also to swallow, though his tongue still felt a few sizes too big for his mouth. Natasha held the back of her hand lightly against his mouth, and when she was reassured that he was breathing adequately on his own, she lifted him up a bit. A bigger arm slipped behind his shoulders -- he was still limp as wet cardboard -- and Bucky and Natasha held him up between them for a few minutes, which did seem to make breathing easier. Sensation came back to his hands and feet in tingling pins and needles. He was finally able to raise one mittenlike hand to swipe at an itch on his chin that had been driving him crazy.
"Steve?" Natasha said. "I need to ask you some questions to make sure there's no brain damage, okay?"
He managed a sloppy nod.
"How would you even be able to tell?" Bucky asked, and Steve swung a clumsy hand at him and clocked him in the side of the head, which overbalanced them and nearly sent Steve slithering to the floor of the cave. Natasha caught him with a long-suffering look.
"Never mind," she said. "I'm going to take that as confirmation that your brain's as good as it ever was. Steve, was that strictly a paralytic, or did you lose consciousness as well?"
Steve swallowed a couple of times, and managed to say thickly, "Paralyzed."
"It must be something like curare," Natasha said. "Which is a class of compounds, not a single drug. Some of them come from plants in the Strychnos genus. You said there were similarities to strychnine."
"Guys," Steve said. He was still draped between them, although at least he was able to move his legs in an uncoordinated sort of way. "Chat later. Monster."
"He's right," Bucky said. "We need to go after it." He looked down at Steve. "Or ... something."
Natasha prodded Steve. "Can you stand up?"
He could, weaving like a drunk. Bucky propped him up. "Got any idea how long this'll take to clear out of his system?"
"With the metabolism you guys have? I couldn't even guess." Natasha drew her gun and picked up the flashlight in her other hand. "I don't suppose there's anywhere safe we can take him."
"I know a place," Bucky said. "Where I've been sleeping. The creature can't get in. It doesn't fit."
"Don't I get a say in this?" Steve asked.
"No," Bucky said, clamping a firm hand on the back of his neck and holding on.
More darkness; more uneven cave floors. Steve was able to walk on his own, albeit in a slow and wobbly kind of way -- at least when Bucky would let him, rather than just slinging an arm under his shoulders and hustling him along that way -- but then they came to a place where they had to clamber over water-slick rocks, and he could only do it with help. Somewhere below them water was flowing, very loud and very deep. In Steve's current dazed state, it seemed that the water must be going down to the heart of the earth itself.
"I cannot believe you two stood there having your awkward boy talk while surrounded by blood in monster-hunting territory," Natasha grumbled as the two of them helped Steve over a particularly treacherous stretch of sloping scree. "How did either of you survive this long? .... Oh wait, you've both died at least once. Never mind."
Her flashlight illuminated a narrow crack in the rocks. It didn't look wide enough even for Natasha, let alone Bucky, but he slid into it sideways and then reached back to help Steve through, with Natasha bringing up the rear.
They came out in a chamber, long enough that Natasha's flashlight couldn't illuminate the far end. The ceiling started low and then sloped up; the floor was also tilted slightly upward. The sound of rushing water was more distant now, though still audible and hard to pin down to a particular direction. Steve thought this was probably the place Bucky had gone earlier to retrieve his files -- the place he hadn't wanted them to see.
It wasn't a home; it was a place to sleep, and barely that. There was a body-sized indentation in the sandy cave floor -- no blankets, just that little shallow pit, where Bucky deposited Steve. A flattish rock served as a kind of table, holding a collection of neatly washed soup cans (a couple of them fire-blackened), some shell casings and spare boxes of ammo, and a small electric lantern which Bucky flicked on, flooding the cave with clear white light.
And then there were words.
They'd been scraped on the cave walls, on rocks and stalactites. Some looked like they'd been done with a knife; others were probably carved with Bucky's metal finger. There were single words, mostly -- here and there a phrase of two or three. The words were big, sprawling, written at all different angles and often overlapping each other. They'd been written in the dark, written to be read by touch.
The most unnerving thing about it was that Bucky's handwriting was still recognizable. Steve had known it seventy years ago -- scribbled in the margins of schoolbooks, on shopping lists, on letters from the warfront -- and he knew it now, even carved onto cave walls.
The actual words were highly variable. There were names, many of which Steve knew -- names of the Commandos, of Bucky's neighbors when he was a child, of his old girlfriends; other names Steve didn't recognize, most of them foreign. There were place names -- the address of their old apartment building came up a lot. There were other words, some of which had significance to Steve (STARK EXPO) and many of which didn't. There was quite a bit of Cyrillic.
The word MACEDONIA was repeated over and over in different parts of the cave. So was the current year. Sometimes they were together. Sometimes not. Steve's name was written here and there in full. So was Bucky's, at one point in a heartbreaking full sentence: I AM JAMES BUCHANAN BARNES.
"Yep," Bucky said, his face tight. "All the crazy, on display right here."
"I don't think it's crazy," Steve said. "You're just making notes to yourself. That seems sane to me. Most people do it on notepads by the telephone, but we've always been a little different." He tried not to keep reading. It seemed terribly intrusive. Still, it was hard not to. His eyes settled on the word Alexander Pierce, barely recognizable since it had been nearly obliterated by vicious gouges dug into the stone. He quickly looked away from that one, but the next place his eyes settled wasn't any better -- it was Bucky's old military serial number, written several times, and all Steve could hear for an instant was Bucky muttering it over and over in Zola's torture chamber.
"Don't," Bucky said harshly. "I'm twenty pounds of bugshit in a ten-pound bag and you know it. Sane people don't need to write down their own name to make sure they remember it every time they wake up, Steve."
And Steve's damned vivid imagination supplied it all: Bucky waking alone in the dark, jolted out of nightmares, unable to remember the year, the place, his own name ... unsure if he was still in HYDRA's hands, if the escape had been a dream, or if maybe the last seventy years had been the dream instead. Running his fingertips over the walls until they bled -- the rusty stains were visible in places -- to ground himself, to put himself back in his own skin, in this place and time ...
"It doesn't look like any more monster-hunting is in our immediate future tonight." Natasha tucked her flashlight back into her pocket. "We may as well camp for awhile. Our packs are still at the cave entrance --"
"I'll get 'em. Keep an eye on him."
"Wait --!" Steve began, but Bucky had already ducked out of the cave. Steve scrubbed a hand through his hair. And Bucky had called him frustrating. His fingers still felt like sausages, too clumsy and fat to throw his shield even if he had it. "Don't suppose I could talk you into going after him," he said to Natasha.
"He'll be back," she said. "You want to stay there and brood, or look around a bit while we wait? If you feel up to it."
"I can walk." He dragged himself up by gripping the cave wall. Moving seemed to make him feel a little better, driving out the lassitude and giving him more control over his clumsy limbs.
There wasn't much to explore, though. At the far end of the cave, it made a sharp turn and the ceiling rose steeply. Standing below it, Steve could feel a draft on his face.
"Natural chimney," Natasha said. "Good find. Gets fresh air into the cave, and you can even make a fire."
It was clear that Bucky had figured this out as well, because he'd collected a pile of dry firewood and scraped out a little pit; there were some ashes and blackened bits of wood at the bottom. Steve touched them with the back of his hand: cold.
Natasha crouched beside the firepit and began laying out twigs. "No reason why we can't have a nice homey little fire waiting when he gets back. Cave, sweet cave. Steve, if you even think about going after him, I will end you. You can barely walk, let alone fight."
Steve punched the wall. It hurt his fist and chipped off some rock, and didn't even make him feel any better.
"I see you found the fireplace," Bucky said from behind them. He was carrying both packs in his metal hand, and dropped them near Natasha's tiny, fledgling fire.
"Excellent," Natasha said. She sat up, ran a hand through her hair to smooth it back, then began to rummage in her pack. "Don't you dare go anywhere, Barnes; I can't sit on both of you. I think it's time to regroup, eat something and plan strategy."
"We have a narrow window here --" Bucky began.
"Yes, I know, you've starved it and trapped it and now it's pissed off and desperate -- and probably outside the caves already, since it got past us. Whatever is going to happen tonight, there is nothing we can do, unless you think wandering the mountains in the dark sounds like a good idea."
"Better than letting it kill someone else," Bucky snapped.
"Unlikely. There's hardly anyone out here, especially at night. The most plausible worst-case scenario is that it'll kill some more livestock. Acceptable losses." She extracted a battered tin pan from her pack and emptied her canteen into it.
"I don't like it running around out there any more than you do," Steve said, "but she's got a point, Buck. We can make better plans now. We know what it looks like now. What its capabilities are."
"Which you so thoughtfully tested on yourself," Bucky retorted.
Natasha tore open a packet of instant soup with her teeth. "Barnes, tell me how likely you think it is that you can go monster-hunting without Steve chasing after you, even though he can barely stand up right now."
"God damn it," Bucky muttered. He leaned against the wall and crossed his arms, tight as an over-wound spring.
"And as much as I would love to run around the mountain after you two all night," Natasha said, "tell me it doesn't make sense to eat, sleep, and make plans for another go at it tomorrow, this time working together rather than scrabbling around like three crabs in a bucket."
There was a silence, broken only by the crackling of the fire. Then Steve said, "Bucky?"
Bucky clenched his metal hand, gouging a chunk of rock out of the cave wall and grinding it to sand. "Yeah," he said. "It makes sense."
Steve breathed out slowly. He'd been prepared to follow Bucky if necessary -- he seemed to be getting proper blood flow in his extremities again, and no longer felt quite so much as if he'd been beaten with a lead pipe -- but he hadn't been looking forward to it.
A silence settled on them that was not so much companionable as uneasy. Bucky hovered as far, it seemed, as he could get from them without actually leaving. Just a narrow shadow of a person, a black figure on the edge of the firelight. It was like he was only half there, and half gone.
At one time that would have been Steve's cue to plant his hands on Bucky's shoulders and steer him to his bedroll before he collapsed. Bucky didn't sleep a lot during the war, and Steve knew what he looked like when he was strained to the snapping point, knew how to wrangle him to sit down before he fell down. But he had no idea how this Bucky would react to that sort of thing. With explosive violence, possibly. Or flight.
Instead he got out his enamelware drinking cup to pool with Natasha's cup and give them three different containers to eat out of. There were cans in the main cave, but that meant going past Bucky, and Bucky looked like he'd startle too easily right now.
It wasn't that Steve was afraid. He'd never been afraid of Bucky -- hadn't been afraid when Bucky was trying to kill him, certainly wouldn't be afraid now. He was afraid for him.
That was familiar, he thought. Something he'd been feeling since the day Bucky's orders came through.
"Hey, Buck," he said. "Hand me the spoon there? I've got an extra. Enough for three."
Bucky didn't; instead he started shaking his head slowly, and backed into the main cave, out of sight.
Steve dropped the cup and went after him. Bucky hadn't bothered turning on the lantern, and Steve thought for a minute that he was gone, but instead he was at the entrance to the cave, leaning against the wall. His black and gray clothes blended into the darkness; only his face and hands showed. Pale blurs in the dark. As Steve's eyes adjusted, he could make out Bucky's profile, turned away.
"Bucky?" Steve said quietly.
Bucky didn't move, but at last he said, his voice flat and tired, "Too many people in there."
Steve took a slow, deep breath, steadying himself. Then he said, "We can stay in there. Natasha and me. We can bring your food out to you." Just ... don't go.
"It's not that," Bucky said with a flare of impatience. "It's ... I don't know what it is." He moved then, his right arm coming up to touch his left shoulder. "I don't know," he said. "All this shit in here, I don't know why I do half the things I do, Steve."
Steve slowly lowered himself to sit on the floor. His feet were still tingly, pins and needles. After a long moment, Bucky followed suit -- a dark mirror image, just on the edge of the gray-black twilight in the cave.
There was a word carved into the rock behind Steve's back. His fingers found the edge of it, picking out each letter: TEVEN GR -- his name, he thought. Steven Grant Rogers. Bucky tracing his own past into stone, one word at a time.
Steve wondered if there was a string of low-rent hotel rooms and flophouses across Europe with notes scribbled on the walls. This is Berlin. Your name is James Barnes.
"You know, I thought for a long time you were hunting HYDRA," Steve said. When they were kids, they used to talk like this in the dark -- lying on couch cushions on the floor, everyone else asleep. It was easier to share confidences with the comfort of darkness between them, unable to see each other's faces. "It took me a long while, a lot longer than it should have, to figure out you were hunting you."
"And HYDRA," Bucky said. "Sometimes."
"But mostly you."
Silence, then Bucky said, "It's not that organized. I can't really explain -- it's just -- pieces, I guess. I was chasing pieces. I had to go places because if I stood still, I'd tear apart from the inside. Any rope is a lifeline when you're drowning."
Steve closed his eyes until they stopped burning. Then: "I looked for you."
"I am well aware of that, Steve." There was a tired, bitter amusement in Bucky's voice. "Some days all that got me up was knowing if I stayed where I was, you'd find me."
Steve was glad his eyes were closed. He waited out the emotion, whatever it was. "Sam told me we'd never find you if you didn't want to be found." And yet, he'd come anyway, crisscrossing Europe side by side with Steve. What did I ever do, to deserve such loyal friends.
"Sam -- Wilson," Bucky said cautiously. "The guy with wings."
"The one and only," Steve said. "He's a great guy. I think you'd like each other."
"I think you have a great deal of unwarranted faith in people not running away screaming when they meet me."
"Natasha didn't," Steve said promptly.
"Natasha has killed almost as many people as I have, so she's not exactly a good baseline of normalcy."
Natasha cleared her throat. She'd arrived silently and was now standing over Steve. From Bucky's sudden flinch and the way he half-rose, he hadn't realized she was there either.
"Er, we weren't talking about you behind your back," Steve said. "Not -- really. No matter what it sounded like."
"I testified in front of Congress last year, Rogers; I'm used to people talking about me behind my back," she said. "Dinner's ready. I hope you realize this is a one-time thing, I don't do dishes, and furthermore, we are not bringing Barnes a to-go plate. He can come eat with the rest of us like a civilized person."
"You don't know what you're asking," Bucky said from the dark.
"Oh really? I thought you read my file." Natasha shifted above Steve. Backlit by the fire, her face was thrown into shadow. "Fighting together, working toward a common goal -- that's one thing, right? You can almost do that. You've worked with fighting units before. But sitting around, eating, talking -- that's something people do. That's when everyone sees what's under the mask."
Rustling in the dark. Bucky getting up. "Buck," Steve said helplessly.
Natasha's hand settled on his shoulder, an insistent pressure keeping him in place. Not that she could have, really, if he was determined to go. But Bucky wasn't moving -- standing, but not trying to leave -- so Steve let her keep him there, too. For now.
"James," she said, "at some point you either have to decide to come in and be around people again, or run forever. Those are the options. Literally the only options."
Silence from the dark. Natasha's fingers, small and warm and strong, pressed against Steve's collarbone -- and his body remembered: the same place Bucky had once gripped his shoulder, all those years ago, bringing him in out of the cold at the age of nineteen after he'd lost the only family he had left in the world. (But family was not always strictly defined by blood.)
"It's not going to be a decision you make once, either. It's a series of decisions and it never ends. You'd like to think the first one makes all the rest easy, but it doesn't. Tonight you sit by a fire. Tonight you feel his pulse under your fingers and don't snap his neck. Tonight you come downstairs and watch a movie with everyone else, like there was never anything to set you apart from the rest of them."
She rubbed Steve's shoulder with her thumb. He wondered whose neck she'd chosen not to break. Clint? Him, right now?
"But maybe it only seems hard because you're overthinking it. Maybe it's really not any more complicated than Are you hungry? or Does the movie look like fun? Because you can always make a different choice tomorrow, and none of it has to mean anything at all. So," she said, and her thumb traced little circles on Steve's jacket. "Are you hungry?"
"I could eat," Bucky said at last.
She'd made a lot of soup. Probably most of the packets they had left. She and Steve took the cups and Bucky got the pan with most of its contents still in it -- which he accepted with a wry, "I see what you're doing here" look. But he took it. He stationed himself near the exit, sitting with his back against the wall, where he had good sightlines, and he watched them while he ate.
However, there was a lot less of a feral-animal quality to it than when he'd taken the sandwich from Steve earlier. This was just garden-variety caution. ....Well, okay, it was more on the paranoia end of the spectrum. But still, Steve thought, it was noticeable improvement in a matter of hours, whether Bucky seemed to realize it or not.
"You're our local expert on the tunnel system," Natasha said to Bucky, casual as if she hadn't just had to talk him down from a panic attack. "Any sign of HYDRA activity here? Research facilities or the like? Or is it just the creature?"
"Just the creature," Bucky said. He'd eaten about half the soup -- inhaled it was more accurate; Steve kept wanting to tell him to slow down so he didn't make himself sick -- then he'd made himself stop, but he was hanging onto the rest of it. "No sign of anything else."
"I thought we'd decided it wasn't HYDRA," Steve said.
Natasha shook her head. "I don't think this is straight-up AIM. Stark is the expert we'd want, I suppose, but since he's not here, I'm making an educated guess that this looks more like HYDRA's sort of demented Nazi science. Or maybe some joint project between them. Who's to say Hansen and whatsisface didn't pick up some of their ideas from earlier HYDRA research? We know there was a lot of later cross-pollination, with the Centipede project using AIM research."
"I understood about every third word of that," Bucky said, somewhat plaintively.
So they filled him in, going back and forth, on Advanced Idea Mechanics, and Extremis, and HYDRA's recent operations. For Steve, it was almost entirely theoretical -- mostly stuff he'd gleaned from SHIELD files and talking to Tony. Natasha seemed to have a bit more inside information, but not as much as Steve would have expected.
"I've been busy!" she said, because apparently his expression gave it away. "I can't keep up with every last bit of espionage going on all over the world. Also, I was under the impression Extremis had been neutralized as a threat. It's the gift that keeps giving."
"So let me see if I've got the important stuff straight," Bucky said. "This creature is enormous, it's poisonous, it probably can't be killed by anything short of a direct missile strike, it might be able to breathe fire, and it will probably explode at some point."
Natasha nodded and licked her spoon thoughtfully. "Not so sure about the explosion. They did manage to stabilize Extremis eventually, more or less. And this creature is clearly stable enough to last awhile."
"So, the one dangerous ability that might actually come in handy is the one it's least likely to have," Bucky said. "Good to know."
"These might be beyond our ability to handle on our own," Steve said thoughtfully.
Natasha frowned at him. "Okay, what did you do with the real Steve Rogers, and where's your pod?"
"I assume that's a reference to a movie I haven't watched yet, and not to something that's actually happened."
Her tiny smile appeared. "Only a matter of time, probably. And not that I want to squash this unexpected demonstration of maturity," she went on, leaning back against the wall, "but the question is who to call. Once upon a time, this would've been the sort of thing you'd get SHIELD for, but SHIELD is ... not really an option anymore -- I mean, for all intents and purposes, we are SHIELD in this particular situation. We could try Stark, if we can get hold of him. He's dealt with this sort of thing before."
"On the other hand," Steve said with a smile of his own, "Tony handled a whole army of augmented Extremis soldiers with no help except for a completely non-powered Air Force officer and his girlfriend. We have two supersoldiers and a superspy."
"You're right," Natasha said. "He'll make fun of us forever."
Bucky stared at both of them. "Steve, I'm starting to realize why I spent the entire war, not to mention the previous fifteen years, pulling your ass out of trouble."
"Fell in a river," Steve reminded him.
"Jumped in a river."
"Got out on my own."
"You are such a god damn punk," Bucky said. "Seventy years and you're still a smart-mouthed punk without a bare ounce of sense."
"And Sister Mary Catherine would still wash out your mouth with soap," Steve said. "Jerk." He was grinning so hard his jaw hurt.
Natasha threw a handful of gravel at both of them. "Can we focus?"
Bucky settled back against the wall, but there was still a trace of mischief dancing in his eyes, chasing out some of the Winter Soldier's shadows. "So here's what I want to know," he said. "You guys are the experts on this Extremis stuff, but as far as that critter goes, let's say we just drop a mountain on it. Would that do it, do you think?"
"I don't think even Extremis could heal that," Natasha said. "On the other hand, if I'm wrong, it'll certainly take awhile to dig out -- long enough for me to get in touch with Fury and get one of the handful of remaining science teams out here to clean up."
"So it might work, then."
"You have a specific place in mind?" Steve asked.
Bucky, with a sardonic expression, pointed up, at the tons of rock over their heads.
"I know we're under a mountain, dick. I was wondering if you had anything more specific in mind than collapsing some random part of the cave system."
"Does it matter?" Bucky said. "I like this plan. It's way more workable than trying to lure it somewhere and kill it. All we have to do is trap it long enough to bring down the ceiling on it. And I have quite a bit of experience at that now."
"Because you've been blocking exits with cave-ins?" Natasha asked, and he nodded. "How are your supplies of explosives holding up?"
Bucky made a fist with his metal hand. "Don't need 'em. I punch the wall."
"You punch the wall," Steve repeated.
"How do you get away?"
"Run really fast."
"That's it," Steve said. "You are never lecturing me on being reckless ever again."
Natasha yawned. "Okay, you guys. We have a plan, of sorts, and I say we catch a little sleep before we refine the details. This is the sort of plan that's going to involve fast moving and careful timing. Better if we're rested. How are you doing over there, Steve?"
"Better," Steve said. He touched his chest, where there was still a slight ache under the gashes in his shirt, but the skin was no longer tender to the touch.
"Sleep, then," Natasha said. "James, you said it can't get in here?"
"Pretty sure not," Bucky said. "It's just too big." He laid the empty pan aside and stood up. "I can stand watch."
Steve kicked his ankle. "When was the last time you slept?"
Bucky seemed to catch himself on the verge of an automatic answer, and Steve regretted his phrasing instantly. "I sleep," Bucky said instead, after a pause. "When I need to."
"That's what you used to say during the war when you were about to keel over."
"We could sleep in here," Natasha said, "and you can sleep out there. That way, we're safe from whatever might come in, but we can't come out there without waking you up. And you can leave, if you like, without waking us up."
Bucky thought it over. Then he said, "Okay."
Steve had to fight down a half-dozen objections, foremost among them that he didn't want Bucky leaving without waking him up, let alone how much he hated Bucky being their front line of defense against an unstoppable killing machine. But Bucky had never responded well to being fussed over, even when they were kids. And Natasha seemed to have pretty good instincts for finding graceful ways around Bucky's razor-sharp edges. So he swallowed everything he wanted to say, and instead he said, "Hey, Buck."
"Yeah?" Bucky said, turning on his way out. Wary. Unsure.
Bucky's expression of touched surprise cut straight to Steve's heart. "Uh, goodnight, Steve. Romanoff."
"You can call me Natasha. When I'm hunting cave monsters with somebody, they get to have first name privileges."
"Natasha," Bucky said carefully, as if trying it out. He smiled at both of them, quick and shy, and then vanished silently into the other cave.
Steve and Natasha laid out their sleeping gear without speaking. Even when Steve concentrated, he couldn't hear anything from the outer cave. Bucky was perfectly quiet out there.
Or maybe he'd left.
You can't do that to yourself, Steve. Or to him. What are you gonna do, take him back to the States, lock him in a room and check every half-hour that he hasn't broken out?
If Bucky could make the choice to come eat with them, Steve could make the choice to give him space. To let him leave, if that was what he needed to do.
He wasn't going to go out there. Wasn't going to check. Wasn't going to --
"Hey, Bucky?" he called softly through the wall. Across the banked fire, Natasha groaned and pulled her head into her sleeping bag.
Bucky's quiet response came back instantly. "I'm still here, Rogers. Go to sleep."
"Good night, Steve," came Bucky's soft reply.
He slept better than he had since the ice. It was the first time in a long time that he couldn't remember his dreams.
Steve woke to the sound of quiet voices. Daylight, wan and gray, filtered down from a bright pinpoint high above -- it was daytime outside. And Natasha and Bucky were talking softly in the other cave. He wasn't sure if they knew that he could hear them; they were probably far enough away to be beyond regular human hearing, as quietly as they were speaking, but Bucky's hearing -- while, Steve was fairly sure, sharper than human normal -- might not be as augmented as his own.
"I've put a gun in my mouth more than once," Natasha said. Her voice was matter-of-fact, as if she was talking about her favorite burger toppings or yesterday's weather. "There's no shame in it."
"Most people wouldn't say that."
"I'm not most people."
"Why did you ..." Bucky hesitated. "What made you. Not."
"Oh, I don't know." Someone who didn't know her well might have thought her tone was casual. Offhand. "I suppose it was ... a matter of possibilities. While you're alive, you have 'em. Death is the ultimate end of possibilities. All the choices might be ugly, they might be miserable, but once you make that choice, there are no other choices. It was still a possibility, always a possibility, as long as I didn't actually do it. But I could. Sometimes that's what got me through the day."
"It wasn't for me." There was ice in Bucky's voice, the ice of a long Russian winter. "I tried, you know, before I couldn't -- But they wouldn't let me. After a while I didn't even know that there were possibilities at all. At first, when I started to -- After -- I guess it was one of the few possibilities that I could imagine. It felt like I was reclaiming something, because at least I had that."
I should not be listening to this, Steve thought. The only thing that stopped him from giving himself away was not being able to figure out how to do it without admitting he'd been listening all along. Instead, he huddled in a seething mass of indecision and guilt. Maybe he could cover his ears ...?
"You know what made me stop? Because I would've been giving them exactly what they wanted. HYDRA." There was a malicious satisfaction in Bucky's voice now. "They wouldn't let me before, when I was -- theirs -- but now, now that the toy broke and the weapon went off its leash -- they would have been delighted to find out I wasn't their problem anymore. Me blowing my brains out would make them happy." He gave a soft, bitter laugh. "I decided to live out of spite. How stupid is that?"
"A perfectly good reason," Natasha said. "Better than many. For example, you could have decided to live because you wanted to find Steve and finish what you started the first time."
There was a brief silence. Steve's hand curled into a fist in his sleeping bag, but before he could make up his mind whether to get up, Bucky said in a darkly amused tone, "You don't pull punches, do you?"
"I've never been accused of that." Natasha laughed softly. "Also, I think Steve might be awake."
Steve sat up. He tried to make enough noise, rolling up his sleeping bag and putting on his shirt, to let them know he was coming before he stepped into the other cave. "Morning," he said.
"Morning," Natasha said cheerfully. Her hair was combed and she didn't look at all like she'd slept in a cave. Bucky, on the other hand, looked exactly like he'd slept in a cave, but at least he wasn't wearing the body armor, just his loose gray sweater and black jeans. His uncombed hair was untied, and fell down around his shoulders. The overall effect made him look very young.
Natasha had the Sterno stove out on Bucky's rock table. "Breakfast," she said, handing Steve a steaming cup of oatmeal.
"I wasn't, uh." Steve couldn't quite meet Bucky's eyes. "I wasn't exactly eavesdropping. I mean, I was, I guess, but I wasn't trying to."
Bucky halfheartedly tossed an empty oatmeal cup at Steve's head. "Knock it off before you strain something, Rogers. It's a small cave. I knew it wasn't exactly private."
"I just wish I could have been there to help."
"You couldn't help," Bucky said impatiently. "I mean, I know you'd have wanted to try, and that's why I couldn't ...." He broke off, reacting to something on Steve's face -- Steve wasn't sure what. "Steve," Bucky said, a little softer. "It's not you, okay? It's not like you could have done more, or been more, or ... there's nothing you could have done. You couldn't have made my head less of a mess than it was." He grimaced. "Is. And the thing is, I didn't want you to try, because I'd always have wondered how much of what I put back together was made out of pieces you gave me."
"Is that why you stayed away?" Steve asked, a reluctant thread of hope crawling up in his chest. He'd been trying, as hard as he could, not to throw his own expectations onto Bucky, at least not too much. He'd been braced for the likelihood that Bucky didn't plan to come back with him. He was even prepared to make himself not argue about it. Mostly he was hoping that, if Bucky did walk away, he'd at least do it in the knowledge that he could call Steve if he needed to, no strings attached.
Bucky made a noncommittal gesture with his right hand. His left one rested in his lap. He'd always had a tendency to talk with his hands. It had become more muted during the war -- everything about him had become quieter, subtler, less expressive. But it fascinated Steve to see that the tendency was still there, just more subtle yet, and he didn't do it with the metal hand. Only with the right one.
"I had to find me," Bucky said at last, "before I could find anything else. And I didn't really know, for a long time, that there was anything else to find -- I mean, I did remember you, I had a lot of memories in bits and pieces, but they didn't really come with emotions attached. It was like they happened to someone else. And then I started getting the, all the feelings that went with it, and ..." He gestured again. Grimaced. "Yeah. It's probably better I wasn't around anybody. Plus, I didn't know if ..." He hesitated, and then spoke like he was pushing past a barrier inside himself. "If you'd even like me, Steve."
Steve opened his mouth, indignant. Bucky pointed at him. "No, shut up and listen. I'm not who you remember; I mean, I'm made out of pieces of that person, but -- put together different, I guess. Which meant I didn't know how I'd react to you, either. Dealing with myself and dealing with that uncertainty at the same time was ... too much. You don't know me yet, Steve."
Steve fought down the first, second, and third responses that rose in his throat. Finally he said, "Okay, yeah, that's fair. I gotta tell you, though, I like you just fine so far."
"I live in a cave," Bucky said. "And you haven't even known me a day yet."
"But I know you pulled me out of the Potomac when your brain was so scrambled you hardly knew which way was up," Steve said. "And you went through the last year by yourself -- I can't even imagine how brave you had to be to do that." He stopped. Closed his teeth on the rest of that subject. Went on after a moment. "Look, Buck, I don't presume I can even imagine what you've been through. But I see where you are now, and I gotta say I admire the hell out of you, jerk, as much as I ever did when we were kids in Brooklyn."
Bucky gazed at him in silence.
"Yeah, he says stuff like that," Natasha said to Bucky. She'd drawn up her leg so she could rest the side of her face on her knee, a deceptively childlike pose. "It takes some getting used to."
"So yeah," Steve said, ignoring both Natasha's heckling and the urge to crawl out of this conversation while he still had some dignity left. "I don't know how much of this you remember, but you weren't really the same person in Europe either. I think I tried to ... to deny it, to downplay it, I think I was grasping at anything familiar and that familiar thing was you, but you weren't the same and I knew it then and I liked you anyway. So. Yeah." He dropped his gaze to his lap. The oatmeal was congealing in its cup. He put it aside.
Neither of the others spoke, and after a moment Steve went on quietly, "For what it's worth, I've been finding me too. Not in the same way, I know that what happened to me couldn't possibly compare with what happened to you, but I woke up and the whole world was gone, Buck. You, the Commandos -- and everything else, the music and movies and cars and .... the world. I couldn't figure out how I fit into this new one. It's not the same, but ... it's a little the same, I guess."
He finally dared to look up, at Bucky with his head tipped back against the wall, but still watching Steve with a quiet little smile. "And how's that going?" Bucky asked. It wasn't sarcastic; it was a serious question, with warmth behind it.
"It's okay," Steve said. "I think I'm starting to figure it out. Sometimes. A little bit." He glanced at Natasha. She smiled at him with her eyes.
"Have you seen what Times Square looks like now?" Bucky asked.
"Yeah, I kind of ... woke up in the middle of it." Bucky's puzzled look invited explanation. "When I came out of the ice. That's where SHIELD had me at the time, at their Manhattan facility. I punched through a wall and, well, there I was."
Bucky made a soft sound that might almost have been a laugh. "Talk about culture shock. I wish I coulda seen your face."
"And the person I had to talk me down was Nick Fury."
This time Bucky really did laugh, curling forward, hiding his mouth behind his hand.
"It's not that funny," Steve protested. At the time it had been one of the most awful moments of his life, as the slow realization sank in that he was alone, really and truly alone, with everyone he loved and his whole world seventy years in the past. And yet, softened by distance and time, it really was funny, and he couldn't help laughing too. There had been so many nights he'd awoken cold and terrified, with the sound of Bucky's scream ringing in his ears, and he just wanted to save up this sound -- Bucky's quiet laughter, counterpoint to his own -- against those nights, those dreams.
"It was the food that always got to me," Natasha said suddenly, resting her elbows on her knees and her chin in her hands. "Americans have so much food, and the grocery stores are so huge. Oh, I was on assignment, of course, so I couldn't simply indulge. But there were times when I just wanted to fill up the back of a truck with food."
"Oh yeah, those giant grocery stores," Steve said. "They're so bright and just .... sensory overload. I think they actually had 'em in our time, that sort of thing -- but not so big, and not where we lived."
"And yet, you bring me oatmeal," Bucky said, throwing another empty plastic cup at him. "Really shitty oatmeal. Ma used to boil this stuff in a big tin pot, and it was better than this."
Steve snatched the cup out of the air. "I liked your ma's oatmeal. She put stuff in it. Raisins and things. Butter sometimes, I think. We just had it plain."
"Like you'd care," Bucky retorted. To Natasha he said, "For a little guy who was sick all the time, you wouldn't believe how he could put food away. He was like a human garbage can."
"I was not," Steve protested. "It's just that I was too sick to eat a lot of the time, and the rest of the time we were too poor to afford to be picky. Bucky's family was too, so don't listen to him."
Bucky leaned conspiratorially in Natasha's direction. "We used to dare him to eat things just to see if he would. 'Course, the other thing about Steve is that he's genetically incapable of not taking a dare."
"This is amazing," Natasha said, her eyes bright. "You are a never-ending font of dirt on Steve. I cannot wait until Stark meets you."
These words fell into the space between them like a penny into still fountain waters, provoking a waiting silence that no one seemed to want to break. Because there was going to be an after, assuming they all survived today, and there were going to be decisions to be made.
It was Bucky who spoke, finally, addressing himself to Steve. "We came up with some more details of the plan while you were asleep. We've pretty much got a whole plan now. But you're not gonna like it."
"I hate this plan," Steve said.
"Steve, shut up."
"I loathe this plan. I am participating in this plan only under duress."
"Duly noted, now shut it." The last time it had been Natasha; now it was Bucky. They were tag-teaming him. So unfair.
The fundamental problem facing them was how to get the creature where they needed it to be. And Steve still couldn't believe that two of the smartest people he knew had been unable, between them, to come up with a plan that was better than Bucky's original one. It was the same idea, really, just more refined and with a different end point.
Encountering new intruders in the cave system, the creature might or might not be curious enough to follow them. But it already knew Bucky's scent, and it knew that he was dangerous and had been a thorn in its side for days.
And it knew where his hiding place was. It just couldn't get inside.
But it was possible to change that.
If they enlarged the entrance to the cave -- which Bucky seemed to think he could do, using his metal arm -- the creature would be able to get in. The cave was narrow enough that, once inside, it wouldn't be able to turn around, at least not easily or quickly.
Between them, Natasha and Bucky had enough explosives for one good blast, which they were going to set in the entrance to the cave. Properly placed (and if there were any two human beings on earth capable of properly setting explosives ...) the charges would bring down the cave ceiling as well as completely collapsing the entrance. Even if the creature somehow managed to survive, which Steve thought was vanishingly unlikely even for something as enhanced as it appeared to be, it would take a century to dig itself out.
This still left a need for someone to lure it inside the cave ... and to get out afterwards. Natasha was pretty sure that the natural chimney at the back of the cave was wide enough for a human being, though there was no chance the creature could fit through it. They could collapse it afterwards just to make sure. And she had a climbing line long enough to drop down it.
Natasha and Bucky's plan involved Bucky leading the creature into the cave; Natasha behind it to make sure the explosives brought everything down in its proper place; and Steve up top to pull Bucky up the chimney.
"What you're basically saying is that you want me to be the only one who's not in any actual danger. Is that about right?"
"Steve," Bucky said again, "shut up. You're the strongest. You're the biggest. I can't climb anywhere near as fast as you can pull me, and I don't think you can fit down the tube."
"I'm pretty sure I can," Steve said. There really wasn't that much difference anymore between the width of his shoulders and Bucky's. The big issue was that there wasn't any more of a guarantee that Bucky would fit, in which case he'd be stuck halfway up, with no way to go up and nowhere to go that wasn't blocked by rocks and/or full of angry Extremis insect creature. Natasha probably had the best chance of making it, being the smallest, but ... she might not fit either. Without measuring equipment they didn't have, all they could do was eyeball it and hope for the best.
Steve was aware that he couldn't protect his friends from all risk, and they were capable of handling most risks just fine anyway, but it seemed that protecting them from taking stupid risks was warranted. And this was a stupid risk. There had to be a better way.
"Do we actually need anyone to go all the way into the cave? Maybe the, uh -- distraction --" he refused to say bait "-- could veer off at the last minute."
"Now who was talking a minute ago about taking stupid chances? That thing is fast. As fast as we are. And it can get around in the dark better than we can."
"It's still a stupid plan! Natasha, back me up here."
"It is a stupid plan," Natasha agreed, looking up from laying out the C4 which she had somehow managed to smuggle into Eastern Europe -- or, more likely, had retrieved from a cache that was already somewhere in the area. "But it's the best plan we have. If you can think of an alternative, Steve, one which isn't even more likely to result in at least one of us getting killed, feel free to suggest it."
"Have I mentioned that I can punch through rock? If I do get stuck I can just ..." Bucky waved a hand. "Punch my way out, basically."
"You know for sure your arm can handle the strain?" Steve asked. "What if it gives out halfway up? Worse, what if I pull you face-first into a rock when I'm hauling you up the chute and -- oh god." He covered his mouth with his hand, because he'd just realized that the worst-case scenario was actually far worse than he'd imagined. The real worst-case scenario was that what he'd retrieve at the top of the chimney would be a pulped-to-death version of Bucky and it would be entirely his fault.
"Breathe, Steve," Bucky ordered, punching him in the shoulder lightly with his right fist.
Instinct reached down into some deep-inside part of him, pushed him back to that scrawny ten-year-old kid on his knees in the schoolyard with Bucky talking him through one of the terrifying asthma attacks that the grown-ups kept trying to tell him was all in his head. It made him calm down, but it also solidified his objections into stone, as immovable as the mountain around them.
"I can't be up there while you two are running that much risk down here, Buck. I can't."
"We took a shitload of risks in the war, Steve; what's different about this?"
Once -- younger, more naive, his heart less bruised -- he might not have had an answer. But now he did, and it came instantly, the words rising to the surface without prompting. "This time I know what could happen."
Bucky couldn't seem to find anything to say to that.
Natasha gathered her explosives together and said, "Look, the person up top isn't strictly necessary. It'd be a good safety precaution, in case the line tangles or if, say, we want someone on the outside to call for help in case we manage to bury ourselves underground, but my mini-winch can lift the decoy up the shaft just as easily as Steve can. So yeah, Steve -- have you ever seen a hunting wolfpack? The pack members lie in wait for their prey, and take turns running it to ground. You and Barnes can relay race."
"Hey," Bucky said. "All of a sudden I don't like this plan."
"Hypocrite," Steve told him.
Bucky had a mulish look. "It's more practical for me to do it. I know the cave system better, and that thing has my scent already."
Steve hooked a finger in the ragged gash across the chest of his shirt. "I think after yesterday, it has mine too. Natasha's right, we'll do it together."
It was evening by the time they had everything in place: Natasha's line dropped down the rock chimney, their packs outside, the explosives mining the entrance to Bucky's cave. He hadn't been kidding about being able to punch through rock -- with a few carefully calculated blows, he'd knocked down the wall of rock blocking the cave entrance, widening it enough that the scorpion-creature should be able to get in easily. Then Natasha set up the explosives, Steve helping her by lifting her into places she couldn't quite reach, like a human stepladder.
They left Natasha with her detonators. "I would tell you to be careful," she said. "But it's you two, so I think 'at least don't do anything terribly stupid' is probably more appropriate."
"Gee, Steve," Bucky said, smirking. "It's like she knows you."
"I was talking to both of you," Natasha said with a sweet smile.
And then it was just the two of them in the darkness. They had a flashlight with them -- Natasha said she had another -- and she'd also given Steve one of her guns. Not that bullets seemed to do anything other than annoy it. Bucky offered Steve an enormous combat knife, hilt first. "I have a utility knife," Steve said.
"I've seen that dinky little thing. I don't think so." Bucky stood there, knife held out, until Steve sighed and took it.
Bucky looked vindicated, and beckoned him along.
"Before we go on a monster hunt, Stevie, there's something I wanna show you."
Bucky hadn't called him Stevie since they were eight or nine years old, and Steve was pretty sure Bucky had no idea he'd done it just now, but he merely said, "Sure."
They went down and down, into the dark. The sound of rushing water was very loud now. The way it echoed around, Steve still couldn't tell where the river was, but they had to be almost on top of it. The air smelled wet.
Bucky reached out suddenly and clamped his hand over Steve's. It was the hand Steve had the flashlight in. Bucky's thumb found the switch and flicked it off. Darkness fell on them. This darkness under the mountain was like nothing that Steve had ever known before. It wasn't the darkness of a starless night or a windowless room. It was darkness that had a weight.
His heart hammered in his throat, but Bucky was still leading him forward, one slow careful step at a time. And Bucky's fingers on Steve's wrist were lax, not wrapped wire-tight. "What is it?" Steve whispered. "You hear something?"
"Relax," Bucky said. His fingers tightened briefly on Steve's wrist in a reassuring squeeze. "It's okay. Don't wanna give away the surprise."
"How do you find your way around here in the dark, anyway?" When you have to write your own name on the walls to remember it, he didn't say.
"I don't know," Bucky said. "I just do. I don't know if maybe it's something -- something that I --" He shuddered, but made himself say it. "Something I was ... given, some kind of perfect sense of direction or something. I mean, hell, at least this one's useful, right? I don't remember learning fifty ways to poison somebody or being fluent in Spanish, either, but here I am."
"You were always pretty good at getting around," Steve said. "Maybe that's just you." He remembered long summer days spent wandering the back streets of Brooklyn, going down alleys and dead-end streets just to see where they went. They'd both loved that kind of thing, like kids in any time period, but Bucky was the one who always knew where they were. Bucky, that's not a shortcut, we'll get lost! But they never had.
Bucky didn't answer, or maybe his answer was swallowed by the roar of the subterranean river. Steve concentrated on placing his feet as carefully as possible, trying not to slip on the wet rocks.
Then Bucky stopped moving, so Steve did too. He could feel spray on his face. The noise of the river seemed to fill the world -- echoes upon echoes, reflected back and back and back again until the air was full of it.
Then the world went white. Steve had to squeeze his eyes shut. After the absolute darkness, the light was searingly painful. Slowly, he risked cracking them open.
Bucky was holding the little electric lantern high above his head. Around them, the entire world glittered like Fifth Avenue at Christmastime. The ceiling vaulted high above them, draped with stalactites, and everywhere Steve looked, there was light and sparkling brilliance, shaded with subtle tones of color. He had no idea what it was -- salt or different kinds of minerals that had seeped out of the stone, calcified hard water from the constant spray in the air; he didn't know enough about geology to be sure, but it was glorious, a cathedral on par with the most beautiful ones he had seen in all his travels.
Bucky had stopped with his boots mere feet from the edge of gleaming dark water. The river rushed through the middle of the cavern, until the ceiling arched downward to meet it, and then it vanished back into the subterranean depths in a tremendous wall of spray. When Bucky turned to look at Steve, shifting the position of the lantern, rainbows splintered through the mist in the air.
"Like it?" Bucky asked, grinning. There was still a shadowed edge to his smile -- probably would always be -- but his delight was as infectious as it had ever been back in Brooklyn.
"It's amazing," Steve said. "I don't -- I don't have words."
"When I found this place, I thought Steve would like this. And, well. Now I can show you."
Steve couldn't speak, mostly because when he'd first come out of the ice, it had happened to him all the time. Bucky would love this. I can't wait to show it to him. And then there would come the awful knowledge that he couldn't. In time the raw grief, so powerful he thought he'd die of it, had scabbed over to a dry and painful ache, so much a part of him that he no longer knew what it would feel like not to carry it around with him.
Until that day on a DC freeway overpass.
And then he'd been in a strange kind of limbo, grief and loss and anger all wrapped up into a snarled ball where his heart used to be. Because he hadn't known, couldn't know until he found Bucky how much was left of his friend and how much was still to be mourned, and he'd been living with that phantom-pain missing-limb grief for so long at that point anyway that he wasn't sure how to not feel it anymore.
All this tied together in his throat until he managed to swallow it enough to say, "I love it. Thank you for showing it to me."
Bucky gave Steve's wrist a light squeeze -- Steve hadn't even realized he was still holding it -- and then let go.
"I wish I had my sketchbook," Steve said. "Though I don't know how I could ever capture this."
"You ... used to draw," Bucky said, his tone slow and thoughtful as if the words were being drawn out from someplace buried deep inside him. "Didn't you?"
"I forgot that." There was an edge of self-recrimination to his voice that Steve hated to hear.
"I used to draw you sometimes," he said, trying to smooth past it. "You hated that. You'd retaliate by stealing my other drawings and putting little word bubbles on them, like in a comic book. The more vulgar the better."
"If you say so." Bucky took a deep breath and turned away, gathering himself back behind his walls. "Well, Steve, let's do this thing."
"Be careful," Steve said, and a sick feeling rose into his throat at a ghostly echo from the past. Be careful, he'd said to Bucky the last time he'd seen him at the Stark Expo -- as they both took their first steps down the path to the place they now were.
And yet. For all the terrible twists and turns -- all the horrors and the pain and grief that lay behind them, all that might lie ahead of them still -- here they were, together, in a place as beautiful as anything Steve had ever seen. The world held joy and wonders yet.
"You too," Bucky said. "Don't get your dumb ass killed or anything."
As much as Steve hated Bucky's "bleed on everything" strategy, for getting the attention of a scent-oriented predator it really couldn't be beat. At least, he hadn't been able to come up with a better idea.
It was unexpectedly difficult to make himself do it, even knowing it would heal. It felt too much like -- something. Something he didn't like to think of. Someplace he'd once been. He gripped Bucky's combat knife and watched the pulse jump in his wrist. Natasha's little flashlight was gripped in his teeth.
"Man up, Rogers," Steve murmured indistinctly around it, and drew the blade across his skin.
It stung more than hurt, and he could also feel the tingly sensation of his body's healing factor kicking in, like someone brushing their fingers lightly across the wound. It kept trying to seal up even as he pressed down, forcing the edges of the cut open. Blood welled up, inky dark in the flashlight's narrow beam, and Steve smeared his arm on the wall.
The thought belatedly occurred to him that holding the flashlight in his mouth wasn't going to work for running. He'd need both hands, too. Eventually he lashed it to the collar of his leather jacket, the best solution he could think of. All he could do was hope it wouldn't fall off, because unlike Bucky, he couldn't find his way around in total darkness.
And Bucky would be out there somewhere, roaming around in the dark. Getting its attention. Steve was stationed nearer to the cave because he knew his way from here. Now the question was only whether he could find his way while running at top speed, being chased by something that could paralyze him at a touch, was immune to his punches, and wanted to eat him.
He waited. Dripped a little more blood. Turning off the flashlight would probably be a good idea -- at least in the interests of luring it close, and not scaring it off with the light -- and he managed to do it for a few minutes, but then turned it back on. Darkness wasn't something he normally had a problem with, and after getting the serum his night vision had been a lot better than average, but this darkness ... it was a thing unto itself. It awoke something primitive deep in Steve's brain. He found himself wanting to cling to the comforting warmth of firelight, wanting to touch the hands of other human beings to know he wasn't alone.
Bucky had been down here for a week. Alone. True, he could've come up anytime, but the fact that he hadn't -- that he had, in fact, stayed here three days past the end of his food supply ... it probably hadn't been good for his state of mind, Steve thought.
Or heck, maybe he'd found it soothing.
Somewhere else in the cave system, something clattered. Steve went tense. He covered the flashlight with his hand, just letting a little light seep red-tinged through his fingers. The way echoes bounced from tunnel to tunnel, it was impossible to tell where it had come from.
And then Bucky skidded into Steve's circle of light. His hair was a wind-torn mop hanging in his eyes, his right sleeve was darkly patched with blood, and he was panting like a bellows. He slapped Steve's shoulder and gasped, "Tag, you're it."
"You're enjoying this, you son of a bitch," Steve accused him.
"Most fun I've had in years," Bucky panted, flashed him a wild grin, and disappeared.
And out of the darkness it came, claws clattering on rock, all fluid speed and the flex of muscles under dark fur and glittering black carapace.
Steve ran for his life.
He'd rehearsed the route in his mind, but when it came right down to it, there wasn't time to think or calculate or look for landmarks or do anything other than flat-out, no-holds-barred running. He bounced off walls with bruising impacts, skidded around corners in showers of gravel. He'd probably have been terrified if he could stop and think for a minute. Luckily there wasn't time.
Making things easier, Natasha had marked some of the tunnels near the cave with reflective tape. The first silver "X" gleamed in his wildly dancing flashlight beam as he blew past it.
He and Bucky had planned to hand off again near the cave, but Steve wasn't going to. Couldn't, really -- he was pretty sure stopping would be lethal; he had no idea how Bucky had managed to get enough of a lead on the thing to hand it off to Steve in the first place -- but even so, he intended to be the one to lead it in. This was one risk he didn't intend to let Bucky take. Bucky just didn't know it yet.
Another silver "X". Steve cornered with another painful impact, scraping his palms on the wall and knocking air out of him that he couldn't afford to lose.
And skidded sideways, his foot going out from under him. It wasn't a fall, exactly, and if he'd had any time at all to recover he'd have been fine, but it was on him in an instant.
It scored a glancing blow across his ribs -- blunt impact rather than claws, and he didn't even know which part hit him, just that it felt like being slapped with a locomotive. He flew fifteen feet, rolled with the fall and bounced back to his feet --
-- then went down again as Bucky smacked into him, pushing him down, the lunatic, and sprang back up with a gun in his fist. He fired into its face and took off running.
So did Steve, already back on his feet. They pounded down the tunnel side by side.
"I've got this!" Bucky snapped at him as they both hurdled a fallen stalactite half-blocking the passage. "Break off!"
Steve was almost out of breath, but he managed to gasp, "No! I'm doing this!"
"The hell you are!"
Steve neatly dodged Bucky's attempt to trip him. They parkoured halfway up the cave wall, zigged and zagged, literally leaped over each other at one point -- and there was the enlarged entrance to Bucky's cave, marked with two wide strips of silver tape.
"Steve, you fucking traitor!"
Steve decided to save his breath for running rather than arguing. He dashed into the cave, hurdled Bucky's table rock, skidded around the corner and slammed into the wall at the bottom of the chimney. After a couple of great gasping breaths, he turned around to point out that if it had been a race, he'd handily won it, and discovered that he was alone.
Thought #1: Bucky had given up.
Thought #2: Bucky didn't give up. Not like that.
Clawed feet scrabbled at the entrance to the firepit alcove. Steve wondered if it, like Bucky, could punch through walls. Hopefully, if so, it hadn't figured that out yet. He drew Natasha's gun and fired several rounds into its legs. Red light flickered around the damage points, but it did withdraw for a moment, startled or feeling the pain, and Steve stuck his head around the corner.
Bucky was pinned to the wall by the scorpion tail. Steve's heart skipped a beat. He couldn't tell from here if it had got Bucky through his chest or his body armor, but at the very least he was still moving -- moving a lot, actually, fending the creature off with a knife in each hand.
"Hey!" Steve yelled. He drew Bucky's combat knife and poured all his supersoldier strength into a powerful strike at the base of its nearest leg. The knife ripped through muscles, ligaments and the joint itself. The feeling was indescribably grisly. Blood so hot it had to be near-boiling slapped Steve's hands, making him yelp. He dropped the knife, his burned fingers too numb to hold it.
But Bucky had managed to wriggle free. He and Steve scrambled into the alcove, which suddenly seemed a whole lot shallower than it had before -- especially when the scorpion tail thudded into the wall between them. Bucky seized it in his metal hand and snapped it off. They both had to duck a gout of steaming blood, and a fresh soft-skinned appendage began unfolding where the old one had been, the tail regrowing before their eyes.
"Natasha!" Steve yelled at the top of his lungs. "Light it up!"
Whether she heard him or had already planned on it, a rumble shook the rocks underfoot. Dislodged stones bounced down the chimney shaft around them. That was just the preview of the main attraction, though.
In their enclosed space, the shockwave slapped them like a full body blow. A split second later, the world filled with noise, smoke, and flying rocks. Steve moved instinctively to cover Bucky with the shield -- which he didn't have; Bucky threw his metal arm over both of them. The world was smoke and thunder. They huddled at the back of the alcove, deafened and bruised and choking on rock dust. If Natasha had miscalculated, Steve thought -- or if there was an unknown fault in the rocks that even she couldn't have anticipated -- everything would come down on both of them.
But eventually he became aware that the noise in his ears was residual ringing from the thunder that had come before. It was pitch dark. He couldn't tell which way was up, only that he seemed to be buried and couldn't move. The rapid rise and fall of Bucky's chest, pressed against his side, was the most real thing in the world.
"You okay?" Bucky asked, and broke into a paroxysm of coughing. The air was so thick with dust that it felt like breathing soup. Bucky's voice was tight, but he didn't sound like he was on the verge of losing it, so presumably claustrophobia was not one of his issues. At least not under these conditions.
"More or less," Steve croaked when he'd managed to calm his own choking fit. His tongue was coated with dust. "You?"
Steve cautiously tried to move each of his limbs, most of which were wrapped around Bucky. In a mutual attempt to shield each other, they'd ended up hopelessly tangled together. He could feel Bucky twitching and squirming, doing the same thing. "Can you tell how deep we're buried?" Steve asked.
"What, you think I have sonar now?" Their faces were so close together that Bucky's breath stirred Steve's hair when he spoke.
"Put that on the list for the next upgrade," Steve said. Bucky jabbed his metal knuckles into Steve's ribs. "Ow!"
For a moment they were still, just breathing together. Now that the humming in Steve's ears had begun to fade, it was very quiet. The ground trembled with the vibration of a secondary rockslide somewhere else in the cave system, shifting things around them, and suddenly Steve's arm was painfully pinched between two rocks. He clenched his teeth and wiggled his fingers to make sure they still moved. They did.
"You okay?" Bucky asked, squirming and managing to poke Steve with a number of miscellaneous pointy objects.
"Basically," Steve said, and tried to pretend Bucky hadn't just asked the same question a couple of minutes ago. Also, the more he tried to move, and the less he found he could move, the more horribly likely it became that the chimney had collapsed above them and they were now buried under several hundred feet of rock.
"I'm going to try to dig us out. I think my arm can do it."
"Yeah, the sooner the better," Steve said. He felt like his ribs were being squeezed. He couldn't take a full breath of air. It had to be psychosomatic -- they couldn't possibly be running out of oxygen so quickly -- but it depended on how big their air pocket was, and how deeply they were buried ...
"The problem is, this might crush us if I move the wrong rock."
"At least it'll be over fast."
Bucky choked on something that was almost a laugh, and took a few deep breaths. Steve tried not to think: Using air, using air ...
"You couldn't have just stayed outside like you were supposed to, could you, Steve?"
"Not without you," Steve said.
Bucky was quiet; then he shifted a little to press his temple against Steve's. They stayed that way for a minute.
"For what it's worth," Steve said, "even if it does end here, I'm glad I found you."
"Sap," Bucky said softly, and then, "Keep your head down."
Steve obediently bent his head as far as he could move it, which wasn't far and ended with his nose tucked into Bucky's collarbone. He felt Bucky move, muscles bunching along his torso, across his shoulders. The metal arm whined faintly, and then there was an explosion of movement and a burst of pain throughout Steve's bruised body and --
He blinked and squinted, tipping his head back. Evening light, shining down the shaft from high above. The shaft. It was still there, even if the bottom was now filled with rubble. Natasha's climbing line brushed his face.
There wasn't much room to maneuver. They had to pull themselves out one at at time. Bucky went first, by virtue of being slightly narrower in the shoulders, not to mention being able to punch through any obstacles they might encounter. Steve brought up the rear.
It was one hell of a climb.
After an approximate eternity, with the top of the shaft seemingly still just as far above them (but the bottom now a very long way below) they paused to rest. Steve's arms and legs were trembling. He tried to rest the muscles in sequence by bracing himself with three limbs and letting the other one dangle. Bucky, above him, seemed to be doing something similar, except using his metal arm -- which had been making a screechy metal noise for some time now; it appeared to be overheating -- in conjunction with alternating legs. They were both covered with rock dust, and Steve would kill for a drink of water.
"What do you think are the odds it's dead?" he asked, to take his mind off his discomfort.
"I would say a hundred percent, except for what you two told me about ... that stuff, the science thing." Bucky made a hissing sound of frustration.
"Yeah." The silence from above Steve was palpably frustrated. "I didn't used to be like this."
"Buck, it's not --"
"Steve, I don't fucking care if you care, or whose fault it is, or whatever platitude you were about to spout off. I care, damn it."
Steve tried out a few different responses internally, but couldn't come up with anything that didn't sound trivializing, even though he meant it sincerely. He'd never really thought beyond finding Bucky, aside from some vague plan about taking him home and helping him. But he hadn't realized just how little he understood about how to help, how to offer companionship and assistance without making things worse.
Well, you never thought it would be easy, did you, Rogers? Life's never easy. Stop bellyaching about it and get things done. When he got back, he could talk to Sam. Read some books. There was useful information on the Internet too. He could do this. They could do this.
Bucky was quiet for a few minutes, and then, apparently picking up his train of thought where he'd left off: "At the very least that critter doesn't look like it's going to be bothering anyone for a really long time."
Steve went along with it. "Or else we've just created a very cruel trap for some future explorer. Like nuclear waste. Out of sight, out of mind for centuries 'til someone digs it up."
"You're such a ray of sunshine." Bucky started to climb again. "We'll put up a warning sign," he said over his shoulder.
"I think Natasha's going to contact Fury about it."
"Excellent. Someone else's problem -- that's my favorite kind of problem."
It was full dark by the time they reached the top of the shaft. Small hands hauled them over the edge. "I said don't do anything stupid," Natasha snapped.
"You have to be more specific," Steve said, clasping her forearm. He wasn't entirely sure how much she'd appreciate being hugged by someone covered with rock dust, but she removed the dilemma by hugging him herself.
In the crisp light of dawn, they sat together at the top of what had once been a waterfall, their legs dangling over what Steve remembered as a precipice of jagged, water-washed boulders. Now the rocks were grown over with trees and brush. Somewhere off to their left, invisible behind a screen of trees, the river thundered in its new bed. Steve wondered what had happened in the last seventy years to change its course. Maybe someone had built a dam upstream, diverting it to different goat pastures. Maybe it was just the natural course of things -- rivers flood, sandbars build up, eventually they run in different places.
Nothing stays the same, not rivers, not people, not even mountains.
And yet. Seventy years, and it was still the same river: different in shape, but Steve thought if he dipped his hands into it, the water would be just as cold.
He thought of something he'd once read in a book, how all the water in the world is the same water. It falls as rain, and runs to the sea, and evaporates into the sky to be rained back to earth again. Animals drink it and breathe it out to become part of the clouds again; they die, and the water in their bodies sinks into the soil, and flows to the rivers, and runs to the sea.
Every drop of water has always been, will always be. It lapped at the shores of the dinosaurs' warm oceans; it was locked in the glaciers of the Ice Age; Roman centurions and Paleolithic hunters drank it from their cupped hands. The water that had nearly drowned Steve and Bucky in 1944 had long since vanished into the ocean, but the river was still there.
Maybe love is like that, Steve thought. Maybe it changes, but it doesn't go away. Not as long as it's remembered. Maybe even after that.
He glanced sideways at Natasha and Bucky in the morning sun. Bucky seemed to be lost in his own thoughts, gazing at the distant horizon. He was still filthy, though his bruises were visibly healing. Steve suspected he looked just as bad himself, if not worse.
Natasha's brown hair showed glimmers of red in the sunshine, as if it was revealing something hidden underneath. He didn't know her real hair color; maybe the brown was the real color, with subtle hints of red if you looked at it in the right light.
"Where are you going after this?" he asked her.
"I don't know," she said, and leaned back against her pack. "You know how it is. Busy busy."
"I was hoping ..." He hesitated. He wasn't good at people, never had been. All he knew was how to be sincere, and sincerity was worthless currency in Natasha's world. And yet. Water to the sea. "I hope it won't be another year until I hear from you again. You have my number, and I'm pretty easy to find."
The look she gave him under her half-lowered lashes was warm, like the newly risen sun on his face. "Oh, I'm sure there'll be some disaster before too long, Rogers."
"I'd really like to see you when there isn't a disaster, though," Steve said. "We could -- you know, watch some movies and make popcorn. Catch up on our lives. Ordinary things that ordinary people do."
"But we were never that," she said. "Were we?"
"We could pretend." He smiled, and she smiled back, just a little. "I won't tell if you won't."
"I hope his taste in movies has changed since 1935," Bucky said from her other side. "Or you might be watching a lot of Westerns and cheesy old monster movies."
"I like all manner of terrible movies." She kissed Steve on the cheek, and, reaching the other way, ran a hand through Bucky's tangled, dusty hair. "You know, Barnes, I've seen pictures of you in the old days, but I like this better. It's very modern. Put you in tight pants and eyeliner, and people would swoon. Don't let anyone make you cut it."
Bucky looked nervous. "I'll ... keep that in mind."
Natasha leaned over and whispered something, loud enough Steve could hear, but it was in Russian so he had no idea what she'd said. However, whatever it was brought a look of surprised pleasure to Bucky's face. "Da," he said.
"Wait," Steve said, half panicking, as Natasha stood up and hooked a hand through the strap of her pack. "Are you -- I thought we could hike back down together?"
She shook her head. "I need to make some calls. Get this mess cleaned up, find out what lab churned this thing out and whether it's still in production ... Places to go, stuff to do."
And sometimes the river is in a hurry to get to the ocean; it's got places to be. "Oh. That's -- good! It's good. Keeping busy. You take care of yourself."
Natasha sighed. "And I was also going to say, even before you got that kicked-puppy look, that I just might have a private ride going back stateside from Skopje in a couple of days. If you're interested, you remember the hotel. There'll be lots of time to catch up over the Atlantic. I bet we could even get a Western as the in-flight movie."
"Oh," Steve said. "Oh! I'd like that."
"It's a private flight. Lots of available seats." She smiled; it was warm and a little hesitant, like her real smiles usually were, and it took them both in. "Feel free to bring a friend."
Then she turned and walked away, not looking back. Vanished into the trees in the morning sun.
"The people you find, Steve," Bucky said after a moment.
"Hey, you were the one who found Dum-Dum and Monty and all the rest of them. It's my turn to bring home the weirdos for a change."
Bucky smiled a little.
He was ... not relaxed, exactly, but closer to it than he normally seemed to come. In the warmth of the morning, he'd rucked up his loose sweater sleeves near his elbows, revealing the sun-touched glint of metal on the left, and on the right, the march of black handwriting across dirty skin.
"Yeah," Bucky said, following Steve's gaze down to his right arm. "Guess I should wash that off."
"Don't," Steve said. "Not if it helps."
"People stare." A sardonic smile. "You're staring."
"I'm just not used to it," Steve said. "It's part of you, and it's new. Give me a little time."
"Steve." The word caught on a sigh.
And here it was, the elephant in the room, the subject they'd managed to successfully skirt around so far. What now.
"You got a pen?" Steve asked.
Bucky eyed him, then reached in his pocket and brought out a capped black marker. He held it out, but refused to relinquish it into Steve's hand, keeping his fist tight around it.
"C'mon, Buck," Steve said. "Trust me."
"I haven't decided about that yet." But he dropped it into Steve's palm, which also gave Steve a better look at the expanse of scribbled-on skin below the rolled-up edge of his sleeve.
The long gashes on his forearm had healed entirely, their absence marked only by bare patches of skin where the writing was interrupted. Bucky's notes were written in random directions, new writing spilling over the top of old writing that had faded too much to read. His handwriting was even worse than usual since he'd been doing it with his off hand, and the metal hand at that. Mostly the notes were of a practical, mission-oriented sort: dates, names, places, and so forth. There was also Bucky's full name, rank and serial number, which wasn't really surprising at this point. Steve's name was printed carefully in small letters right in the inner crook of his wrist, where the words jumped in time with the beat of his heart.
Steve uncapped the pen and gently gripped Bucky's wrist.
"What are you doing?" Bucky demanded. His expression was caught somewhere between fear and curiosity.
"Helping you with your note-taking," Steve said. He hesitated. "I won't if you don't want me to."
Now it was Bucky's turn to hesitate. Steve waited. Finally Bucky made a little head-tilt, a gesture of annoyed capitulation.
Steve found a blank space near Bucky's elbow and wrote carefully, his own small neat handwriting in vivid contrast to Bucky's jagged capitals: It wasn't my fault.
"Steve," Bucky said. There was a razor-sharp edge to his voice.
But he could have pulled away, and he didn't, his arm resting quiescent in Steve's grasp. Steve found a new place and wrote along the blue vein curving beneath the soft skin of Bucky's inner arm: I am a good man.
Across the bony point of Bucky's wrist: People love me.
On Bucky's knuckles: I have a home.
And finally, across his palm, where he couldn't open his hand without seeing it: To the end of the line.
Steve took the pen away but left his other hand in place, holding Bucky's hand with fingers spread across the back -- he could feel the subtle tension of the tendons and ligaments -- and thumb resting lightly in Bucky's palm.
Bucky's breathing was harsh and shaky, his head bowed so that his hair hid his face.
"Bucky," Steve said gently. "I won't make you do anything you don't want to do. If you want to leave, you have every right to. You always can. But ... please come home. I miss you."
"I'm ..." Bucky swallowed heavily. "I'm a mess, Steve, you know that. I'm always going to be a mess."
"I know," Steve said. He ran his fingers lightly over the skin below the words he'd written, tracing each sentence one at a time. "And all of this is still true." He smiled as best he could. "We can have it tattooed if you like. So you can never forget."
Bucky choked on a watery laugh. "Won't stick. Supersoldier. It'll heal."
"Then I'll just have to write it for you again," Steve said. "And again, and again. Until you know it down to your bones."
"You're such a stupid, stubborn piece of ...." His voice failed. Steve slid an arm around his shoulders, and Bucky didn't fight it -- didn't fight, either, when Steve pulled him in and held him with Bucky's face pressed damply into his neck. Eventually Bucky's hands came up and two fists -- one of metal, one of bone and blood -- tightened on his jacket.
"Come home," Steve said into his hair.
"Only because it'll shut you up," Bucky mumbled into his neck, and pressed in closer.
It was a chain coffee shop in a strip mall on a freeway outside DC, usefully anonymous. Steve went there every day at lunchtime for three days, drank a slow cup of coffee in a window seat, and then left.
On the fourth day, the person he waited for slid into the seat across from him.
"I wondered if you'd get my message," Steve said.
"And if I hadn't, you would've been here every day for, what, months?"
"I've been told I'm kind of stubborn," Steve said, and smiled.
Nick Fury didn't quite smile back, but his mouth did something akin to it. "So, you wanted to see me. Your pet assassin busting up the place yet?"
"Only sometimes," Steve said. "There are good days and bad days, days when he leaves and days when he stays and days that make it all worthwhile ... You drink coffee?"
"Do I," Fury said, "drink coffee? Don't make me laugh."
Steve went to the counter and came back with a tall cup. Nothing fancy, no frills, no sugar or cream. Fury was still there, which Steve hadn't been entirely sure about. He slid the coffee cup across the table, along with a donut he'd bought. It had sprinkles.
"Do I look like a sprinkles kind of guy, Cap?"
"I don't know," Steve said. "I'm not sure if I really know who you are at all. I don't think I'd have called you for a guy who'd go out of your way to set up a chance meeting between two old friends who haven't had a conversation in seventy years, but ... here we are. A cup of coffee and a donut with sprinkles are a down payment on a debt I couldn't repay in a lifetime."
Fury heaved a sigh, tipped down his sunglasses and regarded Steve over the top of them.
"You don't owe me a debt," he said, and he sounded sincere and unutterably weary. "It was time for Barnes to come in from the cold, that's all. I could see it even if he couldn't."
"Not many people would have noticed," Steve said quietly. "Not many people would have cared enough to do something about it."
"Yeah, well." Fury pushed up the sunglasses, hiding his eyes and whatever was in them, and took a bite of the donut. "As anyone who knows me can tell you, I don't care. Bad for the reputation. Also a liability in my line of work."
"Yeah, you and Natasha. Between the two of you, you've got the market cornered on not caring."
"I see you've discovered sarcasm. Good for you."
"Discovered it?" Steve said, and he grinned. "Who do you kids think invented it? You've met Bucky, right?"
"You two deserve each other." Fury rose with the donut in one hand, coffee cup in the other.
Steve got up too, and held out a hand. Fury sighed, shifted the donut to the top of the coffee cup, and shook it. Then held on long enough to turn over Steve's hand and study the back of it.
The blue ballpoint ink was fading -- it was a day or two old -- but the sharp, sloppy capitals could still be read: DON'T DO ANYTHING STUPID. Underneath this, a different hand with loopier, more flowing writing had added, At least call for backup first.
"Do I want to know?" Fury asked.
"Just a reminder," Steve said. He flexed his hand and shrugged. "And a promise."